A pensioner and his pal attempt to cycle from Lake Geneva to Menton on the Med over the high Cols of the Alps
After a long drive from Glasgow to Thonon les Bains in the camper van we set off early on Monday morning from Lake Geneva and headed up in to the hills to Orcier and over the Col du Feu (1117 metres) and a lovely wooded descent to Boege for a welcome coffee. Setting off I was aware of some unevenness in the ride from my back wheel but on looking at the tyre it seemed ok, however a few minutes later an explosion from the back wheel revealed a shredded back tyre and inner tube. I shouted to Kenny up the road to no avail who cycled on oblivious to my problems, by the time he got my text he had descended a couple of hundred metres. I walked the bike back to the village and managed to buy a new tyre and set off again but we must have lost a couple of hours. This first day is a bit complicated map reading-wise if you want to stay on quiet roads which all takes time so we chose to descend in to Bonneville on a red road with a good even gradient. We ascended a steep sided gorge to Le Petit Bornand and on to La Clusaz where unfortunately the camp site was a few kilometres up a side road. Alisdair the mate who had offered to drive the van had still not arrived from his hill walk so we had to lie about the site for an hour or so.
Stats for day – distance 89k, ascent 1720 metres, ride time 5 hrs 54 mins
Day 2 – La Clusaz to Bourg St Maurice
The first col of the day was the Col des Aravis (1487 metres) with great views of Mt Blanc and a lovely twisting descent in to Flumet and up the Col de Saises (1650 metres) where we had lunch in a fine cafe at the summit with more magnificent mountain views, then a good descent to Beaufort before starting the long climb up to the Cornet De Roseland (1987 metres), by now the day was becoming unpleasantly hot and sticky so a cool drink at the barrage De Roseland was most welcome. The descent down to Bourg St Maurice was just the right angle and we were quickly at the camp site.
Stats – distance 94k, ascent 2480 metres, bike time 6hrs 39 mins, total day 9hrs 55 mins
We had initially wanted to do two cols on each of the first two days not the three one split we ended up doing, also doing a lot of the climbing in the heat of the afternoon is a mistake.
Day 3 – Bourg St Maurice to St Michel De Maurienne
Leaving Bourg the sign saying 43 kilometres to the Col D’Iseran is a bit daunting to say the least it turns out to be 47 k! The long first part is up to Val D’Isere which was nice and cool and great views of snow covered peaks on either side of you, the unlit tunnels just before Val D’Isere are a bit scary and it has already taken us 2 hrs 47 mins to get here.
On and on we go up the col and as we reach the switchbacks near the summit it is getting colder and the rain starts, finally we reach the Col D’Iseran( 2774 metres). Normally we like to keep an eye on the bikes but today we just dump them and dash in to the refuge for some warm soup. A quick photo at the top and then the long long descent (72k) through Bessans, Lansebourg and Modane to St Michel and back to the heat, the wild alpine flowers at the top section of the col are stunning in colour and variety but it is far too cold to stop and take a photo.
Stats – distance 119k, ascent 2170 metres, ride time 7 hrs 30 mins, total time 10 hrs 20 mins
Day 4 – St Michel de Maurienne to Briancon
The morning was cool again with fluffy clouds over the highest peaks, the climbing starts almost immediately and is quite steep but the zig zags soon begin and we are passed by an American from Texas who has come over specially to do some alpine cols. After an hour and a half we are at the top of the Col de Telegraph (1570 metres), a fast descent of two hundred metres takes us to the ski town of Valloire for a quick cup of coffee before we start up the feared Col du Galibier unfortunately the sky darkens and the wind gets up right in to our faces all the way to Plan Lechat where we decide a crepe will help us up the steeper final section of the Col where luckily the wind drops, we pass a German on a mountain bike with panniers front and back. It has taken us 4 hrs 5 mins to reach the summit (2646 metres) from the start of the day. The wind now returns and ruins the top section of the descent threatening to blow us off our bikes but after the Col du Lauteret the wind lessens and the angle eases for us to sweep in to Briancon.
