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!

road

Traffic

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.

camping

water-fountain

Water

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.

Food

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.

Flies

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

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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 tacks

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.