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View Full Version : Col de Chaussy, the High Traverse, Col de la Madeleine


velotel
07-08-2017, 11:05 AM
The four of them were up the road in front of me. Big, strong, fast riders, the kind that look good on bikes. They’re riding smooth and easy, talking and laughing. I’m pushing hard just to minimize the growing gap. Talking isn’t an option. Keep wondering how in the hell they do that, go so fast, do it so easily, and carry on conversations the whole time. I kept feeling like some little kid tailing along behind the older kids, trying to keep up and steadily loosing ground. Only in this case I was very much the older kid, as in me at 72 and they in their 30’s and early 40’s. One of them, Mat, was my son. The others were his riding buddies from Colorado.

Fortunately they ride in the classic mountain biking style I remember from back in the day. Go hard when on the bikes, take lots of breaks to enjoy the views. Which is why I came out of the Lacets de Montvernier ahead of them. They kept stopping to ogle the views while I rolled on through. Mat did these outrageous stackbacks with me a couple years back but for the others this was their first time and this paved mule path zigging up the cliffs was shredding preconceived perceptions of what riding in the Alps is all about.

The lacets (switchbacks in french but what I like to call stackbacks, as in switchbacks stacked up above one another) are a marvel of vertical art, a thin road sculpted into the mountain with hand-laid rock retaining walls topped with wonderfully elegant, dark green metal fencing. Stop and look down and it’s like looking down a spiraling staircase.

From Montvernier to the Col de Chaussy is totally different, a rather bucolic strip of blacktop wandering across high meadows and through forests of deciduous trees filled with light. With one nice interruption, a short section of road carved into a cliff face. A mandatory stop to look out across the Maurienne Valley at the three summits of the Aiguilles d’Arves (3514 m / 11528 ft) soaring up over the Col du Mollard and the massive Pic de l'Etendard (3464 m / 11365 ft) above the Col de la Croix de Fer. All of which had their summits hidden in clouds for us.

The Col de Chaussy, a broad, gentle saddle of alpine meadows, with a small restaurant where I found the four of them around a table outside with five tall glasses of foaming amber beer. This would be a recurring event. I was only good for half my beer, another recurring event. More and I’d want a nap. Beer downed, food eaten, time to roll.

The gravity plunge, glorious, extravagant, equalizing gravity, the moments I climb for. Ripping down off the mountain on a thin line of buffed blacktop, swinging through linked S-turns, diving into a forest, across a stream crossing, up a short climb, over a shoulder, then more plunging. Excellent, though not long enough since we turned right in the hamlet of Bonvillard onto the road to Lac du Loup, Wolf Lake in english. Probably should be called ex-Lac du Loup since the last wolf in the area was killed long ago. I’d been wanting to show my son this road for a couple of years and at last, there we were heading up it under a blue sky and a blazing sun.

Beautiful little road, pure one-laner, buffed asphalt, curving up through a bright forest and small meadows. Friggin steep in places! At least for me. Must not have been for them because from time to time their voices would float back down through the trees. Sounded like they were out cruising on some easy bike path. Over a small hump and into the small basin wrapped around the spring-fed Lac du Loup. Gorgeous place.

Alpine meadows sweeping across basins and round ridges, occasional pockets of trees looking tiny in the vastness of grasses and wildflowers, and a small road of dirt and rock snaking up and across the slopes. Like riding across some sort of primitive golf course sprawled across the slopes of a huge mountain. This is why Mat, Evan, Bob, and Mark were riding rental bikes from a new shop in Talloires above Lake Annecy, bASECAMP (that’s how they write it), a shop opened by a mix of brits and french. A friend of Mat’s who works for Mavic had told him about the shop and that not only did they rent bikes, and not only did they rent gravel bikes, they had high performance gravel bikes and they had them in large sizes. The four of them had three bikes from some company I’d never heard of, Open, and the fourth from a company I knew of but didn’t know was building bikes, 3T.

