HotChillee Alpine Challenge, Annecy, France
Hotchillee, alpine challenge, sportive
"Has it started yet?" my new friend asked me. "Gngh," I replied, shaking and nodding my head simultaneously while squinting at him through sweat-soaked eyes. I could have three days of this ahead of me.
Luckily, this was the stage one time trial of the three-day, four-stage HotChillee Alpine Challenge around Annecy in the French Alps, and it would seed us into three groups, allowing my pal to make such quips to people better equipped to give as good as they got.
To be fair to him, that very first timing mat had been difficult to see in the jostling mêlée for position as we rode out of Annecy town centre alongside the lake before heading 'inland' and onto that first climb, but otherwise the timed sections on each of the four stages were clearly marked, and added a competitive element to some long days' riding.
It does drag
Everyone was happy for the break at the top of that first 12km Col de Leschaux while we were sorted into three groups according to our times. The average speeds on the non-timed sections would be the only thing that differed between the groups - otherwise it was the same routes with the same timed sections, and even then the overall classification counted irrespective of which group you were in.
But stage two was on - it was like one of those old split stages at the Tour de France, with two stages in one day, and indeed the Alpine Challenge aims to provide you with that pro experience, from closed roads to racing up mountain passes to evening massages and mechanical support.
Still, it was a rude shock to descend off the Leschaux and be faced immediately with stage two's timed section up the 13km-long Col du Plainpalais. It all seemed far too pro - and genuinely felt that fast, too - as our group split into pairs and singles fighting gravity, time and each other. There was a brief pause at the top to get refreshments from the support car, with the sting in the tail being the same distance again up to the ski resort of La Féclaz, with some extremely steep sections, which, mercifully, we took at a slightly slower speed than race pace this time.
But what goes up must come down, and all that, and the 50km back to our hotel in Annecy was made up of 20km of descending via the Col de la Cluze and then a lightly lumpy 30km allowing us all to have a good chat with each other and our ride captains and notice, perhaps only for the first time - eyeballs out as things had been up until this point - what excellent work the motorbike outriders did in stopping traffic to allow our safe passage.
Bacon was lucky with the weather
It seemed too good to be true that two out of four stages were already in the bag - and, as it would turn out, it was - but that evening some nevertheless tired riders enjoyed a good meal together before poring over the overall classification, handed to us on sheets of paper at our tables, pro-style. Now you knew who your closest rivals were - and more often than not it was the person just across the table from you who you'd just met for the first time and broken bread with...
The next day, stage three's 117km 'jaunt' took in the Col des Aravis as its main climb, 30 kilometres east of Annecy, and no doubt known to many for its appearances on the Tour de France as well as being on the route of the Time Megève Mont Blanc sportive.
A lush, green mountain - even this late in the summer - it seemed almost a shame to race up the Aravis for the stage's timed section and not enjoy the meadows of grazing cattle and the views across to Mont Blanc itself in the distance.
Friendly warnings from the support crew feeding us at the top about the long, fast descent heeded, we made our way down to the town of Flumet in the valley before heading straight back up again to the towns of first Notre Dame de Bellecombe, and then up again to Crest-Voland.
Luckily lunch - plus a massage for those who fancied it - awaited soon afterwards in Ugine, and from there it was a flat and pleasant 40km ride back to Annecy, with the last 20km of those alongside the stunning lake.
The final stage dawned, and I knew this was it - my last chance to steal perhaps a couple more places on the final timed section up the fearsome Col de la Croix Fry.
Organisers HotChillee had arguably saved the best - and the hardest - till last, but it was a climb I had ridden before, and I fancied my chances.
There's no time to ruminate on this challenge
At the day's last stop before the climb after 65km of riding, I tactically chose a bottle-and-a-bit of water, and decided that if I ate a banana and an energy gel now, I could get away with just the one gel in my back pocket. It was the sportive rider's equivalent of Michael Rasmussen (supposedly) choosing a pair of shoes a size too small to save weight. I was ready.
The cry went up that it was time to go again, and as we turned onto the climb, I saw the timing mat signifying the start just ahead and glided - I like to think - to about third place in the line. mAnd over the mat, I attacked. Bemused as they no doubt were by this sign of aggression, no one followed me, and I was away. I soon regretted it, but with a number of corners on the lower slopes of the Croix Fry, I was out of sight, and hopefully out of mind.
As the sun beat mercilessly down and I slowed to a crawl, I took a look behind me and was surprised at how high up we'd got after only about five minutes. The views were fantastic and, most fantastically of all, I appeared to have got a good gap as, front and back, I had the mountain all to myself.
Around another couple of bends, beginning to feel really quite dreadful now, I looked behind again. Was that someone coming? I squinted, hard. "Just who is that rider coming up behind?" I thought to myself. "Because that looks like Roche." I took a drink, suddenly aware that perhaps I should have filled both bottles after all, and looked back again as the figure rapidly approached. "That looks like Stephen Roche. It's Stephen Roche!" I realised. "How are you doing there?" the 1987 Tour de France winner asked me. I feigned immense ability and replied that I was doing okay.
"Keep it going," those Irish eyes smiled and, with that, he gave his pedals an impossibly easy spin and flew off up the hill.
Now where's that timing mat?
Roche was along for the duration of the event, and divided his time between the three groups, spending a day with each. Earlier in the day I'd had the chance to follow him - briefly - down the descent of the Col de la Forclaz, and marvelled at just how easy he made it look. It was a pleasure to have him along as he flitted between riders in the group. An hour later, having held off some of my rivals, and having had to concede to others and let them pass me, I reached the top, where lunch, and all the other participants, awaited so that we could all ride the 35km home together.
