Raid Alpine. An epic ride through the heart of the French Alps and over Europe’s biggest Cols!
If you’re looking to combine a holiday with a whole lot of serious cycling, then going it alone probably isn’t the best of ideas. Despite being a competent cyclist, I know that having a knowledgeable and experienced guide alongside me on longer trips can only ever be a good thing. This summer, I decided to take on the Raid Alpine challenge, a pilot trip for my company, Alpine Chain Gang. Whilst normally being based in the beautiful alpine village of Le Praz, we decided to go on tour and tackle the Alpine Raid, here’s how we got on…
It was late July when we met at a lovely French hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva, wondering what exactly lay ahead for my three friends and me, as we are about to tackle the renowned Raid Alpine. The challenge was the brainchild of Jaques Rossini, the President of the Cycle Club de Thonon. It involves 6 days of riding the bike over the legendary Cols, en route to Nice from our starting point in Thonon les Baines. We were feeling both excited and apprehensive as we met on the Saturday night.
Saturday 28 July
Our trip started on Saturday when our team arrived at Geneva. We were driven to Thonon and settled in to our lovely hotel set just above the town. After sorting out the bikes we sat down and studied the route for the following day. Duncan who was our support driver had already ridden the trip and cheerfully told us that tomorrow was the easiest of the 6 days ahead. After some great food and a glass of wine, we went to bed full of optimism.
Sunday 29 July
Breakfast at 0730hrs, and after checking the bikes we rolled down to Lake Geneva at around 0900hrs. The weather was a bit dull, but luckily there wasn’t any rain as we rolled through the foothills towards the Alps. There were some testing little hills, but they were only leading up to the main difficulty of the day, which was the Col de Ramaz. Prior to this we got our card stamped for the first time in Habere-Poche, which certainly made us feel like we were on the route. Having descended the Ramaz we got our second stamp in Le Praz de Lyz. Two stamps before lunch on day one made it seem quite easy; after all there are only ten of them in total! We rolled on and stopped in Taninge for lunch. After eating we had a little climb to Araches and then a fast ride along the valley to Sallanches. We were still feeling good and the 10km climb to Megeve was steady at about 6%. The sun came out too, and the Hotel Cimes provided the perfect location to relax before our hostess Michelle cooked up some lovely food.
Monday 30 July
Our legs still felt good and after an early start at 0845hrs we made our way downhill for about 15km prior to climbing the Col de Saises. Following our route map it soon became apparent the best solution for everyone was to ride at their own pace, meet for lunch, and then make our own way to the next hotel on our trip. Duncan was always there to support with drinks and food in the van, and he also made sure all our bags were safely delivered to the next hotel. After a long descent to Beaufort the Col de Pre is a short but steep climb with some 10/11% gradients. It all seemed worthwhile though, when we had a superb lunch looking over the lake below the Cormet de Roseland. It was tough to get going again after lunch but at least the Cormet summit was only 8km away. However I can’t deny that after the great descent to Bourt St Maurice the long climb to Tignes La Reculaz was more than a little bit tricky. We were certainly all feeling tired after another 110km on the bike and at least 2,500 metres of climbing. The Hotel Serac offered great hospitality, and we sat overlooking the dam in the later afternoon sunshine wondering what the next day would bring.
Tuesday 31 July
Duncan had warned us that the next three days would be challenging so we decided to leave a little earlier. It was a perfect summer morning, a bit chilly at 2,000 metres but ideal for climbing the Iseran. The Cold chill and the steep climb didn’t seem so bad when we got our fourth stamp at the summit. A fantastic descent to Bessans and then over the Col de Mont Cenis, a short one at 8km and not so steep. The scenery here was simply stunning and the long descent to Susa in Italy was fantastic. The road surface was perfect and the 25km passed in no time. It was hot in the valley and although not a Col as such it was a long drag up the valley to Oulx. It’s safe to say that we were all glad to get there and enjoy the first cappuccino before heading to the Relais des Alpes Hotel. We enjoyed great Italian food in the evening and we were all safely tucked up in bed by 2200hrs. Our guru (Duncan) had warned us that the next day was set be yet another strenuous one.
Wednesday 1 August
We went for the early breakfast and the day started with the Col de Sestriere. This is needed to complete the route, and it was simply a case of going up and coming back down. At 0900hrs in the morning it was a shock to the legs, but still we got stamp number five at the summit. Back over the Col de Mongeneve and we were in France again. Duncan was around to guide us through the historic town of Briancon and we were soon in the foothills of the legendary Col de Izorad. It started quite steadily but as you reached the summit (some 20km later) it reached the famous Casse Desert where it seemed hotter than below. The descent to Guillestre was long and gradual, you had to peddle but once you hit the Col de Vars that dreaded shot of lactic hit the legs immediately. It was steep too, although thankfully eased off before reaching St Marie Vars (some 7km below the Col). It had been a long day in the sun but it was great to reach the hotel. We had a few beers that evening, admittedly probably not the best preparation for the next day, which looked to be both our longest and most difficult day.
Thursday 2 August
Still the sun was out and after the usual hearty breakfast we rolled off. The Col de Vars wasn’t so bad and after a long descent we hit the foothills of the highest Col in Europe. The Col de Bonette is a lovely long climb and is one where you can easily find a rhythm and enjoy the breathtaking scenery. However, there is a real sting in the tail, the last kilometre must be between 12-15% and not what you need after climbing 20km. We were overjoyed to see Duncan at the summit with food and drink. The descent is without doubt the best I have ever experienced, great surface and long sweeping turns to St Etienne de Tindey where we stopped to wolf down some pasta and pizza. This re-energised the team but the Col de Couillole was a real test at the end of the day, and climbing 15km at 7/8% was no small task. That was about it for the day, although we certainly could have done without a nasty little ramp to our hotel in Valberg. The Chastellan Hotel was particularly nice with a superb evening menu. There was a definite feeling amongst the group that we had completed the most difficult days, and Duncan convinced us that although tomorrow was 150km most of it was downhill!
Friday 3 August
Yet another gorgeous day! We started the day with about 25km downhill and another 15km pedalling through some lovely gorges. Our first Col, the St Raphael seemed little more than a hump at 8km and 6%. However, some of the group were feeling a bit frisky and made our legs hurt. It was all going so well until I managed to take a wrong turn and ended up adding about 20km to our day! Not the best, but at least we found a great little lunch stop where veal and gnocchi went down very well. A Dutch couple on a tandem soon sent us off on the right route and over the Col de Bleine, our last Col, before the long and easy descent through grass to our final destination in Antibes. It was a long day with 170km on the clock but great to see Duncan waiting with some beers for our team of brave warriors. We then changed quickly, had some champagne and a lovely meal in the centre of Antibes before crashing out exhausted at midnight.
Saturday 4 August
Time to head off. Some of the team were on early flights from Nice, some were staying on for a few days in Antibes, and some were off for some more cycling in Tuscany. Duncan and I jumped in the van and headed back to Courchevel after one of my most enjoyable cycling experiences. 17485 metres of climbing and over 700km completed!
What a trip! The Raid Alpine is simply amazing and, of course, superbly organised by the team at Alpine Chain Gang Cycling Trips.