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Aged Hog Rider still blow-lamping the candle in the middle!

RDGA 3 – Col De l’Iseran

Our RDGA odyssey continues…

Following on from my last post; as we swept downhill into Bourg St Maurice my mind was racing with excitement, l’Iseran was open!

I confess. There are times that I let superlatives run away with me just a bit, but promise me this…if you ever go to the French Alps go to Col de l’Iseran.

At 2770 metres, not only is it the highest Col on La Route des Grandes Alpes, it’s also the highest paved mountain pass in the whole of Europe.

It’s also amazingly beautiful.

The news from Thierry was brilliant, sort of.

Yes, the pass had been opened after the snow had damaged a bridge at Pont St Charles, but tomorrow it was going to be closed from 08:00hrs for, you guessed it, a blasted cycling event!

I had a choice. Get up mega early, miss breakfast and beat the 08:00 closure or ride the pass tonight and take the alternative and actually the original RDGA over Col de la Madeleine tomorrow.

By way of a small explanation, when the Route des Grandes Alpes was first created in 1907, the road over Col de l’Iseran didn’t exist; all that crossed the high pass was a rough track used by alpine farmers. The original route crossed over Col de la Madeleine, which is about 46km to the West of l’Iseran as the crow flies. If we went that way, we were still staying true to RDGA and as a bonus crossing yet another high col, cool!

Grabbing fuel in Bourg, I told Thierry and Alain that I would ride l’Iseran that evening.

Thierry grinned and shrugged his shoulders,
“Toujours le Gallois fou!” – “Always the crazy Welshman!”

“Qu’est-ce qui ne va pas se saouler avec nous, eh?” – “What’s wrong with getting drunk with us, eh?’ He roared.

Alain rolled his eyes skyward, he’d been there before!

Another biker overheard us and tentatively asked if it was correct that l’Iseran was open. He introduced himself as Jake from Austria, he also rode a big Harley and that was how I left my two French pals behind and set off for the big Col with another rider of Milwaukee’s finest!

Jake leans into a bend on l’Iseran.


From Bourg St Maurice the D902, that fine road again, sets out on a steady climb south whilst all the time the massive bulk of l’Iseran looms above. The ribbon of tarmac punctures the mountain through various tunnels and skirts the hydroelectric dam of Lac du Chevril. At the famous alpine village of Val d’Isère, birthplace of alpine legend Jean-Claude Killy, things take on a turn for the serious and the climb really asserts itself.

Pont St Charles, which was supposed to have been decimated by snow, looked benign and not very damaged at all. We now had to climb nearly 1000 metres in just about seven kilometres, that’s steep.

When the pass road here was opened in 1937 it made the modern Route des Grandes Alpes possible. I’m very glad that it did too. The road isn’t a difficult climb, certainly Jake and I had no trouble with our big American machines, but it is impressive and just never stops climbing until you reach the rocky wind ravaged summit.

The reward for the climb is just wonderful.

Majesty is too light a word for it; I could stay up on these high places forever and maybe one day some dust from me may well do that; that’s for others to sort. These places are my spiritual home; this is where I get to make sense of the world and my insignificant place in it. This is where I feel at one with the universe and touch inner peace. This also why I come here alone, so I can immerse myself in the sheer beauty of the place without any distractions; yes it’s very selfish, but hey at least I’m honest about it!

This wasn’t the first time that Harls and I had been here; we’d visited twice before and you can read about some of those adventures by clicking here.

This was the first time though that we’d ridden up the North side.

I took the decision to stay the night in Val d’Isère and not to push on over into the Arc valley. Descending to Bonneval sur Arc is pleasant enough, but after Lanslebourg the traffic always gets ghastly around Modane and the Fréjus tunnel; plus I now wanted to have some fun on the North side of Col de la Madeleine next day.

With a happy heart I turned Harls back towards Val d’Isère and our hotel.

What a day!

We’d covered 236 hard miles and topped six of the RDGA Cols for an altitude gain of around 5189 metres; pretty good for an old Harley and an even older geezer!

