It was sensational riding across the Alps - spectacular scenery pretty much the whole way along. Have put up some of the photos from that trip here.
The Col de l'Iseran meant more spectacular mountain scenery and winding roads hanging off the edge of a cliff, but at the price of a descent considerably colder than Galibier, which wasn't exactly summery. It is the highest paved pass in France, so a couple of coffees at the top were not cheap, but were a worthwhile investment. The descent was of course a good deal of fun, heading down nearly 2km in altitude in total, and fast, passing countless waterfalls showering the rock face.
It passed through Val d'Isere, which I have never before visited, and wouldn't hurry back to in all honesty, though I guess it comes into its own in the snow. The Chamonix circus, on the other hand, was really about the first time I've seen any quantity of holidaying Brits on this trip. I can understand people enjoying the spectacular views of Mt Blanc, but I can't help but feel that most people were more interested in the shopping.
It was funny that, only 15km away, in the next valley, I was to have one of the most authentic evenings imaginable. The eccentric guest house owner decided that it would be better for me to eat with a group of other outdoors enthusiasts who had spent all day up in the mountains. Despite my tiredness and wish not to intrude, he used his better judgment, picked up my plate and moved me over anyway. And by the end I felt like I had as good a local knowledge as someone who had been in the region rather longer than I would ever be there, as well as having a good giggle along the way. Make no mistake, travelling alone is not my preferred option, but sometimes it brings you into a community rather better than if you are perceived to be part of a separate group or pairing, and people often forget and/or underestimate this.
Switzerland was a total culture shock, one that I was not really expecting. Coming down into the (Swiss) Rhone Valley, Martigny below looked supremely organised, with streets all running parallel. A far cry from the mountain paths I had been accustomed to. And far from feeling like I was in the Alps, the road ahead seemed longer and straighter than anything I have cycled on across deserts in the past. The language soon changed to German, which had me flummoxed. (It is nice that people don't automatically speak English to you, though, I do appreciate that the expectation is upon the tourist and not vice versa). And, purely coincidentally, it was Swiss National Day, so shops were shut and everyone was out in the square in Brig for live music and beer in the evening, which was lovely.
On my day coming down the Rhone Valley, I mistakenly thought I was going to have a killer day and end up on the pass overnight, but in the event my sugar level went low and tiredness caught up with me in the afternoon, so I called it on the pass.
The following day, as is the way, the opposite happened and I basically did two days riding in one. It wasn't planned that way, though. Simplonpass was much tougher than it should have been, as it was a large road with lots of high speed traffic, and I was not used to this. It ought not to have been all that steep, with cars whizzing by, and I spent a couple of hours slogging away at a 1400m ascent wondering why I was so shattered. Eventually, when not far off the top, I got it sussed, put the bike into a lower gear and slowed down a bit - it was that simple!
It decided to start raining as I summited, and the descent made this pass easily my least favourite of the trip. I was shivering like crazy, and I couldn't see a thing as the speed and wind was resulting in a constant jet of water in my eyes - not great riding blindly on 12% inclines! By the time I reached the Italian border I was a wreck, if I'm honest with myself, and jumped into a cafe for some warmth and respite.
But I knew the rest of the day would be more straightforward, even if it poured it down, as it would be at low altitude and warm. I hadn't factored in that it was 'the last stretch', and that I would push on right the way into the very heart of Milan, which was not my original intention at all, but such is the fun of not planning too carefully and then not sticking to your plans even when you do!
215km later, on a lunch of a coffee and a mars bar (all diabetes specialists would approve, don't worry!) I was pretty much dead when I found a hotel room, but dead in a good way.
And that's it for this time round: 1830km, a lot of altitude gain/loss, and a lot of fun!
Suggestions for next summer welcome on a postcard please. First one in already, though not on a postcard:
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!?