When it comes to spectacular TV shots of the Tour de France, forget yellow sunflower seas and the Champs Elysees, the mountains are where it’s at. And if you think they look good on your 58-inch HD, try them up close and personal. They’re dangerously distracting, I realised, braking hard as the hairpin bend turned abruptly to sheer drop.
I was in the Savoie Mont Blanc region of eastern, Alpine France, descending the Col de la Colombière, first tackled by the Tour in 1960. Its 16km ascent, particularly the last steep stretch into the headwind, had left me dazed.
Composure regained, I returned to swooping down-mountain, eyes now on the road. At 150km and with 4,000 metres of climbing, my Morzine-to-Morzine route could have been the Queen stage of the Tour. I was following itinerary 13 (lucky for me) ‘Excursion dans les Aravis’ from morzinemountaincycling.com, part of the ski resort’s push to fill snow-less summer months (May to September) with cyclists.
Not all the itineraries are so demanding, starting at a more manageable 14km (about 9 miles) and graded in difficulty, from ‘family circuits’ with little to no climbing, to those for the ‘seriously fit’ (and me) with lots of kilometres and climbs.
The website also offers advice for anyone, of any ability, planning a visit: links to accommodation, bike hire, cycling guides (in case you feel like riding in the slipstream of some expert local knowledge), and even a map of drinking-water fountains.
Back to the valley and I was soon climbing again, making my way to the Col des Aravis, a Tour oldie, from 1911. At only 8km long with an average gradient 5.6% it was, much to my sweaty relief, an easier task than the Colombière. Once more I was gawping at the view, Mont Blanc’s jagged snow-capped peaks crystal clear and looking close enough to touch.
A more focussed descent led to the sun-baked Arve valley, still decorated for the Tour, which had passed through a few weeks before on its way to Morzine. There were floral displays, flags and posters, sculptures, giant replica bikes and anything and everything painted white with red dots to match the ‘maillot à pois rouge’ worn by the Tour’s best climber.
The heat haze rippled, the hair-dryer-hot wind resisted and by the 12km ascent to Les Gets, my day’s final obstacle, I felt semi-sautéed. Thankfully, I’d noted the location of a water fountain from the website’s map and so one bidon was poured down my gullet, the other down the back of my neck.
No post-ride massage or recovery shake, I’d earned a visit to Le Bec Jaune, a small brewery with its own bar and restaurant. A super-food burger, some sweet potato fries, and a glass of their American pale ale, and I was ready for sleep.
My second day saw an early appointment with the breakfast buffet. I was staying at the 4-star Hotel Petit Dru, a beautiful Alpine timber chalet with great facilities for cyclists, including a bike store, sauna and steam room, and breakfast big enough for big bike rides. No wonder the place is a favourite of AG2R, the pro team of Tour runner-up Romain Bardet.
Next was itinerary 3, the Col de la Ramaz on a 58km circuit with 1400m of climbing. I had hoped to get ahead of the heavy rain that was forecast to arrive late morning but the cloud was already closing in as I headed out of town.
Like all the big-name climbs I’d be riding, the Ramaz had featured in the 2016 Tour’s stage 20. Another common feature was the difficulty. By the turn to the ski station Praz de Lys the rain had started but I was too distracted by the effort to care, the road steep and unforgiving, my legs stiff and sore from the day before.
Praz de Lys offered a grim and misty vista but an easing in the gradient. A few cold kilometres later and the summit appeared in glimpses snatched through gaps in the cloud. The rain was battering down but I’d come prepared and pulled cap, jacket and gloves from my back pocket before beginning the descent.
I was grateful to eventually hit the flat valley road, a chance to start pedalling and build up some heat. It was a stark contrast to the day before, no need to pour water down my neck when mother nature was giving me a drenching.
Like any good cycling holiday, mine involved a balance of riding, eating and sleeping, so before my afternoon nap I lunched at La Rotonde on risotto with local girolles and a glass of Savoie wine, Rousette Cru Marestel. There’s plenty to do in Morzine on a rainy Saturday afternoon but the sauna was calling.
By evening I still hadn’t sated my Alpine appetite and headed for a final Morzine supper at La Ferme de la Fruitière, which serves dishes cooked with their locally produced cheese. Back gently heated by the log fire, I supped nettle soup with smoked mountain sausage, and a luxuriant tartiflette topped with gooey Reblochon. Not pro-cyclist food but sure tasty.
My Sunday began before le coq crowed. I was onto itinerary 2, heading for the Col de Joux Plane. This was the one I was most looking forward to and dreading, a Tour brute nearly 12km long with an average gradient of 8.5%.
Right from the start at Samoëns it was tough. All the area’s big climbs have signposts positioned every kilometre noting the distance to the summit, current altitude and what the average gradient will be for the next kilometre. The km’s seemed to tick ever so slowly down, as gradient and altitude crept higher.
Still, it was turning into a glorious morning, the cloud burning off, huge peaks rearing up, swathes of bright green pasture washing along the valley. Ringing bells came not from the local church but from the collars of Abondance cattle grazing in the fields through which the road slowly snaked. I was in god’s country, my saddle the pew.
The tarmac showed signs of its recent racing action, fans’ graffiti sarcastically offering ‘vroome, vroome Froome’ a pair of running shoes, and encouraging French hope Bardet to attack. I pressed on, somewhere between attacking and off and running. The summit came with mix of relief and sadness, my mini Tour almost over, one breakneck descent to go. That I could tackle a famous climb before breakfast highlighted how well Morzine is located. A keen cyclist could have a fortnight of field days here, or you could holiday with family and squeeze a bunch of amazing rides into the schedule.
Over a quick lunch of perch fillets at the Alpen Roc restaurant, I perused a map of Savoie Mont Blanc and counted 41 Tour climbs, only 4 tackled that weekend. Never mind, that left me 37 very big reasons to return.
This article first appeared in The Scotsman newspaper’s Saturday magazine.