Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Terrific tarmac

There has been a slight shortage of snow here in Chamonix recently. At first I found this quite depressing. But then I remembered my bikes. Now I enjoy skiing, but I didn't realise how much I loved cycling until I went a month without riding a bike and then finally got back in the saddle. Awe. Some.
And in honour of that feeling, of the wind touching the back of my neck, of the rhythmic swoosh of the pedals, of the 'jesus it's gonna wash out' fear when I take a corner too fast, I've made a list of my top five pieces of tarmac.

1) Farringdon Street to Blackfriars Bridge, London, UK

OK so Farringdon street is a mess - the tarmac is pish. But the corner which sweeps you onto Blackfriars bridge from the traffic lights is fantastic. First it bends left and you get pushed up against the hoarding. Then you crank your legs, overtake the 'style over speeders' on the outside; a cab is close on your right as you swing back round to the right before the pristine tarmac pings you back left. There's a traffic light halfway through this motion where some people stop as they think it's for those going straight on but it's not, so you keep your speed and end up hooning it onto the bridge with a velocity that is easy to maintain right up to the apex. Supreme fun.

2) Servoz to Lac du Passy on the Route de Servoz, Haute Savoie, France

This is one of those brilliant descents which descends slowly so you need to keep pumping the pedals and the result is you feel like you are flying. The corners are mellow so you can get really low on the drops, knee out and take them at speed. It begins on an undulating woodland road then stretches out into a yawning race down to the plain of Sallanches, the Mont Blanc Massif leering at your back. The climb back up is also great - can be taken at a much higher speed than your typical Alpine ride so makes you feel like you are made of steel.

3) The D1212 from Flumet to Megeve, Haute Savoie, France
I ride this on the way back to Chamonix from the Col d'Aravis. You're slightly tired. It's been a long day. The road winds gradually uphill. Then when you get to the public toilets on your left it flattens out ever so slightly. Suddenly the bit is between your teeth again. You thought you were tired. Turns out you just weren't trying hard enough. So you push into a harder gear and start to move faster. By the time you hit the final right hand bend and come over the bridge into Megeve you feel like a freakin champion. And you've left the rest of the gang for dust because they were pacing themselves for the long ride back into Cham. Sweet, if temporary, victory.

4) Highway 12 from Lolo Pass to Kooskia, Montana to Idaho, USA

There is tarmac made for riding and there is tarmac made for living. Highway 12 is the latter. Creeping through the Clearwater National Forest it will bring you back to your senses in a way no other road can. You are encased by trees and traffic is pretty light leaving you free to smell the air, feel the coolness of the natural canopy and hear the sound of rushing water always to your left. Oh my stars it's an amazing road. I could ride this every day for the rest of my life and never feel like I was missing out on anything.

5) St Jean du Bruel to Treve, Auvergne, France
What I love about cycling in the Auvergne is that the region is bloody amazing for bike riding, yet the only people who seem to know this are 80-year-old French men in yellow and purple lycra. This piece of tarmac is 14km uphill - smooth, hairpin and muggy, through thickly carpeted hillside where the view is impossible to see. Then you get to the top, ride flat for a bit then take a left turning. Wow. The road drops away, seeming to carve out a path in the land as the ground opens up into a big chasm. The view from here on in is immenses - steep, jagged rockside that takes on a deep historic feel almost like as you ride you are chasing the centuries back. When you get to Treve you can have a dip in the river before the rest of the loop back to St Jean. The whole ride will see you crank out about 40km - so not long but you'll feel like you've seen all the world has to offer.

6) The bit under my wheels
Being without my road bike for a bit has made me realise that my favourite bit of tarmac is the bit that I'm riding. At any point. In any condition. God I love my bike.

Where's yours?

Monday, 17 January 2011

Le list de super cool

People have said more than once in the past few months that I am 'living the life.' Bit weird that as everyone's definition of 'the life' is different and although my view here is pretty awesome I still battle the same boring things everyone else does: failure to budget adequately leading to sardine pasta for two weeks straight; cardiac arrest after filing tax return; trying to get the car MOT'd except in French; working many, many hours to avoid sardine pasta; suffering deep anxiety over making new friends; failing.
So in an effort to convince myself that life here is as super cool as everyone thinks it is, I've compiled a super cool list of things near where I live. You should try them out next time you swing by this way:

1) Billski and Ski Park Pow, Morzine, France
Blasting the idea of ski instructors as red-clad, aloof, ESF egos right out of the snow, Billski is a new style of ski school. With a lean towards freestyle coaching as well as women-only lessons and sponsored by Armada, this ski school is a breath of fresh - and very cool - air. Billy Clark is a superb skier but his grip on freestyle, honed in the Nyon and Avoriaz parks in the Portes du Soleil make him a really inspiring instructor for those keen to nail those 360s.
Billy works in conjunction with new Morzine freeski shop Ski Park Pow. It's a little hidden in the commercial centre near the tourist office but once you're inside it's a colourful homage to the burgeoning freeski scene in Morzine, with little-known brands and everything from multi-coloured ski poles to the latest Liberty skis on demo.

2) Les Vieilles Luges, Les Houches, France
Absolutely beautiful little restaurant, tucked away down a tree run off the side of the blue Allouds run. It's only accessibly via skis or snowshoes making it something of a hidden joy. We visited on Christmas day for a great vin chaud under twinkling fairy lights and then a few days later where we enjoyed everything from ribs and cheese tart under a twinkling sun. The food is spectacular, the atmosphere cosy and the people watching as everyone skids around the final bend, priceless.

3) Snowpark, Verbier, Switzerland
I'm not sure how many people know anything about Verbier that isn't related to money, rich people, money and rich people. But beyond the poshness and the huge prices (23 euros for a tomato salad?!) Verbier boasts a pretty good park and because it's high up (2260m) it's still nice and groomed even after the paucity of snow all the resorts have been suffering recently. The piece de resistance is the big booter into air bag at the bottom of the park. Class.

4) Restaurant Christiania, Courmayeur, Italy
It's not often a slopeside eatery can offer tasty food at a reasonable price but being Italy the odds are better than elsewhere. The Christiania is a traditional Italian restaurant right at Plan Checrouit making it easily accessible for non skiers as well. Avoid the foccacia (it's pizza base with garlic not proper foccacia) but the coletto Milanese comes recommended as does the minestrone soup. A free shot of grappa after the meal is also possible if you flash a smile and throw some enthusiastic 'buongiornos' around. Another small tip: park your car at the Val Veny car park which is free and only an extra five minutes gondola ride away. That's more money for grappa ...

5) Le Delice, Les Houches, France
Les Houches is the oft-overlooked ski area in the Chamonix which is a shame as it is World Cup standard (the Kandahar run will be hosting just that on 29/30 January) and also because it hosts Le Delice - a restaurant full of great laughs, banter and very little attitude. The food ranges from Asian salmon (fish! In a ski resort!) to great venison stew and decadent desserts. The dream realised of katy McInnes, she and her team have done a fantastic job of giving the relatively quiet resort of Les Houches a reason to stay up at night.