- Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Chamrousse: up in the clouds

For every race this year there’s been a defining memory that stands out above the others, the one that springs to mind first and each time someone mentions the name: St Gouëno - the crash, Vuillafans - the heat, Mont Dore - an unrelenting challenge. For Chamrousse it is without doubt the view. Just days ago I was perched literally on the side of a mountain at 1,750m, Grenoble twinkling in the valley below and the peaks of distant places framing the vast horizon in the distance as I worked on my car. Sitting on a upturned wheel as I cleaned the brake pistons and gazing out at what has to be the best view from any race paddock I’ve ever seen, I concluded that Chamrousse was easily living up to my expectations as one of the events I’d most looked forward to this season.
Having torn myself away from Switzerland on the Monday afternoon, my ears still ringing to the sound of a Lamborghini echoing in tunnels, the emotions and exertion of the the previous weekend finally caught up with me - after 4 hours on the road and running on fumes I arrived late that evening and collapsed into bed where I slept soundly for 11 hours. The following morning I woke to a foggy start, to be honest I’m not really sure where the day went but it took a little while to establish that I was in fact in 1650 (I hadn’t gone back in time), and after a quick trip to the syndicate d’initiative I took the moped to the gendarmerie in Chamrousse 1750, where I was kindly shown to a spot in what would become the paddock later that week. Catching some sporadic WiFi I also received an email from the championship co-ordinator to ask if I’d entered the event as they hadn’t received my entry. I phoned to say that ‘yes, I’m here already!’ and following a few emails and phone calls it was all cleared up, phew!
I fell in love with the mountains many years ago now, there’s just something awe inspiring about the scale of them and how it makes me feel, so I’d promised myself a day hiking, and Wednesday was the day. I set off with a full backpack, a fresh set of legs and a vague notion of where I was going - I had a map with some hiking trails on it and a plan to see as many lakes as possible having Google imaged them months in advance. Up in the clouds your are constantly on the receiving end of various types of weather that changes from one minute to the next, and on the initial part of my expedition I was mostly shrouded in fog and using a simple ‘up or down’ method to gauge the direction I was headed in... occasionally
sideways too.

I eventually found my way onto a trail and soon found myself on high ridge looking down over lake Achard, it really was breathtaking. I hiked for around 6 hours in total and had a fantastic day, one of the highlights being a close encounter with a bouquetin, an elusive mountain goat/gazelle-like animal with enormous curved horns that is rarely seen. Having left the path and scrambled down to yet another lake I sat for a while to have a picnic and enjoy the stillness before getting up to climb out of the steep valley. Clearly unaware of my presence and a little spooked (he was only a stone’s throw away) he took on a fairly aggressive stance and eyeballed me intently. I was convinced he was going to charge and ram me into oblivion so I gently tiptoed away while trying not to stare back at him as I took a picture to prove it really happened…

After another 11 hour sleep I rose to a blue sky day, and sat eating cereal outside in my pyjamas with the morning sun warming my aching legs. The previous days exertion had taken it’s tole, and I could feel muscles that I was previously unaware of running the full length of my lower half - ouch. The plan for today was to start recycling the hill, having three races back to back meant that with all the cramming I’d had to do to learn Mont Dore and St Ursanne, I’d reasoned it would be best to start the 4.8km of Chamrousse once I arrived to avoid overloading my brain with information.

This worked well as there was plenty of time to learn the hill, and it really was worth the wait as it’s just like something off a computer game. One particular characteristic is the width which makes it very fast and leaves you a lot of space to run if you’re carrying a bit too much speed. The first half of the course is made up of four hairpins that well spaced and a fast set of flowing chicanes, the second half is more flowing and a little trickier to remember as the corners merge into one another - some tighten, some open and some are flat. However after Mont Dore my memory feels up to any test and I found it fairly easy to learn a line with countless (very slow) runs on my scooter. Friday was much the same, unloading the car to prep it for the weekend before going on a high rope wire adventure in the tree tops with zip lines running through the canopy.

Saturday was bright and sunny once more, and with two practice runs scheduled and a large entry including the VHC cars, we didn’t get on the hill until mid afternoon. Once again I had some help at the start line which is uphill, so it was good to have someone chocking my back wheel, cleaning my tires and connecting the slave battery to fire up the engine. My first run went well, although my gear indicator was playing up meaning that the display was telling me the wrong gear selection - I started in 2nd and bogged down. The cars struggle at the altitude, my FR didn’t seem to noticeably lack power although I did have to keep it at a light throttle at idle to stop it stalling which made negotiating the paddock tricky. I was suffering with understeer into the hairpins, the front end unwilling to dive into the slow bends but quite happy in the high speed corners. The latter half of the track is very bumpy in places where it’s been patched up after years of extreme weathering, meaning that you are sometimes wondering whether to take a deeper line to keep the car settled, it’s really a very individual thing as each driver’s car seems to respond differently depending on setup.
Run two was much better, I committed fully to a few of the ‘flat’ corners and relied on counting down my gears into hairpins so I could keep my eyes focussed on the apex. Feeling like I’d finally regained confidence in the car I pushed hard to set a pretty good time (2:32) that put me 6th in a class of 10, boding well for race day. We had known all week that Sunday’s weather was going to be changeable though, and that rain was inescapable so it may come down to just one hot run…

Sure enough I was woken early the next morning by the sound of rain hammering Herve’s roof, and sighed before drifting back to sleep without looking out of my porthole window - my ears told me what I needed to know. By the time we went for the first run the track was dry by as much as 75%, we had the luxury of driving down to the start line so at least had some idea of what to expect. I was running on slicks (as were most of the class) as the weather seemed to be clearing and by the time we went up it had improved, but I hedged my bets and eased off to post a 2:39, no use giving it everything now if its going to be dry by the afternoon. Run no. 2 was bone dry, I’d adjusted the potentiometer for the gear shift so I now had a positive reading every time I selected a gear - everything to play for. Much like my final run last weekend I really went for it 100% and gave it everything I had, having now found a technique to get the nose turning into the 2nd gear hairpins. I took all the flat corners flat, and I think there was only one where I perhaps bled off more speed than I intended to, the car felt incredible - just gipping and gripping, what a feeling! I set a 2.29 which although only good enough for 7th, was only 3 seconds away from 1st place in hotly contended class. To be so close to the front of the pack was a great achievement, and I was over the moon to break 2:30 too as this was my objective for the weekend - after three weekends back to back I feel like I’m really in the groove with the car right now.
The final run was abandoned as the heavens opened and soaked the track for the remainder of the afternoon, so the weekend drew to a close on a good note once more. I’ve just ordered some new brake pads for Turkheim as I’ve been running circuit pads all season which are no good for hillclimbing, so I’m looking forward to trying them at the final 6km round of the season. I can’t quite believe we’re at this point, the year is flying by and the rollercoaster of my first championship year in France is drawing to a close - I’m sad in some ways as I’ve made so many new friends that I will miss over the winter. It was my birthday on the Monday so Martine Hubert and some friends kindly put a candle on a cake on Sunday evening, and some late night drinks soon saw us past midnight - it felt very apt to celebrate my birthday in France, the first of many I hope!


  1. Hi Charlie, it's Mathieu! Just a little message to say that it was a very good meeting with yourself and a happy weekend for me. Thanks to accept my help and congratulation for your race. Big kiss and hope to see you still! :D
    ps: sorry for my english... ;)

    1. Hi Mathieu :D you too, thank you soooo much for all your help - I couldn't have completed the weekend without your support! So sorry for my slow reply, I only just saw your comment, hope to see you next season for sure :-)