I could feel the reward of a small cold beer coming on…

“You will always keep me flying high in the sky”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Route des Grande Alpes -2, Getting Going.

Here we were then, finally starting out on La Route des Grande Alpes.

Excited? Nah, it was more than that; call it the beginning of fulfilment if you like, but definitely much more than excitement!

In scorching sunshine we negotiated the traffic out of Thonon and then, on a roundabout, saw that first magical sign telling us we were on the RDGA and the road number D902; it was like coming home.

The funny thing about climbing over mountain passes is that you tend to spend a lot of time in valleys; it’s a geography thing you know, taking the easiest way. The first pass on the trip was to be Col des Gets, a baby at 1170m, but to get there we started to track the gorge of the River Dranse de Morzine. Ahead the mountains peered at us giving tantalising glimpses of the delights that lay ahead.

Thirty three kilometres later we trundled through the ski station of Les Gets and searched for a clue as to exactly where the Col was…nope no sign at all!

The trouble with some parts of the French Alps are the ski stations…during the winter sports season these places come alive and are vibrant, but during the summer most become semi-ghost towns. Some stations try to encourage different visitors and as we passed through Les Gets the place was crammed full of mountain bikers; a lesson in diversification, I just wish that they would look before blindly jay walking into the path of an oncoming Harley Davidson! We had a couple of close ones in Les Gets…

The sun really was burning down on us now, hot and high in UV rays.

We swung effortlessly through the hairpins dropping down into the valley and the town of Cluses.

The thermometer rose accordingly and hit 35ºC, not nice in motorcycle leathers.

Cluses is a funny little town, it’s been bisected by the A40 Autoroute and resonates to the rumbles of intercontinental traffic that passes through the Mont Blanc tunnel. Despite this the town maintains a dignity that others who have prostituted themselves to the internal combustion engine can only aspire to. It’s wide main street is bedecked in flowers and trees that serve to soften the impact of the nearby highway.

Leaving Cluses behind our road changed number to the D4 and we began the first big one, 19 kilometres of climbing to Col de la Colombière 1613metres.

Not only was Colombière he first of our classic Cols, this was also the first of the legendary Tour de France passes that we were to cross. As we left Cluses I looked up, there was a wall of mountain ahead of us, this was going to be fun!

The gradient tightened a bit, well, a fair bit if I’m honest and eased as we trundled through the pretty mountain village of Le Reposoir and collected a fun series of hairpins. Then bang, the mountain asserted itself with a gradient of 9% for about 5km. We passed the tree line and the road began to hug the mountainside, first with verdant slopes next a jagged rock-face as the grade hit 10% around a kilometre before the knife-edge summit. One second we were climbing, next we were going downhill, there was no triumphant plateau to enjoy, just up and down!

Dropping down from Colombière, sorry about the bugs on the lens!


The climb should have been both a breeze and a pleasure, but the road was packed with leisure cyclists on another cycling event. As a result, progress was slow and tricky.

My friend Thierry, who lives in Thonon, summed it up well:

“In the mountains the motards (motorcyclists) enjoy the road; the velos (pedal cyclists) think that they own the road; the car drivers are afraid of the road and the locals wish that everyone would go away and leave them their own road!”

So from that I guess I shouldn’t complain…

Following the summit of Colombière the road sweeps majestically through a series of hairpins and ski stations into Le Grand Bornand, again almost deserted in high summer.

We turned left at St Jean de Sixt onto the D909, which through the village of La Clusaz was quite busy, not helped by narrow streets and various pedestrian, traffic calming ideas. This was, I must confess, a tad tedious!

By way of apology the road rose and rewarded us with a series of six wonderful hairpins that clung to towering rock faces as we climbed the short distance to Col des Aravis, 1486m. Aravis was OK, a bit commercial with a handful of shops selling local produce and a couple of small restaurants, this is France after all, but it was all done in quite a tasteful way.

Descending from Aravis there were more hairpins that fed us into the Gorges de l’Arondine and across the D1212 mainroad to start the climb to Col des Saisies. From Flumet we were back into ski country, the climb was pleasant enough, but marred a bit by the semi-redundant ski ephemera that dotted the mountainsides. Like Les Gets, the actual Col des Saises lies in a sprawl of ski station.

