On a recent bike ride along the peaceful undulating roads of the Surrey Hills, a battered Ford Fiesta pulled alongside me. From the darkness within came a shout: “Oi, you that man on a bike? Where’s yer sideburns?” It was a myopic observation – I am, after all, a woman and thankfully not as hirsute as the beloved Bradley Wiggins, my presumed doppelgänger.
A few weeks later, though, I’m as close to feeling like “Wiggo” as I’m ever going to get. A fine mist hugs the tarmac as I grind my pedals up the 11km-long Col de Leschaux, a mountain pass in the French Alps. It’s day one of the Alpine Challenge, a three-day event in the peaks around Lake Annecy, which each September gives enthusiastic amateurs a taste of life as a professional – albeit a pampered one. Participants get to ride in a peloton, compete to rise up the leader board after each day’s racing, and ride on closed roads chaperoned by motorbike outriders and tailed by support cars.
The event starts with a mountain time-trial, designed to seed the 200 participants into four pelotons, who will set out together on rides of around 110km each day. Most of the time each peloton rides as one, but each day there is a race section that decides positions on the leader board and who will wear the leaders’ jerseys.
As we roll off for the start of the first stage, I’m grateful to have been put in group two – group one contains two real-life professionals (Karl Platt and Dean Downing), a whippet-like 18-year-old, and countless “mamils” (middle-aged men in Lycra), who ride very, very fast.
We crest the first climb and begin a fast descent; the pines lining the hairpins morph into a deep green aromatic blur. Droplets of mountain mist cling to my legs as I weave around hairpin after hairpin in a bunch of six riders, all under the illusion that we are, for a few minutes at least, contenders in the Tour de France.
Out in front is a lead vehicle ensuring that the route is clear and safe. Alain Cordier, the commissaire, has briefed us on the rules and regulations of riding – no crossing the white line, no passing the lead car, and put one hand up if you have a puncture or mechanical problem. If that happens, there’s a mechanic and mobile workshop on hand – and even an ambulance, bringing up the rear of the peloton.
At the end of a hard day’s ride, we sweep down the grand drive of Annecy’s L’Impérial Palace Hotel, right on the lakeside, ready for the next part of the “pro” treatment – a deep, toe-curling, massage. Then it’s an early night in the hope of regenerating my damaged body.
Day two dawns and there’s a pang of fear in my stomach. It’s not the distance – at 116.6km, our route is shorter than many amateur cycling events in the Alps (the Marmotte is 174km and the Étape du Tour is usually around 150km) – rather, it’s the thought of today’s timed race section. It begins in the pretty town of La Clusaz, from where the road rises, at an average gradient of seven per cent, for 13km until it hits the Col des Aravis, at 1,486m. All this means one thing: pain, fear and loathing for the next 30 minutes. An organiser gives a cheery “off you go guys”, to be met by a panicked silence. Some riders speed off, their carbon silhouettes fading quickly into the haze as they zigzag up the climb. Others, including me, start slogging away, rationalising the pain with the thought of the views of a snow-clad Mont Blanc from the top.
I count to the beat of creaking cranks and form a small group with three other riders, hoping that solidarity will somehow engineer a faster, less torturous, ascent. We pass a small chapel dedicated to Saint Anne, the protector of travellers, but her watch clearly doesn’t stretch to cyclists.
One man makes it look irritatingly easy: in 1987 Stephen Roche won the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the World Road Race Championship in the same year – making him only the second person to win cycling’s revered “triple crown”. Roche retired in 1993, and now runs cycle training camps and helps out at events such as this, but from the way that he’s softly pedalling, almost dancing, to the flag that marks the summit, it’s clear he hasn’t lost any of his natural talent.
Reaching the hotel once more at the end of the day brings smiles to every face in the pack. A quick dip in the icy lake is followed by more massage (which leaves me speechless but at least able to touch my toes) then a four-course dinner – a bridge too far for some weary cyclists, who nod close to their gazpacho. It’s clear that none us are ever going to cut it as real professionals, but we’ve found a place where, for a few days each year, we can at least pretend.
Susannah Osborne was a guest of Hot Chillee (www.thealpinechallenge.com). A four-night package costs from £1,040 half-board, including transfers.
Flights were provided by easyJet (www.easyjet.com), which flies to Geneva (60 minutes drive from Annecy) from 13 UK airports