Explaining a Special Place – Col du Galibier

In a post last week I talked about Col du Galibier in the high French Alps and how it is a place that is very special to me.

Then regular commenter on my posts, AGMA, posed the question;

“Why is it special?”

I started to write a reply for AGMA, then paused and thought that probably it would be a good idea to explain “why” to a broader audience.

We have to rewind the clock back about 50 years…

Young Dookes was exploring the darkest parts of his father’s workshop/garage. At the very back, almost hidden from view and next to the engine of an old BSA motorbike, young Dookes found a man’s bicycle. In the eyes of Young Dookes, this was a prize of great beauty for not only did it have racing style drop handlebars, but there on the rear wheel was a set of derailleur gears – a “Racing Bike!”

To be honest, it was also tatty, well used, in need of a complete overhaul and it wasn’t a “Racer,” it was an old Raleigh Trent Sports Tourer with four gears, 26 inch wheels, a Brookes saddle and a Dyno-Hub, but in my young eyes it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen!

There was a fundamental problem though, it was too big for me to ride and I had to wait a few years before I could safely sit on the thing and turn the pedals!

Once that happy day came there was no stopping me; well actually there was, the old tyres soon gave up the struggle to hold air and I was grounded, literally!

At this juncture my father suggested that it was time for the old bike to have a complete strip-down and rebuild, wise words. Actually, it was much more life-changing than that; for here was my first introduction to the engineering principle of taking something apart, fixing it and putting it back together so it was better than before. It stood me in pretty good stead.

So the old bike came apart and I learnt about bearings, Bowden cables, cotter pins, crank arms and gear sets. Looking back the old girl was is pretty rough shape, but with my father’s guiding hand we made a fair job of restoring her back to road-worthy condition, but oh the satisfaction!

All the time that I was, a) growing and b) rebuilding the bike I was avidly reading everything I could lay my hands on about cycling. In due course I discovered that there was a prestigious cycle race called the “Tour de France” that was run annually and took three weeks to circulate around our near European neighbours.

One day my father returned home from work with a copy of The London Evening News and showed me an article about that year’s “Tour” which had just finished and had been won by a rider from Belgium, his name was Eddy Merckx and it was 1969.

Eddy Merckx

Who was this Merckx?

Not only had this fella just won the “Le Tour,” but he had also won the “King of the Mountains” title, which is given to the rider that gains most points for reaching mountain summits first within the greater race.

That year the tenth stage of the race was held in the Alps where Merckx put down a marker with a storming ascent of a place called “Col du Galibier.” Then he had blown away the completion with aggressive attacking over Col d’Aubisque in the Pyrenees and pretty much sealed his victory.

Oh yes, Merckx also won the best Sprinter Green jersey plus the prize for most combative rider and the most individual stages, 6 out of 24. What a rider!

Cycling had got it’s hooks into me and I had a new hero!

In those days though, Le Tour simply wasn’t covered by British television; in fact it wasn’t covered much by the French either. All our information tended to come from newspapers and cycling magazines; it was all a little bit second hand!

…but also where was this place Col du Galibier?

Now in those days not only had the Internet not been invented, but the guy who invented it had only just started Secondary School! So if you wanted to find out anything, it was a case of looking in books, either at school or in the local library.

It was a good job that I also had a big passion for geography.

I discovered that Col du Galibier is a high, 2645m/8678ft, mountain pass lying at the Southern end of the French Dauphiné Alps. Now this in itself was a revelation, as up until that point I had believed that the Alps solely existed in Switzerland…doh! Anyway, the more a learnt about Galibier, the more I wanted to know.

Looking South from Galibier.

I devoured everything I could about the place, it’s geography, geology, flora and fauna and most of all it’s history.

The first passable road over the mountain was built in 1876 and by 1891 a tunnel had been built beneath the crest, things stayed like this until 1970 when a new loop was added to the road, taking it once again over the high summit. Gradients on each side are formidable, with a maximum of 12.1% and height gain of 2058m/4085ft over a distance 8.5km/5.3miles.

