Alpine Adventures – Tour de Barcelonnette – September 2019

Col de la Bonette, both sides – Day Six

The final day of our Barcelonnette trip took us to the highest mountain pass in Europe, according to the local signs. The Cime de la Bonette, is 2,807 metres (8,701 feet) above sea level & the plan was to do an out & back route to St Etienne de Tinee which would involve climbing both sides of this enormous mountain.

Once more we woke to clear blue skies overhead, & the first 6 miles of the ride replicated our route on Sunday as we headed to Jausiers. There was plenty of graffiti on this stretch of road, as the Tour de France passed through Barcelonnette & Jausiers this year, on the stage that took in Col de Vars, Col d’Izoard & Col du Galibier. We also passed a couple of pieces of cycling related memorabilia on the way.

After 6 miles, we took a right turn & almost immediately the road started climbing. While the climb is 14 miles in length, it had a constant gradient, which meant I could get into a rhythm & take in the big mountain views all around us.

We’d climbed the Col de la Bonette from Jausiers on a previous visit, so knew that at about the halfway point of the ascent was a great little café & this was our first target & we weren’t disappointed when we reached Halte 2000 – we had a delicious slice of Blackcurrant plan & a cappuccino, as well as purchasing a Col de la Bonette fridge magnet for collection!

As we left Halte 2000, we started climbing a set of switchbacks, giving huge views to the mountains on the far side of the valley. The gradient briefly eased off as we headed towards the Fortin de Restefond, a military barracks originally built in !901 as a defensive barracks.

As we continued climbing, we could see an alternative gravel route to our right & we caught our first view of the Cime de la Bonette, a 2km extension of tarmac with huge views of the surrounding peaks.

We quickly descended to the Col de la Bonette, then set off on an exhilarating 16.5 mile descent to Saint-Etienne de Tinee, stopping briefly for lunch at Restaurant Pratois (I was too hungry to take a photo!). There were some roadworks on the outskirts of town & as we had a green light, we carried on over the newly laid tarmac – big mistake!! As we rolled over the new tar, it stuck to the tyres & then the grit stuck to the tar…….we spent about 30 minutes cleaning the worst of the grit & tar from the tyres so we could continue our adventure.

Turning round in town, we took to the path to avoid the new tarmac & then followed a babbling brook as it gently climbed for a couple of miles until we reached the start of the climb as we re-joined the M2205. Waterfalls lined the valley walls & it was at this point that a group of Porsches shattered the peace & quiet as they roared past us.

At this point, the valley opened up in front of us & gave us a view all the way up to the pyramid shaped Cime de la Bonette some 12 miles away & 4,000 feet above us. The road twisted & turned its way up the mountain, passing through a couple of small villages before heading through Camp des Fourches, another military barracks built at the start of the 1900’s.

Looking below, we could see the lower slopes of the climb, as well as having regular reminders of what still faced us – there were markers every kilometre, showing how far remained to the summit, as well as the average gradient. After 2½ hours of climbing we’d reached the Col de la Bonette, where we stopped briefly for a photo.

The 13 mile descent back into Jausiers was over in 30 minutes & it ranks as one of my favourites – switchbacks galore & long sweeping corners on a deserted road, this was cycling heaven! All that remained was to retrace our cycle tracks back to Barcelonnette, where we quickly showered & went out to celebrate the end of another epic Alpine Adventure.

Alpine Adventures – Tour de Barcelonnette – September 2019

Both sides of Colle della Lombarde / Cold de la Lombarde – Day Five

Blue skies overhead for the second day running, so we decided to jump in the car for a 1 hour commute to Italy, to climb the Colle della Lombarde from Italy, descend to Isola in France, climb the Col de la Lombarde from France & descend back to the car. Just in case you didn’t realise, this is the same mountain, but I’ve used their Italian & French names!

Today’s adventure would only involve climbing or descending, so while we would only be riding 53 miles, more than 26 miles would be uphill. As soon as we set off the road began climbing a sheer cliff face in a series of tornantes (hairpins), very similar in appearance to the Lacets de Montvernier in France. The gradient was a constant 8% for the first couple of miles, as the road weaved its way through a deciduous forest & followed a roaring river that was below us & off to our right.

The road surface was potted & rough from the constant freeze/thaw cycle that takes place during winter, but wasn’t an issue as we were ascending. There wasn’t much in the way of views to talk of in the first 5 miles, as we were surrounded by tall trees. However this all changed when we crossed a bridge to the other side of the river & the landscape switched to meadow, with views of the huge mountains all around us.

As we continued to climb, there were great views of the road below, as the switchbacks allowed the tarmac to find its way between the outcrops of rock. The views also helped to take my mind off the consistently steep gradient of the climb. As we continued to gain altitude, the valley opened out & we had our first views of where the road would be taking us – a long way up!

To the right of the valley a group of baroque buildings came into view – at 2,035 metres, the Sant Anna Sanctuari is the highest in Europe. Unfortunately, time was against us today, so we followed the signs to Francia & crossed back to the forested side of the valley. As we continued to climb, there were great views across & down to the Sanctuari. We were now about 9 miles into the 13 mile climb & as we rose above the treeline, we were back in alpine meadows.

