Words by Kirsty Lenthall & Amy Marks, after our BikeWeekender Intro to the Alps weekend (22-25th September)
We had never met before but had both signed up for the Queen of the Mountains / Bike Weekender
introduction to alpine cycling trip. Over dinner on arrival day we got chatting about our previous cycling experience and agreed that despite the detailed itinerary it was hard to know exactly what to expect.
After dinner we had our first ride briefing and had sweaty palms just thinking about it. Would I be able to get up that? Is it really a 10% gradient for that long?!
Despite cycling regularly in the U.K. this was all new to us, what to wear, when/what/how much to eat, what to take with us in the van. We knew we weren't covering much more than 90km per day, but would be ascending more than we ever had before.
Day One: We left our base feeling very nervous and after 20km of undulating terrain came to our first ever Col, the Col de la Forclaz. This was 10km long with the last 3km having an average gradient of 10%. When we got to the top, just after one another, we were feeling incredibly proud of our achievements already and enjoyed the long decent back to the lake after coffees and coke. After following the cycle path around the lake and lunch at a local boulongerie we climbed our second Col of the day, the Col de Leschaux which was 12km with a small 1.5km decent in the middle. After climbing the first Col mostly by ourselves we decided it was much better to climb together and we completed the climb. We ended the day with well deserved ice-creams in Annecy.
Day Two: This was always going to be the 'big' day - with roughly 2,700m of ascending to be done. We started off with the Col du Marais, the shortest and least steep climb of the day but we were puffing and already making firm friends with the granny ring. We were always last to roll in but this didn't matter, the group were super supportive and there was always time for us to take a moment and to prepare for the next part of the day. We descended and rode along the cycle path on the valley floor where the van was now waiting. Off with the layers, we got some food on board and started the ascent. The Col de l'Arpettaz is one of the lesser known climbs in the region, averaging 7.1% gradient over its 16.3kms and 42 switchbacks. We found our pace and settled in, once we were a few kms down we knew we were going to be able to do it, which in itself was a relief. Now it was just a matter of getting it done and how long it would take. We stopped en route for a photo and sugary snack then swiftly carried on. Our group was treated to personalised chalk markings along the route which brought a smile to our faces - as did the cheers of our group and a welcome committee of a local herd of goats as we reached the top. A picnic was laid on for us at the top and we refuelled before a stunning descent with views across to Mont Blanc, with both of us much happier negotiating the corners by now. The final climb was up the Col des Aravis - which started from a small village where we shared a coffee before clipping back in. We were joined by Alicia and a couple of others on this 11.5km ascent, getting some muchly appreciated tips on climbing. We finally reached the top knowing that we'd climbed higher than we ever had before. We were back in time to watch the Female UCI world champs and have some freshly baked cake. Both looked so good we had a slice of each, we didn't have the energy to decide!
Day Three: After tackling the climbs of the day before our legs were feeling pretty tired before the start of our third day in the mountains. This day still involved 1600m of climbing and involved two climbs, Mont Saxonnex and the Col de la Colombiere. The first of these was reached after a 20km decent down the valley from St Jean de Sixt and was a beautiful tree lined climb. It was 7km long but with a high gradient averaging 9%. However, we were rewarded at the top with a cafe stop and despite the local pastry being sold out, enjoyed refuelling on gingerbread. After this, we had to tackle the Tour de France regular, the Col de le Colombiere. This climb was 16km long and had a final altitude of 1613m. We took it steadily and enjoyed some sugary snacks on the move as we climbed. With 3km to go we were finding it hard with the gradient ramping up to around 10% and were grateful to Alicia and Teak who came back and assisted us with the last push. We were again wonderfully welcomed by the rest of the team who were incredibly supportive and cheered us all the way in. Finally we completed the ride by descending into La Grand Bornard where we enjoyed lunch and the local farming festival.
Day Four: A triple col day to finish the week, climbing back up the Col du Marais to tick off our first climb with legs that felt tired and heavy. A quick spin back on the cycle path before ascending Col de l'Epine, we'd been promised great views as we climbed up from the valley floor. The views didn't disappoint and whilst enjoying these and chatting away the 7km ticked on by. With the small matter of a flight to get that afternoon we pushed onto the Col de la Croix Fry, an 11.8km climb with an average gradient of 7% but reaching over 9% in places. These sections were tough, even getting up out the saddle to stretch the back and legs was a challenge but as we met the group at the top of the last climb we were super satisfied that we had handled all that the mountains had thrown at us.
We don't think that you can ever be truly prepared for the mountains, but that's the beauty of experiencing something new.
Here is some useful advice we received / what we learnt along the way:
Kit: you should get a kit list recommendation sent out to you if you are going with a company and obviously it will be season/weather dependent. We were really lucky with the weather but along with your usual cycling kit your absolute musts would be arm warmers and a gilet as descending at speed for a long duration you can get pretty chilly. We also found a garmin really helpful. Know the overview of the route using a Wahoo Element or Garmin will allow you to both physically and mentally prepare for the harder / easier segments of the climbs.
Training: there's a distinct lack of long climbs accessible to us in the UK, but weekly rides of 80-120km, incorporating hills into these rides as able is good preparation. Do some specific hill rep sessions and factor in some hills at the end of a ride to get your legs used to climbing when tired.
Think positively: hill reps can help develop strength of mind. When it gets tough have some mantras / affirmations / strategies that will keep you going and practising these techniques at home beforehand will certainly help.
Don't compare yourselves to others: it good to aspire to climb/ descend faster but even though others maybe quicker than you it doesn't mean they are hurting any less!
The QoM Trip was fully supported and if you can this was a great intro into alpine riding where we really just had to focus on riding our bikes and everything else was sorted for us. This was still no mean feat! We did doubt ourselves at times but tackled it one climb at a time and were both pleased with how well we rode given that this was the first time we had ever done any thing of this kind of magnitude.
We will be definitely be back cycling in the alps, confident that we can climb quicker, higher and further than before.
View Queen of the Mountains cycling getaways here.