I think I’d better make it up to the Ski-Stations now, because there is one very good thing about Ski-Stations and that is the roads up to them! You see, many of the winter clientele of these resorts get there by bus/coach and to make this happen, particularly on hairpins the roads have to be nice and wide. In fact very wide in places, which makes them absolutely lovely to ride on a motorcycle, just like the D218b from Saisies to Beaufort!

I’ll tell you more about another epic ski station road in a future post…

Our final climb of the day began in Beaufort and is another of the Tour de France legends, Le Cormet de Roselend. What’s it like? Steep, very steep and also mightily impressive, opening up onto vistas of almost biblical proportions; oh I’d better say that I liked it, a lot!

On the road to Cormet de Roselend.

There was, right to the last-minute, a doubt about crossing Roselend. Last winter had seen unprecedented snowfalls in the Haut Alps and many roads had been damaged or were still blocked by snow or mud. Roselend had mud, but I’m pleased to say had been opened only a few days before we were due over.
The highest pass of La Route des Grandes Alpes, Col de l’Iseran remained shut, we were having to rethink our plans…

Roselend has bends, lovely bends!


The summit of Cormet de Roselend is a throwback to more civilised times. There is the traditional marker stone, but also a chap with a small stall selling his own locally produced sausages and sandwiches containing sausages. That’s it, oh yes it’s also 1976 metres above sea level, though strangely the summit sign says only 1968m!

As I was munching my newly bought sandwich, my mate Thierry and his buddy Alain arrived from Thonon. Usual pleasantries were exchanged, actually more like insults about our different motorbikes!

Thierry is the image of a wild biker; not very tall with long hair, nicotine stained fingers and a smile with more than a few teeth missing…he is also a senior civil servant for the French Government. On his waist he wears what appears to be a large knife, it’s actually a bottle opener!

Alain is more refined, as befits an academic, but like his pal and I, he shares a passion for motorbikes and the mountains.

“Hey Dookes, bons information”
“Hey Dookes, good news!” Exclaimed Thierry.

“L’Iseran ouvert seulement ce matin, c’est bon oui?”
“L’Iseran opened only this morning, that’s good, yes?”

No that wasn’t good, it was bloody fantastic!

I’ll tell you more about that next time, but first we had to descend the 21 hairpins down 20 kilometres into Bourg St Maurice, we were like birds soaring on thermals in the sky.

Time for another big smile!

“Ride it on out like a bird in the sky ways,
Ride it on out like you were a bird.”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

It’s Still Hot in the Autumn!

Hello dear blogonaughts and once again apologies for my enforced continued absence, but here’s a funny thing…this year, every time I visit France it’s hot!

Mrs Dookes and I have been crazy-stupid busy of late, so we decided to pop over here for a short break. Nothing too special, just find a gîte on the border of Brittany and Le Pays de Loire then relax, oh and eat nice food along with a little taste of the regional wine. Add in some exploring of local towns, then gentle evening walks to watch the sun set and we are happy.

Vitré, Le Chateau

We didn’t expect temperatures nudging 30ºc and UV levels high enough to cause a leather belt to get sun-tan! Not that either of us are complaining, far from it. Toss into the mix our own private swimming pool and life is more than pretty good.

Oh, yes it’s also our anniversary…so life is very good.

Thank you Mrs D for all those wonderful years…even if you frequently drive me up the wall!!!! – Of course I’m perfect….not!

Our arrival en France has happily coincided with a number of “Foire aux Vins” (wine fairs) in the local supermarkets.

Recently, that’s in the last ten years, there’s been an interesting trend in wine consumption in France. The country has moved away from the traditional and somewhat stereotypical consumption of “rot-gut” reds towards a much more refined “Quality over Quantity” approach. As a result, the availability of good, nay gorgeous, drinkable yet affordable wines has seen a rapid increase.

I’m not going to complain about that at all.

These days old Dookes has a bit of the old type-two diabetes and wine can play havoc with my internal system. As a result I work on the basis that if I’m going to feel awful later, then I’ll bloomin’ well drink good stuff first!

