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Early retirement lifestyle - Route des Grande Alpes

A while back I read a comment saying that most early retirement blogs start out as personal finance blogs but then transition into lifestyle blogs. From memory, the comment suggested this wasn't a good thing. 

I think the opposite is true. Early retirement does of course require the finances to work, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. The lifestyle element of early retirement is much more significant so it's not surprising that FIRE blogs follow that direction. In fact, it seems to make perfect sense.

At any rate, that's my reasoning for this lifestyle post. A brief description of the first half of our Route des Grande Alpes bike ride.

The literal geographical start point may be Lake Geneva, but the figurative start point is my change of mindset that came with early retirement - my determination not to be a spectator but instead to grasp opportunities and get out there and do things. So that's where our Route des Grande Alpes trip started, an idea that previously would have been discarded but which nowadays becomes reality.

What is the Route des Grande Alpes?

In a nutshell, it's a route through France that starts from Thonon les Bains on the shores of Lake Geneva and ends at Menton on the Mediterranean Sea (although we're going a little further to finish in Nice). Generally it's done by car, motorbike or, as we're doing, bicycle. There are a few route variations, but we're expecting to cover around 750km which includes 18 major Alpine mountain cols (depending on the exact route) equating to around 19,000 metres of climbing. Think of the major Alpine mountain stages in the Tour de France, that's what we've got to get over, only much more slowly.

Our motley crew

There's me, it was my idea after all, my wife Sally (who is still confused why she agreed to it) and our friends Dave and Alex. Dave and I both have some cycling experience but both Sally and Alex only started cycling in the spring. They're either brave or daft!

The tour so far

We're five days in, with three more cycling days to go, so more than half way. Here are some stats from those first five days:

Distance covered: 436km

Climbing: 9,233 metres

Mountain cols: 8

Hours in the saddle: 26 hours 38 minutes

Punctures: 1 (sadly it was on my bike)

Crashes: 2.5😢 (me and Sally, plus Alex had half a crash)

Day 1: Morzine-Thonon les Bains-Morzine

Distance: 74km

Climbing: 709 metres

Mountain cols: 0.5

Hours in the saddle: 3 hours 56 minutes

The official route starts at Thonon les Bains but as we live relatively close we cycled there, which isn't what most people would do. 

The idea is to dip your wheel into Lake Geneva, so that's what we did. We'll dip our wheels in the Mediterranean Sea when we arrive in Nice. 

Highlight of the day was the fact that we were starting our adventure, although the cafe we found on the shore of Lake Geneva came a close second. The low point was me crashing my bike - I rolled it down some steps, not on purpose and completely out of control! Thankfully there were no witnesses. My bike was scratched, my pride severely dented, but fortunately that was the extent of the damage. If truth be told, I was being a bit of an idiot and paid the price!

Day 2: Morzine-Notre Dame de Bellecombe Distance: 89km Climbing: 2,263 metres Mountain cols: 2.5 Hours in the saddle: 5 hours 37 minutes 

It didn't start well, Sally crashed before we'd even started! Her handlebar bag became detached and somehow pitched her over the handlebars. We started to wonder if our trip was such a good idea, or perhaps we should have training wheels! Grazes to her elbow and knee were going to be uncomfortable, but the main damage was to her wrist, which became very bruised and swollen. Most likely a sprain, but she's bravely carried on and it seems to be starting to improve now. 

Better news was being joined by our friends Keith and Julia for the first part of the day's ride. They had initially hoped to join for the entire trip but it clashed with a Greek sailing trip they'd booked. They're also early retired - it's not a bad life!

The main event for the day was the climb up the Col de Colombiere, which is 18km. We passed that first test with flying colours.

During the evening the day's sunshine turned to rain and thunderstorms. We chatted to a couple who were also doing the Route des Grande Alpes, the difference being that they were in an Aston Martin. Pretty nice, but I still prefer it our way.

Day 3: Notre Dame de Bellecombe-Bourg Saint Maurice

Distance: 70km Climbing: 1,821 metres Mountain cols: 2 Hours in the saddle: 4 hours 36 minutes 

Our legs had to wake up quickly as we were straight out of the hotel and onto the climb of the Col des Saisies. The extra cup of coffee with breakfast was a good idea. 

In reality, that first col was just a warm up for Le Cormet de Roseland, a more testing 23km climb at a 6% average gradient. For all of us, this would be our biggest ever climb (at least until the next day) but we must be finding our cycling legs as we worked our way to the top without complaint. We're on a tour, so we're not trying to be fast, and that seems to be working out well.

Our reward for a big climb is a big descent, and into our auberge accommodation, again before the rain arrived. A hearty pasta dinner hit the mark, setting us up for a big day tomorrow. 

Day 4: Bourg Saint Maurice-Avrieux Distance: 104km Climbing:  2,186 metres Mountain cols: 1 Hours in the saddle: 6 hours 10 minutes 

We had a great start to the day as we'd arranged to meet some friends for breakfast 45 minutes into our ride. As we entered the town of Ste Foy Tarentaise, Duncan and Gerda were our personal cheerleaders. It was great catching up with them after nearly eighteen months, and we left vowing not to leave it so long until next time. 

This was a big cycling day. There are Alpine cols, some more famous Alpine cols, and then there are some notorious Alpine cols. Today we were tackling a biggie. The Col de l'Iseran starts soon after leaving Bourg Saint Maurice and climbs 47kms up through the ski resort of Val d'Isere before going over the top of the col at 2,764 metres altitude. Its not the steepest climb, but 47km of uphill without much respite is a long way! This is reportedly the highest paved mountain pass in the Alps.

After such a long uphill we were rewarded with an epic downhill, except the downhills aren't totally easy either. The legs get a rest, but the frequent braking can make the arms, shoulders and neck a bit sore. Could it really be that I prefer the uphill part?

Again we beat the weather and got to our lodgings for the night before the rains came. A small guesthouse, with an amusing owner - an interesting take on some aspects of hospitality, but overall a good place to stay.

Day 5: Avrieux-Briançon Distance: 99km Climbing: 2,254 metres Mountain cols: 2 Hours in the saddle: 6 hours 19 minutes 

Another day for some more famous Tour de France climbs, the Col du Télégraphe and the Col du Galibier. Other than a short 5km descent after the Col du Télégraphe, it's more like one big climb of 30km. Our pace is gentle though, so the chatting and the views make it feel OK. 

What wasn't OK was the weather at the end of the day. Having escaped the storms on the previous days, we found ourselves doing a 37km descent with thunder, lightning, torrential rain, a bit of hail and decreasing temperatures. It wasn't nice, it was cold, it didn't feel entirely safe, but it was an adventure. A hot chocolate stop helped us warm up when conditions felt too dangerous, before we pushed on to our overnight stop in Briançon. We have our storm story and I'll be happy if that's the only one. 

So that's our first five days. We're over half way through and we're looking forward to seeing how the scenery changes as we head further into the Southern Alps and towards the coast. 

It's been fun so far and, dare I say it, the hills haven't been as bad as I imagined. As with many things, it pays to pace yourself. Sally, Dave and Alex are all complaining about soreness where the body meets the saddle whereas I seem to have so far escaped such dilemmas - fingers crossed I'm not tempting fate. 

Tomorrow is an easy day but still I'd best sleep. This week's lifestyle choice reminds me that early retirement is pretty good, and occasionally a little tiring. 


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