The Joint Helicopter Command Headquarters conducted a road cycling tour in the Haute-Savoie region of the French Alps (12-20 Sep 14) to allow staff within JHC HQ to challenge themselves in the demanding terrain, whilst developing inter-departmental relationships and forming the base of a JHC HQ Road Cycling Club for the 2015 season.

The tour party departed Andover at 1900 on the 12th September in two vans, and headed for the Channel Tunnel terminal at Folkestone. The crossing, booked for 2230, was uneventful and the 10 hour journey from Calais, past Reims and Dijon became steadily more vertical as the Alps drew near. The accommodation was taken over and kit serviced prior to driving down the valley to Megeve for the first ‘big shop’ of the exercise at Intermarche before returning to the chalet for dinner and route study. Five days of cycling some serious Tour De France stages and climbs followed:

La Giettaz, Les Contamines, Col des Aravis. The first day of riding saw the team set off gingerly down hill towards Flumet and Megeve after a ‘descending’ brief from Lt Col Bob ‘the mountain goat’ Seymour. This was an introduction day as many of the group had never cycled in the Alps before, so the climbs were kept gentle until the end. From Megeve the route looped up to St Gervais les Bains and onwards, up the valley, to Les  Contamines where a quick lunch was shovelled down, before heading back down the 10km descent towards Megeve. The final push saw the majority of riders scale the Col des Aravis at the end of the ride, slowly pushing  up the 10km climb, past the accommodation and stopping to admire the views from the top of the Col. In total, 90 km was covered with 1650m of ascent; a nice little warm up.

Col de la Columbiere, Sallanches, La Giettaz. Day two began with a short, sharp 4km climb from the chalet to the top of the Col des Aravis before enjoying a fast, sweeping descent to the ski resort of La Clusaz. From there the group routed NE to begin the famous TdF climb, the Col de la Columbiere, a steady 19km route with plenty of switchbacks and impressive scenery. Some struggled up this climb but, after the mandatory photo stop, relished the very fast 16km descent towards Cluses before joining the main road at the bottom of the valley and routing onwards towards Sallanches. Road works meant a route-change and the ‘mountain goat’ suggested a short cut which would take the group up a short but fairly steep back road before joining the road to Megeve. Naivety abounded which resulted in a very challenging, painful, 3km climb (averaging 15%, max of 21%), which succeeded in tiring already wobbly legs. The 25km slog back to La Giettaz was emotional for some, especially since the climb up Aravis was still to come. After a total distance of 106km, 2000m of ascent and 5.5 hrs in the saddle, the team reached the accommodation and tucked into a well-deserved vat of chicken pasta.

Col des Saisies, Col des Aravis. The third day began with tired legs and slightly tender backsides, but there was no lack of enthusiasm for the day’s climb. The route was described as scenic and gentle, at an average grade of 5% all the way from Flumet, at the base of ‘our village’ to Col de Saisies. Everyone enjoyed the fast, sweeping descent from the chalet all the way down to Flumet, and, with only one (double) puncture on the way down everyone hunkered down to the climb. Approximately 2km through the first switchbacks came the signpost announcing 14km to the top, however the average 5% gradient seemed to elude the team until it became apparent that the 7, 8 and 9%’s were shallowed by some pretty steep downhill sections. All in all, following the long ride the day before, this was quite a cheeky route. Coffee was downed at the top once all the riders had made it up before enjoying the fast but narrow, and at times bumpy, descent to the lunch stop in the pretty village of Crest Voland prior to tackling the slog back up to the chalet. In total, a distance of 70km was covered with 1450m of ascent.

Rest Day. Despite the intention to have a lie in, lazy breakfast and perhaps a stroll around the local shops, the rest day began with a small group heading up Aravis and down the other side for breakfast in the small ski resort of La Clusaz. After heading back up the other side of Aravis to the summit, a beautiful, sweeping ascent, the rest of the team had managed to get themselves to the café (having cycled down to Flumet and then all the way to the top of Aravis) where a chocolat chaud was enjoyed in the sunshine. Once back and showered, half decided to relax at the chalet for the remainder of the day while the other jumped in the van and headed down the valley to Sallanches and the lure of bicycle shops. In the back of everyone’s minds, however, was the challenge of Alpe d’Huez the following day.

