The aim of the Raid is to hit 43 categorised climbs in seven days.
The aim for me was to actually get to Nice in one piece. Quick recap, I had never really ridden in the high mountains and I was setting off to do back to back, big mileage days, over the high alps. This was going to be tough and to top it off, the temperatures were late 20’s, early 30’s.
As a bit of background, the original Raid was a randonnée, similar to a UK Audax, the original route can be found here
Our aim was to set off from Thonon les Bains, dipping the wheels in Lac lemon, then head up until we dropped back down to the sea at Antibes, to dip the wheels again. Sounds easy!
You look at the distance now, and if you relate them to a UK ride it does look easy at 85Km, but add in to that, first day out in the heat and there was 2700m of climbing.
The big climb of the day was the Col de la Ramaz, which I had cycled up in the other direction back in 2003, when we came to see Le Tour, but not to the top, and up the easier side from Les Gets. The way we were approaching it now was from the East, with the cracking 12% climb through the tunnel. Just amazing, even if it was a shock to the system.
After this climb there were a few more ramps until we hit the final climb up to the hotel at Megeve. We had paced ourselves today, making new friends and preparing ourselves for what was to come.
I spent a good chunk of time during this journey with two guys, Gordon, and with Mike, who I had met on the Corsica trip when he was travelling with his girlfriend. This trip, Mike and I shared a room, which worked really well and I have continued a friendship with both after this trip and their names will keep popping up on other trips.
All the days now started early, hitting the road by 07:30, just so we had enough daylight for everyone to make it. It must be hard for the guides to manage a bunch of strangers over this terrain. This was another trip led by David, who had done Costa Rica and Corsica, but he was assisted by ex-French junior women’s TT champion, Vanessa, and as it turned out she was a nutritionist. She had persuaded David that he should cut out meat for the trip in order to get a bit leaner. We passed him sitting on a bench half way up one of the climbs, just before he jumped in the van. I seem to remember he ate half a cow that night! You really need the energy on-board for a trip like this.
Today was going to be a big day, heading out of Megeve to Notre Dame de Bellecombe, then the real climbing started with the Col De Saise, then dropping to the base of the tough Col de Pre. The next lump tested the tired legs, the Cormet de Roselend at 1968m. This was followed by a beautiful 20Km descent.
We ended the day with the first half of the mighty Col de L’Iseran, which took us to the ski resort of Val d’Isere. Seventy miles and some tired hungry riders. That night we all met up and ate in a restaurant, which we approached across a grass field. This seemed really strange, until you thought what this area must look like in winter, when this field is probably the main ski thoroughfare. Makes perfect sense.
After a great night’s sleep we set off up the final part of the Col de L’Iseran, looking back down the climb to Val d’Isere (cover shot), giving you a true feel for how far we had climbed.
Even to this day it never fails to amaze me how it is possible to climb these long ascents, human powered. This climb was a big one peaking at 2770m.
Once over L’Iseran we continued our day, with the destination being the Italian town of Susa, but before that we have the final ascent of the day, Mont Cenis at 2081 m, then a swooping downhill all the way to the Italian border and in to town.
It was a nice change to have some Italian food that night, before we head back in to France tomorrow.
Today was going to be another whopper, with three monster climbs, one of which I was really looking forward to. First, we had to get over Col de Montgenevre at 1850m, not the most spectacular of climbs and a strange summit in to an out of season ski resort, going about its daily business. A long, gentle descent off Montgenevre takes down to the town of Briancon.
Next came the climb I had been waiting for, the spectacular Col d’Izoard, at 2360m, it’s not the highest, but looking like some weird moonscape, it literally takes your breath away. Having seen this so many times of the Tour de France, it will always have a place in my memory.
We roll over the top soaking it in then descent at a good speed, preparing our legs for the final climb of the day the Col de Vars, with a summit at 2111m. By the start of the climb we had covered around 115Km, a long day for me back in 2011, and we still had two hours and more of climbing to do. By the time I eventually reached the top I was starting to get the knock, completely empty.
Close to the summit was a town, Saint-Paul-sur-Ubaye, and has soon as I hit town I dashed to the nearest shop, bought two cans of ice-cold Coke and two Mars bars. This was just the sugar rush I needed to get going again. I sat in the square for a while listening to the band playing, yet none of the remaining group passed through the town.
We were getting very spread out by now. There were three people ahead that I regrouped with at the summit, at which point it was starting to get late, and we still had about 15 or 20 miles to go. Granted, a chunk of it was downhill, but we wouldn’t want to wait too much longer. As we discussed this David arrived and suggested the four of us roll on to the hotel.
We set off at a gallop down the mountain to the main road, turned right, then pushed “through and off” all the way to the hotel. After all that climbing, this “almost flat” moved under our wheels at a brisk pace. We arrived at the hotel at 20:00 and it was starting to get dark. Some of those behind us were bundled in to the bus, due to the dark.
Last night around the dinner table we discussed the quick ride in to town and how lucky we were that it was downhill on the final stretch to Barcelonette. However, this morning we were going back down the same road out of town, and it also felt like it was downhill. Sometimes in the mountains it is difficult to get a correct perspective, thankfully I can see the gradient on my Garmin now, so it is slightly less confusing.
We were heading to Auron only 85Km away, but there are going to be more good climbs. These start when we hit the bottom of Restefond, a long steady ramp with beautiful views, then as we hit the Col de la Bonnette, and because it’s there, we throw in the loop up the Cime de la Bonnette, the second highest road in the French alps at 2802m.
From the highest point of this trip, the only option is down, and we flow steadily until we reach or destination for the day, Auron. As we head down the D64, we pass through an old abandoned village, a really eerie feeling so we stop for a few minutes, before carrying on our hurtle to the bottom. Auron is a ski and mountain bike town, judging by the shops, with a small square surrounded by restaurants and looking out on to the ski runs.
The next day we set off knowing the biggest climbs are now behind us, but it doesn’t mean it is flat all the way to Nice, it’s was just going to be lots of cheeky climbs, apparently. It’s another 110Km ride today to Puget Theniers, and it’s not long before we are on the Couliolle, which is covered quite quickly, before dropping into the stunningly beautiful Gorges du Cians.
The road slinks along the valleys as we pass into the gorge and roll along with the river to one side and red craggy rocks to the other, a stunning way to finish the day.
When we get to Puget Theniers, we are told that the original hotel cannot take everyone, so we are split in to two groups. Four of us and two guides set off to climb a further 300m to a small village guesthouse.
We stop in at a cemetery on the way up to fill our bottles from the tap used to water the flowers. It was hot and we were getting through the water very quickly. What a surprise when arrived at the village, it was idyllic, on the edge of a small stream, where we ate under the stars, on fresh local fish.
We didn’t talk the rest of the gang about this the following day, as their hotel was next to a supermarket, and the bin men arrived at 05:00 waking everyone, who was not already awake due to the heat. Moving on!
The final day and it was a steady 115Km pull over a few climbs, keeping our eyes open for the sea. We kept a good peloton rolling for most of the day, with a couple of nice café stops to break it up. Strangely, this was the first time we had all ridden together for a while and you started to notice how we were all shuffling about in the saddle. Everyone was feeling a tad raw in the nether regions. If only I had known then, “chamois cream is your best friend”
We eventually dropped in to the town of Antibes on the Cote D’Azur, the official end of the Raid Alpine, where we cracked open the champers. A job well done and one we could all be proud of.
We meander off along the Promenade des Anglais to our Hotel close to the airport in Nice.