RDGA 5 Financial Pain and a Spiritual Home.

Leaving Col de la Madeleine behind, we spooled downhill through comfortable lacettes, the French name for hairpins until reaching the ski station of Saint François-Longchamp 1650.

Then the road changes, it gets wider and the bends get more generous; the old ski-station effect again and on Harls I wasn’t complaining!

I pulled over in La Chambre and went to use an auto-teller machine at the Credit Agricole bank.

When I’m on my road trips in Europe I make extensive use of pre-load currency cards. That’s the sort where you shift money from your bank account and either withdraw when abroad or just use it as a charge card. I find that these cards work well for me; the exchange rates are normally very competitive, commission free, plus they don’t levy any foreign currency transaction fee as many credit cards and banks do and as my cards are Mastercard branded they are widely accepted.

There’s only one problem and it was about to give me a moment of stomach sinking near panic!

In France, when you use a bank card to purchase fuel at a supermarket service station it is normal practice for the seller to over-charge the card until the funds are released by the owning bank. Cheeky, but not unusual and perfectly legal. Normally then I don’t use my currency cards to purchase fuel, but for some reason I had forgotten in the early part of this trip.

I walked into the small ATM lobby, popped my card in the slot, entered my pin and asked for €500.

To quote a well-known British TV comedy programme, “Computer says No.”

“What the….!”

I quickly checked the receipts in my wallet, thinking “I’ve not spent that much money in four days!”

Then it dawned on me, supermarket service stations, dammit!

I could have easily stuck a bank-card or credit-card in the ATM and made a withdrawal that way, but I didn’t want to give money to a bank for no reason, I’m mean like that! Thankfully there was a strong 4G signal and it only took a minute to transfer some funds from one account to my currency card, but curse those supermarkets!

Cash solvent again, we trundled into a local petrol station and filled up being careful which card to use…

The day was glorious. After a bit of low cloud and dullness on Madeleine we had ridden into wonderful warm sunshine. The day was still young, we didn’t really have far to go and the Alps were our playground; it would be rude not to enjoy them, actually no, it would be complete madness not to enjoy them!

La Chambre lies at the Northern foot of two iconic alpine cols, Col du Glandon and Col de la Croix de Fer. I had topped both previously, but as ever there was a route that I hadn’t tried…no prizes for guessing that I was on a mission.

We trundled seven miles East along the valley to St Jean de Maurienne and turned right onto one of the most delightful alpine roads that I have ever ridden.

Col de la Croix de Fer is a brute of a climb and I’m glad that I ride a motorbike, not a pedal cycle, even so it’s tough, very tough…but oh so impressively beautiful. The road climbs skywards and the bends come relentlessly; it’s almost impossible to get into any rhythm: bend, straight, bend, bend, straight, bend, climb, short straight, bend, long straight, drop, straight, bend…and so on! The shoulders start to get sore, tense, tired…. this is tough, very tough, but I wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world!

Col de la Croix de Fer is legendary. It’s been on the Tour de France itinerary since 1947 when Italian Fermo Camellini won the climb over the summit. On the side that we were climbing, following the D926, it was 22.7 km at an average gradient of 7.0%, we growled skywards and Harls loved it as much as me!

On such a beautiful day the Col was busy with families who had climbed by car from the easy Grenoble side; I didn’t begrudge them, if they wanted to drink in the beauty of the mountains, then that was cool with me. We paused at the Col, safe in the knowledge that we were 2067metres/6781feet above sea level, the air was still and pure and even though the sun beat down mercilessly, there was a distinct chill in the air.

From Croix de Fer the road drops for about a mile and then we took a right for the short climb to our next target, Col du Glandon. 1,924m/6,312 ft.

Poor old Glandon, overshadowed by its higher more glamorous neighbour with it’s iconic cross of iron and stunning views, but in it’s own way Glandon has a certain understated class. The col lies in a high natural bowl with buttresses of rocky mountain standing sentinel above. It lacks the far-reaching views of Croix de Fer, but it’s a solid place on a bare mountain; though not somewhere to be trifled with in bad weather when high winds whip across its bare slopes.

We descended on the D927 to St Etienne de Cuines. Another tough road, with relentless corners and a habit lower down of popping in and out of dense forest, it’s impossible to get into much of a rhythm, but a good excuse to stop and enjoy a picnic lunch!

Back in the valley we enjoyed a happy sprint to St Michel de Maurienne and turned onto our spiritual highway the D902.

