There is only one mountain in Europe, Mont Blanc. It separates France from Italy and has Switzerland knocking on its door. To cycle around it takes in all three of these countries, over 300 km with 10,000m of uphill. It is an epic route. There was a popular uptake with 23 cyclists joining us for our inaugural Tour du Mont Blanc.
Everybody met up at Geneva Airport on the Thursday evening. Flying in from all parts of the UK and 3 taking the train from Paris. It was a good place to congregate. There was a true sense of anticipation and excitement on the coach from Geneva to our first nights accommodation in La Giettaz. A lot of catching up to do too as many had been on previous events. With route cards, information, jerseys distributed, everybody was ready.
Friday was the “gentle day” and is common stage for those that have done our High Alps Challenge. After putting over night bags in the trailer and leaving the bike boxes in Chalet La Giettaz, we could begin with a roll out to Flumet and then a nice climb up to the ski station of Les Saisies.
This was a good opportunity to see the standard of the group. It was solid and everyone was well matched. It is never a race but the little groups that formed meant that everybody had someone to pace them up, except Ivan who was way out in front. For him, it was the challenge of organising himself to get out of the door and on the bike!
A quick regroup and snack and we were off down to Beaufort where we were to begin the climb of 23 km to the Cormet de Roseland. There is a perfect lunch stop at the Col du Meraillet, just before the reservoir, which is stunning. The group was beginning to spread itself out but everybody made it up and were in good spirits. Adam’s smile as big as ever.
It was just then a case of getting over the top and starting the most technical descent of the weekend into Bourg Saint Maurice and onto our hotel in Seez. A retired cyclist himself, the hotelier knew exactly what we needed which was volume and protein. Chicken and pasta will do perfectly! Everybody celebrated over a glass of red wine. The big day though was looming over everyone.
A special thanks needs to go to Moma Porridge who supplied us with their sachets that added to the continental breakfast in the hotel. It meant that everybody had plenty of energy and no excuses for the upcoming climb to the Petit Saint Bernard. It was long at 30km but being early it was not too hot and being relative gentle slopes, it was actually quite fun. Matt was able to do some filming of people posing, with Olly, Michael, Jack and James, playing up to the camera. People were getting a little too confident! I reminded them at the top that we were about to do the Grand Saint Bernard which means big!
Not before lunch though. Marjolein made some lovely eggs to go, which went down nicely in the Aosta Valley. Now what was that about a big climb? People talk about heat, people talk about big climbs, people talk about long distances, people talk about remoteness. All this aligned and you have a tough few hours ahead. Even Adam stopped smiling. This was what it was like up from Aosta to the monastery that we were staying in that evening. Dancing around the road looking for shady parts, the sun was sapping energy quickly and there was no breeze to cool people down. Somebody in the lead group of 6 suggested an ice cream in the next village. Not surprisingly nobody said that they did not want to stop. So we did. It was very welcomed. As people caught up, it was clear that they were happy that they could now stop guilt free too. After all, we still had another 16 km of this killer climb to go. It is like 3 climbs for the price of one. Barry and Kate in the van and Sue and Matt in the car were keeping water topped up.
Some sensible few knew when to say "stop" and jumped in the support van. It is not sensible to push yourself too much in these conditions and they all were very happy with the decision. It is after all, what the van is there for. The rest pushed themselves up the unrelenting bends past the tree line and up to the sky. You know in the Alps that you are at altitude if you can hear the squeaks of marmots around. Almost as though they are laughing at you for making the decision to ride a bike up such a thing. I don’t think that this is what the wheel was invented for!
There were plenty of buildings that looked like monasteries and each one that you reached, not to see a monk was a bitter blow. But it kind of made the accomplishment of getting there all the more sweeter. It should be noted though that Olly, two of the James, Ivan and Hannah seemed to be relishing the challenge and made it look a little too easy. Paul, who has turned a new leaf thanks to Ironman training, may have paid the price for bossing it on the Petit Saint Bernard. For the rest of us, it was a case of grinding it out to the top.
