This year’s étape takes place in little over 2 months time, Sunday July 7th, and follows a broad loop on a tour of the less well known Massif des Bauges, south of Annecy. And because the route doesn’t tackle any “famous” climbs and cols, cycling purists have denigrated the event to a “why bother” route, or a Sunday afternoon leg stretcher after doing Saturday’s altogether tougher La Marmotte. The étape is only 130km, how hard can it be? Yesterday, I set off to find out.
Departing Annecy town centre at 10am, I followed the excellent cycle path along the shores of stunning Lake Annecy, until arriving at the small lakeside town of St-Jorioz. The actual event will take place on the main road, a flat 7.5km run, before turning south at St-Jorioz and hitting the first climb. The Côte de Puget is 5.4km at an average gradient of 5.8%. It’s not too long, and never too steep, and can be tackled in relative comfort by reasonably fit cyclists. UK cyclists with no alpine training would be advised to take this first climb gently, there’s a long way to go! A short descent to le Cruet is followed by the second climb. On the official étape website, this is listed as the climb to the col de Leschaux, 3.6km at 6.2%. This is slightly misleading. The climb begins at le Cruet, climbs through the hamlet of St-Eustache and ends in La Chapelle-St-Maurice. Again, it’s not a tough climb by any stretch, it reminded me of Normandy, with its rolling hills through the green countryside. Unlike Normandy, rock walls tower above to the left, and on the right is the Semnoz, to be climbed much later from the other side. After La Chapelle-St-Maurice, the route descends quickly to the Col de Leschaux.
Fast and flat is how I would describe the few kilometres from the Col de Leschaux to Bellecombe-en-Bauges. Following Bellecombe, a short, punchy climb finds us in La Motte-en-Bauges, and a few km later is a very short climb through the centre of Le Châtelard.
Descending out of Le Châtelard, take a right turn over the river, and hit the 6km climb to Aillons-le-Vieux. At an average of 4%, it’s steady but not that hard. It’s important to keep taking fluids and fuel at this stage, and to keep energy for the second half of the route. A short descent into Aillons-le-Jeune, and the first of the three hardest climbs arrives. The Col du Prés, 3.5km at 6.5% is, on paper, quite straightforward. However, the heat of a July day, coupled with a headwind, will quite possibly make the climb feel a whole lot harder. The descent from the Col du Prés is fast and technical, passing through Thoiry, with views of Chambery down below. Another short, punchy climb is encountered after crossing the River Leysse on the way up to St-Jean-d’Arvey.
This marks the halfway point of the route, with “only” the 2 main climbs to come. The first of which, the 16km climb to Mont Revard is long, but not steep by alpine standards. At a gradient of 5.4%, it’s important to get the right cadence and rhythm, and not to expend too much energy. In many places, the gradient eases off to almost nothing, so plenty of opportunity to rest, eat and drink.
A long descent follows, then turn sharp right before Trévignin, and along flowing country lanes through the hamlets of Montcel, St-Offenge, and Cusy. A very short climb out of Cusy, take a left fork, and drop down into the gorge, crossing the Pont de l’Abime.
This is a stunning bridge over the Chéran gorge, and is immediately followed by (another) short, punchy ramp into Gruffy. Onwards to Viuz-la-Chiésaz, where there is another short climb up to Quintal. By this stage, you will have covered almost 120km, and the climb to the Semnoz is the last obstacle.
An 11km climb at an average gradient of 8.3%, and after 120km of cycling, this is (in my opinion) a tough climb. Straight out of Quintal, it’s steep and unrelenting, through green forests and white limestone. I can see why it reminds the organisers of Mont Ventoux. After about 3km, it eases ever so slightly, just before the junction with the D41 coming up from Annecy. Take a right here, and just keep spinning. It’s another 7 or so km at a fairly consistently steep gradient. If the sun’s shining, which it was yesterday, it’s hard work. In July, it may be unbearable.
But if you make it to Semnoz, be proud of your achievement, and dismiss the killjoys who relegate this event to just another club ride. For sure, this étape doesn’t have the high altitude alpine cols or summits. Nor does it have the massive distances of some if its previous incarnates. But with about of 3500m of climbing, it’s definitely not a walk in the park, and my feeling is that some of the more dismissive riders might be in for a shock.