The emotional high that is Col du Galibier refreshed my inner soul and left me with a glow of euphoria and peaceful happiness. Our stop for the night was a delightful Auberge within sight of the mountain and on the bank of a rushing stream who’s sweet music of babbling water lulled me to sleep after a hearty supper of honest mountain food. It had been a very good day indeed.
I woke early, bright sunshine burst through my east facing bedroom window and I took a few moments to stand on the balcony and enjoy the new day.
My phone buzzed and a text message arrived. It was Thierry.
“Hé Gallois, tu es réveillé? Nous nous retrouverons sur D’Izoard à 10h00!”
“Hey Welshman, are you awake? We’ll meet on D’Izoard at 10:00!”
Typical T, straight to the point…I typed my reply.
“Bien sûr, a dix heurs, a bientôt!”
“Certainly, at ten o’clock, see you later!”
Glancing at my watch, it was seven-thirty. That gave me two and a half hours to have breakfast, check and load Harls, top up with fuel in Briançon and cover the forty kilometers to Col d”Izoard. No problem.
I generally like breakfast in the mountains, no that’s wrong…I love breakfast in the mountains! I find that altitude gives me a tremendous appetite and mostly the good proprietors of mountain accommodation realise this in many people and therefore breakfasts are often superb. This morning was no exception, with generous quantities of bread, croissants, cheese, ham, sausage, confits of various fruit, nuts, yogurt and fruit; it quite set me up for the day ahead!
I turned Harls onto the D 1091 and rode just a few miles into Briançon. Once a strategic point on the border between France and Italy, the town still retains it’s impressive Vauban designed fortress that dominates the four mountain roads radiating from here. Today the town is dedicated to tourism and mostly to the demands of winter sports; it’s a pretty enough place in parts, it’s just that those parts don’t really appeal to me!
On top of that, whenever I’m here the place always seems to resemble a giant construction site. Today was no exception. The traffic ground to a halt in an all too familiar pattern. I sighed to myself, “Here we go again!”
Now the great thing about motorcycles is that we can do something that here in the UK we call “Filtering” and in other parts of the world is called “Lane-splitting.” Basically, it means that we can get through whilst all the vehicles with a wheel on each corner can’t. It can be a tricky undertaking; actually it can be darn right dangerous, but if you take it steady and stay sensible you’ll be ok. The trick is to always have an escape route, not be too ambitious and have a place to go if option one closes up on you.
I checked my mirrors then glanced over my left shoulder, we call it a life-saver, and set about slowly and steadily moving up along the line of traffic. It didn’t take long to get to the front of the queue where a truck had broken down and then we were through.
I turned Harls into a service station and filled her up.
Col d’Izoard here we come.
The funny thing about the road to Col d’Izoard in Briançon is that it seems to be a bit of a secret. Sure there are signs, but not very good ones and generally not very well placed or helpful; fortunately I knew exactly which way to go. Once you find the right road, my old friend the D902 again, there’s no mistake as the tarmac seems to aim skywards straight away.
It’s all a bit of a con really.
After a couple of kilometres the road levels and then actually starts to fall, but then the real work begins with a gradient of around 7% up the valley to the village of Cervières. Here the road changes as you swing right and get your first clear glimpse of the mountain ahead and turn due South.
The slope gets steeper yet the road stays straight until we pass the hamlet of Le Laus where the turns begin. For the next five kilometres we enjoy some of the most delightful twisty roads that I have ever ridden anywhere. The high forest closes in on us as we tackle sweeping corners and ramps up to 20%, this road is tough, very tough. Previously here I’ve seen vehicles on their roofs in the woods and once one on fire, melting the tarmac as it blazed!
Hairpins in the forest, simply magical!
Passing the last trees it’s like shifting onto another planet, with sandy scree slopes and barren rocky vistas guarding the final assault to the summit; I love this road and I love teasing the tarmac with a little tickle from Harls exhaust pipe as we lean through the tight right-handers!
The Col is busy; lots of people are enjoying the gloriously hot weather. It’s a cosmopolitan mix of bikers, cyclists, car-drivers and even motor home tourists; I can hear at least eight different European languages being spoken. It feels nice, everyone is relaxed and happy, there’s a lot of smiling going on.
