With typically Swiss discretion, the region of Martigny in the Swiss canton of Valais is gradually gaining a reputation in cycling. In 2009, the resort of Verbier saw Alberto Contador triumph in the 15th stage of the Tour de France. In 2016, the Tour returned for a summit finish in Finhaut-Emosson, which crowned the Russian Ilnur Zakarin. It should have become a cycling mecca in 2020 with the organisation of UCI Road World Championships but... covid decided otherwise.
Still, Martigny is the perfect hub to explore local climbs on quiet roads with fantastic landscapes. Take the example of this loop to the amazing Emosson dam. You first take the direction of the Col de la Forclaz: a series of long demoralizing straight lines where the traffic can be dense as it leads to Chamonix. So why would you want to climb it by bike? Because the old road located in the valley of La Combe, called the Petite Forclaz, allows you to avoid the first 6 kilometers of the current road built in 1957. It should have been the major climb of the 2020 Worlds. And what a difficulty: as soon as you leave the town, the road narrows to pass through the village of Martigny-Croix. The slope immediately exceeds 10% to meander through the vineyards. You cross several hamlets as you rise above the Rhone valley and after 4 km at an average of 11% you reach the main road of the Col de la Forclaz.
At the pass (1527m), the scenery changes: you enter the peaceful Trient valley and discover a breathtaking view of the glaciers and surrounding peaks. The descent to the village of Trient is short: 3 kilometers. You then head towards the French border located in Le Châtelard. Shortly before, however, you bend to the right to begin the second ascent. You first reach the village of Finhaut, a major place of alpine tourism at the beginning of the 20th century: there were 23 hotels there at that time. The First World War and the crisis of the 1930's will mark the end of the Belle Époque tourist development, which will be replaced by hydroelectricity to support the local economy. Three dams were built over the village: Barberine (commissioned in 1925), Vieux Emosson (1955) and Emosson (1973).
It is towards the latter that you head for. As soon as you leave Finhaut, the road becomes narrower with numerous switchbacks. The slope oscillates between 8 and 11%. Tour de France signs and faded inscriptions on the road remind you that the “Grande Boucle” took this road in 2016.
There is little traffic on the ascent, which is a dead end. Happiness turns into nirvana when you catch a glimpse of the snowy dome of Mont Blanc in the distance. At the end of a last kilometer made endless by an omnipresent headwind and a slope of more than 10%, you reach the summit at 1960m after a 10 km ascent. A sign says that it is the Col de la Gueulaz, but for cyclists it is simply the ascent to the Emosson dam. A massive structure (180m high) that holds 227 million cubic meters of water.
Insider’s tip: you can continue the climb to another dam, the Vieux Emosson dam. The road is closed to motor traffic, and for good reason: it is so narrow that you can't fit two cars and the slope exceeds 15% for more than a kilometer and a half. You stop at 2125m at the foot of the dam, next to the Vieux Emosson hut. Once you’ve recovered, you can enjoy an alpine landscape with breathtaking views of the Lake of Emosson and the surrounding peaks.
You go back down the same way you came. The ascent to the Col de la Forclaz is short and it is even possible to avoid it to reach the valley on the Mont-Blanc Express train. The descent of the Col de la Forclaz is a pure pleasure. At 7 km from Martigny, you reach the world championship circuit and that's when you realize that the fastest riders would have exceeded 100km/h to win the rainbow jersey...
Summary of the ride: 73 km and 2900m of difference in altitude. Enough to satisfy the passionate climbers, who can stay in the region to tackle numerous climbs: Col du Lein, des Planches, du Sanetsch, de la Croix de Coeur... and many others. The local tourism board has created a tour with hotel, GPS file and telephone assistance which allows you to tick all these passes from your bucket list in 4 days and 3 nights from Martigny. Perfect for an extended weekend between cycling enthusiasts! More info:www.valais.ch/colsvalaisansdelegende
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