In a very French way, Thierry, Alain and I all embraced before starting our engines high on the summit of Col de Vars. My friends were high-tailing off to Nice and the attractions of it’s night life, I was planning on a bit of exploring around the high alps from a base in Jausiers.
First though came the thrilling ride down into the Ubaye valley.
I know that I grumbled a bit about alpine valley roads in an earlier post, but the road through the Ubaye is however very different, in fact it’s delightful and really one of my favourites. To get there from Col de Vars you first have to drop off the side of a cliff…figuratively speaking, at falling gradients of 10%. The falling gradient is “interesting,” in some places there is very little in the way of a crash barrier, with dizzying drops just off the side of the road for the unwary, all around though is magnificent scenery in a quite unspoilt part of the alps.
The three of us wheeled around the various hairpins as the road tightly spooled down to St Paul sur Ubaye, from here to Les Gleizolles to gradient eases significantly and the route straightens inviting a touch of exhilarating, yet legal, speed! Hang a right at Les G and we are on the valley road, which has just been nicely resurfaced with lovely sticky black-top; here we go again, more fun!
Just on the outskirts of Jausiers I waved farewell to T & A as they took the Bonnette route to Nice and I trundled on to Barcelonette 15 kilometers further on down the valley road.
The pretty little town Barcelonnette is situated where the Ubaye valley begins to open into wide and fertile country. With a population of 2735 it’s the largest town in the valley, which gives an idea how small the other villages are!
Now though, I was going Col hunting again.
We crossed the river, headed South and picked up the D908, our target was Col d’Allos.
On our right was the turn for Pra Loup, we would be back here later in the day, but now it was time to concentrate.
Immediately the road narrowed and we seemed to leave civilisation behind. The gradient isn’t very testing on our side the ascent is 17.5 km long, climbing 1,108m/3,635ft at an average of 6.3%. So yes not the toughest that Harls and I had ever been on, it’s just a miracle that anyone bothered to build this road at all!
This road is, put simply, a minor civil engineering masterpiece and for that it’s very hard work to ride. It twists and climbs all the time clinging to the mountainside and seemingly courting oblivion. There are stunning bridges but in places it is narrow, very narrow, and not terribly well maintained. Blind bends disappear around outcrops of rock; run-off water flows across the tarmac and along deep gullies cut between the asphalt and the mountain. The slender ribbon ahead of us pierces the ancient forest of Sessile Oak, Quercus petraea, that itself is clinging to the mountainside. It’s a tad claustrophobic and the trees aid in keeping the road nicely slippery…even on a hot summer’s day, oh the joy of motorcycling!
Suddenly, we emerge from the trees into open rolling grassland with limitless skies and jagged peaks.With barely a fanfare we are at Col d’Allos and a more disappointing summit I’ve yet to find, but it’s all about the journey not the destination and that was some journey; I realise that I’ve hardly seen anyone since leaving the Pra Loup road!
It seems strange to almost immediately turn and retrace our tracks, but there’s something forbidding about Allos and I really don’t want to stay.
I written before how I feel that mountains have a character; I’ve spent so much time on them in my life not to have a feel for the high places. Some are benevolent places and welcome your company, whilst others are more unforgiving, call it malevolent if you like; Allos felt like one of the latter.
Carefully we retraced our path back down the mountain and paused at the turning for Pra Loup.
We were about to follow in the tyre-tracks of Tour de France history.
Pra Loup is another of those out of season French ski resorts that resemble high altitude ghost towns up in the clouds during summer and yes, generally I don’t like them.
Not all of them have a road like Pra Loup.
It’s because of that road that I like Pra Loup an awful lot!
From the junction with the D908 there are around twenty bends of just about every type of geometry possible before the road reaches the ski station. In addition, the road is wide, grippy and smooth. Today it was also empty; time to play and after the concentration of Allos Harls and I needed to let off steam!
Pra Loup hosted the finish of the 15th Stage of Le Tour de France in 1975 and is generally thought to be the place where the legendary Belgium cyclist Eddy Merckx, nicknamed “The Cannibal,” finally had his grip on Le Tour taken from him. On that day, the stage was won by French rider Bernard Thévenet, who absolutely destroyed Merckx on the final climb into Pra Loup. The French are still celebrating that victory today and as I youngster I can still vividly remember the amazement when the great Merckx was beaten!
On the site of the finish line, Thévenet’s victory is still celebrated!
Of course, years later we all discovered that Thévenet was stoked full of steroids…
No matter, today and definitely without steroids, we were about to ride this brilliant road!
What was it like?
Fantastic, noisy, hard work, exhilarating and just bloody fantastic!
“Take me where the eagles fly, let me ride along the open road.”
Catch you soon.
Beautiful photos HD, as always. Would be interesting to know what it is about Allos that gives you the “willies”. My wife had a similar feeling when visiting the Four Corners here in the States. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but just said “we need to leave here right now.” We did. She does have a well developed sixth sense.
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I can’t say what it was about Allos, it didn’t exactly give me the willies, I just didn’t feel very welcome.
Love the way you write Dookes. I enjoyed the story of The Cannibal very much. I understand how you feel about some mountains. I remember driving the Alpine Way in Australia and I stopped to take some photos of a creek and bridge. I had an eerie feeling about the place. I left the engine running as I felt that if I shut it off it might not restart. Wierd, eh?
Thank you Les, I’m pleased that you enjoy my writing and stories.
You know, it’s not surprising that the land has in places a certain “Spirit” after all it’s been there for a lot longer than any of us! I suspect that it’s us “Westerners” who have largely lost touch with the land. Around the world indigenous people, such as in Australia and North America still have that connection, I believe that we are the poorer ones for loosing it.
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I must agree. There is a lot more to life than we know.
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So this is the first post of yours that I have read in a while (because of my crazy schedule!) I know I’m out of order but whatever… And once again I’m spellbound by your descriptions Dookes. You are like an old soul writing about friends that you have known for centuries… Some friendly, some not so friendly. And of course I like your TdF story! Is that where Merckx was punched in the stomach?
Thanks AGMA. The funny thing is with some of these mountains, I really do feel like I have known them for centuries!
In answer to your TdF question…No, Pra Loup wasn’t where Merckx was punched, that happened two days previously on the Puy de Dôme near Clermont-Ferrand. After the assault a local man named Nello Breton was arrested, charged and subsequently convicted, he was fined one franc!
The day that Thévenet beat Merckx was brutal, with five major climbs, culminating in Pra Loup, it was the last time that Merckx would ever wear the yellow jersey.
Interestingly, Thévenet once described the descent of Col d’Allos as “the nastiest, most dangerous descent in France.” It’s certainly a technical and difficult road and definitely not one that I’ll be heading back to in any hurry.
On the other hand…don’t try keeping me away from the 6.5km heaven that is Pra Loup next time I’m in those parts, it’s just so much fun!
Catch you soon, Dookes