At 2360m, 7743ft, Izoard is right up there with the big ones.
I look around for Thierry and Alain. No sign as yet, so I set off to explore and take a few photographs; even it altitude it’s quite hot walking around in motorbike gear and I soon work up even more of a sweat than just riding up here.
Wandering back I see my French friends pull up next to Harls; she’s quite a distinctive lady and not hard for them to spot!
We exchange the usual pleasantries and insults.
Thierry calls Harls “Un tracteur Américain,” “An American tractor,” I call his Honda a pile of c**p and honours are even! I ask how they are?
Alain smiles, “Oh not bad, it was all going so well on just beer until someone hit the Genèpi!”
Alain grins at looks at T; yes T does look at bit fragile!
Alain speaks reasonable English and we frequently have conversations that mix our two languages. T mainly just speaks French, with the odd word of English, usually a swear word, thrown in and often followed by a bellowing laugh!
At this point I need to explain about Génépi, which is a traditional herbal liqueur or aperitif made and popular in the Alpine regions of Europe. The drink’s flavour and colour comes from alpine plants of the genus Artemisia, commonly called Wormwood, of course in large quantities Wormwood is in fact poisonous! It’s fair to say that the flavour of Génépi can be an acquired taste, personally I like a small one from time to time.
Unfortunately, it seemed that T had tried more than just a small one!!! The stuff isn’t exactly fire-water but its not far removed…and at 40% alcohol by volume should be respected!
Alain and I sniggered, in the way that sensible people who haven’t had a skin-full the night before can do; T just looked fragile and lit a cigarette, “Bâtards!” he growled at us, but the grin on his face gave the game away and we all collapsed with laughter.
Dropping down the South side of d’Izoard we soon reached the famous Casse Déserte with barren scree slopes punctured by pinnacles of weathered rock. These ancient limestone rocks were formed on the bottom of a prehistoric ocean before geological pressures propelled them skywards and weathering formed the dramatic landscape. The Casse has frequently been a dramatic backdrop to some key moments in the Tour de France. It’s not really a desert, it just looks like one.
Casse Deserte, special, very special.
I stop to take in the view and grab a photo of my friends riding through this iconic spot, they return the favour a short distance down the road.
T and Alain speed through Casse Deserte.
We wheel down the slope, sweeping through more testing hairpins that never fail to bring a smile to my face, once that is, I’ve concentrated on riding through them!
It’s fair to say that d’Izoard is another of my favourites when it comes to the mountains of the Alps. We pass through small alpine villages as we drop into the Queyras valley and turn right towards Guillestre. The valley narrows to a tight gorge and the road becomes a balcony pushed into the rocky cliff, but before that we have fun zipping past each other and enjoying the exhilaration of riding powerful motorbikes on a near deserted road.
T gives it “Some bones” in the gorge!
At Guillestre we bear left, still following the D902, and begin the climb to Col de Vars. When I first crossed this mountain, years ago, the road was narrow and not very busy, now, with the development of a ski resort on the North side things are a bit different; the road is wider, better surfaced and a tad busier. It’s still great fun on any form of two wheels though!
We pull over at the summit and head for the café that has appeared since my first visit. Enjoying a cool juice in the sunshine we spread my map out on the table and discuss routes.
Alain and T are keen to press on, they have an appointment in Nice and although like me they want to ride la Route des Grande Alpes, T says that the bars are better in Nice than Menton, my destination.
We are approached by a group of cyclists from the Netherlands, would we take their photograph? Sure, no problem and Alain grabs the camera.
Now for some reason these guys want their photo taken as they relax on sun loungers…Alain readies to take the photo as T and I close from behind.
Then T, standing behind the group, drops his leathers and pants just as Alain takes the photographs….shall we say that the French member was well on display!!!
Everybody collapses in school-boy giggles and laughter; it’s a priceless moment of spontaneous humour that no-one planed yet will live on forever in our memories!
Once we collect ourselves it’s time to gather our maps and belongings together….it’s time to ride and I never complain about that!
Dropping to the Ubaye Valley.
“Rode down the highway
Broke the limit, we hit the town”
Catch you soon.