RDGA – 4 The Lady Madeleine

I slept like a log.

Our first day of La Route des Grandes Alpes had been quite an adventure and had exceeded even my most optimistic expectations.

Over dinner I mused about how much my mountain motorcycling had changed through the years.

When I first got into this game, I would pick off a few summits and cover not many miles.

Now, I not only top more passes, but do it with very respectable mileage as well. There is one thing to remember, mileage in the mountains isn’t like mileage on the lowlands; it’s harder, very much harder and old Dookes ain’t getting any younger!

No wonder I slept well.

The morning dawned fine.

The Isère valley lay in shadow. As yet the sun hadn’t risen above the surrounding mountains and the still air remained cool; cold enough for my breath to condense as I readied Harls for the road.

It was a shame that Col de l’Iseran was closed today, but we had had our fun on her slopes the evening before. There were still plenty more mountains to climb before we reached the Mediterranean Sea.

Today we would ride part of the “Old” Route des Grandes Alpes over Col de la Madeleine. The Col is one of only two that cross what are known as the Vanoise Alps; the other is surprisingly Col de l’Iseran.

I like Madeleine a lot, there’s something about the place that has a grip on me.

Someone once described Col de la Madeleine as “heartbreakingly beautiful” which I think is a load of poetic rubbish, it is just simply beautiful without any of the “heartbreak” bollocks! – “Bollocks” – old Anglo-Saxon word for rubbish and small balls!

Before today I had only ridden Madeleine’s Southern flank, but before we began our assault of the Northern slope we had to get there with a forty-mile transit down the Isère valley.

Now anyone who has travelled in the French Alps will share my pain about the major valley roads.

They are awful.

To be fair, my old friend geography doesn’t help much as everything has to squeeze into narrow natural alleys bounded by high mountains. It’s just that after the liberating freedom of thin clean air at altitude, the valleys feel suffocating; especially with heavy traffic, railways and factories all vying for space with rivers and electricity power lines.

On the plus side the scenery remains impressive.

As this was a Sunday morning, traffic was mercifully quite light and we made good progress along the N90 highway to Notre-Dame de Briançon where we slipped off, crossed the river and rolled onto the mountain road to Madeleine.

Col de la Madeleine is another iconic climb of the famous Tour de France cycle race, but is a comparative newcomer having only been on the itinerary since 1969. In “Tour” language the climb is classed as “Hors catégorie” insofar as it is the most difficult type of climb and beyond categorisation, so yes, it’s steep and long; 17.5km long and rising 1585m/5200ft in the process.

It’s also wonderfully twisty and has everything that a beautiful mountain road should have; verdant pastures, dense forests, rocky outcrops, sparkling waterfalls and a sense of immense space.

Beyond Madeleine lies the heartland of the high Alps, but first you have to work for it.

Leaving the River Isère behind we hit the first hairpins.

Bang! Seven of them welcome you to the climb; or are they warning you about the tough road ahead to the majestic Col? By the time we cross over the Col and drop into the small town of La Chambre, on the other side, we will have growled through over 60 hairpin bends.

That sort of understates it, but to put it in context, the pro-cyclists of La Tour will take about an hour to top the summit. Fit and capable club cyclists will do it in around and hour and forty minutes, whilst mere mortals will be doing very well to complete the climb in under two hours.

I respect anyone who cycles mountains like this; it’s tough enough on Harls!

I loved the ride up Madeleine and yes the Col is beautiful, even with some uninvited high cloud that decided to put in an appearance.

The pass lies in a natural bowl with high peaks on two sides and far vistas of other parts of the Alps, on a clear day you can even see Mont Blanc the highest peak in the Alpine chain, which is about 55miles away!

We were back in high country and I couldn’t have been happier. Looking South the sun was burning through the clouds and lit the far mountains in a tantalising glow. The day was still young and we had plenty of time to play, lets go there now and have fun in the sun.

I hope you can join us soon for the next part of La Route des Grandes Alpes.

“I hear a wind, whistling air, whispering in my ear.”

Catch you soon.


Some Thoughts From a Mountain

I promised myself that I wasn’t going to interrupt my voyage along Les Route des Grande Alpes with a non stop, blow-by-blow account of where I’d been, what I’d seen and who I’d met. That I told myself can follow later and largely I’ve been true to myself in that respect.

Tonight though is our last night in the mountains of Les Alpes…for the moment anyway. A night spent a reasonable altitude on the flank of Col de la Madeleine, which thankfully gives some respite from the crippling heat that is currently swathing much of France; it is officially “Une Canicule” – a heat wave!

