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

Bridesmaids

Hello Everyone.

It’s been another splendid day for riding motorbikes. Lots of sunshine, a bit of a chill in the air…but best of all, no rain! With all the trials by weather that we have been subjected to, it was the sort of day to savour and do something special and that’s exactly what we did.

Continued apologies for the lack of photographs, hotel WiFi is still being a pain, so I’ll keep this report reasonably brief and save the photos for a longer post in the not to distant future.

Because of the weather issues I’ve rearranged our schedule a bit and dropped some of the lesser Dolomite Passes, actually that’s just an excuse to come back here again….please Mrs Dookes! There were however three passes that I really wanted to bag (that’s slang for riding over them), initially they had been scheduled for our entry to Italy, but yep the weather stuffed that idea. The trouble is that they are all so high that even in the height of summer and precipitation can fall as snow. Over the last week all of them have seen quite a bit of the white stuff and only yesterday snow chains were required on two of them! As you can imagine, there was still a fair bit around today making things look quite superb.

Oh yes, I nearly forget to tell you which passes I’m rambling on about, I’ll give you the German names for them, as we are in the South Tirol after all, in order that we rode them:

Penserjoch 2215m/7267ft
Jaufenpass 2099m/6887ft
Timmelsjoch 2474m/8127ft

I set out with a blank canvas, sure I knew where I wanted to go, but I hadn’t planned a return route. That was good really, because I enjoyed the outward ride so much over the first two that once we had done the Timmelsjoch High Alpine road, I turned around and came back the way we went out! 😎

I’ve got to say that although the Timmelsjoch is supposed to be one of the classic alpine routes, it didn’t do much for me; I much preferred the other two. A case of the bridesmaids out doing the bride!

Yes, I promise I’ll write much more in future about all three routes with, if I say so myself, some really nice photos as well; please stick around for that.

In the meantime, keep the rubber down and the shiny side up!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Looking For The Loire (Back in Black)

Well, my beloved “Harls” and I are back on the Continental roads again!
Today we’ve just reeled off 360 miles, (600 kilometres sounds more impressive though!) since rolling off our overnight ferry at Roscoff in Brittany.

For those who like checking our progress on the map, we travelled via Rennes, Angers and Bourgueil to our overnight stop with my old friends Jacques and Claudine, just East of Vierzon.

I’ve got to admit, I’m pretty knackered tonight, that’s “tired out” for those of you not used to my colloquial English! I absolutely adore every second that I ride Harls, but I’d forgotten just how much effort she demands, compared to cruising on the big blue Ultra Limited. Harls is safely tucked away in Jacques’ barn for the night and here I am sitting on the terrace, sipping a glass of rather splendid local red wine, watching the sun drop in the western sky as a warm breeze rustles the Autumn tinted leaves; tinnitus is screaming in my ears, my wrist aches from holding the throttle open (oh yes, I do mean open!) my backside is. . . tender, but I’m happy, very very happy. The old team is back doing what we do best, having fun on the open road.

Now a little observation; I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three types of French Dual carriageway/autoroute:

Dull.

Dangerous.

Delightful.

Today we sampled all three, I’m not going to dwell on the bad bits, but those wonderful French road builders have been stealthily rebuilding the D775 between Rennes and Angers and it’s a beaut! Lovely sweeping curves, enough gradient to make it interesting and smooth as can be!

Somewhere along the road we slipped from Brittany into the Loire valley. It’s strange, but for however many years it is that I’ve been travelling in this part of France I’ve never been able to spot exactly when the transition takes place. It’s like…”Yes, this is nice familiar Brittany.” Then a bit later, “Oh, this must be the Loire Valley!” I really have tried to spot the dividing point, but no, not managed it yet.

I always find the River Loire a bit difficult to define. Yes, it’s France’s longest river and it’s also one of the great rivers of Europe, but it’s a lazy old thing meandering around like a big question mark from the Massif Central to the Atlantic.

The whole concept of the “Loire Valley” is a bit baffling, as for most of the time the landscape to me resembles a prairie with a river running through it and it’s not just the Loire that’s included, its tributaries such as the Cher, Indre and Vienne get lumped in as well!

I’m not complaining though. The Loire valley is a veritable treasure trove of some of the best things France has to offer. It’s largely temperate climate and fertile soils have brought great wealth for centuries, it’s a big wine growing region and as a result there are over a thousand stately châteaux of all shapes and sizes.

Today I wanted to look in on one of the most famous, Château de Chenonceau. This place has been intriguing me from a distance for years, so I had to go check it out.
Oh dear, what a disappointment.

Now I’m sure that if I could swallow my pride and elevated view that I am a traveller and not a tourist, when actually I’m really a leather clad motorcycle riding tourist, then I might get along fine with the thousands of folk swarming between the car parks and the Château…but just one glance at the sandal wearing, short-clad hoards and I did a graceful U-turn and carried on East! Jacques roared with laughter when I told him.

Thanks to Ra-Smit for the use of the photo and yes, the Château really does partly sit out on a bridge over the river!