….and there’s an interesting thing. With better, much better, quality wine I don’t get to feel so bad either!

The only down side is that I’m here on four wheels, not two. In fact I haven’t riden either of my lovely Harley’s since I got back from our Route des Grande Alpes trip in July, which is very sad! Talking of which, the next stages in that adventure will be published very soon, so please sick around for that.

Like I said, life has truly been hectic for both of us in the past few months and it’s really nice to get to spend some quality time with each other. It’s thanks to Mrs D that I have my love affair with La France. In our early days she took me to this wonderful country and introduced me to its culture and people. I was dead jealous that she could speak the language and I couldn’t; so I went off to evening classes and did the hard yards. I wouldn’t say that I’m totally fluent, but I do ok and if a French person compliments me on my grasp of their language, then I’m more than happy.

The upshot is that I get so much more out of my time in France, purely because I speak the language. I’m not bad in German, Italian and a bit of Spanish too….oh and of course Welsh, but I’m really rusty in that nowadays!

Now dear blogonaughts, promise me this; even if you can’t speak a word of another language, encourage a youngster to get out there and learn. You might just set them up on a career for life, but at the very least they’ll get to experience another country from the inside, not just as another blasted tourist!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

La Route des Grandes Alpes – The Beginning.

All road trips have a beginning, it’s one of those things that just have to be; like the sun coming up in the morning or that eventually rain has to stop.

The thing is though, “The Beginning” is often not where you’d think it is…

In the case of my Route des Grandes Alpes trip, let’s just call it RDGA from now on, “The Beginning” happened quite a few years back in the lobby of a small hotel in Jausiers, right in the heart of the French Alps.

I was waiting to pay the bill and was idly scanning the leaflet rack on the hotel reception desk; you know the sort of display with all the local tourist attractions and suchlike?

My eye was caught by an interesting leaflet, it was about something called “La Route des Grandes Alpes.” I picked it up and immediately became fascinated. The document contained a map and description of a fantastic itinerary that stretched from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean Sea.

This was all new to me, but something I resolved to look into once I got home.

….and then began a bit of an obsession!

First though, a little bit of background:

The construction of the route started in 1909 at the instigation of the French Automobile Touring Club. At this time the Alps were quite an isolated region of France, roads were poor and access very limited. By constructing the new road the French Government recognised that the potential economic benefit for the alp region would also assist mobilisation of military units to defend high alpine border areas.

Construction of the road was completed in 1937 and for two years it became an important arterial route from North to South, but then in 1939 came the Second World War and thoughts of alpine tourism disappeared. Post war, the development of French motorways saw the route slip back into it’s original purpose, tourism and I’m very glad that it did too!

It’s fair to say that the route has been adjusted over the years, but I guess that’s the organic nature of it. Originally it took in the Chamonix valley and ended in Nice, but today has been diverted over the scenic Col de la Colombière and terminates in Menton. I’m quite glad that Chamonix is now avoided; traffic there is very heavy these days and no fun at all if you are in holiday mode!

Anyway, back to the leaflet…

Once I got back to Dookes H.Q. I studied everything I could about RDGA. I’d already ridden bits of it, but to string the whole thing together in one go was an enticing and mouth-watering prospect!
I resolved to ride it, one day…

The trouble with “One Day” is that often it never comes!

I had other places that I wanted to go explore; new places, new adventures.

“One Day” was put on the back burner.

I returned from the Dolomites last September and pondered what could be the next trip. I quite fancied a long expedition to Scandinavia, but at over 5000 miles perhaps it was just a bit too far and slightly, well very, unfair to Mrs Dookes if I disappeared for a month!!

RDGA was looking like a pretty good option.

Fast forward to a hot sunny day in mid June this year.

After two days of hot heavy-duty mile munching, riding from Roscoff in Brittany and covering 650 miles across France, Harls and I were in Thonon les Bains on the Southern shore of Lake Geneva.

We found the Hôtel de Ville, the town hall, and turned onto the cobbled square in front of it.

