From Sardinia to the USA (Part Three)

Once In A Lifetime (remastered) – revisiting some of our favourite places, but finding new routes to explore. Part Three also includes trips in the UK as we prepared for our USA adventure. The following lines summarise some of the questions I’ve asked myself at various times on my cycling adventures to date;

You may ask yourself “Where does that highway go to?”

And you may ask yourself “Am I right? Am I wrong?”

And you may say to yourself “My God! What have I done?”

The final chapter of my journey from clueless cyclist to American Adventurer focuses on my later trips to Europe, as well as my self-supported UK trips during Covid times.

As well as our annual Spring trip to Mallorca in 2016, we returned to Switzerland in the summer. This time we based ourselves in Martigny & explored the quiet roads up to the numerous hydro-electric dams in the Swiss Alps.

Mallorca again kicked off my 2017 adventures, followed by a first summer foray into the Italian Dolomites. The mountains are unlike anywhere else I’ve visited, with enormous grey crags & alpine lakes in every direction – I really struggled to limit myself to just a few photos from our week in Cortina d’Ampezzo!

We also managed to fit in a week of late summer riding in the French Pyrenees – we were based in Lourdes for our first visit. The mountains were steeper, more remote & wilder than their Alpine cousins! This is somewhere we want to explore further in the future.

Our 2018 adventures kicked off again with a Spring break to Mallorca, however, I had a low speed crash on the first day which resulted in me spending the remainder of the trip sun bathing (which rather ruined my sharp tan lines!), instead of cycling.

My Mallorcan injury kept me off the bike throughout May & early June, so I had a few concerns about my cycling fitness ahead of our 11 day summer trip to Lake Annecy & St Jean de Maurienne. Our luxurious base in Talloires was the perfect launchpad for 5 days exploring quiet mountain passes as I built up some fitness for the huge climbs to come. Hopefully the photos below will show why I love visiting the big mountains – they also show my left elbow being held together with kinesiotape from my crash in April.

The transfer to St Jean de Maurienne took less than 2 hours so we were able to fit in an extra ride on our transfer day up to the ski station of Karellis. This was one of a few lesser known climbs we explored, others included Les Lacets de Montvernier / Col du Pre & Col de la Beaune. We also returned to Col de la Madeleine & Col de la Croix de Fer, regular guests on the Tour de France & favourites of ours.

I went to Ibiza in September for Stevie W’s birthday & managed to hire a bike & sneak in a day of riding – this is another place well worth returning to for further exploration. I also won a competition to spend a day in the Neutral Service Car at the OVO Energy Tour of Britain, which helped me appreciate the difference between cycling athletes & novices like myself!

We returned to Mallorca in 2019. I managed to stay in my bike for the whole trip & we enjoyed visiting a few well known climbs, as well as getting off the beaten track – sadly I haven’t been back since this trip, but I’m looking forward to getting back in 2023.

Our summer adventure took us to Austria for the first time, with 5 days of riding the remote mountains around Innsbruck. Each day offered a different experience, as we mixed routes that looped over the mountains with valley riding along the way, with high mountain roads up to glaciers. While the climbs were challenging, pretty much every day we had the roads pretty much to ourselves.

We then crossed the border into Italy as we returned to Bormio for a further 5 days of adventures in the huge mountains . In addition to the legendary climbs made famous by the Giro d’Italia, we also found a few unknown climbs well off the beaten track.

It appears I must have used all my 2019 holiday allowance on cycling trips, as we also returned to Barcelonnette in September for a week of cycling! Again, we had the roads to ourselves as we combined some Tour de France favourites like the Col de Vars & Col de la Bonette, unknown climbs like Col des Fillys & Col St Jean & an away day to tackle the wickedly steep Col de la Lombarde from both the Italian & French sides.

The world changed in 2020 & foreign travel was off the agenda & the early months of the year involved lots of solo rides to comply with Government Lockdowns & Guidance. Luckily by July we were able to meet up again & although we couldn’t get away to Europe as planned we still managed to do plenty of day trips in July.

Week one saw us exploring the North Wessex Downs, the Cotswolds, the Mendips, the Malverns, Cranborne Area of Natural Beauty & the South Downs. This was a great reminder that there are plenty of places within an hour’s drive that are well worth exploring!

Week Two involved more trips to explore new tarmac. We began with a Tour of the Cotswolds around Bourton-on-the-Water, followed it up with Tour of The Tumble in South Wales, headed out to horse country on a Lambourn Loop, returned to the Cotswolds to explore all around Chipping Norton & then finished with a trip out to Symonds Yat. A glorious couple of weeks that showed there is plenty of scenery to see in the UK.

By the end of 2020 I’d had an application for redundancy agreed at work & had decided that I was going to use it as an opportunity to take on a challenge I’d been thinking of for a few years – riding coast to coast across the USA. Fortunately, this adventure also appealed to Sean, so we started making plans to turn it into reality.