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

I have a love affair, because that’s exactly what it is, with the mythical Galibier.

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 crash helmet’s built in sun visor as the glare was, at 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 carburetor 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.

Dookes

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.

Dookes

RDGA 3 – Col De l’Iseran

Our RDGA odyssey continues…

Following on from my last post; as we swept downhill into Bourg St Maurice my mind was racing with excitement, l’Iseran was open!

I confess. There are times that I let superlatives run away with me just a bit, but promise me this…if you ever go to the French Alps go to Col de l’Iseran.

At 2770 metres, not only is it the highest Col on La Route des Grandes Alpes, it’s also the highest paved mountain pass in the whole of Europe.

It’s also amazingly beautiful.

The news from Thierry was brilliant, sort of.

Yes, the pass had been opened after the snow had damaged a bridge at Pont St Charles, but tomorrow it was going to be closed from 08:00hrs for, you guessed it, a blasted cycling event!

I had a choice. Get up mega early, miss breakfast and beat the 08:00 closure or ride the pass tonight and take the alternative and actually the original RDGA over Col de la Madeleine tomorrow.

By way of a small explanation, when the Route des Grandes Alpes was first created in 1907, the road over Col de l’Iseran didn’t exist; all that crossed the high pass was a rough track used by alpine farmers. The original route crossed over Col de la Madeleine, which is about 46km to the West of l’Iseran as the crow flies. If we went that way, we were still staying true to RDGA and as a bonus crossing yet another high col, cool!

Grabbing fuel in Bourg, I told Thierry and Alain that I would ride l’Iseran that evening.

Thierry grinned and shrugged his shoulders,
“Toujours le Gallois fou!” – “Always the crazy Welshman!”

“Qu’est-ce qui ne va pas se saouler avec nous, eh?” – “What’s wrong with getting drunk with us, eh?’ He roared.

Alain rolled his eyes skyward, he’d been there before!

Another biker overheard us and tentatively asked if it was correct that l’Iseran was open. He introduced himself as Jake from Austria, he also rode a big Harley and that was how I left my two French pals behind and set off for the big Col with another rider of Milwaukee’s finest!

Jake leans into a bend on l’Iseran.


From Bourg St Maurice the D902, that fine road again, sets out on a steady climb south whilst all the time the massive bulk of l’Iseran looms above. The ribbon of tarmac punctures the mountain through various tunnels and skirts the hydroelectric dam of Lac du Chevril. At the famous alpine village of Val d’Isère, birthplace of alpine legend Jean-Claude Killy, things take on a turn for the serious and the climb really asserts itself.

Pont St Charles, which was supposed to have been decimated by snow, looked benign and not very damaged at all. We now had to climb nearly 1000 metres in just about seven kilometres, that’s steep.

When the pass road here was opened in 1937 it made the modern Route des Grandes Alpes possible. I’m very glad that it did too. The road isn’t a difficult climb, certainly Jake and I had no trouble with our big American machines, but it is impressive and just never stops climbing until you reach the rocky wind ravaged summit.

The reward for the climb is just wonderful.

Majesty is too light a word for it; I could stay up on these high places forever and maybe one day some dust from me may well do that; that’s for others to sort. These places are my spiritual home; this is where I get to make sense of the world and my insignificant place in it. This is where I feel at one with the universe and touch inner peace. This also why I come here alone, so I can immerse myself in the sheer beauty of the place without any distractions; yes it’s very selfish, but hey at least I’m honest about it!

This wasn’t the first time that Harls and I had been here; we’d visited twice before and you can read about some of those adventures by clicking here.

This was the first time though that we’d ridden up the North side.

I took the decision to stay the night in Val d’Isère and not to push on over into the Arc valley. Descending to Bonneval sur Arc is pleasant enough, but after Lanslebourg the traffic always gets ghastly around Modane and the Fréjus tunnel; plus I now wanted to have some fun on the North side of Col de la Madeleine next day.

With a happy heart I turned Harls back towards Val d’Isère and our hotel.

What a day!

We’d covered 236 hard miles and topped six of the RDGA Cols for an altitude gain of around 5189 metres; pretty good for an old Harley and an even older geezer!

I could feel the reward of a small cold beer coming on…

“You will always keep me flying high in the sky”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

It’s Still Hot in the Autumn!

Hello dear blogonaughts and once again apologies for my enforced continued absence, but here’s a funny thing…this year, every time I visit France it’s hot!

