For the Love of Climbing

Climbs, you either love them or you hate them and I for one, LOVE them!

I love the challenge, I love the burn, I love the view you get from the top.

Sometimes it’s just about getting up to the top, other days it’s how fast.

The steady tap on the pedals and feeling of power, soaking in the scenery as you draw ever closer to the summit.

The lung-busting, leg-burning, battle of willpower to keep on pushing up, all the way to the top.

In the saddle, out of the saddle, relaxed, controlled breathing, find the rhythm.

The pain-face, the grimace, the smile of pure joy.

The endorphins, the adrenaline, and above all, the unrivalled satisfaction of finally reaching the top.


Lacking the motivation to head out in the cold and impending dark on the road by myself, and hungry for a bit of a challenge and something different, I recently decided to tackle Alpe du Zwift.

(For those of you who are not part of the triathlon/cycling family and don’t know, Zwift is an online virtual training platform which allows you to ride or run on a trainer or treadmill in real-time with others on virtual courses. It’s fantastic and a real game-changer for indoor training. I’ve gone from “not on your nelly” to “sure, why not?” but I’ll be honest I’m still very much an advocate for the road as nothing beats outside, the technical aspects of riding, and the need for speeeeeeeeed!)

After having grunted my way up and got somewhat of a buzz out of it despite being in a bit of a “just make it up” kind of mood, I wondered if the climb had been inspired by cycling’s most famous climb, L’Alpe d’Heuz. Turns out it is (the 21 numbered switchbacks were the giveaway).

Upon this realisation I was tumbled into a state of nostalgia as on one very special occasion, I was lucky enough to climb L’Alpe d’Heuz itself. It was the final week of our time in Europe before jetting over to North America for the infamous WTS Edmonton and the Grand Final in Chicago. Everyone from our squad except those fortunate enough to be racing the grand final had headed back to Australia, so we jumped in the van with our bikes for an epic day out! A bucket-list ride for sure, and one I still remember vividly.

Col du Glandon – sadly I don’t have any pictures of Alpe d’Huez itself, I was too busy riding it!

Reminiscing and missing both the European summer and the fantastic riding that comes as part of the parcel, I decided to compile a video of some of the many clips I’ve taken whilst climbing (and descending) all over the world. I’ll be honest, it was largely for my own benefit – I have so much forgotten video footage, some of it rubbish, some of it epic, that I have long wanted to do something with – but I also hope to be able to share some of my joy and love of these climbs with you all!

All music from Hook Sounds http://www.hooksounds.com:
Track 1: Commercial Take
Track 2: Get A Move On
Track 3: The Mountain Top
Track 4: Burn It Down

Of course, loving to share a good story or two, I couldn’t stop there. So here are a few of the most notable climbs I’ve done over the years.

The Most Famous, of course I have mentioned above already.

My all-time favourite climb:

Mont Revard

The memories, the views, the sweet-spot climbing gradient, and the bends just right for a fast, flowing descent

It was my first-ever taste of a real climb, and holds a special place in my heart.

The 10th July 2013.
Green as a bean, I’d just arrived in Aix for a stint of training in Europe with my current coach.

It was a Wednesday, my second day of training. We started the day with the standard set of BPA (best possible average); four rounds of 1×200, 4×100, 2×50 in the pool. Upon finishing, I asked one of the boys what we would be doing next. He replied that being Wednesday, we would be going for a long ride of usually around 3 hours.

I thought he was kidding.

Not only was he not kidding, that ride involved a 20km climb up to 1500m. I had no idea what I was in for and it was just as well!

I could write a book on those couple of months, but for now, it’s suffice to say I was unfit and it took me quite a while to summit that day. I have no idea how long, I had only a humble bike-computer which told me speed and distance only, no GPS, certainly no power, I didn’t even use heart rate. Part of me wishes I knew, part of me is glad that I will never know. One thing’s for sure, it was all uphill from there.

Day 2 on camp, the steepest learning experience of my life; amazingly unreal and unbelievably hard.

Of all the climbs in the area, it has the best views. The panoramic shot of the lake and Aix-les-Bains is unreal, but not to be beaten by the views of Mt Blanc looking in the opposite direction (but only when it’s clear up there!)

I’ve climbed it in the rain.
I’ve climbed it on my birthday.
I’ve TTed up it in my togs as part of a triathlon we did in training.
I’ve climbed up it from 3 different directions (not including variants at the base).
I’ve climbed it probably more times than any other climb in the world.

I love it.

The Craziest Climb:

Mount Kaputar

A steep, muddy, 4WD track. laden with packs on our bikes. In the rain. Mum’s idea. An adventure

Mt Kaputar is an extinct volcano (active around 18 mya), about 150km as the crow flies West of Armidale. It is part of an amazingly beautiful National Park by the same name, of which I had heard so much from my parents and sister who had camped up there several years ago without me.

