Three days in the Dales

Since riding the Way of the Roses with my good friend Tim a couple of years ago, I’ve wanted to return to God’s Own Country for some more two-wheeled purgatory. Our time in the Dales – albeit brief – on this wonderful route was characterised by vertiginous climbs, incongruously dry karst scenery, formidable slabs of cake and rather excellent beer.

Quite a bit has happened since then. And while the distractions of parenthood have been, at times, monopolising, the part of me that is constantly planning the next trip has not fallen silent.

That next trip would be the Yorkshire Dales Cycleway, and I booked three days away from the desk to pedal it.

Loading the bike into the car on a sunny Monday morning, I had to confront an unfamiliar emotion – leaving the family behind. My work sees me away from home most weeks, but this was different. I was going away for fun, and somehow it seemed wrong that Sophie and Joe were not coming with me. Actually, I should be completely honest here: I was sad that Sophie wasn’t joining me. As much as I love taking the Surly Burley for a spin, it can be a bit limiting. I hope Soph and I can grab some time on the bikes together soon.

The descent to Dent – steep

The Yorkshire Dales Cycleway is a 130-mile route that takes in most of the major the dales in this lovely district. In the wake of the extension to the Dales Park in 2016, there is a longer route that visits Sedbergh and the grassy hummocks of the Howgills, adding 25 miles to the route. Given I had three days to spare, along with travel, I opted for the ‘standard route’. While 130 miles may not seem much, the route packs a punch boasting over 4,300 meters of climbing. For someone who hadn’t spent that much time on a bike on the last year or so, it represented a challenge.

With this in mind, I planned a three-day itinerary that provided a relatively easy first day, with the parcours becoming progressively more arduous. This meant starting in the village of Kettlewell in Upper Wharfedale.

Day One – And the going is easy

I parked in the large National Park car park in the village which has the advantage of offering longer stay tickets – the older I get, prosaic concerns such as car parking seem to matter more and more.

I was soon ready to roll and pushed off along a quite lane following the easterly bank of the River Wharfe. Within approximately 35 seconds, I was beaming. It felt so good to be on the bike again, revelling in the knowledge that I would be doing precisely the same thing again tomorrow and the day after.

The stern easterly being funnelled down the dale provided a few ‘bonus watts’ to each pedal stroke and no doubt lightened my mood. Aeolus may have been smiling on me now, but he wouldn’t tomorrow. I got a sampler of the headwind to come while pedalling along the B6265 to re-join the route after Bolton Abbey, in order to avoid retracing my wheel tracks. For the record, this is not recommended. While the headwind was unpleasant, this B road is dogged by heavy traffic and much of it seemingly piloted by impatient folk.

Picking up the route at Cracoe, I hoped one of its cafés would be open. Alas, no. I ended ducking under the beams in the Devonshire Arms for a lime and soda. The grumpy triumvirate at the bar meant I didn’t delay. This trio seemed game for a debate on cycle helmets and ‘road tax’ upon seeing me and while I was itching to deliver my soliloquy on these subjects, a little voice reminded me that I was on holiday and my blood pressure would thank me for the restraint.


I pushed on in search of chocolate-based calories. I was banking on the Town End farm shop and café being open. Why wouldn’t it be? First week of the Easter holiday for some and folk would now doubt be cramming into this establishment after it featured in TV’s Top of the Shop with chef and all-round Mr Nice Guy Tom Kerridge.

It was closed.

I only had myself to blame. A bit of research goes a long way.

All that remained was to push on to my overnight stop of Malham ahead of schedule and hope to find victuals. This came in the form of a rather limp and mean-looking cheese and pickle sandwich from the Old Barn Café washed down with plain old filter coffee (‘The machine’s broken!’)

Unmoved by this meagre offering, I went next door to the Buck where a pot of ‘Yerrkshuh’ tea and a slab of carrot cake were far more satisfactory.

Climbing out of Malham

Now late afternoon, and with time to kill before check in at the youth hostel, I went for a spin up one of Malham’s two climbs – hefty ramps that thread sinuous routes through the limestone pavement. Tim and I had plunged down one of these roads on the Way of the Roses causing Tim’s front disc to ‘melt’.  I enjoyed the effort tackling it in the other direction, the low sun giving depth and texture to the scenery. I then walked the usually busy path to Malham Cove to find it empty, save for climber grappling with the limestone crags above. I sat listening to the river, now emerged once more after descending to a subterranean course a mile or so away at Water Sinks near Malham Tarn.

Some peace by the river

Day Two – Do you know what really grinds my gears?

