Explore: The high life

The gravel trails around Lake Annecy are a secret world, opening up spectacular views, challenging all levels of rider and just waiting to be explored on two wheels

This article was produced in association with ASSOS

Annecy, a charming town on the edge of the French Alps, has built a strong reputation as a year-round sports haven. It is centrally located near numerous ski resorts for the winter, while summer life revolves around the pristine Lake Annecy, with its rich turquoise water and spectacular hill-sides. The town and its surroundings have often played host to the Tour de France and in recent years there have been the final time trial around the lake in 2009, a spectacular finish up the gruelling Semnoz climb above the town in 2013 and a stage start in 2018. But really, cycling of any kind is celebrated here, as a highly frequented bike lane runs up and down the banks of the lake, while Annecy’s hills and trails are ideal for both road and off-road riding.

“I moved to Annecy a little over a year ago and it’s an amazing place for cycling,” says Kim Gintrand, a tennis player-turned-cyclist, as she prepares to take Rouleur on one of her favourite rides, a 70-kilometre loop. “It really has a bit of everything: tough climbs, stunning views and country roads, not to mention some great gravel.”

While chatting, we can see Annecy Lake as we enjoy our coffee at Le Bon Wagon, an old train station transformed into a classy cycling café, about 10 kilometres south of Annecy. Le Bon Wagon is situated on the bike lane that once served as the local railway line along the lake, and a steady stream of cyclists roll past, some occasionally stopping for a break. Inside numerous pro jerseys decorate the walls, while a Colnago in UAE colours sits near the doorway.  

“We will start down the bike lane itself and then turn off and climb over the Col de Leschaux and then down through Les Bauges Valley,” says Gintrand. “The roads are just beautiful, but really the fun starts after, when we hit the gravel climb up the Col de Chérel. It’s a great gravel climb. It’s both technical and beautiful.”

Rolling out along the expansive bike lane, it is hard to believe that Gintrand has only been cycling for a couple of years, as she pedals so efficiently. A tennis prodigy growing up, she was awarded a scholarship to the University of Alabama in the U.S. and competed throughout university. But cycling was in the family, and she eventually fell in love with the sport when she was introduced to gravel.

“My dad was actually a paralympic champion on the track at the 1996 Atlanta Games,” says Gintrand. “He has always loved cycling, and he is the one who introduced me to gravel.”

Our warm-up on the old railway lasts only a few kilometres, however, and soon enough we are making our way up our first climb of the day, the Col de Leschaux. “One thing I love about this area is that I can pretty much step out my door and start climbing,” says Gintrand.  

The pitches are plenty steep, but Gintrand climbs easily out of the initial tree line. Approaching the hamlet of Saint-Eustache, we get our first surprise of the day as  the road rises and the vista opens up over the expansive blue lake that dominates the valley below. Formed from melting glaciers some 18,000 years ago, today Lake Annecy is sometimes referred to as Europe’s cleanest lake, as strict environmental controls have been in place for decades to preserve its pristine beauty.  

Viewed from above, the lake is breath-taking, and for a moment at least, even  makes us forget the real physical endeavour this climb demands. “This is part of what we call le Massif des Bauges,” explains Gintrand. “Semnoz is part of the same chain. These are some really tough climbs, but beautiful as well.”  

A small road actually connects the Col de Leschaux and Semnoz, but today’s ride continues down into the Bauges Valley and heads further south. Once in the valley, it seems like a different world. Here the vacation spirit instilled by the lazy banks of the lake are already a distant past, replaced instead by lush farmlands. “I love it down here,” says Gintrand. “You really get a sense that you are in the rural heart of the Savoie region and the villages are so distinctive and so quaint. The roads are great down here. They are in really good condition and there aren’t that many cars.”  

Rolling through the colourful village of Châtelard, Gintrand stops to fill up her water bottle, but when she spots a hand-painted sign on a window selling local cheeses, it is clear that she is riding through an area untouched by time.  

In many ways the pastel-coloured facades call to mind a Swiss mountain village. But then there is always a touch of Switzerland here in the French Savoie. However, Les Bauges Valley serves as the calm before the storm, as the day’s most challenging climb still awaits. Making her way down the outstretched road, Gintrand eventually turns off, entering the village of Précherel. The road gets even narrower, until it runs out altogether. But a gravel extension announces the start of the Col de Chérel.  

A tree-lined path shelters the gentle false flat in the opening kilometres. But then Gintrand approaches a small barn and makes a hard left turn over a gentle mountain stream, and the real climb begins. “From here on it’s all gravel,” she says. “And the bottom section is plenty technical.”

With pitches clearly over 10 per cent, the gravel road is sometimes little more than barren rock, and Gintrand has little time to look around as the climb requires her complete concentration. “I just love this climb. It’s totally doable for most riders. But it is challenging for everyone.”

The climb continues with several steep pitches mixed with hairpin turns, but finally, as we crest the tree line, the gradient eases ever so slightly. And soon enough, the summit is in sight. “We really are in a different place up here. We are not even at 1,500 metres altitude, but we could be in the High Alps. And yet Annecy isn’t that far away.”

Gintrand gestures in the direction of the town, but there is no sign of it, or even the lake below. Grabbing a gel from the back of her ASSOS Interstellar jersey, Gintrand sits on the wooden bench at the summit and takes in the views before preparing for the descent. “I like to push myself on this ride, and really it is impossible not to. But I also like to take a little time to stop and look around. This is a special place for me. And it is well worth the stop, even a short one.”

Soon enough, however, she is ready to attack the descent and make her way back towards Annecy. Not surprisingly, the first kilometres of the descent are challenging as we quickly pick up speed on the loose gravel that sprinkles over the steep pitches descending towards the village of Chevaline.  

“I always love it when we get to Chevaline,” says Gintrand. “We pick up the road  again and there are plenty of trees, something that I always appreciate on a hot  summer’s day.”

Arriving at the bottom of the descent, we pick up the bike path of the old railroad once again and make our way back towards Le Bon Wagon, which quickly comes  into view after we pass through an old train tunnel.  

“Wow, what a great loop,” says Gintrand as she puts her bike up against the terrace. “There is really something for everybody on that ride. Now let’s have some lunch!”

Ride in comfort 

For the ride, Gintrand relied on a variety of ASSOS gear, including the UMA GTC bibs designed with gravel in mind, not to mention ASSOS’s unique bisiClick detachable bib that facilitates easy access for women in times of a much-needed nature stop.

For the jersey, however, she preferred the Dyora RS Targa Interstellar Capsule  road jersey, a distinctive limited-edition jersey collection inspired by the unnatural surfaces, shapes and colours of the lunar world. “This jersey really covers a lot of ground,” says Gintrand. “Sure, it’s conceived for road riding, but that is a big part of our riding here. And yet it is great when we hit the gravel as it really moulds to your body. You can barely feel it.”  

But one of her favourite articles of clothing is her UMA GT WIND VEST C2 bib, which she wore most of the day. “I love the vest,” she says. “It is so flexible in different weather conditions, with its wind-breaking qualities in the front and super breathability on the back. It is super light. I can wear it almost all the time, but it is so thin that I can easily put it in my back pocket. It is essential for me most of the year, spring and summer for sure. When it is between 15 and 25 degrees I just don’t leave home without it. I can get chilled easily, but this vest keeps me warm when I need it to. However, when it warms up, all I have to do is unzip it and it is perfectly breathable. It’s so useful. It’s really one of my favourite pieces of cycling apparel.”

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