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

La Route des Grandes Alpes – The Beginning.

All road trips have a beginning, it’s one of those things that just have to be; like the sun coming up in the morning or that eventually rain has to stop.

The thing is though, “The Beginning” is often not where you’d think it is…

In the case of my Route des Grandes Alpes trip, let’s just call it RDGA from now on, “The Beginning” happened quite a few years back in the lobby of a small hotel in Jausiers, right in the heart of the French Alps.

I was waiting to pay the bill and was idly scanning the leaflet rack on the hotel reception desk; you know the sort of display with all the local tourist attractions and suchlike?

My eye was caught by an interesting leaflet, it was about something called “La Route des Grandes Alpes.” I picked it up and immediately became fascinated. The document contained a map and description of a fantastic itinerary that stretched from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean Sea.

This was all new to me, but something I resolved to look into once I got home.

….and then began a bit of an obsession!

First though, a little bit of background:

The construction of the route started in 1909 at the instigation of the French Automobile Touring Club. At this time the Alps were quite an isolated region of France, roads were poor and access very limited. By constructing the new road the French Government recognised that the potential economic benefit for the alp region would also assist mobilisation of military units to defend high alpine border areas.

Construction of the road was completed in 1937 and for two years it became an important arterial route from North to South, but then in 1939 came the Second World War and thoughts of alpine tourism disappeared. Post war, the development of French motorways saw the route slip back into it’s original purpose, tourism and I’m very glad that it did too!

It’s fair to say that the route has been adjusted over the years, but I guess that’s the organic nature of it. Originally it took in the Chamonix valley and ended in Nice, but today has been diverted over the scenic Col de la Colombière and terminates in Menton. I’m quite glad that Chamonix is now avoided; traffic there is very heavy these days and no fun at all if you are in holiday mode!

Anyway, back to the leaflet…

Once I got back to Dookes H.Q. I studied everything I could about RDGA. I’d already ridden bits of it, but to string the whole thing together in one go was an enticing and mouth-watering prospect!
I resolved to ride it, one day…

The trouble with “One Day” is that often it never comes!

I had other places that I wanted to go explore; new places, new adventures.

“One Day” was put on the back burner.

I returned from the Dolomites last September and pondered what could be the next trip. I quite fancied a long expedition to Scandinavia, but at over 5000 miles perhaps it was just a bit too far and slightly, well very, unfair to Mrs Dookes if I disappeared for a month!!

RDGA was looking like a pretty good option.

Fast forward to a hot sunny day in mid June this year.

After two days of hot heavy-duty mile munching, riding from Roscoff in Brittany and covering 650 miles across France, Harls and I were in Thonon les Bains on the Southern shore of Lake Geneva.

We found the Hôtel de Ville, the town hall, and turned onto the cobbled square in front of it.

We were finally about to start “La Route des Grandes Alpes.”

The town of Thonon les Bains has embraced La RDGA and pride of place in the square is a lovely bronze plaque that marks the start of the route.

Strictly speaking the square is for pedestrians only, but no-one seemed too bothered when I trundled Harls over the cobbles and parked her by the plaque for a quick photo!

Then it was time to go, La RDGA was finally happening. I wasn’t excited, no, this was far more than that, this was the beginning of fulfilment!

Stick around for more of the story.

“The mountains call us all, the only difference is what we say back.”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Last Night Blues? – Nah!

Well dear Blogonaughts, Harls and I are back in Brittany and enjoying the last night of our Route des Grande Alpes odyssey.

This will be our last “On Tour” blog post report, once I get home I’ll start writing up the trip in more detail and publishing it; I hope you stick around to see that, as amongst other things I’ve got some fantastic photographs to share.

Last night’s stopover in Bourgueil was extremely comfortable. Every few nights I like to slightly up the standard and enjoy a bit of extra comfort, I’m getting on a bit you know and need all the help I can get!

The region of the Loire Valley around the pretty town of Bourgueil (say “Bur-gui”) is noted for it’s splendid red wines. In fact they are well up there on Mrs Dookes’ favourites as they are not too heavy and retain a degree of fresh fruit. Only a few miles down the road is Touraine, where white wines rule the roost, again another on Mrs D’s likes list.

