RDGA Finalé – Up With The Big Ones!

I’ve written about Col de la Bonette on several previous trips, I fact it was the first big Col that I ever took Harls up and in many ways the one that got me hooked on “Col Hunting”.

In a way it was ironic, because it’s been downhill ever since I made that first ascent of “The Big One!” Strictly speaking Bonette isn’t the highest paved pass, that honour lies with L’Iseran, Bonette lies in 4th place, but what makes it crazy-special is the Cime de la Bonette; Cime translates as “Summit.”

The Cime de la Bonette is probably the most wonderful folly that the nation of France has ever constructed. It’s a road that just loops around the mountain from the Pass and back to the Pass reaching an elevation of 2802m/9193ft and that makes it technically the highest paved through road in the whole of Europe.

On the South side the road climbs steadily from Isola, the big mountain taunting you from miles away. The grandeur of the scenery is almost overpowering as the ribbon of asphalt snakes skywards and leaves trees and waterfalls far behind.

Wide vistas open as the hairpins steadily kick in, but in a civilised way; although this is a high climb it isn’t savage.

Remains of high altitude barracks from over a hundred years ago straddle the road. Soon after comes the first Pass, Col du Raspaillon at 2513m and then things start to get really serious.

The mountain begins resemble a lunar landscape, bare black and grey rocks dominate, very little grows up here. There is always snow lying, what ever state of the summer, this is probably the hardest country that you can take a road vehicle and definitely not a place to come in bad weather, if you value your life. This mountain has claimed many unwary visitors.

It’s because of it’s unique, wild, dangerous beauty that I love the place.

The last kilometre from the Col de la Bonette at 2715m to the summit at 2802m is like taking a ski jump to the clouds as the gradient hits 15%!

I kicked down Harls side stand at the summit stone and just drank in the majesty of the place and the moment, we were back.

Looking South I could just about make out the Mediterranean Sea, over 60 miles away, we were down there earlier. All around I was surrounded by high peaks, many snow-capped and all stunningly beautiful; it made me feel both very small and also incredibly lucky to be there to enjoy it all.

It was one of those moments that make me feel so alive and glad to be so.

When you hit a high, both figuratively and also in this case literally, it’s easy to think that it’s only downhill from here. Well, ok, geographically it is, but riding amongst these mountains you’d be crazy to only look on the downside. Also I had a “rest day” tomorrow and as the weather was looking good I wanted to do a bit of exploring whilst I was up here.

First off I took a stroll to the real summit of La Bonette which stands a further 58 metres above the road. Walking in motorcycle gear is never much fun, but believe me doing it at altitude is really not to be recommended. At 2860m/9380ft the effects of altitude are very noticeable if you try to do any strenuous exercise without allowing your body time to adjust; riding a motorcycle from sea level to this height in just a few hours is not adequate adjustment, I can assure you!

I like to think that I’m pretty fit for my age, true I don’t spend hours in a gym, but I do live an active life, I’m not overweight and I don’t smoke; but that eighty metre climb to the summit was something else! Never before have I found a short stroll to be such hard work and whilst I wasn’t struggling unduly it was clear that nature was giving me a gentle reminder as to who exactly was in charge up here!

It was worth it though, the view just got even better and I had the place to myself.

With a tinge of sadness I turned to start the descent down to Jausiers. RDGA had been a blast and it literally was going to be downhill all the way from here, but in the back of my mind I knew that I’ll be coming back one day.

I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to do what I do. Looking back on that adventure last summer much has happened since and people dear to me have been lost to this world. I sometimes wonder how much longer I can keep doing these trips, because believe me they don’t get any easier with age! I’ve got a wonderful family and small network of close friends who support my crazy yearning to travel and explore the high places, so whilst I can I’ll keep going; you are, after all, a long time in your box!

What next?

Well, if all goes to plan, I’ve got some unfinished work to do in the Pyrenees in June this year. Then whilst perusing some maps the other day, I spotted some lovely looking passes in Switzerland and Northern Italy…!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

The whole of RDGA is dedicated to the memory of G, my little brother who left us too soon.

“Escaping the ghosts of yesterday,
you were behind me following closely, don’t turn around now.”

RDGA 9 Heading South, Getting Hot and Following a Mini.

The bells of the church in Jausiers work me early, oh the joys of a Catholic Country as the priest called the faithful to early morning worship! Back home in the UK we have a fine tradition for Church bell ringing, we do it melodically, ringing the bells in order and to predetermined patterns, but in most places on Continental Europe the bells are just rung haphazardly, frequently clashing in a cacophony of tonal mismatch and timing; you’ve got to love the difference!

I sat on the windowsill as the sun rose above the mountains; today was going to get a bit warm if the early rays were anything to go by. Time to grab breakfast and hit the road, we had a lot of Cols to climb again.

Today we were back on the classic Route des Grandes Alpes, right down to the Mediterranean Sea. First up was our biggest climb of the day, Col de la Cayolle 2326m/7631ft.

I’d ridden Cayolle before. From the North, where we were coming from, it’s a really pleasant if quite long climb of just over 29km. Leaving Barcelonette we turned onto our old friend the D902 road and slipped into the Gorges du Bachelard. This is quite a road, as it negotiates the narrow, rocky gorge, which is full of roaring waterfalls, tight tricky bridges and towering cliffs. The steepness and height of the cliffs often cut out direct sunlight, the place is cold, even on sunny mornings like we were enjoying and the narrow road makes it difficult to safely stop and take it all in. The road frequently swaps back and forth across the tumbling waters before gaining altitude and passing into delightful high woodland before emerging on the open high alp. The climb isn’t particularly demanding, but satisfying nonetheless and at the summit has a delightful stone marker, plus some wonderful scenery giving a glimpse of the way ahead.

