Once a year I like to drive the family down to Italy for a week of pizza, frescos and hopefully sun, not fly, drive. Yes it is a long way, yes, it takes two days instead of two hours, and yes, the kids fight in the back the entire way turning my beloved Skoda Octavia into a quagmire of half chewed sweets, Lego and torn paper. If you fly though, if you choose the easy option, there is one huge drawback, you can’t midway through the journey, park up, jump out and ride your bike up a mountain. You see I’m happy to put up with the arguments, the mess, the hours behind the wheel because the reward is my annual fix of spending a solid hour or more pounding a glorious incline, sweeping round bend after bend surrounded by the awesome beauty of the Alps.
I must make it clear that the main premise for the trip is a family holiday, but there’s always time to squeeze in a mountain or two here and there, because if there’s a will, and there is a will, then there’s a way. Normally I route us via Bourg d’Oisans for my annual PB attempt on Alpe d’Huez but this year I changed our course so I could tick off a climb that I’d failed to ride whilst researching my book on the mountains of the Tour de France, the Col de Ramaz. I needed to make amends for this glaring omission so headed to Cluses with the plan of checking in and hitting the slopes before dinner, but things didn’t quite go to plan. Walthamstow to Cluses, losing an hour thanks to the time difference and having to stop for the toilet 57 times is not a quick journey. Then thanks to a slight navigational error once off the motorway we didn’t arrive at our hotel until past 9pm at which point tempers were fraying and patience running out. This ruled out an evening assault requiring the next day’s plans to be tweaked to include a dawn raid, there was no way I was going to miss this mountain.
I laid my kit out the night before, mixed up a bottle, got the bike prepped and set the alarm for 5.00am. I never really sleep when I know it’s an early start so I woke up at 12, 2 and 4 at which point I started to think. “Would it actually be light at 5.30?” I had no idea. Thankfully it was, and by six, after a couple of Nutella sandwiches, I was on the road. And what a morning. What a morning. Remember as a teenager when your dad told you to get out of bed, you were missing the best part of the day, well, he was right, first light IS the best part of the day, and on top of a mountain this is amplified tenfold. The air was so fresh I wanted to bottle it to take some home, and with the sun breaking over the horizon of jagged peaks, it was just paradise. The sight of Mont Blanc, its pristine white peak glistening against the blue sky was enough to take the breath way, I was routed to the spot. I’ve been to the Alps many times but never had such a good a view of Mont Blanc, usually you just get a glimpse between the clouds but this morning there wasn’t a cloud to be seen.
It had seemed like madness the night before, especially to my wife, to have booked a hotel at the top of the mountain, but this view, this awesome spectacle made it worth it, and also if you start at the top you get to warm the legs up on the way down so they are primed to climb back up. It was too early in the day to give it full gas, for me at least, but I was keen to give a good account of myself so a warm up was essential, and anyway, I needed to earn the second breakfast that was waiting for me back at the top.
So to the climb, at 14 kilometres its reasonably long and the first eight of them are set on a comfortable, yet challenging 7% slope. I was riding well to begin with, sweeping through the bends and feeling good, but then things changed and it turned nasty. Seemingly out of the blue, between kilometres eight and ten it really bites and the slope ramps up above 10% as it passes under a couple of overhangs and through a gloomy tunnel. My legs were having none of this steeper gradient and let me know of their disgust right away. My progress slowed dramatically and I really had to work to tick these off before enjoying some respite as the climb crosses the most wonderful of mountain plateaus. For close to three kilometres the mild gradient bisects an ocean of mountain flowers, each one turning to greet the sun as it crests the final peaks to illuminate the meadow. Gradually as you work away through this idyllic scene the pitch does begin to increase and then into the final kilometre you’ve some proper climbing to do to reach the summit. Legs refreshed I tried best I could to put in a proper effort to the top and then my goal was complete, it wasn’t even 7.30 and I’d ridden a mountain.
Back in the room the family were to my surprise, up and ready to go. I showered, we had breakfast, packed the car and by 8.30 we were back on the road for another seven hour drive, another successful stop over complete.
100 Greatest Cycling Climbs of the Tour de France is available here.