Following the enforced change to the parcours for the 2015 Morzine Haut-Chablais cyclosportive, now would seem the appropriate time to introduce the centrepiece of this years route, the beautiful Col de la Ramaz…
The Col de la Ramaz stands at 1610m, between the Vallée du Giffre and the nature reserves of the Roc d’Enfer and the Col de l’Encrenaz. The classic ascent begins at 650m in the village of Mieussy, and winds its way up the mountain for a punishing 14km at an average gradient of 6.9%. The Ramaz is, however, one of those climbs for which the numbers mean very little: the constantly shifting gradient, the lack of shade, the brutally steep middle sections and its sheer length makes the Col de la Ramaz one of the most punishing climbs of the Rhone Alps.
The climb has featured in the Tour de France on two separate occasions – in 2003, when Richard Virenque crested the summit first and took both stage win and maillot jaune in Morzine, and in 2010, when Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador duelled on the final climb to Avoriaz. That day is nevertheless remembered most vividly as the day Lance Armstrong’s tour dream finally died:
Most of the Tour’s greats are forced to endure a moment of brutal clarity, when they are reduced to the ranks of mere mortals. For some, a particular time and place always denotes the point where they have visibly taken on ‘un Tour de Trop’… Halfway up the Col de la Ramaz, a sign offered leisure cyclists the chance to take part in a circuit of the Rock of Hell. The heat beating off the asphalt definitely had an infernal quality to it, and the steepest part of the climb leading to a series of tunnels and avalanche shelters through a rocky gorge marked the start of Armstrong’s personal purgatory as he slipped inexorably off the back of the group that included all those with pretensions to a high placing… The group still numbered some 35 and that made the point: the seven-times winner was about to have the worst day he endure[d] in 12 Tour starts.
William Fotheringham, Guardian, July 2010.
Armstrong would find little sympathy from the French fans that lined the roadside that day – long questioning the validity of his seven tour ‘victories’, the road to the summit is covered in graffiti alluding to the Texan’s doping, some subtle, others less so:
For those of us with no pretensions to Grand Tour greatness, the climb starts relatively sedately, with a couple of kilometres at a consistent average of 8%. Beyond the village of Mieussy, the road dips down for a couple of hundred metres before rising sharply to the village of Messy, where the both the circuit of the Roc d’Enfer and the 2015 cyclosportive route join the climb (click here for elevation data, route profile and Strava segments from Messy).
A further three kilometres at 6-7% allow you to get into a gentle rhythm and enjoy the surroundings – for there are few climbs that can compete with Col de la Ramaz for sheer beauty. At every hairpin you are greeted with a seemingly different vista: Mont Blanc, towering over the rest of the Alps; the chaîne des Aravis; the Jura in the distance.
It is a good idea to enjoy it whilst you can, for at 6km the road rears up to over 9%, before alternating stretches of 7 and 9%. Indeed, it is the inconsistent nature of the gradient that makes Ramaz such a brute – it is not as consistently steep as the nearby Joux Plane (12km at 8.5%, with the last 6 at over 9%), it’s more famous neighbour, yet the alternating gradient makes it difficult to maintain any semblance of rhythm. The toughest sections wind you through a series of avalanche shelters and tunnels; the road rising up to 10.2% through the longest, the pain in the legs and the sensory deprivation contributing to a sense of disorientation as you move through 300m of darkness and into daylight once more.
Once clear of the last tunnel, the gradient begins to ease, alternating between 5 and 6% as it winds its way through the beautiful plateau of Sommand and up past the remnants of the 2010 Tour road graffiti. The final kilometre snakes through a series of tight, swift hairpins at 7%, rewarding you at the summit with glorious views across to Mont Blanc and the Roc d’Enfer.
The descent allows you to enjoy those views for the first couple of kilometres, before plunging sharply after the ski station at Praz de Lys into a twisting, technical descent. After six kilometres, you can branch left and climb through the nature reserve of the Roc d’Enfer and up to the Col d’Encrenaz – the route of this years Morzine/ Haut-Chablais sportive – or follow the road down and join the gorge to Les Gets and Morzine, the ‘classic’ Tour route. Whichever you choose, you can bask in the satisfied knowledge that you’ve successfully climbed one of the toughest cols the northern Alps has to offer.