Mrs Dookes and I have been crazy-stupid busy of late, so we decided to pop over here for a short break. Nothing too special, just find a gîte on the border of Brittany and Le Pays de Loire then relax, oh and eat nice food along with a little taste of the regional wine. Add in some exploring of local towns, then gentle evening walks to watch the sun set and we are happy.

Vitré, Le Chateau

We didn’t expect temperatures nudging 30ºc and UV levels high enough to cause a leather belt to get sun-tan! Not that either of us are complaining, far from it. Toss into the mix our own private swimming pool and life is more than pretty good.

Oh, yes it’s also our anniversary…so life is very good.

Thank you Mrs D for all those wonderful years…even if you frequently drive me up the wall!!!! – Of course I’m perfect….not!

Our arrival en France has happily coincided with a number of “Foire aux Vins” (wine fairs) in the local supermarkets.

Recently, that’s in the last ten years, there’s been an interesting trend in wine consumption in France. The country has moved away from the traditional and somewhat stereotypical consumption of “rot-gut” reds towards a much more refined “Quality over Quantity” approach. As a result, the availability of good, nay gorgeous, drinkable yet affordable wines has seen a rapid increase.

I’m not going to complain about that at all.

These days old Dookes has a bit of the old type-two diabetes and wine can play havoc with my internal system. As a result I work on the basis that if I’m going to feel awful later, then I’ll bloomin’ well drink good stuff first!

….and there’s an interesting thing. With better, much better, quality wine I don’t get to feel so bad either!

The only down side is that I’m here on four wheels, not two. In fact I haven’t riden either of my lovely Harley’s since I got back from our Route des Grande Alpes trip in July, which is very sad! Talking of which, the next stages in that adventure will be published very soon, so please sick around for that.

Like I said, life has truly been hectic for both of us in the past few months and it’s really nice to get to spend some quality time with each other. It’s thanks to Mrs D that I have my love affair with La France. In our early days she took me to this wonderful country and introduced me to its culture and people. I was dead jealous that she could speak the language and I couldn’t; so I went off to evening classes and did the hard yards. I wouldn’t say that I’m totally fluent, but I do ok and if a French person compliments me on my grasp of their language, then I’m more than happy.

The upshot is that I get so much more out of my time in France, purely because I speak the language. I’m not bad in German, Italian and a bit of Spanish too….oh and of course Welsh, but I’m really rusty in that nowadays!

Now dear blogonaughts, promise me this; even if you can’t speak a word of another language, encourage a youngster to get out there and learn. You might just set them up on a career for life, but at the very least they’ll get to experience another country from the inside, not just as another blasted tourist!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Where Have I Been?

Well, that’s a pretty good question at the moment…

Certainly since I got back from my last trip I’ve not been anywhere near a motorcycle nor had the opportunity to sit down and write anything for my blog….which is bad for lots of different reasons!

I do seem to spend a fair bit of time apologising to you regular Blogonaughts, but what else can I do when I neglect you so much???

OK, I lied a little…I did give Harls a good wash and polish shortly after our “Route des Grande Alpes” trip, but honestly that’s it. Today I promised myself a short ride out, but crappy weather and roads busy with holiday traffic have put me off. I know, whimp!

So why the absence?

Well, it’s a short four letter word…work!

Yes, I know, I’m supposed to be retired, but sometimes when something “interesting” comes along I’m a bit of a sucker for saying, “Sure, I can help you with that.” I’m a particular soft touch if it falls into my sphere of expertise of transport or heritage stuff, or worse a combination of both.

I have a little rule not to discuss these business things in my blog, it’s part of my confidentiality thing with clients, so you’ll just have to bear with me; one day I’ll tell all though! In the meantime, be happy for me, because I’m doing something that I both love and feel is very worthwhile.

Meanwhile, life is stupid-crazy-busy, very tiring, a bit stressy, yet bloody fascinating at the same time…!

Then in the odd quiet moment I close my eyes and let the memories flood in; I’m back on Harls as she growls at the mountains and we conquer yet another high peak. Memories can be fantastic things and probably the greatest single confirmation of our human existence. Sure, I know that there are bad memories too, but hey, the good ones can be great!

That whole “Route des Grande Alpes” trip filled my memory data bank with so many great moments; I’m going to have a wonderful time re-running it all in the coming months here in the blog and I do hope that you all stick around to read it.

In the meantime her’s a taste of what’s to come….
Cool eh?

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Movin’ On

Dear Blogonaughts, it’s nearly 22:00hrs local time.