The difference in wine types over such a small distance is all a matter of what the French call “Terroir,” an almost indefinable difference in the type of soil, aspect and geography that suits one grape type better than others and can even make wine from the same grape taste very different. I once tried to explain this to a friend who was convinced that a €1 bottle of wine tasted as good as a €20 bottle…I gave up in the end!

Trust me though, it does make a difference!

The vines of Bourgueil, just quietly waiting to produce great wine!


Anyway, back to the biking…

We had a fairly relaxed 220 mile trundle today; the new lower French speed limit of 80 kph was actually quite relaxing on the affected roads that we used and didn’t seem to add much to our journey time either. Thankfully there was some cloud cover and as a result temperatures were a bit lower, it was still hot on occasions though.

It’s probably a good job that this blog doesn’t come with smell, as after two weeks of the crazy temperatures that we’ve had my riding gear is…disgusting! I’m going to hang it on a line and give it all a good hose off with high pressure water when I get home! That’s if I am let in the house, I have a vision of Mrs D refusing to let me in until I change clothes out in my workshop; ah, the trials of the long distance motorcyclist!

Talking of long distance, today we tipped our hat to 2700 miles total for the trip so far, or 4345 kilometres if you prefer. Sure if you divide by the number of days it’s not crazy per day, but some of those days were hard ones, very hard.

Tonight I’m just sitting quietly enjoying a splendid meal and pondering on where we have been, what we have seen, the people who we met and the roads that we have travelled.

It really has been quite a journey.

Was La Route des Grande Alpes a monkey on my back before we set out?

Well, maybe, but not in a sinister way like the “Beast of Stelvio” was. Click here for that story!

Once we rode onto the epic route in Thonon les Bains it just seemed to give and give; I cant wait to tell you more about it.

For now, with a splendid meal in front of me and a glass of very nice claret to hand I’m happy, very happy indeed. Job done and done with my friend Harls, who else!

Tomorrow we go home and what could be happier than that?

“Roll, roll me away,
I’m gonna roll me away tonight
Gotta keep rollin, gotta keep ridin’,
keep searchin’ till I find what’s right”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Interference and Remembrance

As you all know I really love my old Harls.

Some of you however, will not appreciate that she is also a link to two long departed special people. Today and the previous few days were the anniversary of the passing of Trudie and Andy.

Both taken too young and both missed immensely.

You can read more about them and their link with Harls here.

I was thinking about the two of them today when I stopped at a service station that claims to be to be at the very centre of France on the A71 AutoRoute.

Then when I came to leave all hell let loose!

Harls wouldn’t respond to either of my key fobs and when I tried to start her the alarm went off, again and again!

Strangely no-one challenged me…

I wandered into the shop and asked if they had any batteries for my alarm?

“No“ was the answer; “But if it’s your motorbike, try pushing it down the slope, it happens all the time, it’s the radio antenna!”

OK, known problem eh?

Well, I pushed Harls down the slope and yes there was a blasted great 100 metre tall radio mast right next to the service area, but no she still wouldn’t play nice. In fact she went even more peculiar on me. There were lights flashing all over the place and all sorts of previously unheard squawks emanated from her!

At times like these you need a friendly voice, so I called my good friends at Plymouth Harley Davidson back in the UK.

Luckily Dealer Principle Chris answered the phone and within a few minutes I was talking to Chief Technician Dave – this is Dave who loves Harls almost as much as I do and frequently threatens to take her from me if I don’t look after her!

We talked through the issue and Dave came up with some suggestions, which I went away to try.

Nothing doing.

I really appreciated the effort and support from those guys back at Plymouth Harley Davidson, it”s good to know that you have a friendly, helpful voice at the other end of the phone even if they are 1000 miles away!

Whilst I was scratching my head a car drew up and a chap got out who introduced himself as a local Harley rider.

“That m%#@e mast has got you brother!” he exclaimed, then went on to tell me that lots of local French Harley riders have had the same problem that I was experiencing.

Thanks, but how did they get out of it?

“On a truck!” – Not greatly encouraging…

Then another chap arrived on the scene. He’d been having lunch with his family and had seen my predicament. It turned out that he was an electronics engineer and had experienced similar problems throughout France.

His African-French accent was quite difficult to understand, but he told me that the French are not very good about thinking of the effects of either High-Tension power lines or Microwave Transmitters on other electronic devices when such things are built.

