Since returning from France, life has been a little busy to say the least. Consequently, this post has had a number of false starts. Let’s see if I can actually nail it today.
My much-anticipated trip to the French Alps was a bit of anticlimax in terms of distance covered and passes climbed. Readers may remember I had planned to ride the Route des Grande Alpes and beyond, with a favourable wind.
On reflection, an unfavourable wind would have been preferable to the 35 deg C heat and humidity I encountered on the first few days. The conditions put me behind schedule quickly and plans had to change. As is the norm, however, changed plans brought their own reward.
I go on these trips to escape common routine and tyranny of the clock so perhaps it was naïve to set myself such a challenging objective. I’m grateful for some long-range WhatsApp counsel from someone rather special who supplied a much-needed metaphorical slap round the face. Consequently, I dropped the schedule and started to enjoy my time in the mountains.
So, here are one or two thoughts if you are planning a trip to this lovely region…
Can I ride the Cols?
Yes you can! Before I went to France, I was concerned about my fitness and ability to grind up the Cols. I was also worried that I wouldn’t enjoy it, particularly on a touring bike. This was true to a point, but more to do with the heat wave in the region rather than the difficulties posed by the climbs
Admittedly, riding your bike uphill for 20-plus kilometres will require you to train on hills ideally. The hills around my Glossop home were a more than adequate treadmill.
With a few notable and famous exceptions, the cols are not that steep… they are just long. It’s a case of getting into a rhythm and enjoying the scenery. Take breaks, drink plenty and remember to eat.
If anything, the challenge is more a mental one; silencing a complaining mind just as important as telling the legs to shut up. I used to sing to myself, which prompted all sorts of strange looks from my fellow velos.
Just a word on descents – be careful. Know how your bike handles with load and make sure the brakes are in tiptop condition. Common sense perhaps, but worth mentioning. Cautionary notes to one side, plummeting down these narrow Alpine roads is, perhaps, some of the greatest fun you can have on your own!
A rule exists in France that motorist must leave a 1.5m passing distance when overtaking cyclists (1m in urban areas). I’d love to be able to tell you that French motorists dutifully abide by this ruling but in my experience it is simply not true. While I would say the standard for driving in France is higher than the UK insofar as respecting cyclists as a fellow road user, I lost count of the examples of truly atrocious and dangerous overtaking on display. This problem is more apparent on the narrow mountain roads – although one can’t discount the impact of inexperienced or just ignorant holiday drivers.
One perhaps unfortunate bi-product of the 1.5m rule is that some drivers will abide by it even if traffic is coming in the other direction. This, frankly, beggars belief. As in the UK, keep your wits about you.
The campsites I used in France ranged from the rather basic to the rather luxurious. You’ll encounter facilities similar to home although hot water appears to be rationed – while toilet roll is non-existent at times. Make sure you carry some. Prices tend to be the equivalent of the UK too or marginally more expensive. Even if a randonneur rate is not advertised, owners generally will apply a reduction pour le velo.
Water is generally easy to find as most town and villages will have a potable supply from a fountain in the main square.
While restaurant owners will happily fill your bidons, they will generally direct you to this ‘tres fraiche’ source.
Failing that, tap water is fine unless otherwise marked.
This proved to be my greatest frustration and greatest delight in France. Given I only had a lightweight cook kit for brews, I was reliant on cafes and restaurants most of the time. This was frustrating at breakfast as all that was generally on offer was croissants. Now I like a good pastry as much as the next person, but this breakfast paled after a while. These ubiquitous treats are hardly packed with slow release carbs either so I usually found myself hungry by mid morning irrespective of how many I polished off at breakfast (read: many).
Lunch and dinner could be a joy, though. Prix fixe menus were as good as I’d read and the portions large. Dinner too was an opportunity to fill my boots, all washed down with the ubiquitous un pichet de rosé. My food was generally simple in these establishments, but cooked very well indeed. Dinner, in particular, became a treat after a long day I the saddle. That, of course, assuming the restaurant was open or, indeed, still existed. Which brings me to another frustration…
I’d read about this before leaving for France and had mentally prepared for the entire country being closed on Sunday. In fact, Monday proved to be more troublesome rather than the traditional day of rest.
Adding to the frustration was the seemingly whimsical way in which shop owners and restaurateurs suddenly had a change of heart and decide to close for the evening. Consequently, don’t rely on published opening hours while Google may seem more of a work of fiction than normal.
In the main, I found alternatives and improvised although one evening I had to get down on one knee and almost beg my host to make me a pizza (they were officially closed!). My advice would be to stomach the extra weight and carry food. Refuelling is too important no to.
Arrgh! My biggest bugbear (pardon the pun) of France, particularly the Alpes Maritimes. Flies are everywhere… clouds of them on your food, around your nose, in your eyes, around your mouth. It makes me shiver just thinking about a couple of occasions when I couldn’t escape the blighters. In one moment’s frustration and weakness I hollered ‘Give me the f@cking Scottish midge any day!!!’ Probably a little disingenuous, but you get an impression of how annoying and persistent they became.
Just a brief note on this. The heat wave at the start of my trip was stifling and not conducive to cycling up hills. This was followed by typical mountain weather – changeable. There’s a great deal to be said for starting early when conditions can be chilly yet settled and finishing your day’s miles ahead of the afternoon storms which can be sharp and, as I discovered, laden with tent threatening hail. Pack for all conditions, then.