Alpe d’Huez, Col de Glandon, Col de la Croix de Fer. Breakfast was a quiet affair, with most people’s minds focussed on the tough day ahead, and the kudos that would come with it, if successful. The weather wasn’t  playing, however, with torrents of rain during the 2.5hr drive and dark clouds looming on the horizon. The team was dropped off approximately 10km from Bourg D’Oisans and the base of the famous Tour climb in order to warm up before the work really started. This definitely helped, although the first 1.5km and few hairpins were an average gradient of 10%, so individuals settled very quickly into their own pace and the riders spread out. At a distance of 14km and with an average gradient of 8.1%, Alpe d’Huez was just as tough as advertised and it became obvious, as the sun burned away the low cloud and began warming the road, why it has became a mecca for road cyclists the world over. Although the scenery was breathtaking, the majority of riders gained more encouragement from the handmade road signs and hairpin countdowns than the view. The fastest rider completed the route in just 59 minutes (the full Tour route – some finish at the village rather than the Tour finish further on), an impressive feat, with the final rider powering over the line in 1hr 40min. The compulsory celebratory photos were taken before grabbing a coffee and some lunch at the vans; the next phase was back down the mountain and onwards, north, to the Col de Glandon/ Croix de Fer. This turned out to be the hardest part yet; 28km of unrelenting climbing at an average of 8%. This certainly sorted the ‘men from the boys’ as it were, and after tackling Alpe d’Huez earlier, there were unconfirmed reports of grown men sobbing. The field split as the kilometres ticked past, but the end was in sight after 2½hrs of agony (and boredom at times!), although the weather had taken a turn and the 15 minute rest stop at Croix de Fer was more an exercise in keeping  warm than enjoying the satisfaction of finishing. Rather than getting in the support vans however, everyone agreed to finish in style, heading down the mountain towards St Jean-de-Maurienne and a well deserved McDonalds.

Praz sur Arly, Col des Aravis. With exhausted legs but a deep sense of achievement, the team awoke to horrendous weather on the last day of the Exercise. There was much deliberation over breakfast as to the days activities, with the consensus being a ‘wait out’ while the weather cleared before cycling down to Praz sur Arly and lunch, and subsequently powering back up Col des Aravis to the top in an attempt to better our first time. The beasting for the week had certainly helped, with some taking nearly ten minutes off and achieving an impressive PB! The remainder of the afternoon was spent packing the vans and cleaning the chalet ready for the early morning departure the next day, while the evening saw the team head into the village for a team meal and a few beers; thoroughly well deserved.

The last day saw an early breakfast and last minute sweep of the chalet before beginning the long drive to Calais. Extra time had been factored in to the return journey, so multiple stops were taken to counter driver fatigue. Both vans reached Calais with plenty of time to spare which resulted in a comprehensive raid on the Duty Free and desperate calls home to find out the perfume du jour! After an uneventful tunnel crossing and relatively  clear roads, the team arrived back at Marlborough Lines at around 2300hrs, tired but with growing plans to tackle it all again next year.

Ex SAVOIE OWL was a challenging, arduous but rewarding road cycling training camp which saw nine members of the JHC HQ tackle the French Alps. Those new to road cycling gained an invaluable insight into the training requirements and etiquette associated with the discipline, while providing comprehensive and effective end-of-season training for those with more experience. Above all, it has set the conditions for the formation of a JHC HQ Road Cycling Club in 2015, the aim of which will be to compete in both Army and Tri-Service events. We would like to thank both the RAF Sports Lottery and the RNRM Sport Lottery for providing funding for the RAF and RN personnel who attended Ex SAVOIE OWL.

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