Size Mat­ters

Of all the Alpine passes that fea­ture in the Tour de France, none is as high as the 2,770m Col de l’is­eran. Cy­clist climbs into thin air, and then dis­cov­ers an­other beau­ti­ful pass as a bonus

Cyclist - - Contents - Words MARK BAI­LEY Pho­tog­ra­phy JUAN TRUJILLO ANDRADES

The Col de l’is­eran is an icon of the Tour de France and the high­est pass in the Alps but, as Cy­clist dis­cov­ers, it isn’t the only breath­tak­ing sum­mit you can reach in one day on a bike

The Col de l’is­eran lures cy­clists on a re­lent­less, zig-zag­ging as­cent into the heav­ens, ris­ing high above ski lifts, through wreaths of wispy cloud, and past pools of snow ly­ing like scoops of ice cream in shaded craters, un­til even the wings of paraglid­ers and ea­gles can be seen cir­cling in the val­ley be­low. So per­haps it is only fit­ting that when I fi­nally edge over its ce­les­tial sum­mit, gasp­ing in the oxy­gen-starved air, I glimpse the face of God. Or, at least, the kindly smile of one of His am­bas­sadors on Earth. At the top of this colos­sal peak in the French Alps lies the pretty stone and slate Chapelle Notre-dame de Toute-pru­dence (the Chapel of Our Lady of All Pru­dence to you and me) and stand­ing serenely in its door­way as I clear the sum­mit is a priest dressed in black robes. To my sur­prise I see an or­nate sword wrapped in a scab­bard, propped up against the en­trance. Built in 1939, two years af­ter the road here was com­pleted, the chapel re­ceives vol­un­tary sup­port from the Knights of the Holy Sepul­chre, a Ro­man Catholic order that dates back to the end of the First Cru­sade in 1099. Ex­ces­sive child­hood view­ings of In­di­ana Jones And The Last Cru­sade have left me won­der­ing if I will now be re­quired to com­plete some epic fi­nal tri­als of courage and faith be­fore be­ing al­lowed to of­fi­cially com­plete the as­cent. As the high­est pass (and se­cond high­est paved road) in the Alps, the 2,770m Col d’is­eran is, af­ter all, the Holy Grail of French cy­cling climbs. The priest rings a bell and the metal­lic clang echoes around the sur­round­ing moun­tains in a spine-tin­gling demon­stra­tion of nat­u­ral acous­tics no hu­man-built the­atre could hope to match. The bell is, of course, noth­ing to do with me or the other two-wheeled pil­grims I can see who have stopped for a drink hav­ing sur­vived the test of faith

and fit­ness that is the Is­eran, but it is nev­er­the­less an en­chant­ing way to fin­ish the climb.

I nod to the priest, re­move my hel­met and wan­der into the cool depths of the chapel where flick­er­ing can­dles light up the al­tar. Af­ter the heat and toil of the climb, it’s a wel­come pocket of peace. My laboured breath­ing – which had pro­gres­sively be­come shorter and more ragged the higher I climbed – sounds even shakier in the si­lence of the chapel. I later dis­cover that some cy­clists and mo­tor­cy­clists com­plete pil­grim­ages here in sum­mer to have their bikes blessed for good luck. At this al­ti­tude, any help is wel­come.

Le Big One

The lung-bust­ing Col de l’is­eran, which is lo­cated close to the French-ital­ian bor­der in the western Alps, has fea­tured in the Tour de France seven times. Its in­au­gu­ral ap­pear­ance came in 1938 when Bel­gian Feli­cien Ver­vaecke made it to the top first, while its most re­cent show­ing was in 2007 when Ukrainian Yaroslav Popovich led the pelo­ton over the top. Its peak is im­pos­ing and un­pre­dictable. At the 1996 edi­tion of the Tour the stage that was due to cross the Is­eran had to be an­nulled be­cause of un­sea­son­able snow.

Ow­ing to the Is­eran’s al­ti­tude, July and Au­gust are still the most re­li­able months to cy­cle here, ac­cord­ing to Edouard Rol­land, a lo­cal cy­cling guide who has joined me for to­day’s ride. He says the col is only ac­ces­si­ble dur­ing the sum­mer be­cause in win­ter it forms part of the ex­pan­sive Es­pace Killy ski area, named af­ter lo­cal hero and triple Olympic ski cham­pion Jean-claude Killy. Ar­rive any later in the year and you’ll need to swap your wheels for skis.

Our as­cent be­gins in the stylish ski re­sort of Val d’isère in the Tarentaise Val­ley. The town clings to the pow­der blue wa­ter of the Isère river, dwarfed on all sides by peaks adorned with dan­gling chair­lifts and dense pine forests.

Over win­ter the re­sort’s wooden chalets are crammed with skiers and snow­board­ers, but in sum­mer the town of­fers a tran­quil base from which cy­clists can ex­plore the col­lec­tion of cols nearby. And be­cause this is a well es­tab­lished ski des­ti­na­tion, when you re­turn to the town you can en­joy ex­cel­lent food (in­clud­ing choco­late pud­ding at L’ate­lier d’ed­mond, which is run by the dou­ble Miche­lin-starred chef Benoit Vi­dal) and in­dulge in

post-ride re­cov­ery ses­sions World­tour pros would be jeal­ous of (the Cen­tre Aquas­portif has pools, saunas, mas­sage jets and even aquabikes).

Val d’isère is it­self 1,847m above sea level so to get to the sum­mit of the Is­eran in­volves 923m of as­cent over 17 high-al­ti­tude kilo­me­tres. Tech­ni­cally, the climb starts fur­ther north in Bourg St Mau­rice, of­fer­ing an epic 48km and 1,955m of as­cent, but the road is guarded by eight long, dark tun­nels.

