Forget the skis – here’s how to tackle the French Alps by bike
Purple-faced and puffing like a steam train, I’m pedalling up what seems to be the longest and steepest hill I’ve ever attempted and my lycra-clad cycling buddies are miles ahead of me.
Cowbells jangle as a herd of curious Friesians peer over a wall, trying to find the source of the grunting. The stunning limestone peaks of the Haute Savoie are lost on me as I focus on the next bend, praying for a flat stretch. I have long since run out of lowest gears and my thighs are burning hotter than the sun.
I’m in the Northern French Alps on a cycling holiday with Bike Weekender, a company that offers short breaks in the stunning Aravis mountain range. For reasons that now escape me, I am trying to ascend the Col de la Colombiere, altitude 1,530m. Yellow signs helpfully show that it’s a relentless, eye-bulging eight per cent climb.
What I had imagined was going to be an easy few days’ cycling around Lake Annecy, enjoying a glass or two of Chablis, was turning out to be something slightly more hardcore. Alarm bells should have sounded when I spotted my Goretex-clad cycling colleagues arriving at Geneva Airport carrying their carbon racing bikes in specially adapted suitcases and wearing the latest cycle computers.
One had represented Team GB in the Commonwealth Games triathlon, another had pedalled for Scotland, and the remainder were rake-thin, muscley and super fit.
So now, on day one, I am quickly discovering that cycling to Morrisons for a loaf of bread and a pint of milk does not constitute adequate preparation for a four-day cycling adventure in the French Alps with a typical ride averaging around 110km, including 20km climbs.
Fortunately my hosts had sensed that at 54 I might struggle against my 30-something rivals. They’re waiting in the support vehicle around the next bend with an energy bar and a drink, and it’s not long before they’re slinging my bike in the back of the van.
Soon we’re speeding ahead of my Bradley Wiggins-type teammates, their heads down and legs pumping furiously as they compete to make it to the summit in the fastest time.
At a discreet junction some distance ahead, I’m set back on my bike as my puzzled colleagues wonder how I ended up ahead of them after what seemed to be an inauspicious start.
But my glory is short-lived. I’m soon back in my rightful place, trailing miles behind the peloton. I begin to wonder if I’ll complete the ride before nightfall.
This is where I discover the beauty of a ‘supported cycling break’. My hosts are constantly at hand with the support vehicle offering encouragement, breakdown assistance and chalking arrows on the tarmac to prevent stragglers like me getting lost.
Using minibuses, trailers and bike racks, Bike Weekender staff are also able to increase the range of rides on offer over a short break. The team drive you back to base at the end of the day, so one-way rides let you cycle much further afield and take in a wide choice of famous routes and Tour de France cols.
With its romantic canalways, medieval spires and flower-lined promenades perched on the banks of its eponymous lake, Annecy’s storybook charm never fails to impress me
Some of these classic ‘big day out’ rides just wouldn’t be possible without this support. And what could be better after a 110km ride over the Col des Aravis, Col de Saisie and Cormet de Roseland, than to find a minibus with spare clothes, snacks and cold beers waiting to whisk you home.
The following day I enjoy a downhill blast for 20km before my fellow riders peel off to tackle more lung-bursting peaks. I decide instead to tackle Lake Annecy’s mainly flat 50km circuit, where the calm waters lap against its sandy shore.
With its romantic canalways, medieval spires and flower-lined promenades perched on the banks of its eponymous lake, Annecy’s storybook charm never fails to impress me, and at less than an hour from the Swiss border, the French town makes a popular day trip from Geneva.
I enjoy a relaxing ride around the lake’s cycle route, stopping for a savoyard salad and glass of red halfway around. This is more like the cycling holiday I had in mind. I even attempt part of the 2013 Tour de France route on the west side of the lake, albeit at a more leisurely pace.
My relaxed approach pays off on the final day as my colleagues plan to tackle the punishing Col de l’Arpettaz. It’s a 14.8km hors categorie climb (the French designation for the most difficult climb there is), gaining 1,165m in elevation at an average gradient of eight per cent.
On the e-bike I am positively smug. I find I can easily keep up with my colleagues as they are panting up 17km climbs, and I can even helpfully tell them their speed as I motor by.
I am ready to make my excuses when Bike Weekender suggests another crafty tactic for beating my super-competitive colleagues. An e-bike.
E-bikes are gaining popularity in the Alps, as they enable less experienced cyclists to enjoy the toughest routes with electric power-assisted pedalling. It’s especially popular among couples, as they enable one rider to more easily keep pace with another, regardless of any differences in skill or fitness level.
On the e-bike I am positively smug. I find I can easily keep up with my colleagues as they are panting up 17km climbs, and I can even helpfully tell them their speed as I motor by. You do have to pedal, but you can adjust the power level depending on how much work you want to do. In my case that’s not very much.
When we stop for lunch at the summit I’m feeling refreshed and, unlike previous days, there’s a spring in my step as opposed to a hobbling gait.
“Who’s ready for another 50km before tea?” I ask.
Bike Weekender trips cost £395pp for a “Lite” stay which is where the guests ride on a more independent basis (self-guided), and £545pp for a “Classic” stay which is fully supported and accompanied.
Both prices include airport transfers from Geneva, half-board ensuite accommodation plus the team on hand. Bike hire can be arranged in advance for an additional charge.
These prices all relate to stays in Aravis-Annecy (Annecy Mountains) at the Aravis Lodge
For more visit bikeweekender.com