He came up with a suggestion to try with one of my key-fobs; take the power cells out of both and stack them than use a key to make the circuit, briefly press the button and see what would happen.

Bingo! It worked!

I suppose that the extra power was enough to override the interference; I don’t really care, I’m a mechanical engineer and although I understand electronics. They are a bit of a black art to me!

Harls burst into life and sat burbling contentedly.

The funny thing was that for an hour and forty minutes I didn’t get worked up or cross; Trudie was holding my hand and Andy was trying to find a solution – I was not alone.

Then for the next 150 miles they rode with Harls and I, again.

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Movin’ On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The view from our base near Ambert.


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

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

Catch you soon

Dookes

Some Thoughts From a Mountain

I promised myself that I wasn’t going to interrupt my voyage along Les Route des Grande Alpes with a non stop, blow-by-blow account of where I’d been, what I’d seen and who I’d met. That I told myself can follow later and largely I’ve been true to myself in that respect.

Tonight though is our last night in the mountains of Les Alpes…for the moment anyway. A night spent a reasonable altitude on the flank of Col de la Madeleine, which thankfully gives some respite from the crippling heat that is currently swathing much of France; it is officially “Une Canicule” – a heat wave!

Harls is safely tucked up in the Relais barn and I am sitting in the shade of a lime tree with grapevines threading through the paling fence and hazy views of the distant mountains of Col de la Croix de Fer, life is pretty good; if a tad knackering! (Knackered – old British term for very tired!) Supper is, however, being served!

It’s a good moment to reflect on our trip.

Did La Route des Grande Alpes deliver? – You bet it did!

From the moment we left the Town Hall, Hôtel de Ville, in Thonon les Bains to the evening in Menton when I indulged myself with a paddle in the Mediterranean, the road has been hard, but oh so giving.

Sometimes, when a trip finally starts to happen after months, or in this case years of scheming, planning isn’t quite the right word for this project, it can be a bit flat, not in this case. Life was stupid busy before I left home and in some ways the trip sort of snuck up on me, but once I got moving the excitement hit me; though to be honest, two days of solid slog to get across France wasn’t exactly thrilling!

Then comes a funny thing, something that always get my pulse racing, it’s the first sight of a road sign to some “exotic” place…in this case it was “Géneve” – Geneva and the knowledge that we are really doing this crazy thing! You see Geneva lies at the West end of Lac Leman, Lake Geneva, and Lac Leman is where La Route des Grande Alpes begins!

From the moment we trundled out of the busy streets of Thonon and found the D902, which on an off was to be our “Mother Road” for the next 722 kilometers, the route just continued to deal us delights with every amazing twist and turn.

Once we reached Menton our return path took in some of the alternative passes that the route has to offer.

By my estimation we have we have crested 37 passes, though when I do a more detailed analysis there may be a few that I have overlooked, so the total could rise! Again, when I have the time, I’ll figure just how much altitude we have climbed too, I like statistics like that, sad I know!

Tomorrow we leave sadly the high mountains behind, we’ll cross the mighty River Rhône and ascend onto the plateau of the Massif Central. It wont be hard going there, they are just other parts of this beautiful country that I adore.

The sun has now dropped behind the mighty alpine sentinels that surround our pretty mountain village and the air is cooler with a pleasant breeze stirring the trees. Around me the evening sky is filed with the sound of bees buzzing contentedly whilst pollinating flowers of the overhanging lime tree.

Coffee is being served and though tired, I am happy.

The owner of the “Relais” has been quizzing me about the trip and my writing.

As way of apology for interrupting my meal, which I didn’t mind at all, he has brought me a small glass of the renowned liqueur of the Alps, “Genépi.”

Like many liqueurs Genépi is an acquired taste. It’s made from the Artemisia plant, (Wormwood), that grows wild in these mountains, that is then steeped in spirit alcohol to which sugar is also added to aid the transfer of flavour and colour.

It’s not exactly firewater, but you need to treat it with respect – Floyd would have definitely approved!

Catch you soon

Dookes

Rest day

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

…only one problem, what to do?

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

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

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

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

All of which came together perfectly.

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

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

Not a bad view over lunch!


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

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

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

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

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

It’s good to have standards.

Catch you soon.

Dookes