After pausing for the obligatory photographs I eased Harls onto the downhill slope and set off South. The road here is much more technical with sweeping hairpins, tunnels, tight squeezes and just more fantastic scenery. In the small village of Guillaumes we turned left and immediately got into “Ski-Station Land” for our next four Cols…actually, that’s I bit unfair of me; it’s just that after the wonderful isolation of the really high passes having to share the mountains with civilisation gets a bit hard!

The road was fun with enough variation to keep things interesting, passing through the Tinée valley we paused at Ouvrage Frassinéa, one of the remaining forts of the Maginot Line Alpine extension. The Maginot line was an attempt by France to fortify its eastern border immediately after the First World War; the project saw the construction of hundreds of miles of defences, gun emplacements and bunkers. It never really got finished and for the most part was rendered useless when in 1939 the German army invaded and simply drove around the defences; nice try though! Many parts of the old defences can still be seen today and some, like Fressinéa, have been preserved as museums. Sadly, it was shut when we called in!

Col de Valberg 1672m/5475ft, Col de Sainte Anne 1550m/5085ft, Col de la Couillole 1678m/5505ft and Col de Saint Martin1500m/4921ft, are all respectable passes, they certainly have their place in the history of the Tour de France and RDGA, but after the big ones that Harls and I had grown used to, they were…well, just a little tame!

What wasn’t tame was the temperature. I stopped in Roqueillière, which lies in the delightful Vesubie valley, to buy some lunch and noticed that the thermometer was spot on 100ºF!
We were definitely into Mediterranean France now, even the scenery screamed that at us.

We had been travelling for a few hours now and together with the heat, I thought it wise to take a break on the climb to our next Col, the legendary Col de Turini 1604m/5262ft.

Just for once, here is a Col that isn’t legendary in Le Tour de France; it’s only featured three times. No, Turini gained it’s fame from motor sport and specifically the wonderful “Monte Carlo Rally” which is usually held in mid-January each year. More specifically, it really rose to wider notice in 1964, when a young driver from Belfast, Northern Ireland, named Paddy Hopkirk together with co-driver Henry Liddon, won the rally driving a BMC Mini Cooper S and a legend was born.

Paddy Hopkirk winning the 1964 Monte Carlo rally, photo Auto Express.

The Minis were back to win in 1965 and again in 1967, to cement their place in motor sport history.

I’ve never owned a Mini, but back in the day one of my Aunts did, it was a red Cooper S, just like Paddy’s, I thought it was so cool!

The famous red 1964 Mini Cooper S, photo DeFacto, used with thanks.

These days the Turini is crossed in daylight, but back then it was also infamous for being a night stage and amongst enthusiasts was known as “The Night of the Long Knives,” on account of the high intensity headlight beams cutting through the darkness; it must have been some sight!

In places Turini is best described as “artificial,” but it’s probably more impressive because of that, because the engineering effort that has gone into building this pass is beyond impressive. The road formation is supported by solid, beautifully formed stone block walls, the bends are generously wide, but the short gradients are savage…it’s just great fun to ride!

As we topped Turini, low cloud hugged the high trees and it looked like our scorching weather was over for the day, but no, it was just a temporary reprieve from the heat. Passing through Sospel we started to final climb, to Col de Castillon, which at a mere 706m/2316ft barely registers as a pimple against it’s higher sisters on La Route des Grandes Alpes. That’s a little unfair, because where Castillon fails in the altitude stakes it hits back by being the first/last climb of the RDGA, the only one in the Côte d’Azur and if you are starting in Menton, it’s 706 metres straight up!

We paused at the Col, no fancy stone monument here, just a rather tatty metal sign and then a steady roll downhill in the warm Mediterranean breeze.

Menton is often called the pearl of the Côte d’Azur and in it’s own way it’s an OK place; just not my sort of place. In fact, not much of the French Riviera is my sort of place; it’s just too busy, to built up and to pretentious for my liking.

We rode through the bustling town and at a suitable spot on the sea front I pulled over, kicked down Harls side stand and took the obligatory photograph; we’d done it!

Years of plotting and dreaming, then a few months of planning had brought us here.

What now?

Well, apart from finding our hotel, having a swim in the warm Mediterranean, grabbing a shower and a beer…I honestly couldn’t think of much else to do!

There was finally a monkey off my back.
From finding that leaflet about La RDGA all those years ago, to executing the dream, it was over.

I felt a little empty.

What next?

Where now?

Later, after a nice meal and a night-time stroll around the marina, I reflected more on our journey. It was a job well done, no dramas, no mishaps, just a solid team effort; man, machine and the road in perfect harmony.

Did I ever tell you that I love that bike?

…. and tomorrow?

Well, we’d better start to go back home and find some more hills to climb.

“There ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough…”

Catch you later.

Dookes

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

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

Route des Grande Alpes -2, Getting Going.

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!

Dropping down from Colombière, sorry about the bugs on the lens!


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!

On the road to Cormet de Roselend.

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…

Roselend has bends, lovely bends!


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.

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