I have a new strategy to help me decide where to ride: I will only climb cols (mountains) that have been in the Tour de France.
Actually, it’s not so much a set-in-stone, snooty-sounding strategy as it is a happy coincidence that so many of the cols around here have been included in the Tour de France. It’s hard to find one worth climbing that hasn’t been in the world’s greatest bike race and public relations campaign for cycling in France. My own tour of the Tour’s cols began with my ride up the Colombiere the other day with Mike Booth, one of the world’s leading col-climbing experts. The Colombiere has been in the Tour 23 times.
The next day, I decided to climb the Col de Romme, which I can see when I stand outside my hotel here in Cluses. There it is, only a couple hundred meters away, on the other side of the Arve River and across the E25 highway, rising straight up and up. And, straight up isn’t an exaggeration. How is it possible to climb this monster? It’s too steep!
Oh, it’s possible, thanks to a series of S-turns that wind their way up this col. It’s a short climb, “only” nine kilometers, but it just might be the toughest nine Ks around here. The Romme starts with an 11-percent grade, just to let you know what you’re in for, and from here it’s a 10, 9, 9, 7, 10, 9, 10, 7. That’s steep. And beautiful, with some fantastic views down to Cluses, along the valley and across to the other mountains once you’re over the top.
According to a sign at the bottom of the Romme: “Almost no one knew about this climb until it was catapulted into the limelight by its inclusion in the 2009 Tour de France … Happy cycling!”
The next day, it was on to the Col de la Ramaz, which is a 14-kilomter climb with an average gradient of 7 percent. Easy, compared to the Romme, right? Not so much. But, this may have been the most scenic ride so far, with views of snow-topped Mont Blanc off in the distance, picturesque villages, and wide valleys surrounded by rocky, craggy mountains. There was even a high-altitude cow taking a breather …
The sign at the bottom said the Ramaz was part of the 2003 Tour de France. The town of Mieussy, a few miles into the climb was “the birthplace of paragliding” in 1978. I have to give a lot of credit to the person who first decided to jump off a cliff near Mieussy with flimsy, nylon wings attached to his/her body thinking they had a chance to survive. Sure enough, I saw three or four people paragliding up above. This, by the way, is something I’ll never do. My adrenaline rush and thirst for danger is accomplished by riding down the cols I’ve just climbed at 30 or maybe even 35 miles per hour when there’s a long straightaway. That will get your heart pumping! I don’;t know how the pros go 60 miles per hour.
On the way up the Ramaz, there are three avalanche shelters and one very long and scary tunnel carved into the side of one of the cliffs. It’s scary because, while it’s well lit, it’s still a tunnel, and I don’t like biking through tunnels. You feel disoriented, like the walls are getting closer and closer. And this one is extra scary because of the noise factor. When a vehicle approaches, it sounds like a Tom Cruise-piloted super jet is coming right at you at Mach 3. And, you can’t tell if it’s coming from behind you or from in front of you due to all the echoing going on in that damn tunnel. I was quite relieved to pop out the other side and take this shot …
It was such a relief to be done with the tunnel that I didn’t mind the next several hard Ks of climbing. You’re in the midst of a wide, scenic valley and it’s kind of awe inspiring. Only 2 Ks to go.
You get a few views of Mont Blanc on the way up, but, once over the top and on the way down the other side, the views of Mont Blanc are everywhere. It’s quite the imposing and beautiful mountain. It’s too big for one country and is in France, Switzerland and Italy.