RDGA 8 – A Day Off, or Lets Go To Italy and Ride The Hill of The Dead!

I woke early in Jausiers to a typical Alpine morning, sunshine with a few clouds at varying altitude.

When I set off on this trip Mrs Dookes had insisted that I weave in a few “rest days” as generally the going was likely to be reasonably tough. Good idea, but what does a motorcyclist do on a day off? Yep, probably gonna go for a little ride!

Over breakfast I pondered my maps.

Now it is true that I am in inveterate “Col hunter.” I can’t resist the opportunity to climb a new high pass and chalk another off the list, that morning I realised that I had the chance to add to our tally and add quite handsomely at that!

From Jausiers I spotted an interesting possibility, a big loop into Italy and cross five big passes that had until now evaded us. By crossing those off, we would have completed the top 40 highest through passes in Europe; now this was too tempting to miss!

I quickly finished breakfast and headed out to Harls, who was resting snugly in the hotel owner’s garage. I had the feeling that this was going to be some day…

We soon got onto the road and back into the groove, before grinding to a halt on the French side of Col de Larch; road works!

One thing I’ve learnt over the years of our road trips is to always expect the totally unexpected just around the next corner. This was one of those moments.

Normally, any road works spell delays and pain. This morning, however, was just a little bit different. Just imagine the conundrum facing the engineers; a high, relatively narrow alpine road needs repairs and quantities of construction materials delivered to the work site. The two options are close the road, or use a helicopter; how brilliant and give the waiting road users a free air display in the process! I love those French engineers!

We topped Col de Larch then rolled into Italy and onto one of those wonderfully crazy Italian roads that I swear they build just for fun. A series of sweeping wide hairpins that drop down from the pass in a ladder of asphalt, that, but for a glass-like surface and a bit of light drizzle would have been a delight to ride. We had a long way to go, so time to tread carefully!

At Demonte we turned hard left and soon left civilisation behind as we took the Colle Fauniera road. I frequently grumble about the way that much of the French Alps are scarred by the winter sports and ski industry; ski lifts and cable runs dot the landscape whilst the mountainsides are to often sculpted to create better pistes; it creates jobs and livelihoods, but it doesn’t half spoil things at times. Today though was like taking a trip back in time. We entered a beautiful Italian valley that was free from any trace of the winter sports industry and in it’s lower reaches, wonderfully bucolic as our ribbon of tarmac meandered through peaceful woodland.

In fact it was more than peaceful; it was deserted. For mile after mile we were alone. Just after climbing above the tree line we passed a farmer who was making repairs to his stock fence and we exchanged friendly waves.

Then we got stuck into some serious climbing.

The clouds were building a bit as we gained altitude, nothing to worry about, but it was getting a bit colder quicker than I had anticipated, actually a lot colder!

This was turning into hard country, very hard country.

The road was already quite narrow and now gradually narrowed even more and the surface started to show signs of minimal maintenance; actually it was starting to break up and in places there were small patches of ice.

This was turning into a road that demanded respect.

At Colle di Valcavera 2461m/7926ft we paused and tried to take in the view, but the swirling cloud put paid to that idea. Oh well, onwards and upwards!

I think that around this point it began to dawn on me that we were doing something very special. It’s very rare that we have the luxury of enjoying the mountains by ourselves and I resolved to savour every moment, whilst at the back of my mind realising that any problem up in this isolated place could easily become a very big problem very quickly!

The road became, very, very “interesting! Mud, ice, water, and broken asphalt all mixed together to deliver a thoroughly character building experience. Tatty, broken railings appeared just near the summit at Col di Morts (Fauniera) and then turning a corner we arrived at the summit.
We went into a well-practiced routine; kick the side stand down, let Harls idle for a minute then kill her engine, ease into first gear, turn off the ignition and relax.
Silence.
Silence so still and complete it hurts your ears. Or at least it would if I didn’t have screaming tinnitus!
It wasn’t half cold!

Colle Fauniera, 2480m/8136ft is one of the most alluring places I have ever been. It’s also known as Col di Morti, “The Hill of the Dead.” It’s name apparently comes from the scene that was left after a battle in the 17th Century between Franco-Spanish and Piedmontese (Italian) forces. Interestingly, today the pass is currently awaiting government ratification to have it’s name changed to “Colle Pantini” after the great Italian cyclist Marco Pantini.

