The clock was ticking. I had one week left in Chambéry and I still hadn’t climbed the Relais du Mont du Chat, the beast of a mountain over looking Lac Bourget. I didn’t have any specific training planned so, when I walked outside and it was one of the first true summer days, a plan was indeed made.
The Mont du Chat was a thirty minute spin from my door. It was Saturday so I took the small back roads to avoid the busier bike paths and, except for a few mooing cows and chirping birds, it was blissfully quiet. The climb itself started off the main road in a small town so my mind slowly shifted to traffic and pedestrians as I neared the base of the climb. When I turned left on begin my journey to the summit, I hadn’t really thought about what I had started. And what I had started was 14km of 9%.
I lapped my Garmin, took off my gilet and, as the gradient demanded, started pushing a bit more power. The first 2km were on smooth village roads and then I veered left away from houses and past the official Mont du Chat sign. “Overt,” I said, reading the sign out loud to practice my French, noticing the snow tire picture hadn’t been taken down yet. The road narrowed, the houses dwindled and it got quiet again. Big trees lined both sides of the road but the sun was still bright overhead. I found a rhythm, just shy of hard but far north of easy, and started working down the kilometres.
Most big climbs around France have distance markers for cycling tourists, this one didn’t. After a few kilometres, I began to realize it wasn’t on the tourist maps for a reason. There was no respite from the biting 9% gradient. My “just shy of hard” effort got sweaty and then it turned officially “hard”. Turn after turn, the road just went up. And up. And up. Even hair pins didn’t seem offer their normal bargain of a longer outside line for a moment of flat.
I weaved all over the road trying in vain to find a smooth line and then finally let myself glance down to see how far I had gone. Six kilometres?! That was it?! This was going to be a long ascent. Just then a car drove past me. The windows were down and all the passengers were shouting “Allez! Allez!”. There were even a few fist bumps out the window. Sometimes the universe sends you a sign and sometimes that sign is a minivan full of French cycling fans. With a smile on my face and 6.1km done, I pushed on.
I had 10km ticked off when my effort really started to crack. An hour had come and gone and, now that my watch only showed minutes, I missed watching the seconds tick by on my watch. I started to stand more and more, each time rising slower and slower as I shifted my weight from one aching quad to the other. I set my focus on each hairpin, convincing myself the next one had to be the last one. “It has to be this one,” I would say and, even after a few corners had come and gone, I would make myself believe it.
Eventually, I did turn the last corner but it wasn’t until 200m to the crest I realized that it had been the last corner. I stood up to sprint and claim the summit, eyeing down a granny to stay out of my way. After 75 minutes, I had one thought: holy chat! The Mont du Chat was no joke.
I pulled off the road and into the view point to recover. There were plenty of tourists sipping coffee and smiling for pictures with the snowy jagged Alpes and Lac Bourget in the background. We were all admiring the stunning landscape but, as I snapped a photo of the altitude sign, I knew we were smiling for different reasons. They had no clue about the battle I had just fought to conquer the mountain. They were simply visitors here but I was more, I was Queen.