Up to this point I’d only ever successfully ridden one col in a day, an especially sore point after my Avoriaz failure. My husband and I had discussed a wonderful three col route that was viable from the gite and included the fearsome Col de Romme, the familiar Col de la Colombière, which I first rode from the traditional Sconzier approach in 2010, and the Col des Aravis, followed by a fabulously twisty descent to the quirky town of Flumet.
After suffering so badly in the afternoon heat on the Col de Joux Plane and Morzine-Avoriaz, I was determined to start my three col challenge as early as possible and set off from our rented farmhouse in the chill air of early morning wearing arm warmers and a gilet. I followed the St Gervais to Megeve road that wound its way gently uphill through low lying cloud, then turned right for Sallanches, which turned out to be a fantastic fast road down through tourist trap pretty Combloux, and was as serpentine, occasionally steep and forested as any famous col descent.
Picking my way through the road furniture and traffic of rush hour Sallanche, I turned onto the main valley road to Cluses, a few kilometres further on. With a “no cycling” sign (in France!) denying me access to the main road, I took an impromptu detour through Cluses. I couldn’t get out of Cluses quick enough after being aggressively cut up by a guy in a big white Peugot on a roundabout. Roundabouts really did seem to be an issue for me on this holiday. I was relieved to cross the bridge over the autoroute and take an immediate left by a Nissan dealership onto an unpromising road that seemed to exist purely to service a trading estate. The presence of my support car confirmed this was the right way so on I went. My husband had decided to stick to the classic route up the Col de la Colombière from Sconzier and meet me above Le Reposoir, about halfway up. Once I’d passed the last of the industrial units, the tame road suddenly reared up into a tarmac wall.
Col de Romme
Phil Liggett, 2009 Tour De France Coverage: “This is a cruel strong man’s climb….”
Height Gain: 815m
Average Gradient: 8.8%
It was a good thing I’d done a relatively gentle warm up and the 30km ride to the base of the climb had nicely loosened up my legs and got me comfortable on the bike. I’d done my home work and studied coverage of stage 17 of the 2009 Tour de France, so far the Romme’s one and only appearance in the great race, but I hope it’s not the last. I was already acquainted with the Col de la Colombière from last year, but was looking forward to tackling it from the Romme approach rather than directly up from Scionzier.
I really was climbing the walls of the Col de Romme whose cliff hugging lower section gains height from the valley floor in the most brutal fashion. A couple of ramps, I turned another bend and found myself looking down a cliff face onto the autoroute and Cluses as if I was hovering in a helicopter. It’s truly breathtaking, in more ways than one. I couldn’t take photographs from the most dramatic vantage point because it was just too steep, I’d never have got going again, so I continued past the electricity sub station and outcrop of rock I’d seen used as a perch by spectators in the Tour footage, and stopped as soon as the gradient slackened on a bend. Annoyingly there were tall trees blocking the view and I still struggled to get the bike going, even when I tried that old trick of riding diagonally across the width of the road to get some momentum.
Eventually the road gains enough height to reach a hanging valley and the dense vertiginous woods give way to farmland and the villages of Nancy-sur-Cluses and La Frasse, but the road is still punishingly steep. I’m convinced I left my kneecaps on the tarmac up there from the sheer effort of forcing the pedals round.
Through the village of Romme, the road continues to climb for a while before pitching down into dense forest on roads scarred by the action of ice and snow, fissured longitudinally as gravity pulls the road down the mountain side, and scattered with gravel, especially on the tight bends, making for a technical descent to the village of Le Reposoir.
Col de la Colombière
I rejoined the climb of the Col de la Colombière at Le Reposoir and met up with my support team of one on a dirt lay-by about a kilometre above the village. As I restocked with food and fresh bottles we were passed by a convoy of Porsche 911s. A vinyl on the door of one of the cars announced we were watching a classic Porsche rally called Le Trophée des Grands Chefs.
I remembered from 2010 that the climb of the Col de la Colombière is an ascent of two halves: relatively gentle and mostly shaded by trees from Scionzier (except for one short stretch at nearly 10%) up to Le Reposoir; steeper (holding at around 8%) and exposed to the sun above the village. The last few kilometres are by far the harshest of all, with the gradient around 10% and the last ramp to the summit hitting 12%. I knew I’d reached the worst part when I turned a corner around a shoulder of rock and saw the gift shop on the summit around 3 km away. I gritted my teeth and dug in.
It’s the summit that never seems to get closer but up ahead I could see a cyclist, his red jersey bobbing in front of me before turning a bend and disappearing behind a rock wall. I decided to concentrate on him rather than the summit and drew some satisfaction from being a little closer each time he re-emerged. A muted sprint to the finish, a quick breather and I began the lengthy descent to St Jean de Sixt, passing through La Mulaterie, Le Chinaillon and Le Grand-Bornand on the way.
Col des Aravis
The website Climbbybike lists the climb on this side as starting from Thônes, but that would have involved turning right in St Jean, going to Thônes then retracing my steps, so I settled on starting in St Jean de Sixt. Even so, the real climbing didn’t start until I left La Clusaz, a few kilometres further on. With fresh legs it would have been a relatively easy climb through mountain meadows filled with musical cows, albeit with a lot of traffic including very many motorcycle tourists, gravel trucks that pushed me too close to the electric fencing and a constant flow of holidaymakers heading for the restaurant and cow hide gift shops at the top. I met up with my husband at the summit just in time to enjoy Le Trophée des Grands Chefs Porsche rally for the second time.
I wanted to ride over the Col des Aravis, not just up it, so we agreed to meet up again in Flumet at the conclusion of yet another awe inspiring alpine descent. I followed a nervous Citroen driver down the steep initial part of the descent, making sure not to get too close to her bumper as she tip toed around the hairpins. A queue of traffic was building up behind us and eventually she pulled onto a lay-by allowing my support car to lead the convoy of overtaking vehicles. I followed them into a tunnel and back out into blinding sunlight then left the meadows behind and descended into the tree line, the road now following a sheer sided river gorge with only a low crumbling stone wall for protection. I’d loved to have stopped in La Guittez, a village with a bike based civic decorative theme, but sped onto Flumet, appropriately completing my three col challenge beneath the giant ornamental bike bedecked with flowers.