We were finally about to start “La Route des Grandes Alpes.”

The town of Thonon les Bains has embraced La RDGA and pride of place in the square is a lovely bronze plaque that marks the start of the route.

Strictly speaking the square is for pedestrians only, but no-one seemed too bothered when I trundled Harls over the cobbles and parked her by the plaque for a quick photo!

Then it was time to go, La RDGA was finally happening. I wasn’t excited, no, this was far more than that, this was the beginning of fulfilment!

Stick around for more of the story.

“The mountains call us all, the only difference is what we say back.”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Where Have I Been?

Well, that’s a pretty good question at the moment…

Certainly since I got back from my last trip I’ve not been anywhere near a motorcycle nor had the opportunity to sit down and write anything for my blog….which is bad for lots of different reasons!

I do seem to spend a fair bit of time apologising to you regular Blogonaughts, but what else can I do when I neglect you so much???

OK, I lied a little…I did give Harls a good wash and polish shortly after our “Route des Grande Alpes” trip, but honestly that’s it. Today I promised myself a short ride out, but crappy weather and roads busy with holiday traffic have put me off. I know, whimp!

So why the absence?

Well, it’s a short four letter word…work!

Yes, I know, I’m supposed to be retired, but sometimes when something “interesting” comes along I’m a bit of a sucker for saying, “Sure, I can help you with that.” I’m a particular soft touch if it falls into my sphere of expertise of transport or heritage stuff, or worse a combination of both.

I have a little rule not to discuss these business things in my blog, it’s part of my confidentiality thing with clients, so you’ll just have to bear with me; one day I’ll tell all though! In the meantime, be happy for me, because I’m doing something that I both love and feel is very worthwhile.

Meanwhile, life is stupid-crazy-busy, very tiring, a bit stressy, yet bloody fascinating at the same time…!

Then in the odd quiet moment I close my eyes and let the memories flood in; I’m back on Harls as she growls at the mountains and we conquer yet another high peak. Memories can be fantastic things and probably the greatest single confirmation of our human existence. Sure, I know that there are bad memories too, but hey, the good ones can be great!

That whole “Route des Grande Alpes” trip filled my memory data bank with so many great moments; I’m going to have a wonderful time re-running it all in the coming months here in the blog and I do hope that you all stick around to read it.

In the meantime her’s a taste of what’s to come….
Cool eh?

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Last Night Blues? – Nah!

Well dear Blogonaughts, Harls and I are back in Brittany and enjoying the last night of our Route des Grande Alpes odyssey.

This will be our last “On Tour” blog post report, once I get home I’ll start writing up the trip in more detail and publishing it; I hope you stick around to see that, as amongst other things I’ve got some fantastic photographs to share.

Last night’s stopover in Bourgueil was extremely comfortable. Every few nights I like to slightly up the standard and enjoy a bit of extra comfort, I’m getting on a bit you know and need all the help I can get!

The region of the Loire Valley around the pretty town of Bourgueil (say “Bur-gui”) is noted for it’s splendid red wines. In fact they are well up there on Mrs Dookes’ favourites as they are not too heavy and retain a degree of fresh fruit. Only a few miles down the road is Touraine, where white wines rule the roost, again another on Mrs D’s likes list.

The difference in wine types over such a small distance is all a matter of what the French call “Terroir,” an almost indefinable difference in the type of soil, aspect and geography that suits one grape type better than others and can even make wine from the same grape taste very different. I once tried to explain this to a friend who was convinced that a €1 bottle of wine tasted as good as a €20 bottle…I gave up in the end!

Trust me though, it does make a difference!

The vines of Bourgueil, just quietly waiting to produce great wine!


Anyway, back to the biking…

We had a fairly relaxed 220 mile trundle today; the new lower French speed limit of 80 kph was actually quite relaxing on the affected roads that we used and didn’t seem to add much to our journey time either. Thankfully there was some cloud cover and as a result temperatures were a bit lower, it was still hot on occasions though.