Harls is safely tucked up in the Relais barn and I am sitting in the shade of a lime tree with grapevines threading through the paling fence and hazy views of the distant mountains of Col de la Croix de Fer, life is pretty good; if a tad knackering! (Knackered – old British term for very tired!) Supper is, however, being served!

It’s a good moment to reflect on our trip.

Did La Route des Grande Alpes deliver? – You bet it did!

From the moment we left the Town Hall, Hôtel de Ville, in Thonon les Bains to the evening in Menton when I indulged myself with a paddle in the Mediterranean, the road has been hard, but oh so giving.

Sometimes, when a trip finally starts to happen after months, or in this case years of scheming, planning isn’t quite the right word for this project, it can be a bit flat, not in this case. Life was stupid busy before I left home and in some ways the trip sort of snuck up on me, but once I got moving the excitement hit me; though to be honest, two days of solid slog to get across France wasn’t exactly thrilling!

Then comes a funny thing, something that always get my pulse racing, it’s the first sight of a road sign to some “exotic” place…in this case it was “Géneve” – Geneva and the knowledge that we are really doing this crazy thing! You see Geneva lies at the West end of Lac Leman, Lake Geneva, and Lac Leman is where La Route des Grande Alpes begins!

From the moment we trundled out of the busy streets of Thonon and found the D902, which on an off was to be our “Mother Road” for the next 722 kilometers, the route just continued to deal us delights with every amazing twist and turn.

Once we reached Menton our return path took in some of the alternative passes that the route has to offer.

By my estimation we have we have crested 37 passes, though when I do a more detailed analysis there may be a few that I have overlooked, so the total could rise! Again, when I have the time, I’ll figure just how much altitude we have climbed too, I like statistics like that, sad I know!

Tomorrow we leave sadly the high mountains behind, we’ll cross the mighty River Rhône and ascend onto the plateau of the Massif Central. It wont be hard going there, they are just other parts of this beautiful country that I adore.

The sun has now dropped behind the mighty alpine sentinels that surround our pretty mountain village and the air is cooler with a pleasant breeze stirring the trees. Around me the evening sky is filed with the sound of bees buzzing contentedly whilst pollinating flowers of the overhanging lime tree.

Coffee is being served and though tired, I am happy.

The owner of the “Relais” has been quizzing me about the trip and my writing.

As way of apology for interrupting my meal, which I didn’t mind at all, he has brought me a small glass of the renowned liqueur of the Alps, “Genépi.”

Like many liqueurs Genépi is an acquired taste. It’s made from the Artemisia plant, (Wormwood), that grows wild in these mountains, that is then steeped in spirit alcohol to which sugar is also added to aid the transfer of flavour and colour.

It’s not exactly firewater, but you need to treat it with respect – Floyd would have definitely approved!

Catch you soon


Tired, Emotionally Drained, but Oh So Happy!

Let no-one tell you otherwise, riding a big old motorbike in the mountains is hard work!

I frequently smile as Sports and Adventure bike riders flick past Harls and I on those tight twisty mountain roads. True they are chopping along faster than us, but then they are on much lighter machines, with more powerful engines and definitely better brakes. Poor old Harls chugs along with her carburetor fitted engine and brakes that need treating with considerable respect, no ABS for us!

I smile because I wonder just what those other riders are taking in. Do they see the stunning scenery or those eagles soaring on a thermal, or are they more likely looking for the next braking point or overtake?

Each to their own I guess, but still I smile!

We kicked off this morning with a bit of a detour; the good folk of the Savoie region of France had closed part of our route for a bicycle event, but no problem – there were excellent alternatives! That’s the nice thing about La Route des Grande Alpes, there are actually alternative ways of doing it; I know, very French!

So let’s start with a little trundle up the North East side of Col de la Madeleine, 2000m/6561ft above sea level, this side was a new route for us and quite interesting. The last time I was on this Col was with Baby Blue and we rode up and back from the La Chambre side.

Today was different and much more enjoyable, though we were chased by a rain shower for the last 10km and just managed to stay ahead of it!

Then we had another choice and I settled for Col de la Croix de Fer 2067m/6781ft, from St Jean de Maurienne. Again this was a new route for us, though not the Col and wow, was I pleased with my choice! I wouldn’t say that it’s become my new favourite, but it’s well up there. The road winds ever upward, through delightful forest slopes, tiny villages, and a tightening valley, before bursting out above the tree line in a wide amphitheatre bounded by some of the most magnificent mountain sentinels one could wish for.

The Col itself is one of the most popular in the Alps, legendary in La Tour de France and easily accessible from nearby centres of population, so yes the top was busy; most people come up from the easier Grenoble side.

We slipped down to Col du Glandon, 1924m/6312ft, then followed the narrow valley back down to La Chambre for a quick blast to St Michel de Maurienne, where we turned right.

