LOOPING THE LOOP
There's something amazing about this sport: it makes us accept going around in circles in a world where we spend our time speeding straight ahead. Riding a loop means accepting not moving forward, returning to square one, and to focus instead on appreciating the path that leads us there. Daily life and training often force us to go around in circles, but when it comes to larger objectives, this is usually not the case. Just look at the races developing in the vein of the Race Across and The Transcontinental. Exploring is now often synonymous with going somewhere, looking further, not going around in a loop.
After a solo mission across the Alps last year, from Austria to France via Italy and Switzerland, there were many places where I "missed" something or couldn't see further, forced by the distance I had to cover each day. So, this year, I opted for a loop. Let's call it an "elevated" loop, a loop that's earned, a loop that's difficult to complete. If, like me, you're a gourmand, if your preferred formula is appetizer-entrée-dessert, if you like bold cuisine and spicy dishes, the 7 Majeurs menu is made for you.
The 7 Majeurs: An adventure on a regional scale
When looking for new challenges, new adventures, we mostly search far and wide – even though our country, region, or even valley often offers more than enough. Last year, during the final leg (250 km and 7,000 meters of elevation gain) of my transalpine course, right after a bend (to the right I remember it well) to take the direction of Guillestre, I spotted a road sign that mentioned Col d’Agnel and Italy. Although I had to continue my course, I kept the sign in mind, this destination still unknown. Living in Savoie, Agnel is close to my home, yet I know nothing about it.
Col d’Agnel and its unknown prospects, becomes the basis of my 2021 goal. After asking around, I learn that this pass forms part of a loop that has recently started to get a lot of attention: the 7 Majeurs.
The route, named by Patrick Gilles, challenges you to climb seven passes culminating at more than 2,000 meters in altitude, for a total of 360 km and 12,000 meters of elevation gain. From Jausiers to Jausiers, via Col de Vars, Izoard, Agnel, Sempeyre, Fauniera, Lombarde and (finally!) Bonette. An hour of research is enough to find all the information I need about this route. Only 60 minutes to plan my new goal: to climb this kind of elevation and distance in one day, that's a first for me.
Now that's a sport! A lot of sport, but also a great way to come full circle and "erase" a regret. I’ll finally see what's hidden behind the Agnel.
At the end of 2020, I found my purpose and motivation to prepare for the following year. After an initial solo trip, I wanted to rediscover the pleasure of riding with company. Although everything's easier to plan when you're alone, the fun is increased tenfold when you're in a group. But finding people to come along with me wasn't easy. Between professional and family availability issues, a fall and an injury, my beloved gruppetto had decreased in numbers. In the end, instead of four, two of us left at the end of July after an initial postponement due to illness.
Tom, my traveling companion, is a huge driving force but above all, he's someone I really admire. Younger than I am, more athletic, a strong triathlete who knows his body like the back of his hand, who pushes himself to his limits to reach perfection. He won an XTerra competition just two weeks before our little loop.
With my twenty years of rugby and barely six years of cycling (including two in triathlons), I feel far from his level. But I know we'll have a really good time together, whatever the outcome.
The big day
So here we are in Jausiers, on a Friday afternoon at the end of a busy week for the both of us. We're not alone. I have a small photo team along with me and my partner who will have the very heavy task of managing provisions. No pressure. Just apprehension.
I'm not hiding this apprehension. I even openly talk about it. When we set high enough goals, fear forms part of the process. The way I function, fear is something positive. It pushes me to train, to avoid injuring myself and, above all, to limit excesses when I'm face-to-face with my refrigerator, which is my worst enemy. After twenty years of rugby, fighting off the pounds is a challenge, especially when you want to climb more than 10,000 meters of elevation gain.
I wish I understood people who say; “don't be afraid, don't have any doubts”. In my opinion, this way of thinking just results in underestimating what we accomplish with too much confidence.
The way I see it, training gives me the necessary dose of confidence to balance doubts, provide me with a little serenity, and above all clarity about my level and my goals.
In this spot, my goal is singular: to complete the loop quickly enough so as not to spend two nights on a bike. When you're recharged, refreshed, you can see yourself ride rather than sleep. But without the specific training, spending several nights on a bike without sleep seems unachievable, even dangerous given my preparation.
Majeur #1 Vars: The warm-up.
So off we go, leaving Jausiers at 7:30 p.m. The sun is already starting to set, and we go up this magnificent Ubaye valley, leaving the monstrous La Bonnette behind us. This starting point is perfect, since it gives us a good ten kilometers to get our feet going with an accessible pass, especially compared with what's to come.