It’s well over 25ºC and the air is still. Around me crickets chirp and the last birds are calling as the head to roost. Beneath, in the valley, the river gently purrs as it caresses the boulders that stand in it’s path.

I’m sitting outside writing and getting eaten alive by mosquitos and a million other airborne bloodsuckers!!!

This morning I was sad to leave our mountain base. Not half as sad when we dropped into the valley thirty minutes later and the temperature suddenly rose to 35ºC, where it has stayed for the rest of the day!

We ground out some quick and serious miles to Grenoble Airport on the péage autoroutes; tedious, but they get you moving quickly, which was just as well as that was the only respite from the heat I could find.

From the airport we headed for the Rhône valley, crossing the mighty river at Sablons, where I pondered that just nine days ago we had bridged that same river in it’s much more youthful state shortly after it had drained out of Lake Geneva.

Then we vigorously climbed up onto the Massif Central, the high plateau that stretches down the spine of France from Clermont Ferrand in the North to Montpellier by the Mediterranean coast in the South. Specifically we were heading for the Auvergne, one of my favourite parts of France with it’s deep valleys and extinct volcanoes.

Once up on the Massif I relaxed, not because it got any cooler – look, I’m sorry, I’m not moaning about the heat, it’s just the reality of what it was like – but we hit an altogether different sort of road, in a place that has a different pace of life!

Today has been a bit strange. Today the French Government brought in a new maximum speed limit on the ordinary roads of the country, 80kph. This excludes dual carriageway and motorways, but applies to all single carriageway routes. I must admit that for the majority of the time I have been a good boy and stuck to it, which is more than I can say for the majority of French drivers that I saw! On the type of roads that we were on this afternoon 80kph/48mph is actually quite relaxing, but would be a pain if you needed to get anywhere quickly!

Tonight we are in the hills near Ambert, a delightful yet busy little place on the old main-road through the Massif
Even though in the back of my mind I know we have started the run home, I think that tomorrow really is that “Returning Point” moment. That second when the trip that has been so long in the dreaming, planning and execution is now starting to head to its conclusion.

The view from our base near Ambert.


Tomorrow will be a transit day, maybe with a drop in on a Harley Dealership, but mostly it’s mile munching/kilometre krunching time. On the plus side we are heading for the wine-producing town of Bourgueil on the flood plain of the River Loire. The region around the town produces some of the most delightful light red wines in France, that are high on Mrs Dookes “likes” list….note to self…!

The forecast says we may have some showers, certainly it will be a tad cooler, which won’t be a bad thing.

Catch you soon

Dookes

Rest day

Today was meant to be a rest day, a sort of “recharge the batteries” day.

…only one problem, what to do?

I admit, I made a bit of an administrative error staying at a hotel without a swimming pool, but the food more than makes up for that; tonight Magret de Canard, for example!

So what does a long distance motorcyclist do on his day off?

Go for a ride on his bike, that’s what!

To be more precise, go for a lightweight spin up Cime de la Bonette without the encumbrance of luggage, do a bit of exploring and have a nice picnic lunch on the high alp.

All of which came together perfectly.

We got out good and early and managed to reach to summit before the hoards descended. The big Cols often get busy late morning and mid afternoon, so if you want to have a bit of peace either go early or aim for very late afternoon/early evening.

We did a bit of trundling around at altitude and some on-foot wandering around, which at altitude was a tad tough, then found a lovely spot off the beaten track to enjoy lunch.

Not a bad view over lunch!


The altitude thing is interesting and effects people in different ways. It’s generally agreed that doing what I did, going up quickly and then trying to do some strenuous exercise like hike-climbing isn’t a great idea; I can agree with that. You really need more time to acclimatise than I had, my body is used to living at 600ft above sea level in Cornwall, not 9400ft in the high alps!

This afternoon I got Harls fuelled and sorted for tomorrow then planned to have a quiet time doing some writing or maybe having a little snooze, but somehow it didn’t happen and I sort of trundled into supper time…which is where I am now!

The highlight of the evening so far, apart from the Magret de Canard which is incredibly good, has been watching Madame, the hotel owner, giving five German bikers a good dressing down for turning up for dinner in their riding leathers. Then telling them that they smell and sending them off for a shower before she serves them and even then that they must sit outside on the terrace! Priceless!

She winked at me as she strutted past after delivering her instructions; this formidable lady has a sense of humour without a shadow of doubt!

As for the Germans, well they seem to have slunk off for the shower as instructed!

It’s good to have standards.

Catch you soon.

Dookes