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!
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!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…
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.