This valley is a paradise. A magnificent setting of “mineral” mountains, slopes radiating from orange to red as only the Southern Alps can offer.
Climbing Vars via Saint-Paul at sunset is a must in terms of lights. We're moving mountains, Tom and I. We reassure each other by saying we have the best possible equipment, that our Bordeaux-Paris trip together in May gave us the endurance training we need, etc. We reach the pass quite quickly. Once there, a nice surprise awaits: Aymeric, the manager of a shop in Vars, offers us to join an aperitif with his colleagues and children. Encouragement and good energy are always welcome when you've spent so many hours on a bike. A souvenir picture is taken in haste, and off we go to Briançon. Not necessarily very exciting but needed before the final block.
Majeur #2 Izoard: The real start!
We arrive in Briançon after dark. The night is dark. There is no moon. The temperature is ideal after a catastrophic start to summer. Just a small slice of pizza and we start to climb the Izoard. We're well aware of having left behind the easiest leg of the trip and that we're now entering the real world. We're feeling fresh, but focused. The climb is achieved at a (slow) pace under a magnificent starry sky. The kilometers go by quickly. Knowing this road makes things easier - it reassures us.
The rhythm of endurance
You can train to maintain a certain pace, a certain stamina, but I'm under the impression that you really must wait for D-Day to find it. What's quite surprising is that between the apprehension and fatigue, we find this rhythm rather quickly.
From the start, we try not to overdo it by even a single pedal stroke. Finally, the Izoard reached, we find our rhythm. A maintained pace that lets us talk without running out of breath, a pace that doesn't require recovery effort... an enjoyable pace.
Climbing the Izoard at night is new to me. Not seeing the summit, not glimpsing the Casse Déserte and its Martian setting, is strange. But the atmosphere is bewitching with the Milky Way as a sentinel. No cars to disturb us. The only earthly lights we see are those of our companions. In the distance, a flash and a red spot appear in absolute darkness. I relish every second; I'm aware of how lucky we are.
Without any real notion of time, we reach the pass easily. We quickly move on because the cold has crept in. A handful of noodles are gulped down before the fork towards the Agnel warms us up. When we take a break, our eyes are not glued to the stopwatch. The atmosphere is relaxed, the team at full throttle. We have no real goal to achieve in terms of time, so we might as well make the most of it!
Majeur #3 Agnel: Eyes wide open — the Milky Way as a guide.
Going down the Izoard and taking that famous left turn – synonymous with adventure – gave me a boost of motivation when I was already damn happy to be here. The sign indicating the Agnel had been anchored in my memory for more than a year and following it takes a weight off my mind. I am now well into the 7 Majeurs!
A route is a route, but a new route is a gift. The nearing of the Agnel is a treat. The Guil Valley and its projections, the sound of its current, the sleepy Fort Queyras; all of it is worth taking your bike out in the middle of the night.
We turn right to let the water run its course, towards Saint Véran, “the most beautiful village in France” according to the local guides. For us, it's mostly a gentle climb with just a few pushes. For any cyclist who lacks the training, riding Agnel is easily achieved and guarantees a charming experience. Given the time at which we are riding, the charm is wayside but...the Milky Way is always there, guiding us towards the pass. We don't see the kilometres pass by, our eyes have locked with the stars. We have long since found the best equipment and above all the best gear. The pedal strokes remain flexible as we reach the 2,744 meter summit.
Tom always rides up front. He's in much better shape than I am. But we meet at each food and drink break before diving back in. Climbing for a long time requires a certain concentration or, at the very least, a certain amount of listening to your body. Despite my desire not to be alone, I sometimes need to isolate myself. Music accompanies me with each pedal stroke and helps me better pass the hours on the saddle. I do take advantage of Tom's presence on a regular basis, though. We share our impressions and the feeling of gratefulness we have of being here.
Here we are in Italy: wrapped up in our down jackets in the middle of a cool but mild night, we head for the village of Sampeyre. I look for the Monte Viso in the dark but there's no way to see it. It's in a deep sleep before it serves us one of the most beautiful dawns I've ever witnessed.
Majeur #4 Sampeyre: Serious business begins.
So far, our ride's been smooth. Only a few pushes forced us to smash the pedal hard. Italy welcomes us with certainty: the fun times are over and it’s time to press on! I've read a lot about the Italian passes we're going to climb, and I'm not afraid to admit that I dread them. Honestly, I'm scared, really scared.