The Colle della Lombarde was just visible in the far distance, some 1,500 feet above us. Along the way, we spotted parked cars where their passengers had set out for a day’s hiking on one of the many trails into the wilderness. There were also a couple of people who had set up a picnic on the edge of an alpine lake – they really had got back to nature.

At the 12 mile mark, the climb eased off slightly for about ½ mile, which enabled me to gather my breath & prepare for the final push up to the summit. In the distance I made out what looked to be a statue of a deer, perched above the Col. I decided to explore further when we returned later in the day. Once we reached the summit, I took a couple of snaps, pulled on my windproof jacket & set off into France, for a 13 mile plummet to Isola, via the ski station of Isola 2000.

The first 3 miles of the descent were full of twists & turns, as the single track road zig-zagged down to Isola 2000. As with many other ski stations, the roads up to them are wide affairs – what struck me as being different about this one was how steep it seemed to be. If I let go of the brakes, I picked up speed incredibly quickly – it was only the sharp bends that forced me to moderate my speed. The first warning signs about the climb back up to the summit!

Once we reached Isola, the plan was to grab some lunch, however, the village/town only appeared to have 1 restaurant & it was just closing when we arrived. Although we had enough cycling food to get us back to the summit, there’s something morale building about sitting down & enjoying a nice meal – oh well, a banana bar & raspberry gel it was for lunch.

The early miles of the climb out of Isola were brutal – the first 3 miles averaged 10%, but due to the hairpin bends being level, the actual climbing was nearer 11 or 12%. As we toiled away under a baking sun (the temperature hit 27 centigrade), we could almost feel our energy draining away. The climb itself followed a river, but the valley was really narrow, so there wasn’t much in the way of views.

There was welcome relief from the sun as we passed through a number of avalanche tunnels, this also provided a degree of recovery time, as the gradient eased slightly through the tunnels. The higher up the mountain we climbed, the harder it felt – this could have been a combination of lack of food & water / our 5th big day of riding / being at altitude (the summit tops out at 2,350 metres). In any event, we were relying on good old British grit to see us through!

As we reached the 6 mile point in the climb, we got a glimpse of Isola 2000 & our spirits rose – we’d both seen a restaurant on the way down & there were people sat outside. This spurred us on as the road continued to climb through the trees, taking us ever closer to…….disappointment! The restaurant was long closed. We took a few minutes to regroup & down our final gels before the final push to the summit.

The good news was that it was only another 3 miles to the summit, the bad news was the final mile was at a gradient of about 9%. All around us the mountain peaks loomed above us, providing some great views as we continued to climb. As we turned to tackle the final steep ramp, we realised that we had a tailwind to help us get to the summit! An Italian couple were sat on the verge watching us battle up the climb & as we passed them they shouted out ‘Bravissimo!’ – a small gesture, but one that was really appreciated, as they could see I was at my limit to finish the climb.

More snaps at the summit, then a short hike to get a closer look at the animal sculpture on the mountain peak – it appeared to be a bull, but with elongated coloured antlers, rather than horns. I’m none the wiser as to what it represented, but I enjoyed looking at it anyway.

After strolling back to the bikes, we put on our jackets for the descent on the single track road & with regret, we both agreed we were too tired to do the extra climb up to the Sant Anna Sanctuari. All that remained was to buckle up & enjoy the banzai descent back to the car as we returned to Italian soil.

An epic & challenging day in the high Italian & French Alps – the views were spectacular & the climbing was about the toughest I’ve experienced on any of my Alpine Adventure trips to date!

Alpine Adventures – Tour de Barcelonnette – September 2019

Bal Blanche Loop – Day Four

After yesterday’s almost constant rain, we woke to clear blue skies overhead, so today’s plan was to tackle the mighty Col de la Bonette. However, after heavy snow yesterday, the roadside col information signs said that the col was closed. We found this out about 2 miles into the planned route. We’re in Barcelonnette for another couple of days, so hopefully we’ll still have a chance to explore both sides of the Bonette.

I suggested that we cycle down to towards the Lac de Serre-Poncon again (we rode around it yesterday) & explore some of the lesser known climbs of the Val Blanche (a popular skiing area). We retraced our tyre tracks across town, before gently descending the Ubaye valley towards the lake for the next 15 miles. We passed our parking spot from yesterday’s ride & for the next 7 miles took the same route. The views were totally different under blue skies, as we could see the huge mountains beyond the lake.

We then took a left turn onto a small side road, the D7. It was little more than a single track lane, just the sort of road we were hoping to find ourselves on! We were immediately onto the first climb of the day, a 5 mile ascent up to Col des Fillys, which at times had small ramps with gradients of 12 to 15%. The road twisted its way through a forest, which limited the views slightly, but every now & again we caught a brief glimpse of the lake way below.

On the way up, we also bagged an unexpected bonus col, the Col de Charamel, which didn’t show up on the route plan – there was a Col sign, so it counts in the Col climbing stakes!

