I've covered far less distance off-road in the Alps than in the Pyrenees, and far less than I'd hoped to. I'd like to say far less than I'd planned to, as well, but therein lies the problem, and I basically haven't found a wonderful trans-alpine VTT guide where they've done all the work for you.
Nonetheless, if there is anywhere in the world you can guarantee a wealth of amazing mountain roads, then it is the French Alps, and, needless to say, they have not disappointed at all.
Climbing up out of Provence was wonderful. The roads around Les Gorges du Verdon were simply stunning. The rock features were phenomenal, the roads providing opportunities to stop and take in breathtaking panoramas seemly every half-mile. And if there were too many cars on the road for my liking, I have never been averse to putting my headphones on, enjoying the music and basically pretending that everyone around me doesn't exist!
The route up to Col d'Allos was no less impressive, and also popular with racers, tourers and mountain-bikers alike. It was amusing (and bloody hard work!) challenging myself to keep pace with one or two of the racers, while it lasted, on the 7% incline dotted with switchbacks.
And once at the summit I looked over to see Mr. Ortlieb himself, kitted out with a bikes' worth of equipment that must have weighed a tonne. I chuckled at his plight, and then chuckled at myself too as I realised that he was carrying pretty much the same load as Jon and I each did back from China, only he looked a bit shinier as winter is yet to set in. And, more importantly, he didn't have a guitar mounted on the back...
There is a certain solidarity amongst tourers in France and Italy, though, especially when compared to the super lightweight road crew more commonly spotted on the roads.
I have been through Briancon and over the Col du Lautaret once before, in the snow in March, and it was good to be back. Good to be back on a budget stretching to a hotel as well!
I have a distinct memory of ducking into a cafe on the descent, back in 2006, desperately looking for some warmth, wondering to myself whether Jon was going to be okay to continue. He might well have been wondering the same about me...
This time I carried on up from the pass towards Col du Galibier, along one of the most breathtaking sections of road I have ever ridden. It was fairly hard on the legs, but the views were utterly magnificent, and full respect to the lads who race up these climbs. The tarmac was dotted with the names of recent Tour riders, and they would have certainly needed the encouragement.
The descent may have been a bit nippy, but went on forever. And then, after the little dent in the hillside that is the Col du Telegraphe, it went on a whole lot longer. Amazing. By the time I was at the bottom the heavens were opening and the tone for the afternoon was set.
This morning, when I went downstairs, the hotel owner practically jumped for joy as he whooped "have you seen the snow?" In French of course. A couple of hundred metres up lies the snow line, which is going to make the next pass very interesting indeed.
Watch this space......