That moment of turning right onto the D902, the “proper” Route des Grande Alpes, was special; this was the road to Col du Galibier!

I once wrote about my love affair, because that’s exactly what it is, with the mythical Galibier. Check it out here.

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 helmet’s built in sun visor as the glare was a 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 carburettor 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.


The Last Col

I had real mixed feelings as I guided Baby from Como this morning.

With Mrs Dookes flying out to be with me, I had to pause, draw breath, stop being self-centred and only thinking of motorbikes for a few days. I’ve got to admit that despite it being quite a difference from my normal road-trip ‘modus operandi,’ it worked superbly and the break from riding did help recharge the old Dookes batteries! On the other hand, I was just about ready to get rolling again by this morning, there’s only so many pastel shaded salmon coloured houses with tile roofs that I can cope with looking at!

There is just one funny thing though, after three days of not riding it came as a bit of a shock just how heavy Baby really is! I supposed I’d got so used to her massive bulk that I’d forgotten how bloody awkward she can be at slow speeds and on indifferent road surfaces, like stone cobbles! Thank you Como for reminding me of that!

Once we got on the open road I was able to relax a tad, if one can ever relax when riding on an Italian Autostrada! Now don’t get me wrong, the Italian motorways are not in my opinion inherently more dangerous than any other high-speed trunk road found throughout Western Europe, you just have to approach them a bit differently. For example, apart from lane one the other lanes have strict minimum speeds and frankly you be crazy to ignore that. What the Autostrada really does is make people use their mirrors properly, not lane hog and anticipate well in advance. True you will see bonkers things occasionally, but tell me a motorway anywhere where you don’t! The only unfortunate thing about the Autostradas is that the majority of them are toll roads and not cheap ones either, so whilst they undoubtably save time you pay for it!

Leaving Como we headed South, skirted Milan and struck out East to Turin where we took the A32 towards the French border.

By Susa and 130 miles of hot, hot, hot slog, I was ready for a change and turned off the Autostrada to find some altitude and cooler air. At 2083metres/6834feet Col du Mont Cenis seemed to fit the bill nicely, it’s just that I’d forgotten how much hard work it takes to get up there! The road isn’t technically very difficult, but I’ve always found that I can’t really get a rhythm going on it and today was no exception!

At the top of the climb is a lake, Lac du Mont Cenis, an artificial lake that supplies water to two hydroelectric stations. During last winter extensive maintenance was carried out on the dam and as yet the lake has still not reached anywhere near its normal level, which made for an interesting contrasts to previous visits.image

As I wasn’t in any particular hurry, I stopped for a most enjoyable lunch at a small restaurant that overlooks the lake. Talk about a meal with a view! image

The road from the Col drops down to Lanslebourg via a delightful ladder of five sweeping hairpin bends, which being nice and wide, were a joy to cruise round on Baby.

We plugged away down the L’Arc valley, whilst surrounded by impressive towering peaks it gets quite tedious the nearer you get to Modane and St Michel de Maurienne. There’s just too much squeezed into a very narrow valley, a major railway line, several freight yards, two main roads, a Péage, various quarries and factories not to mention the River L’Arc!

By La Chambre I was ready for a change.

There was one more big Col on the Dookes list, another classic from Le Tour de France that had been calling me for years; Col de la Madeleine. Despite Baby being such a handful on the narrow mountain roads I decided to go for it, remembering how I’d ridden last year on Col de Lombarde I knew the bike could do it!

From La Chambre to Madeleine the D213 road is 20km long and gains 1522meteres at an average gradient of 8%, that’s quite a climb, over a mile upwards. Oh yes, there’s twenty hairpins as well! At the top you are 2000metres above sea level, that’s 6562 feet.image

I’ve got to say that I enjoyed every single metre of that climb. I just let Baby find her own pace and gear, she’s not a sports or adventure bike, so no point in trying to ride her as such. She is big, long and heavy and as such you’ve got to approach the tight twisties with respect, do that and she’ll do the job! Just like today.image

Arriving at the summit was incredible, I remembered that someone once described Madeleine as “beautiful, but heartbreaking.” imageI’m not sure about the heartbreak, definitely beautiful, but for me to was the culmination of a quest that began by a young boy who over forty years ago dreamed of visiting the great Tour de France Cols.image

As I stood admiring the lovely stone summit marker, a golden eagle called from high in the clear sky above me, it’s call echoing off the surrounding mountains.
I looked upwards to that majestic soaring bird.

If we dream to soar from what we are familiar, that is normal.
A few are lucky enough to fly with their dream.

. . . and now that last Col has been climbed, where else can the dream lead to?

Catch you soon.