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.
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.
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!
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
For AGMA – I hope this answers your question, Dookes.
PS I return as often as possible!