Huddled in the porch of the refuge at the top of the Col de l’Arpettaz everyone is looking at everyone else in dank tangible anticipation that someone will say what everyone is thinking, everyone. Someone just has to mention the “Bail” word and we can all throw our kit in the car and high-tail it home. Someone, anyone. There are enough pregnant pauses and nervous jokes but no-one says the magic word and so we step outside into the mist-wrapped white-grey wind-whipped freezing cold, get back on our bikes and head left down a rocky-rutted snow-drifted off-road track that is patently unsuited for road bikes. Most of us are on road bikes.
A bunch of riders have gathered in Talloires on the eastern shore of Lake Annecy for a sneaky preview ride of the La Resistance gravel ride that’s taking place at the end of September. The start and finish of the event will be in this eloquent town sat by the lake, hopefully under better skies; today the cloud is down to tree-top level and yesterday had seen the worst rain Europe had experienced in quite a while. It’s less than ideal.
Because of the inclement conditions it’s decided at the morning’s briefing to curtail the intended full 130km ride and focus on getting round the shorter 90km ‘Petite’ route and its meagre 2,200m of climbing rather than the full fat’s 3,200m. This means we’ll miss out on taking on the Plateau des Glieres, a 6.8km, Cat 2 climb but looking out the window, that’s ok. More coffees are had as a thinly veiled stalling tactic.
Conceived to honour those of the French Resistance who lost their lives in the Alps at the Battle of the Glières in 1944, the inaugural running of the La Resistance celebrates both the high mountains and the bravery of the men and women who fought and lost their lives against the occupying forces by stringing together a mixed terrain route that visits both the National Monument to La Resistance on the Plateau des Glières and the Necropolis memorial.
We somewhat timidly mount up and head south down the lake on bike paths until we reach the foot where we swerve through an industrial estate and down a gravel track through the trees. Well, on any other day it would be a gravel track but today it’s quite, um, puddly. Deep puddly. Downhill puddly. Okay, it’s pretty much a river. We splash through where we have to and sneak up the slippery rooty muddy sides where possible but it doesn’t take long for feet, overshoes or not, to be soaking wet and cold, a state they would remain in for the rest of the day. As an introduction to wondering whether this event might be better on a road, cyclo-cross, adventure or mountainbike it’s not backwards in coming forwards. I’m sure it will be fine in September. Best fit 25’s just in case eh?
Back onto the safety of tarmac we make time up the valley before turning sharp left and straight into the climb of Col de l’Arpettaz. It may not be in the Hit Parade of famous alpine climbs but it’s HC classified and at 14.8km it does go on a bit, but with an average of 8% gradient it never gets steep and it’s an easy climb. Relatively. Today it’s grittily atmospheric as we steadily rise into the mist and cloud, you can easily imagine someone making a little Epic™ film up here for some clothing company or other, I certainly need a new waterproof as mine has gently sighed and given up after many years of resolute service and outside is tenderly seeping in. The group strings out as we all find our pace up the climb and pedaling alone it’s a peaceful place, just the soft serene sound of water collecting and dripping off the trees, and oppressive murky black foreboding when the woods step closer.
With no kilometre markers to pace out the climb, and all-enveloping cloud making it impossible to see anything it’s a case of just keeping on plodding on in a fuzzy claustrophobic world of mizzle, I’m told that once we’re out the trees it’s nearly the top, but we’ve all heard that one before. The world brightens from the fake dusk we’ve been sloping through to just a lighter grey and the only thing that happens once we’re out of the trees is that it gets incredibly cold. With no woodwork to shield the wind the chill factor kicks up and every time we swing left on a hairpin we turn into the frigid headwind, which combined with everything I’m wearing now being saturated with damp makes the last few kilometres a cocoon of hardship. I start to lose feeling in my extremities, this is quite grim. I re-arrange the list of Coldest Times I’ve Been On A Bike to pass the time. I’m sure it will be nicer in September because there’s definitely a really nice view to the left, I can feel the space where it should be, and I’m assured that come Summer the place is flooded with meadow flowers. There is a refuge at the top of the col but opinions as to whether it’s open are mixed, I have visions of us huddled in the lee of a concrete bus-stop and some recycling bins waiting for everyone to regroup at the summit. It doesn’t entirely spur me on.
My heart sinks as the refuge approaches dark and deserted out of the gloom, my heart then does a little somersault as there are a few bikes racked up outside and people indoors, ordering coffees and hot chocolates. We shuffle inside, greeted by a couple of eager dogs and a less keen cat. They are all fluffy and warm. More hot drinks are ordered and those more savvy riders retrieve fresh, dry, warm clothes from the Mavic support car and eventually we shuffle towards the door to procrastinate in that porch before heading out again.
As gravel rides go it appears that the French translation of gravel is quite a lot more rustic than the finely graded miles of hardpacked aggregate that’s characterised by the American Marketing Dream of this kind of riding, and by that I mean the it’s more rough hewn, chunky and fibrous. Let’s call it artisan for advertising reasons. This off-road section is the Route de la Soif, the 14.3km long gravel highlight of La Resistance. It’s definitely something more suited to a mountainbike, or at least a fatter tyre than a 23mm, or 25mm even. This is where deciding on what compromise you’re willing to make on your bike choice comes into play; do you pick a bike with fatter tyres to make the off-road sections easier, knowing that it’s going to make the tarmac climbs tougher, or do you opt for climbing speed over dirt fragility? I’m riding a Specilaized Diverge with 28mm tyres and it’s right on the limit of acceptability on this gravellage section, and I’m plenty used to riding off road on mountainbikes, cross bikes and willfully pointing a road bike across sketchy terrain. If you want to do La Resistance then a bike with 30mm+ tyres might be more confident, and yet not something so sluggish that it makes the climbs a total ballache, a file-treaded CX tyre maybe.
