Raid Alpine - 2013
Wed 28 Aug 2013
The Raid Alpine is a randonnee from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean that, providing your carnet is stamped in all the right boxes within seven days, entitles you to a large grey medal. The bare statistics are 750km and 17,000m of ascent over 31 cols. It is of course so much more than that with stunning alpine scenery, famous climbs from the tour, half hour descents and a fine sense of adventure and achievement for the riders.
Inspired and not completely subdued by the 2011 Marmotte trip (thanks Dave), envious of stories of the Raid Pyrennee (thanks Bruce and Matt) Adam and I booked with Saddle Skedaddle (thanks Andrew) for a trip in early August. We drove out to Thonon-les-Bains on Lake Geneva with our bikes staying overnight en route and meeting up with the other seven guests and the tour leaders for a briefing. In fact we were all checking each other out trying to establish whether we would be an embarrassment or a front runner out on the road.
We were riding our regular summer bikes, with the only concession to the Alps, a ‘Marmotte’ 27 tooth ring on the rear cassettes. Everybody else had lower gears and two had Di2 mechs. We had the (slight) advantage of a number of training rides in Wales, but we knew these were pimples compared to the climbs ahead of us.
Day 1 117km 2800m
Thonon-les-Bains to Megeve
Major cols : Col des Moises, Col de la Ramaz, and Croix Verte
We rolled down to the lake from the hotel and wheeled our bikes into the lake for a departure photo. It was by now something of a relief to get on the road with all our bags in the support vehicle and to embark on a gentle climb into the foothills of the alps. The challenge was not to set off too fast as his ride was going to take seven days! It was not long before we heard the bells of alpine cattle and embarked on the first set of hairpin bends. Col de la Ramaz (1610m) was a tough climb as we had not yet adjusted to the heat, and also managed to miss the route, adding 8km to the published route and having to ride up all the Ramaz. The middle section of the col was tough, running through a series of tunnels with gradients of around 10%. As on most days lunch was an excellent picnic just over the summit, where we began to enjoy the company of the other guests, followed by a sweeping descent. Croix Verte was a fair climb and the final, hot drag in to Megeve, despite the encouragement of the tour leaders and the regular supply of fuel, was hard work. The hotel in the pictureseque skiing village was the first of a series of comfortable, friendly places to stay.
Day 2 117km 3380m
Megeve to Val D’Isere
Major cols : Col de Saises and Cormet de Roselend
Setting off with some trepidation after a tough day 1, Col de Saises was a hot but pleasant climb. There was a refreshing fountain half way up and wonderful views of snowy Mont Blanc on the
descent. Col du Pre was tougher but eventually we reached the top and rolled over the summit to see the hyper-blue Lac de Roseland. This was a breath-taking spot for another excellent picnic as well as an opportunity to top up the sunscreen as the August sunshine was fierce at these heights. The road then took us over the barrage, past waterfalls falling hundreds of metres, over the Cormet de Roseland and down a long, long descent to Bourg St Maurice. The tough part of this day then started with a stretch across the valley and then a very draining drag up the first two thirds of Col D’Iseran past a series of ski resorts. This was about 30km at an average of 7.5% in the heat but as energy levels began to fall away the tour leaders were there pacing us along and providing more food and drinks. Gummy bears seemed to do the trick and we eventually rolled into Val D’Isere.
Day 3 86km 1670m
Val D’Isere to Susa
Major cols : Col d’Iseran and Col du Mont Cenis
With the first two thirds of Col d’Iseran already under our belt, this was a significantly easier day. It was an odd sensation to be so warm while cycling past patches of snow on the roadside but very peaceful: we were also aware of the effects of altitude as we reached the 2764m summit to be greeted by a car park of camper vans. We had to queue up briefly for photos on this busy col. Lunch was on the next, lower, Col du Mont Cenis where we watched a storm roll in across the lake. We got back on our bikes for the only scary part of the Raid to ride down a series of narrow hairpins, with torrential rain, thunder, lightning, strong wind and a stream of vehicles also trying to get down. My slow descending in these conditions merely meant it took longer! But by the time we reached Suza, an Italian town at the bottom, the sun was out and the road was steaming. There was time for a stroll round the old town before pizza called.
