Alpine Adventures – Tour de Barcelonnette – September 2019

Lac de Serre-Poncon Loop – Day Three

My original plan for today involved a 1 hour drive to Vinadio in Italy to climb the Italian & French sides of Colle della Lombarda/Col de la Lombarde . However, when I shared my plans with the owner of the hotel we’re staying in, he advised that it wouldn’t be safe, as rain was forecast & at that altitude it would likely turn to snow. In my experience our hosts & hostesses have always been willing to share their local knowledge of weather / likely road conditions & I’ve learned to trust their recommendations.

One of our other planned rides was a 75 loop around Lac de Serre-Poncon, which is lower down the Ubaye valley than Barcelonnette, so I played around with that to come up with an alternative 58 mile route, with the option of further reducing it to 45 miles if the rain arrived as expected at 11am. We drove 15 miles to the start of the route, which was just outside Le Lauzet-Ubaye.

Once we’d either dressed in, or stowed, all our wet weather gear, we commenced a clockwise loop of the lake, under bruised & broody dark grey clouds, which looked ready to dump their rainfall at any time! The early miles gave brief glimpses of the lake far below, the water was a shade of turquoise that you only ever see in Alpine lakes, as a result of the moraine that gets washed down from the mountains above.

The lake was created when a dam was built across the River Durance to create a hydro-electric power station that is now operated by EDF. There’s also has a small overflow lake below it, which we would also have to circumnavigate.

The first 14 miles were on the main D900 which links Cuneo in Italy with Gap & Sisteron in France. Although it was a bit busy, all the traffic was very courteous & gave us plenty of room. The road itself rose steadily for the first 7 or 8 miles, then descended 5 miles on a wide road, with sweeping bends which meant I only had to brake twice – once because of temporary traffic lights that were on red & the other time to stop & turn on my lights as we had to go through a tunnel. The final mile took us round & over the small overflow lake, before we took a right turn onto a much smaller & quieter road, which followed the opposite side of the small lake.

The huge dam holding back the water from Lac de Serre-Poncon was in front of us, so the only way the road could go was to zig-zag up the side of the valley, until eventually we were level with the dam itself – I was hoping to get a few photos, but unfortunately it’s closed to the public. The road continued its hairpin ascent of the valley wall at a gently 5 or 6 % for the main part, until we reached an EDF PR site, where there was a panoramic view of the lake below & also information on the construction of the dam & the positive impact it has on the surrounding area.

We were 1 hour 15 minutes into our ride & we felt the first spots of rain, which fairly quickly turned to drizzle, so it was time to put on the remainder of our wet weather gear. We continued climbing with occasional views of the lake in the foreground with what should have been towering mountains in the background (today it was clouds!!).

At the 17 mile point we passed through a long tunnel which took us away from the lake, but we continued climbing towards Col Lebraut (the only signed summit of today’s ride) at the 19 mile marker. I stopped to get a quick photo, then we followed the road downhill, as it twisted & turned towards one of the lake’s numerous inlets, where there would have been bathers & kayakers if the weather had been dryer & warmer.

After the descent down to the lake, our feet & hands were soaked through (so much for the waterproof qualities of neoprene!), so we were feeling the cold. The next 6 miles followed the shoreline & was relatively flat, so we took the chance to build up some body heat with some high tempo pedaling. We now had a choice to make, continue around the lake & stop for lunch at Embrun (still another 12 miles away), or cross the lake via the Pont de Savines & shorten the ride. It’s an indication of how cold & wet we were that we chose to shorten the ride by taking the bridge & then stopping for lunch in Savines Le Lac. No photos of food today – we were so cold & hungry that we wolfed it down before I had time to take a picture!!

The road started climbing as soon as we left our lunch stop, but the gradient was always comfortable as we rode through the forest which surrounded us. To our left was a huge monolithic rock that towered over the surrounding hills –this is the Col de Pontis, which while being accessible by road, is a bit too steep for my comfort (about 4 miles at 10%) & as it was raining, I had the perfect excuse to give it a miss today!

La Sauze de Lac marked the top of the climb & under normal circumstances we would have had huge views across to the opposite side of the lake, with big mountains providing a stunning backdrop. However, today it wasn’t possible to see the mountains or the sky, all that was on offer was rain & dark grey clouds. The final descent back down to the shoreline of the lake was a twisting one, with several hairpins, made a little trickier than normal by the water streaming across the road.

All that remained was to head through one final tunnel, before a gentle 400 foot climb back to the car. In spite of the rain, it was a thoroughly enjoyable day out, in part because we cut the ride short before it felt like a chore – we have 3 more great days riding planned. Having driven back to the hotel & had a warming shower, I looked out the window & there was fresh snow visible on the lower mountain peaks, so goodness only knows what it must be like on the Col de la Lombarde, which is some 3,000 feet higher up.

The kit I wore today was so wet that I could wring out my gloves, jacket, socks & shoe covers – I even got the hair dryer out to try & get the rain jacket ready for tomorrow’s ride, where I plan to use it for its windproof qualities! All in all, another great day of cycling in the Maritime Alps.

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