Foreign visitors to the Alpine region of Savoie have long been fascinated by its mighty peaks – and the associated desire to scale them. In summer 1887 Queen Victoria came to the spa resort of Aix-les-Bains (travelling under the not especially covert pseudonym the Countess of Balmoral) and took a shine to La Chambotte, a neighbouring peak. The queen was so unamused by the plight of a donkey toiling up its slopes that she bought the animal on the spot and had it shipped back to Windsor. Human suffering was another matter: Victoria’s regular outings to La Chambotte’s summit involved a sedan chair and the input of several doughty locals.
In later years skiers flocked to the region and adopted a similarly unindustrious approach to Alpine ascents, delegating the task to drag lifts and cable cars. Of late, though, activity tourism in the region has developed a satisfying seasonal circularity. People still visit Savoie in winter to slide at great speed down mountains but now they come back in summer and cycle very slowly up them.
The Tour de France, the world’s most celebrated bike race, begins next weekend and by July 12 and 13, when the pros bully their bikes up this area’s stacked hairpins, they will have been preceded by an epic peloton of amateur trailblazers.
On July 7, for example, about 8,000 riders from around the world will compete in the Marmotte cyclo-sportive, a 110-mile tour of fearsomely iconic climbs, including the Galibier and Alpe d’Huez. The day after, another 9,000 take on the Etape du Tour, tackling the very pointy profile of the Tour’s 11th stage. Throughout the summer connoisseurs of two-wheeled punishment can choose from the 14 mountain passes in the area that will be open exclusively to bicycles for a day. (Families keen to holiday together but who aren’t united by a shared passion for exploring the limits of human endurance may be interested to learn that electric ‘e-bikes’, with child trailers and a seven-hour range, can be hired at 28 regional locations.)
It’s more than a decade since I last took on Savoie by bike, retracing the route of the Tour de France while I was still younger than some of the event’s most fabled champions. If I were to return to climb the Alps again at 48, I would need the incentive of some very rewarding après-velo. Raymond Prevot, industrialist, aviator, cordon bleu chef and cycling obsessive, ensured that I received it.
Prevot spotted the abandoned wreck of the Château de la Tour du Puits 20 years ago while flying his helicopter through the broad valleys known as the Combe de Savoie. He bought it and set about creating a dream destination for amateur cyclists – somewhere they could ride alongside professionals, supported by a “team car” and top-level coaching, but then retire to recover in the lap of luxury.
The château, close to Montmélian, has seven bedrooms reached by a spiral stone staircase encased in a witch-hat tower, the medieval turret after which the château is named, and its rolling grounds offer wonderful yet sobering views of the rearing peaks that girdle the Combe de Savoie.
As a well-connected enthusiast, Prevot has pedalled his local cols with some of the greats – most notably Stephen Roche, the Irishman who won the 1987 Tour de France. Several racing bikes bearing Roche’s name are among the gleaming collection Prevot houses in a dedicated outbuilding. Most of his cycling-oriented guests bring their own machines but, after 12 years of disuse, my road bike is now an organic part of our garden shed. Prevot nobly lent me one of his – in fact, the newly arrived pride of the fleet, a €6,000 model identical to those the local AG2R team will ride in this year’s Tour. Fashioned from carbon-fibre and rare alloys, it weighed as much as a bag of crisps.
Mercifully, my guide for the first day warm-up ride wasn’t Roche but Hervé Flandin from the Savoie Mont Blanc tourist board. “I did some biathlon in the past,” said Flandin with a shrug, when I told him he looked in pretty good shape. Further questioning fleshed this out into a bronze medal at the 1994 Winter Olympics, the highlight of a sporting career that also saw him ranked as one of France’s top 10 mountain bikers. As we rolled away down the château’s carriage drive, I suggested that, perhaps, we should stick to the valley floor.
French roads are smoother and emptier than most and French drivers are almost sycophantically bike-friendly. Plus the Combe de Savoie offers some winningly horizontal rides, through wooden-roofed Alpine villages and the expanding terroirs of the region’s increasingly respected winemakers. Sitting comfortably in Flandin’s slipstream I sipped from my bidon and drank in the views, all the while marvelling at the relaxed efficiency of his pedalling action. After two hours and 32 miles we crunched back up the château’s gravelled approach. I decided not to tell him, or remind myself, that this was more than I’d covered in any single stint for three years.
