RDGA 6 – Getting High With Friends

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.

Dookes

Explaining a Special Place – Col du Galibier

In a post last week I talked about Col du Galibier in the high French Alps and how it is a place that is very special to me.

Then regular commenter on my posts, AGMA, posed the question;

“Why is it special?”

I started to write a reply for AGMA, then paused and thought that probably it would be a good idea to explain “why” to a broader audience.

We have to rewind the clock back about 50 years…

Young Dookes was exploring the darkest parts of his father’s workshop/garage. At the very back, almost hidden from view and next to the engine of an old BSA motorbike, young Dookes found a man’s bicycle. In the eyes of Young Dookes, this was a prize of great beauty for not only did it have racing style drop handlebars, but there on the rear wheel was a set of derailleur gears – a “Racing Bike!”

To be honest, it was also tatty, well used, in need of a complete overhaul and it wasn’t a “Racer,” it was an old Raleigh Trent Sports Tourer with four gears, 26 inch wheels, a Brookes saddle and a Dyno-Hub, but in my young eyes it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen!

There was a fundamental problem though, it was too big for me to ride and I had to wait a few years before I could safely sit on the thing and turn the pedals!

Once that happy day came there was no stopping me; well actually there was, the old tyres soon gave up the struggle to hold air and I was grounded, literally!

At this juncture my father suggested that it was time for the old bike to have a complete strip-down and rebuild, wise words. Actually, it was much more life-changing than that; for here was my first introduction to the engineering principle of taking something apart, fixing it and putting it back together so it was better than before. It stood me in pretty good stead.

So the old bike came apart and I learnt about bearings, Bowden cables, cotter pins, crank arms and gear sets. Looking back the old girl was is pretty rough shape, but with my father’s guiding hand we made a fair job of restoring her back to road-worthy condition, but oh the satisfaction!

All the time that I was, a) growing and b) rebuilding the bike I was avidly reading everything I could lay my hands on about cycling. In due course I discovered that there was a prestigious cycle race called the “Tour de France” that was run annually and took three weeks to circulate around our near European neighbours.

One day my father returned home from work with a copy of The London Evening News and showed me an article about that year’s “Tour” which had just finished and had been won by a rider from Belgium, his name was Eddy Merckx and it was 1969.

Eddy Merckx

Who was this Merckx?

Not only had this fella just won the “Le Tour,” but he had also won the “King of the Mountains” title, which is given to the rider that gains most points for reaching mountain summits first within the greater race.

That year the tenth stage of the race was held in the Alps where Merckx put down a marker with a storming ascent of a place called “Col du Galibier.” Then he had blown away the completion with aggressive attacking over Col d’Aubisque in the Pyrenees and pretty much sealed his victory.

Oh yes, Merckx also won the best Sprinter Green jersey plus the prize for most combative rider and the most individual stages, 6 out of 24. What a rider!

Cycling had got it’s hooks into me and I had a new hero!

In those days though, Le Tour simply wasn’t covered by British television; in fact it wasn’t covered much by the French either. All our information tended to come from newspapers and cycling magazines; it was all a little bit second hand!

…but also where was this place Col du Galibier?

Now in those days not only had the Internet not been invented, but the guy who invented it had only just started Secondary School! So if you wanted to find out anything, it was a case of looking in books, either at school or in the local library.

It was a good job that I also had a big passion for geography.

I discovered that Col du Galibier is a high, 2645m/8678ft, mountain pass lying at the Southern end of the French Dauphiné Alps. Now this in itself was a revelation, as up until that point I had believed that the Alps solely existed in Switzerland…doh! Anyway, the more a learnt about Galibier, the more I wanted to know.

Looking South from Galibier.

I devoured everything I could about the place, it’s geography, geology, flora and fauna and most of all it’s history.

