For a road cyclist the French Alps can be the pinnacle of cycling achievement, writes locally-based tour leader and bike coach Rob Hawkins.
These famed Tour de France cols offer some of the most challenging terrain to be found anywhere. Strangely this offers a way for us cyclists to discover our inner selves and capabilities both mentally and physically. It’s a true voyage of self discovery that’s open to all, mind over legs!
It's easy to talk about the Alps in relation to cycling, but until you've experienced the challenge of a 20km climb at an altitude that can make you ask yourself where the next breath is coming from, it's hard to fully comprehend.
Yes you can train for the Alps but you really must visit to fully understand it’s allure.
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Rob Hawkins runs Colconquerors, a company that specialises in road cycling holidays in the French Alps. Colconquerors provide cycling holidays and training camps for people of all abilities in a friendly and relaxed environment. Rob is also a British Cycling Level 3 Road & Time Trial Coach and bike fitting analyst and provides these services to clients to enhance their riding experience.
I’ll not bore you with the details, but these days the Alps are not so far away. A quick flight with airlines that are increasingly aware of how to treat our oversize boxes of luggage containing our pride and joy means we can enjoy the mountains for a holiday or even just for a long weekend. Once here there’s a multitude of options ranging from the ‘go it alone’ approach through to booking an all-in package that allows you to to get the most out of your trip by leveraging the experience of those who know the place inside out.
Rounding the final bend of the Col du Galibier
A huge sense of achievement hits you as you look around at the glaciers and down at mountain tops you’ve passed on the way up. You never get bored with this route, no matter how many times you climb it.
Completing La Marmotte Sportive
Training hard for months and surviving the 5,000 metres of climbing doesn’t prepare you for the upwelling of emotion you feel when you first glimpse the finish line. A truly inexplicable sensation and a remarkable day.
Climbing Alpe d’Huez
It doesn’t have the greatest scenery nor is it the hardest climb by a long shot, but when ridden with a group of friends it just brings out the best in people.
Climbing one of the lesser known climbs
Do something different: there are plenty of small climbs like the Col du Chaussy, Col de Beau Plan and alternative routes to Alpe d’Huez via the Col de Sarenne and the like most of which offer an altogether more remote experience.
Descend 38km from the summit of the Col du Mont Cenis
A great climb but an even greater descent. The road surface on the Italian side was resurfaced for the 2013 Giro d’Italia and it feels like you’re descending on a billiard table - even the 10% sections on the way back up after lunch feel like 7% due to the lack of rolling resistance! Indulge in the essential ‘Chocolate Italiano’ when reaching Susa. There are stunning views across the lake at the summit.
Best times to go:
Typically you can ride in the Alps from the middle of May through until mid-October, but there are some key considerations. The snow after a regular winter is normally disappearing fast by mid-May and the passes around 2,000 metres in altitude - such as the Col du Glandon and the Col de la Madeleine - start to open around this time. Others like the Telegraphe and Mollard are accessible on a road bike from April, conditions permitting. The high passes such as the Galibier, Iseran and Izoard are frequently not open all the way to the summit until early June.
The roads in the Alps are never as busy as those in the UK, but if you want to benefit from a really quiet time then May, June and September are ideal, outside of the holiday season in France with May and September offering cooler temperatures that many of us might find more suitable for such strenuous activity! The contrast of colours in September is absolutely stunning and is a personal favourite for this reason - with generally great riding conditions.
The Tour de France takes up three weeks in July and is normally burning around the Alpine passes during the 2nd to 3rd week of the month, along with the Etape du Tour & La Marmotte Cycle Sportives. It goes without saying that the Tour is one of the best free sports events in the world, with an unrivalled atmosphere.
August is a very busy time with French school holidays and can be uncomfortably hot for cycling up mountains.
Don’t get caught out with the weather. The temperature can decrease 1 degree for every 100 meters climbed, so if it’s a balmy 22 degrees in the valley it could well be only 2 degrees at the summit of the Galibier 2,000 meters up. Always have a lightweight wind vest and long fingered gloves for long descents.
Up here in the mountains there are not as many bike shops as in the UK, and stock is often limited. Bring a sensible amount of spares with you: always take two tubes each day, plud gas canisters. I always take a cut-out section of an old tyre to use in case tyres get slashed by shale, which has saved many a day from being ruined over the years.
Be sure to bring a variety of cycling kit with you whichever month you visit, as the mountain weather can be unpredictable even in the height of summer.
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