Looking North.

I began to dream of visiting this place.

Le Tour returned to Galibier in 1972 and the mountain was conquered by Joop Zoetemelk, though Merckx again won the overall race; as he also did in 1970, 71 and 74.

The urge to visit Galibier started to become a bit of an obsession…then career and life stuff got in the way, but I never forgot about that mythical mountain in the high Alps and my need to climb it.

Many years later, when life had settled down and I started solo motorcycle touring, I soon realised that here was my opportunity to retrace the tracks of my heroes who rode “Le Tour.” It didn’t take me long to put together a few outline itineraries that encompassed some of the mythical climbs: Col de Vars, Izoard, L’Iseran, Lautaret…but most of all Galibier.

The day I finally set out to head towards Le Galibier I was fussing around Harls, getting her ready for the great adventure ahead when my eyes caught that old Raleigh Trent Sports bicycle in the corner of my workshop. I paused, then pushed my way over to her and ran my hand along her substantial steel frame; silently I told her where I was going and how much she still means to me. Dad had been dead for about ten years and in many ways she was my only tangible link to him

In the French Alps a week later, I sat in a café in Briançon; Col de Vars had been topped, Izoard crested and both were delightful, next was Le Galibier!

I banged out a quick email to a couple of friends, walked out into the midday sunshine, put on my helmet and started up Harls.

The ride to Lauteret was a delight; it’s a pretty quick road with a great surface, lovely sweeping bends and hugely impressive views all around.

The road to Lautaret, just look at those sweepers!

Then we turned right and dug in on the climb to Galibier.

Turn here for Col du Galibier.

It took my breath away.

The road starts passively enough then turns sharply to the left and the gradient kicks you in the teeth. Hairpins follow, a blind left with a sheer drop to the right and the relentless climb continues, thank goodness I’ve got an engine! As we gained altitude, runoff water from the last of the winter snow was streaming across the road. Climbing higher the air quickly became cooler and noticeably thinner; Harls with her carburetor and naturally aspirated engine began to run a bit rich and lose power.

Just before the tunnel we turned right onto the summit loop, we are well above the treeline here. More hairpins, more climbing and soon we reach the summit.

I pull over and switch off the engine.

At the summit looking back where we came from, winter snow still lies by the road.

Silence; save for the gentle ticking of an air-cooled Harley engine cooling down.

The views are….heavenly, but then I guess you are almost up there in heaven as wisps of cloud drift by below!

A couple of other riders walked past and a few very brave cyclists trundled by, I didn’t quite have the place to myself.

I stayed sitting on Harls and just let it all sink in; I was here on Col du Galibier, magical, legendary, Galibier and as I am want to do my mind did a bit of wandering.

I remembered that day discovering an old bicycle, of my late father helping me restore it, of a newspaper article about the Tour de France, of Eddie Merckx…I kept my helmet on and let my tear filled eyes weep in private. Crash helmets are useful like that.

You see, Galibier had become something more than just a famous mountain pass in the French Alps…it had become part of me and me of it.

It represents the melange that we all are inside; that mix of hope, experience, light/dark, triumph, tragedy, sorrow, pain, elation and happiness….above all, happiness!

Snow everywhere!

Finally, I took off the crash helmet and sat in the bright sunlight.

I felt truly at home and totally in tune with this incredible place, it’s probably my Celtic blood that gives me a deep love of high places, but this place was and is, very, very special, call it spiritual if you like.

Galibier had called and I had answered, eventually.

“The mountain’s high,
The road ran steep and winding,
The promises so easily made
Unbearable, yet binding.”

Catch you soon


For AGMA – I hope this answers your question, Dookes.

PS I return as often as possible!

The Galibier

Yesterday, my good blogging friend AGMA published a post about her love of the Tour de France cycle race. Please pop over to her blog by clicking here and check it out.