Now they’d find out how good the bikes were on dirt and rock, 8 K of alpine gravel, sometimes smooth and easy, sometimes steep and rocky, most of the time somewhere in between the extremes. A brilliant ride, one that had all five of us smiling like crazy nutcases. They were loving their bikes. Also loving where they were and the dirt chemin even more.

Topped out on the ridge above the Longchamps ski area, grades started to ease off, road smoother, speeds picked up. In the distance Col de la Madeleine. Road slipped off into a long, fast descent and everyone is ripping it up, even me though I’m also keeping some in reserve because part way along there’s this damn climb, short but rude and, as I recall, usually covered in loose gravel. Always manages to give me a good beating. The others flashed into it and started jamming up, racing to the top. Somehow or other their energy field managed to sweep me along and I did the climb easier and faster than I think I’d ever done it. Still a nasty little pitch though.

The last section, a steep, fast drop on a gravelly surface to junction with the road to the Madeleine. I told Mat I’d probably just wait for them at the junction instead of riding to the col with them. They’d be way faster and I was tired. Mat and I ended up leading the charge down the hill and instead of stopping at the junction, momentum hauled me up the road and with that I was back in climbing mode, heading to the col. Only 3 K to the col on mildly demanding grades and no way was I going to not join Mat on one more high alpine col. Settled into a pace that worked for me, watched the four of them disappear up the road, wondered if they’d end up in an impromptu sprint to the finish.

The col, a broad grassy saddle between two mountains, in the distance to the north Mont Blanc, hidden in a mass of clouds, to the south the Col du Glandon and a jumble of snow-clad peaks. Don’t know why but the Madeleine doesn’t seem to get a lot of riders. Or at least every time I’ve been there I’ve seen at most only a few. Definitely not like the Galibier where there’s practically a line to get to the col! Their loss because it’s a fine ride and a beautiful col. The summit sign says 2000 meters but apparently it’s shy by 5 or so meters. The four of them rectified that by riding up to the new bar on the slope above the col and promptly ordering beers. Tall ones of course. I think I may have even drunk all of mine.

The big plunge, 1500+ meters (5000 ft) of crazy fast descent, but not by the normal road, the road used by the Tour de France, the one ridden by almost every cyclist who does the Madeleine. A good road for sure, and fast, definitely fast, but in the end just a hold on and go descent with nothing technical about it. After all we’d ridden to this point, something more interesting was well deserved, a descent that could make eyeballs go all wobbly, like the old road from Longchamps to La Chambre via Montgellafrey, a narrow, twisting strip of blacktop that makes a killer climb and a blur of a descent.

But first the normal road off the col, the only one, fast and fun, right to the first hairpin at the top of the ski village where I slowed to make sure they saw me turn off. Swinging down past ski lodging and houses, changing roads, no signs indicating where to go, just my memory. Out of the housing onto a longish lumpy straight across meadows and into a forest where the road starts snaking and diving, gravity pulling hard, a generous one-laner, barely. I’m jamming down the road, the bike hopping around on nervous, noisy asphalt. Mat flies by followed by Evan and the race is on. We’re ripping down the road at insane speeds and I keep thinking sure hope no cars are coming up because this is one tight puppy. And gets tighter the faster we go!

Now a pure one-laner, twisting and plunging over double-digit ramps, slicing across rock cliffs, blind turns flowing into one another, a guard-rail on the outside, air beyond, and Mat and Evan are ripping down at shocking speeds. I’m holding on behind them, barely, torn between thinking I really ought to back-off and absolutely not wanting to back-off. Mark and Bob are somewhere behind me.

Oops, blind turn, panel van coming up, instant reaction moment, he squeezes right, I shoot the gap between the van and a rock wall. Afterwards, whoa! That was wild. But no easing in the speed department. Mat and Evan still whipping their horses. On and on, needle on the intensity gauge slammed through the red zone so hard it broke the stop. Into Notre-Dame-du-Cruet, the village at the base of the craziness, we blow through, hopping speed bumps, and out the other side, heading for La Chambre and my truck baking under the sun.

