It was one of those beautiful autumn days. A day when you feel lucky to be alive; a day to be embraced, a day to be seized, a day to be enjoyed. After three days of northerly winds the bise relented at last and the crisp dry air made the Alps look sharper and closer than ever.
To hell with work. Such days are too precious to waste in front of a computer.
Twenty minutes later she was on her bike, laughing as a blackbird flapped furiously across the road in front of her, chattering in alarm as it dived into the hedge. Nobody else was in sight as she cycled along the narrow farm roads, although there was plenty of animal life. Now that autumn was here cows were plentiful on the plateau, safely down from the impending snow on their high summer pastures. She passed a field where two old horses stood companionably, nose to tail, and then crossed the golf course, the well-cut grass, neat sandy bunkers and disciplined shrubs in stark contrast to the surrounding fields and woods.
She warmed up steadily in the small chain-ring, revelling in the sunshine, enjoying the autumn colours. The leaves had turned already and between them the trees were displaying every colour from yellow through orange, russet and even bright red to every possible shade of brown. It was the perfect moment, just before the leaves were to fall. As if to mark this, a gust of wind blew a flurry of leaves off a tree as she approached, and one of the leaves struck her surprisingly painfully in the face.
After fifteen minutes of brisk pedalling it was time to leave the narrow lanes. She turned on to a secondary road, a route cantonale through the vineyards above the north-western banks of Lake Geneva. She kept a fast pace, only slowing when road or traffic conditions made it necessary, treating the ride like a time-trial.
Small villages came and went between the vineyards, each with their own little inn, the Auberge communale, a venerable Swiss tradition, not unlike the British pub. The day’s specials were marked up on boards: moules marinières, boeuf stroganoff, lapin à la moutarde…
The kilometres rolled by, each one different in its own way, all of them adding their own meaning to the ride as the slope changed, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes a little more noticeably, but never more than 3% in grade. No need to quit the big chain-ring. The road surface changed too. The Swiss take pride in their roads, but there was often a marked difference between one commune and the next. Mostly good, smooth tarmac, sometimes it was granular, making the bike vibrate. Here and there it was quite lumpy, as if it hadn’t been properly rolled. Going over these the bike shook like a speedboat on a choppy sea and she was forced to swing out further into the road, earning a rebuke from a passing motorist.
Mostly, though, the ride was steady. After the first few minutes she settle into a steady threshold rhythm, keeping a little in reserve without any more conscious thought. Soon she was in the zone. Time stood still. The road came towards her and disappeared behind her. A house came towards her, first slowly, then increasingly quickly. It flashed past and was gone. Snatches of song, or phrases picked up by the side of the road (stroganoff, stroganoff, stroganoff…) or read on the back of passing vans danced rhythmically through her head, seemingly impossible to shake off until they vanished as suddenly as they came, replaced by other fleeting thoughts.
Féchy and the start of the rise to Aubonne. Five minutes of VO2 max effort, staying in the big chain ring for as long as possible, muscles at first embracing the effort, then suffering, protesting more and more vociferously after three minutes and screaming for the interminable last few hundred metres before the road levelled out at last to the roundabout.
Heart pounding, gasping for breath, she rode easily through the town centre.
On the other side the road dropped steeply, winding round left and right to the bottom of the valley then climbing again, rollercoaster style, the bends making it hard to carry as much speed as she would have liked. The low parapet wall was close and the road damp in patches: prudence!
She turned her back to the lake and headed towards the Jura. A few kilometres of gentle climbing in open countryside, through the village of Gimel and then she entered the forest. She cycled on a mat of pine needles, much more slowly now, the road climbing steeply between the trees. There was a strong smell of resin and fresh-cut wood as she passed a pile of logs, picking her way through the bark and mud that the wood-cutters had spilled out into the road.
Without warning a startled deer darted across in front of her, hooves clattering on the tarmac and the rocky bank as it scrabbled to get a grip. It was so close she could look into its big brown liquid eyes, wide with fear to see a human so close. The deer’s muscles rippled under its short brown hair, damp in patches where it must have brushed against wet leaves. The image stayed with her for a long time: why was it alone, she wondered?
Higher up now, the view was spectacular. Twenty kilometres to the south, the water spout stood out in front of Geneva like an exclamation mark, as if it were reproaching the grey city behind it. From this distance the Mont Salève looked like a minor hill, but she knew all too well the lung- and leg-busting ride that led up its north-western face. Some hill, almost 10km to climb, three of them at 12.5%!
Far off in the distance his Majesty Mont Blanc stood head and shoulders above the other mountains, the immaculate white peak looking much closer than the 50 km that separated them. Each individual peak in the surrounding mountains stood out clearly, and somewhere over there were climbs she had done earlier in the summer – the col de Colombière, the col de Joux Plane, the Pas de Morgins…
Further round to the north, the other end of the lake was also clearly visible. Looking at it laid out below it seemed so near, and yet so far – so small, and yet so big. It was hard to believe she had cycled round the lake in just over five hours in June: not a bad time for 180km! She smiled at the recollection, remembering the adrenalin-fuelled excitement of riding in a fast peloton, eyes fixed on the spinning wheel just in front, the spikes of apprehension as unexpected street furniture created ripples up and down the peloton, the desperate, all-out sprint at the exit of a junction to avoid losing the wheel in front…
The sun was going down fast when she turned for home. The rusty greens and dusty caramel tones on the trees on the lower slopes of the Jura faded away higher up to a light and misty blue. As the sun came lower the ridgeline became more and more indistinct, the colour of the upper slopes fading further to match the sky, pale and washed out on the western horizon. It was too far to see the individual trees on the lower slopes, the soft folds and faded shades of misty blue-green looking like a blanket carelessly thrown over a bench.
The sun was almost touching the crest of the Jura and it briefly lit the upper ridges further south in glorious golden tones. For a moment she couldn’t see the ridge at all and the entire mountain range seemed to have disappeared. Shortly after, the sun flared brightly and disappeared, throwing the ridgeline once again into stark relief as the eastern slopes fell into deep shadow. The temperature was dropping quickly and she stopped to reposition her arm-warmers and put on her windproof jacket. It was either downhill or flat for most of the way back home.