Regular blogonaughts may remember that Hogrider Dookes is also rather partial to the “Le Tour” and it is certainly one of my guilty pleasures to sit inside on a bright summer day watching the action on television. My excuse is that live Tour action simply did not exist when Dookes was a lad!

Chris Froome attacks in the mountains.

Today the weather outside is OK, but not great, so not too much guilt is involved…but today is a very special day for “Le Tour,” today the race crosses the iconic Col du Galibier!

Col du Galibier

This was a mountain that I always dreamed of climbing. The domain of Merckx, Zoetemelk, Coppi and Jiméez, it stands at 2645metres, 8678ft, above sea level and has featured in the tour since 1911.

This year “Le Tour” is crossing Galibier from the North side, 18km of climbing at an average gradient of 6.9%….that’s bloody tough! Oh yes, I nearly forgot, they also had to climb Col du Télégraph first, 11.8km at 7.3%!

Galibier is to me the home of “Le Tour” in the high Alps and also for me a place of great spiritual significance. The first time I rode up her glorious majestic slopes I had serious tears running down my cheeks and to be honest it’s not changed much since! I love the place.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go watch a cycle race!

Catch you soon.


The Last Col

I had real mixed feelings as I guided Baby from Como this morning.

With Mrs Dookes flying out to be with me, I had to pause, draw breath, stop being self-centred and only thinking of motorbikes for a few days. I’ve got to admit that despite it being quite a difference from my normal road-trip ‘modus operandi,’ it worked superbly and the break from riding did help recharge the old Dookes batteries! On the other hand, I was just about ready to get rolling again by this morning, there’s only so many pastel shaded salmon coloured houses with tile roofs that I can cope with looking at!

There is just one funny thing though, after three days of not riding it came as a bit of a shock just how heavy Baby really is! I supposed I’d got so used to her massive bulk that I’d forgotten how bloody awkward she can be at slow speeds and on indifferent road surfaces, like stone cobbles! Thank you Como for reminding me of that!

Once we got on the open road I was able to relax a tad, if one can ever relax when riding on an Italian Autostrada! Now don’t get me wrong, the Italian motorways are not in my opinion inherently more dangerous than any other high-speed trunk road found throughout Western Europe, you just have to approach them a bit differently. For example, apart from lane one the other lanes have strict minimum speeds and frankly you be crazy to ignore that. What the Autostrada really does is make people use their mirrors properly, not lane hog and anticipate well in advance. True you will see bonkers things occasionally, but tell me a motorway anywhere where you don’t! The only unfortunate thing about the Autostradas is that the majority of them are toll roads and not cheap ones either, so whilst they undoubtably save time you pay for it!

Leaving Como we headed South, skirted Milan and struck out East to Turin where we took the A32 towards the French border.

By Susa and 130 miles of hot, hot, hot slog, I was ready for a change and turned off the Autostrada to find some altitude and cooler air. At 2083metres/6834feet Col du Mont Cenis seemed to fit the bill nicely, it’s just that I’d forgotten how much hard work it takes to get up there! The road isn’t technically very difficult, but I’ve always found that I can’t really get a rhythm going on it and today was no exception!

At the top of the climb is a lake, Lac du Mont Cenis, an artificial lake that supplies water to two hydroelectric stations. During last winter extensive maintenance was carried out on the dam and as yet the lake has still not reached anywhere near its normal level, which made for an interesting contrasts to previous visits.image

As I wasn’t in any particular hurry, I stopped for a most enjoyable lunch at a small restaurant that overlooks the lake. Talk about a meal with a view! image

The road from the Col drops down to Lanslebourg via a delightful ladder of five sweeping hairpin bends, which being nice and wide, were a joy to cruise round on Baby.

We plugged away down the L’Arc valley, whilst surrounded by impressive towering peaks it gets quite tedious the nearer you get to Modane and St Michel de Maurienne. There’s just too much squeezed into a very narrow valley, a major railway line, several freight yards, two main roads, a Péage, various quarries and factories not to mention the River L’Arc!

