Sunday, September 26, 2021

Col de l'Iseran - France

Last Wednesday I erased the Col de l'Iseran from my bucket list. It is the highest paved road in the Alps used only occasionally by the Tour de France as the weather can be treacherous as we saw in the 2019 race when stage 19 was abandoned following heavy rain and mudslides.

"Cols" are passes which for centuries have provided a way through the mountains. In this case the col takes its name from the Isere River which it follows from Bourg Saint Maurice in the north to the summit and then descends with the Arc River to Bonneville sur Arc in the south.

For me, it is a three hour drive to Bourg Saint Maurice and I have been waiting for a break in the recent freezing rainy alpine weather. Finally with a forecast for a couple of sunny calm days and a high near 50 I am on my way.

With a reservation for a small Airbnb apartment for a couple of nights I really luck out. I tell the owner my plans for the next day and she says if I have problems that I am to phone her and she will come and get me. A layer of security I sincerely appreciate. I also get a free St Bernard dog called Rocky who is very insistent that I play fetch.

Wednesday is perfect, sunny clear and calm. I leave at 9am and take it easy for the first 15 miles on the D902 up to the dam at Tignes where the road levels off and I go through avalanche sheds and several lighted tunnels as I ride around the lake to Val d'Isere.

Val d'Isere is a huge ski resort which in summer is a ghost town but there is one store open where I get a pastry and a coffee. Since emerging from the tunnels the scenery is gorgeous - the high Alpine mountains in every direction.

I leave for the final 10 miles and 3000 feet knowing the thinning air and the steeper grade will make life harder. But it is the most beautiful part of the ride - through alpine meadows ringing with the sounds of cowbells and a backdrop of rocky snow capped peaks and distant glaciers. I stop each thousand feet of climb to drink, munch on cookies and take photos and finally I am there - the summit - the sign - the restaurant - a beer.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Col du Petit Saint Bernard

My original plan after climbing the Iseran was to pack my bags the next morning and and drive to the other side of Bourg St Maurice to attack the Cormet de Roselend before heading back to Tain l'Hermitage. This changed when I realized where I was staying was at the bottom of the Col du Petit St Bernard and actually on the route. All I had to do was leave the house and turn left and I was on my way up it.

Saint Bernard

This a climb of about 4200 feet in 17 miles. The gradient is 5% all the way with very little variation, no really hard parts and no easy parts just a solid grind. The first half is climbing the side of the mountain with about 20 hairpin bends then the road straightens out following the side of a valley to the top of the pass which is the border between France and Italy.

Alpine Village

There are two passes named for St Bernard, the Petit between France and Italy and the Grand between Switzerland and Italy. The passes have been used for over 3000 years and the remains of Roman roads over them can still be seen. They are named for Bernard of Menthon, a priest, who built hostels on the mountains around 1050, AD not this morning, to protect pilgrims crossing the passes from being robbed by bandits. Bernard was later canonized and the passes named for him. 

Old French customs post

The passes became better known in 1800s when dogs, later to be named for St Bernard, were kept at the mountain top hostels to rescue travelers stranded in the winter snow. The hostels still exist and continue to host travelers but the dogs are no longer kept on the mountain.

It is a myth that St Bernard dogs carried brandy barrels

Beaten up from the previous day I climb conservatively taking a few minutes out every thousand feet to drink, eat and take pictures. At the top I ride past the old customs posts into Italy then take some pictures and return to a small souvenir shop where I can get a coffee.

The Summit

Then it's a 17 mile zero cadence ride down, shower change and drive back to Tain.

For route information

Saturday, September 18, 2021

ViaRhona - Tain l'Hermitage to Avignon

The ViaRhôna is a 500 mile bike route of greenways and shared paths which follows the the Rhône River from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean sea. On it's way it passes through Tain l'Hermitage where we were staying and I thought it would be cool to ride the 116 miles south along the trail to Avignon and Jocelyne would take a train to meet me there.

Shouldn't be too hard, flat route slowly descending with the river on a day with a following northerly breeze, average speed 15 mph with a one hour break should do it in 9 hours comfortably, leave at 7:30 am be there 4:30 pm latest. Piece of cake.

So, on a perfect Sunday morning I'm out the door at 7:30 am and with a 10 mph wind at my back I'm down the trail at 17 mph to Valence . . . where the obstacle course begins. They don't tell you about the Sunday morning farmers market which closes the route and I have to walk through it, then I'm confused by the numerous bike routes in the area all using similar signs, then I have to navigate around a huge gastronomic festival . . . but before you know it I'm across the bridge over the Rhone and back on track with an average speed of 13 mph!

The miles pass well while I am on the greenway by he river but then I'm directed to take a path with a dead end sign (stop, scratch head) and was fortunately rescued by a couple of Brits who somehow knew that a dead end sign on a bicycle path didn't apply to bicycles! The shared paths along the route turn out to be mostly farm roads which would make 209 in Marion County look good. This is interspersed by a couple of long span narrow flexible suspension bridges across the river which you wouldn't want to cross on a windy day or meet someone going the other way.

A visit to Châteauneuf du Pape seemed like a good idea in the planning stage but it added 4 miles to my route and after 103 miles it just didn't seem that important. I'd also had a flat tire and was getting tired so I was well behind schedule. And so it went. I got to Avignon with an elapsed time of just over 10 hours at 5:15 pm.

In summary - apart from my whining - the ViaRhôna is absolutely brilliant. Just do a couple of sections a day - not six like me - and take the time to drink the wine along the way.

Coda. Jocelyne brought me some real clothes, changed, saw the Palais des Papes and the Pont d'Avignon and took the train home. Every regional train has a bicycle carriage - love it - it's free and will comfortably hold a couple of dozen bikes with seating for cyclists. You just don't know at which end of the train it will be.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Le Cirque de Combe-Laval, France

 The Vercors Mountains lie to the east of our base in Tain l'Hermitage. The French refer to them as "massifs" which is appropriate as they are massive and vertical and in your face.

There lies one of my favorite rides, the Cirque de Combe Laval. While cirque can mean a circus or circuit in this sense it means a gorge where the end and sides encircle you. I'll be attached to the side.

I am starting in St Jean en Royans and as it is a Monday, a quiet day in France, I am able to park "en centreville" next to a boulangerie - always a good option for the end of a ride.

There is no warm up, I climb 2k feet in the first hour and then it levels off onto a breathtakingly spectacular balcony road cut into the vertical face of the massif. A road that was built in the 1890s to transport lumber down from the Lente Forest. The pictures say it all.

I ride and walk for a while taking in the view. I meet a couple from Holland and ask the gentleman to take a picture for me and hesitatingly point out that it is a fine picture of his finger which was in front of the lens. His wife finds this highly amusing and takes the picture for me. Somehow I've not offended the gentleman who is also laughing.

Leaving the gorge behind I continue to climb up through the Lente Forest until finally the fun starts - 18 miles back to St. Jean en Royans nearly all downhill. I stop for a Crepe Bretonne (a large crepe folded over ham and an egg) in La Chappelle en Vercors. Then continue down to the Grand Goulets, another road cut into the side of a gorge, but unfortunately closed since 2000 and replaced by a tunnel. It goes a mile through the mountain and is well lit built with cyclists and walkers in mind. With no GPS signal I have no idea of my speed but it was quick which is good as it was a cold.
Down, down I go through another gorge called the Petits Goulets until there are just a few miles of flat through fruit and nut farms back to the car and the boulangerie for dessert.

For route information click here.