I had been in Annecy for a few days. The beautiful weather and stunning lake meant that the locals and tourists were out in abundance. I honestly felt lucky to live in such a beautiful place but coming from a smaller town with a heart that beats for mountain villages over metropolises, I was desperate for some peace and quiet. I let the bike lane guide me through the downtown traffic, an unfortunate necessity to get to the “good stuff”. Quick under the highway, stop-start through the crowds of students at the central station, around the cobbled streets of the old town, up the hill slipping past commuters, down to the lake onto the bike path, slam on brakes for runners, sprint past cyclists on the right and finally–finally– onto the slopes of the Montée du Semnoz that promised to take me above it all.
I stopped to read the sign. I had 25.5km of climbing in front of me. I was certain 25.5km was enough to shake the noise, traffic and crowds of the city. I was certain 25.5km would make me feel, not just say, that Annecy was now “home.” I was certain that by the time I reached the summit, I would be tired but feel mentally refreshed.
The first half of the Montée du Semnoz is actually the 12km Col de Leschaux. You could call the Leschaux the warm up since the gradient is more gentle with plenty of respite. From the main road, you rise through a village and start to distance the lake. The houses soon change to trees, broken up by farms, and it’s almost hard to believe it takes such a short amount of time to escape the busy below. The last part feels almost flat as you pick up speed and enter village of Leschaux.
Technically, I wasn’t half way but Leschaux was the practical midpoint as it offered a summit of it’s own. I was met with a four-way intersection and a huge stack of signs guiding cars towards various towns. There was a smaller sign on the other side of the road pointing cyclists to the Semnoz. It seemed like that was the last escape. A 12km climb was nothing to sneeze so it wouldn’t be a crime to take one of the other three roads. If I turned right, it was up, 13.5km up, until the summit.
The Leschaux had been enough to find a rhythm, not just physically, but mentally. I wasn’t riding looking over my shoulder for cars, dodging pedestrians or darting between other riders on the bike path. I wasn’t inundated with the noise of traffic, constantly scanning for sudden obstacles, or calculating the time I had to make the traffic light. I was just thinking about riding. When I arrived at the intersection, there might as well have only been one road.
Following the sign’s instructions, I turned right and started my ascent up to the Semnoz. As if the mountain wanted to ensure my commitment, the gradient immediately spiked and forced me out of the saddle. I was on proper mountain roads now; the houses were gone and it was hairpin after hairpin.
Steady in first gear, I churned my way up the climb, keeping my eye on the view but also definitely looking out for the kilometre markers. The yellow signs were like little beacons of encouragement, even if by the time I reached each one, the feeling of accomplishment was erased by the information that the next kilometre was at 8% and there were still 10 kilometres to go. The climb did not let up and I started to catch myself looking at the road more than the view.
My view suddenly changed at three kilometres to go. I emerged from the trees and the hairpins were replaced by sweeping corners. I could hear cow bells. I felt the wind and it had that hint of bitter cold and pure freshness from the mountains. I could also see the top and, although there was no validating change of gears, I immediately felt re-energized. As soon as I spotted it, I sprinted towards the last sign. “Arrivée.”
I parked my bike on the side of the road and perched myself on the top tube. I pulled on my arm warmers and snuggled into my gillet. I took a deep breath and let my legs relax into inactivity. It took me a few minutes to take in the view. The Alps lay in front of me, peak after peak. I could see Mont Blanc. I could see a tiny corner of Lake Annecy. I could see the road I came in on, the still ski lift waiting for snow, and the cows in the field below my feet. I sat still but let my eyes scan the landscape over and over, always coming back to the seemingly infinite peaks the stretched beyond the horizon. Their sublimity was consuming and as I let their enormity confuse me, a tiny part of me acknowledged I had got what I came for.