The pace was easy, but I was pleased to see that I wasn't the only one whose legs disagreed. Mini bottles of champagne for everyone made our achievement all the sweeter once we arrived back at the hotel, and that evening's gala dinner on the shore of Lake Annecy topped everything off perfectly.
Sportive sound bites
Name: Trevor Gornall
"'Hard' probably doesn't even cover it, but it was enjoyable as well. The make-up of the event, with the timed sections, but with the rest of the time riding in a group is, I think, perfect. You get to enjoy amazing scenery and chat to people, and then really have a go and test yourself, too. Having the closed roads makes all the difference - being in that 'bubble' you feel safer, and as a result perhaps push yourself a bit harder, knowing that the guys on the motorbikes are looking after everything. They've been really superb. It's just an excellent experience all round, from the people that you meet to the chance to really test yourself on a lot of the climbs that feature in the Tour de France."
Name: Steve Marshal
"It was brilliant. I'm very tired, but you forget the pain very quickly, too. I loved the descents, I loved the scenery, and it was just a great few days. If I hadn't drunk a beer every night, I think I would have felt even more like a pro, but the chance to eat and rest properly at the hotel each night allows you to get through the three days, whereas normally you might only be able to do one day like that at a time. It hurt, but I was really able to push myself each day."
Name: Jacky Bernett
From: Weybridge, Surrey
"It was really, really tough, but fantastic. I've done London to Paris twice - in 2010 and 2011 - but have just kept improving, as I've only been riding for two years. When I bought my first bike, I couldn't even ride it, and now here I am. Every climb has been amazing, but what's been difficult is not really knowing how long each climb is going to be and making sure you have enough to eat and drink. And the timed climbs: no matter which group you're in, you still have that competitive element, which really helps push you."
Lake Annecy is at the heart of the big climbing country
Feeling hot, hot , hot...
From the organisers of L2P
Sven Thiele heads up HotChillee - the company behind the Alpine Challenge. Although the company itself didn't come into existence until 2009, Thiele and his event-organising team had got the show on the road back in 2003 with the modest first-running of their London to Paris ride. Since then, 'L2P' has grown with every year that's passed, with celebrity participants having included Will Carling, Nigel Mansell and James Cracknell. Today, it has had to be capped at 450 riders, leaving many disappointed to be missing out on an event that enjoys rolling road closures every step of the way.
Feedback from those riders led to the creation of the Alpine Challenge in 2010. "Again, like with London to Paris, that first event was very much a test, with about 20 riders taking part," says Thiele. In 2011, that number was up to 45, plus the 'ride captains' who accompany the riders at each HotChillee event to ensure everyone's safety and well-being. This year, 230 riders will take on the challenge.
Annecy was chosen as a venue that would be able to fit in the whole ride infrastructure, which also includes mechanics, masseurs and motorbike outriders. "We also wanted somewhere quite relaxed, and a town that had other facilities and capabilities so that it creates more of a festival-type of atmosphere," Thiele says.
Sublime Alpine scenery makes the pain worthwhile
Getting permission from the local authorities for the rolling road closures was also paramount. "But luckily our credibility in France is pretty high, thanks to London to Paris, and everything's fallen into place," explains Thiele.
But if you're going to organise such spectacular events, there's no fun in then sitting back and watching everyone else enjoy all your hard work, so Thiele is an active participant himself.
"With two kilometres to go of the last climb - the Croix Fry - I was cursing myself, thinking, 'What a stupid idea to have a 13-kilometre climb on the last day,' only having myself to blame," laughs Thiele. "I completely cramped up afterwards, but then was okay again 10 minutes later, which made it all worth it after all."
To enter the 2012 Alpine Challenge - September 5th-9th - visit www.thealpinechallenge.com. Visit www.hotchillee.com for info on L2P and other events
Riders take a rest before the next incline
Some mountains to climb
The Alpine Challenge takes in the most fantastic climbing around Lake Annecy, and you don't have to go far to find some of the very best the Alps has to offer, from little-known but steep and challenging climbs to those used on the world stage at the Tour de France each year. While it is with tongue very firmly in cheek that the first day of the 2011 Alpine Challenge - stages one and two - can be referred to as a 'leg-loosener', it was on the second and third days that things really got serious.
Stage three's major climb was the Col des Aravis, which has been used by the Tour on 39 occasions, with the race last paying a visit in 2010, while the small but leg-sapping Col de Bluffy features on both days, and featured on the stage 18 time trial of the 2009 Tour de France, where eventual race winner Alberto Contador won the stage by three seconds over TT specialist Fabian Cancellara.
Much of the rest of stage four of the Alpine Challenge shared the route of stage 17 of the 2004 Tour de France. You know - the one where Lance Armstrong out-sprinted Andreas Klöden for the stage win from a small group that also included Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso and Floyd Landis, with Armstrong afterwards uttering that famous "no gifts" phrase in response to his win, in turn in response to having let Marco Pantani take the stage ahead of him at Mont Ventoux at the 2000 Tour and regretting gifting the Italian victory.
The Col de la Forclaz offers stunning views over Lake Annecy, although it's unlikely that Armstrong, Ullrich et al took the time to enjoy it mid-stage. On the Col de la Croix Fry, Landis had done such sterling work for his US Postal team leader that Armstrong offered the stage win to his faithful team-mate. It was truly a day of quotes: "How fast can you go downhill?" Armstrong asked Landis, suggesting he tried to escape on the descent of the Croix Fry in the hopes of holding it all the way to the finish in Le Grand Bornand. "Pretty fast," replied Landis. "Then run like you stole something," Armstrong told him. However, Ullrich was having none of it, and matched Landis's breakneck descending, leaving Armstrong with no choice but to follow his German rival. And by the time they reached the finish, Armstrong was feeling less than charitable.