My last full day in Barcelonette and an opportunity to pedal up the Col de Vars, a regular climb in the Tour de France. Its popularity in the Tour parcours was underlined by the number of riders battling their way to the top today.
Of course, all were on high-end road bikes and most had matching team kit. I’d like to say all returned my cheery ‘bonjours’ as I ground up to the top, but most ignored me, remaining steely behind their Bradley Wiggins Road Eater 5000 specs (or whatever).
The Vars is very straightforward from Barcelonette and is a 60 km round trip. There’s a fairly longish and very pleasant ride in and the most of the climbing is focussed on the last few kms. It ramps up considerably and felt a little more like the hills at home, if still longer. I enjoyed it immensely and the coffee at L’Igloo at the top was a real treat.
I’ll be sad to leave here, no doubt, and it may not be via the route I’d hoped. I had planned to ride over the Col de Bonette tomorrow but the pass is currently closed and the rain is still falling up there as I write this. A landslide and rockfall are the result. This may mean I have leave via the Cayolle… no great hardship as that pass has easily been my favourite so far and it’ll be a pleasure to experience climbing it from this side. For now, it’s a case of watching and waiting.
I realised in my last post I neglected to mention where I was staying. Beuil, a lovely, peaceful place and, despite the hail, somewhere that helped me collect thoughts and, more importantly, allowed me to do my washing.
I left the valley late on Tuesday after enjoying a long breakfast with Augusto and Gabrielle, a gregarious and energetic Franco-Italiano couple from San Remo. She a former model, he still a hotelier despite being in his 80s. We shared photos – although my meagre collection couldn’t compete with Gabrielle’s extensive portable portfolio that charted her modelling career over many years.
Their company was very welcome as I was a little tired of dining alone and I was sad to leave. That said, such a welcome start to the day had put a spring in my step and I soon made the ski station at Valberg before enjoying the most exquisite climb over the Col de Cayolle and into Barcelonette. I was at last hitting my straps. The weather was cooler and the mountains had opened up. This is what I had been looking for eagerly, perhaps too eagerly given the difficult conditions, since arriving on Friday.
I enjoyed it so much that I decided to hole up in Barcelonette for a few days. Today I climbed the Col d’Allos, another beautiful pedal to the clouds and more rarified air. It was a treat, particularly without the camping gear on the bike!
Keen for a bit of Tour de France history, I climbed to Pra-Loup too where Bernard Thevenet famously beat Eddy Mercx in the 1975 stage from Nice. There’s an archway marking this most famous achievement – well the French love to celebrate their own, particularly where cycling is conerned. I was hoping for lunch in this historic setting but all Imfound was another bland, seemingly closed down ski resort. I didn’t linger.
Tomorrow it’s the Col de Vars before the monster that is the Bonette on Friday, again fully laiden, and I start my slow journey back to Nice. I am going to have retrace my wheel tracks sadly, but there is a very good reason for doing so. More of that later…
Just a very quick post today. Having slept like a log, I had a pleasant day doing laundry, booking a flights and reading. The calm was shattered by a mid afternoon storm though. These hailstones made a hell of a racket on the tent. The gear just about survived, but I can’t imagine what it would have been like had I have been on the bike…
Today, mid morning I was sitting in a lovely square in Saint Sauveur sur Tinee. I’d spent the morning climbing out of Saint Martin Vesubie before dropping down through Valdebore. The scenery was stunning but something was lacking… it was only until I stopped in the square that I realised.
The pressure of the schedule, the Route des Grand Alpes, was having an unseemly affect on my trip. I was plagued with doubt about my ability to climb these cols in the heat, and the idea of getting to Lake Geneva and beyond for that matter while still managing to enjoy my holiday was becoming an unrealistic prospect.
I was chewing over this while enjoying a very French moment… having popped into a boulangerie and buying some very good pastries for very little money to enjoy in the sunshine. I think my doubts had subconsciously caused me to stop and reflect.
It was a lovely half an hour. I talked to a couple of cyclists and walkers, both enjoying the boulangerie’s fare too. I resolved immediately to change my plans and focus on quality experiences rather than the climbing. The hard yards may have been inevitable, but what’s the point without some reward?
I climbed the Col du Couillole in the afternoon and am now holed up for a couple of days to plan and sort a flight out of Nice. I’m staying in a beautiful, sparsely populated valley and it feels like I am in the mountains proper at last. A day doing laundry, reading my book and eating good food beckons. And that sounds just dandy.