At the summit of Col des Fillys, the views opened out in front of us, as we caught our first look at the UNESCO Geoparc de Haute-Provence. As we crossed into the Val Blanche, we passed through a couple of tiny hamlets as we plummeted towards the valley floor below.

As we passed the medium sized village of Selonnet, we spotted a café/restaurant, where we stopped briefly for our first ice cream of the trip & a coffee. Almost as soon as we set off, the road took us past a field full of hay bales, so I had to pull in & attempt some hay bale surfing – after 3 full days of riding, I’ve lost some flexibility & my technique clearly needs some work!

We continued along quiet back lanes for another couple of miles, before joining the wider (but equally quiet) D900 towards Dignes. This marked the start of our next climb, which was probably our easiest of the day, as the gradient was only 3 or 4% for the 3 miles up to to Col de Maure – we both felt that it didn’t really qualify as a Col, but we were happy to bag it. We were still surrounded by huge mountains, quite a few of which had coatings of snow showing on their summits.

We stayed on the D900 for another 6 miles as it descended down the opposite side of Col de Maure. We then took a single track road (which had the best tarmac of the trip so far) as it continued the drop to the valley floor. At the 47 mile point we turned onto an even smaller track, which marked the start of our 4th climb of the day – the 5 mile climb of the Col du Fanget through a beautiful forest.

The first mile averaged 9%, which included a short stretch where the road crossed a river below. I was a bit concerned about what this unknown climb may throw at us, but after the initial slap to the face, the gradient dropped to a much friendlier 4 & 5%. As we made our way round a blind bend, we could hear an almighty screeching noise in front of us – we’d stumbled across a crew of workmen using an enormous caterpillar digger to dig a trench & lay cable. We had to get off our bikes & walk through the long grass to get past them. This was also where the gradient increased to an average of 9% for the final mile & a half, with stretches hitting 15%.

The huge views from the summit of Col du Fanget made the effort all worthwhile – big panoramic views to the mountain ranges in the far distance. The 4 mile descent was on a badly rutted & potholed surface, but we didn’t see a single vehicle on the way down, so could use the full width of the road to try & find some decent tarmac.

We were now back in the large village of Seyne, where we’d hoped to grab some lunch, however, everywhere was shut as it had just past 2pm. We only had one more climb to go, so after eating a banana & downing a gel, we were on our way again. The Col de St Jean showed on the map as being just before the ski resort of St Jean-Monclar, however, there wasn’t a sign, so we simply rode on & continued on our way.

As we passed through St Jean, we took a sharp right onto a much wider road which would drop us down to the main lake road. From here we just had to follow our path back to Barcelonnette, via a late lunch stop at Le Lauzet-Ubaye – although the chef had closed the kitchen, the owner very kindly made us a ham & cheese bagette each.

The road back up the Ubaye valley to Barcelonnette wasn’t something we were looking forward to, as it seemed like we flew down the hill in the morning. However, fate was on our side & we had a tailwind the entire way home! Just as we were riding into Barcelonnette at the end of the ride we passed a local airfield & I stopped for a quick photo op outside.

We had the sun on our backs, had ridden the most amazing day on quiet country lanes & now it felt like someone was pushing us up the hill – this was one of those days where everything fell our way. All that remained was to enjoy a celebratory beer in Bar Tandem & then top up the energy reserves, before a stroll home under the moon! What a great day out!

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.

Alpine Adventures – Tour de Barcelonnette – September 2019

Col d’Allos, Col des Champs & Col de la Cayolle – Day Two

Today’s ride was the Queen Stage of the Barcelonnette adventure. It was the biggest & boldest ride of the week, taking in a loop of 3 Cols (Col d’Allos, Col des Champs & Col de la Cayolle), all of which top out at over 2,000 metres in height.

The first surprise of the day was finding out the temperature had plummeted to -1 centigrade overnight & it was still properly chilly when we set off from the hotel at about 8.40am. Arm warmers & gilet were essential items of kit as we descended for the first 2 miles, before hitting the lower slopes of the Col d’Allos. The climb itself is just over 12 miles in length, with about 3,700 feet of ascent – I knew what to expect, as we’d ridden the Col d’Allos on a previous visit to Barcelonnette, back in May 2012 (it snowed on that visit!).

For the first few miles, the road climbed the side of the valley through wooded slopes, with occasional lookouts to the valley floor below. As we climbed steadily higher, we popped out from the shadows & the temperature instantly rose a few degrees, giving me the opportunity to shed my gilet & arm warmers. Behind us, our Barcelonnette base receded ever further into the distance, as we climbed ever higher. We were surrounded by huge mountains all around us, the majority of which were still free from human habitation.

After about 5 miles, the trees gave way & we found ourselves climbing a cliff road with little more than a 3 foot high wall between us & the valley floor 1,500 feet below. Luckily, we were on the opposite side of the road to the big drops! This was a great opening climb for me, with consistent gradients between 6 & 8% for most of the way up – this is within my comfort zone & also means I can climb at an acceptable 5 to 6 miles an hour.

