words by Paul Arrington, photos by Basecamp
An Englishman, Scotsman and three Dutch people walk in to a café … not the start of a bad joke but a fresh adventure with XPDTN3.
In this adventure I am the Englishman. Fresh from Dirty Kanza and still with some vivid memories of Jeroboam 300 I was ready for an easy week. The Scotsman, Ross Muir, an ex professional road rider and one of the founders of Basecamp. Basecamp being the focal point for adventure based riding in this part of the world. The Dutch, fellow XPDTN3 team member Kim Van Dijk and some of her fellow countrymen, Martijn Boot and Mirko Meerwaldt from Soigneur magazine.
We were on the shores of Lake Annecy in the French Alps to sample some “alpine” gravel. Putting gravel on the map in this area is the La Resistance ride which takes place every September and combines some tough but beautiful road climbs with gravel sections that showcase the amazing scenery of the area. For this year’s event, the organisers have added a new 3 day bike packing event, Tour de la Resistance, and it was the route of this that we planned to follow over the coming days. The first day would be a ride out to an overnight, the second day a return leg to the starting point. Apidura bikepacking bags used on the bikes to carry some overnight kit. The final day would be a ride of the classic La Resistance course. On paper each day got incrementally harder as distance and elevation gains increased.
Day One – Talloires to La Chambre, 105km, 2618m
We leave the village of Talloires, home of Basecamp, and roll down to the lakeside cycle trail. The first few kilometres are a picturesque ride along the shore of Lake Annecy. The inviting blue water set against the contrasting dramatic mountains offers an inspirational start to this trip. The sun is out and the pedalling is easy … for now. We continue to make our way to the head of the valley before the first opportunity to elevate ourselves from the valley floor is presented. Col de Cherel, the climb begins on tarmac before finally transitioning via some broken road to a full gravel ascent. Starting at close to 600m we are set to climb to over 1500m, the pace is steady as the group adjusts to the unfamiliar sensation of sustained gradient.
The surface under tire Ross terms ‘Alpine’ gravel. Unlike Kansas or Kielder gravel this is irregular, chunky and loose. The mind can never truly retreat to allow the legs to take over as grip is constantly shifting and with it the need for perpetual readjustment. As we reach the top the effort from all is clear, day one and the first climb has already opened our eyes to the challenge ahead.
The descent that follows is more alpine gravel with some rock sections thrown in. I spend the entire descent trying to hold as much speed as possible hugely thankful of my tubeless tires as I crash through rocky slabs. Of course, later I was told my tires weren’t tubeless then I was just hugely thankful how robust WTB make their tires.
We tackle next the smaller Col du Frene on tarmac before losing more height and seeking out some lunch. Monday in France equals limited options so we set up camp in the only supermarche we can find open. Cold salad and air conditioning offer a welcome break from the baking heat.
The final challenge of the day comes in a double header climb of the Col de Champ Laurent closely followed by the Col du Grand Cucheron. Before the climbing is done we take a break by a water well in the shade. The day has offered a real physical and mental beating, the reality of the riding far exceeding the previously viewed statistics of the route. We look ahead to the following days with pessimism as to how achievable they will be.
Another kilometer of climbing takes us in to the descent. Not all plain sailing as some freestyle routing gives us some wet, rooty and rocky singletrack … hugely enjoyable if a little on the limit of the equipment. The final section of riding is along the Maurienne valley to La Chambre. This valley providing the staging ground for a host of classic climbs all having been heavily featured in previous Tour de France editions… not many attainable Strava KOM’s in these parts for mere mortals.
Day Two – Return to Talloires … Col de la Madeleine via gravel, 119km, 2725m
After the heat and effort of Day One no one is hugely optimistic about their ability to tackle what lies ahead on the return leg to Basecamp. The numbers are bigger in every direction and the climbs iconic in their reputation. The route profile looks ominous with near all the climbing coming in the first part of the day.
As per Day One we start with an easy roll along the valley floor before reaching the first section of our ascent, Les Lacets de Montvernier. A series of 17 hairpin turns tightly packed in to 2.5km of tarmac. This is a spectacular section of road to view from the valley floor.
The tight hair pins offer some immediate height gain before they open out in to the more sustained and gradual climb of the Col du Chaussy. So far the day has been exclusively on tarmac but shortly after cresting the Col we descend briefly to then turn off and begin a lesser ridden gravel trail option toward the Col de Madeleine. This is perhaps the show piece of the trip.
The gravel climb offers 360 degree views and unlike the previous days gravel sections is far more buffed out and faster rolling. The final few kilometres are ridden on tarmac to summit the famous Col de Madeleine. We lunch then set off on the descent. Alpine descending is sustained and hugely enjoyable as you sweep round numerous hairpins. The WTB Byway tyres are lean’t over offering huge amounts of cornering grip while the disc brakes afford some less than ideal braking and line choices at times.