Stats – distance 75.6k, ascent 2040 metres, ride time 5hrs 49 mins, total time 7hrs 32 mins
Day 5 – Briancon to Barcellonnette
Two more Cols today and the morning’s Col is the Col D’Izord 2360 metres, quieter than the previous cols with more beautiful flowers and more and more butterflies we meet Alisdair (campervan driver) who has had a great scramble along a spiky ridge followed by a scree run back to the col. we descend through the hills of the Casse Deserte and down the Queyras gorge to just above Guillestre where we make a decision to carry on up the Col de Vars (2111 metres) figuring we will get some lunch and fluid soon, one hour twenty minutes later we find a fountain to slake our thirst and shortly afterwards we get a sandwich Sr Catherine de Vars. At the summit we arrive to see a young lad (10 -11) pedal up to the top totally done in by his efforts – a future champion for sure.
Stats – distance 97.3k, ascent 2255 metres, ride time 6 hrs 50 mins, total time 9 hrs 50 mins.
Day 6 – Barcellonnette to Guillames
We decided after the last few days that we should have an easier day to give the old legs a bit of rest. Setting off early, well 8-45 am, the ascent up the Col de Cayole (2327 metres) was again very quiet through fantastic narrow gorge scenery and we were surprised to see two roller skiers making quick progress up the road, we stopped at the refuge just short of the summit for a tasty savoyard lunch. The descent to Guillaumes became very hot and suddenly we were hearing cicados for the first time, the Med must be getting closer.
Stats – distance 62k, ascent 1190 metres, ride time 4hrs 6 mins
Day 7 – Guillaumes to St Martin Vesubie
The ride up the Col de Valberg (1600 metres) was mostly wooded and with very few cars or campervans pleasant to cycle up, Valberg itself was a busy town and despite it’s nearness to Nice and the med a thriving ski resort in winter. A short descent and we started up the Col de la Couillole (1678 metres) by now in the full heat of the afternoon sun,we passed an older woman who gave me a Bon Courage and added moi aussi as an afterthought. Another tremendous descent with tunnels and a series of S bends and we find ourselves in St Sauveur just in time for Sunday lunch, Kenny at this point had his first puncture which he decided to deal with before we ate, but if his new tyre was difficult to get off it seemed almost impossible to put back on again without nipping the new inner tube, however we eventually sat down to eat. The weather was really hot when we set off up the Col de St Martin (1500 metres) and the climb seemed to go on forever with numerous stops for drinks and on one occasion stopping to dook my head right under water at one of the fountains we passed, at last we reached the top and swept down the hill to the campsite at St Martin-Vesubie. By now campsites were banning barbecues because of the fire risk so we ate the last of our tins of tika marsala.the best memory of this site was the appearance of dozens of Fireflies as the darkness fell.
Stats – distance 70.11k, ascent 2175 metres, ride time 5hrs 41 mins
Day 8 – St Martin-Vesubie to Menton
Another cool start and it felt distinctly cold cycling down past Roquebilliere before starting the climb up the Col de Torrini (1607 metres) nicely wooded with many switchback corners, a final puncture on the col was repaired quickly and we had another fine well graded descent to Sospel and then the final climb up the Col de Castillon (730 metres). The roads were still surprisingly quiet until we were within a few kilometres of Menton. Menton itself was absolutely heaving and 32 degrees, a photo and then to Vence for the night before we set off for the long drive back to Glasgow, remembering to buy some Cote Du Rhone wine on route.
Stats – distance 76.58k, ascent 1415 metres, ride time 4 hrs 56 mins, total time 7 hrs 10 mins
Total distance 684 kilometres, ascent 15454 metres, descent 15814 metres
A great trip and good training for the Bealach Na Ba over to Applecross.
Gibby the Grimpeur