So back to the “terroir” of the Loire valley…the soils are largely sandy and calcareous and that generally means one thing….wine! Famous appellations such as Touraine, Saumur and Bourgueil, are known the world over; indeed some say that Saumur sparkling wines are better than Champagne.

It’s not just grapes that they grow here, the area produces thousands of tonnes of arable crops. All over the place you can see grain elevators, known as “Prairie Skyscrapers” in Canada and the USA. The grain harvest is long over now, but the farmers are still busy; currently it’s maize that is being cut. Next will be the sunflowers, with the start of Autumn their bright yellow petals have withered and fallen. Where once their happy little faces looked up and followed the sun, now they hang their heads sorrowfully looking for their lost petals and contemplating the turning of the season. In French the sunflower is called “tournesol” – “turns to the sun,” I like that!

“Yes, I’m back in black.”

Catch you soon

Dookes

Black Circles

They hold up each corner of a car or truck.
They’re round, generally black and often unloved.
They are one of the most technical elements of any motor vehicle yet are frequently ignored…..unless of course you ride a motorcycle; I’m talking about tyres.

So why do us bike riders care so much more about our rubber?

Well, in essence it’s because we rely on our tyres so much more to help us stay alive!

A tyre has to do many things in it’s working life; it has to transmit the power from the engine to the road when accelerating and then be the gripping medium to slow the vehicle under braking. It’s grooves throw water away from the contact area in wet conditions to prevent aqua planing and when you go round a corner it’s your tyres that stop you sliding off the road.

On a motorcycle the tyre has of course to work when in contact with the road at other than the perpendicular, that means when it’s leaning through a corner. If you look at a motorcycle tyre you will notice how it’s profile is very different to that of a car or truck version; in cross-section it’s rounded with curved walls, whilst a tyre on a car has generally straight-ish sides.

Harls Skinny Front Wheel, with new Michelin Commander tyre.

Put a group of motorcycle riders together and pretty soon the conversation will turn to the topic of tyres and then become apparent that there are many different views and opinions on “the black stuff.” Fortunately the tyre manufacturers have noticed this too, so the range and choice available to bike owners is quite large, if not a tad confusing! In general, the sports bike rider is best served of all with tyres for every possible scenario catered for; there are hard compounds, soft compounds, dual hard/soft, wet tyres, road legal slick types and goodness knows how many other offerings!

Now I have a bit of a “thing” about tyres too, particularly those for my Harley Davidson motorcycles.

As standard the tyres that are fitted as original equipment to Harley Davidson’s are made by Dunlop. Indeed, until recently, these tyres were all that was “approved” by Harley Davidson to be fitted to their machines. All good “Union-Produced-Made-in-the-USA” stuff. I acknowledge that motor companies spend many millions on research and development, but that these tyres have earned the nickname “Dunlop Ditch Finders” amongst a lot of end users tells quite a lot about their performance!

It’s in that word “performance” that the issue lies and where the inflexible approach by Harley Davidson is, in my mind, working against them. I’m sure that from their base in Milwaukee the Harley Research and Development Girls and Boys look out at the Mid-West Plains or the sun-baked highways of Arizona and California and truly believe that the good old Dunlop D4xx family are really a “one-size-fits-all” answer. Only they are most definitely not.

On the Grössglockner, sunny but cold.

The tyres are made of a hard rubber compound, rock hard in fact. True they last forever, some folk get well over 15,000 miles out of a set, but it’s a trade-off as the tyres don’t really “work” at the average temperatures we enjoy here in Northern Europe and probably a fair slice of the USA as well! Yes I know that there are folk in the USA who swear by the stock Dunlop, mainly because they last forever, but hear me out…

Riding in Provence a couple of years ago with “Baby” my big tourer, the air temperature was around 40°Celsius and only then did I feel that the D402’s were gripping the road well; though that could have been because the asphalt was melting! Earlier in that trip I had been riding through the Black Forest in Germany, temperatures were around 10°C and it was raining, grip was scarily minimal, especially cornering, when the back-end of the bike twitched as the tyre frequently lost grip through the bends. Not nice!

40ºC it’s hot, very hot.

So what’s the answer?

Well a quick look on a couple of on-line Harley forums threw up two interesting schools of thought.
a) High mileage is good, doesn’t matter if it doesn’t grip the road well.
b) Must grip the road in all conditions, especially the wet, but mileage doesn’t matter as much.

Broadly: a) = North America b)=Northern Europe!

For me it’s a case of find a tyre that does work in cooler wetter climates…but to be honest, for a Harley the choice is very limited. Aside from the stock offerings for my big tourer, I’m looking at tyres made by Avon, Metzler and Michelin.

There is another type of Dunlop, GT502, which H-D fit to some their Custom Vehicle Operations machines and from personal experience on Harls, these are a fantastic tyre; grippy in wet and dry, with a lovely rolling action, but with the trade-off of relatively short mileage….but they don’t make them for the bigger bike!