I can’t help feeling a wistful when I sit down to breakfast in a youth hostel. While the quality of the fare may not be top notch, there is something agreeably hearty and honest about the food on offer that takes me back to trips as a teenager, walking the hills and cramming in the calories on a budget.

Stuffing pastries into my jersey pockets, a retrieved the bike, loaded my simple luggage and headed for the climb to Malham Cove behind the hostel. This is a reasonable challenge in anyone’s road book and the ascent got the blood pumping. Yesterday’s easterly had gained additional legs overnight which made the going much harder.

The gradient soon eased and I pedalled along a deserted single-track road with the tarn to my right. It was glorious riding, given an added piquancy with the knowledge that I would normally by sitting down to work at this time.


The road dropped into a lonely valley at Sannat Hall Farm that required some effort to ascend the far side. It then hit me that Tim and I had travelled this road in the other direction two years previously. Then I had managed to pedal up the steep climb that I had now tentatively descended – disc brakes squealing in protest. There would be much more of this to come.

I soon reached Settle where I had a task to fulfil. Stupidly, I had forgotten my phone charger and despite eking out the juice on my mobile since discovering my cloth headedness, I needed a solution. I’m no slave to the phone, but it’s now more important to keep in touch with home and, as an avid ViewRanger user, I do like to use my device for navigation and route tracking.

It was market day in the town and I hoped that would mean a watch battery/vaping/phone unlocking/screen protector/mobile case (delete as appropriate) stall. I found said stall but the chap didn’t have a C-type mini USB cable among his collection.

‘I really need a petrol station with a shop,’ I ventured. The helpful stallholder pointed me in the right direction and I was soon on my way again with a new universal power block and cable.

Heading in a roughly north westerly direction and following the southern boundary of the Park, the route takes a breather from the climbing for a while. This changes after Ingleton, though. Aware that harder yards were to come, I stopped at Bernie’s for, ahem, two cakes, coffee and tea. The stop also gave me an opportunity to charge the phone.

The route then climbs to Kingsdale and follows a north easterly course. Today, that meant I would be pedalling directly into the teeth of the wind that had been tapping me on the shoulder since Kettlewell. Described as a ‘moderate breeze’ in the forecast, it made the going arduous and reminded me of a particularly challenging day in Iceland a few years back.

Dent viaduct

Kingsdale provided a stunning backdrop to my labours, though. The country felt lonely here and I had the road to myself. In common with other sections of the Dales Cycleway, the route is gated which provided additional torment in the wind. I reached White Shaw Moss and plummeted into Deep Dale only to check my progress as the road took on an alarming gradient. Brakes and nerves tested, I arrived at the pretty village of Dent to find the recommended Meadowside café closing early as the owners were attending a funeral. I tried the Heritage Centre and was not disappointed. The grilled cheese and ham sandwich was a delight, washed down with yet more tea. Sometimes, all you want are the simple things done well.

I followed the route along beautiful Dent Dale, enjoying the peace offered by this altogether quieter valley. The imposing Dent viaduct soon loomed and the climbing started again to Newby Head Moss. Here, I had another flashback. Riding home from Scotland some years back I had travelled this way following an off road route to Horton in Ribblesdale. That had been a challenging but altogether amazing day, too.

From here, it was a simple descent to Hawes on the B6255… the road was full of heavy traffic and I was glad to reach the hostel.

On the climb to Newby Head Moss

Day Three – Put your back into it

After embarrassing myself again at breakfast, I ventured outside the sample the temperature. There had been a frost overnight and the frigid morning air had me digging into my bike bags to find extra layers and gloves. I headed along Wensleydale with two Buffs arranged ‘Ninja-style’ to keep my face covered.

At Askrigg, the route would climb again and my legs were just about warm when I reached the foot of this supposed 25% pull. The gradient is more like 18% according to the various hill-bagging cycle sites, but it’s a decent test nonetheless. More important than the stats, it’s a really lovely ride but be ready for another alarming descent into Swaledale at Crow Trees.

The climb from Askrigg
Reaching the high ground

Here, the route heads east along the B6270 and, while quiet this Wednesday morning, I know from previous experience this road can be busy in peak season and for good reason as Swaledale is a lovely place to linger. Fortunately, the Dales Cycleway crosses the river and picks up a narrow lane the climbs the southerly slopes of the valley. Consulting the map, it is possible to plot an alternative route that would avoid the B-route altogether.