At the 9 mile point, the trees thinned out & gave way to alpine meadows – in winter these are where the skiing takes place. At this time of year, however, it’s mainly hikers who enjoy the wild, open scenery. Before we knew it (well, 2¼ hours into the ride), we were at the refuge, just shy of the summit, so it was time for a brief stop to enjoy a freshly made blackcurrant & raspberry tart, with a café au lait.

After a brief stop at the summit for a photo of the Col sign, we were on our way again, for the 14 mile descent to Colmars.

The first 4 or 5 miles of the descent were on no much more than single track tarmac, with an amazing view of the surrounding mountains & a birds-eye view down to the ski resort of Allos below us. Once we were through Allos, the road widened significantly & the gradient became much shallower – this road was purpose built to ensure that coaches could ferry skiers in & out of the resort throughout the ski season.

At Colmars we took a sharp left onto a small lane & we started climbing again. The Col des Champs is a little known climb to anyone but the locals, but it’s a beautiful (if challenging) hidden gem. I’d been advised to tackle the route this way round, as the surface of the road had loose gravel & was a little rutted, which would have been no fun descending!

On the early slopes, the road hairpins through a pine forest & the gradient is a steady 7% – this is very gentle introduction for what lays ahead! The climb itself is only 7½ miles in length, but the real challenge on this climb is the 5 miles of climbing that averages between 9 & 11% in gradient (with sections that kick up to 13%). In truth, this is a bit too steep for me to enjoy, but there’s a real sense of achievement in having a few difficult moments on a ride – ultimately, it’s what escalates a ride to epic status!

After about 5 miles, we rose above the treeline & a rocky moonscape took its place – it looked & felt a little like the Casse Desert on the Col d’Izoard. We could see a gap in the rocks in the distance & we were convinced it was the summit, so put in a concerted effort to push on – we were rewarded by a false dawn, there was more climbing to do! The good news was we only had about another ½ mile to do before we summited, we’d climbed about 3,000 feet in 7½ miles, which had certainly left an impression on my legs.

There wasn’t a Col sign at the summit so we stopped briefly to put on windproof jackets – the views to the mountains in the far distance were amazing, it felt like we were on top of the world. This is a great descent, the tarmac was really smooth & grippy, while the road swept from corner to corner. This is marmot country & we were lucky enough to see 4 of them at various points on the descent – they’re very camera shy, but we could hear them calling to their friends & family as we passed them.

The plan was to stop part way down the descent & have some lunch, but unfortunately the restaurant was closed. As we continued to descend, the landscape changed & we returned to woodland, which also meant the road was tighter & the turns became hairpins – still great fun to ride! The road flattened out at the 45 mile mark & we took a left turn at Saint-Martin d’Entraunes, this was my back up for lunch, but nothing was open! I was out of cycling food & getting very hungry, not a good situation to be in.

However, we had to crack on, as we didn’t have any other options available to us. For the next 3 miles, the road gently rose as it took us ever closer to the start of the Col de la Cayolle, the day’s final challenge. The early slopes hugged a cliff as we zig-zagged our way ever higher & the scenery become more remote – we were surrounded by enormous buttresses of rock. By this stage I was in real need of food, we hadn’t eaten since 11am & it was now almost 4pm. As we reached the small hamlet of Estenc, the Relais de la Cayolle came into view – at last somewhere that was open. I downed a coke, twix, pear tart & coffee in about 5 minutes flat. Not the healthiest of meals, but essential fuel that would get me to the summit, a mere 4 miles away.

Back on the bike, I could feel the strength returning to my legs, as we continued to twist & turn up the side of the valley. Every now & again, we got a view of the wild mountains that were all around us. Less than an hour after our stop we rounded a corner & spotted the summit marker in the distance – as we got closer we could see hundreds & hundreds of sheep being herded down the mountain from the higher slopes, right towards the road!

After stopping long enough to savour the view, take a few snaps & wrap up warm, we were on our way – this is an exceptional descent, the road drops for about 18 miles, as it twists & turns down the valley. Every now & again we crossed a small stream that fed a larger river further down the slope. Almost all the corners were open enough to be able to see whether any traffic was coming up the mountain (it wasn’t, we saw 2 cars in 45 minutes!). We followed the course of the river down the valley & almost before we knew it, we’d completed the loop.

This qualifies as one of my top 5 days of cycling (along with Passo della Stelvio that I did earlier this year). A combination of the distance & climbing made this a real challenge, however, the route also took us through stunning scenery on quiet back roads in perfect cycling weather. This is why I train throughout the year to enjoy days like this!!

Alpine Adventures – Tour de Barcelonnette – September 2019

Barcelonnette to Guillestre & back via Col de Vars – Day One

My second (& final) Alpine Adventure of 2019 was based around the small town of Barcelonnette, in the Maritime Alps of Southern France, about 90 miles north of Nice. Yesterday’s travel day was longer than planned, due to my inability to queue in the right car rental queue – I spent 45 minutes in the Europcar queue, before realising I’d booked the hire car through Hertz!

