Europe, France

The Trans-Alps Challenge

Europe France

It all started in November 2015 as an idea and intuition. I knew that next summer would be something special. I had many ideas of things to do with my bike next summer (I am a cyclist). This challenge felt special to me. First, it was a unique occasion to ride 11 epic french climbs in one week. Also, I felt inspired by another cyclist, Mike Cotty, who climbed all these climbs and a few more; all in a row! Having the idea is great but the most important part was convincing my mom to take me there! I also had lots of planning and research to do. It went pretty well, and a few weeks later, everything was planned. It felt so good to finally have a concrete plan and something to train for.

When I was planning this trip, I didn’t think I was ready for it. I didn’t feel like I was trained well enough for it. I spent the first half of 2016 training like I never have before. I started riding long distances to practice. The day finally came; July 17, 2016. My bike was ready in the car and my bag was packed. My mom was ready to go; and so it began! I live in Montpellier, and the start was in a little ski station near Annecy called La Clusaz. The plan was that I would ride every day, for the next 7 days and ride up at least one big climb.

On day 1, I was fresh and full of energy. I took off at 8 AM to climb the first col: the col des Aravis. It’s not a hard climb, especially if you start from La Clusaz, but it felt so good to be at the start of such a big challenge. The landscape was absolutely breathtaking and the weather was perfect. On the same day, I rode the col des Saisies, were the Tour de France would come just a few days later, and where I had my first and only crash of the week. I came out too fast from a turn and finished in the grass; no big deal fortunately. At the end of the day, I had 92 km in the legs, and 450 km to go.

Great landscape at the top of the Col Des Aravis, looking at the Chaîne Des Aravis.
First day, first spin, here on the col des Saisies.
Approaching the summit of the col des Saisies.

One of the many memories I have from this trip is that every day, after the ride, I watched the Tour de France in the afternoon, because I usually cycled in the morning. It was a great motivation to wake up every next morning and keep going! One of my favorite climbs was the Col de la Madeleine, on day 2. It is 26km long, and so, so beautiful, with plenty of switchbacks lost in the heights of the Alps. I felt so good that I decided to do a “bonus” climb; the col du Chaussy with it’s impressive lacets de Montvernier. So far my body was OK, my bike was OK and everything was going great! I couldn’t have hoped for a better first part of the trip.

Chasing light on the col de la Madeleine, day 2, 6.30am.
A beautiful switcback lost in the heights of the Alps.
The last switchbacks of the col de la Madeleine.
The lacets de Montvernier are very challenging on a hot summer day.

Not everything stayed as smooth the next days but that’s when it really started to feel like an adventure! On day 3, it was hot, very hot, too hot! At the start of the climb that day, the Glandon, it was 35°C! The heat arrived for the hardest climb of the week! These were the 21 hardest kilometers in my 4 years of cycling. Fortunately, a group of crazy Spanish cyclists cheered me on for at least 7 km; gracias guys! When I reached the top, I was destroyed. I had nothing in my legs, and when I went back in the valley to reach the next hotel, I felt like I was baking. I think that by that time, it was 38°C. I also had no water anymore (that was dangerous). I was so tired that I couldn’t eat anything for dinner. That is NOT good when you have to tackle the mighty Galibier the next day!

The col du Glandon; probably the hardest climb I’ve ridden with the Ventoux.
Approaching the summit on the col du Glandon… the struggle is real.

Fortunately, after a long 12 hours of sleep that night, I felt good again the next day. My breakfast gave me all the energy that I needed to climb the Galibier. I was very slow as I was overtaken by many cyclists, but I made it in less than 3 hours! That is not bad considering what happened the days before! The Galibier was the mid-point of the week, and I was already very tired! The best part of the week started. I don’t know how, but from the col d’Izoard on day 5 until the end of the week, I suddenly felt extremely good again. I had no pain in the legs and the weather improved a lot; it was pure happiness for me. Honestly, I was supposed to climb the col d’Agnel after the col d’Izoard (where I reached my top speed: 80 km/h) but I had to cut it short and go straight to Guillestre due to rain, fog and a storm. I’ll come again Agnel and I will conquer you!

Pacing is crucial on a climb like the Galibier, especially when you were sick the day before.
Passing Cervières on the col d’Izoard.
The refuge Napoleon is a crucial landmark of the Izoard; it means you are close to the summit!
Last turn of the Izoard!
The summit of the col du Galibier, with La Grave (or La Meije) in the background.

At the start of the 6th day, I had to climb the col de Vars. It wasn’t very hard and it wasn’t particularly beautiful, but it was fun, and that’s what counts. At the foot of the climb, I rode a few kilometers with a pro rider from Cofidis (who wasn’t on the Tour de France). I don’t know who he was, but I’m absolutely sure he was a pro rider! My trip was approaching its end but, I ended it well with a long, glorious, hard and beautiful climb: the cîme de la Bonnette. This is the highest road in Europe at 2802 m altitude. It was pretty cold at the start, but it rapidly became comfortable to ride. My legs weren’t even tired from the past 6 days. I was flying; it was so good! The climb is 26km long, but I wished it was 50km! The atmosphere on this climb is unique. It was not busy at all, except when there are 2 big goat herds on the road. This is the mountain traffic jam!

The col de Vars also has its own refuge, Napoleo !
As you get higher, theire is less oxygen, which makes this challenging climb even harder.
The peaceful road of the Bonnette is a cyclist’s paradise.
The top of the Bonnette

When reaching the top, I told myself  “it’s over.” I guess this was when I was supposed to shout in the vast mountains like in movies, but I don’t like that kind of exuberance. I just smashed down the last downhill (which was the most beautiful) and appreciated every second of cycling in these beautiful Alps. I made it! If I had to do it again, I would undoubtedly try something bigger and more difficult. I already have new projects for 2017. I will try more challenging and more ambitious climbs. I will be much more trained and I will have more experience in the high mountains. Maybe something in the Dolomite? I will start planning, just like I did one year ago. I will be 16 soon; there is much more to come from me!

Happy but tired!
Smiling faces after such a great week of cycling!


Contributed by Nathan Muller