Cruise mode, coasting, heart beats slowing, drifting back down the intensity gauge, laughing, unintelligible exclamations bursting like fireworks, that was some kind of ride. Welcome to the Alps. The four of them can’t stop going on about how that was the best descent ever, anywhere! At that moment I was in total agreement, but I also knew that later I’d start remembering some other descents that are forever clamoring for the top spot. Bit crowded, that slot, to be honest. But that said, the old road off the Madeleine is something pretty special.

And I’ll be go to hell, that night I saw on Strava that Mat and I were first and second on the record board for fastest descent on that road! I was 4 seconds off his pace and Bob was another 4 seconds behind me. And if we hadn’t stopped once for no particular reason our times would have been a minute faster. I had to take a screen shot of that. I mean how often on Strava are a son and his father first and second on the leader board!

A few shots, but none from the Lacets de Montvernier. I’ve posted shots of that a few times already in the past.

Cheers

Saint Vitus
07-08-2017, 07:53 PM
Great write up! And wow, those images are saturated like old litho post cards!

doomridesout
07-08-2017, 08:46 PM
Did those guys rent those bikes or do they own them? All-in on the Open/3T concept! Looks like a great ride.

taylor_walker
07-09-2017, 02:50 AM
Wonderful, wonderful report. You write so well. Thank you!

Taylor
SF CA

velotel
07-09-2017, 03:00 PM
Did those guys rent those bikes or do they own them? All-in on the Open/3T concept! Looks like a great ride.
Rentals

enr1co
07-09-2017, 03:22 PM
Damn good post -as always :)

I really need to just book one of those cheap off peak ~$500 RT from OAK to CDG and hop on a train to the Alps.

onsight512
07-09-2017, 03:25 PM
great post Hank.

enr1co
07-09-2017, 04:11 PM
Rentals

Would you know ~how much they charge daily or weekly for those rentals
and is the shop in the area or town where you can just ride from there?

Thanks!

velotel
07-09-2017, 04:31 PM
Would you know ~how much they charge daily or weekly for those rentals
and is the shop in the area or town where you can just ride from there?

Thanks!

https://www.base-camp.bike/en/
Lots of info available, nice folk, I enjoyed their company in the very little time I spent with them, just picking up the four bikes my son had rented over the phone and returning the bikes.

tiretrax
07-09-2017, 04:45 PM
Another great write up and pictures. Thanks!

572cv
07-09-2017, 08:17 PM
Fabulous.

One of the great things about riding alone when you are older is that you can lose yourself in the reverie of riding, your vision of the road and place passing by... you don't see how old you are or how your speed is relatively slower than it used to be. It is purely a ride, just like always. It is a joy.

When you ride with younger riders, it rapidly becomes apparent that you have lost some speed at the least. But it is a greater joy to show them a ride they didn't know, an opportunity, as it were, that the accumulated wisdom and inventory of a lifetime lets you pass on.

And it is an unmitigated joy to do that with a daughter or son who is a rider, to sense the delight of discovery in their eyes and voice.

And BTW, that harrowing descent and Strava confirmation, for those of us who have been down roads like that in France, was good and scary enough, sure.

choke
07-09-2017, 08:31 PM
Those four were lucky to have the best guide in the Alps. Great write up and pics as usual Hank....thanks.

I love that you were the only one on rim brakes.

enr1co
07-10-2017, 12:01 AM
https://www.base-camp.bike/en/
Lots of info available, nice folk, I enjoyed their company in the very little time I spent with them, just picking up the four bikes my son had rented over the phone and returning the bikes.

Hank, merci beaucoup pour le informacion!

velotel
07-10-2017, 03:14 AM
Those four were lucky to have the best guide in the Alps. Great write up and pics as usual Hank....thanks.

I love that you were the only one on rim brakes.
Also the only one on my own bike, but the others are all disco brakers at heart while I remain back in the swamp with the rest of the dino's!