In the rush to put our bikes together before heading out for something to eat, Sean’s collar on his seatpost failed, which meant his saddle wouldn’t stay in the right place. All the bike shops were already shut, so it meant we had to adjust plans for this morning’s ride – in the end I found a bike shop in Jausiers (about 5 miles down the road) that opened at 10.30am, so today’s ride was a 64 mile ‘out & back’ to Guillestre, over both sides of the Col de Vars.

We started out following the River Ubaye upstream to Jausiers & within 15 minutes, the friendly mechanic at Technicien du Sport had found a replacement part & fitted it for the bargain price of €7 & we were on our way. After 10 miles of gently climbing alongside the babbling Ubaye, we turned left off the D900 & joined the smaller & quieter D902 – this is a legendary road in Tour de France history. In the space of less than 100 miles, this road goes over the epic Tour de France climbs of Col d’Izoard, Col du Galibier & Col du Telegraphe in addition to the Col du Vars, our climb(s) of the day.

For the next 5 miles, the road climbed steeply as it twisted & turned up the side of the valley, passing through quiet villages along the way. Whilst the climb wasn’t long, the gradient was consistently over 9% & I found it a challenge to keep up with Sean, although he was riding well within himself – I’m a few pounds heavier than my usual touring weight & I felt it today. The views across to the surrounding mountain peaks were amazing, with white clouds providing great contrast to the blue skies & they took my mind off the difficulty of the climb.

At the summit there’s a couple of signs, a café & a large car park. We stopped long enough to take a few photos, put on a wind proof jacket & then we were descending the longer, but shallower side of the col, heading towards Guillestre. Along the way, we rode through the ski resort of Vars – this is where the world record was set for skiing, some 254 kilometres per hour….on skis!!!!

Descending into Guillestre was fun, the road was wide (so coaches can get the ski resorts in winter), the corners were easy to navigate & the surface was good quality. After about 8 miles of the 12 mile descent, huge views down to Guillestre & across to the Izoard came into view. In less than 25 minutes we’d reached our lunch stop in town – we hoped to grab a panini somewhere, but all the restaurants in the main square were proper sit down affairs, so we settled in for an extended lunch & set about demolishing some pasta.

We were on our way again by about 2.50pm (at least a couple of hours later than we would have expected), now all we had to do was conquer the 12 mile climb back to the summit of the Col de Vars. We estimated that this would probably take us in the region of 2½ hours, on the basis we would climb at about 5 mph. The first 3 miles were a consistent 7 to 8% & this meant we could settle into a good rhythm. As the road hair-pinned its way ever upwards, we could see the climb spread out before us.

As we rode through Saint-Marcellin there were loads of wood carvings of winter sports characters, including a huge man on skis. After a brief stop to admire the artwork & take a couple of snaps, we were on our way again on what was my favourite part of the climb – it had a 1 mile descent at this point! The entire climb was less steep than this morning & as a result I was better able to enjoy the views & chat as we rode – this morning all I could do was huff & puff!

The final couple of miles of the climb took us past a moody looking lake, with big rain clouds beginning to gather in the distance. This was the direction we were heading, so the appearance of potential rain clouds was of interest to us.

After just over 2 hours of climbing we were back at the summit, once again it was time to wrap up warm for the descent (10% for the first mile) & then enjoy the ride!

It took just over 13 minutes to descend the 6 miles back to the main road – it was incredible how quickly I gathered speed when I released the brakes. Luckily there were plenty of twists & turns to ensure that we both took the descent sensibly. The road back to Barcelonnette via Jausiers was slightly downhill all the way, but any thoughts of free miles were scuppered when we picked up a full-on headwind! Oddly, the downhill section into the headwind took longer than when we rode it in the opposite direction as an uphill this morning.

After a slow start, the day turned into a truly great expedition into the high mountains of the Maritime Alps. I’m looking forward to finding out what tomorrow will bring, but in the meantime it’s time to toast today’s great adventure in Bar Tandem!

Col du Soulor, Col des Borderes & Lac d’Estaing

Pyrenees Peaks – Day Six, Lourdes (8th September 2017).

Somehow today was the final day of cycling in The Pyrenees, where has the last 6 days gone? I spent 30 minutes last night looking for a replacement ride for today, as we used up our planned ride when we extended our day out to Col des Tentes yesterday.

I eventually came up with a plan to explore some quiet back lanes, tackle a couple of climbs & then loop back to Lourdes – all in all, about 55 miles of riding with 5,500 feet of climbing. The ride started outside the hotel door & as our way out of town took us past the Sanctuary, we stopped to admire the view & take a few photos.

As soon as we left town, we found ourselves on quiet roads with views of the large mountains in the far distance. At one point, we took a wrong turn & found ourselves on a small gravel lane that took us past some unusual wooden sculptures, before ending abruptly at a tiny convent – Lourdes, as you might expect is home to many convents, monasteries, churches & religious orders. It’s a strange mix of peace & tranquillity, offset by chaotic parties of pilgrims.