As the descent brings us to the valley floor the riding is fun rolling tarmac followed by a flat out blast along the side of the river on some wide trail. However, the gently undulating gradient is temporary as the days climbing isn’t all done. The Col de Tamie separates us from the valley we need to be in. At only 10km in length this seems a much easier proposition than the previous efforts we have endured though baking temperatures ensure the effort is felt. As I reach the top I do so with Mirko close behind me. I am out of water so we decide to roll to the next village to use one of the many water taps found along the route. We find an acceptable source in proximity to a shady spot to wait for the others. After 10 minutes we decide that maybe they are taking an alternate route. A phone call confirms as much and we catch up with the others in the next town. All that is left is the obligatory team time trial along the Lake side back to Basecamp then the beers and salty snacks.
The main event. This is the biggest day on the trip. Broken down it’s comprised of a big climb, then a big gravel traverse, then a huge tarmac descent before finally a super steep tarmac and gravel climb. Obviously there was ground to cover in between these stand out features all in offering a big day on the bike.Leaving Basecamp this time the riding after the end of the Lake ventures in to the dirt. Some extensive research by Adam has turned up some excellent trail riding to kick off the day. Rocky stream beds and dirt singletrack combine to make a challenging first 25km.
Today I am climbing with Ross as we tap out a sustainable but still challenging pace toward the summit. As we hit the refuge at the top already the heat of the day is growing and only 2 Orangina’s each are enough to combat the thirst. Unfortunately due to a persistent knee problem Mirko has called it a day mid climb and rolled back to enjoy Basecamp hospitality for the day.
Luckily leaving the refuge our thirst has been abated as we start a long gravel traverse, Route de la Soif, the route of the thirsty.This traverse is a series of lengthy undulations, each descent being matched by an equally lengthy climb. The backdrop in the distance today is Mont Blanc, there are worse places in the world to be.
The gravel here is a mix of all types we have ridden on the previous days. Chunky ‘Alpine’ gravel beating us up on the descents with some easier going smoother sections allowing the body to recover on the ascents.
We finally get spat out on to the tarmac at the summit of the Col d’Aravis. Lunch time, pasta and more Orangina.At this time the remaining Dutch contingent have to opt for a shorter version of the days ride to allow them to catch a flight. However, they didn’t depart before joining us on some of the descent allowing Kim another opportunity to display her fearless descending style dropping all but Ross.Then there were two … Only myself and Ross remained to tackle the final big climb of the trip, Col des Glieres.
Not only did we get the maximum gradient of the trip we scored some of the highest temperatures too … as the gradient tipped 17 degrees the temperature was north of 40 degrees celsius.
The climb ended on gravel bringing us to the whole reason this event exists. Monument National de la Résistance, the national monument to the resistance of the second world war. Situated on the Plateau des Glières, an area initially utilized by the resistance fighters as a point for air dropped supplies.
The resistance fighters, maquisards, sustained an opposing force to the occupying German army and French militia. After sustaining heavy losses in the Battle of Glieres the maquisards restructured and regrouped eventually leading to the liberation of the Haute-Savoie before the allied troops even arrived. This whole event has been offered up as a tribute to these individuals who resisted and with hope, persevered and eventually won against sizeable odds. This monument would have been a useful source of motivation many climbs ago but now seemed a fitting way to end the final real ascent of the trip.
Some undulating miles were still required to finish off this fantastic route and with renewed vigor Ross showed me his pedigree as a rider. As I clung to the wheel a new objective had been found, race back to Basecamp to get there before Team Netherlands had to leave for their flight. We scraped in with minutes to spare allowing us to offer our sweaty goodbyes.
The trip was challenging from start to finish. This region is undoubtedly a cycling paradise with untold number of riding routes and gravel playgrounds on offer.
Since we adopted the word ‘Gravel’ to categorise this type of riding a true definition of what this term actually describes, outside of the mid west of America, has eluded me. The long sustained climbs had offered me some time to think and reflect, enabling some clarity. For those not living in the gravel strong holds of Kansas, Iowa or Oklahoma, gravel has to represent something different.
Gravel and gravel racing can simply be categorised as a ride or event which has sufficient off road riding to rule out a road bike but also enough tarmac to mean a mountain bike would also be a poor choice. Basecamp and its series of events showcase this definition in its purest form. As they develop and expand their offering the potential here can be realised.
Thanks to Basecamp for their hospitality and use of their Exploro fleet. Tour de la Resistance takes place on 14-16 September and the classic one day ride on 16 September. More information about these events and the services that Basecamp offers can be found at www.base-camp.bike.
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