At the summit there’s a massive statue dedicated to the great man and his epic climb of the Col in the Giro D’Italia 1999.
I’m not sure what I feel about the renaming business, but the statue is quite impressive!
Moving on we crossed Colle del Vallonetto 2439m/8002ft and had an interesting time squeezing past a mechanical digger that was working repairing the road.

This is going to be tight…

As we carefully edged past the driver leant out of his cab and called “Attenzione, neve!” – hmm, “Look out, snow!”

VERY tight!!!!

I gave him a friendly wave and trundled around the corner to Colle d’Esischie 2370m/7776ft and yep, there was snow! Deep banks of the stuff, which, fortunately, my digger-driver mate had obviously not long dug a path through.

Yep, snow!

It was better than that, at Esischie there is a junction and I wanted to turn left towards Marmona which is actually the minor road; luckily this was the one that had been dug out, the other remained firmly closed!

We began a long descent; little did I know that this would be a road that was going to leave an indelible impression on me. If I thought that the climb up to Fauniera was tough, then this was about to change all that.

The scenery was beyond beautiful, it was breath-taking, but so was the road; in a very scary way!

I had a brief glimpse that things ahead were going to be a tad interesting with the array of signs at the top of the decent. Lets get on with it…

Now let me see…the sign says look out for everything!!!


We started the downgrade and I realised that this was no road for heroics. Just stick to the ride-able parts and concentrate on the next hazard, don’t look back or for that matter down! If I thought that the surface on the up-slope was tricky, it was twice as bad now; the best bits had generous amounts of larch needles lubricating the surface with pine resin, whilst in other places there was simply no road surface at all, just soft clay…not fun on a big Harley Tourer! Oh yes, there wasn’t much in the way of barriers either, often just a bit of grassy verge and then a drop of unrecoverable proportions.

It was best described as low-gear country, tiring to ride, yet not at all unpleasant, just very demanding.

Eventually, nearing Tolosano, things opened up, the road got considerably better and we started to make progress; then, rounding a corner cane across a “Road Closed” sign. What the…!

What the….!


I consulted the map, nope, no other way. Lets go explore.

I trundled Harls around the roadblock and slowly moved along the road until, yes I could confirm that the road was quite securely closed. A largish truck blocked our way whilst a group of workers shovelled stone from it. A chap who appeared to be the foreman approached and clearly indicated me to go back.

I think that signal is quite clear…!


In my bad Italian I asked when the road would be open? “Four o’clock;” it was 12:30 now, hmm.

“Any other way round?” “Si, go back and take the first right, you’ll be fine on your motorbike.”

I was a bit dubious, but really didn’t have another option, so I spun Harls around and set off explore. Sure enough there was right turn, but it just seemed to head into a farmyard.

I saw young couple and asked if I could get through?

“Where have you come from?” “Colle Fauniera.”

The young man looked at me and smiled, “In that case you’ll be OK, but it’s not easy!” he smiled.

I thanked them and started up Harls, here we go then old girl!

Leaving the farmyard the road dropped towards a small steam, then became a rough stone track, then morphed into a grassy bridleway, then a muddy track, then back to grass and more like a footpath than road; OK, lets see how we get on.

The diversion!


I left Harls to tick-over in first gear; “I’ll look after the steering, you just give us a bit of forward movement,” simple teamwork.

After about half a mile the path began to change back into something resembling a road and then we got back on real tarmac again. I gave Harls her head and now on a good road for the first time in hours she sang a happy song that echoed back off the steep valley sides.

At Bassura we turned North and hit the hairpins again, San Martino was left behind as we growled skywards into the clouds again, target Colle di Sampeyre 2284m/7493ft.

I’d love to tell you that Colle di Sampeyre was impressive, but apart from a solitary chap on a bicycle all there was to see was thick cloud.

Colle di Sampeyre, look at those muddy tyres!


More hairpins took us down into the Varaita valley where we turned left. Now we were on one of my favourite roads in the whole of Italy, it leads to Col Agnel/Colle dell’Agnello 2744m/9003ft the highest paved international pass in the whole of Europe.

