The descent, now Rt.D902, the Route des Grandes Alpes, rolls through beautiful high alpine terrain along the Bachelard river whose course varies from steep narrow gorges to wide meadows in the shadow of the mountains. The descent is long and pleasant on this small road that has not been widened and straightened into a ski resort expressway as so many have. The mild grade up the south side required no more than a middle gear and it seemed this side would be at least as easy as I rode down to Barcelonnette (1150m). A sidewalk restaurant was serving lunch under the shade of large umbrellas so I joined others for the day's special of calamari over rice with vegetables and French bread. This, washed down with a large beer, settled well. I rode gradually up Rt.D902, the Route des Grandes Alpes, along the Ubaye river to Jausiers, Condamine, and the Col de Vars.
After the tunnel, beyond the junction with the Col de Larche (1991m) form Cuneo, I got a big drink of water and took a snooze on a shady bench in St. Paul (1470m) before attacking the climb up the Col de Vars (2111m). In several places the road had shifted by large hillside movements so that its 10% grade was more like a roller coaster with extra steep sections. At the summit I bought some postcards and a soda at the old shack that was already there in 1960 when I first rode here. The new and fancy place, recently completed, will some day be the only one but I'll remember the old folks who sold sheep skins, postcards, sandwiches, and refreshments in the lean-to under the rock overhang. After a short descent, a grand view to the north, up the Durance river toward Briancon, opened with Guillestre (1000m), far below, in the foreground.
With a fairly full tank, I got a yogurt and soda at the store in Guillestre before heading along the cliffs above the Guil river toward the Izoard pass. The road climbs along the crags, going in and out of bare rock tunnels, climbing very little to meet the cascading river farther upstream. At Chateau-Queyeras my route Rt.D902 takes a sharp turn left up the Riviere valley as the road to the Colle dell'Agnello (2809m) goes straight. The sky ahead was black as a few large drops made lone splotches on the warm asphalt. I tried to take a picture of the long lightning bolts that flashed across the horizon in white and lavender. One of these seemed to hang there for a second as I looked through the camera.
As I turned up toward the Izoard and Arvieux I could see that the thunderstorm had not yet gotten to this valley but by the sound of the thunder, it wouldn't take long. In Arvieux (1544m) I stopped at the store that has everything I could want to eat and loaded up before heading up the road to la Chalp as the clouds closed in. I found a good hotel and stopped for the night as it began to rain steadily.
The obelisk is a monument to military bravery of the Glory of France, a concept that has never moved me to find glory in war, but then much of French art is concerned with war. A museum across the street has an interesting collection of bicycles and racing memorabilia from early Tour de France epics, when roads were unpaved and gears on bicycles were few. I shoved off down the uninteresting descent that enters a thin forest of Larch and Pine. I hear Cuckoos give their clock like call as I slow for the hairpin turns. As the road emerges from the trees, it levels off and stays high on the east side of the canyon as the Cerveyrette river vanishes down the steep gorge.
Rt.D902 rolls into Briancon (1391m) with a few steep curves and joins Rt.N91 toward Grenoble as it begins the gradual slope to the Col du Lauteret (2095m). This road is wide and climbs just enough at 4% to 5% to not be considered flatland. The view up the valley exposes the summit of the Galibier, in the distance, to the experienced eye. It looks appreciably higher than the Luataret when seen from Briancon or even closer. It was still before noon when I stopped off at the Hotel des Glaciers where Paul Bonnabel formerly presided for so many years. His nephew now runs the place and informed me that M. Bonnabel was again in good health after a serious illness, which was good to hear. This has always been a great place for me to stay ever since I first stopped there 1960.
The ascent of the Galibier (2645m), back on Rt.D902, is a rewarding climb, not too flat and not too steep at about 8%, and at this time of year with plenty of snow at the roadside. The wildflowers between the large areas of melting snow were a sure sign of spring as I grabbed a handful of snow now and then to wet my whistle. The tall, two meter diameter, Stone column with a map of France and inscription honoring Henri Des Grange, the originator of the Tour de France, stands near the old one lane summit tunnel (2555m) that is now closed.
From here the road follows the old right-of-way that is irregular in width, grade and alignment to the top with a bit of 13% to wake up the sleepers. The view from the top is worth the extra climbing above the tunnel. The sign proclaiming "Route des Grandes Alpes" is redundant, but it is a good place to lean your bike for a photo. If the glaciers, of the Massif du Sorieller (4000m) to the south and those of the Massif de la Vanoise (3600m) to the north, don't make an impression, the sign won't help. From here the road winds in broad hairpins to Plan Lachat. Much of this section can be seen from the summit and is a common view in reports of the TdF. Speeds are about 60 km/h if you try hard, but "accidentally" get translated to 60 mph by TV commentators.
Just before Valloire (1430m), the road is steep and straight, and without a tailwind 80 km/h are possible, but then it isn't worth reporting because the riders are not banked into turns to make the speed palpable. From here the road climbs gradually up a mild but significant grade to the Telegraph (1570m), a Roman signal relay station and early French fortress that commands a clear view up and down the Maurienne valley and Arc river. The road descends from the Telegraph to St. Michel (712m) where it joins Rt.N6 to head toward the Col du Mont Cenis and Torino at Lanslebourg (1399m).
At Lanslebourg all truck traffic seems to have vanished into either the Frejus tunnel or over Mont Cenis as I climbed the Col du Madeleine (1746m), a small but steep bump out of town on Rt.D902 to the high valley of the Arc. On the way to Bonneval sur Arc (1835m), where the climb to the Col d'Iseran begins, the side valleys expose views of glaciers and snow covered peaks. Bonneval is a small village of ancient grey stone buildings with stone roofs. I rode to the upper end of town where there are several hotels, that cater primarily to winter sports, and picked one that seemed least like a ski lodge for the night.