‘C’est les vacances terribles!’ came the cry from my host at the campsite in Saint Martin Vesubie. She was referring to my bike trip of course and after today’s climb of the Col du Turini, I too was beginning to wonder about the sanity of this venture. In an effort to preserve my mental health, I’d rather focus on the 20 km descent I enjoyed after all that toil. The juxtapostion of agony and ecstacy was marked no doubt, but I still can’t shake the fact that I have summited an ‘easy’ climb today and much sterner tests are to come.
Truth be told, the gradients were not that bad… certainly not beyond this Glossop hill bagger. However, my fears about the heat were brought into sharp focus today. Only when I’d dragged myself beyond the 1200m contour did a comforting breeze materialise. Before that, it was oppressive and I quickly adopted the jersey open, bare-chested routine of racers on these slopes (not a pleasant prospect for others on the road).
The hope is, the more I ride the more mentally and physically prepared I’ll be… and hope is a good thing, I guess.
First night in France and I find myself in an overpriced but rather charming gite in Peille. Now, the keen-eyed among you will note that Peille is not on the Route Des Grand Alpes. Thinking I had a smart short cut – provided by Google Maps – I spent the afternoon following a route to Sospel in the vain hope of cutting out the dogleg to Menton. Very bad mistake.
Google Maps likes to use minor Chemin routes as part of its cycle suggestions and these are, based on my experiences today, undulating single-track roads that no doubt provide an excellent route through these beautiful coastal mountains but not for those lacking local knowledge.
I’d been on the search for quieter routes as the traffic in Nice and on the climb out of the city had been a real chore. Added to this the oppressive, heavy heat and the day has been a challenge.
So, after plugging around and getting nowhere fast, I stopped and threw a bit of money at my predicament. I realised early on that I was tired after my 3.30am alarm call and, consequently, had started to make bad decisions. Tomorrow, I’ll have to retrace my wheel tracks but should make Sospel for lunch and then the real fun and games can begin. Alternatively, I may miss out this section and push directly north to the Col du Turini…. we’ll see.
The heat is set to continue and its something I hadn’t really accounted for in my planning. Consequently, I am going to try to start early, take a long lunch, and ride into the evening. Things will be different in the High Alps but the heat of midday is going to be too much to bear. It’s also going to affect my pace and itinerary… but it’s not a race.
I realise this may sound a little gloomy. Not really, just a bit grumpy at myself at a poor start. Being a little more philosophical, I should be grateful the bike arrived in one piece and is running like a dream. Now its rider needs to!
The Eroica Britannia may have allowed me to indulge the n+1 theory of bike ownership in the form of my much-loved Bob Jackson, but it’s not all about the bike and I enjoyed my ride immensely last year.
I was always going to take part again but wanted to change the tenor of this year’s trundle, to move away from the rather elitist 100-mile class and pursue a more sedate pace while immersing myself in the spirit of this very British incarnation of the Italian ‘heroic’ ride.
Consequently, having ridden the longest route previously, last weekend I rode the shortest. I ditched the retro merino ‘racing’ gear for what perhaps could be described as 1950s touring wear – white shirt, retro tank top, baggy tan shorts. It all seemed to suit the Bob and my biking philosophy.
I had a companion this year, too, who helped me explore this more relaxed approach. In a last-minute bike switch, Sophie rode my Brompton hastily equipped with a wicker basket and looked very dandy in the world’s largest sunhat. Although not particularly aerodynamique, the headgear made sense as the weather was glorious… furiously hot in fact.
We set off late, nearly the last riders to make the grand depart. Within half a mile along the lovely High Peak Trail, we stopped for breakfast. Riding just 25 miles immediately changes your mindset; there was always going to be plenty of time. And with that time came a deeper appreciation of the surroundings and the nature of the event. Riding my bike, great weather, lovely company… simple but sometimes-elusive pleasures.
The miles passed under our wheels easily and my companion didn’t appear too encumbered by the Brompton despite her initial skepticism. Leaving the gravel, our route dropped down into Monyash where the food station was bare. Still, there was beer, soft drinks and much-needed water to give us a lift. A brass band provided the only soundtrack needed for half an hour lying on the grass in the sunshine.
Now heading back to Eroica HQ, we both started to dawdle, neither of us wanting the ride to end. To soften the blow, we formulated frankly hair-brained plans for next year. This could involve a tandem and cross dressing,.. and I will seemingly endure the greater humiliation.
In the final miles, all routes converged and we encountered the hasty progress of riders on the longer tours, their riding philosophy somewhat removed from ours. They also sped by when we came across a venerable rider seemingly slumped on his weighty trike in the fierce heat. We were concerned for our fellow velo and plied him with water and sweets. We decided to ride back to Friden Grange with him as an unofficial support crew where he was greeted with heartfelt and deserved applause upon crossing the line. Chapeau my friend.
So, a glorious ride on a glorious day. You couldn’t really ask for more.