Retracing my tyre tacks

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It was sadly time to leave Barcelonette and the Col de la Bonette was still closed. Merde! That meant riding over the Cayole again which, in itself, was no great disaster; it was just frustrating that I’d be covering ground already travelled, albeit in the opposite direction.

Happily, ascending the Cayole from Barcelonette was even better if that’spossible. The journey was no doubt helped by the climbing kilometres I now had in my legs. Despite the bike being loaded with my gear once more, I no longer needed to reach for the lowest ratios of the Rohloff. My labours now had a rhythmic quality that had been sadly lacking at the start of my trip.

I reached the summit in a cold breeze and a friendly Dutch rider took my photograph once a rather determined German roadie had barged to the summit marker ahead of me and then unceremoniously left his bike propped against the stonework once his picture had been taken.

Dropping down the other side I popped into the gite for lunch, a substantial slice of cheese quiche and a coffee. There I met Paul, a lawyer from Seattle on an organised trip pedalling the cols. He’d rented a bike rather than leaving his brand new titanium steed to the mercy of the baggage handlers and he wasn’t best pleased with his loaner. ‘It has a triple!’ he told me, and ‘normal’ brakes. Obviously a convert to road disc brakes, he felt callipers had no place on wet descents or the high cols.

At lunch I considered what to do for the next couple of days. Given my change of plan, I had a day to kill and a number of options of where to spend it… although I quickly rejected the Nice option as I had no appetite for the city. I then remembered a campsite a few km down the valley that had a pool. The idea of a languid couple of days reading and swimming appealed so I made a beeline for Le Prieuré and what a good call that proved to be.

The grounds of the substantial gite are given over to small cabins, but dotted among them are an array of well-sized, flat pitches for campers. The pool is small and cold (!) but provided a welcoming alternative workout for stiff muscles. However, the true delight of this place is the food. I should confess here that I was ravenous after my days climbing mountains and happily devoured a sharing salad and main plus desert both evenings I stayed… much to the amusement of the effervescent and welcoming owners.

On my day off from the bike, I decided to go for a walk… yes, this Northern Walker walking again. The gite has a small biblioteque of trail maps to follow and I opted for a circuit in the hills above. It was sublime… I was so tempted to try and bag an Alp or two but the need for a better map and better gear eventually persuaded me otherwise. The older I get, the more common sense I exhibit (I hope)… and an early navigational error hardly inspired confidence either!

Back on track, I followed an exquisite balcony trail through fragrant pine woods with wonderful views to my left of the opposing valley wall. Feeling fit and strong after my days on the bike, I decided to up the pace… a rare fell running outing for me. But my usually cumbersome and ungainly frame felt up to the task and I sped along happily unencumbered. Of course, the effort made room for more delicious food that evening!

A very wet night made me grateful for the hotel Id booked in the ski station of Valberg the following evening. This was a short ride away in terms of simple kms, but it did involve an ascent of the Col de Valberg a steep and stifling climb in the afternoon sun. But charged again with miles in my legs, I made the ski station in good time and grabbed a couple of beers before I was able to check in. This was my kind of hotel… the owner immediately offered that I should take my bike to my room and I dutifully crammed the Ogre into the tiny elevator, much to the chagrin of my fellow guests.

Col de Vars

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.

Col bagging in Barcelonette

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…