Words by Holly Blades, Cyclosport.org
Last week saw the HotChillee Alpine Challenge take place in the French Alps around Lake Annecy. The "professional event for amateurs" was a roaring success, with Jered Gruber being proclaimed King of the Mountain's and Kelli Bayliss the Queen.
A familiar face to all participants was 1987 Tour de France winner Stephen Roche. After a couple of days recovery, we caught up with him to find out a little bit more about how he became involved in the Alpine Challenge.
When asked, as someone who has ridden and won the most famous cycling events in the world, how the Alpine Challenge lived up to its professional event for amateurs tag, Stephen was quick to sing its praises.
The Alpine Challenge gives the normal person the chance to ride a multi stage mountain event taking in some of the mountain stages that the professional riders would go over in the Tour de France, and having professional organisation around you. It makes everything look and feel like a Tour de France - It's the closest a cycling enthusiast will get to riding a stage of the Tour or any professional event.
He goes on to say that whilst professionally organised, you don't need to be a world class athlete to take part. A guy that works day to day could never participate in the Tour de France, or participate in the Alpine stages. Here are business men, celebrities, sports stars - not all cyclists, but people from sports like football, and for example, The LondonParis 2011 had Nigel Mansell - It's all kinds of people, not just strictly cyclists, having a chance of doing a multi-mountain stage over a three day period.
When asked what his favourite aspect of the Alpine Challenge is, Stephen's answer may sound familiar to anybody taking part in a gruelling sporting event, but perhaps not for the same reasons!
He tells us, To be honest, the one part of the Alpine Challenge that I really look forward to, as in other HotChillee events, is the end!
The end of each stage, of course, but the end of the event as well when we all finish up in Annecy, or in The London-Paris, we all finish up in Paris at the Eiffel Tower It's the camaraderie. The sense of achievement is mutual amongst everybody. There are some people training for a whole year to ride this event, but most of us haven't gotten the training we'd hope for so automatically will be under-trained. We know it's going to be painful, but the easier stages are first and the hardest climbs come last. Like the Col de la Forclaz and the Col de la Croix Fry, the most difficult climbs of the event both came on the last day.
It wasn't all hard work on the final climbs though, as there's always time for a spot of lunch and a victory parade back into Annecy.
We left in the morning at 9am and didn't get back to Annecy until 4pm we had an extended lunch break sat on the Col de la Croix Fry in the fabulous sunshine. It was a fabulous environment so we were in no hurry to get away! The three groups came together on the way back, so we had one big long peloton into Annecy where we had a bottle of Moet et Chandon in celebration and everybody was congratulating everybody else.
"It's such a sense of achievement and it's so emotional to see everybody, grown adults, embracing each other and tears on many people's faces. That's one of the big moments I like in all of the events, and it was definitely a big moment we had in Annecy.
Another aspect that participants haven't stopped raving about is the incredible scenery surrounding Lake Annecy and the Alps, as well as the fantastic weather.
Stephen is no different, telling us, We were saying the event being early September could be a bit dodgy with regards to weather, but it's been so hot we've been having concerns about dehydration! I think the scenery is second to none, as well. Everybody knows about Annecy and the Lake of Annecy - and riding in those blue sky conditions is amazing. I, myself rode with group 1 the first day, then group 2, then group 3, so I was able to meet everyone who rode the Alpine Challenge but also take in the views. I can tell you there was some incredible scenery all along the route.
Stephen went on to say that it wasn't all photo opportunities and champagne, as there were some serious battles going on amongst the contenders.
The cycling itself, the timed sections, are all very competitive within each group. We learned from last year that we may have a seeding situation, so we had the idea of letting everybody off together on the first hill, letting the time separate everybody and taking seeding from the overall times at the finish line. It meant the groups were quite harmonised. The groups were of similar levels so on the climbs, there was a lot of fighting going on, but in between it made for good tempo ride-able groups.
Stephen is off to Copenhagen for the UCI World Championships next, but says he's looking forward to returning to the HotChillee Alpine Challenge next year as part of the 25th Anniversary celebrations of his winning the Triple Crown of The Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia and the Road World Championships in 1987.