RDGA Finalé – Up With The Big Ones!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What next?

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

Catch you soon.

Dookes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What now?

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

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

I felt a little empty.

What next?

Where now?

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

Did I ever tell you that I love that bike?

…. and tomorrow?

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

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

Catch you later.

Dookes

RDGA 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!

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

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