From here the grade is a bit steeper, varying between 8 and 10%, with a nearly continuous snow pack. A few diehard skiers were attempting to keep winter alive all summer. Some of the lifts seemed to be running on demand as I rounded the only hairpin turn and headed to the summit of the Iseran (2770m). I arrived at the large concrete road sign on the summit, just as about a dozen MTB'ers were getting their picture taken so I gave my camera to the volunteer and climbed up the sign into the middle of the crowd. This huge sign, or better, monument demands to be climbed. It seemed to be fairly new when I first got my picture taken in 1960 with two friends. Today it is still pretty solid although a bit faded.
The descent into Val d'Isere was once more picturesque, when the town was a mere mountain village, in contrast to todays endless chain of hotels, condominiums, and department stores that fill the valley. In spite of this, the mountains are impressively beautiful with glaciers on the 3700m peaks. Now, at mid morning, the clouds for the afternoon thundershower were beginning to form in beautiful white towers as I coasted briskly down through town and into the series of tunnels that lead to the Lac du Chevril (2000m). After the dam the road gets steeper for a swift descent to the valley and a flat ride into Seez (920m) at the junction of Rt.D902 and Rt.N90 to Aosta over the Petite St. Bernard (2188m) pass.
I rode down to Bourg St Maurice (840m) and turned north toward Les Chapieux and the Cormet de Roselend (1968m) on Rt.D217. It was cool and breezy at the summit, with puffy clouds and some thunderheads, as I coasted down to the lake behind the huge Barrage de Roselend (dam) 730m above Beaufort (743m). As I rolled into town, I could already taste the pizza "frutta di mare" from memory, that the first restaurant on the right serves. I pulled in, parked my bicycle next to a table under the awning and was not disappointed as I finished an excellent seven seafood pizza with a large Pelforth beer.
From Beaufort sur Doron, a road cuts north across the mountain over the Col des Saisies (1633m) to Flumet (917m). From here Rt.N212 stays high as it crosses to St. Gervais (807m) at the foot of Mont Blanc, that showed itself through the humid haze whenever the clouds made a favorable move. A cogwheel train climbs through St. Gervais up to the Nid d'Aigle (2300m). Its a short descent to le Fayet (589m) where I got on the elevated highway to Chamonix (1037m). The uphill lanes rise up the valley on an elevated three lane, one-way causeway while downhill traffic uses the old curvy highway along the hillside to the right. The afternoon heat was broken by gathering clouds that were getting ready for afternoon showers. The upper crags of Mont Blanc (4248m) were barely visible making the jagged glaciers look even higher than they are. The tunnels along the route also gave some amazingly cool air and a feeling of being "in" the mountains.
I took in the dense tourist scene downtown that fills a pleasant pedestrian zone where foot traffic is enough to make riding about as fast as walking. The meter gauge rail line that runs from Martigny in Switzerland through town is still powered by an unprotected 1000VDC third rail as it runs through the countryside. I headed east through Argentier and over the Col des Montets (1461m) to Valorcine (1260m), where I ducked into the hotel just before the clouds opened with a flash, a bang, and a steady rain that lasted all night.
Once down in the Rhone valley, the 100km flat run to Brig (648m) was easy for a change, because it was both morning and a rainy day (with no rain) so the usual down-valley wind was missing. I rode to Sion and on to Brig as one might expect from looking at the map. Of course there are a few bumps on the way up the valley, that is one of the famous wine growing regions of Switzerland. The valley becomes narrower and the hillsides steeper the farther I went. About 15km before Brig the BLS (Loetschberg) railway, 600m above, emerges from the Loetschental clings to the walls as it passes over graceful stone arched bridges and through many tunnels on its descent to Brig.
Brig had completed the redesign of the city center into a lovely pedestrian mall that is still open to busses and taxis by means of barrier posts in the street that hydraulically raise and lower by remote control. Although I could ride through, I waited to see the posts submerge when a bus came. Just the smooth motion of shiny steel cylinders vanishing in the surface of the street, only to re-emerge after the bus passed, gave an eerie sensation. Traffic in front of the train station had been reduced to a manageable trickle, unlike my recent experience with the driver who charged the crosswalk (while I and others were walking), and in whose car my fist left a dent as he stopped practically in contact with my leg.
I rode up the Rhone, whose valley floor reduces to nothing so that the raging river, the FO railway, and the road, fight for space as they cross on bridges and in tunnels to avoid the boss. The river always has priority. Not only that, it also has the power to take. From snow melt and thundershowers, it was raging mad and was touching the bottom girder of the FO railway bridge in Brig. Across the river I saw the entrance to the 20 km Simplon railway tunnel, with its two portals, 1905 and 1921, first single track and then the second parallel bore 16 years later. As I climbed to Fiesch (1062m), where the valley is steeper, the Rhone was a churning cascade with logs and debris riding high on the wave. Here the clouds began unload a steady light rain that became cooler the higher I got, but because it was all uphill I decided not to put on my rain cape.
At Ulrichen (1349m) I could see the first hairpin curves of the Nufenen pass (2478m) climb up into the clouds where I am certain it was snowing judging from the temperature here in the valley. I passed Oberwald (1371m) where the FO enters the new 8km Furka tunnel and the climb to the Grimsel and Furka passes begins. I rode the four km's up to Hotel Rhonequelle where I had stayed several times before over many years. I knew where to stash my bicycle and went in the back door to have the lady of the house say hello as though I had just been there last week. She gave me a key and said dinner is any time. This is the kind of place that warms the heart and draws me back to the Alps often.