I’d pedalled 20 miles or so by the time I reached Grinton and the need for coffee and cake was palpable. I headed off route to Reeth only to stumble on the Dales Cycle Centre (what did I say about too little research being a dangerous thing!?) Happily it was open, the coffee was superb as was the plum flapjack and ‘all-the -chocolate’ brownie. Highly recommended!

Nom, nom, nom etc

I spent half an hour or so in the café warming my extremities yet mindful of the obstacles that lay ahead. I reluctantly left and immediately felt the strain of the climb to Grinton Moor which felt more gradual and akin to the climbs back home in the Peak. Tumbling down the other site to Castle Bolton I screeched to a halt as a Dales Cycle Way sign pointed left to a farm gate. Checking the map, this was indeed correct and I pedalled along a lovely farm track that would have met the criteria of the Grass up the Middle folk.

From here, the route takes in pretty villages and leaves the National park for a wee while. The sun now shone as I entered Coverdale for the final hurrah of the route. The climb out of this dale and into Wharfedale once more is a stunning, seemingly remote pedal with just sheep and the odd adventurous motorists for company. I stopped at the Hunters Stone – just shy of the summit – and found a hollow in the hillside out of the wind to eat the remainder of my trail mix and sunbathe.

Hunters Stone

It was one of those wonderfully restorative experiences that you sometimes encounter on the hill; the wind whistling around you and yet you’re shielded from its pernicious intent. You have an overwhelming sense of presence and detachment from the daily grind that is mercifully going on somewhere else.

Aware that my trip would soon be over, I pedalled slowly over the summit cattle grid and gingerly descended into Kettlewell. Here the route had one final sting in the tail. The switchbacks at Park Rash need great care on descent. This is a genuine 25% ramp and I treated it with great respect. With brakes simmering, I dropped into Kettlewell for a celebratory ice cream.

The Peddars Way – finding a bit of rough in Norfolk


I expected the Peddars Way to be easy. A tame, pancake-flat route of benign cinder paths and quiet lanes. I mean, this is Norfolk afterall: Pretty villages, endless fields of arable crops, rock-and-slot-machine coastal resorts. I’m pleased to say my preconceptions were wrong.

That said, this isn’t the Highland Trail or the Pennine Bridleway. Folk seeking those kind of gritted-teeth thrills should look north. However, the gun-barrel straight Peddars – a former Roman road  – does have one or two tricks up its sleeve. These include a sense of remoteness along with unexpectedly challenging terrain and trail conditions that somehow creep up and tap you on the shoulder when the thighs start to burn.

The Way is part of the National Trail network. It is primarily a walking path and the official bike route diverts off the trail in places where the designated bridleway runs out. I’d never heard of it and the suggestion to put tyre to trail came from my girlfriend, Sophie, who has plenty of experience pedalling the flatlands.

We started at Thetford Station. I’d brought the trusty Ogre which seemed a little over gunned for what lay ahead (doesn’t it always?) while Sophie, who doesn’t suffer my Surly disposition, was on her perfectly proportioned Sonder Camino Ti. This, she insists upon reminding me, is a ‘multi-day adventure bike’ (‘It’s not a touring bike!’). Marketing semantics to one side, it was good to see it on a multi-day adventure at last albeit for what we both felt would be a very straightforward two-day bimble.

peddars-way-2We followed the signs for the Peddars Way through Thetford and promptly lost them. They are there, just keep your wits about you as their tucked away locations appear more geared for more sedate pedestrians rather than cyclists. We eventually joined the trail near Thorpe Woodlands and hit the dirt. Roundham and Hockham Heath soon passed under our wheels and we got into the groove of the journey, stopping frequently for pictures and exploratory Blackberry foraging – still a wee bit too early perhaps.

The trail is well way marked and easy to follow with little need for additional navigation. A word of caution should extend to supplies though. It is perhaps not surprising that some of the numerous signs also pointed to convenience stores and pubs off route as the trail does plot a rather lonely course through this largely well populated county. If you were to stay on the route as we did you’d go hungry. Fortunately, Sophie is a great believer in carrying plenty of snacks (more so than I, thank goodness) and we were well fuelled as we pushed on.

For a number of reasons we booked an Air B&B a few miles off the route for our overnight stop. This proved to be an excellent choice and I can highly recommend Holly House Annexe in Tittleshall. To reach it, I made rather a mess of the navigation off the route near Sporle taking us along some very restricted muddy byways and we arrived late. Our hosts couldn’t have been more accommodating though and even offered to store the bikes in their utility room. After a quick shower we enjoyed some proper pub grub at the Fox and Hounds, a short bike ride away in Weasenham St Peter. A great boozer and not a gastropub pretension in sight. Amen.

