Words: Matthew Vandivort
Images: Matthew Vandivort + Lisa Vandivort
After a memorable journey through Northern and Central Italy in the summer of 2015 for the the fall of 2016 we set our sights on Southern France. Our goal was to achieve a perfect mix of riding and dining (meaning a definite emphasis on the latter).
In the end I'm not entirely certain we achieved that perfect nirvana of biking and food - if we had that would take all of the fun out of planning our next escapade - but one thing is quite certain: it was a trip that we won't soon forget.
We departed New York City amidst a brilliant fall sunset only to find our first destination - the French lakeside town of Annecy - shrouded in clouds with on and off rainshowers.
Given the forecast it was an easy decision to swap our first planned day of riding for an afternoon wandering through the old city, taking in the sights of this beautiful lake town - including a 'color run' taking place along the lakeside plaza - and enjoying it's various culinary delights.
Col de la Colombière
Thankfully after arguably excessive quantities of cheese and wine the weather broke and we set our sights on perhaps the most famous climb in the Annecy area: Col de la Colombière. With a busy day of adventure in store - more on that later - our plan entailed an early morning launch from Cluses for the climb through Le Reposoir toward the summit.
Fortunately that early start meant the initial stages of our ascent took place just as the morning sun was breaking through low-lying fog, providing an absolutely dazzling spectacle before we even broke through the tree line into the high mountains.
Eventually we made it to village of Le Reposoir and the high mountains came into view - the last vestiges of morning fog still clearing from the summits lit with a gentle morning light. It was an incredible sight.
Past the village the tarmac was fresh and smooth, still moist from an overnight shower as our destination, the summit of the pass beneath Pic de Jallouvre, came into view. The roads were completely empty - not a car nor a cyclist in sight - and the views remained absolutely staggering.
As she is wont to do Lisa eventually tired of my pace (#critsquad) and dropped me a kilometer or two from the summit. After a quick regrouping at the top it was a blazing fast descent back toward Cluses, slowed only by a temporary stoplight related to some minor road repairs.
While a double flat shortly after reaching the base of the summit trimmed a few miles from our planned route there is little doubt that this ride - with a helping hand from ideal weather conditions - qualifies as one of our best ever on any contintent.
After wrapping up our ride and because we're crazy we soon embarked on adventure number two of the day: a short(ish) hike to Lac Benit, a small body of water nestled against the eastern flank of the same mountains we had just ascended via bike.
While I had done some research on the destination the evening prior it was admittedly after a few glasses of wine and the quality of information available online was pretty poor. So while we had a good sense for the distance involved we didn't realize that the first mile of the trek was at a solid 15-20% gradient.
After ascending Colombière it hurt. A lot.
The fact that we were carrying an entire picnic lunch did not help.
When we reached our destination however, any doubt regarding the tough uphill slog was erased. The setting was totally and completely spectacular. I'm quite certain I will never find a better backdrop for a post-ride nap and picnic.
Lac Annecy Loop
Last but not least, and once again affirming our insanity, once we returned to Annecy we jumped back on our bikes for adventure number three on the day: a spin on the impressive bike route that traverses the Eastern edge of Annecy.
Who knows, if we were not constrained by the setting sun we might have even ventured to do a full lap of the lake. But after a day that included a high mountain summit and a sanity-questioning post-ride hike it turns out that an easy sunset spin via bike is the perfect way to end the day.
Le Semnoz via Col de Leschaux
After a grand day on Colombière we decided to tackle Le Semnoz, the mountain that towers over the west side of Lac d'Annecy and is the tallest rideable summit in the region.
There are at least five different routes available to reach the peak at Crêt de Chatillon and after a bit of research we choose to start our route along the Lake before climbing Col De Leschaux on the way to the quiet south side of Le Semnoz.
As we carved a path through rural hillside farmland with the lake fading into the distance the initial miles definitely reminded us of our climb out of Lago d'Iseo in Northern Italy.
After passing over the first medium Col of the day we cut through the village of Leschaux and began our ascent of the Semnoz. The initial miles were a steady gradient on smooth tarmac hairpins, with big views back into the valley between the two mountains.
Eventually the wide hairpins gave way to a narrow patch of road that cut through the pines the cover the middle stretch of the mountain. At various points the tarmac was scarcely wide enough for a single car, nevermind two way traffic. But with nary another human being in sight and with cloud cover rolling in between the pines the ride took on an eery, almost ominous tone.
