From the Sky to the Sea: Cycling Route des Grandes Alpes

By Cameron Hall

Last year I set myself the challenge of taking on an Ironman (the triathlon not Robert Downey Jr). In order to truly prepare myself for the 226km self-propelled endurance race in Zurich, I wanted something that would push me more than the Ironman itself. By chance, an old friend got in touch to ask if I would like to join him cycling the Route des Grandes Alpes, I said “pourquoi pas?” without knowing what I’d really signed up for.

With my new road bike, complemented by a fetching pink Lycra number, I was as ready as I’d ever be to cycle my way from the mountains to the sea, starting in Morzine with our final destination, Nice. A motley crew of seven lads had been assembled to take on the challenge, with a support van in tow.

Our destination on day one was Notre Dame de Bellecombe, and as our itinerary master Jamie had explained to us, it would be a leisurely 65km ride to help break us into the week. However, 97.5km and over 3000 vertical metres later, we soon realised that our schedule wasn’t perhaps as detailed as it could have been.

Our first major climb was Col de la Colombière, a gruelling 14.5km stretch in the basking sunshine. The 10% grade sections were a baptism of fire (quite literally on the legs) and a summit which never seemed to get closer meant a tough initiation into the trip. At the top of the Col with water bottles replenished, the tough ascent was made worthwhile with the realisation that what goes up, must come down.

As we moved into day two, whilst the heat made the cycling tough, the views of the route were awe-inspiring and the fast descents were the perfect way to cool down – hitting top speeds of 78km per hour.

On days three and four, the weather began to turn and we were greeted on our way up Col du Galibier and Col D’Izoard with wild thunder and lightning – a humbling experience to make you realise just how exposed to nature you really are as the thunder claps rattled our your drums like a hard thump round the head.

With Ironman in my mind, I wanted to cycle – whatever the weather – and get the mileage in my legs to help with the main event the following month. The fast downhills, hurtling round the chicanes of the immaculate alpine tarmac had to take a more reserved approach as the rain continued to fall.

The following morning team leader Jamie, tasked me with writing out the daily route for our designated driver. Being a stickler for the rules, I jotted down directions in keeping with the official route, and off we went.

At the top of Col de la Cayolle it dawned on me that the lads were quite far off the pace. Unknown to me at the time, the rest of the group had opted for a different route altogether, meaning I was flying solo on an extended version of the leg. The heat was unrelenting and the drain on energy levels began to really kick in with climb after climb. Undeterred, a perverse sense of fulfilment crept in, knowing that if I could make it to our evenings lodgings in these conditions, Ironman would be nothing but a peddle round the park.

As the evening began to draw in, I was greeted with a rapturous round of applause in Saint Dalmas by my fellow lycra warriors. The cheers were swiftly followed by the obligatory “where the **** have you been?” heckles, as I told the tale of my 159 km adventure and over 5,700 vertical metres of climbing in a nine hour ride – only to stop for a quick selfie and water refill.

Smugly, I was pleased to hear the lads had been caught up in another rainstorm on their detour, where I had not seen a drop of rain throughout the entire day.

On the final day, the cycle down to the sea in Menton was exhilarating as the end was in sight. As the water crept ever closer, the weight of the achievement began to sink in as the goose bumps started to tingle down the back on our necks. Arriving in Menton, the bikes were ditched, the Lycra was stripped off and into the sea we dipped for the most rewarding swim of our lives (boxers on and dignity intact).

Falsely we had assumed we’d finished, but we had to find more in the tank to complete our journey along the Côte d’Azur to Nice, taking in the splendour of the rich blue waters and luxury yachts in Monaco.

Seven lads cycled 675.9 km from Morzine to Nice, in six days with 24,535 vertical metres climbed, fast descents and stunning views. In comparison, Ironman has nothing on Route des Grandes Alpes, as does little else. Quite simply, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done…

Cameron Hall is Founder of Holmlands, providing media solutions for brands with a sense of adventure.

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