I bought a new touring bike in January 2021 & started training on it in May. I started loading up the panniers to prepare me for what a trip on a touring bike might be like. However, the only way to truly know is go on a tour & find out! In July 2021 Sean & myself embarked on a 5 day Tour de South Wales, taking in Brecon, the Elan Valley, Aberystwyth & Carmarthen via National Cycle Routes 8 & 42. We then returned to Bristol via NCR’s 82, 47 & 4. The scenery was stunning & we were fortunate with the weather – we enjoyed ourselves so much!

We gambled on having an Indian Summer in September & planned a 2nd Tour de South Wales – this time we’d be going in a clockwise direction, following NCR 4 via Pontypridd & Carmarthen, then returning via NCR’s 47 & 43. We were loaded with 20kg of kit which gave us a really good taste of what touring in the USA might feel like. Once again, the scenery was amazing!

As I write this, we’re waiting for our “Fit To Fly” results, sat in the Hilton Garden Inn -we’ve completed 4,500 training miles on our touring bikes & thoroughly enjoyed 2 separate tours to South Wales. The waiting is finally over & technically, the adventure has begun – we fly to Seattle tomorrow (26th April) to start our Tour de USA!!!

From Sardinia to the USA (Part Two)

Road To Nowhere – sticking with the Talking Heads theme as we broadened our European horizons! Many of our trips from 2011 to 2016 really did take us on roads less travelled – taking that ride to nowhere, we’ll take that ride.

In May 2011 we stayed in Geneva for 4 days, cycling the big mountains either side of the Arve valley, including the brutal climb of Col de Joux Plane on the way up to Morzine. We also visited Goeschenen that September for another 4 day trip – the Susten, Grimsel & Furka Pass (made famous by Goldfinger) remains one of my 5 favourite days in the saddle!

2012 started with a week-long stay in Barcelonnette, including a day trip to Mont Ventoux for the first time – more about this mythical mountain later! The highlight of our 2012 stay in Annecy was going to see Stage 9 of Le Tour de France & seeing Wiggo riding to victory on the stage while wearing yellow – this was the year he won Le Tour! The lowlight was undoubtedly crashing on the descent of the Cormet de Roselend 3 days later, breaking my collarbone, ending my riding early & writing-off my Trek.

2013 started off (& finished) with surgery on my collarbone – it was unsuccessful both times & I’m left with a mushy collarbone that never really healed properly.  By now, we’d been gripped by the European Alps & we embarked on a monster 2 week trip at the end of May – snow everywhere!! The first 7 days were spent riding the truly epic climbs of the Maurienne Valley – we stayed in the Hotel St Georges & made friends with the hostess Martine (we’ve visited twice more since).

For the 2nd week we moved to Le Belvedere on the Petit St Bernard Pass, overlooking Bourg St Maurice. We had the Cormet de Roselend, the Col d’Iseran, Petit St Bernard & Les Arcs on our doorstep. By the end of our 2 week adventure, we’d completed just over 100,000 feet of vertical climbing (about a 1/5th of that year’s total)!!

Somehow we also found time for a trip to Andermatt where we spent 7 days exploring the huge mountains, including the legendary cobbles on the Gotthardpass.

In 2014 we climbed all 3 sides of Mont Ventoux in a single day (14,452 feet of climbing in 85 miles) on our summer trip to Bedoin & St Jean de Maurienne (again) – we’re in a fairly small club of people foolish enough to complete the Cingles Challenge! This remains my biggest challenge to date. We also found time to visit Col d’Izoard & Col du Galibier.

We also visited Italy for the first time in 2014, with a week long adventure in Bormio. Our trip included an epic day climbing both sides of the Stelvio, with the Umbrail pass sandwiched in between. We also got off the beaten track with a bit of gravel riding around Lago di Cancano.

We made our maiden trip to Mallorca in 2015 (Puerto Pollenca was our regular base until Covid arrived in 2020). This quickly felt like a 2nd home & we used it as a Spring Training Camp between 2015 & 2019 – it really is cycling nirvana!

For the summer of 2015 we embarked on another split base trip, returning to Annecy for 4 days, then heading to Aosta, for 7 days cycling in Italy. Colle del Nivolet (the final photo below) remains one of the most stunningly beautiful places I’ve visited on a bike – this photo (minus me) has pride of place in my living room.

You may recognise the Colle del Nivolet photo from the closing scene in The Italian Job – it was where the coach with the gold was hanging over the cliff. As far as roads to nowhere go, this is that road!

In Part Three I’ll bring the story up to date as our adventures from 2017 to 2021 prepare us for our expedition to The Big Country (yes, another Talking Heads song!).

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 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! 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!