Climbing the Col de la Madeleine and then crossing over a high ridge to the neighbouring Doucy Valley makes for an epic day of effort, views and freedom
When heading from France to Italy; between the great cities of Lyon and Turin. The Rhone Alps soon rise up in front of you. Driving through Grenoble or down from Lake Annecy; the Isere valley deepens as you head up towards the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard. Either side of you; the hills turn into mountains with seemingly impenetrable sides. Yet look closely and you will see signs for the Col de la Madeleine. Which is a high mountain pass; that will take you back out of the Haute-Savoie region in a south-west direction towards Provence.
With a col of 1,993 metres above sea level; the Col de la Madeleine is normally only passable for five months of the year. So studying the local maps; I realised I could make a round cycling route. Making the most of this summers opportunity to climb the Col de la Madeleine. Then walking up a steep pass below the Cheval Noir mountain to descend in the neighbouring Doucy Valley.
I was staying in the peaceful town of Grand-Aigueblanche; at the brilliant Camping Marie-France. The owner is very amiable and happy to advise you on your excursions. For more information; see here: https://campingresidencesmariefrance.fr/
After a quick breakfast of coffee and croissants; I rode out of the campsite at just before ten in the morning. Although, it was only mid June; the midday temperatures and sun strength already needed respect. Leaving the campground I coasted down a quiet side road until the thermal baths of Lechere. Here, I turned left at a T-junction and carried on down a busier road. The N90 autoroute to Moutiers; was above me now on concrete stilts. With industrial buildings either side; I felt like I was entering a large city! Taking care; I cycled on down this road until I saw a narrow river bridge on my left with a sign to the Col de la Madeleine.
The way through the woods
Crossing the river; I looked to the right and saw the road gently climb up into a forest. After the ride; I thought back to these early turns on the road. I was amazed at how such a epic climb could start so anonymously. A grande mountain pass that climbs almost 1600 metres in 25 kilometres; yet it starts on a back road in to the woods that is easy to miss.
As I entered the forest; the road beneath me gently climbed to its first hairpin. Then turned and gently climbed again. Every kilometre, a helpful yellow topped marker; gave the average gradient for the next kilometre. The tall trees of the forest above me, branched out from either side of the road and met to make a great cooling canopy. Being a middle-aged Englishman; this shade gave me the energy to steadily climb up and up. This tree cover continued for almost half of the climb until the small village of La Thuile.
Share the road with care
Going from complete shade to bright sunlight creates an unseen danger to all cyclists. An approaching car driver simply may not see you because it takes a moment for their eyes to adjust to the change in light. In addition, if they have a dirty windscreen; you may be hidden behind the glare on the glass. For this reason, I always use a rear red occulting light.
On several occasions, other cyclists approached from behind without warning. They then passed very close without any room for error; then failed at any form of salutation. It seemed they could only have the energy to cycle up a mountain if they left their common decency down in the valley. This was dangerous for I was on a slower mountain bike and they were on much faster superlight racing bikes.
As I climbed up through the forest; I heard beneath me the incredible sound of what seemed like a train horn! Yet, I knew it could not be a train for no railway could ever climb these gradients; even though the repeated horn grew louder. Then all of sudden, between the gaps in the trees; I saw an enormous cattle truck approaching fast. It was the beginning of the grazing season on the high mountain pastures; so I knew the lorry must be fully laden with cattle. As the truck grew near; I pulled off the road so the driver did not have to slow for me. Sure enough, the driver gave me the thumbs up in appreciation as he carefully cruised by in his 44 tonne truck. This made me realize: although I am here as a tourist enjoying a carefree day; this road, to these lands is an important part of rural life. So I will always respect the locals as if I was hard at work in the same way.
Living the high life
Arriving to the village of La Thuile; I stopped to take in my first view of the Cheval Noir. This mountain stands to the left of the Col de la Madeleine; as a great marker to the final ridge. A mechanic walked past with his hands covered in oil. I bid him a ‘bonjour’ and he greeted me the same. My French is of a terrible standard; yet I could understand he was amazed by the massive 50 toothed SRAM gear cassette on my bike. I asked him if life was good here; high in the mountains. He laughed; then replied: “Oui, sauf que l’hiver est brutal.” I smiled as I nodded in respect; then bid him: “Bonne Journee.”
Riding out of the village; I passed a raging mountain stream. I was taking regular sips from my two, litre bottles; yet I was not running out of water. However, I had still not seen anywhere to refill them. With this stream being inaccessible from the road. I continued riding up; yet kept my eyes open for a water source. The tree cover was far behind me now; so the sun could beam down on me without mercy.
Reaching the Col de la Madeleine
Shortly after La Thuile; I passed through the hamlet of Celliers. With its ‘chocolate box’ houses, church and sadly all too common war memorial; I stopped for a moment to take in a few deep breaths as well as the view. I thought that life must be peaceful here for the residents too; yet maybe only the elderly remain if the youth were not able to relax into mountain life?
Leaving the village; I still could not see any water fountain or accessible stream. The roadside tree cover was long gone now; as I neared the treeline. It was midday now and the sun beat down upon me with all its fiery force.
