La Route des Grandes Alpes

Day 3 – Wednesday 2nd August – Bellecombe-en-Bauges to Séez (292km)

 

The campsite, called Les Framboisiers (hence the name of the dog), was wonderfully quiet and sleeping on mushy grass was a lot more comfortable than the hard, dry ground of the night before, so I woke up feeling refreshed and ready for a very long day of riding.

First, I had to make the remaining 90km to Thonon-les-Bains, where the route proper started. After leaving the campsite I crossed the second pass on the area, Col de Leschaux, and then rode down to Annecy. The city was beautiful (once again my GPS opted for the sightseeing route across the centre), but the ride from there to Thonon-les-Bains was rather forgettable – mostly motorway and a slow drive along a route nationale packed with delivery lorries, slow moving caravans and elderly people in small Peugeots.

This time the GPS did the right thing and took me to the starting point of the route, in the D902, instead of some neighbourhood in Thonon-les-Bains (maybe I am programming it wrong?)

I was very excited to finally be on the route, but compared to the roads I had been riding so far, the beginning was a bit of a disappointment – the D902 is a fairly important thoroughfare and, at least until Montriond, there was a lot of traffic. But don’t despair if you come to ride this route, things get better soon. Be patient and be careful, there are a lot of local people using this road and some of them are in a hurry – I saw some pretty on the limit overtaking in just a few kilometres, so do not take risks.

This bit of road passes through the Col des Gets, the first one in the route, but it is quite an unremarkable one (I actually did not realise I was there until I had passed it, so there are no pictures of it). The road then goes down to Cluses, where most of the traffic disappears onto the A40 heading for Geneva or Chamonix. From there on, the route takes a much smaller road, the D4, up to Col de la Colombière. Once more, this was the cyclists and bikers’ territory, the odd car quickly overtaken with a burst of acceleration as soon as there were a few metres of clear road ahead. In such narrow roads it is important to make sure the cars know that you are behind them and have the intention to overtake, as there is not much space, there are usually sharp drops with no protection whatsoever and the driver is usually distracted gazing at the amazing views, so you could be easily pushed off the road while overtaking. Always use the indicators, flash your lights or even sound the horn before starting the manoeuvre, use the shortest gear possible and watch out for cyclists coming the other way.

The col was rather narrow and there were a lot of cars parked at the top, as it is the starting point of many hiking routes. I stopped to have a rest, had some fruit while enjoying the views and went on my way down the other side.

The next one was Col des Aravis. A lot of hiking routes started from this one too, and in the distance, covered in snow, the Mont Blanc rose majestic, a sight to behold.

The descent down the other side of the col was gentle, across vast open fields of grass dotted with barns and wooden houses that seemed to have come out of a postcard. At the bottom of the valley I crossed the town of Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe and started the ascent towards le Col des Saisies.

This one was flat and open, and had a skiing resort that, unlike some others that were closed in summer, was bustling with activity. I stopped, sat under a tree and took out the map to study the situation. It was well past midday and I was already getting tired – these roads were taking their toll, riding close to 500km day in day out was not an option here. I had been considering the idea of splitting the way to Briançon in two, and I thought that it would make for more relaxed riding, as well as giving me more time to write at the end of the day, so I decided to ride one more pass and then look for a campsite.

On the way down from Col des Saisies I noticed that I only had one bar left on the fuel gauge, so I thought that I would look for a petrol station once I reached the town at the bottom of the valley. Once there, however, there was no petrol station to be found, at least not in the direction I was heading, so I decided to take the risk and ride up the last col with the fuel I had left. To my surprise, I made it past the beautiful Lac de Roseland, across the Cormet de Roseland pass and down to Bourg-St-Maurice with fuel to spare. I was expecting the fuel light to come on on the way down, as I was past 300km, but it didn’t. Not only that, but when I filled up the tank only took a bit over 14 litres, meaning that there were still more than four left.