We pushed off into warm sunshine the following morning pedalling along glorious quiet lanes while chatting away. With yesterday’s navigational nonsense behind us, we soon found the trail at just after Massingham Common and were Hunstanton-bound again.

Here the trail was now so straight you could calibrate a compass by it. The surface became challenging though. Tussocky grass and mild inclines made for draining progress while deep, muddy ruts and undulations along the multi tracked bed (no doubt the product of scrambling bikes using the route) further hampered out progress. Here, Sophie started to struggle on her tyres which lacked a sufficiently aggressive tread. I had the advantage of fatter boots and the larger wheels so the Ogre just about ploughed onwards.

After the climbs came some fairly rapid descents and I sped off jumping like some BMX bandit reliving a misspent youth. Benefitting from more common sense that I, the sandy sections again caused Sophie to exercise caution as her tyres were found wanting on the loose stuff. Her hands were raw too from the trail buzz which underlined the stony progress in places – cinder paths this ‘aint.

We pressed on, the trail providing a green vein amid intensively tended fields and occasional pockets of heathland. After reaching the affluent homes of Ringstead it was simply a case of dropping into Hunstanton on the road. A note of caution here, avoid the A149 if you can as it is seemingly full of blinkered motorists craning their necks for the sea.

We had both been fantasising about fish and chips for the last hour. As we hungrily sought a suitable fryer we bumped into a Lancastrian gent who wanted to talk bikes – he was particularly taken with my muddy Ogre propped against my leg. It became clear rather quickly that is was not going to be a speedy exchange but I struggled to find a natural break in the chat in order to weed my way out. A gentle, surreptitious foot tap on my front wheel from Sophie underlined the need to make my excuses.

Eventually, our friend relented but gave us a good tip for a lunchtime fish supper – Supafry. It was perhaps too plentiful yet rather fine.

We still had a ways to go. In order to make a connecting service back to Cambridge, we needed to get to Kings Lynn. I suggested we follow NCN Route One and this proved to be a decent choice, albeit the first few miles crossing some fairly lumpy country. The inclines had a wee bit more piquancy after the hefty lunch but the miles rumbled under our wheels at good pace. We stopped at Sandringham for a quick resupply and the route soon delivered us via a series of snickets, jitties and ginnels to the railway station.

Some thoughts on the bikes

peddars-way-finalThe Ogre, heavy and ugly as ever, was a capable ride for this route. The Halo Twin Rails handled everything thrown at them reinforcing their position as my favourite all-roads tyre (thanks again to Tim at Life in the Cycle Lane for the introduction). Everything worked as it should, the Rohloff drivetrain reassuringly silent despite the chain being clogged with mud.

Sophie’s Camino was also a fine choice for this route although her tyres – Schwalbe G One’s – were found wanting in the mud and sand. Her Alpkit seat pack was a wee bit troublesome too given the Velcro straps did not fit around her seat tube, curious as the bike is supplied by the company. I think this is more a reflection of the size of her frame (tiny). There is very little clearance between the bag and rear tyre suggesting that some kind of rack or support is the only truly safe way to proceed with a bike of these proportions.

In a nutshell

Peddars Way. 46 miles, 750m of ascent. Take plenty of food – Be prepared for more challenging cycling in the northern sections – Don’t be put off wildcamping or bivvying as the potential spots are numerous – We took two days at a leisurely pace but a reasonably fit cyclist should complete this route in 6-7 hours – Bear in mind you need to pedal to or from your chosen public transport point at Hunstanton, in our case adding 18 miles.

French reflections

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!



trafficA 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.

Le camping

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).

dinnerLunch 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…

Opening hours

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.

The weather

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.

Trip posts:

A postcard form Peille…and eating humble pie

Col du Turini… here come the pain

Croissants in the square and time for a rethink

A day of rest

Col bagging in Barcelonette

Col de Vars

Retracing my tyre tacks
Gorge du Cians before (not) Nice

Gorge du Cians before (not) Nice

road-to-utelle I slept well at the hotel and in the morning sunshine stocked up on my usual pre-pedal fayre of one-too-many-a-croissant. As much as I have enjoyed my French entrée to the day, I was starting to fantasise about non-pastry based options to break fast.

Today would be a very easy day but an exciting one too. The Gorge du Cians lay between me and the river Vars once more, having pedalled past its source when crossing the Cayolle.

The gorge didn’t present a cycling challenge… an exercise in freewheeling in actual fact. However, billed as one of France’s more famous balcony routes, I was keen to experience it. And it didn’t disappoint, save for the fact that it was too short.

