The Six Jours is a sequence of six hillclimbs organised by the Val dIsère Sports Club. They were first run in 1996, when Serge Garnier won the mens prize and Jacqueline Petex the ladies.
In 1997 the womens event was won by Rebecca Bishop after a memorable contest against Magali Jacquemond which was described in the WCRA newsletter. One reader who was inspired by this account was Tracey Maund, who lives and breathes to cycle uphill, and to whom the idea of racing up Alpine passes seemed like heaven.
Rebeccas total time was 5 hours 39' 50", which was the standing record.
In the spring of 1999 Tracey took the plunge, rang the sports club and entered the event. She flew out to France a week before it (that is, in mid-August) and did some training and some tapering: an activity needing no more equipment than a sunbed adjacent to a swimming pool. She also learnt that the Savoyard cuisine comprises 365 different recipes for cheese. Diet was a worry. Rebeccas margin over Magali had been just 10 seconds, equivalent to half an ounce of bodyweight a mere mouthful of Tarte aux Myrtilles. (Tracey was right to worry: she put on two pounds while in the Alps.)
Three of the stages were time trials (contre la montre); 3 had mass starts (courses en ligne). Riders could enter all six or as many as they wanted. Entries were accepted on the line. Prizes were awarded both for stage results and for overall classification. They were divided into categories: 2 for women (seniors and vets) and 4 for men (each spanning an age decade). No woman vets entered any stage.
Sunday. Tracey turned up ridiculously early for the first event, a course en ligne from Bourg St. Maurice to the ski resort of Arc 1800 giving a total ascent of 800m. Nothing was happening. Eventually a blare of nasty music heralded the arrival of the officials who began signing riders on. Each competitor received a bracelet to wear on the right ankle which allowed the results to be timed electronically.
Tracey rode flat out. She left the 3 other women behind and notched up both a win and a new womens record for the stage.
Monday. The second day was a contre la montre from Montvalazan to the Col du Petit St. Bernard. A hard climb of 1040m. As Tracey crossed the finishing line she heard the words première dame, and she finished inside the previous record. So she was no little surprised to be called second to the podium. A new woman, Maryse Garnier (presumably sister to Serge), had turned up and beaten her. The jack-in-the-box propensities of female competitors left her permanently on edge afterwards.
Tuesday. The third stage was another contre la montre, this time climbing 550m from Tignes les Brévières to Tignes le Lavachet. In previous years the event had made use of a narrow local road, but this was now blocked and the riders had to make a detour to climb a section of the main road used also in the following stage.
Again Maryse turned up and came first. She was credited with a record although she was outside previous times on account of it being a longer course.
Wednesday. A rest day, but the race officials were not idle. This year for the first time a companion event was staged, a cyclosportive called les balcons de haute tarentaise. Cyclosportives appear to be a cross between audaxes and races, with prizes for the fastest riders. This one covered 125 km and gave 3300 metres of ascent.
Thursday. A tough stage, again contre la montre. 1000m of ascent on the 30 km road from Bourg St. Maurice to Val dIsère; a stage in the 1996 Tour de France. Nearly all the climbing occurs in the middle half, with a mixture of flat road and gentle gradients in the outer parts. Some gloomy tunnels add to the interest.
It rains all day. Tracey realises her recurring nightmare: she can nowhere find her shoes. She goes down to the start and asks if they have been handed in, but no one has seen them. She rushes off and buys a new pair and returns to sign on. Now a smiling official appears with the lost shoes. Tracey is becoming overwrought.
She signs on. Maryse is there but doesnt seem to have signed on, though Serge is riding. Competitors huddle in shop doorways. At the last minute another female rider, Corinne Favre, turns up. Corinne is a strong rider, but now only strong women are still taking part. She is so late that she has to ride without her number. Being last to sign on she is first to start. Tracey sets off later, relieved by Maryses absence. This time she is riding with tri-bars. At the start of the climb (perhaps unwisely) she discards her peaked hat. Then she rides her utmost up the cold wet gloomy road. By the time she reaches the top the rain is falling in sheets. She can barely see through her glasses, she fears she has lost her way, she has to stop and ask. Riders pass her in flocks. Eventually she gropes her way to the finish. Overcome by cold and exhaustion she wraps herself in a binbag and lies sobbing in the gutter. But she has won the stage, and much to her surprise set a new record for it.
Friday. A course en ligne from Séez to the ski station of Ste Foy Tarentaise. 600 m of ascent. The finish is harder than in previous years. Tracey signs on; Corinne signs on; Maryse hovers. At last Maryse signs on. She and Tracey stay close together for the initial gentle climb. It is followed by a tricky descent on a road studded with potholes. Tracey reckons herself the worlds worst descender and is pleased to find Maryse a worse one. Tracey starts the final climb in the lead. Maryse pulls back some of the deficit, but when she is 10 seconds behind Tracey she gets no closer, and they wind up the zigzags with a constant gap between them. Tracey sets a new record for the stage.
Saturday. The spectacular 970m climb from Val dIsère to the Col de lIseran, run as a course en ligne. Last year some women pros entered the stage, but this time it is left to Tracey, Corinne and Maryse, who all sign on in good time. Tracey and Maryse keep close together for the first half, but Traceys legs have given all they can and she drops back. Maryse sets a new record.
Tracey has 3 stage wins and 3 stage records. She is first and only lady in the full event, and her total time of 5 hours 26' 00 beats the previous record by about 14 min. The mens event is won by Julien Boulanger of the Annemasse club, described as semi-professional. He has won all 6 stages, setting records in 5 of them.
Sunday. Traceys last day in the Alps. She goes for a recovery ride amounting to 3700 metres of leisurely climbing.
The event is organised with a lavishness seldom seen in England. Obviously no course in these islands can compare with the Alps. But the funding too is generous. Tracey won about £240 of prize money and 7 large trophies which stretched the airlines goodwill. There was a lead car and a broom wagon and road closures when appropriate. There were refreshments after each stage: usually cheese and charcuterie but after the final stage pizza and CHAMPAGNE!!
Afterword: this seems to have been the last time the event was run. In 2000 Tracey was sent a flyer for the balcon, now on a weekend, implying that the Six Jours were no more.