All the Alpine cycling guides recommend tackling the Col de la Colombiere in the morning, before the sun gets too high. So we set off at lunchtime, with about 19 miles to ride to the base of the famous col. Why the delay? While my husband was assembling his steel bike, the seat pin bolt snapped leaving us in a dilemma because this was Sunday and the local bike shops were closed. My husband is very resourceful and solved the problem by “borrowing” a bolt from the door of the Volvo. I should stress that he replaced the bolt in the door before driving back to the UK.
The sky was clear blue and the temperature rising as we headed down into the picturesque old spa town of Saint-Gervais-Les-Bains and then dropped further down the winding road to La Fayet on the floor of the Arve Valley. The route from here was less than inspiring as we followed the main road that runs parallel to the autoroute. One small town and commercial development melded into another as we braved the constant flow of heavy weekend traffic. As we exited Sallanches (site of Bernard Hinault’s World Championship win in 1980) a wanker of a passenger in a white Peugot screamed at us while the car passed. I was almost glad to know that idiocy is not exclusive to British car passengers. It was like being back home.
We eventually turned off this Route Nationale at Cluses, taking the D4 to the village of Scionzier, the base of the climb. From this point most website authors agree the ascent is 16.3 km long rising 1108m to a summit that is 1613m above sea level with an average gradient of 6.8%. The average gradient is deceptive. The almost flat section through the village of Reposoir is responsible for the apparently easy percentage, but the best is left till last with 10.2% ramps near the summit.
The incline is gentle at first, the road rising past the rural houses then into the cool twilight shade of the dense tree line shading us from the glare of the early afternoon sun. The tarmac is smooth and the bends sweeping rather than tight and technical, that was to come later. As we enjoyed the relaxed gradient and arboreal sun shield, we were joined by a fellow cyclist. He was visiting the Alps from Corsica and rode with us for a few miles.
We heard the rumble of multiple motorcycle engines approaching (this route is also popular with bikers of the petrol fuelled variety) and were soon rewarded with the spectacular sight of at least 100 motorbikes descending the pass in convoy. Every style of road bike was represented along with outlandish trikes and futuristic bike-sidecar combinations.
The trees began to thin and the road almost leveled out as we rolled into the village of Reposoir, which I would estimate to be about halfway between Sconzier and the summit. As we left Reposoir the gradient immediately increased and the road contorted itself into a series of hairpins exposed to the searing sun. From now until the summit, tree or rock shade was to become an ever more rare and much sought after relief.
Then I saw my first ever real life Tour de France road graffiti and suddenly the steepening road, sheer drops and burning sun didn’t matter so much, I was riding the same route as the legends of cycle racing. The Tour de France has included the Col de la Colombière on twenty occasions since 1960. The most recent inclusion being this year. Just a couple of months before our visit the pros road from Morzine-Avoriaz to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, taking in the Col de la Colombière (cat. 1), Col des Aravis (cat. 2), Col des Saisies (cat. 1) and the mighty Hors catégorie Col de la Madeleine.
With a few kilometres to go our core body temperatures were rising and our water bottles were virtually empty. Two 800ml bottles each were not enough and dehydration was setting in. We turned a corner to see the summit with its souvenir shop. We could also see the increasing steepness, over the final couple of kilometres, as the mountain road wound upwards with a final brutal ramp of around half a kilometre. Here there was even greater exposure to the merciless sun, joined by a headwind on alternative bends, to increase the battle.
This last stint was thirsty and heart bursting but the excitement of reaching the summit gave us the strength and breath to sprint to the sign: “Col de la Colombière 1613m”. Our feelings of personal glory were a little dampened by the surprising seaside holiday resort feel of the place with dozens of motorists fighting for a parking spot and overflowing restaurants.
I watched the bikes while my husband went on an emergency water buying trip. We didn’t linger long before donning our windproof jackets and tackling the exhilarating descent back to Sconzier. There is no protection along the side of most of this mountain pass road, so if you misjudge a bend and run out of tarmac you are in serious trouble. By the time we got back to Sconzier, with pumped arms and scorching wheel rims, we realized how hungry we were.
A search of our jersey pockets turned up our last remnants of energy bar, which we scoffed, but we could feel the bonk setting in. We had stopped opposite a building that looked abandoned, so imagine my surprise when I glanced up to see a man with a shaved head and loose saffron robes looking at me with curiosity. Had the bonk set in already? Was I hallucinating teleportation to Tibet? I whispered to my husband, “I think I can see a Buddhist monk watching us”, he turned to look and, much to my relief, he could see the monk too. The little man (I know that’s a stereotype, but he was small) smiled and waved at us before abruptly disappearing.
This surreal turn of events spurred us on to get back to the gite, or at least to a restaurant, before any other unexpected apparitions appeared to us. The slog of the valley road back to La Fayet lasted an eternity (real time was about an hour) and both of us were wilting fast. So the decision was reached to stop at a kill or cure kebab shop because neither of us had the strength to make it to the nicer pizzeria. It was the dodgiest looking kebab shop I have ever entered. I believed we were going to spend the next day recovering from food poisoning, but it was a risk we were willing to take. I ordered two giant kebabs et frites washed down with a couple of litres of Coca Cola. That really was an awfully big hill back up to the gite.