Day 5 – Friday 4th August – Offroad routes and back to Briançon (259km)
I did not really fancy going offroad today. I was travelling alone, which always entails an extra risk and in less than two weeks I was going on holiday with my girlfriend, a trip she had been planning for a long time and was really looking forward to, so I knew for a fact that if I happened to fall in the middle of nowhere in the Alps and get injured, my biggest problem would not be getting help there, but having to face her wrath when she found out our Asian adventure had to be cancelled. By four in the afternoon, however, I was blasting along the best trail I have ever ridden, breathtaking views to both sides of me, and thinking that going offroad was the absolute best thing you can do on a motorbike.
Most of the offroad routes I had found were located in the same area in Italy just across the border from Briançon, all of them well-known to the offroading community. In fact, a couple of Germans I met on the mountain later confirmed that this is the only area where you can go offroad on a motorbike, the rest of the Alps are choke full of restrictions.
My thorough online research (about half an hour on ADVrider forums while my summer course students were writing their exams) had turned out six interesting routes. I thought I could do three that were close to each other in the morning and then two more in a different area in the afternoon, maybe even the third one if I was inspired.
Once again, as the guys from Top Gear would put it (the good ones, not their replacements) I was ambitious but rubbish.
The first route I picked was the ascent to Forte Jafferau. The fort is an impressive construction perched atop a 2775-high metre mountain, Mont Jafferau, built by the Italians in 1896 and operative until the end of WWII, when it was destroyed by the French as part of the peace treaty conditions. The cable car that brought supplies to it from the valley is long gone, but the military road that leads up to it is still there and still belongs to the Italian army. Open to general traffic, it makes for a compelling offroad ride to one of the highest points you can reach on a motor vehicle.
There are three different ways to get to the fort: two start from the town of Millaures – one through the service roads of a skiing resort and the other one the old military road, the Strada militare n.218. The other one is the other end of the strada militare, starting in the town of Moncellier. I wanted to take the latter because it had an element that made it particularly interesting – shortly before joining the road coming up from Millaures this route burrowed under some cliffs in what was known as Galleria del Siguret, an unpaved tunnel with a steep uphill section that was always wet and slippery and which had a fearsome reputation.
I rode to the town of Moncellier first thing in the morning to try and avoid the heat that seemed to have set all over the Alps, and right at the junction that marked the start of the military road I found this sign:
My Italian is pretty limited, but I understood that the tunnel was closed to all kinds of traffic, including pedestrians, due to risk of collapse. I was not so clear about the ‘divieto di transito’ bit between kilometres 13 and 14. Did that refer to the section that was closed? Did it mean that there was a diversion bypassing the tunnel? I had no phone signal, so I could not Google-translate it nor text my sister, who is fluent in Italian. I thought that, since I was already there, I might just as well ride up and find by myself whether the road was passable or not.
As with any sport, I find that I need quite a while to warm up and be comfortable with offroading. I disconnected the ABS and the traction control and started riding up the track, feeling that it was a bit complicated for my liking. It was narrow, some parts were steep and there were loose stones here and there. But that was just because I was cold and needed some stretching.
After a while I grew more comfortable and started to enjoy it. Most of the road went through the forest, so there were no views to talk about, but from time to time I would catch a glimpse of the valley below and realise what a sheer drop there was to the bottom. Good thing that the forest was thick! My mind was already in full offroad mode when I reached a small col and found a line of rocks blocking the road and yet another sign announcing that the road was cut (this was the third one, in case I had not got the message), so, feeling brave, I decided to ignore the signs and the rocks, risk a fine from the Italian army (the signs said that it was an army decision to close the road), and ride on to see if the tunnel was passable.
I rode past the rocks and immediately found that the road had not been maintained from that point onwards. There were more ruts and rocks and some fallen trees, most likely downed by avalanches, intruded onto the road every now and then. I made my way as far as I could, but a small landslide stopped my progress a few hundred metres before the tunnel entrance. If I had been riding with more people we could have probably helped each other over the pile of rubble blocking the road. I tried on my own, but was too close to the edge for my comfort, a small mistake would see me fall down the side of the mountain, and with no phone signal and not a single soul on this route (people probably paid more mind to the signs than I did) that was a thought I did not relish. So I laboriously turned the bike around and gave up on that route, making my way down to the main road much faster now that I was already confident offroad.
Less than an hour later, I was at a road junction past Millaures looking at the same sign – Galleria del Siguret chiusa, pericolo crollo, blah, blah… but the route on this side reached the fort without having to go through the tunnel, so up I went. A good sign was that there was a lot more activity on this side of the road – mountain bikers, a few 4x4s parked by the road, a road maintenance crew working… The first section was a bit daunting – a series of very steep sharp corners that, while not a problem on the way up, could be difficult to negotiate on the way down, and as far as I knew at that point, with the tunnel closed there was no other way down. Just where the forest started to clear there was a small fort overlooking the valley, and I stopped to take some pictures. While I was busy exploring the place, a guy in a series 1 Africa Twin came down the road, turned into the fort, rode up some impossible path up the hill behind it, down an even more ridiculous rut and off again down the road I had come up by. I felt like a complete noob.