Once we were back on the right road, a fast flowing river guided us down the valley, as we passed miles of maize fields, where the corn on the cob looked like it was ready to be harvested. These were the quietest roads we’d cycled all week & it was one of the few occasions where we were on relatively flat roads – it made for very relaxed riding.

At Lestelle-Betharrem, we saw signs for Notre Dame de Betharrem, so pulled in to find out a little more – it’s a church that is set right next to the river & it has a large plot of hilly land, where 19 chapels have been built over time & it was an incredibly peaceful & tranquil place.

We turned off the main road & headed along remote country lanes towards the lower slopes of Col de Soulor, which begins in earnest at Farrieres – I had it in my mind that this would be a great place to stop for coffee….. except it was a far smaller place than I expected & it was only a small village!!

From here, the Soulor climbs 2,950 feet in 7.5 miles, at an average gradient of 7.4% – this was the first climb of the week where the gradient was fairly constant for the entire climb & it made such a difference! I chose a gear & then spent the next hour & a half enjoying the views & stopping every now & again to capture the stunning scenery & get out the way of the local wildlife.

At the summit, we stopped for a lunch of waffle with Nutella & a coffee, before descending back towards Argeles-Gazost. We took a right turn after about 5 miles & headed up the climb of the Col des Borderes that we descended on Sunday. As we reached the Col, we made an impromptu decision to take a side road up to Lac d’Estaing – we had no idea what to expect on the climb, but the point of exploring is to find out what’s there! I was a little nervous of what lay ahead, as I was having problems with my gearing, the cables have stretched slightly as the week’s worn on & I could no longer use 1st gear – not the ideal situation for a weak climber like me. However, I didn’t want the ride to end yet, so we set off for Lac d’Estaing.

As we climbed, the surrounding forest protected us from the sun. After about 5 miles, we crested a rise & there before us was the lake & we weren’t disappointed! It’s a beautiful expanse of open meadow, with a lake at its centre. There are strict rules & regulations for using the area & as a result it’s in pristine condition. They were people fishing on one side of the lake, while at one end there were wild horses frolicking in the shallows – before today, I’d never seen a horse in a large expanse of water. This is a place that’s well worth a visit & I’m sure I’ll be back again at some point in the future.

Although we were still more than 20 miles from our hotel, the first 10 was downhill, so in next to no time we were in Argeles-Gazost for a well-deserved fruit tart & coffee. From here we took the same route back to Lourdes as Sunday, again it was slightly downhill, but into a headwind – for every ying there’s a yang!

In the end today’s ride was just over 68 miles long & had 7,000 feet of climbing – both numbers were bigger than planned, but it was our last day of riding, the sun was out & we were keen to make our adventure last as long as possible!

As it was our final evening, we popped into town to watch the sun set over the Sanctuary, then raised a glass to celebrate a glorious week of riding. I’m sure I’ll be visiting The Pyrenees again in the not too distant future.

Cirque du Troumouse, Lac des Gloriettes & Col des Tentes

Pyrenees Peaks – Day Five, Lourdes (7th September 2017).

Today we took the third & final commute of the week. It was a 30 minute drive to Luz Saint Sauveur which is a mecca for road biking climbs – within 10 miles are Col de Tourmalet, Hautacam, Luz Ardiden, Col de Soulor which have all hosted Tour de France stages.

The original plan was to cycle out to Cirque de Troumouse, take a short, but steep detour up to Lac des Gloriettes, then if the legs were feeling good, also climb Luz Ardiden. We started riding in very, very light rain & under slate grey skies. It seems like the days here are very much like my climbing legs, they take a while to brighten up in the morning!

As the road leaves Luz St Sauveur, the road climbs a valley & regularly criss-crosses the river far below. Low cloud & the threat of rain meant the road was far quieter than expected, as normally loads of tourists would use this road to get to Cirque de Gavarnie – a UNESCO site. It also meant that the views of the high mountains were also hidden. After 6 miles there’s a turnoff signposted to Cirque de Troumouse on a small single track road & it’s here that the ride started to get fun. As we turned into a new valley, the sun popped its head out & it was time to get rid of the arm warmers & rain jacket.

The road climbs at a fairly consistent 6-8% as it twists & turns by the side of a gurgling stream & after a couple of miles, the valley widens out & the track is in the middle of meadow land. This continued for another 3 or 4 miles, before we reached a toll booth, where cars had to pay to climb the remaining 5 miles to Cirque de Troumouse. Cyclists & pedestrians are free to continue free of charge! The road began to rise steeply up the side of the valley & soon we were in sheep & cow grazing territory & we could hear marmots calling to each other.

There’s a café half way up this section, so we stopped for a slice of fruits of the mountain tart & a coffee.

There were now only 2.5 miles of switchbacks between us & the car park at the summit – stunning views awaited us, including our first sight of snow on this trip, way up above.

I took a few minutes to enjoy the peaceful surroundings (there were more sheep than people).

The descent was on a rutted & bumpy track, so there was no danger of going fast, as the surface was covered in loose grit & gravel, plus there was always the chance of meeting a car on a blind corner. This was still a really enjoyable descent, it simply required full concentration!