It was mid-afternoon as I left Bourg-St-Maurice, but it was tremendously hot down in the valley, and coming up next was Col de l’Iseran, the highest one on the route, and one that I wanted to enjoy, so I decided to call it a day and stopped at a campsite in Séez. It was quite a big place, the first with a bar, so I treated myself to the first beer on the trip, which did not help with the writing.

Col counter:

8. Col de Leschaux 897m

9. Col des Gets 1170m

10. Col de la Colombière 1613m

11. Col des Aravis 1486m

12. Col des Saisies 1650m

13. Cormet de Roseland 1967m

I am from Barcelona

It’s well past two in the morning halfway round the world and for the last four hours I have been glued to the screen of my phone following the news. Barely an hour before hearing about the terrorist attack in my city I was chatting with a Japanese I had just met and he mentioned the ISIS attacks in Europe. I told him Barcelona had been spared so far. So far.

I am deeply saddened by this meaningless act of violence but proud to see the solidarity that the people of Barcelona have shown in these hard moments, and I am even prouder to see messages of support coming in from all over the world. I have yet to visit a place where the mention of the name of my city did not elicit a friendly smile. That spirit will not be broken. The world is welcome at Barcelona and Barcelona is welcome in the world.

Framboise

Day 2 – Tuesday 1st August – Sahune to Bellecombe-en-Bauges (404km)

A short ride to lake Leman?

Nope. Not at all. In fact, as I write these lines before going to bed, I am still almost 100km from it, but I don’t regret a single thing, today’s route has been just marvellous.

My Exped mattress died and by the time I decided to do this trip it was too late to get a new one, so I took one of those self-inflatable mats. I takes up twice as much space as the Exped and is about five times thinner, so if you sleep on your side, like I do, it is very uncomfortable. Add to that a very hard ground on the campsite and heat that did not give up all night, and you can imagine how much sleep I got. At 8:00 I had already packed everything up, eaten breakfast and was ready to go.

The night before I had been studying the map and saw that even though it claims that the route has 21 mountain passes, in fact it is not possible to ride them all without having to double back, as there are alternative routes besides the main one that take you through those other passes. While planning the route the night before I thought that it would be a pity to miss some of the legendary ones, like the Col de la Madeleine, so I decided to plan a bit of a scenic route.

The ride to Gap was as good as it gets – just past Sahune the road was amazing, the air cool and the music on my iPod spot on. This stretch of the D94 between Sahune and Serres is a blast. When I reached Gap the GPS sent me through the ring road to avoid the centre, only there isn’t one, so it creatively made one up through some residential neighbourhoods. I ignored it as soon as I realised what it was doing and took the proper route (which does indeed cross the centre). I left northbound on the legendary Route Napoleon – yes, the same one as in the Bond movies, but not the bit in Cannes – which goes all the way to Grenoble, but I left it shortly after, in Corps, to take a smaller road to Sainte-Luce and the first pass of the day – the Col de l’Holme.

A very narrow mountain road took me up and down thick forests and I crossed two more passes – Col de Parquetout and Col d’Ornon – before joining the main route in Allemond and heading to the first two serious passes – Col du Glandon and Col de la Croix de Fer.

Right after Allemond it was clear I was in hairpin paradise. The road up the valley past the impressive Lac de Grand Maison was the exclusive preserve of cyclists and bikers.

There was the odd car here and there, but never had I seen a car look so out of place on a road. At the top of both passes, dozens of exhausted but thrilled cyclists were taking pictures next to the road signs. I too took a picture but, seeing them, I almost felt as if I did not deserve it. I must say that I have the utmost admiration for all the people I saw today cycling their way up those roads.

From the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer I could see thick clouds gathering ahead, so I hurried down the other side, hoping to outrun the rain that looked certain to come. The way down to St-Jean-de-Maurienne was, if anything, even more impressive than the ascent – narrow, steep, with impossibly deep gorges. There were far fewer cyclists attempting the pass from this side, but those doing so must have been superhumans.