I went on and soon found a group of four guys – two Germans and two Italians – who were stopped at the intersection where the road went down to the tunnel. From there I had a perfect view of the col I had ridden to earlier in the morning, the road cutting across the mountain side to the tunnel and the tunnel entrance, with a big pile of rubble blocking the access. So, even if I had made it past the landslide, I would not have been able to ride through the tunnel. I joined that group for the rest of the way up to the fort, which was easier than the first bit through the forest.
The top of the mountain was busy – several 4x4s, lots of mountain bikers and a herd of sheep whose enormous shepherd dogs tried to bite my leg off as I rode past. The last stretch up the fort had been paved with stones once but was now so broken that it was horrible to ride, the bike shaking so violently that it felt as if something or other was going to fall off. The AT held together like a champ, though, and I made it to the col just below the fort without a hitch.
Being a mountaineer as well as a biker I thought that it was only decent to do the last hundred metres to the top on foot, so I left the bike there at the col and reached the fort and the summit of Mont Jafferau walking.
From the top, it was easy to see why the Italians had built a fort there. It offered a commanding 360 view, and its eight cannons must have reached far into French territory. As I was enjoying the view, a KTM and a new Africa Twin arrived and I overheard the riders speaking Catalan. If there is one thing you can be sure of, is that wherever you go in the world, you are likely to find a Catalan tourist. I was just not expecting to find some up here! It turns out they were from Tarragona, and had been already doing some tracks on the area for a few days. They had also tried to get to the tunnel but from this side, with no more success than I had had.
As I was saying goodbye, a big group arrived on quads from the other side of the fort. They had come up through a skiing resort on that side of the mountain, a route that I was thinking of taking not to repeat the same way down. I asked them about the state of the track, as the Germans I had met earlier had told me that they remembered it steep and rocky from past years, but these guys told me that it had just been redone by excavator, so there was no problem to ride it.
Well, redone it might have been, meaning that there were no big rocks on the way, but that did not make it any less steep. Not only that, the terrain was loose because of the ATVs and 4x4s, so it made for a very, very scary way down. I used first gear, trail braked with the back wheel, went as easy as possible with the front brake, and sweated and swore a lot for most of the way. I am by no means a talented offroad rider, rather the opposite, and I am sure that all credit for me making it safely down that track has to go to the bike and the Mitas tires, both of which performed admirably on those conditions.
I found a picnic table in the shade just outside Millaures and studied the list of offroad routes I had compiled while I was having lunch. My legs, arms, and back were sore from the way down, and for a second I was tempted to call it a day, but I felt that I still had time and it would be a pity not to do at least one more route, so I choose one that was not too far and did not seem too complicated from what I had read: the Strada dell’Assietta, a track along mountain crests between the Val Chisone and Val di Susa, also built by the military. More or less opposite where I had just been, it was supposed to have some of the best views in the area.
I rode to the skiing resort of Sestriere and, right where the road began, I saw another road sign announcing that the road was closed. Damn! I read the small print (only in Italian), and I guessed that what it said was that the road was closed on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Or was it from Wednesday to Saturday? Anyway, there was nothing blocking the access, so I went for it.
The ride reports I had found about this road put it at a similar level of difficuty as the route to Forte Jafferau but it was far from it. Maybe I was already fully into an offroad mindset, but this was a very easy track to ride with some of the best views you can find in the Alps. At just over 30km long, there is also plenty of time to enjoy it, and enjoy it I did. I stopped often to admire the views, had lots of fun riding the faster sections, and by the time it was over, there was no one in the world happier than me.
I joined the road again in Pourrieres, rode back to Sestriere and from there to France through the Col de Monegenèvre again. Riding down to Briançon I was stuck behind a very, very slow driver in an Audi A4 Allroad, and got so bored that I had these idea – I should start a charity that rescues good cars from shitty drivers. It is a shame that so many nice cars end up in the hands of lousy drivers than never drive them as they were meant to, so this organisation would take the cars away from them, find them new houses with keen drivers that would make sure they are driven properly and taken care of, and replace them with something more in line with their level of skill behind the wheel, such as a small Korean hatchback, a Kia Turd or a Daweoo Larvae. What do you think?
Back at the campsite there was one last surprise to round off a perfect day. Just as I sat at the terrace of the bar, ready to order a well-deserved beer, I spotted Harald, the German guy that I had met in Séez and who had recommended this place. He joined me at my table and we had a few beers together and talked about motorbikes and travels.
21.Col de Montegenèvre 1850m
22. Colle Basset (off) 2424m
23. Colle Bourget (off) 2299m
24. Colle Costa Plana (off) 2313m
25. Colle Blegier (off) 2381m
26. Colle Lauson (off) 2497m
27. Colle della Assietta (off) 2474m