Words: The Limping Cyclist
Photography: Mr L.C. and the Limping Cyclist
Col de Joux Plane from Samoëns
Height Gain: 988m
Average Gradient: 8.5%
Maximum Gradient: 13.5%
11 appearances in the Tour de France since 1978
My ascent time: A hot and bothered 1 hour and 11 minutes
The last time I tackled the Col de Joux Plane it was a cool overcast day and I got cramp during the ascent leaving me with the nagging feeling of unfinished business. I’d reached the summit but didn’t feel I’d given this climb my unfettered undivided attention. For my second go at this famous climb, Mr L.C. kindly acted as my support car driver, dropping me off in Samoëns before taking the Les Gets route to our rendevous point in Morzine before an attempt on the ascent to Avoriaz.
It was an extremely hot day. I’d almost forgotten what truly hot days feel like (having spent 2011 in the UK) and immediately regretted not finishing a whole bottle of water during the car journey. After only 1km on the open lower slopes through farms, my cotton cap, worn to keep the sweat out of my eyes, was already soaked and gently poaching my fevered brain within my skull. I waited for a skinny young guy on a Cannondale SuperSix to power past me before discretely pausing to remove my sodden headwear, then struggled to gain balance and momentum as I pushed off on the cruel gradient. At least now the meagre breeze could get through my helmet. I’d hoped the forested section halfway up would offer shady relief, but the sun was directly overhead and my two bottles were soon empty.
There was something strangely comforting about the familiarity of the climb, and this time the clear weather revealed spectacular tree framed views beneath the cloudless deep azure sky from alternative hairpins. This was also to be the first time I had ridden over a col rather than just up to the summit and back down the same way. That may sound like a minor thing, but descending down a different side of the mountain added an extra element of adventure into the unknown. After the obligatory photo of the bike next to the summit sign, I rode past pastures crowded with grazing bell clanging cows ringing out random music like a giant wind chime, around the side of the small turquoise lake fringed by motor homes and cars whose owners were enjoying an al fresco lunch at the restaurant and began my brief descent to the foot of the Col du Ranfolly. A brief climb past downhill riders using the ski chair lift to reach the best trails and I started my descent to Morzine, and it was a thrilling descent.
Somehow I managed to bypass Morzine and was on my way to Les Gets when I pulled to the side of the road and called Mr L.C. to discover his whereabouts. I eventually met up with my support car driver in downtown Morzine after going all the way through town yet again, then following the misleading road signs back the other way and finally ignoring the road signs altogether and just randomly heading down a side street that was sloping down the hill.
Morzine to Avoriaz Ski Station
Height Gain: 840m
Average Gradient: 6%
Maximum Gradient: 11%
7 appearances in the Tour de France since 1975
My ascent time: Enormous over heated fail!
Three blissfully ice cold cokes gratefully consumed at a bar internationally staffed entirely with youthful English speakers, set me up for the second big climb of the day. Departing from the gap year bar in the still intense and breeze free afternoon heat, I got back on the bike rehydrated and brimming with sugar and caffeine, then headed out of town up the Avoriaz road until I encountered a roundabout which had as much business being there as the one on the top of the Col des Saisies. My heat and caffeine addled brain tried to process the information on the sign posts, unsuccessfully as it turned out. It looked to me like the first exit headed to Avoriaz, while the second exit headed away from it, so I took the first exit.
This headed up the valley on double chevron gradients until the tarmac ran out giving way to dirt hiking paths, if only I’d been on my cyclocross bike. O merde! Back down the hill and the other roundabout exit that I now realized said “Avoriaz access station”, or something like that. Damn roundabouts, as if I wasn’t hot and dizzy enough already. My 7km detour had pushed my body temperature up to danger levels but I was determined to make it to Avoriaz, one of the Tour de France’s legendary climbs that’s been included seven times since 1975.
The initial part of the climb snakes steeply up the mountain side with a ladder of hairpins. I settled on the tops of my bars, spinning in my lowest gear and regularly sipping from my bottles, but as much as I tried to pace myself, the crippling heat was boiling my brain again and I recognized the onset of heat exhaustion. My legs felt great, my lungs were functioning well and my energy levels were high. I wanted to continue all the way to the ski station but I was overheating. A past experience of heat exhaustion through cycling made me rationalize what I was doing. I could sacrifice Avoriaz and recover to ride up another mountain on another day, or I could stubbornly carry on and find myself in need of medical attention.
I stopped on the penultimate hairpin and contemplated my decision while another broiling cyclist inched past me. “Il fait trop chaud ” he rasped, then squirted water into his mouth and over his head. I nodded sadly and arced across the tarmac heading back down to Morzine and my waiting husband, my failure weighing heavily on my shoulders. Yet more unfinished business.