Distance/climbing: Prologue: 17.9km/1,157m
Stage one: 97km/1,399m
Stage two: 113km/2,218m
Stage three: 103km/1,923m
Major climbs: 10
Best: Camaraderie, scenery
Worst: Shaking with cold descending the Forclaz
Sitting on the wheels of Tour de France winner Stephen Roche and former world champion Maurizio Fondriest to a bizarre soundtrack that included the irritating 90s ditty ‘Cotton-Eyed Joe’ is something I’m unlikely to forget.
Perhaps the combination of feeling inspired by two legends of professional cycling together with our moustachioed motorcycle outrider’s Rednex-fuelled assault on our eardrums was strategically planned to distract from the burning in our legs and lungs.
Climbing the Col de Leschaux, our 28-strong amateur gruppetto tapping out a steady tempo rhythm, the roads gently drying from an earlier deluge, there’s a sense of unity, a feeling that for the vast majority a huge box had just been ticked. Riding in the Alps is a rite of passage for any keen cyclist and a moment of significance that it would seem wasn’t lost on anyone, least of all the event organisers.
Headed up by the imperturbable Sven Thiele, HotChillee is a real go-ahead firm. Popping one’s Alpine cherry and living the pro rider dream couldn’t be easier thanks to an event that provides just about every perceivable element a cyclist could desire: a fully escorted rolling road closure over three days on some of the smoothest tarmac you’re likely to find anywhere in Europe, stunning Alpine views, camaraderie and, arguably the best bit, a strong element of competition with the inclusion of four timed climbs.
All walks of life
Riders of all shapes and sizes from all walks of life descended on the picturesque Haute Savoie town of Annecy. With every potential problem pre-empted, from airport transfers to help rebuilding your boxed-up bike, the only stress left for riders to deal with was the prospect of tackling some of the Tour de France’s iconic climbs.
If reassurance from the experienced ride captains couldn’t ease the nerves, then it was down to the skilled masseuses on hand to soothe tense shoulders while the lucky recipient gazed out over Lake Annecy’s crystal clear waters. Indeed, if there was a detail the organisers had overlooked, I’ve yet to work out what it was.
Shortly after arrival, with everyone checked into their hotels, bikes unpacked and registrations completed, a lap of the lake was in order to stretch out tired limbs and warm up muscles ready for the event to start in earnest the next day.
HotChillee has an unwritten (though clearly not unspoken) rule that you must always be the first to introduce yourself to your fellow riders. While I imagined a frustrating ride where everyone spoke at once and no one could get a word in edgeways, the truth behind this idealistic ethos is that it actually works. Maybe I need to stop being quite so cynical.
Our entry forms had asked us to have a stab at which of the four ability-based groups we’d likely end up in. But the real test was a time trial ascent of the Col de la Forclaz, first thing on our first full day.
Freezing raindrops bounced from the jet-black tarmac as we rolled towards the start of our first challenge – a five-mile climb averaging over seven per cent with kicks of up to 14.
Nerves were clearly jangling but eventually everybody made it to the top for a welcome hot drink and cake. Times varied massively but then so did the reasons for riding this event. As we came to learn, some were here for the race while others were here for the ride, with every reason as valid as the next and catered for accordingly.
Once the four groups had been determined and allocated their own lead cars and ride captains, a shivering descent of the Forclaz marked the start of the first stage. With the day’s second timed test coming some 50 miles further down the road, most were quietly relieved that the pace set by the captains was brisk but not brutal.
Escorted all the way by motorcycle outriders, lead cars and mechanical support vans (and even a neutral service vehicle!) we climbed as a group, making sure no one got dropped and worked as a team on the flat, taking turns on the front. Imagine what might happen if Carlsberg made club runs and three-day weekends and you’re thinking along the right lines.
But spread across the three days came those formidable timed climbs. That ‘one for all’ mentality soon switched to ‘every man for himself’ as we passed the start banners and embarked on yet another lung-bursting ascent. Some went too hard too soon and suffered well before the halfway point; others picked a pace judged on power or heart rate. Fondriest, on the other hand, churned a massive gear with apparent ease, happily chatted on the phone and took snaps of the incredible scenery. And looked fast and stylish, of course.
The culmination of the three days was the final timed stage up the Col de la Croix Fry. By now 17-year-old Felix Barker’s lead was virtually unassailable, but with the minor positions still up for grabs, there was no doubting the effort put in by the top 10 contenders as they tackled the tough seven-mile climb.
The start and end of each stage featured Lake Annecy as a backdrop. With the arrival of warmer weather, it also provided the perfect plunge pool for weary legs while, for the 150 happy finishers, the organisers provided medals, beer and one epic after-party.
Sportive sound bites
Dave Crowther (43)
From: Manchester Finished: 18th overall
“Riding a multi-day event on closed roads was amazing – the confidence it instils is incredible and makes for fast, safe bunch riding. I learned a lot about myself, too. I didn’t know I could climb for seven miles with my heart banging away at 170bpm!
“The best bit though was the camaraderie. It never felt like we were challenging each other – just ourselves.”
Nici Butchart (37)
From: London Finished: 81st overall
“I’m fairly new to cycling and I feel incredibly lucky to have found an event where you are so well looked after. With every little detail taken care of, you can really relax and just focus on the riding. The timed stages are very tough but the overall balance of challenge and fun group riding with like-minded people is absolutely perfect.”
Up for the challenge? Alpine Challenge 2014
If you’re looking to ride in the Alps next year and are either new to riding at altitude or simply fancy adding an element of competition to your adventure, then we can’t think of a better event. Suitable for novice and experienced riders alike, HotChillee has managed to create an event that is genuinely tailored to everyone’s needs.
Entries are open now with prices ranging from £995 for entry only up to £2,454 for a luxury hotel to share with a non-riding partner. If you would like to ride for charity the event is affiliated with the Prostate Cancer Charity.
This article was first published in the November 28 issue of Cycling Weekly. Read Cycling Weekly magazine on the day of release where ever you are in the world International digital edition, UK digital edition. And if you like us, rate us!