Train to Lyon
While I was catching the train to Lyon on Bastille day, three days earlier, the Tour de France riders had been climbing the Grand Colombier. Now it was our turn, although we would take a different road to the summit.
This imposing lump of rock had hardly been out of sight for the last few days, or out of my thoughts for the last few weeks. Could I actually still do this kind of thing? It had been six years since I had last been in the real mountains and on a climb of this size. With a top at 1501 metres and the climb proper starting below 300 metres, it would be a sizeable effort on a touring bike and carrying food, a few tools and as much water as possible. The bike probably weighed about 20kg on the day – about three times the weight of a professional’s road bike.
Still, we would be taking the easiest route.
Getting to the start of the climb
First, we had to reach the start of the climb. It was market day in Seyssel, so we had slightly more choice of provisions for lunch. After shopping, we retraced yesterday’s route, across the river and as far as Culoz, before turning west this time, skirting the southern flank of the Colombier (the side the Tour had climbed), then northwest towards Artemare. This side of the Colombier looks very steep and we could just about make out the viewpoint high above us. We aimed to visit this even though it would mean a detour on our descent.
There are four recognised routes to the top of Grand Colombier and we would be doing the longest and therefore, we reasoned, gentlest of them. Two of them start in Artemare.
The climbing begins
It was about 20km to Artemare, where we turned right and started climbing. I was nervous, but the gradient was quite manageable for now. Soon, we saw a sign directing us to the Grand Colombier, just 17 km away, but we ignored the right turn in favour of our longer route, which would be about 20 km from here.
We had a very gentle, and hot, tailwind, so we looked forward to the slightly lower temperatures higher up the climb and enjoyed the occasional light crosswind. The climb was still fairly steady and I was on the middle chainring of my triple. JR has a 1X (‘one by’) set up and I could see he was mainly in second gear, spinning a little faster than I do, as usual. He seemed back to full strength and has always been a good climber, but I was keeping pace on this six to seven percent climb.
Different to other cols, but similar too
The absolute altitude of the Colombier isn’t that high compared with many Alpine or Pyrenean climbs, even though the total ascent isn’t much less than, say, the Tourmalet. This means there is still plenty of civilisation and agriculture with areas of dense woodland, and none of the remoteness you might experience in the high mountains. There are no nearby mountains, either, to give you a sense of scale. Instead, you just keep riding uphill.
In one small village we came across a very welcome shelter, with fresh running water, presumably for livestock. We didn’t risk drinking it but we did cool our heads in the refreshing troughs and I wetted my cooling scarf, which I kept around my neck until the summit. It helped a little. We ate a little, though possibly not enough, and drank some water and pressed on.
An unexpected descent
At this point, JR let it slip that we had so far only ridden the approach to the climb. It would get steeper, which didn’t surprise me, but neither of us was prepared for the fairly lengthy downhill we then encountered. Now, a little rest is always welcome but losing height we had worked so hard to attain was definitely a mixed blessing. It meant the rest of the climb would be steeper than we had expected.
Meeting the Grand Colombier
Shortly after this, we rounded a hairpin and the real climbing started. Gradients of nine and ten per cent feel much harder than six or seven, and I was now on the lowest gear I had on the middle chainring. It was past time to switch to the granny gears, but when I tried to, nothing happened. Easing off for the downshift meant I lost some of what little momentum I had, so I had to grind on in a gear that was just too high. JR had stopped ahead of me at the 9km to go sign that told me it wasn’t about to get any easier.
I stopped and explained the problem. I hardly ever use the smallest chainwheel in normal riding. There are only a few hills in Jersey steep enough to justify it and even they are short enough that I can power up them without resorting to the inner ring. So the shifting had become a bit erratic (middle and outer rings both shifted perfectly), but I had regreased the lever and oiled the shifter and everything seemed to be working before I left home.
That wasn’t much consolation now, though.
I was trying to stay positive – we had come a long way with the express purpose of attempting this climb – but I really doubted that I could keep going for another nine kilometres like this. I kept idly playing with the lever while we discussed this and took another few swigs of water, until, suddenly there was a loud and very welcome ‘Clunk’ from my front shifter. Finally, it had worked, and I might make it after all.
Being careful not to drop the chain I made the easy decision to stay in the granny gears for the rest of the climb. I needn’t have given it a thought – even the few false flats gave me no incentive to change up on tired legs. We ground on upwards.
There may have been some views, and we heard more wildlife than we saw, but we were mainly in among trees for the next few kilometres. That might have been a wild boar in the undergrowth but we will never know.
Lunch with a view
Another five kilometres and we broke out of the shelter into an open grassy area inside a wide left-hand hairpin. In the middle of this was a bench and with about four kilometres to go and exactly 327 metres left to climb, this was a perfect excuse to stop for lunch.
Apart from a couple having their lunch outside their camping car, we had the place to ourselves. We even had a view. We were at 1174 metres, at La Selle de Fromentel and were now on the same route to the top as the slightly shorter route we might have taken from Artemare. I had recovered a little thanks to having the right gears for the job but I was more than happy to stop and refuel. On reflection, I think I should have eaten more, earlier in the ride.
From here, an average gradient of around eight per cent sounded perfectly manageable, provided there wasn’t too much at, say five per cent or less, which would obviously make the remainder a lot steeper. Of course, there was. The next half a kilometre or so was probably no more than four or five percent, before it kicked up to something steeper, which meant most of the last three kilometres was at ten per cent or more.
After this, it was relentless. We did now have some views to distract us these did take my mind off the discomfort at times but it still needed a big effort to keep going and my bike felt very heavy now.
In fact, we did stop a couple of times as we counted down the last kilometres, before we glimpsed the final hairpin, still quite high above us on our right. After I rounded the penultimate bend I could see parts of the Rhone in its valley to my right, beyond the stretch of road I had just climbed. One more stop, which I justified with a photo or two, then one more big effort, around a final left-hand hairpin and a token (and probably deeply unimpressive) burst of speed took me across the line.
I had made it, not too far behind JR. My first feelings were of relief more than the euphoria I had experienced on other summits and my first thought was that I might never do such a thing again. Then some more reasonable thoughts came to mind.
Considering the heat, the relatively short build-up to the biggest climb and the problem with my gears that had drained a lot of energy from my legs, I had done well to ride the whole thing without getting off and pushing, even if I’d had to stop more times than I hoped.
Not getting younger, but not old yet
The café and souvenir shop at the summit is not very impressive, but after a coffee and an ice cream I was quite revived, I thought. We had already posed for the obligatory photo in front of the sign at the summit, but the better view of the Rhone valley would be across the road, from the top of a small bank. Crossing the road, I tried to jog a few steps and reminded myself that my legs were actually quite weary.
Still, I hadn’t died. This was my first big climb on a real mountain for six years and I had just about managed it. I may not be getting any younger but I’m not old yet.