I’d read on one of Will’s blogs that on the way back there was a great detour up to Lac des Gloriettes, a hydro-electric dam. This was too good an opportunity to miss, although it required significant effort, as the 2 mile climb never dropped below 10%.

The views were well worth the effort of reaching the dam! At this point I floated the idea of changing our plan for the day & extending our trip up the valley to Port de Boucharo, via the Col des Tentes, rather than riding to the ski resort of Luz Ardiden.

Col des Tentes is a 6 mile climb that rises to 2,208 metres, making it the highest paved road in the French Pyrenees (even higher than the mighty Tourmalet!). It’s set in stunning scenery & had hardly any traffic on it – the wildlife far outnumbered the cars. The climb has markers every kilometre, so you know how far is left to go & what the average gradient is for that section (this is common in The Alps & Pyrenees), but someone had fun when they made the signs, as every single gradient counter was wrong – this had to be somebody’s idea of a joke, as the steepest sections were marked as 1.2% average, while the shallower sections were marked as 10.2%!!

The early slopes of the climb were through woods, then meadows & as the road wound its way ever higher, this changed again & it resembled a moonscape. Along the way, we had to dodge our way through herds of sheep & cows, as they clearly own the roads around here! After about 75 minutes of effort, we finally made the summit – this was the first time in many years that a single 5 mile segment took more than 60 minutes to complete, which shows how tough the climb really was. I forgot to refill my water bottles when we left our coffee stop, so had also run out of water about two thirds of the way up the climb – schoolboy error!

At the summit, the car park was pretty much full & there were hundreds of ramblers, hikers & families out enjoying the walk out to Port Boucharo – this is the French/Spanish border & although I fancied crossing it, I didn’t want to fight my way through rush hour, so in the end we gave it a miss.

We had to negotiate the cows & sheep on the descent back to Gavarnie, where we stopped for a quick coffee to warm up from the fast & cold descent from Col des Tentes. From there we were back on a wider & smoother road all the way back to Luz St Sauveur. This ended up being our largest climbing day of the trip & was another real adventure in the wilderness of The Pyrenees!

Piau Engaly, Lac de Cap de Long & La Route des Lacs

Pyrenees Peaks – Day Four, Lourdes (6th September 2017).

I make no secret of the fact that I use a website called for the majority of my research into where to ride on my Alpine Adventures (& now my Pyrenees Peaks too). Today’s ride is one that Will has called ‘the best road-bike climb that I have done in The Pyrenees’ – as soon as I read that, I wanted to do this ride!!!

St Lary Soulan is just under an 80 minute drive in the car, so it was another early start to the day. When we arrived the skies were leaden & the big mountain peaks were hidden from view, but we’re on a cycling holiday & will make the best of any conditions – it was dry & the winds were light, so it was a great day to be riding!

The early slopes out of Saint Lary Soulan are on a steadily rising main road (never that busy in spite of being an artery into Spain via a tunnel) that after 9 miles took us to La Plan, which is the start of the climb proper to Piau Engaly (the first of today’s 3 ascents), although by then we’d already clocked up about 1,600 feet of ascent. The clouds were low in the sky & even as I started the climb it was obvious that views would be restricted higher up, so we decided to simply enjoy the climb for what it was – a very consistent 7-8% gradient over almost 4 miles with plenty of switchbacks to make it fun.

As expected, the ski station was closed (we’d experienced the same at Superbagneres on Monday) & we were above the base of the clouds, however, we did see some eagles soaring on the thermals. We stopped just long enough to get a photo or two, ride around the resort & wolf down a banana, then we descended back to the main road & retraced out pedals towards St Lary. When we reached Fabian, we took a left up what looked to be little more than a single track road – in fact it was exactly that! This was the start of a truly awesome day in the saddle & whatever I write simply won’t do the ride justice, but here goes anyway!

Straight from the get go, the road kicked up to about 9% & it was a real effort to keep climbing – in truth, this is probably more to do with fatigue after 4 days of riding. We made our way up a narrow valley, with the constant babbling of the river helping to take my mind off the pain of pushing the pedals. After about 3 miles, we hit a stunning stretch of switchbacks, which meant that the slope eased slightly & also provided great views back down the valley.

As we reached a fork in the road we were met by the sight of a huge dam (Lac de Cap de Long) high up in the far distance & Lac d’Oredon directly in front of us where the Route des Lacs continued up to Lac d’Aumar & Lac d’Aubert . We chose to tackle Cap de Long first – approximately 3 miles in length it climbed around the lake below until eventually we were looking back towards the fork in the road some 1,500 feet below us!!!

By now it was gone 2.30pm, so we had a quick snack of Blueberry Tart & coffee, took some photos to help me remember this cycling paradise, then headed back to the fork in the road.

The final climb took us around the back of Lac d’Oredon & ever higher on a vehicle free road – cycling heaven! As we climbed, we passed goats that were either laid in the road or grazing on grass in the shadows of the pine trees.

