|Danger! - Colle di Eische|
I returned to where it all started, my addiction to a life on 2 wheels. I have an intimate relationship with France and especially Mt Ventoux. On holiday over 20 years ago, we were staying in view of the mighty Mt Ventoux, the official start at Bedoin only 10km away. I had taken a bike with me, so, just for fun, I thought I’d have a crack at riding up the mountain. How hard could it be? It was only 19.6km.
That first time cycling up a mountain in mid August was a comedy of errors; firstly, leaving mid morning. It was hot, very hot. I rode in too high a gear at the bottom, maintaining momentum for a mere 5 or so km before giving in to the whinging legs. And again 5km later. I was suffering in the heat, the tree lined lower section giving scant protection from the now midday sun. Sometimes, being overly stubborn does have its upside; it got me up the climb that day, despite a couple more rest stops at the legs’ request. By the top, I was cooked. The only thing left to savour was the long descent and a Coke from the cafe. The final 3km climb back up to our gite went on forever.
Collapsing under the shade of a tree, my response to people’s ‘so how was it’ surprised them, given my state. ‘Really good fun’ was my reply. Therein began my lust for wanting more of the same, more adventures on 2 wheels, the freedom of being fit, more pain. After a few more miles in the legs back home, a shiney new Marin Pine Mountain (the one with the orange forks and bars) and some lycra, I started to call myself a cyclist.
The other week, it felt quite emotional to be back, atop of the mountain which started it all, having ridden up with a group of Australians from Melbourne. I was their soigneur for the duration of their 10 day trip. What a great bunch of guys. They had come out to ride some of the iconic climbs in Provence and the alpes, and to see some of Le Tour. It was my job to keep their bodies going. This time round, we were sensibly up top by 10am, avoiding the searing heat, and 3 days before the tour’s arrival. The atmosphere up that mountain was electric. So many cyclists. So many tour supporters, parked up road side all along the climb, some precariously parked on the edge of the scree in the last 6km. We spied one (overweight) chap on a static bike near the top - has to be the most random thing I have seen up a mountain! Maybe someday, I’ll go easy on myself and ride up on an actual road bike instead of knobbly tyres.
10 days and aching hands later, my time as soigneur was done, and I had just over 4 days to make it back to Nice for my return flight. It is barely a full day’s ride from Briancon directly, but the plan was to take in as many windy, hilly, backcountry roads, cols, gorges and cafe au laits stops in small villages as I could. I was returning to my roots, the reason I enjoyed riding, to ride from A to B, exploring from the saddle and being totally self sufficient. These days I am mostly a slave to training, most rides have a purpose: training stamina, strength, and that lactic threshold. The only agenda for this ride was to complete the planned day’s mileage. It wasn’t a dawdle on 2 wheels though, riding at a reasonable pace to get the miles in. The legs were still whinging each day, with 2500 to 4000m climbing a day, but worth it for the stunning backcountry. Staying on roads, however small, refuel stops are never far, with numerous small villages and drinking fountains en route. Just remember that countryside stores close between 12 and 3 when planning pit stops and you’ll be lucky if they are open Sundays. I forgot.
20 years ago, it was touring on the rigid Marin with racks and pannier; this time it’s a Niner Air 9 RDO and bikepacking bags. Such a revelation - a lighter set-up and handling is so much better. The saddle and handlebar bag are from bikepack.eu, framebag is custom from Alpkit.com, toptube bag is a Topeak fuel tank and I used 2 feedbags from Revelate designs - really useful bags, using up the space between stem and bar for having food to hand or extra bottles.
If you ever get the chance to ride via Briancon, take the time to check out the old fortified town - a great cafe stop with a view. From here, it was Italy bound, via the back roads to Guillestre and Mont Dauphin, and then the climb up the Col d’Agnel, a 20km climb in it’s own right, but the climbing starts from Guillestre, up the stunning combe du Queyras.
