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......
It was a shame to have to head down over into France and on a road out of the Pyrenees the other day. I feel like I have unfinished business with these hills, so good have they been.
The highlights have been plentiful, in particular staying in uber friendly refuges or hostels that provide a cold beer, a hot shower and an enormous fill of rustic, home-cooked fare, usually enough to finish you off for the evening after a day on the mountainsides. Unless, of course, you can stay awake for a little shot of a local liqueur.
Villages have often been beautiful, sometimes spectacularly perched on a cliff or rock, so that you have to wind around tiny alleyways on impossible gradients. The number of empty houses is worrying, however, along with the lack of younger generations - I guess the attractions of rural life are not that many, understandably enough. And the economy means that many of those who invested in a holiday cottage can no longer afford the upkeep.
The terrain has meant for some punishing climbs, and, of course, countless thrilling descents along rocky cliffside tracks. My GoPro has seemed to be permanently out of battery as there has been so much to shoot.
Coming down into Baguergue was breathtaking. There was an initial 35km gradual climb up through a lush green valley, the peaks on either side dotted with patches of snow not yet melted, and a crystal clear river making its way down through occasional settlements. At the top was a ski centre, the lifts and white airport-style buildings looking out of place without the white all around.
And then when I made it over the top there was a massive drop into the valley below. A road hairpinned its way to the bottom, but crossing that was one of the most impressive tracks I've ever ridden down, with such amazing views in every direction that you had to keep stopping to take it all in for fear of not looking where you were going and riding straight over the edge, which in many places would surely have been a fatal mistake.
And once at the bottom you find your bearings and start the long slug back up the next pass to repeat the process... Immense fun!
I won't miss the occasional swarms of horse flies tracking me up the hills, impossible to swat as they land on your shoulder and get tucked into some blood while you are trying maintain momentum. But I will miss pretty much everything else to do with this stunning mountain range, and I'm a little apprehensive that the Alps are not going to live up to the Pyrenees, especially as I'm unlikely to have them to myself in the same way as school holidays will mean more holidaymaking families around.
However, I am sure that there is at least one more summer to be had out of a trip to northern Spain, and I will definitely be back at some point... :)
A half-day today as I'm being lazy, but it was sensational! Stunning scenery the whole way, with nobody there at all, and a descent of 1200m of pure fun at the end. To wrap it all up I just finished off arriving at the sign above, eating the mother of all lunches, and am now off for a siesta... When in Rome and all that!?
Well, I'm four days in and it feels like I've been riding for a month already... the saddle sore, the irritating blister on my foot, the unfathomably stinky clothes, the same old inability to get up in the morning, and, of course, the world's achiest ever leg muscles.
And is it worth it? Oh my god yes!! I'm just slightly annoyed with myself for underestimating the might of the Pyrenees, the result of which is that I'm only going to make it across half of them... A good reason to come back, though, I guess.
Many of the climbs have been total brutality, one-in-tens that gain 1000m in altitude without reprieve. On rocks and through pools of mud, very few have been easy.
The summits and descents, however, have been utterly magnificent. It's as if the Great Divide had contained the same hills but the distance had been halved so they were all scrunched up and everything is steepere. Every inch of the way has been dramatic scenery.
Today saw the first 2000m pass, and as I made the descent, coming out of the clouds, it constituted one of the best 20km I've ever ridden. When the cold mist at the summit dispersed, a huge valley opened out below.
It was vast. Such was its size that, even coming down the last few kilometres, your sense of perspective kept on changing as you lost all of that hard fought gain in altitude. It was worth every inch of the hard slog up there, though, and photos won't come close to doing it justice.
Other things to mention: food and wine have been delicious, although I do miss Hunan food after a month away. Language has been interesting - it does feel very much like a border area with the mix of languages and people here. Apart from seedy La Jonquera that has been a positive, however.
Tomorrow looks like it will be even more of a killer than today was, so I'm in need of some kip now.
Back in Europe now following the trip to Uganda (see www.thepeacecentre.org for pics) and about to embark upon an off-road fat bike adventure across the Pyrenees... Woohoooo!!! Not too many fixed plans but have decided to test my language skills by buying a book in Catalan to add an extra dimension to the trip.
The goal is to cross the Pyrenees before the Tour finds its way here, then head towards the Alps. In total one month before I'm back in the metropolis, so very much looking forward to some camping, fire-building, killing my own dinner, etc etc... Should be fun! :)