As we ascended, we got views across the lake to where were we riding only 30 minutes previously. After a few final switchbacks, we reached a plateau with a couple of smallish lakes below us & the much larger & prettier Lac d’Aumar in front of us.

As we cycled along the edge of the lake, we passed ramblers on their way to Lac d’Aubert which marked the end of the metaphorical & physical road – in total the climb was only about 4 miles.

I took the opportunity to dip my feet in the pristine water & cool off as I took in the beauty of the surrounding scenery.

From here it was all downhill – we stopped briefly at the café on Lac d’Oredon for a quick espresso, then we retraced our way down the single track – the descent was very technical with lots of blind corners & steep stretches, so it required full concentration the whole way back to the main road – from there it was an easy 5 miles back to the car.

This has been by far my favourite day in The Pyrenees this week – what an amazing ride! I can’t sign off without saying a huge ‘Thank You’ to Will for sharing his epic cycling adventures.

Col du Tourmalet & Col d’Aspin

Pyrenees Peaks – Day Three, Lourdes (5th September 2017).

I was super excited (to quote pro cyclists the world over) this morning, as today’s ride was a loop straight from the hotel & we were taking in two more Tour de France climbs. The first climb needs no introduction, the Col du Tourmalet (The Distant Mountain) has featured in the Tour de France on more occasions than any other mountain since 1910 – a total of 85 times. There was the opportunity to also add a bonus ascent of the Col d’Aspin, which has featured a on a mere 73 occasions!

The route started on quiet country roads, as we twisted & turned between fields, with big views of the Pyrenees in the background. The first 10 miles took us in a similar direction to our Sunday ride, but as we reached Argeles-Gazost we took a left turn & started gradually gaining altitude as we followed Route de Luz up a small river valley. By the time we reached Luz Saint Sauveur, we were 20 miles into the ride & had clocked up 1,600 feet of climbing & the serious stuff hadn’t even begun. We decided to stop & have a quick pain au chocolat & espresso while we gathered our thoughts for the big challenge ahead – from Luz St Saveur, Col du Tourmalet is 11.8 miles long, gains an altitude of 4,606 feet & has an average gradient of 7.4%.

The early slopes are very gentle & provide an opportunity to take in your surroundings (big mountains on all sides!) & get into a rhythm for the climb ahead. I know from many previous experiences the key to long climbs is slow & steady at the start, as you can’t recover if you expend too much energy early on. There are a few pretty villages lower down, but as soon as we passed through Bareges, we left civilization behind.

By now the gradient has reached a fairly consistent 7-9% – I far prefer this to a constantly changing gradient, which seems to deaden my legs in no time! The views by this point were spectacular, as it was possible to make out the summit café way off in the far distance & also look back towards the parapenters who were riding the thermals. Once again, the cows & sheep have complete freedom of movement & it’s the responsibility of drivers & cyclists to get out of their way.

All that remained was to tackle the final 4 miles, as I started climbing the ‘back wall’ of the mountain – effectively riding switchback after switchback up what would have been a sheer drop if the road wasn’t there. The engineers had built one final hurdle for me to overcome, as the final ½ mile or so ramps up to 10%. Having researched the climb in advance, I knew this in advance, so had a bit of energy saved up (not much, but enough!). After 2 hours & 20 minutes of effort I was at the summit & it was time to celebrate with a fanta citron et tartelette du myrtille (lemon fanta & blueberry tart) as I took in the massive views in all directions & got a couple of souvenir photos.

As we continued over the summit & commenced our descent, we bumped in to a herd of llamas! I had to get a photo, as I knew no-one would believe me without the evidence! We also stopped briefly in La Mongie Ski Station for a quick lunch of chicken salad baguette. Although I was going downhill, this looked the more difficult side to climb, as we fairly flew down the mountain through long, sweeping bends. At Campan we decided the legs were feeling good & we should also climb Col d’Aspin – it’s 8 miles long, gains 2,106 feet & has an average gradient of 5%. This is all a little misleading, as all the serious climbing is done in the final 4 miles, where it averages 8%. Most of the climb is through pine forest & the smell was amazing, although the views were somewhat limited as a result. The other remarkable feature of the climb was how peaceful & quiet it was – traffic was light & it was great to hear nothing but the sound of the bikes changing gear as we climbed.

Once again, the views from the summit were beautiful & it made the decision to ride the climb so worthwhile. I enjoyed a few more moments of quiet contemplation before getting a photo of the summit sign as a memento.

We fairly flew down the descent again (back the way we came this time) & I stopped briefly on the lower slopes to get my photo taken between two dolls/models – they were everywhere in Campan, although I haven’t yet found out why there were so many of them! This really wraps up the interesting part of the ride – at this point we were 60 miles into the ride & all that remained was the final 20 miles of the loop back to Lourdes & to be honest there wasn’t anything memorable about it – there was also nothing wrong with it either, we’ve simply been spoiled for stunning scenery today!

Col du Tourmalet & Col d’Aspin has been one of my favourite days of riding in the high mountains of Europe. It lived up to its billing as the Queen Stage of the Pyrenees Peaks adventure & I still have three more days of riding to look forward to!