Seen from the valley, the mountain's grandeur is stunning. It dominates us but also invites us to come and discover it. By climbing it, we learn to respect it. The beauty of its landscapes is matched only by the effort required to admire it. It's won by effort but never conquered. To those who speak of a fight against themselves, against the elevation, I prefer to speak of play. We play being explorers that climb passes, as mountaineers do with peaks, but none of us will ever conquer the mountains. For cyclists, the risk is at its worst: hypoglycaemia, sudden fatigue. But when I climb, I always keep the real heroes in mind: the mountaineers. They risk their lives climbing summits that can swallow them up at any given moment.
Climbing also means accepting that you must take your time, slow down. It’s an invitation to contemplate an environment that inspires. No mountain is the same as another. Each has its own secrets, its own history. It's up to us to go find these secrets, this history, which is why you don't have to climb every elevation, if you know how to enjoy the view!
Sampeyre's slope is steep from the get-go. Its average gradient is 8.5% (without ever exceeding 10%) for more than 15 kilometers. At first, in the forest, we cross magnificent pastures via a small road. Everything's peaceful at this hour. Even the cows are asleep, the marmots quiet.
We resume our respective rhythms while a new surprise takes shape. After the Milky Way of the Agnel and the end of the night, we begin the climb around five o'clock in the morning. It's now dawn, and sunrise is just a minute away. Above a magnificent sea of clouds, I find my celebrated Monte Viso and the Piedmont/Queyras chain. Once again, the beauty is worth it, but you have to set your alarm to enjoy the view!
Tom snaps some pictures while we finally turn off our headlights. Despite the efforts, the temperature is slow to rise. The difference in altitude is nothing compared to the magnificent view that shines after hours of darkness.
Every kilometer gives us something to enjoy. I confess, despite the fatigue from a sleepless night and the kilometers ridden, we're still as happy as can be, and we take advantage of this opportunity that we went looking for.
But I can feel my legs slowly getting heavy. Caution is called for. We switch between the last two gears offered by our groupset, equipped with 12 gears. I'm sometimes sceptical of new products, but our BMC Roadmachine 01, equipped with Sram Red eTap, has all the new features on the market and ensures incredible comfort. You can really grind without force and find the necessary gears to vary the pace and intensity. I'm even surprised by the comfort offered by the full carbon one-piece cockpit. I was a bit worried, since I hadn't ridden this kind of profile before, but it really has what it takes to keep up with all those kilometres.
We reach the summit of Sampeyre, offering a 360° panorama of Italian Piedmont, Gran Paradiso and the beautiful French Queyras. The team waiting for us up there is enjoying the view, bundled up in sleeping bags while we are now, finally, quite warm!
This pass is not easy to tackle. It requires mastery and self-knowledge. In the middle of the day, I think I could have made a mistake by wanting to do too much. The fact of going there at daybreak allows me to enjoy the view more, to forget the exhaustion and relish the experience. But the elevation indicated on the GPS pushes me onward when I idle a little too long.
As we drink something hot and devour everything that's happening in the surroundings, we turn to the summit that I dread THE most: the Fauniera, also called the Pass of the Dead.
Majeur #5 Fauniera: Colle dei Morti: A tailor-made reputation and nickname.
Everything I'd read about the 7 Majeurs said the same thing: Fauniera is hell. To all those who’ve claimed to have "conquered" the mountain, I say come and climb this pass.
The Pass of the Dead deserves its name. It destroys you, spits you out to send you back where you came from.
But my take on this story is not the only version. Far from it. Tom's will be a very different one. He liked the passages with gradients over 20%, the walls where you have to squeeze to the right to let the cars go by. Cars loaded with passengers with a look as admiring as they are compassionate.
After four “well-managed” initial climbs, Fauniera reminded me that training is not everything. I realized that to get to its start, I had already dug into my reserves and that I was going to have to dig deep to reach the end.
No, I did not conquer the Fauniera. I accepted its sentence, lowered my head, and forgot about the incipient inflammation in my left knee, at the turn of a bend where I pulled my steed and dragged my body on as best I could.
Once again, I must thank my bike and its frame made for endurance, which prevented me from setting foot on the ground.
What I remember from this climb: it's just as hard as, if not harder than, described. The initial kilometers in the forest make you believe that “it will eventually pass” and then… and then this 20% sign, then another… A series of differences in altitude to repel even a steeplejack. Leaving the forest you're afforded just a short respite. A clearing, a farm and a parking lot. An invitation to take a break, which I don't accept for fear I'll never get back going. So, I try to forget my legs and my back which are seriously starting to remind me of my twenty seasons of rugby, and I only focus on Tom, which seems easy because he's always 50 to 100 meters ahead of me.
