During the summer of 2020, I was commissioned by Cycling Plus to travel to the French Alps and report back on my Alpine bike adventure, riding a 100km route that takes in the 14km Col de La Ramaz.
I teamed up with top outdoor adventure photographer Christopher Lanaway (who shot all of the photos here) and we soon discovered that this famous Tour de France climb will leave you in awe of the Alp’s mightiest mountain…
Drawing the crisp, clear Alpine air into my lungs – after an age spent cooped up in London – feels like the first time I drank spring water from a mountain stream. I am always amazed at the power of the Alps to rejuvenate my body and soul, even if every time I come here I am guaranteed to hammer my muscles and my bones with some kind of physical challenge.
Today my Alpine bike adventure, for Cycling Plus magazine, will take me from the ski resort of Les Gets, 100km up through three mountain passes including the 14km climb up to the Col de La Ramaz. This fast and furious Tour de France climb has taken many scalps, including Lance Armstrong who cracked here in 2010, kicking off his fall into disgrace.
I’m riding in the company of Buzz Performance’s Amelia Pearson, an Aussie who swapped home for a life of bike guiding and personal training in Les Gets.
Waking up this morning I knew my luck was in. A 48-hour summer deluge has washed the atmosphere so clean that it almost seems weightless. I’m glad we’re riding in such amazing weather, but I am nervous about my road-bike fitness in the face of three mountains.
During lockdown I left my bikes alone, not wanting to risk being an added burden to the NHS through a silly crash, which means my cycling legs are properly weak! As it turns out, the excitement of being back in the mountains, combined with Orangina edition Haribo, seems to allow me to keep up fine, and we get to the foot of the Col de La Ramaz, and the 75km mark, in good time.
Any Alpine bike adventure would not be complete without a cafe stop, which is how I find myself sipping cafe au lait in Mieussey’s La Galine cafe. It’s a nice interlude, but as soon as I get back on the bike and roll up to the start line of the climb (at 635m), my legs feel like I’d downed a cheese and wine smoothie, instead.
“Ah, this is often the way,” says a wise-after-the-fact Amelia. “You start the climb with café legs!” I grit my teeth and follow her up the gradient. Meanwhile, sunlight pours down out of the cobalt sky, bouncing off stands of brilliant green grasses, punctuated with blooms of purple flowers.
Amelia says the Tour de France riders go so fast up the start of this climb that they look like they are descending, and it is the kind of gradient that draws you into attacking it – not too steep (around 8%) and it encourages you to tap out a rhythm.
A background buzz of cicadas suddenly pushes into my awareness, as I push harder into the climb, my focus narrowing. The cacophony builds into a rolling wall of noise and I smile to myself, imagining an insect horde going crazy, bouncing off each other and cheering me on, like tiny echoes of the fans that line this road, for the world’s biggest race.
Suddenly, the flashing flanks of Mont Blanc bust up through the horizon, beckoning to us before crashing back down, out of sight, like a monstrous whale breaching across the sky. We had spotted the startlingly white slopes of the beast earlier in the day, through atmosphere so clear that it felt like it was close enough to touch, despite being 70km from the Col de La Ramaz. Seeing it again is intoxicating – I feel like Captain Ahab, drunk on the chase, and leaning into the wind.
The climb soon steepens to 10% and it’s now going to be in the sun all the way to the top. A cool breeze has given way to waves of heat bouncing off the tarmac, as the trees drop away.
The gradient cranks up further, and I start to feel sharp twinges in my hamstrings, muscle fibres tensioning like the rigging of a sailboat catching a squall, far out to sea. It’s time to dig deep as the yawning black mouth of a road tunnel looms ahead of us.
The heat chases us inside and to my sun-addled mind the exit looks exactly like the giant, semicircular mouth of a monstrous whale that I’m painfully crawling out of.
Mercifully, the slope slackens as we break into the light, and I feel the strength flow back into my legs. “We’re on the final stretch now” calls Amelia. “I think we paced that well!” I just nod back through a mask of sweat.
We spin past the sign for the top of the Col de La Ramaz, at 1619m, and as the road winds to the right around a buttress of rock, the white whale of Mont Blanc appears alongside us, as close as it has been all day, as if escorting us to the descent.
This time I can see the whole range of green foothills and jumbled peaks that lead all the way up to the white slabs, close to five kilometres into the sky. For the first time, I realise how astoundingly high that really is, as a layer of white fluffy clouds dress the mountain’s midriff, sailing above the hills below.
By the time we make it back to Les Gets, my legs are shot but my mind has been reset – I feel a new positivity and energy.
As we roll back in, I feel a connection to the Alps that I’ve never had before. Sweat, mileage and camaraderie has forged a link to the landscape that won’t be easily broken. I know that the White Whale will be swimming alongside me, in spirit, for a long time yet…
Photos by Christopher Lanaway. Find out more about Alpine bike adventures in Les Gets here – I stayed in Hunter Chalets, was guided by Amelia at Buzz Performance and hired my bike from Torico. Thanks to Rob at Mountain Press.
Les Gets also has a fantastic, chair-lift operated Bike Park – for advice from a mountain bike park expert, go to my How To Ride A Bike Park guide (featuring the Snowmass Bike Park, Aspen where I photographed local guide and MTB coach Tyler Lindsay, shredding the trials).