It’s probably a good job that this blog doesn’t come with smell, as after two weeks of the crazy temperatures that we’ve had my riding gear is…disgusting! I’m going to hang it on a line and give it all a good hose off with high pressure water when I get home! That’s if I am let in the house, I have a vision of Mrs D refusing to let me in until I change clothes out in my workshop; ah, the trials of the long distance motorcyclist!

Talking of long distance, today we tipped our hat to 2700 miles total for the trip so far, or 4345 kilometres if you prefer. Sure if you divide by the number of days it’s not crazy per day, but some of those days were hard ones, very hard.

Tonight I’m just sitting quietly enjoying a splendid meal and pondering on where we have been, what we have seen, the people who we met and the roads that we have travelled.

It really has been quite a journey.

Was La Route des Grande Alpes a monkey on my back before we set out?

Well, maybe, but not in a sinister way like the “Beast of Stelvio” was. Click here for that story!

Once we rode onto the epic route in Thonon les Bains it just seemed to give and give; I cant wait to tell you more about it.

For now, with a splendid meal in front of me and a glass of very nice claret to hand I’m happy, very happy indeed. Job done and done with my friend Harls, who else!

Tomorrow we go home and what could be happier than that?

“Roll, roll me away,
I’m gonna roll me away tonight
Gotta keep rollin, gotta keep ridin’,
keep searchin’ till I find what’s right”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Interference and Remembrance

As you all know I really love my old Harls.

Some of you however, will not appreciate that she is also a link to two long departed special people. Today and the previous few days were the anniversary of the passing of Trudie and Andy.

Both taken too young and both missed immensely.

You can read more about them and their link with Harls here.

I was thinking about the two of them today when I stopped at a service station that claims to be to be at the very centre of France on the A71 AutoRoute.

Then when I came to leave all hell let loose!

Harls wouldn’t respond to either of my key fobs and when I tried to start her the alarm went off, again and again!

Strangely no-one challenged me…

I wandered into the shop and asked if they had any batteries for my alarm?

“No“ was the answer; “But if it’s your motorbike, try pushing it down the slope, it happens all the time, it’s the radio antenna!”

OK, known problem eh?

Well, I pushed Harls down the slope and yes there was a blasted great 100 metre tall radio mast right next to the service area, but no she still wouldn’t play nice. In fact she went even more peculiar on me. There were lights flashing all over the place and all sorts of previously unheard squawks emanated from her!

At times like these you need a friendly voice, so I called my good friends at Plymouth Harley Davidson back in the UK.

Luckily Dealer Principle Chris answered the phone and within a few minutes I was talking to Chief Technician Dave – this is Dave who loves Harls almost as much as I do and frequently threatens to take her from me if I don’t look after her!

We talked through the issue and Dave came up with some suggestions, which I went away to try.

Nothing doing.

I really appreciated the effort and support from those guys back at Plymouth Harley Davidson, it”s good to know that you have a friendly, helpful voice at the other end of the phone even if they are 1000 miles away!

Whilst I was scratching my head a car drew up and a chap got out who introduced himself as a local Harley rider.

“That m%#@e mast has got you brother!” he exclaimed, then went on to tell me that lots of local French Harley riders have had the same problem that I was experiencing.

Thanks, but how did they get out of it?

“On a truck!” – Not greatly encouraging…

Then another chap arrived on the scene. He’d been having lunch with his family and had seen my predicament. It turned out that he was an electronics engineer and had experienced similar problems throughout France.

His African-French accent was quite difficult to understand, but he told me that the French are not very good about thinking of the effects of either High-Tension power lines or Microwave Transmitters on other electronic devices when such things are built.

He came up with a suggestion to try with one of my key-fobs; take the power cells out of both and stack them than use a key to make the circuit, briefly press the button and see what would happen.

Bingo! It worked!

I suppose that the extra power was enough to override the interference; I don’t really care, I’m a mechanical engineer and although I understand electronics. They are a bit of a black art to me!

Harls burst into life and sat burbling contentedly.

The funny thing was that for an hour and forty minutes I didn’t get worked up or cross; Trudie was holding my hand and Andy was trying to find a solution – I was not alone.

Then for the next 150 miles they rode with Harls and I, again.

Catch you soon.

Dookes