BikeRadar Rides | Scaling the Alps in the shadow of Mont Blanc

The highest mountain in the Alps lurks menacingly on a testing day out in the Haute-Savoie

Two cyclists riding through the Swiss Alps

Words: Matt Ray

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The words pop into my head spontaneously: “Thar she blows!”. The piercingly white upper slopes of Mont Blanc suddenly hove into view on the horizon, as I ride a gentle decline down through green, alpine meadows towards the village of Meiussy.

The air is supernaturally clear, washed over the past 48 hours by a relentless summer deluge.

I can see a solitary outrider: the white fluffy cloud sitting just above the hi-definition shoulder of the Alps’ mightiest mountain, while a cool breeze washes over my legs, urging them on. It’s the kind of view you wish you could telepathically beam to your friends, toiling at their home desks. “Haha, suckers!” Or is that just me?

Two cyclists discussing their riding through the Swiss Alps
All smiles before our three-col, 100km ride in the Alps.
Christopher Lanaway / Immediate Media

It’s certainly a day for ambition and élan, as the mountain sun burns away all recollection of the months I’ve spent slowly devolving into a lowlander.

My ride partner today, Amelia Pearson of sport and fitness specialists Buzz Performance, swapped the rain of Tasmania for the sun and snow of the Alps eight years ago, and now she has thrown down the gauntlet, firing up her Strava for what she calls ‘Razzmatazz’: 100km of riding with three cols and more than 2,000m of vertical ascent.

I tell myself it will be okay. After all, I haven’t been the only one with clipped wings. “We weren’t allowed more than 1km from our homes,” Amelia tells me, of France’s spring lockdown (Editor’s note: this ride took place in the summer of 2020, in line with Covid-19 restrictions at the time).

“So, we started running spin and circuit classes on Facebook. We were doing seven or eight sessions a week!” Damn. I guess this isn’t the time to tell her about my ‘race-fuel’ Haribo habit?

Our 100km route takes in the local hero, the 1,619m Col de la Ramaz, but also climbs the Col de Jambaz (1,027m) and Col de Encrenaz (1,427m). The 14km climb through Sommand to the Col de la Ramaz is a Tour de France favourite and one that has taken many scalps, including that of one Lance Armstrong who cracked here in 2010, kicking off his precipitous fall.

The Alps’ highest mountain lurks menacingly on a testing day out in the Haute-Savoie.
Mont Blanc lurks menacingly on a testing day out in the Haute-Savoie.
Christopher Lanaway / Immediate Media

Boulangerie bike gang

We roll out of the resort town of Les Gets, stuffed to the gills with French bread and jam, weaving between body-armoured mountain bikers on burly downhill rigs, who behave like strangely polite extras from Mad Max.

Before we hit the climbs proper, we need to negotiate rush hour in the Alps, riding along the valley floor, which is busy with motorhomes and gangs of bikers.

Two cyclists riding through the Swiss Alps
Deserted roads in these Covid-affected times.
Christopher Lanaway / Immediate Media

It may not be alpine meadows, but it’s no less French, as we hammer through Saint-Jean d’Alps past a gloriously 1970s sign bearing the legend ‘Boulangerie, Patisserie, Bar’. Imagine Greggs trying to pull off that combo!

Soon enough, we hang a hard left and leave the valley for quieter roads and a little kick up to La Vernaz with its evocatively alpine church. This is the prelude for the first climb of the day, to Col de Jambaz. As the gradient steadily cranks upwards, the heat builds with it and I’m soon out of the saddle, opening my lungs up nicely.

Two cyclists riding through the Swiss Alps
This is a route blessed with typical alpine architecture.
Christopher Lanaway / Immediate Media

In the clear, washed distance, I notice black, shaded peaks breaking the horizon like the cresting backs of a pod of colossal whales, swimming an ocean of green. “That’s over towards the Col du Colombière,” says Amelia.

The top of Col de Jambaz might be at 1,027m, but the gradient rarely gets above 7 per cent and the top is still shrouded with evergreens, making it the perfect warm-up. The 4.5km descent to Megevette is fast and fairly straight, allowing me to refuel while my legs unspool.

