Leaving Col de la Madeleine behind, we spooled downhill through comfortable lacettes, the French name for hairpins until reaching the ski station of Saint François-Longchamp 1650.
Then the road changes, it gets wider and the bends get more generous; the old ski-station effect again and on Harls I wasn’t complaining!
I pulled over in La Chambre and went to use an auto-teller machine at the Credit Agricole bank.
When I’m on my road trips in Europe I make extensive use of pre-load currency cards. That’s the sort where you shift money from your bank account and either withdraw when abroad or just use it as a charge card. I find that these cards work well for me; the exchange rates are normally very competitive, commission free, plus they don’t levy any foreign currency transaction fee as many credit cards and banks do and as my cards are Mastercard branded they are widely accepted.
There’s only one problem and it was about to give me a moment of stomach sinking near panic!
In France, when you use a bank card to purchase fuel at a supermarket service station it is normal practice for the seller to over-charge the card until the funds are released by the owning bank. Cheeky, but not unusual and perfectly legal. Normally then I don’t use my currency cards to purchase fuel, but for some reason I had forgotten in the early part of this trip.
I walked into the small ATM lobby, popped my card in the slot, entered my pin and asked for €500.
To quote a well-known British TV comedy programme, “Computer says No.”
I quickly checked the receipts in my wallet, thinking “I’ve not spent that much money in four days!”
Then it dawned on me, supermarket service stations, dammit!
I could have easily stuck a bank-card or credit-card in the ATM and made a withdrawal that way, but I didn’t want to give money to a bank for no reason, I’m mean like that! Thankfully there was a strong 4G signal and it only took a minute to transfer some funds from one account to my currency card, but curse those supermarkets!
Cash solvent again, we trundled into a local petrol station and filled up being careful which card to use…
The day was glorious. After a bit of low cloud and dullness on Madeleine we had ridden into wonderful warm sunshine. The day was still young, we didn’t really have far to go and the Alps were our playground; it would be rude not to enjoy them, actually no, it would be complete madness not to enjoy them!
La Chambre lies at the Northern foot of two iconic alpine cols, Col du Glandon and Col de la Croix de Fer. I had topped both previously, but as ever there was a route that I hadn’t tried…no prizes for guessing that I was on a mission.
We trundled seven miles East along the valley to St Jean de Maurienne and turned right onto one of the most delightful alpine roads that I have ever ridden.
Col de la Croix de Fer is a brute of a climb and I’m glad that I ride a motorbike, not a pedal cycle, even so it’s tough, very tough…but oh so impressively beautiful. The road climbs skywards and the bends come relentlessly; it’s almost impossible to get into any rhythm: bend, straight, bend, bend, straight, bend, climb, short straight, bend, long straight, drop, straight, bend…and so on! The shoulders start to get sore, tense, tired…. this is tough, very tough, but I wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world!
Col de la Croix de Fer is legendary. It’s been on the Tour de France itinerary since 1947 when Italian Fermo Camellini won the climb over the summit. On the side that we were climbing, following the D926, it was 22.7 km at an average gradient of 7.0%, we growled skywards and Harls loved it as much as me!
On such a beautiful day the Col was busy with families who had climbed by car from the easy Grenoble side; I didn’t begrudge them, if they wanted to drink in the beauty of the mountains, then that was cool with me. We paused at the Col, safe in the knowledge that we were 2067metres/6781feet above sea level, the air was still and pure and even though the sun beat down mercilessly, there was a distinct chill in the air.
From Croix de Fer the road drops for about a mile and then we took a right for the short climb to our next target, Col du Glandon. 1,924m/6,312 ft.
Poor old Glandon, overshadowed by its higher more glamorous neighbour with it’s iconic cross of iron and stunning views, but in it’s own way Glandon has a certain understated class. The col lies in a high natural bowl with buttresses of rocky mountain standing sentinel above. It lacks the far-reaching views of Croix de Fer, but it’s a solid place on a bare mountain; though not somewhere to be trifled with in bad weather when high winds whip across its bare slopes.
We descended on the D927 to St Etienne de Cuines. Another tough road, with relentless corners and a habit lower down of popping in and out of dense forest, it’s impossible to get into much of a rhythm, but a good excuse to stop and enjoy a picnic lunch!
Back in the valley we enjoyed a happy sprint to St Michel de Maurienne and turned onto our spiritual highway the D902.
That moment, turning right onto the D902, the “proper” Route des Grande Alpes, was special; this was the road to Col du Galibier!
I have a love affair, because that’s exactly what it is, with the mythical Galibier.
Today we were going back, again. Galibier keeps calling me and I can’t help but answer her by returning.
First though was the small matter of Col du Télégraphe.
Now “C du T” is often seen by many people as a minor prelude to the main event of Galibier, I was once one of those folk. Wrong!
Col du Télégraphe deserves respect in it’s own right, the climb is 878 metres at an average gradient of 7.4% and starts from that point that we turned right in St Michel. What’s even better is that it could have been made for a Harley Davidson Softail such as Harls, the way that the road is engineered somehow seems to suit the old girl and we flew up.
This was no deep-down-dig-in grunt. This was snarling Harley thunder and “Let’s scrape a few bits on the tarmac round some of the bends” fun! I haven’t thrown the old girl around like that in years, well not with luggage on board anyway and y’know she encouraged me!
I didn’t bother stopping at Télégraphe, or “Le Col” which followed a few kilometres on; the call from Galibier was getting stronger!
At 2642m/8667ft, Col du Galibier is not only one of the big players in the Alps, but also the whole of Europe, it’s number 5 in the “All Europe” list of paved passes.
After the alpine resort of Valloire the D902 enters hardening scenery and as it leaves behind the bridge at Plan Lachat you’d better believe that this is a serious road in tough yet achingly beautiful country.
The last of the winter snow was evident everywhere, in fact the pass road was only opened a week ago. I was thankful for my crash helmet’s built in sun visor as the glare was, at times, very bright.
We kept climbing and climbing and climbing with a heightening euphoria as we ate up the kilometres.
Over the last kilometre, tears were welling in my eyes; no I lie, they weren’t, they were running down my cheeks! And Harls? She had a little moment too, was that a bit of high altitude carburetor icing that made her catch her breath and cough or was she feeling the moment as well?
Harls and I were coming back to our spiritual home…. again.
We pulled over at the summit and I took a moment to compose myself, Harls sat there with her engine tinkling contentedly as he cooled.
I find it hard to explain just what a hold that this mountain has on me, it’s real, very real and I wouldn’t change the feeling for anything.
We took in the scenery, looked to the sky and were just glad to be there for that moment.
At the touch of a button Harls coughed back into life, time to move on, but we’ll be back!
The mountains call us all…
…it’s just how you answer, that is the difference.
Catch you soon.