If it’s challenging for me then those riding this section on 23mm tyres are definitely having more fun, especially for Nick who is on some borrowed Mavic wheels, with tubs. They’ve survived the Paris-Roubaix so they should get round this, and that palmares certainly helps with the skill level. Maybe. There is a whole heap of finesse going on. The Route de la Soif swoops and bends around the contours of the mountain, which is somewhere up there to the left, we can’t see it in the cloud but we can definitely feel its brooding presence and it really is spectacular and silently foreboding. This is real mountain riding and not the place to cock it up. Especially in these conditions. On road bikes. Those that are on gravel and mountain bikes are skipping off ahead, dishing out payback for having to drag them up the tarmac.
We’re are all achingly cold and struggling to concentrate on negotiating skinny tyres around the rocks and gulleys of this track when we round a corner to face a deep snow-bank blocking the trail. I fumble in my back pockets to see if there are any teddies in there that I can throw petulantly out the pram. There aren’t so I unclip with everyone else, shoulder the bike and clamber across the snow bank. It’s amusingly ridiculous, and something to tick off the Bucket List. Road shoes and road cleats are not designed for walking in snow. I’m pretty sure it will be nicer in September on the actual day of the event.
Flapping about trying to clip back in with snow, ice and rock filled cleats we carry Epically on (where’s that clothing video crew) up some stiff shaley climbs that do well to warm us up, and then through slushy gullies cut through snow drifts that cool us down again. At one point a smear of sun actually appears on a far mountain, suggesting that on a good day you get amazing views of Mt Blanc and that maybe, just maybe the day is cheering up a bit. Even though I still can’t feel my feet I stop thinking about teddies.
Inevitably one of us punctures, and it’s Ross on his skinny 23mm tyres, I’m surprised he’s made it this far, but he is a skillful rider. That fixed we set off only to stop again as Ross realizes that the puncture was caused by a tyre gash. Unsurprisingly. It’s bodged with an old gel wrapper and we tip-toe on to stumble off the mountain. We realise we are approaching civilisation as walkers are crocodiling towards us from the cluster of buildings at the top of the Col des Aravis. It takes me a while to get my bearings and I recognise that I’ve been here several times before, just from the tarmac directions and under clearer bluer skies. Restorative cheeses and crepes are eaten while the Mavic guys get to work fixing punctures and replacing tyres. It’s marginally warmer now and we’re not in drenching sapping cloud so we cheerfully flurry off the Aravis on the road towards La Clusaz but just before entering town we dogleg left to ascend the Cat 3 Col de la Croix Fry. It’s a steady climb of not much consequence, made more bearable for me by slipstreaming the warm Mavic exhaust whilst one of our group on a fat-tyred gravelbike gets helped up by a very sticky car.
Mavic will be there on the day of La Resistance, but maybe not so generous with their assistance. In the spirit of La Resistance it will be a self-supported ride with every rider expected to carry a spare tyre, at least two inner tubes and an inflation device of some sort, but Mavic will be providing on course mechanical support via their infamous yellow fleet of cars and motorbikes if there are any more major technical problems during your day.
It’s a long, swooping, dry and fun drop off the other side of the Croix Fry and we regroup for the main road through Thones towards the Necropolis, a memorial for the resistance fighters and resting place for 105 bodies, mainly soldiers from Les Glières killed by the Germans. The Plateau des Glières is an area situated at the heart of the Haute Savoie and was a strategically important place for the Résistance movement during the Second World War, ideally placed for parachuting in weapons. On the 26th March 1944 about 10,000 men from the German army and French militia carried out a large scale attack on the maquisards situated on the Plateau. Nearly 150 maquisards and resistance fighters from the valleys were surrounded and were either killed during the fighting, shot by firing squad or died during their deportation. The Battle of Les Glières has become a symbol of the French Resistance movement and Emile Gilioli’s National Monument to the Resistance was built in 1973 and seen not as a monument to the dead, but as a symbol of hope.
It’s a swift 10km from there over the hill at Bluffy before the sharp drop back down into the finish back at Talloires, on the day there will be a Guinguette, a party by the lake set in the style of Parisian riverside drinking establishments at the turn of the last century, serving up simple food and ample drinks accompanied by lively music and if you’ve got the legs for it, dancing. Period dress is encouraged, so dig out that itchy retro cycle jersey.
But for now we have to make do with several rounds of beers in the local bar, and despite being the shorter of La Resistance routes it’s certainly made itself felt. Finally dry and a bit warmer at the end of the day we can relax a bit and debrief chat, both the weather and the terrain have played equal part today, neither should be taken for granted that they’re going to hand you a nice ride on a plate, and even on a good day things can change and stuff can go rapidly wrong. A reminder to always pay due respect for the mountains, and if you want to on La Resistance, a little respect for history. There is talk of a three day version of the event next year that might involve a big loop that takes in the Vosges with the option for a bit of faux-rugged credit card touring. Today can’t have been all that bad as I put my hand up should this adventure transpire.
Entry to a La Resistance on 24th September 2016 is €95 and limited to 463 riders, the same number of Resistance fighters who sought refuge on the Plateau des Glières in 1944.