We are going to Agnel.


The road over Col Agnel is one that Harls and I first rode some years back and has fondly remained in my memory ever since, it was great to be back. This is a road that has everything; long fast sections, stunning views, great surface and the ever beckoning view of snow tipped mountains ahead, then the technical twisty bits begin and are an absolute joy to ride.

Last time we were here, the place was almost deserted; today was not quite so quiet as it was a public holiday in this part of Italy, but it wasn’t unpleasantly busy.

There’s a small parking area at the Col, which nestles between high peaks on a knife-edge ridge and offers amazing views across both Italy and France. It’s a lovely place to visit and a wonderful road to ride.

Looking into France, oh that road!

I could stay here forever!


Never look back…it’ll break your heart!


Saying “Ciao” to Italy, we began our long decent into the Queyras valley. This is a fun road with a lovely surface; crossing the river we turn left and power through the miles towards the famous Queyras Gorge balconies just before Guillestre.

Queyras Gorge balconies.

Then it’s onwards for Col de Vars and back to Jausiers, I could almost taste that first beer!

I sat in the hotel bar. Fabienne, the hotel owner, poured me a cold Demi.

“Alors, où as-tu allé aujourd’hui?” “So, where did you go today?”
“Oh, juste pour un petit tour en Italie …” “Oh, just for a little ride in Italy…”

I produced a map and showed Fabienne where we had been. At first she just looked at me, then rolled her eyes skywards, “Tu l’as fait en seul? Tu es fou!” “You did that alone? You are crazy!”

Fabienne laughs, it’s a laugh of one who has spent her life in this very hotel; it’s a laugh tinged with too many cigarettes and just a little bit of jealousy.
She pushes my beer across the bar and smiles.

Perhaps Fabienne, perhaps I am, but undoubtedly I am also very happy.

Happy because I realise that I had experienced undoubtedly the most demanding day I have ever had on a motorcycle and I loved every moment of it.

“I’m alive!
And I see things mighty clear today, I’m alive!
I’m alive!
And I’m breathin’ clean, fresh air today, I’m alive!”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Every inch of this ride is for you G, may we ride together again one day, but not too soon!

Riding on Ahead

I don’t often sit staring at a blank screen wondering what to write.

I don’t often have tears in my eyes when I sit at a computer screen.

I don’t normally find it difficult to articulate what I want to say.

This isn’t a “Normal” moment…

Over the years of blogging, I have occasionally mentioned my mate G, he of motorcycles and leukaemia.

On the 26th of December, G’s battle with cancer came to an end. He was 52 and leaves behind a loving wife and two young teenage children.

He also leaves behind a lifetime of memories, achievements and laughter.

G was a complex character, his highs were incredible, he could make a large room helpless with laughter; on the other side he had lows, deep black lows. Mostly though, he was a “Glass Half-Full” chap and it was only when his health issues got too much did he sometimes slightly look on the downside.

Our relationship was mixed. Mostly, we were great mates who had wonderful times together and yes we had some really great times! We also had moments, like in any relationship, when we really couldn’t stand the sight of each other; yet we came through it, eventually.

When, three and a half years ago he told me that he had cancer it shook me to the core. I tried to always be there for him.

Then he had a big motorcycle accident and I sat by his bed in the trauma unit as the medics tried to figure out if they could save his hands, let alone make then work again. In the weeks and months that he slowly recovered, I used to drive over to his house and again sit with him; then we would laugh and tell each other tales of what we would do once he was well.

He bought another motorcycle and the surgeons got him strong enough to ride. I went with him to collect the bike, a Yamaha Super Ténéré that had been modified to accommodate his injured hands; his joy at being on two wheels again was humbling.

Picking up the new bike, June 2017.

We rode again together, as often as his health allowed and the light came on in his eyes again.

The day after Christmas that light went out for the last time.

G, I loved you through all of our ups and downs, even through the times that you annoyed the hell out of me and drove me up the wall in frustration! You did what little brothers are supposed to do and did it very well; I’m missing you already.

Hwyl fawr, brawd bach!

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 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

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