Welcome to Italy. A 33km descent took me towards the town of Sampeyre and my first bivvy. A couple of coffees in town set me up for the morning’s 18km climb up the colle di Sampeyre. Descending the other side, I understood the appeal and intensity of the mtb stage race Ironbike. Tough and unforgiving climbing, yet such stunning mountain scenery. A track more than a road, it disappeared down into the steep valley. The climb up to the colle di Eische/Vallonetto wasn’t dissimilar but in the opposite direction. An array of signposts warning drivers of a large number of hazards over an 11km section where the road was gradually falling down the mountainside. This was duly ignored by many in cars and on mopeds. One section, barely wide enough for a small car, had simply been patched up to allow vehicular access, along with other patch up jobs. All good fun on the bike though, despite the sections of 15%. The ride through Italy was a worthwhile detour and although my language skills don’t extend to Italian, this close to the border, many Italians thankfully speak some French.
Another stunning 24km upwards to the Colle di Lombarde and I was back into France and onto bigger roads for a while, descending the access road to the ski station of Isola 2000, France’s southernmost ski resort. A right turn and it was open road, heading upwards towards Europe’s highest paved col, the Col de la Bonette at 2805m. A wide road meanders up the mountain, bereft of any tree cover. Tough going in 32 degree heat but the storm clouds were gathering. A gloriously blue sky gradually turned dark grey, with lightning strikes all around me. 5km from the top, the rain came down. My Gorebikewear active shell kept the weather out but after the effort of getting up here, it was disappointing to not have a grand view of sunshine lighting up high peaks. My luck wasn’t in that day, so it was straight into the descent towards Jausiers and then Barcelonette. With an air temperature drop of some 20 degrees and soaked to the skin from sweating up the mountain, it was pretty chilly on the way down and the rain making it hard to see. Call me a wuss, but I enjoyed a hot shower in a campsite that night. For the next day’s climbing, the Col d’allos and the Col des Champs were beckoning me.
The Col d’Allos was the last big climb, from now on it was more ‘rolling’ terrain. It was nice to get off the main road at Colmars to ride up the Col des Champs, a mere 13km. This far south, the chance of getting caught in a summer storm was way less and the climbing reduced to around an hour instead of the 2 hours plus.
The mountain side village of Roubion is worth the travel. A cafe stop with a superb view. From here there are a number of choices for routes, but I just couldn’t resist a big descent. Leaving Roubion, I retraced a few kms before heading down the Gorges Superieurs de Cians. 22km of descent through a spectacular gorge. Keeping my eyes on the road was hard. The only downside was that it dropped me out onto a main road towards Nice. Endured for 8km, it was back up, onto a back road towards Villars sur Var to look for a bivvy spot. A few hundred metres up, in this very dry climate, I wasn’t expecting mosquitoes. I was got bitten that night, a lot. Seemed that my bikepacking aroma appealed to these blood sucking beasts.
Sitting in the village cafe of Massoins a few kms on, locals greeted this smelly stranger with a ‘bonjour monsieur’ as they entered. Don’t get that back home. This, the final day of riding was a bit more relaxed, a small back road through the hills to Roquebillere and then a blast along a more major route towards Nice, via the hilltop village of Aspermont, a favourite ‘quick’ climb for those living in Nice. From here I was back in suburbia.
It’s always a wierd feeling riding into cities after a long trip in the hills, having become used to small towns and villages over the past 2 weeks. Having to switch my ‘city’ mind back on, being aware of traffic and people. And the humidity. So it was down to the beach for a quick dip to cool off, before locating a hostel, for the luxury of a bed for the night. Although, being in with a group of 18/19 year old girls and boys wasn’t exactly luxurious.
With left sided weakness and lumbar disc issues, racing can sometimes have a brutal effect. Riding from A to B, without the pressure of racing, simply discovering new routes is perfect for giving the mind and body a break. Sure, being self sufficient does mean extra weight for the legs to carry, but that feeling of go anywhere still lives on after those first few trips some 20 years ago. It’s taken me a few rides to get the kit down to a bare minimum, for an enjoyable trip, especially in areas where the weather can be so variable, but it simply comes down to personal choice. There is plenty of lightweight bikepacking kit out there, especially from the folks at Alpkit. Grab some bags, a handful of your favourite MuleBars, load up the bike and go have an adventure on 2 wheels.
| Café au lait with a view from Roubion|