The first passable road over the mountain was built in 1876 and by 1891 a tunnel had been built beneath the crest, things stayed like this until 1970 when a new loop was added to the road, taking it once again over the high summit. Gradients on each side are formidable, with a maximum of 12.1% and height gain of 2058m/4085ft over a distance 8.5km/5.3miles.

Looking North.


I began to dream of visiting this place.

Le Tour returned to Galibier in 1972 and the mountain was conquered by Joop Zoetemelk, though Merckx again won the overall race; as he also did in 1970, 71 and 74.

The urge to visit Galibier started to become a bit of an obsession…then career and life stuff got in the way, but I never forgot about that mythical mountain in the high Alps and my need to climb it.

Many years later, when life had settled down and I started solo motorcycle touring, I soon realised that here was my opportunity to retrace the tracks of my heroes who rode “Le Tour.” It didn’t take me long to put together a few outline itineraries that encompassed some of the mythical climbs: Col de Vars, Izoard, L’Iseran, Lautaret…but most of all Galibier.

The day I finally set out to head towards Le Galibier I was fussing around Harls, getting her ready for the great adventure ahead when my eyes caught that old Raleigh Trent Sports bicycle in the corner of my workshop. I paused, then pushed my way over to her and ran my hand along her substantial steel frame; silently I told her where I was going and how much she still means to me. Dad had been dead for about ten years and in many ways she was my only tangible link to him

In the French Alps a week later, I sat in a café in Briançon; Col de Vars had been topped, Izoard crested and both were delightful, next was Le Galibier!

I banged out a quick email to a couple of friends, walked out into the midday sunshine, put on my helmet and started up Harls.

The ride to Lauteret was a delight; it’s a pretty quick road with a great surface, lovely sweeping bends and hugely impressive views all around.

The road to Lautaret, just look at those sweepers!

Then we turned right and dug in on the climb to Galibier.

Turn here for Col du Galibier.


It took my breath away.

The road starts passively enough then turns sharply to the left and the gradient kicks you in the teeth. Hairpins follow, a blind left with a sheer drop to the right and the relentless climb continues, thank goodness I’ve got an engine! As we gained altitude, runoff water from the last of the winter snow was streaming across the road. Climbing higher the air quickly became cooler and noticeably thinner; Harls with her carburetor and naturally aspirated engine began to run a bit rich and lose power.

Just before the tunnel we turned right onto the summit loop, we are well above the treeline here. More hairpins, more climbing and soon we reach the summit.

I pull over and switch off the engine.

At the summit looking back where we came from, winter snow still lies by the road.


Silence; save for the gentle ticking of an air-cooled Harley engine cooling down.

The views are….heavenly, but then I guess you are almost up there in heaven as wisps of cloud drift by below!

A couple of other riders walked past and a few very brave cyclists trundled by, I didn’t quite have the place to myself.

I stayed sitting on Harls and just let it all sink in; I was here on Col du Galibier, magical, legendary, Galibier and as I am want to do my mind did a bit of wandering.

I remembered that day discovering an old bicycle, of my late father helping me restore it, of a newspaper article about the Tour de France, of Eddie Merckx…I kept my helmet on and let my tear filled eyes weep in private. Crash helmets are useful like that.

You see, Galibier had become something more than just a famous mountain pass in the French Alps…it had become part of me and me of it.

It represents the melange that we all are inside; that mix of hope, experience, light/dark, triumph, tragedy, sorrow, pain, elation and happiness….above all, happiness!

Snow everywhere!


Finally, I took off the crash helmet and sat in the bright sunlight.

I felt truly at home and totally in tune with this incredible place, it’s probably my Celtic blood that gives me a deep love of high places, but this place was and is, very, very special, call it spiritual if you like.

Galibier had called and I had answered, eventually.

“The mountain’s high,
The road ran steep and winding,
The promises so easily made
Unbearable, yet binding.”

Catch you soon

Dookes

For AGMA – I hope this answers your question, Dookes.

PS I return as often as possible!