I’ve used Avon’s on my Softail previously and have been very pleased with them. Metzler are a new manufacturer to me, originally based in Germany, but now owned by Pirelli of Milan…so many decisions! In recent times H-D have begun to approve some tyres made by Michelin, but as yet I haven’t received any reliable feedback on these.

Spot what’s missing!

OK here’s the plan.

Softail Harls needed a new set of boots this summer, she had a set of the Dunlop GT502’s put on a couple of years ago and I wanted stick with them, but unfortunately they seem to be currently unavailable at the moment; bummer! So taking a leap of faith I’ve gone for the Michelin “Commander,” lets see how we get on. Initial feedback is that I like them, I’ve only done around 220 miles on the new rubber so far, but I can report that they heat up nicely, grip well and best of all feel great in the wet; so big smiles all round….if you excuse the pun!

New Michelin Commander on the rear of Harls.

I’ll report further when I’ve done a more meaningful mileage.

Then I’ve got to figure out which tyre to fit on Baby Blue….!

Just to close…

A couple of years ago Mrs Dookes overheard one of her colleagues talking on the telephone to a tyre supplier when their car needed a new set of rubber, it went like this…

“I need some new tyres for my car please. What size? Well, er ‘medium’ I suppose, oh and black ones too.”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

A Little Bit of History Repeating

When I’m off on my little motorcycle adventures, there’s nothing I love more than riding new roads. Actually, that’s what its all about, new roads, new vistas, new places and new people.

There are times though when I retrace my steps. Sometimes it’s because of necessity because there is no other practical route and other times it’s just because I want to.

Now I’m not talking not those grand places that call me back, like for example Col du Galibier in the French Alps. No, I mean those back roads that just need to be ridden at a leisurely pace without a care in the world.

A few weeks back, as I trundled across Brittany heading for the ferry home, I had one of those moments. I wasn’t in a hurry and the D764 road to Pontivy just sort of called me to enjoy a steady trundle across the gentle Breton countryside.

I couldn’t resist stopping to try to recreate a photo that I took of “Harls” a couple of years ago on the same road.
Heres the first picture:

Harls in Brittany 2014.

Harls in Brittany 2014.

And here we are with “Baby” in the same spot two years later!

Baby, Brittany 2016.

Baby in Brittany 2016.

Apart from the difference in the weather and the height of the crops in the field behind the bikes, I don’t think too much has changed.

“Harls” looks a bit dirtier than “Baby,” but that’s probably got a lot to do with her being a naked bike and all exposed to the elements, as I am when I’m riding her!

All I know is that it’s a privilege to be able to own, ride and enjoy two lovely machines such as these and take them to the many wonderful places that I do.

It’s what keeps me sane in this crazy world that we live in!

“Yes I’ve seen it before,
just little bits of history repeating.”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Across the Rivers and Plains

After my splendid petit déjeuner Baby Harls and I hit the road around nine thirty. The day was warming up nicely, this was going to be a bit of a hot one, in more ways than one!

We had a tad of nonsense getting round Bourges, I think someone in the local highway department had a sense of humour when the town’s bypass was named “Rocade Jacques Bastard,” it certainly is a bit of one!  Anyway, we slotted onto the N151 with a bit of trepidation, you see I’d been along this road before in a car with Mrs Dookes and it wasn’t the greatest trip. Today though, was so different. Light traffic, ok there was almost none and lovely sunshine.

The road is pretty straight, the Romans were here a few thousand years ago, so we sang our Twin Cylinder song and purred East across the Cher Plain, this is the bread basket of France, wheat, barley and rape fields fill the land. I couldn’t resist trying to grab a “Big Sky” shot like Dhama Anchor  http://dharmaanchor.com does so well around Route 66.  

 I think that worked pretty well!

Dropping gently into the Loire valley and crossing the mighty river at La Charité we negotiated the narrow streets through historic buildings that even predate me! From Charité the road turns slightly North East and heads into Burgundy/Bourgogn, it’s still Roman so still pretty straight. Bourgogne is lovely, especially the Morvan part of which we passed through.

Clemency was were we crossed the River Yonne and shortly after the road became delightfully twisty winding through the Maulay Forest to the magical  hill top town of Vézelay. The town and the famous 11th century Romanesque Basilica of St Magdelene are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, Mrs D and I visited in October a few years back and it was delightful; rather more tourists around today though! 

 It looked great across the fields.

From Avallon it was back on the Autoroutes I’m afraid! The first one was the worse, the A6, the infamous Route du Soliel. The motorway is the favourite of Parisienne holidaymakers as it is the main link to the South of France and the French Riviera. Notorious for traffic jams and accidents in the high holiday season, it’s reputation is well deserved and you certainly need to keep your wits about you! Once on the A36 we crossed the Saône and the traffic quietened down nicely, this is a super Autoroute with interesting bends and nice changes in gradient, enough to keep it interesting. 

. . . and so into Mulhouse, our stop for tonight. Not as plush as yesterday, but chosen for a reason and more of that tomorrow!

Catch you later and in the meantime, 

 “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.”

Dookes