I AM in the midst of discovering the true meaning of thigh burn. Sweat stings my eyes and drips off my nose. I can feel my heart pounding as my short gasps for air become increasingly rapid. My neck has seized up and my back aches. Im exhausted.
This is not quite the French Alpine holiday Id imagined.
I am on a road bike, and doing my best to pedal up one of the Tour de Frances most infamous climbs, the Col du Glandon.
And what a climb it is: over 24 kilometers of unrelenting uphill to the mountains 1,924m summit. Steep hairpin corners and lengthy stretches of tarmac make this the type of terrain where the weak crumble as I was finding out.
The Col du Glandon is a regular feature in the worlds most famous cycling race, the Tour de France. And this year the 198 all-male group of pros will test their endurance here for Stage 11.
I had done the easy bit: freewheeling down to the start of the route from Vaujany where I spend my four-day break. The ancient farming village is quiet, with only 300 year-round inhabitants; but it offers plenty of activities that make this the perfect location for an action-packed holiday.Now Im no Victoria Pendleton, but for a reason that seemed like a good idea at the time, I decided to tackle this vicious course. I wanted to show that girls are tough enough to take on this route too.
From hiking and rock climbing, to archery and horse riding, there is something to keep every member of the family happy. For the more adventurous, a watersports centre on the Lac du Verney offers windsurfing and sailing, while in town the free tennis courts are an added bonus.
In winter, a 160-person cable car whisks skiers up to one of the largest ski areas in France, the Alpe dHuez. In July and August, the cable car is back in business and when the snow melts, the mountains transform into a cyclists dream: hundreds of kilometres of road and mountain biking trails make this one of Frances top areas for the sport.
Yet despite high-tech conveniences, the town still retains its alpine charm. Once a gateway to nearby Italy, the original road to the border (Le Grand Chemin) is still lined with original wooden chalets dating back to the 18th Century. Here there are none of the high-rise hotels that have invaded much of the Alps.
I stayed at the traditional-looking Chalet Arnou, which was only completed in February, but youd never know from its pine exterior and gently sloping roof.
Run by UK-trained mountain bike instructors Daniella Gardner and Andrew Goodman, the eight-person catered chalet is a mountain retreat with all the trimmings. The couple is on hand to point out routes that suit your ability and to offer tips, from how to conquer downhills to using the optimum gear for uphill plodding. The chalet is kitted out with a bike rack, and Andrew is always eager to cart you and your bike to and from the trail of your choice.
Of course, the best thing about exercise is that it justifies huge quantities of fuel before, during and after and our hosts made sure we got it. The best cappuccino cake Ive ever tasted greeted me on arrival and I devoured it on my balcony while watching a rainbow form in a mountain waterfall. Everything is homemade, from freshly baked bread in the morning to the biscotti decorating dessert.
I meet a group of female mountain bikers, better known as the Dirt Divas, who are also staying in the chalet. With just four rooms, this isnt somewhere that offers city-style anonymity and within a few hours of friendly chatter, we are all strolling the three-minute walk to the Rose Showroom together, to hire ourselves top of the range road bikes.
The night before The Great Bike Ride, we sat down for an eve-of-battle meal of baked Camembert, pork and cider stroganoff and apricot tarte tartin.
Earlier in the day we had driven up the Col du Sabot and tested our bike legs on a technical downhill route. Technical is bike-speak for hard, which I discovered when I had an argument with a river and ended up sopping wet.
This did not bode well.
Sure enough, my plan to save the lowest of my 21 gears for absolute emergencies goes out of the window after 30 seconds on the Col du Glandon, when I am faced with the first of countless hairpin corners.
To avoid having to look the enemy in the face, my gaze instead wanders to my surroundings. The higher we get, the more barrenit gets. Lush pasture full of wildflowers and bell-wearing goats gave way to crumbling grey cliffs and patches of snow.
A bright flash whizzes past. I blink to discover that it was a Lycra-clad man with white whiskers and go-faster yellow shoes. He shouts a brief Allez of encouragement as he powers past me.
I must look like I need help.
But after two and a half hours of snail-paced climbing, suddenly there it is the Chalet du Glandon. The mountaintop caf signals I have made it to the top.
The panoramic view takes away my last remaining breath as I roll up to join the others who are already on their second glass of ros. Buzzing with pride, I think Ill have to remember my yellow footwear next time.
But for now, where is that waiter? I could do with a ros.
This article was written by Ellie Ross.
Ellie stayed at Chalet Arnou, 400 a week including breakfast and three-course dinner with beer/wine and shuttles around town with your bikes.
Road / Mountain bike hire is 40 a day from The Rose Showroom in Vaujany.
Fly to Lyon (around 90 minute drive away) and Grenoble (in winter months).
Fed up of searching for holidays? Why not try our new road cycling in France request system?!