Yet the lack of tree cover gave me my only solace. The bare open valley started to reach a final ridge. With every pedal stroke bringing me closer to that final plateau. Looking up to the left; the mountain of Cheval Noir grew closer still. Whilst below its flanks; I could start to see my passage towards the Doucy Valley.
Whilst passing a layby on one of the final hairpins; I met two French gentleman getting in to their car. Only because I bid them a ‘bonjour’; they offered me a chilled bottle of mineral water from their icebox. There, a lesson in politeness to strangers; really hit home.
They were amazed that I had climbed the Col de la Madeleine on such a heavy mountain bike. Yet when I explained that I wanted to cross to the Doucy Valley; they soon understood. Pointing out landmarks on the ridge above us; they explained in broken English for my benefit. They then explained that they lived in the Doucy Valley themselves. So now had to descend the Col de la Madeleine and climb the Doucy Valley of equal size to reach the same point. An extra twenty miles (32 km) more than my short but steep route. Thanking them profusely for their generosity; I powered up the last few gradients of the Col de la Madeleine. The kindred spirit, the fact we are all strangers but not if we make the effort; gave me the energy to carry on. The cool cold water gave me the clarity to pace myself and reach the col in good time.
Reaching the Col de la Madeleine; the view instantly opened to the south and west. The mountain peaks and valleys rolled away from me; like a great earthly ocean at full strength. A grand stone plinth; marked the height of the col, along with a plaque for every village on its slopes. To the right; the terraces of two cafes groaned with road cyclists that had reached their summit. Along with the motorbike riders sweating in full leather suits and sportscar drivers nervous of their own skill.
To the left, information boards perfectly explained: the wildlife, flora and fauna; that call the col their home. Other information boards explained the human history of the Col de la Madeleine. From traces of Roman use to the cold and bitter days of the Second World War. Beyond these information boards; the Cheval Noir rose above me. In between, a steep gravel track climbed up and over a distant knoll. I knew this had to be the way; or at least the way to a better view.
Above the Col de la Madeleine
Whilst climbing the steep gravel track; I encountered an elderly couple. They had attempted to summit the Cheval Noir. Yet had been forced to turn around by steep ice and snow fields further up the mountain. They spoke fluent English; yet I could not place their accents. When I asked them, they told me they were German and had stayed in the city of Reading as students over 50 years ago! I tried explaining how much Reading has changed and how these mountains will always be a more rewarding place to return. The kind ‘Herr’; let me look at his hiking map to confirm my route ahead. He had not seen the path I wanted to take so hoped that I stayed safe. Thanking them for their concern; we parted ways. I was amazed again to meet lovely German people; high on a French mountain! Being in nature, with not strangers but kindred spirits; is an amazing experience in this life.
Whilst climbing the steep gravel track; I turned on to the grassy meadow that ran alongside. My stiff cycling shoes were being ripped by the sharp stones and were becoming uncomfortable. Soon after, I crested the grassy knoll by a small ski lift cabin. Here I could start cycling again; so I rode across a plateau in the direction of the Doucy Valley. Sure enough; the ground started to drop away with a clear path leading in to the next valley.
Reaching my personal Col de la Madeleine
In places the track had been washed away by melt water. In other places, it was no more than a boggy mess; after motorbikes had churned up the soft ground. Yet I soon found my way on to a good solid gravel track.
I gained speed as the gradients eased and the surface conditions improved. Far below I could see the Col de la Madeleine climbing up the valley. I thought of all the effort I had put in to be here and smiled at the reward. Looking across the valley to the east; Mont Blanc glistened white in the summer sun. I breathed in the fresh mountain air and felt truly at peace with this beautiful world.
The effort and focus in ascending the Col de la Madeleine is an amazing achievement. However, now I had to put those positive thoughts to the back of mind. Focusing on descending with care were all that mattered now. I had to now descend approximately 20 miles (32 km); so every line in the loose gravel had to be planned. If I feel I am going too fast; I stop and relax. If my hands are hurting, I am loosing direction or just tired; I stop and relax.
The Doucy Valley and home
The Doucy Valley is effectively a large ski resort. With almost all the buildings hotels, apartments or second homes. In summer, the farmers can let their livestock graze where the piste run in winter. Then in the winter; the huge ski tour operators let their skiers race!
As I descended from the high plateau; I made the mistake of turning right too soon. This meant I followed a steep track into the top of the ski resort. Then had the pleasure of cruising through monotonous suburbs of concrete and pine buildings.
In hindsight, I should have kept turning left as I entered the Doucy Valley. This way, I would have maintained better views of the valley and Mont Blanc. As well as avoiding the roads until the last moment.
Back in time for afternoon tea!
Although, I had to descend for a long distance on roads. They were very quiet on a weekend in mid June. I was on my own for the most part; which was great fun as I could take the racing line. I soon descended to the valley floor and retraced my way back to the campsite.
Taking off my sweaty jersey and cycling shoes; I laid down in the soft grass. I was very tired but very happy. Come and experience the wonder of nature here too.
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