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CONFRERIE DES SEPT MAJEURS

Sometime in spring of 2019 I stumbled across the ‘Brotherhood of the 7 Climbs’, a challenge of sorts for amateur cyclists which spans some of the highest and wildest passes the alps offer on the border between southeast France and northwest Italy. The loop spans 360 km and climbs 10,700 meters. The highest level of the challenge is to do the loop in less than 24 hours on the clock without assistance.

There is no official start time or date, you can show up and ride it from any point on the loop in 24/48 hours or in a season. Once done you send 7 photos of yourself at the summits and your Strava files to claim your prize, a listing on the website and a FB post.

In 2019 I successfully road the loop in perfect early fall weather leaving Briancon at about 5:30 am and returning at about 2am the next morning, in under 24 hours.

While immediately after the 2019 run I assumed once was enough, when COVID19 showed up it erased any ideas of coming back in 2020. Being told you can’t do something sometimes increases the motivation to get out and do it. The stars realigned in mid august 2021 with the reopening of travel without the need for quarantine for those with triple vaccines. With less preparation than is really needed on the 19th of September 2021 I clicked in to have another go at the course. This time the weather decided to take part as well. The start was delayed from 5:30 to 7:30 due to rain and wind, leaving from L’Argentier La Bessee, a town which is closer to the last decent off the Col de Vars instead of finishing with 50km uphill and on false flats to Briancon. It was Gabba chilly and the roads were still damp, up and over the Izoard, but at least the rain had stopped. Just before sunset I reached the summit of the Fauniera (Col #4) with temps around 4C and feeling tired it seemed a bit risky to try to conquer 3 more climbs in the dark.

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Pause for the night and restart the next morning, moving to the under 48 hour category for the route this time. The forecast the following morning showed great weather on the 3 remaining climbs, including the massive Col de la Bonette at 2804 slm, however only up until about 2pm. Feeling quite tired from the previous day’s efforts I set off up the Col de Lombarde which takes riders back into France from Italy. After a coffee stop in Tinee it was time to take on the Col de la Bonette, while very long and very high for most of the way the grade is not too steep. We had, however miscalculated the times for the support car, the driver had to be in Briancon by 16:00 for a COVID test in order to fly out Wednesday morning.

At about 1900 meters elevation of 2804 the ultimatum was on the table, get in the car or take what I would need to complete the course on my own. The purple clouds on the horizon were looking very real and the fatigue from everything weighed heavily on my tired body. A quick decision was taken and then I pulled out the nanoflex armwarmers, Pioggiarella shoe covers, and a light vest. Took a few bars and gels and stuffed my Idro jacket into a pocket along with Perfetto gloves. At summit it was dry, but as soon as I started descending it began to hail and rain, not heavily just very sharp. It was like that most of the way down and up the Vars, but with 6km to go to the final summit of the 7 Majeurs someone opened the faucet and let the water flow. At this point I was riding side by side with a guy in tennis shoes on a touring bike, wearing an open plastic wind jacket. We passed an abandoned building where some motorcyclists has decided to seek shelter, he joined them. Knowing stopping meant freezing I pressed for the summit, most of the time in my lowest gear.
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In 2019 I reached the Vars somewhat after midnight and of course there was no sign of life, now at 17:00 on a Monday afternoon my eye caught a bunch a bikes outside the cafe at the top, hmmm I thought must be warm inside and then I noticed they had a fireplace ! A few coffees later my support car returned just as I was thinking about heading down towards the finish. Dressed in a dry set of gear from the support car I scooted off the Vars and on to the hotel, while it rained hard on the descent the adrenaline of completing the monumental challenge kept me warm and 7M 2021 went into the books. Those who often cycle in the high mountains know that the weather can have a great influence on any journey anytime of the year.
FOOTNOTES
Words: Lenny Engelhardt | Photos: Lenny Engelhardt & Dov Nachshon
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