Rouleur Explore: Down by the Lake in The Cyclotour de Léman
The Cyclotour de Léman is one of the world’s most beautiful sportive events, and instead of focusing on tough climbs, it emphasises natural beauty, a reasonable physical challenge and, most importantly, an exploration of local culture, food and wine
This feature was produced in association with Cyclotour de Léman
It’s a perverse twist that a place so perfectly serene inspired the fictional works of Frankenstein, prisoner poems and vampire stories. Yet even as the magnificent beauty of Lac Léman turned the creative minds of Mary Shelley and Lord Byron towards gothic and horror writing in the early 19th century, the latter could not hide the impact the majestic beauty had on his wellbeing.
Typically stoic, Byron wrote to his family towards the end of an extended stay by the lake: “I lay down in the sun enjoying myself most entirely… and dared to write down in my pocketbook that I was happy.”
It seems impossible that anyone, when presented with such an idyllic picture-postcard scene, could not be content and satisfied when by the shores of the largest lake in the Alps, more commonly known as Lake Geneva by the English-speaking world. So how about riding the entire perimeter of the lake on a bike, as riders can do at June’s Cyclotour de Léman?
This is Switzerland’s largest sportive. The Cyclotour de Léman returns next summer for its 20th edition, the 176km circuit keeping true to the original route first run as a race in the late 19th century. The route is not complicated: keep the lake on your right at all times, stay as close to the boats and sunbathers as is possible, and you’ll circumnavigate the entire body of water having passed through a succession of varied landscapes that will leave you pedalling on a cocktail of breathlessness and a rush of endorphins.
While Byron was reluctant to express his happiness, Ferdinand Von Boehn, the director of the Cyclotour de Léman sportive, embodies the response of every participant when cycling around the deepest, bluest and largest lake in Switzerland. “It’s one of the most beautiful lakes in the world,” he exclaims. “I’ve lived here for 25 years, and even now wherever I see the lake it’s a ‘wow’ feeling. It’s amazing. A fairytale that is too difficult to describe, one you have to see to truly believe.”
For almost as long as it has been inspiring literary figures, Lac Léman has also been the setting for bike races: the lake first played host to the Tour du Lac Léman in 1879, one of the earliest races in Switzerland.
The winner, Ernest Métral, completed the course in a recorded time of 10 hours, 41 minutes, an impressive speed on yesteryear’s equipment but one that will be bettered by most of the 4,000 participants in today’s sportive.
In 2005 the Tour de Lac Léman was run for the final time, but while today the region no longer has an annual race, the Tour de France fills the void by visiting every so often, as it did most recently this summer with a stage finish into Lausanne. The Tour de Romandie often plays out against the same acqua blue backdrop.
The Cyclotour de Léman sportive doesn’t trace the same, steep finishing kilometres of the stage eight route that featured in the 2022 Tour, but it’s possible to cast your mind back to Wout van Aert charging to glory ahead of Michael Matthews above Lausanne, the Belgian bedecked in a green skinsuit to complete his second stage win in what history will remember as the Week of the Wout van Aert Show.
Van Aert would have been too fixated on winning to truly appreciate the magnificence of his surroundings, but we like to think that Métral was able to enjoy the ever-changing and varied scenery as he thundered his way around the course more than 140 years ago.
It’s testament to the profound beauty and preservation of the natural landscape that even with the arrival of mega financial corporations and sporting headquarters, the panoramas of the lake have remained unchanged since when Metral won that very first edition.
“The record time so far for the sportive is four hours,” says Von Boehn, confirming that most will improve on Metral’s original benchmark. “But for us and many others speed is not the priority – it’s the beautiful scenery and other touches.”
Von Boehn is referring to the fuelling stops that set the event apart from others. With world-class wine being prepared on one side, and world-renowned cheese being produced on another corner of the lake, the sportive is in touch with its local surroundings and offers specialised, regional food at every checkpoint.
What’s more, every year the fuelling stations change, so while one year you are sampling some delightful cheese at the first food stop, come back 12 months later and you’ll be feasting on the milkiest, creamiest chocolate.
It’s almost too coincidental that food is one of many highlights of an event that takes place while circumnavigating a body of water that resembles the shape of a croissant.
Crystal blue and plummeting to a depth of more than 300 metres in places, the lake itself reflects an array of different mountains and peaks, some rolling, others more aggressive and abrupt. Most will be topped by green plains and forests, while others – like the imposing Mont Blanc that can be glimpsed from Geneva at the south western corner of the lake – will be snow-capped all year round, glaciers visible “like a frozen hurricane” as Byron wrote admiringly.
Completing a lap of Lake Léman is no mean feat, though. This is, after all, one of the largest lakes in western Europe. The route around it may not be substantial at just under 900m of altitude gain, and the overall difficulty may not be able to match that of other sportives, but it still requires you to cycle more than 100 miles.
