Family Friendly Alpine Cycling

I was looking for an alternative destination for our holiday that would cater for the activities my boys participate in. One a keen downhill mountain biker, the other is passionate about road riding. So, we decided on Alpine Cycling and a catered chalet in Morzine, in the Alps, which we would share with some friends, their son also being a downhiller and their daughter a somewhat reluctant roadie. 

As the day of departure approached I was a bit apprehensive, after all I was travelling 589 miles with three children and an eighteen-year-old, two of my own and two down-hilling friends of my sons.  I had last been to the Alps twenty years ago so I wasn’t sure how I would cope with the driving.  Luckily the French roads were as good as ever and we arrived in Dijon, our just-over-halfway stop, late afternoon.  The next day we set off early only to arrive in Morzine to find it was raining and there was low cloud – very disappointing as it wasn’t what we were expecting. We could get this kind of weather at home!

After a wait we were allowed into our chalet and spoke to our hosts. According to them there was a race the next day up the Col de Joux Verte; known as the Grimpee d’Avoriaz.  This is an iconic route that was first climbed in the 1975 Tour de France and the record of 33 minutes is still held by Bernard Hinault, 860m for climbing over a distance of 14km. This was all the incentive Jack needed. My youngest son, 12 years old, has not a gram of fat on him and is nicknamed, by his fellow club riders, ‘the whippet’. We headed to the start despite the miserable weather, only to discover we were a week late. He wasn’t going to let me get away with it that easily. We headed to the start in front of the church where there was a line painted across the road. 

Morzine

Morzine

We set our Garmins and we are off, Jack speeds off like a rocket and is lost from view. I keep thinking will he be alright, the first couple of kilometres pass easily but then, despite signs to Avoriaz, I take a wrong turn. I realise I have made a mistake and turn round. I rediscover the 1km markers and start to count them down. The switchbacks keep coming, the cloud is so dense you can hardly see anything. I feel woefully under prepared – what am I doing? I know I have to keep going though because I have to catch up with Jack. Eventually the last kilometre sign appears – just one to go, it must be 10 degrees colder as it is almost 1800m, a final push and I have made it to the top and there is Jack shivering beside the finishing line. 59 minutes and 41 seconds not bad for a young one. Now we have the descent to contend with. We are cold and our hands are freezing which makes braking quite difficult – we were planning on taking a circular route but instead we take it steadily back the same way and finally we thaw out. Our sense of achievement is huge. 

Our next riding adventure is a 30km route that is a warm-up for a longer ride.  This time we go with our friends Richard (the Dad) and Emily his daughter. This time we are going to have the luxury of a support car of Claire (the Mum) and their other son Will.  Emily hasn’t really done any long rides before so this is a baptism of fire.  The cloud is still low so disappointingly there are no views to begin with. My legs are still hurting from the exertions of the day before so I am taking it steadily. The road out of Morzine towards Les Gets is a busy one, Jack is over taken by a French man and then hops onto his wheel and follows him into Les Gets at speed. Unfortunately Jack with his limited French can’t understand him when they go their separate ways in Les Gets. We start heading uphill – that is the trouble with The Alps – you can go one of two ways – up or down. We reach a point where Richard says we are at the top – I am slightly sceptical but I am relying on his navigating skills as I can see a road ahead that appears to be going upwards – we are in one valley and I know we need to get to the next.  A slight descent and then surprise, surprise it starts going up again – never trust a man and a map. Despite some breaks in the cloud the weather deteriorates again, Emily jumps in the car but I battle on knowing that it cannot be any worse than the day before.  We reach the ‘real’ top which is then followed by a glorious descent – the sun has come out, the cloud in the valley has started to lift and the road is smooth – delightful! It feels like we have ridden much further than twenty miles as that distance at home would feel like a short blast.

It’s now Wednesday and we are half way through our holiday so we plan to do a longer route.  The sun is out and it is warmer than it has been. This time we are doing ‘An Excursion en Vallee d’Abondance Tour de Trechauffe’. The first 10 km are a steady descent so a nice easy start to the ride before the uphill.  We head for the Col du Corbier. We pass through the village of Le Biot and the 1km marker posts are in evidence – it starts off at 6% but soon progresses to 7%. The switch backs are in view but we know it is only 7km to the top.  With 3 km to go Emily is starting to flag, some words of encouragement and she keeps going, Jack and Richard are already ahead. The last 2 kms appear, but the incline increases to 8% then 9%: it is getting tougher but we know we are so close – a last push from Emily and finally we see the sign Col du Colbier. Her first Col and her first significant climb – girl power! Richard is waiting for us at the top but Jack has already disappeared – he gets cold if he hangs around, “the whippet”.

French Alps

French Alps

Emily and Richard decide to take it easy for the remainder of the holiday but Jack has set his heart on climbing the Col De Colombiere. This Col has featured twenty times in The Tour de France, the first in 1960 and most recently in 2010 when Christophe Moreau was the leader at the summit.  We start in Cluses, a town in the bottom of the valley.  Heads down and we are off, once again Jack quickly disappears from view.  I think of all the famous cyclists who have ridden this route before me; the sun is out, The Alps are looking spectacular and it feels decidedly warmer than it had the first day we headed out. The gradient is gradual to begin with, the first kilometre sign we came across was sixteen and just 2%; this soon increased to 6% but my legs were feeling good and as yet nobody had passed us.  Jack is ahead – a small dot in the distance. The mountains spread out before me, the road is smooth and I am enjoying the ride. I pass through the village of Le Reposoir where a small stream runs through and I contemplate paddling. Then the road changes dramatically and starts to climb steeply, gaining height via some impressive switch backs.  I turn the corner and there in front of me is the top. It looks teasingly close and I suddenly increase my speed as I think it is not far to go. My eyes are deceiving me though as I am still only at the 14km marker. The gradient changes from 9% to 10% and the final kilometre is 11%. I am nearly there, a man comes past and shouts:  ‘well done, keep going just 500m’ though it is probably the hardest of them all. At last I am there! The summit and Jack are waiting – it has taken him 1 hour 15 minutes.  It took me a little longer. There is a massive smile on his face and a large grin on mine. There was a time when I had to wait for Jack – now that era is almost a distant memory.  A few photos at the top and the chance to enjoy the view was needed before we head back down again. 

I think sometimes we underestimate what our children can do. Jack and Emily both ride because they want to, not because we as parents make them. They have pure drive and enthusiasm for the sport of road Alpine cycling. Sometimes it is Jack that makes me push my boundaries.  I probably wouldn’t have ridden the Col De Colombiere – he wanted to do it because in the past it had been ridden in The Tour de France. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of some of his heroes of the sport.  

My boys have always been keen cyclists and have been mountain bikers from a very early age. My husband and I regularly took them to Wales and The Lake District despite living in the furthest south eastern corner of the UK. Sadly my husband was diagnosed with leukaemia and despite intensive treatment he passed away. The boys decided that they wanted to join a cycling club and it was the support of our local clubs that helped us get through this difficult time. Thanet Road Club is a Go Ride Club that encourages children to participate. Through their development programme the boys are steadily becoming very competent riders. It has also pushed me to become both a stronger cyclist and a coach. But more about the Go Ride programme in a future edition, for now we’re basking in Alpine glory.

Lindsey Backhust

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