The highest pass in the Alps

Day 4 – Thursday 3rd August – Séez to Briançon (227km)

 

Taking things easier is definitely worth it. Today I rode the second half of the route to Briançon, which I wanted to do in one day. Is it doable? Sure. Is it worth it? Definitely not. You might easily cover the distance in one day, particularly if you want to enjoy a good blast up the cols, but then there is no time to stop at the top of each one, take pictures, enjoy the view, chat to other bikers, have a drink, check the map, stretch your legs and rest for a while…

So take it easy I did. Even though I only covered 227km today, I got to the campsite in Briançon at about the same time as the previous days but a lot more relaxed, having enjoyed each and every one of the cols on my route today.

I set off an hour later than usual because I wanted the tent to dry up a bit – I hate to put it away damp – and used that time to enjoy a chat with a German biker who had camped next to me. We talked about the heat, riding routes in the region, motorbikes and so on, and he recommended a good campsite in Briançon.

Out of Séez, the D902 was full of traffic. I almost immediately run into a long, slow moving line of cars, vans, lorries, etc. which I started to overtake one by one as soon as there was a bit of straight road. It turned out that the reason for the hold-up was heavy lorry carrying an excavator – once past it, the road was mine and I enjoyed it to the fullest… until I heard the GoPro give its dying beeps, signaling the moment to replace the battery. ‘Not now!’ I thought. The ascent to Col d’Iseran, the highest in the route, was about to begin and I did not want the lorry and the dozen cars behind it to pass me. I pushed harder, hoping to open a gap big enough to be able to do a quick pit stop and keep my rivals behind me, F1 style. I pulled over when I reached Lac du Chevril, but then the views were so nice that I had to take a few pictures, completely neutralizing the advantage I had.

Sure enough, the lorry emerged from a tunnel down the road, it’s engine grumbling with the effort of carrying so much metal up the mountain and, to my surprise, it stopped where I was. He was letting cars pass, I imagined, a courtesy I had seen other trucks show towards the rest of road users, and a gesture many motorhome drivers should learn a lesson from. For the first time in the journey, it was getting quite cold, especially with all the vents in the suit open, so seeing that it would not get any warmer further up, I decided to take the chance and set about securing fasteners and closing zips. I was about to finish when I heard the air brakes of the lorry hiss, I turned around and saw it jerk into motion again and pull out in front of me while I gaped at it like an idiot with my jacket half done. Damn! The good news is that once I reached Val d’Isère, the famous ski resort, most of the traffic, including the lorry, disappeared, leaving the road clear for the guys in two wheels.

Col de l’Iseran, at 2,764m (the sign there reads 2,770m), is the highest paved pass in the Alps and offers impressive views over the Vanoise national park.

A lot of bikers had congregated there, but among all the machinery what drew my attention was a couple of 125cc motorbikes who had bravely made it all the way to the top, as well as a couple on a BMW who were travelling with a dog! Sporting a pair of Doggles, of course.

On the way down the road crosses the village of Bonneval-sur-Arc, a quaint cluster of typical alpine wooden houses that is as representative of the area architecture as it gets. Past the village the valley opens wide and the road travels through pine forests, gently losing altitude. So gently, in fact, that I almost missed the next col, one I was curious about. According to the map, it was called Col de la Madeleine, but I had already crossed a col with that name two days ago. Being a complete ignorant in Tour de France matters, I did not know which was the famous one and I wanted to compare them.  This one was nothing more than a slight bump at the end of the valley before the road went down to Lanslevillard, a rather flat affair with just a road sign indicating its existence. I guess the other one is the famous one, then.

Past Lanslevillard I took a small detour to the right. I had time and there was a col on one of the alternatives to the main route that I wanted to see, Col du Mont St-Cenis. I don’t know why I had decided that it was worth a detour, I did not know anything about it, maybe it was just instinct but it is definitely worth the time. The road was nice and empty, gaining altitude through a forest with some skiing slopes in it, and the col had beautiful views over the valley I had just left below but the best part was beyond the col – there is a beautiful lake with several forts along its shores. I decided to ride down to the dam and have lunch near some ruins overlooking the water, and that was how I ended up doing some unexpected bit of offroading.

A dirt track turned off the road above the ruins and I could see cars down by the water, so I figured it would be easy to get there and turned into it. The first few hundred meters were fine, but then I found a section with some ruts – that would not have normally been a problem, but I was going down and I had a fully loaded bike, so I was not entirely comfortable. However, there was no space to turn around, so down I went. To my relief, it was only a short bit, and then the track became easy again by the ruins. I stopped and had lunch enjoying the view and congratulating myself for my offroad prowess.

I took the same way back to the main road, which was rather unremarkable for a while. I stopped for supplies in Modane (cheese and wine, bien sûr!) and then headed for the next two cols of the day – Col du Télegraphe and one called simpy ‘Le Col’.

Feeling a bit drowsy after lunch, I decided to take a break in the bar at the top of Col du Télegraphe and order a coke. While a was there, three rather big old guys in Suzuki Intruders 250 pulled up, sat at the bar and ordered three beers. Way to go! I left and reached the town of Valloire without seeing the oddly named ‘Le Col’.

Two more passes to go only before the end of the day – Col du Galibier and Col du Lauteret. The ride up the first one was serious stuff – very tight hairpins, steep sections and sharp drops with no protection whatsoever but you know, no risk no rewards, and this was my favourite so far. It may not be the tallest, but it only lags about 100m behind Col de l’Iseran and has amazing views to both sides of the col, with a last section so steep that there is a tunnel to bypass it a few hundred meters below the top. Not that the tunnel helps much, mind you. With heavy wooden doors at its entrance, it is so narrow it only has one lane so traffic is regulated by a set of traffic lights. Oh, and caravans, vehicles taller than 4m and/or heavier than 19 tonnes cannot use it, meaning they have to negotiate the heart stopping last section at the top. A legendary pass.

The roads then leads down to Col du Lauteret, which I had crossed in 2013 on my way to conquer (or fail to conquer) the road to Mongolia. It was the only pass I crossed on my way east and I found it amazing. Coming down from the Galibier, however, it was rather underwhelming.

All that was left to do for the day was coast down the main road to Briançon and find the campsite that Harald, the German biker I had met in Séez, had recommended. Oh, and find a workshop where I could borrow some pliers. My stove was running out of fuel and with all the going up and down high passes the pressure differential had made it completely impossible to unscrew the filler cap.

I stopped at a petrol station in La Salle-les-Alpes, filled the tank, squirted some petrol into a plastic bottle for the stove and went over to the garage next door to ask if I could use their pliers. Only when I was going back to the bike did I notice that the place looked familiar. I had stopped to fill up in this very same place in 2013!

The campsite was just outside Briançon, but I had to cross it first, and it was hell. Temperature was over 30ºC even at this height, and there was a never-ending traffic jam in the centre. The campsite was nice, though, and I put up my tent ready to spend more than one night in the same place since the beginning of my trip. The following day I was going to remove the panniers and head to some of the offroad trails I wanted to do.

Col counter:

14. Col de l’Iseran 2764m

15. Col de la Madeleine 1746m

16. Col du Mt-Cenis 2081m

17. Col du Télégraphe 1566m

18. Le Col 1530m

19. Col du Galibier 2642m

20. Col du Lautaret 2058m

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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