Whatever troubles your legs may encounter can be helped by the succession of breathtaking vistas. Upon leaving the Olympic city of Lausanne, it’s the vineyards that first amaze as you head east on the shores, grapes bearing fruit against a backdrop of a lake that stretches over the distant horizon. Catch the light right and it looks more like a sea than a landlocked lake.
Turning south along the eastern banks, about a quarter of the distance around, you pass the mighty impressive mediaeval Cháteau du Chillon. It’s as you ride past the castle, situated right by the lake and surrounded by outstanding architecture, green fields and snow-capped mountains that you begin to fully understand why the lake is frequently known as the Swiss Riviera.
Weaving in and out of small villages and towns, the scenery alters from grazing cows to ancient buildings and churches.
It’s not every ride that you dip in and out of two countries, but there’s no other option on the Cyclotour de Léman. At a third of the distance you’ll pass the border into France and approach the town of Évian-les-Bains, the start point of the 112km ride and endpoint of the shortest 64km ride. The town is famous for its spring water that cascades down from the Alps, but you’ll be savouring more than water at the nutrition stop.
The French segment of the ride is 55km, and the scenery is no less spectacular. The Chablais Alps will frame the view to your left. Upon approaching the bustling city of Geneva, both Grand Combin and Mont Blanc, hulking masses of rock and ice, will stand tall over their mountain peers and be visible from the city.
In and out of the major financial hub that is Geneva, you head in a north-east direction along the shore back towards Lausanne, a near arrow-straight journey along the edge of the lake. Upon rolling back into the Olympic city, you’ll be as happy but not quite as fast as Van Aert was last July.
Reflecting on the achievement of the ride, it’s little wonder that event director Von Boehn sights locals unconsciously promoting the event every day of the year as he wanders around the lake and its populations. “Some people have been doing it for 15 years, and I see people wearing the event jersey all year,” he says. “People want you to know they’ve done it and they’re pretty proud of completing it.”
It’s not, unlike many other similar events in the Alps, a monstrously difficult undertaking. Indeed, the 176km course only has a total elevation of 890m, a modest figure that is consumed in spaced out sections rather than one gruelling climb.
It is, therefore, a sportive that offers things few of its rivals cannot: a challenging distance in the shadow of the continent’s biggest mountains, but with limited climbing metres. It’s an achievable target for all, whether completion or the fastest time possible is the goal.
It’s for this reason that over the past two decades the sportive has muscled its way into the conversation as Switzerland’s best mass-participation cycling event, and more than 90 per cent of the annual entrants are from one of the two host nations.
But it has an international catchment, too, visitors driven to the sportive by the immense beauty of the event and course safety - it is not run on closed roads but has safety measures in place.
It took a few months for Byron to admit to his happiness and joy by the lake, but it’ll only take the riders of the Cyclotour a few minutes to express a similar level of contentment. As Von Boehn wraps up: “everything comes together for people to have their best time around the lake.”
When: June 4, 2023
Distance: 176km full circumnavigation of Lac Lémen starting and finishing in Lausanne, packing in 890m of elevation gain; 112km Evian to Lausanne with 640m of elevation gain; 64km distance from Lausanne to Evian that explores the vineyard terraces of Lavaux
How much: 99 CHF until January 31, 2023; thereafter incremental price increases up until 139 CHF.
What bike: Road bike, e-bike, tandem
How to get there: Closest airport is Geneva, with multiple connections throughout the day from European and worldwide destinations. There are also direct train services to Lausanne from other big European cities, including Paris.
Where to stay: There is a plethora of accommodation in Lausanne to cater for mid- and high-range budgets. Expect to pay between €100 and €350 per night.
Where to eat: As you’d expect from any large, cosmopolitan city, Lausanne has enough varying restaurants to satisfy any cravings and desires. The Pinte Besson is the oldest pub in the city, set up by a wine merchant in 1780, while the Churrasco serves the best steak in the area.
Bike rental shops: If you don’t want to travel with your bike, it is possible to rent bikes in both Lausanne and Geneva. Between €120 and €200 for a two day rental.
Other information: Day time temperatures are likely to be in the early-20s, with rain a possibility once every three days.
What you’ll see
Lausanne – Olympic capital, fourth largest city in Switzerland, and home to 55 international sport associations.
Lavaux Vineyards – stretching for nearly 30km, wine has been produced here since Roman times, a long history that grants it the title as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Cháteau du Chillon – a 13th-century castle that was once a fortress and then later a prison. A contender for one the world’s most beautiful castles.
Montreux – Queen recorded multiple albums from the town on the eastern side of the lake. You can even swing by the Freddie Mercury statue.
Évian-les-Bains – spa town famous for its mineral-rich spring water
Geneva – a global, financial city that is home to the highest number of international organisations. Admire the Jet d’Eau fountain, the beauty of the lake and impressive architecture.