To silence my shrieking calves before the greater challenges that lay in wait, the hotel had arranged a massage at the hands of Alex, one of AG2R’s professional soigneurs. “Ah, you have climber’s legs,” he announced, kindly putting a positive gloss on my spindly pistons, “but with hair.” Alex worked knots out of my muscles like a man trying to squash conkers with his thumbs. It took him more than an hour. A sauna and Jacuzzi followed, with the recovery process completed via three courses of the château’s finest. The great thing about cycling further than the shops and back is that, afterwards, you feel entitled – indeed, physiologically obliged – to stuff your face.
Next morning, three croissants to the good, I clacked out of reception in my cleated shoes to find a colourful mini-peloton circling the gravel purposefully. Among them was a face familiar to me in my capacity as a vicarious sofa-cyclist: Samuel Dumoulin, a Tour de France stage winner in training for this year’s race. Excitement and craven mortification battled it out in my stomach but, in the end, it was a draw. After indulging me with a couple of side-by-side photos, Dumoulin took stock of my unshaven limbs and general demeanour, then pedalled rapidly off on his own. This left me in the company of three well-conditioned but also undeniably old men, two Bernards and a Laurent. “Aux montagnes!” cried the elder Bernard, whose tanned, hawser-bound legs are the legacy, I later found, of pedalling 12,500 miles a year.
At 950m, the Col du Frêne is a pimple for the pros – there had been talk of an assault on the Madeleine, a giant twice as high, where Tours have been won and lost. But it quickly did for me. One minute I was whistling along the valley, the happy filling in a Bernard sandwich. Four hairpins up and I was a grovelling, red-faced mess, jersey zip down to my navel. The calf muscles that Alex had so carefully unravelled felt like they were about to snap and wind up like roller blinds.
Something pressed my hot, wet back: the elder Bernard was giving me the most literal helping hand, pushing me up the mountain. “It’s OK,” he said, kindly. “I do this for my wife when we go riding together.” But, because he and his wife were both in their sixties, it wasn’t OK. After another mile of manual assistance I got off to walk. Since the history of the Tour de France is riddled with bare-faced artifice, I didn’t feel too bad about getting back on the bike for the last haul, arms aloft in celebration as I passed the sign at the summit.
Going back down the mountain was tremendous, a high-octane rush of sinuous tarmac and kamikaze Bernards. The valley pulled the road straight and flat, and I thrilled to the casual display of peloton hand signals: a digit flicked out warned of an upcoming pothole or speed bump, an elbow let me know it was my turn to do a stint at the front. I reflected, now that my brain was once more capable of doing so, on how swiftly a bicycle can morph from transport of delight to infernal torture device and back. The early Tour riders, forced to circumnavigate this enormous country on gearless butcher’s bikes, liked to call themselves “convicts of the road”.
Back then, creaking up mountains on a bicycle was something you’d attempt only out of desperate necessity. Now it’s a fun holiday challenge. Still, how good it felt to round a corner and see that witch-hat tower poking above the oak trees. I’d done my time as a convict of the road; now to be king of the castle.
Tim Moore is the author of ‘French Revolutions’ (Vintage)
Maratona dles Dolomites A one-day challenge over seven high passes and 86 miles, the Maratona attracts 9,000 amateurs each year. Specialist cycle tour operator La Fuga offers the most luxurious way of taking part, arriving a week before to warm up in the mountains and enjoy the comforts of the Hotel Posta Zirm in Corvara. June 25-July 2; www.lafuga.cc
Alpine Challenge A four-day event designed to give amateurs a taste of being a Tour de France pro, complete with closed roads and motorbike outriders. It is based in Annecy; hotels on offer include the lavish Imperial Palace. September 5-9; www.thealpinechallenge.com
Rapha Randonnées Upmarket cycle-clothing brand Rapha also runs holidays, with luggage transferred between hotels while clients ride. There are support cars, feed stations, massages and guides, and hotels are the best available. www.rapha.cc
Tim Moore was a guest of Savoie Mont Blanc tourist office (www.savoiemontblanc.com) and Le Château de la Tour du Puits (www.chateaudelatourdupuits.com). Doubles at the château start at €150, full board costs €90 per day per person, a professional cycling coach costs €200 per day (for the group, not per person), support car and mechanic €220 per day, cyclist massage from €40