An initial pass that's not the Fauniera, the Colle d'Esischie, which makes you think you're already there! But no, a right turn reminds you that the statue of Marco Pantani isn’t there, you have to push to see it, push again and again. Continue to pedal to complete what will remain a nightmare for me. Up there, it's another world. Italians dressed like pirates come to take your picture, mocking you with their coldness. I just left the bike there, in front of Marco, drank a can or two, ate everything I could get my hands on and took anti-inflammatories to give me a chance to climb the last two passes of these 7 (at the time - wretched) Majeurs!
A few pictures later, a forced smile, a now undisguised fatigue, and we make our way back down. What a pleasure to meet a few counterparts who, like us, are struggling to climb... it's strange, it's petty, but it's sometimes nice to see that you're not the only one in this "predicament"!
Now in the valley, we eat again before reaching Pratolongo and the switch to France! The Lombarda, these 21 km of wind for an average gradient of 7%, so accessible, except when you've been riding since the day before!
Majeur #6: Lombarda, hair in the wind, lower legs inwards!
The drugs are working. My knee is still sore, but my back is loosening up. Now Tom's hurting. He still has the legs; he's just fighting fatigue. The Lombarda is an easy pass, long but easy. You just have to deal with the elements: traffic made up of motor homes, sports cars and bikers. And in the middle, a few cyclists who seem to have gotten lost.
After Fauniera, I promised myself that, given the hell we'd been through, I would finish, whatever the cost. At this point, I stop listening to myself. I just move forward. I try to distract Tom. At a bend: a loose spoke. I call my mechanic, find something to fix it, try to forget this episode and continue immediately.
I must say that I have nothing to take away from this pass, except for the last two kilometers which gave us a glimpse of the French Queyras and the enticing prospect of the Bonette - from the end.
Now against a headwind, we push ahead, reach the pass. Listless, barely warm despite the effort. Bundled up, refuelled with supplies we literally looted, we make our way down to Isola.
What awaits us is a transition to Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée, a slight but insignificant slope, the wind on our backs. I know this route as I'd taken it in the opposite direction to reach Menton. I take advantage of it because I know that the last pass that awaits us, synonymous with deliverance, is also one hell of a pass.
Majeur #7 Bonette: Not the highest pass in Europe, not the most beautiful, not an easy feat...
Bonette frightens cyclists but also lures them in. It offers them a false promise: no, this pass is not the highest in Europe, nor the most beautiful when you climb it from Tinée.
For us, the question isn't about enjoying the landscape anymore. My knee is in pain again. I'm sick of it, but I push ahead. Tom, as usual, is still OK. Tired but pedalling with ease. I knew the guy was strong, but this is insane. But he is smiling, motivating me, talking to me. Unfortunately, at this stage, I am impervious to any encouragement.
I've been in my bubble for a while now, trying to convince myself that the pain will only be temporary, that it’s the price to pay to succeed.
I keep telling myself that after twenty hours in the saddle, almost twenty-four hours total since our departure, we can't give up. I don't want to disappoint anyone who's helped me put all of this together...
As I start to get a glimpse of the summit, a memory comes back to me; giving up in Bordeaux-Paris in May for mechanical reasons. Giving up twice in a row is a no-go, so I push ahead, lower my head, and set aside any negative thoughts, any signs coming from my body. At this point, I'm no longer really aware of being on a bicycle.
Know, though, that the Bonette can be a piece of cake when approached in other conditions. It is a pass with varied landscapes, its military installations, long since abandoned, give it a desert-like air. We come across herds and sheepdogs running around the slope with almost intolerable ease!
Col de la Bonette, like the others, is a climb. A little longer, but not harder… Except for us. We've given so much to get here. The ascent is punishing. But it's also liberating. Once at the pass, you have to get used to the idea that it's not over: you have to reach the damn summit. And for once, everyone will tell you that it's a challenge. A two-digit gradient to complete the loop. Tom is smiling. We're almost there.
Marie is waiting for me a few decametres from the famous plaque celebrating the highest route in Europe. We finish together. She barely jogs to follow me. I give what I have left and set my bike down.
We've made it!
Tired, drained, but we made it... I'm at a point where I can't even erupt in joy or scream with happiness. I'm not necessarily happy. I just have this feeling of a duty accomplished.
The photo is quickly taken. We make our way down to Jausiers in the rain. The weather has given us a lovely surprise; nice and dry while riding the 7 Majeurs and rain just before returning to the hotel.
It's now been a month since the loop was looped. The memories, at first confused, are slowly consolidating. The puzzle pieces are coming together and, unsurprisingly, I'm already looking for the next challenge. But to all those who want to see more, who love the mountains: accept Patrick's invitation and leap into the 7 Majeurs!