For those of you who watch the Tour De France year on year, cycling in the Alps conjures up thoughts of pain etched faces and “heroes born”. Since a youngster I’ve watched these men tear the legs off each other in some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Alpe D’Huez, the Tourmalet and Mt Ventoux are amongst the most famous of these stages.

This summer I decided to have a go at some of these “big hills” and together with my Dad decided upon the 400km Tour of Mont Blanc. The trip started with an early morning flight from Liverpool to Geneva and then a transfer, by the Cham Express, to Chamonix, the town in the shadows of Mt Blanc. For those of you who do not already know, Mt Blanc is the highest Mountain in Western Europe and stands 4,810m above sea level. It also splits France and Italy on either side.

After building the bikes up we set off at 12.30pm westwards towards Beaufort, our destination for night one. The bike felt heavy as this was the 1st time I had been fully panniered up with anythign more than a laptop and work clothes. I was hoping the “chicken legs” wouldn't let me down. We rode a whole 200m up the road before our first puncture, not a good start considering we had only brought 2 spare each. Getting back on our way we passed Les Houches & the Bossons Glacier. The weather was good as we cycled through winding, wooded roads. Our route also took us up towards Sallanches before dropping back south past Megeve, trying to stay clear of the main roads as we passed picture postcard alpine villages.

Our main challenge of day one was to be the Col Des Saises. This climb started for us from the village of Flumet and involved a 15km climb with 791m of ascent (5.2%). (Just to put this in comparison, Cragg Vale near Hebden Bridge is Englands longest continual gradient and is 8.85km long with 295m of ascent at 3%).

Not knowing whether I’d have the legs for it I put the bike in granny gear and put the i-pod in. Halfway up the climb, after about 45 minutes, the panorama around us opened up which offered a much needed distraction from the climbing. The cycling was never too hard but never eased. After 90 minutes we passed over the top and readied ourselves for the descent. This 40+mph blast down the other side of the mountain had me grinning from ear to ear. We soon arrived at Beaufort and sat outside the first bar with a Leffe in hand.

Over steak and beer that evening we planned our next day. I felt good and buoyed on by my strong climbing that day i suggested we have a “big day” the next day. My dad suggested otherwise and as an experienced cyclist in the Alps I really should have listened to him……but I was adamant. I wanted to get to Aosta the next night. A 135km ride which involved 2 big climbs.

Day 2 started on the doorstep of the hotel. It was straight onto the climb of the Cormet de Roseland (19km, 1230m ascent at 6%). This climb was the most glorious couple of hours I’ve had on a bike for a long time. Midway up we stopped for a beer overlooking Roseland Reservoir and its Hydro-electric dam which produces 500mw of power. During the final stages of the climb we were passed by a car rally containing Ferrari’s, Porsche’s, Maserati’s galore. It was an amazing experience to hear these cars blasting up the side of an alpine pass, their engine notes reverberating around the valley.

The descent from the Cormet De Roseland was fast and technical with plenty of hard switchbacks. During this blast down into Bourg St Maurice for lunch I clocked my fastest ever speed on a bike…….48.4mph……never again! Haha.

Over lunch I was worried about what was to come. The Col de Petit St Bernard was to be the longest climb of the holiday at 30km. I headed off with a full stomach and heavy legs from the mornings work. The first 10km were fine. I found my pace and got my head down. The problem I found with some of the longer climbs were the markers along the side of the road. These read distance to top, current height and gradient of next km.

It was at the 15km to go market that my back and neck started to play up. I just couldn’t get myself comfy on the bike and felt like my neck muscles were going to spasm. Looking back on this it was the combination of amount of time on the bike, the ascent of the morning and me being far too tense. I spent the remaining 90 minutes of the climb in pain flipping between on the seat/off the seat riding. We finally managed to ride over the top at 4.45pm – almost 9 hours after setting off from Beaufort that morning (Col de Petit St Bernard is 30km long with a top out at 2,166m. Involving 1,350m of ascent at 5.1%)

From the top of the Col de Pt St Bernard it’s a 55km ride into Aosta – all downhill. The decision was made to go for it… we arrived in Aosta at 7pm nauseous and tired. It had been too much to do in one day!! Lessons had been learnt..

After a good feed the night before we set off on Day 3 with Martigny as the chosen destination. Another decent day on the saddle at 85km. The day was simple. We had the climb of the Col De Grand St Bernard (top out 2,470m, 1,900m ascent at 6%) and the descent into Martigny. The morning didn’t go to plan……..we got lost and ended up cycling for an hour after missing the turnoff. It meant more up’s and down’s to an already tough day. But I felt good after the struggles of the day before and before we knew it we were in our lunchtime destination of Etroubles. After a lovely big feed we started on the “crux” of the days cycling.

That afternoon, Km after Km of amazing cycling were had. I loved every moment of the climb to the top. The roads were clear, the weather was good and a little bit of competition between myself and my dad were enjoyed (I Lost!!). The top was bleak and windy but the feeling was great. We stopped for coffee and cake – a little treat! It was now a 40km run into our destination with almost 2km of vertical descent to enjoy. The Tour De France had been up the Grand St Bernard in July and the roads were still covered with the names of some of the greats, Frank/Andy Schleck being the most popular – I did spot a “Go Wiggo” sign though! That 40km descent was ticked off in little over an hour. We were checked in and enjoying a few beers by 5pm that evening. I could get used to this lifestyle!!

Our final day (Day 4) of the trip was a short one at 50km with the big challenge of the day on the doorstep of Martigny – The Col de la Forclaz. By this point, the “chicken legs” I had mentioned previously were beginning to tire. This 1,200m climb is a PIG of a ride and at “only” 6% felt a lot steeper. During the climb I was either in my element and working hard or struggling to turn the peddles around. But by 10.30am we had done it. From here it was all downhill (ish) all the way to the end of our holiday – Chamonix.

We stopped in Argentiere for a Pizza and a beer on the way through before heading back along the road to Chamonix. I managed only our second puncture of the holiday 1km from the finish line…..typical!

Before we knew it we were packed up, transferred to Cham and sitting in Geneva airport awaiting the flight home. Overall, we had been lucky. The weather was great, the hotels we stumbled upon were clean and friendly and the food was excellent. What more can one ask for!

Pictures to follow very shortly!

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Comment by Derek Kenyon on September 28, 2009 at 13:12
Good one Mike, brought back many hard memories.
You won't have any probles on the coming bike trips!

Keep it up

Regards Derek
Comment by Will Hardman on September 27, 2009 at 20:39
Thanks for this report Mike. Sounds like one hell of an effort but very rewarding. Nice one!

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