While home on my break in 2018 I decided I really wanted to go up. Dad was away and mum was able to take a day off work to make a long weekend of it. The catch is, that while Mt Kaputar is not far from Armidale as the crow flies, we are not crows, and the road up is from the Narrabri side making it a 4.5 hr trip to get up. I was less keen on spending so much time in the car for only 2 nights up there, until mum floated the idea that, well, we could always just drive the couple of hours west to the Eastern edge of the National Park, and ride our bikes up a 4WD track, the Barraba Track, to the top.

Adventure here we come, I was sold!

We booked one of the National Park Cabins up the top, complete with a hot shower (luxury!), so all we needed to take up was clothes, food, and sleeping bags.

The weather forecast changed slightly, as it is apt to do, and it rained significantly the day before we were to ride up. The forecast for the weekend still looked OK, and not willing to forego our adventure we decided to ignore the “Dry Weather Road Only” warning and the fact the track was shut due to the recent rainfall. We figured it was only to stop 4WDs churning up the track and destroying it in the wet; we would be fine on bikes and if push came to shove (pun intended), we could always walk sections and it was only 8km up!

As it turns out, push did come to shove, and we were very, very wrong.

We parked the car at Horton Falls NP (our first mistake; we weren’t sure we would be able to drive my little Corolla any closer to the base. As it was, we could have driven right to the gate) we rode from there to Mt Kaputar NP and the start of the Barraba track.

The first sign of things to come was a couple of hundred meters in, still visible from the gate, when absolutely caked with thick clay mud mum’s rear wheel ground to a halt, jammed up against her mud-guard. We removed said mudguard, hid it by the side of the path for collection on the way back, laughed it off and went on our merry way.

Fortunately, the soil became more rocky and less clay as we got further along, but it wasn’t long before we got to the first pinches we had to push the bikes up. Laden with panniers, we were expecting to have to push sections but not as much, nor as early on as this.

The terrain and the vegetation continued to change as we climbed. It was amazing and we were loving it. We had no idea how for we’d gone – with all the stopping and walking, my Garmin had been on auto-pause for most of the time – nor how far we had left to go.

Starting to tire and sure we must be nearing the top, the air became moist, then damp, then wet.

We were no-where near the top, perhaps an hour away still, and the going was only just starting to get tough.

It got steeper, it got muddier, it got colder.
Before long we were losing traction trying to push the bikes up and just sliding back down.
It eventually got to the point that we ditched the panniers, helped each other haul a bike up a section, went back down to haul the next bike up (more difficult thanks to the sliding tracks we’d formed with the first bike), then took a third trip with the panniers. And repeat, making 100m or so ground each time.

It truly was a hallelujah moment when the track flattened out (for sure) and we were able to put panniers back on and ride the last short section to the top gate.

Muddy, wet, exhausted, and cold to the core we made it up some 4+ hours after starting just as it was getting dark.

Would I do it again?
No Way!
But really, of course, in a heartbeat.
Because that’s what it’s all about, and why I LOVE it!

The Hardest Climb:

Mont du Chat

13km at 10% Speaks for itself

There’s a long-running debate between whether Mont du Chat or Grand Colombier is more difficult. Both mountains are near Aix-les-Bains, France, so I have climbed them both multiple times (although less frequently than Le Revard due to their difficulty).

Both take about the same time to climb (my PRs are 1:06 and 1:05 respectively) and have similar elevation gains. Mont du Chat is shorter and therefore steeper with a more consistent grade than the Grand Colombier, which is why I think it is the harder of the two. The Grand Colombier climbed from Culoz has steeper sections, including a section of tight switchbacks which go for just over 1.5km at 14%, but then eases off giving you some reprieve.

I’ll never forget a few years back when one of the junior girls training with us (who will remain nameless for her own sake), full of enthusiasm shot off at the start of the climb up Mont du Chat. I warned her as she started to pull away to just take it easy as what seems easy for the first few hundred meters is lung-burning, leg-screaming by the top – it’s a long way up! Needless to say, she failed to heed my advice but sure enough slowed down before long. After waiting at the top for almost half an hour, and beginning to wonder, the others I was riding with and myself decided to head back down the way we came and look for her. We found her, less than a kilometre from the top, sitting by the side of the road absolutely spent, not knowing how far (or how little!!) she had left to climb. She did make it to the top (with a little coaxing), after learning the hard way the brutality of the Rhone-Alps. A lesson we’ve all learned in one way or another!

Honourable Mentions:

Grand Colombier & Le Semnoz

Because I just love climbs

So many climbs, so many stories, so many times I thought I’d never get to the top but did every time.

Both of these climbs (Colombier obviously mentioned above) are near Aix where I’ve been fortunate enough to spend 5 summers. Both have also featured, as have Le Revard and Mont du Chat, in multiple editions of Le Tour de France. Both epic and beautiful in their own rights. Both I long to one-day climb again.

Grand Colombier

Le Semnoz


There’s just something so special about climbing up mountains

Gillian


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