Discussing the route known as the Razmataz taking in the Col du Ramaz, a regular feature in the TDF
Amelia Pearson provides the local lowdown.
Christopher Lanaway / Immediate Media

We’re heading for Mieussy, the jumping-off point for the climb to Col de la Ramaz, and turn off the main road to thread through alpine pastures, laced together with villages, as cowbells clang in the distance.

It’s here that I first spy Mont Blanc, just at the point that a pleasantly cooling breeze seems to sweep down all the way from its frozen flanks.

Later, as we turn left to drop down into Mieussy, Mont Blanc hoves into view again, framed in a V formed by trees alongside the narrow road. A trick of perspective makes the mountain loom up at us, like a white whale breaching in front of a lonely ship, challenging us to give chase before diving into the sunless depths again. I am beginning to realise that this mountain will come to define my ride…

Two cyclists riding through the Swiss Alps
The hills are alive…
Christopher Lanaway / Immediate Media

Cafe legs

Mieussy is a sleepy village on the main drag through the valley, and we pull up at the La Galine cafe, which is right opposite the turning we’ll take to start the 14km climb.

The menu seems very proud of the ‘specialities savoyardes’ on offer, but a bellyful of cheese fondue, loaded with excellent white wine, would curdle into a hair-trigger depth charge come kilometre four. So, I opt for a salvo of cafe au lait instead.

But, by the time we get back in the saddle, my legs have decided to behave like they took the cheese and wine smoothie. “Ah, this is often the way,” says a wise-after-the-fact Amelia. “You start the climb with cafe legs!”

Two cyclists taking a well earned break during their ride through the Swiss Alps
A cafe break in sleepy Meiussy to recharge ahead of the main climb of the day.
Christopher Lanaway / Immediate Media

As we roll up to the start of the gradient, Amelia points out a thin black line of tarmac on the road, at 635m above sea level.

“That’s exactly where the Strava segment starts, so you often see people lining up, then attacking,” she says. “When the Tour de France comes through here, and you watch them climbing up to Col de la Ramaz, it looks like they are descending – they are just going so fast. You can’t believe it.”

On the off-chance that I am being called out as a tardy Brit – by an Aussie no less – I grit my teeth, chew down some Haribo (Orangina edition, obviously) and follow Amelia up the gradient. Sunlight pours down out of the cobalt sky, bouncing off stands of brilliant green grasses, punctuated with blooms of purple flowers.

We have a few villages to ride through before the climb narrows, steepens and gets its switchbacks on, one of which is simply called Messy. “The rule is that you cannot get messy before Messy!” laughs Amelia.

It is the kind of ascent that draws you into attacking it, and cafe legs become a distant memory as I beat out a high cadence with my pedals. A background buzz of cicadas suddenly creeps into my awareness, as I push harder into the climb. My focus narrows and the pressure builds.

Two cyclists riding through the Swiss Alps
Hairpin heaven as we head into the high mountains.
Christopher Lanaway / Immediate Media

The cicada cacophony builds into a rolling wall of noise and I smile to myself, imagining an insect horde going crazy, bouncing off each other and cheering me on, like tiny echoes of the fans that line this road for the world’s biggest race. Suddenly, the flashing flanks of Mont Blanc bust up through the horizon, beckoning to us before crashing back down, out of sight. I feel like Captain Ahab, drunk on the chase, and leaning into the wind.

Sooner than I expect, I am getting out of the saddle for a rising hairpin. I realise I’m already breathing pretty heavily and climber’s sweat is popping from my brow as the lunchtime sun beats down on the exposed climb “I think I’ll pin it back a bit here,” I call back to Amelia.

At around 8 per cent, the climb may not start overly steep, but its fluctuating gradient means you’re constantly challenged to pace yourself intelligently. I bring my heart rate down a couple of notches and my caution soon pays off. “We’ve got a steeper couple of Ks here,” says Amelia as the 10 per cent section begins.

The climb is in the sun all the way to the top, and the cool breeze has given way to waves of heat bouncing off the tarmac. The trees drop away and the landscape opens up to reveal a fin of rock towering above us, like a stone axe dropped from the hand of a titan eons ago. Alpine huts cling to the lower slopes and short lush grasses fight to keep a grip on the steep limestone cliffs. The view hammers home how much vertical height we still have to ride, up into the thinning air.