Eventually we broke through the cloud cover and emerged onto the open slopes of the upper stretch of Le Semnoz. Breaks in the clouds gave brief glimpses of the valley below but for the most part we were completely socked in.
As a result we kept things to a very brief stop at the summit to don jackets before diving into the immensely fast and immensely fun descent on the north side of Le Semnoz. From there we wrapped up the ride at a lakeside bakery just as the cloud cover lifted and the sun returned.
Col de la Forclaz
After two days of riding in the high mountains around Annecy our final spin was shorter and steeper in nature: Col de la Forclaz, which rises above the south end of the lake and features plenty of stretches averaging out to a greater than 11% gradient.
It's a scenic stretch of road though the highlight is definitely stopping at the parapet on the peak above Montmin used by paragliders who soar above Lake Annecy. In our instance this parapet also marked the conclusion of our ride. With a quick change of clothes we transitioned from riding to dining and spent our final night in Annecy enjoying the sunset views from a mountaintop restaurant.
From Annecy we headed south to Provence and the ancient hillside town of Bonnieux. We were fortunate to score an incredible deal on a stunning architectural villa just outside of town (#dreamhouse) and couldn't help but spend our first day enjoying poolside treats from the local boulangerie.
Pont Julien via (private?) back roads
When we finally set aside the pastries and wine we decided to take an impromptu spin to Pont Julien, an ancient Roman stone bridge just a few miles from our villa. Given the impromptu nature of the ride we didn't have a route planned, just a general sense of direction to travel.
We quickly learned that what we assumed were small roads on our Garmins were nothing more than dirt farm roads. No bother we thought, we are well well versed in the art of the #dirtsearch. Of course those small dirt farm roads eventually became smaller and smaller until we found ourselves at a dead end at an old farmhouse with a Frenchman shouting something that sounded a lot like 'private, go away.'
A bit of backtracking and a bit of arguing ensued but we ultimately found our way back on course with time for a quick rest stop at Pont Julien before taking a 'safer' route back into Bonnieux, leaving us just enough time to enjoy the sun setting over this beautiful provencal town.
As one is seemingly obliged to do while in Provence we made sure to tackle the 'Giant of Provence' the next day. It's a grand beast, towering over the Provencal countryside of lavender fields and vineyards with a steady headwind even on an otherwise calm day with mostly blue skies.
The long climb toward the observatory on the summit certainly sparked memories of the grand Tour de France battles that we have watched from afar but to be honest, similar to the Stelvio on our trip to Italy, we were a bit underwhelmed by this most famous of ascents.
In hindsight we would gladly take the dramatic cliffs of the Dolomites or the earlier morning light on the Colombière over Ventoux any day of the week. And while our early start afforded us mostly empty roads on the way up, in contrast to the solitude we enjoyed in and around Annecy by the time we descended Ventoux the slopes were clogged with cyclists of all manner.
Gorges de la Nesque
So for all of the race history, the gorgeous views and the unique barren landscape, Ventoux couldn't come close to topping Colombière as our favorite ride of the trip. In fact it wasn't even our favorite ride of the day.
Instead that honor went to a loop through the Gorges de la Nesque that we completed the afternoon of our Ventoux summit, after the prerequisite lunch and bottle of wine of course.
My parents joined us on this fifty mile jaunt thanks to e-bikes rented from Albion Cycles in Sault, which also served as the start of our route.
Descending the cliffs on the edge of town we cut a route through lavender fields to the West before hitting the narrow road the lines the gorge. It was an incredible, twelve mile descent, ripping in and out of caves as the road carved its way through the gorge with epic views throughout.
At the base of the gorge we emerged in Villes-sur-Auzon and turned south, pedaling through vineyards and small villages in the setting afternoon sun. From there it was a steady fifteen mile climb along a deserted country road with total solitude to complete an incredible day of riding.
After the incredible riding around Annecy and Provence we packed up our road bikes for the drive to Lyon where the priority shifted from riding to food.
Which isn't to suggest we stayed off the bike entirely. Somehow between the late nights in the old city, catching sunrise La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere and enjoying a rollerblading festival in the town center we still managed to squeeze in an afternoon on rentals from Lyon's bike share program - swinging by Les Halles for picnic supplies before heading to the old Velodrome at Lac du Parc de la Tete d'Or for an outdoor lunch and nap.
From there all that was left from our journey through France was a long flight back to New York City.