The route starts from the pretty village of Beiul with a few switchbacks before entering the jaws of the gorge. The road descends for the next 15 km or so and each corner brings a new visual treat. The geology is markedly different here, red shale taking over from the limestone, and cliffs towered above, and indeed over, the twisting tarmac.

A number of tunnels dot the route but you are strongly advised to avoid them as a cyclist, opting instead for the unkempt side routes where shattered rockfall litters the single-track road which, in parts, is in very poor condition. Barriers now line the left hand side of the route but this was not always the case. Their addition is a shame in many respects as they somewhat deaden the excitement of the journey.

It was over all too soon sadly and I pulled in to a rather scrubby campsite at Touet Sur Var just before midday, much to the owner’s surprise. I pitched the tent one last time on this trip, showered and found lunch. This simple meal – skewered beef, dressed leaves and potatoes followed by fromage du jour – turned out to be the best food I’d have in France, and the cheapest. The house rose was the finest I tasted too.

I spent the afternoon clambering though the charming Mediaeval passageways of the old village before climbing to the breezy look out point where I whiled away an hour or more finishing my book and revelling in the notion of spending rather a lot of time doing very little indeed. This, in fact, was bliss… so much of our lives are spent rushing around with no time for each other. In a place like this, everything stops. The idea of time being an elastic rather than a fixed entity – a concept that resonates with me- meant something again.

I was mindful of the final day’s riding, though. Is some ways, the route looked fairly straightforward back to Nice but I needed to avoid the main road at least once due to a tunnel, and that meant climbing a couple of supposedly minor cols. I had options as to the route, but both involved over 1000m of ascent. An early start was essential therefore to avoid the heat of the midday sun. By then, I needed to be on the flat and jostling with the hustle and bustle the main drag to Nice and my hotel.

After the usual petit dejeurner, I was on the road by 8.30. The road to Nice was difficult to say the least as trucks thundered by seemingly oblivious to me. I was happy to turn off at the junction before the tunnels where cyclist are forbidden. This took me into the stunning Tinee gorge before climbing to La Tour, a lovely ascent of switchbacks with superb views unfolding as I pedalled. This was bliss, but I naively imagined that my climbing would be done for the day at La Tour. How wrong can you be?

I dropped down from the pretty village onto the seemingly innocuous looking M32 road, which appeared to level out and follow the valley as a balcony route. However, once I put tyres on tarmac, I realised I were climbing again and the road, now devoid of switchbacks, ramped up alarmingly.

The next hour or so was purgatory… without doubt the hardest riding of the trip. Perhaps on another day, I would have found it for more straightforward, but the road to Utelle was seemingly endless and each corner brought more grinding climbing. The views were superb, but I’m sorry to say they were lost on me as the sweat and sunscreen stung my eyes. I put my head down and kept turning the pedals… there really was nothing else to do.

I then reached a tunnel and he relief to be out of the sun was immeasurable. On this quiet road (I’d encountered no traffic since joining the M32) I stopped in the darkness and drained my remaining bidon. I eventually, rather gingerly, edged the bike out into daylight once more to find a road sign that made giggle inanely with relief. Half a kilometre to Utelle, 50 to Nice… the climbing was now definitely done.

I sped through Utelle and headed for St John La Riviere with its very pretty bridge and found a great cafe where a very cold Coke and a very fromagey Croque Monsieur was manna from heaven.

I now had to follow the Vesubie gorge back to the main Nice road, the tunnels now avoided by my tortuous diversion through the mountains. This should have been a steady descent but a determined headwind snaking up the valley meant freewheeling was not an option. It was a case of head down again and push the pedals, my hands clamped on the drops.

As I reached the Vars river for the last time, I followed the main road once more only to hop to the other side at the earliest opportunity where I found an excellent cycle path heading to the city. The head wind remained.

I then made a big mistake. I’d plotted a supposedly cycle-friendly route to my hotel using Google Maps in the hope it would provide speedy and efficienty passage to the city centre. However,the next hour or so was complete misery and I fear I may have used up some of my cycling nine lives. The traffic was hideous, the motorists impatient, the route baffling. Sure, the city streets being carved up for new metro lines did not help matters, but it was a ghastly experience. I eventually gave up and pushed my bike on the footway, weary after my morning’s labours. I arrived at my underwhelming digs and showered for about an hour before drowning in overpriced beer.

Retracing my tyre tracks

IMG_20170701_084347_593 (1)

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…

A day of rest

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…

Col du Turini… here come the pain

‘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.

A postcard form Peille…and eating humble pie

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!