By La Chambre I was ready for a change.

There was one more big Col on the Dookes list, another classic from Le Tour de France that had been calling me for years; Col de la Madeleine. Despite Baby being such a handful on the narrow mountain roads I decided to go for it, remembering how I’d ridden last year on Col de Lombarde I knew the bike could do it!

From La Chambre to Madeleine the D213 road is 20km long and gains 1522meteres at an average gradient of 8%, that’s quite a climb, over a mile upwards. Oh yes, there’s twenty hairpins as well! At the top you are 2000metres above sea level, that’s 6562 feet.image

I’ve got to say that I enjoyed every single metre of that climb. I just let Baby find her own pace and gear, she’s not a sports or adventure bike, so no point in trying to ride her as such. She is big, long and heavy and as such you’ve got to approach the tight twisties with respect, do that and she’ll do the job! Just like today.image

Arriving at the summit was incredible, I remembered that someone once described Madeleine as “beautiful, but heartbreaking.” imageI’m not sure about the heartbreak, definitely beautiful, but for me to was the culmination of a quest that began by a young boy who over forty years ago dreamed of visiting the great Tour de France Cols.image

As I stood admiring the lovely stone summit marker, a golden eagle called from high in the clear sky above me, it’s call echoing off the surrounding mountains.
I looked upwards to that majestic soaring bird.

If we dream to soar from what we are familiar, that is normal.
A few are lucky enough to fly with their dream.

. . . and now that last Col has been climbed, where else can the dream lead to?

Catch you soon.


Le Tour – A Guilty Pleasure

The scorching summer sun is searing outside, a gentle breeze is keeping everything delightfully bearable as the current heat wave continues to please. Inside the blinds are down and the room is cool and still, I sit, sipping a cool mineral water and enjoy, on television, the penultimate day of “Le Tour 2013”.

The 2013 Tour de France is the 100th. It started in Corsica, whilst I was returning from my Goldfinger trip and was the first ever time that Le Tour has visited the island.

In it’s usual way the race has looped around France, taking in the classic scenery of the Pyrenees , Normandy and the Alps, all jolly good for the French tourism industry. This year’s Tour is to be the first to be completed on only French soil since 2003.The last week has featured a final set of Alpine stages that can only be described as brutal. They are tough enough on a motorbike, let alone on a pedal cycle! It included a double ascent of L’Alpe-d’Huez, the first time the tour has featured a double climb of this difficulty.

The Tour will finish tomorrow evening on the Champs Élysées in Paris and here’s hoping that Britain’s Chris Froome will still be wearing the famous Maillot Jaune!Richie-Porte-and-Chris-Froome-659x440

As the sun warms the Cornish countryside, inside I am transported back to France and the cool sparkling rivers of the Drôme, the windswept dunes of Normandy and the high peaks of Savoie. This TV coverage is terrific, I recall as a youth with my cycling mad friends, desperately trying to get current information about Le Tour. Those were the days of our heroes, Merckx, Thévenet and Hinault, when in the UK the only reports were found tucked away in the sports section of the Daily Telegraph. In those days we dreamed of “ten speed racers”, “Campag” gears and double butted frames…how things have changed.

Then we were blissfully unaware of the problems of doping, even though Tommy Simpson had died on the slopes of Mount Ventoux with a pocketful of amphetamines in 1967. Then came the Nineties and the “Tour of Shame” in 1998 when Voet was arrested with a veritable pharmacy of illegal substances…followed on by the Armstrong years, enough said! Now, things are supposed to be better; Wiggins won last year and Froome leads today, both claim to race clean and most people believe them, I do anyway, but only this week two top track athletes were revealed as testing positive…

So excuse me whilst I indulge myself for a few hours as the Peloton heads towards todays finish at Annecy-Semnoz. Froome leads by 5mins 11seconds, will it be enough? We’ll know by this evening!