The eight thirty Mass meant that dinner was served at 1915 sharp with no negotiation. This added a bit of a time limit on the climb too. But with a mammoth effort, Emma and Becca made it through the door just as their soup was being served, albeit having to eat in their lycra.
The Grand Saint Bernard Monastery is a special place that is nestled high up on the Swiss – Italian border. It has been remarkably kept and is a very comfortable experience. It has been used by monks, travellers and even Napoleon’s army (although this was by force so we should not mention it too loud). Some of the team went along to experience Mass after dinner that added to the experience (although being in Latin, I don’t think that many made it all the way to the end).
The monastery was not that full and we set about leaving for our final day pretty sharpish after breakfast, so there was a true sense of isolation and wilderness at the start of the 45 km descent into Martingy. Simon who had already regretted his dubious decision of packing his tri bike had a puncture on the way down but that was sorted out sharpish with the help of Ivan and the van. Bend after bend, the descent continued, but still we worked out that we were probably not averaging much higher than Sir Brad who was attempting the hour record later that evening. There is always something that puts things into perspective!
From Martingy it was a left and a challenging but relatively short climb up to the Col du Forclaz (not the same as the one just outside of Annecy). We were heading towards Chamonix, the capital of mountaineering, so it was no surprise that it was steep. But again it was hot. Keeping the electrolytes up would be important. Howard switched the music onto his phone and seemed to get into a rhythm. He shot up!
Kelly and Ewan had made it up pretty comfortably but we think that Kelly, the only person with a pannier, may have been hiding a little motor in the bag. I am also sure that Ewan had a towrope on his too.
At every stop, Trigger insisted on removing his shirt, not a particularly pleasant sight after he has cycled across the Alps. Today he was joined by Simon. However, on this occasion it was to the joy of the rest of us that the waiter demanded that he put it back on. They clearly have standards in Switzerland!
We had a special visitor at the lunch stop on the next Col des Montets, a wandering Ibex came strolling into the car park. With it’s huge horns, it seemed to take an interest in Helena, it moved closer and closer to her and she was getting, understandably, a little apprehensive but then we realised he was eyeing up a water trough. Luckily he did not get spooked so everybody had time for a picture. We were pretty lucky.
Following this was the descent out of the Chamonix and the little bit of tricky navigation out of Les Houches down towards the final climb of the day from Domancy to Combloux, made famous by a certain Bernard Hinault. We stuck together as a large peloton on this section before the climb but inevitably the lead group shot down one of the easy wrong turnings. The rest of us continued along to the start and we sent Cliff on his motorbike to re direct. The bike comes in handy! Everybody got back on the climb and we knew that the last push back to base had begun.
Arriving in Flumet, the official end point, there was the option to continue up to the chalet in La Giettaz. Everybody took this option, and for once Tom had managed to keep up with his lady, Hannah. As we cycled up with Sarah, she seemed proud and happy to be finishing the 150km day. She apologised for a sense of humour failure earlier in the day but no one had even noticed it, she is a old hand at getting over mountains now having been on three of our tours.
The BBQ at Chalet La Giettaz rounded off the weekend perfectly. Everybody had made it and now able to enjoy a beer and watch Bradley ride the hour record. The place was buzzing. What adds to this is the achievement of the money and we hope the awareness that we raised for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, a very worthy cause.
Mont Blanc, 3 days, 10,000m of climbing – done!
A special thanks go out to...
... our team of volunteers - Kate, Marjolein, Sue, Barry, Cliff and Matt
... the wonderful accommodation and hospitality at Chalet La Giettaz, Hotel Le Vallon and the Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard
... Moma porridge for providing that extra boost of energy in the mornings
... Lawi Clothing for the fantastic team jerseys
... Eddy Merckx Cycles for our support bikes
... Ballanfat Cars for squeezing the bike boxes into their coach with a smile!