Back at the bottom of the valley, I could have taken the A43 and ride north to my final destination, as it was getting late, the sky was growing darker and I was tired. On top of that, the muscles on the left of my chest were aching, possibly from the night before but my scenic route for the day was not done, there were three more passes to go, among them one that has become a household name – the Col de la Madeleine. I left the A43 and started the ascent on a winding road through a thick forest. The hairpins were tight, but the road was not as narrow as the one I had taken to the first passes in the morning. Then, it opened into a vast lush green valley and wound its way to the top with amazing views. The storm clouds were still looming behind me but, so far, I had managed to stay ahead of them.

As I was taking pictures at the top of the pass I saw two couples from Spain on two Super Ténérés, one of them a blue First Edition just like the one I got stolen. I approached them and as we got talking and I told them the story the guy on the blue one said it sounded familiar. It turns out he got his from the same dealer that was selling mine, and he had told him my story! The world is indeed a small place.

Riding the Madeleine meant a detour to Albertville and then having to ride southwest before going north to Annecy. As I was riding down I saw curtains of water in front of me – the rain I had so far been escaping was right there on my way, waiting for me. The tarmac was soaking wet, showing that this was a classic summer downpour which would get me wet in a matter of seconds. Fortunately, just before I reached the rain, the GPS told me to turn right into another valley where the sky was not so dark. It was the way up the last two passes of the day – Col de Frêne and Col de Leechau. These are part of another one of the detours on the Route des Grandes Alpes and they are on a small road with no traffic at all. After passing the Col the Frêne I stopped for petrol in a village called Le Châtelard, and no sooner had I finished filling up and was ready to leave than the skies opened and the rain that had been chasing me for the last few hours finally caught me. I took refuge under the marquee of the Carrefour supermarket next to the petrol station and waited for the rain to pass as I checked the weather radar on my mobile.

The rain clouds were moving fast behind my position, and I could see that the sky was clear in the direction to the next col, so as soon as the rain stopped I left. Shortly after the village the road started climbing in and out of the forest, and then, on a long sweeping corner across a steep field of grass I saw a small campsite above me. I still had about 90km to go before reaching lake Leman, but I usually trust my instinct when it comes to choosing a place to spend the night. I often pass several ones just because they don’t feel right, and this place seemed just perfect. Besides, it was already 18:00 and I was tired, so I turned around and headed up the lane to the entrance.

It was a tiny campsite, with only a handful of lots, perched at the top of a hill overlooking the valleys of the Massif de Bauges natural park. I planted my tent near the bottom, with great views, had a shower and went to enjoy the luxuries the campsite afforded.

By luxuries I mean that, unlike the previous one, this one had a picnic table where I could have dinner, a socket to charge the camera batteries, wifi and a sort of reading room where I could sit down to write a bit.

As I was cutting the first slice of sausage I was going to have for dinner I felt a presence nearby. I turned around, the bit of sausage still in my hand, and saw this:

It wanted to become my new best friend since I had meat and cheese, and did not take its eyes off me for a second. Hypnotised, I couldn’t help but give it some, which only made things worst. A little girl came to get the dog, but she (it was a she, the girl told, me, and was called Framboise) refused to leave. Only when I had given her some more, finished eating and packed away the food did she answer the insistent calls of her owner.

Col counter:

1. Col de l’Holme 1207m

2. Col de Parquetout 1382m

3. Col de l’0rnon 1371m

4. Col du Glandon 1924m

5. Col de la Croix de Fer 2064m

6. Col de la Madeleine 1993m

7. Col du Frêne 950m

Hot stuff

Day 1 – Monday 31st July – Barcelona to Sahune (555km)

 

Travelling my motorbike attracts good vibrations. I have found that it is certainly one of the best ways of meeting new and interesting people, and as I was loading the bike, parked in front of my apartment, I was looking forward to the next few days on the road. What I was not expecting, though, was the first meeting to happen even before getting on it.

