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…

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!

Variations on a successful theme – the Surly Orge

I’ve just put the finishing touches to a Surly Ogre. The massive bike – an XXL frame – uses parts from my trusty–but-too-small Surly Troll, including a Rohloff transmission.

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Surly Ogre on shopping duty in Manchester

The Ogre frameset came up by chance – a friend was offloading it – and given my height it was a chance I jumped at. Regular readers will now I am fan of the Rohloff hub for touring both on and off road. I too have been a fan of Surly’s do-everything- reasonably-well bikes. However, the Troll always felt a bit too much of a compromise. Notwithstanding the fact it was too small, I found the handling too busy for it to be a full-on load lugger.

Since dismantling the Troll before moving house last year, I’ve really missed not having a bike of this kind in the fleet. So I was keen to marry the Rohloff to a larger frame and hopefully achieve the true all-roads, all-round touring machine I was looking for.
It may well be early days, but I think I may have just found it. The Ogre is based on Karate Monkey geometry – that venerable ‘niner off-roader of the Surly line up. I wondered whether this would be ‘too mtb’ for touring, but the handling is very different to the Troll. Maybe it’s the set up, but I’m amazed at how predictable this bike is… with none of the Troll fidget. It’s far more to my taste as a touring machine but won’t be as nimble on the gnarly stuff of course.

So, tracking straight and true, the bike really inspires confidence on descents. I’m a bit lily livered when to comes to downhill, but the Ogre has me tucking in and flying. That may be something to do with the riding position. I am able to comfortably ride in the drops on this bike and the position feels quite relaxed and controlled… certainly very far removed from aggressive.

Take a look at the build kit for this bike and you’ll quickly appreciate this a belt-and-braces machine – just how I like my touring bikes to be. However I can also fully understand why some readers would find it over the top and not to their liking at all. It would be possible to build a far leaner and sprightlier version of this bike but the component choice is based on my experiences with the Troll. This bike should be able to bounce along the Kjolur in Iceland fully loaded and crawl (albeit slowly) over Alpine passes. It also needs to be burly enough to resist the determined inattention of baggage handlers (I remain ever-hopeful on this latter point).

Just don’t ask how much it weighs…

The build is as follows:

Frame: Surly Ogre, XXL (24”)
Wheels: Ryde Sputnik Rims, Shimano Deore fornt hub (36 spoke) Rohloff rear (32 spoke)
Tyres: Halo Twin Rail gum wall, 2.2 in
Racks: Tubus front and rear
Transmission: Middleburn cranks, 38T chainring. Rohloff hub, 16T sprocket. Surly tugnut.
Brakes:
Avid BB7 V discs, Tektro V brake drop levers
Bars: Genetic Flare, 46cm
Seatpost: Velo Orange layback seatpost
Stem: Salsa Guide Stem 90mm, 115 degrees
Headset: FSA Orbit XL
Extras: Thorn accessory bar for Rohloff shifter.

ogre-lakes