Rider on the Lacets de Montvernier
With the right effort on our part, the great mountain climbs of the Alps are portals from one world to another. Just as they do for the Tour de France, the grand cols pick us up and drop us down to new destinations, cultures, sights, sounds and smells. The Lacets de Montvernier is different. It doesn’t go anywhere in particular. It doesn’t really start anywhere, either. There aren’t that many people living in the Maurienne Valley, where the climb is located, and hardly any of them have reason to go up to the village of Montvernier at the top of it. When they do, they hop in the car and take the more direct main road to the east. The Lacets de Montvernier. Why on earth would anyone want to build this 3.4 kilo- metre road to nowhere? And why on earth would they do so with 18 hairpin bends to climb the 277 metres onto a cliff edge? It’s a question you can’t help but ask when you’re there.
It’s not always helpful to distill the character of climbs into facts and figures but in this case they are an essential characteristic. When the climb was unveiled ahead of the 2015 Tour de France, the 18 hairpins of the Lacets de Montvernier – the ‘Montvernier Shoelaces’ – took all the plaudits. The number 18 was an integral part of the pre-race hype: for headline writers, for club cyclists chatting about it on the Sunday morning run, and for the supporters of Adam and Simon Yates that were presumably responsible for daubing ‘Yates You Can!’ on every single bend (how else would they know whether to buy a big pot or small pot of white paint?). Just as predicted, it turned into the little gemstone in the Tour crown. It became a visual icon for the Tour de France during the summer of 2015, an enduring image of the nation’s grand sporting event. Its 18 bends even got their own hip-hop song. But like a rare jewel, this climb was for looking, not touching. Due to the narrow road (barely one vehicle wide in places) and the wholly insubstantial green iron barricades supposed to stop people from getting too intimately acquainted with the steep drops, the Tour crowds were banned from the slopes of the Lacets. Indeed it only unveiled its lustre from the rocky ledge overlooking it, or better still from the air, where its serpentine coils slithering up the rock seem to border on the unbelievable.
Just as it was for the riders of the Tour, this is a surreal, secret place. Ticking off each hair- pin bend, each loop in the lacework, takes a rider further from the valley floor. It’s like slowly entering a bubble, one where the real world’s usual service of proportion and scale are suspended. A waterfall cascades down the rock face. Garages, post boxes and motorway traffic slowly slide away beyond recognition. At the top there are no bikers or caravaners tucking into their tartiflette under a Coca- Cola umbrella and looking suspiciously at those sweaty wrecks mad enough to ride up using the power of their legs and not internal combustion. There are no fridge magnets to take home, no bags of sweets, and no squeak- ing marmot toys. There’s a Technicolor alpine meadow of flowers and a bloke quietly tilling the soil around his potatoes. He does not serve coffee.
The riders of the Tour absolutely nailed the climb, riding it from top to bottom in less than 10 minutes. For them it was probably just another obstacle. The bends that are tight enough to pull some g-forces were just things to be navigated, the overhanging out- crops just a brief bit of shelter from the sun, the narrow road just one last mountain test before the finish and the comfort of the team bus at the end of a hot day in the final week of a gruelling Tour. They probably didn’t hear the birdsong or appreciate the rustling of the small trees in the soft breeze. Their faces didn’t feel the hot summer sun as it began to set, their eyes didn’t squint in its warm dying rays slicing across the rocks, already humming with infrared residue.
It’s a shame, because this really is one of the most beautiful places to ride a bike. Alpine climbs are often too hard for amateur riders to enjoy; conquering them brings an undeniable sense of achievement but only after a battle of endurance and suffering. The Lacets de Montvernier has everything you want in a climb condensed into a 3.4 km package without much of the effort. It’s a boiled down sugary sweet, a bêtise of a mountain. Purists could argue that defeats the point. But this is an alpine climb on our scale: a piece of the French Alps reserved just for us, an amateur cyclist’s happy place. It doesn’t go anywhere, but we wouldn’t want it to. Going there and being there is enough in itself. Of course we’re still no closer to answering the question of why they built it. But we’re glad they did.