Five weeks after my nineteenth birthday, I loaded my life into my car, and drove south.
5 min read by Joe Laverick
The fact that I hadn’t met any of my new team, didn’t understand the French culture nor speak a word of the language was swept under the carpet.
I’d figure that out along the way…
I lived in team accommodation in a suburb of Chambery called La Motte-Servolex. Chambery is classified as the Savoie region and was a part of Italy until the late 19th century. I know you didn’t come here for a history lesson, but it’s important. There is still a slight Italian influence over the city, which means it’s not impossible to find a good coffee, just very difficult. The best coffee is from ERNEST Patisserie, and the pastries are incredible – trust me.
I arrived in January, and it was bloody freezing – the French Alps aren’t known for their warmth in winter. The high mountains were off-limits due to ice, we found that out pretty early after half the team ended up sliding down the road and over a guard rail. Instead, we’d go cross-country (Nordic) skiing. I appreciated the experience, I really did, and I’m sure if you’re a good XC-Skier (completely different to downhill) then you’d get a good workout. For me, it was useless and dangerous. I probably spent half of my time on the floor. There was also the one time that I got lost, ended up going down a slope way past my abilities and my lack of skill caused me to become stranded in the next resort.
That was an embarrassing call to the team car.
As per our contract with the team, the foreigners on the team (there were three of us) had to attend French class each day at Université Savoie Mont-Blanc. I hated it at the time, but I’ll forever be grateful. Each morning, myself and my American teammate, Eric, would load ourselves into my car, each cradling our coffees like a newborn child, and make the short drive to class. My Swedish teammate, August, on the other hand, was pretty keen on riding to school. While the ride and the drive were pretty similar in duration, we appreciated the warmth of the car. They make them different in Sweden!
The dreaded ‘C-word’ shortened my first stint in France.
I remember sitting in class one day and checking the case count for our region.
There was a confirmed case in one of the ski-resorts, and rumours that some borders might close. I can picture pulling out of the carpark now, there were no masks and social distancing hadn’t been invented. The world was simple. I bid farewell to the staff member who dropped me at the airport and said I’d see him in a week.
Three months later, I was back. The world changed over those three months, and Savoie had too. The ski-resorts were replaced by a maze of stunning Alpine climbs. I was still ‘home’ in Chambery, but it was a completely different place from what I knew a few months before.
We had countless Tour de France climbs on our doorstep. Our apartment building looked out to Mont du Chat, the descent that is infamous for Richie Porte’s crash in the 2017 Tour de France. Our regular training ride was the ‘Lake Loop’. The lake was Lac du Bourget, one of the biggest in France. A full loop is a two-hour ride. The first hour, you climb the early slopes of Mont du Chat, and then the second hour is the flat road level to the lake. I remember one summer’s night, my teammate and I made dinner, rode down to the lake in our civvies, and sat on the shore enjoying our pasta.
We travelled all over France that summer.
We completed the Route des Grandes Alpes, did a training camp at La Rosiere and also a 7.5-hour epic ride on a route that wasn’t too dissimilar to La Marmotte. I spent a lot of time in Annecy too. It was just a thirty-minute drive away, and every time I visited, I felt as if I was escaping for a holiday. Annecy is France’s answer to Venice – one could argue that it even trumps Venice. The lake is a dream, hire a pedalo and go for a swim, you’ll thank me later. They have the best crepe’s I’ve ever tasted, and there were enough good coffee places to satisfy my appetite.
There was one day in early September that I rode from Chambery to Annecy. I was aiming to do a 5hr ride, and meet a friend who lived in Annecy for a brew. I took the flat route there, it was a beautiful, late summer’s day. We met for coffee down this alleyway that I’d have never found if it wasn’t for his knowledge of the city. As I headed back home, keeping the lake on my left, I decided to go over the mountains. It was touching 20-degrees when I left, just with a gilet in my back pocket to keep the wind off on the descent.
As I climbed and climbed up the mountain, I realised that I was in trouble. The peak of the climb that I had to go over, was at 1100m. It was cold, but the effort of climbing kept me warm. What goes up, must come down as the saying goes. As I reached the peak of the climb, the heavens opened.
The descent back into Chambery was horrible. Usually, I’d be giddy at the thought of 45-minute descent, but as the rain continued to lash down, I struggled to feel my brake levers. I was breaking as much as I could, in an attempt to reduce the wind chill. The road was flooding at the bottom, and the corners were dangerously slippy. I was like a drowned rat at the bottom. A hypothermic, drowned rat.
I can smile about it now, but there is a moral to this story: expect drastic weather changes in the high mountains.
It was a strange year. I moved to a new country just weeks before an unprecedented worldwide pandemic. The race calendar was up in the air, and we never knew which race would be our last. I’ve got a bucket-load of memories from my year in France, both good and bad. I never really found my place on that team, but I’ll forever be grateful for the experience.
By Joe Laverick
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