Spin­ning down­hill to Bourg St Mau­rice would en­able you to sweep hap­pily through the tun­nels at speed, but it would be no fun to inch through them slowly on an as­cent in the other di­rec­tion. For that rea­son, we start in Val d’isère, from where we can launch a di­rect as­sault on the safer and more spec­tac­u­lar up­per flanks of the Is­eran.

Nat­u­ral high

Af­ter a leg-toast­ing dash through the Tarentaise val­ley, we pass the im­mac­u­late moun­tain vil­lage of For­net, where al­most all of the chalets are built from tra­di­tional Savo­yard wood and lo­cal stone. Soon the first of the yel­low and white road mark­ers that show the dis­tance to the sum­mit ap­pears up ahead. At the arched St Charles bridge, the road swings right over the Isère river and we be­gin to climb in earnest.

Slither­ing glaciers shim­mer high above us in the sun­shine and wa­ter­falls gush down the side of the

In the sum­mer, Vanoise is a pris­tine land­scape of lush mead­ows and grey peaks brought to life by bearded vul­tures, scut­tling mar­mots and roar­ing mo­tor­bikes

moun­tain. We’re now rid­ing through the Vanoise Na­tional Park, which was the first French na­tional park ever cre­ated. In the sum­mer, it’s a pris­tine land­scape of lush moun­tain mead­ows and grey peaks brought to life by bearded vul­tures, scut­tling mar­mots and roar­ing mo­tor­bikes. We’re above the tree line al­ready so ev­ery view is ex­pan­sive. Edouard points out the twin­kling white pyra­mid of Tignes loom­ing be­hind us.

The climb av­er­ages 6% and rarely tops 8% so it’s easy to slip into a gen­tle rhythm. But as the al­ti­tude soars and the oxy­gen in the air drains away, breath­ing be­comes harder and main­tain­ing the same power out­put be­comes im­pos­si­ble. Edouard and I have been chat­ting hap­pily but above 2,300m my con­ver­sa­tion is re­duced to mono­syl­labic gasps and grunts. At the 2,770m al­ti­tude of the sum­mit, the aer­o­bic power of an un­ac­cli­ma­tised ath­lete can dip by as much as 20%.

We climb through an Alpine meadow dot­ted with me­an­der­ing streams and iso­lated shep­herds’ huts. This re­gion has hosted mul­ti­ple Ski World Cup events and

as we climb higher the road dips un­der the ca­bles of ski lifts. Near the sum­mit we pass a lake used to feed the snow can­nons.

As we ap­proach the top we pedal into a stark land­scape fes­tooned with grey: the tum­bling scree, the gi­ant rocks, the jagged piles of slate, and even the road it­self all merge into a sin­gle sil­very scene, as if the moun­tain has been coated in ash.

On ar­rival at the col, the priest with his sword isn’t the only un­ex­pected sight. We also meet a 78-year-old French cy­clist who has com­pleted the climb from Val d’isère in just un­der an hour. Some tour­ing mo­tor­cy­clists are us­ing a selfie stick to take a group photo, and two shirt­less roller-skiers ar­rive at the top, their chests heav­ing be­hind their heart rate straps. I de­mol­ish a pain aux raisin and pull on a gilet for the de­scent.

Mau­ri­enne, please

The road we have been rid­ing con­nects the Tarentaise val­ley around Val d’isère with the Mau­ri­enne val­ley that sur­rounds the Arc River and the town of Bon­neval-sur-arc. Be­tween the Is­eran sum­mit and Bon­neval lies a de­scent with a pacy 7.3% av­er­age gra­di­ent and sev­eral sec­tions at 10%, drop­ping us 977m by the time we reach the bot­tom.

On this side of the moun­tain the grey of the rocks and the green of the mead­ows are soft­ened and bleached, as if we’re plum­met­ing into a wa­ter­colour paint­ing. Moun­tains rise and fall ahead of us, like the waves of a frozen ocean, all the way to the hori­zon. At in­ter­vals we glimpse the tri­an­gu­lar peak of Mont Blanc hid­ing in wisps of cloud.

We dive into Bon­neval, a beau­ti­ful moun­tain vil­lage of stone houses, which of­fers a mo­ment of level ground be­fore we point down­wards once more and be­gin the 20km dash through the Mau­ri­enne val­ley to the town of Lansle­bourg-mont-ce­nis.

We zip over steel bridges painted blue and green. At one point we team up with a Dutch woman who had been toil­ing alone on her bike against the head­winds. Be­fore long we ar­rive in Lansle­bourg, where we sit in the shade and eat baguettes stuffed with salami and cheese, and slices of pizza bread over­flow­ing with sun­dried toma­toes.

From here we start our se­cond big climb of the day, to the 2,081m Col du Mont Ce­nis. It is a lesser-known but gritty hors caté­gorie climb that has ap­peared in the Tour de France five times, the most re­cent be­ing in 1999. Close to the Ital­ian bor­der, it also fea­tured in the 2013 Giro d’italia.

78-year- The priest with his sword isn’t the only un­ex­pected sight. We also meet a old who has com­pleted the climb in just un­der an hour

Above: The ski sta­tion at the top of the Col de l’is­eran is far whiter than this for much of the year – you have to time your trip here just right if you want to reach the sum­mit by bike

Pre­vi­ous pages: Let the fun be­gin – the de­scent off the Col de l’is­eran drops 977m with a 7.3% av­er­age gra­di­ent and sec­tions that hit 10%

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