Day 4 84km 2280m
Susa to Briancon
Major cols : Sestriere and Col du Montgenevre
By now we were getting used to the longer mountain climbs and knew it was better to pace ourselves rather than to charge at them. After the easier day 3 and with damp, slightly cooler weather after the storm, Sistriere was an enjoyable climb, with long ramps and fligts of hairpins rising to the ski resort and tour de France stage finish area, where we sat in the sun and lunched. This is the only part of the route where you have to double back as the original route (on a gravel road) has been washed away. Col du Montgenevre was a bit tougher with a steep early section taking us back into France. The weather was threatening again, so we toughed out the climb and made it to the hotel before the rain started. We stayed a few kilometres off the Raid route in an excellent hotel. We spent the evening in the stunning fortified town of Briancon and returned to the hotel listening to thunder.
Day 5 73km 2200m
Briancon to Vars
Major Cols: Col d’Isoard
We set off to re-join the route in heavy rain. As we started to climb the Col d’Isoard we began to warm up and slowly the rain began to ease revealing alpine scenery that contrasted strongly with that of the northern alps. As the clouds rolled away the wilder, wooded, more rugged beauty of this area revealed itself. At the top of Col d’Isoard we drank hot chocolate and changed into dry clothes at a former Napoleonic fort which is now an alpine restaurant. The descent from the col was long, fast and picturesque through the caste deserte with strange wind shaped rocks lining the road. We finished this relatively easy day with a climb most of the way up the Col du Vars, riding to the highest part of the Vars ski resort to get to our hotel for the night. We knew that Day 6 would be tough, as we relaxed on the hotel terrace writing postcards in the afternoon sun.
Day 6 168km 3408m
Vars to Puget Rostang
Major cols : Col de Vars, Bonnette de Restefond and Col de Couillole
We rolled up to Col de Vars (2108m) after just few kilometres and soon embarked on the highest pass of the week, the Bonnette (2802m). This was a fabulous climb with varied, magnificent scenery, good legs, crystal clear skies after yesterday’s rain and an emerging sense that this ride was achievable as well as thoroughly enjoyable. The flowers on this climb were some of the most beautiful we had seen. At the top of the Bonnette there is an additional road, built solely to be the highest in Europe, with a steep final kilometre to the top. Here we queued behind motor cyclists for a photograph before a thrilling descent of about 50km. In the afternoon we crossed the valley with a headwind in the slipstream of one of the tour leaders and then began to climb a long, towering, narrow wooded gorge. As we embarked on this climb there was a distant village up where the moon could have hung: incomprehensively we climbed through and above , Rubion, a village perche. This was beginning to feel like a long day! We descended through another gorge lined with red rock which glowed in the afternoon sun and crossed another valley, discussing the relative ease of century rides in Essex and the Alps. Finally we climbed again, away from the main route, to a tranquil auberge in another village perche. We were tired and exhilarated as we sat down for supper in the garden after one of the very best days imagineable on a bike.
Day 7 122km 1980m
Puget Rostang to Antibes
And finally it was the last day of the Raid with a series of six smaller cols to climb. It was easy to under-estimate the challenge of this final day with some steady climbing in the morning through the hot countryside of Provence. We had an idyllic picnic in the forest and then began a series of long
descents stopping when we could finally see the Mediterranean in the distance. After an ice cream at the last stamping point we joined the hot congestion of the south of France and rode through the traffic to the sea. There was no question about rushing into the sea to celebrate our arrival. The tour leaders had somehow managed to arrange cold champagne for a toast as we emerged from the sea. Later in the evening over supper we received our medals and said farewell to a great team of people. It was over!
My Garmin recorded 775km and 17,584 metres climbing over the 7 days. My biggest climb on Strava is now 1583 metres. I am not sure that I will better these stats, but of course, there’s always a harder challenge. Stuart (from Polka Dot) said he offers a ‘there and back’ trip, but has never had any takers. Is anybody up for it?
We would thoroughly recommend both Saddle skedaddle and Polka Dot cycling who organised this amazing trip.
Adam and Jennifer