“You live here, right?” I heard someone ask me. I turned around, surprised, as most people enquired about the bike, and saw a tall young guy holding a helmet. He pointed at a KTM 1150 Adventure R parked across the street and said “That one is mine”. I had seen that bike lots of times and wondered who the owner might be. It had knobbly tires and mud splattered here and there, showing it had been put to its intended use. He introduced himself as Marc and told me that we were neighbours. We chatted for a while and promised to go out for a ride after the holidays.

I refused to pay tolls on the motorway here, so I headed to Ripoll to cross the border in Prats de Motlló, which is a much nicer route that the one all holidaymakers take along the A7. For the first few miles I followed the exact same route I take to work every day, leaving the city amidst the tide of early Monday morning commuters, but instead of being just another anonymous road user, I noticed that people were looking at me and the bike, noticing that I was going someplace else. Once away from the big city the sun came out and I thought the weather was perfect – clear sky, getting warmer but not too much as I was gaining altitude towards the Pyrennees… I was lost in thought when I noticed a black Alfa that had pulled alongside with two beautiful girls inside. The passenger smiled at me, took a picture with her phone and gave me the thumbs up. Hell yeah!

I stopped for petrol just before starting the ride up to coll d’Ares, the mountain pass that thousands of people desperately crossed in the winter of 1939, fleeing from the advance of the fascist troops in the last months of the civil war. Opposite the petrol station, there was a police patrol fining a French biker that had been caught by a speed camera in a hidden car a couple of kilometres down the road. Fortunately, a van coming the other way had warned me and I had slowed down just in time.

I rode down into France through the gorges of the river Tech, always a nice route. When I reached Ceret I turned north into a small country road because I wanted to go a bit further before taking the autorute, and I discovered a few beautiful villages. After lunch in one of them (Llauro) with great views over the plains opening to the Mediterranean, it got too hot to enjoy riding, so I took the motorway near Perpignan. The plan was to reach Grenoble, find a place to sleep and do mountain roads the rest of the way to Thonon-les-Bains on the shore of lake Leman, where the Route des Grandes Alps begins.

Near Nîmes, however, I was not so sure I would get that far. The temperature had been creeping up and for a while now it had been a constant 40ºC, I run into a traffic jam where the motorway splits to Marseille, and it did not get any cooler when I joined the A7 towards the north. By Bolène I had had enough and decided to cut east heading to Gap on country roads. I would find a place to sleep near there and complete the journey to Thonon-les-Bains the following day.

Soon after leaving the autoroute things changed radically. I entered the area of the Baronnies Provençales natural park, the temperature dropped, the traffic disappeared and the wonderful French countryside opened before me. I usually say that I don’t like having to travel through France to get to other further destinations, but that is only because I have to do it on the motorway. Riding through these small, quintessentially French villages I remembered what a beautiful and varied country France is.

I passed a few campsites before I found what I was looking for: a small municipal campsite by the river in Sahune. Quiet, cheap and next to a swimming spot. Gap was still a while away, but I was sweaty and tired, so I decided to camp there.

 

Route des Grandes Alpes 2017 – Intro

After an unusually busy and long month of July at work, the holidays were finally here, and I found myself with two weeks to spend on my own before my girlfriend started hers. I had not had time to plan anything, but I had a vague idea on the back of my mind about a project that I had been wanting to do for a long time – a sort of ride and documentary about a train line that was never completed in the south of Aragón and that I had been exploring. I thought that I had enough time to go and record it now, but two things stopped me – one, I could not find anyone to come help me and, two, a heatwave was passing through all southern Europe, making that already hot area even hotter. Not the best time to find my way along abandoned railroads, then.

I decided to put that off for the moment and look for a cooler destination. The Pyrenees were tempting, but it is a place I can go to any weekend and I have already ridden them from coast to coast, so I decided to go further north – the Alps.

I looked for a nice route that I could do in about a week and discovered the Route des Grandes Alpes – a route that travels through all the high Alpine mountain passes in France from lake Leman to the French Riviera. I also wanted to find some offroad routes in the Alps, and discovered that most tracks are closed to traffic, except for a handful of legendary routes near Briançon, so it was decided – I would ride the route and add a few days of offroad excursions to make things more interesting.