Belly of the beast

The gradient cranks up and I start to feel sharp twinges in my hamstrings, muscle fibres tensioning like the rigging of a sailboat that’s catching a squall far out to sea. It’s time to dig deep as the yawning black mouth of the road tunnel looms ahead of us.

I’m expecting the dark interior to be cool, but the heat chases us inside, even as the sunlight fades, making the temporary refuge seem claustrophobically intense. The gradient does not relent and, as the tunnel bends around the mountain, hard white light bursts from the exit.

Riding the route known as the Razmataz taking in the Col du Ramaz, a regular feature in the TDF
Riding in the Alps in mid-summer is hot work.
Christopher Lanaway / Immediate Media

To my heat-battered mind, the exit looks exactly like the giant, semicircular mouth of a monstrous whale that I’m painfully crawling out of. Mercifully, the slope slackens as we break into the light and I feel the blood return to my legs. I won’t be fish food, today at least.

“We’re on the final stretch now,” calls Amelia. “I think we paced that well!” I grin back through a mask of sweat and just nod, afraid to attempt speech, lest I sound like a strangled duck.

We spin past the sign for the top, at 1,619m, and as the road winds to the right around a buttress of rock, Mont Blanc appears alongside us, as close as it has been all day, as if escorting us to the descent.

This time I can see the whole range of green foothills and jumbled peaks that lead all the way up to the white slabs, close to five kilometres into the sky. For the first time I realise how astoundingly high that really is, as a layer of white fluffy clouds dress the mountain’s midriff, sailing above the hills below.

Drop zone

I’m able to tear my eyes away as the descent starts drawing us down. It’s fast, open and amazing fun. Adrenaline chases the endorphins through my legs, and my eyes lock onto the sinuous turns in the road as the grind of the climb gives way to pure elation.

It’s an ideal reintroduction to alpine descending, which never fails to light up my brain like an overfed fruit machine, but it does require you to ‘get your eye in’. As Tim Jackson from Torico bike hire in Morzine told me: “The Scott Addict SE Disc you’re on is designed for long-distance endurance, but the bottom bracket is still super-stiff, so you don’t lose any power.”

I’m appreciating the way it holds the line through corners, like a on-point bullet train. Seven kilometres later, after passing through Le Praz de Lys, we hit the bottom of the descent and start the third major climb of the day, from 1,150m to the Col de la Encrenaz, at 1,427m. The climb isn’t as long as Ramaz, but it’s certainly steep.

The road winds its way north before a one-two combo of hairpins following the shoulder of a hill to a bridge over the Le Feron river, which crashes down a rocky gorge, swollen with rain coming off the high slopes.

Cyclist preparing to ride through the Swiss Alps
Our bike hire came courtesy of Torico in Morzine.
Christopher Lanaway / Immediate Media

A false descent rises upwards once again on the long drag to Col de la Encrenaz. Fatigue is slowly but unavoidably starting to seep into my mind, so I cheer myself up by looking forward to the descent. When it comes, it’s technical, fast and shaded by the trees. Letting the bike go on the straight is exhilarating and feels like diving into a cold, rocky, snow-fed mountain pool.

When I left our Urban Corniche apartment in Les Gets this morning, it was as a tourist, but as I roll back in, I feel a connection to the Alps that I’ve never had before.

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Through sweat, mileage and camaraderie, our bike gang has forged a link to the landscape that won’t be easily broken. I know that the white whale will be swimming alongside me, in spirit, for a long time yet…

Local knowledge

Distance: 100km
Total elevation: 2100m
Grade: ‘Black’, like a ski run. The climbs are alpine and the descents have steep hairpins, which require care
Route: Download the full route on Komoot

Getting there: It’s easiest to fly into Geneva airport and road transfer to Les Gets

Where to stay: Hunter Chalets & Apartments have a selection of luxury properties in Les Gets and Morzine, with restorative private sauna and hot tubs, including Urban Corniche, where we stayed.

Where to eat: Les Gets has some outstanding restaurants with a modern take on the Savoyard style, including the Les Durs A Cuire. The 17-hour cooked belly of pork was the standout meal on our trip.

Tourist information: Book guided rides with Amelia at Buzz Performance and hire bikes with Torico in Morzine. Visit the Les Gets website for more information on the resort.

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