In 1998, we planned a similar trip to 1997, a two week ride in the Alps and Jura, taking a more southerly direction than the previous year. Once again, we took one pannier each, packed using a variant of Jobst Brandt's original list . This gave us 4.5 Kilos of luggage each.
We took an early flight from Luton to Geneva on Easyjet, which entailed getting up at 4.30am. Unlike last year, both bikes arrived off the plane (Easyjet: 2, British Airways: 1), and at ninety quid return, compared to BA's hundred and fifty, allied to the user-friendliness of Luton, I see no reason to go near Heathrow in future.
From Cointrin, we rode out through Geneva and Annemasse, down the main road to Bonneville, where we lunched on a delicious (and cheap) pizza in the square. After some digestion, we carried on up through the pleasant Gorges des Eveux to St Jean de Sixt, and then down the main road to Thones. We found a room at one of the two hotels in town, but had to wait a while for the owner to repair a broken bed. The early start was beginning to tell by this point, and we both needed some sleep before going out to dinner.
There were still some clouds around from overnight rain, and I had to fix a slow puncture that had deflated my tube overnight. We set off over the first proper col of the trip, the Col du Marais (843m). This was a gentle back-road climb, and we were passed both ways by local clubs out for their Sunday morning rides. We descended to Faverges, and carried on up the minor road to the Col de Tamie (907m) , which is a pleasant cut-through avoiding the main roads around Albertville.
Once in the Isere valley, we found ourselves riding into a strong headwind for a few kilometres until we turned left up the Arc valley, stopping for lunch in Aiguebelle. Fortunately, the "wind always blows up valleys" rule was still working, and we had a storming tailwind run all the way to St Jean de Maurienne. The main N6 road was very quiet, as the motorway now runs all the way up to St Michel. Along the N6, we found this sign, which promised great things to come.
St Jean was "En Fete" as they say. In the town centre, there were the usual stomach churning mobile fairground rides, all set to a relentless techno soundtrack. In another square, there was an open air concert being given by what I can only describe as a folk-rock-choir-cum-bad-dance-troupe. The group of about 50 was divided into subsets who wore different primary-coloured smocks (women) and jackets (men), each group singing and "dancing" different parts. It all sounded pretty samey to us, but a couple of beers helped, and after the concert, they all came over to the bar for a drink and started some impromptu singing which was good fun. The evening was rounded off by a Salsa band and then fireworks in the main square.
We set off in good time up the Col de la Croix de Fer (2067m). I think this is the hardest climb we did during the holiday. It is generally steep, and has two or three places where you have to descend quite significantly and climb again to the same level. On the lower sections, there are few hairpins to provide any relief. On the other hand, the weather was very good (a bit too hot really), and the views are excellent. On the way through the village of St Sorlin d'Arves we met three Mapei riders coming the other way with two team cars in hot pursuit. They were obviously out training over the Grenoble/2 Alpes Tour stage route. Another tip we discovered is DO NOT cycle over freshly laid tarmac that hasn't been properly compacted, because it acts as an excellent adhesive for stones and grit to adhere to your tyres for a long time afterwards. However, we would have found the last 5km to the top hard going, even without the increased rolling resistance.
There were a couple of parties of Dutch riders sitting outside the summit cafe, unsurprisingly, because the area around Bourg d'Oisans seems to be some kind of mecca for them. We enjoyed the descent after taking a quick side trip to the Glandon (1924m), just because it's rare to get to a col this high with only 30 seconds of climbing. We pressed on to Bourg d'Oisans only to find that a serious rockslide had reached the town 5 minutes earlier. The whole place was full of thick dust, so we retreated to Rochetaillee where I strongly don't recommend the big hotel on the main road for many reasons (such as cleanliness, decor, stale bread for breakfast, etc.). The only redeeming feature was that it was fairly cheap.
I suffered from sunburn-induced stomach trouble overnight, so wasn't feeling good the next day when we woke to find it was raining hard. After our stale breakfast, we waited for it to ease off before heading up the road. I bought a nice pair of armwarmers in the excellent bike shop in Bourg d'Oisans, which was packed out with, you've guessed it, Dutch cyclists. The rain soon cleared up, and it became very hot once more.
We were only aiming for the top of the Col du Lautaret (2058m) in order to stay in the famous Hotel des Glaciers, but I found even this short ride very hard after my bathroom exertions the previous night. We ate lunch in La Grave with a spectacular view of the glaciers of La Meije (3983m). Afterwards, I watched Thea slowly disappear into the distance as I rode on at a less than impressive pace.
We loved the hotel. The owners were very friendly and helpful, the rooms good, the evening meal was great, and the scenery spectacular. The only drawback was England losing to Argentina in the World Cup, a drawback not appreciated by the few French climbers staying at the hotel, who were resolutely supporting Argentina (and by the way, those two "penalties" were never penalties).
After the best breakfast we had on the whole trip: Bread, Croissants, Pain au Raisin, Pain au Chocolat (and this at over 2000 metres), we set off early up the Col du Galibier (2646m). There was some light drizzle to begin with, little other traffic, and we made good time up to the top. We heard plenty of marmottes squeaking, and caught sight of a few running for shelter, the first time we had ever seen these creatures, that we were beginning to suspect were entirely mythical.
The view at the summit was rather moody, with bright sunshine in between fast moving clouds, and a storm disappearing towards Briancon. We chatted briefly to a stout gentleman who (of course) had been a great racer in his youth, and said he was the president of Richard Virenque's first cycling club, or first racing team, or something. I suggested that Virenque might win the Tour this year, which caused a lot of shrugging in our new acquaintance, highly appropriate as it turned out, in view of the Festina EPO revelations.
The descent off the Galibier was great fun, as it has a nice mixture of twisty and straight sections, and it's also steep which makes for high speeds. After the short bump over the Col du Telegraphe(1566m), we joined the valley road up to Modane. The motorway to the Frejus tunnel has now reached St Michel de Maurienne, so there is still about 15km of highly-lorried, sometimes narrow, road to contend with. Heavy civil engineering is in progress to complete the motorway, but it must be at least a year or two from completion. We stopped for lunch in Modane, where one of our fellow diners on the sweltering terrace was an overweight, bearded middle-aged chap who had arrived on a mountain bike, hugely overladen with every conceivable pannier, bar bag, etc. Judging by the amount of food he put away, it must have taken some pedalling...
Lunch dispatched, we carried on up the valley towards Lanslebourg. A few kilometres further on, where there is a massive fort built on an outcrop in the valley, the wind suddenly changed from a tailwind to a very strong headwind. This was rather unaccountable, and made riding hard work for the last 20km or so. It was still blowing a gale when we struggled into Lanslebourg and found a comfortable hotel. Strange weather was prevailing all around, with mostly clear skies overhead, and banks of cloud pouring into the valley from all sides. It was particularly murky over Mont Cenis towards Italy. At dinner, I ordered that much advertised regional speciality, Tartiflette (a huge dish of baked layers of potato, ham and Reblochon cheese), which was very nice, but you wouldn't want to have it more than once per holiday.
In the morning, the wind had died, although it was looking cloudy towards the Col de l'Iseran (2770m). We set off, and were soon into the territory that makes this one of the best mountain roads in the Alps. The road makes a gentle ascent along three further valleys, with steep sections at the end of each, to reach the next one up.
The lower part of the climb from Bonneval was cloud free and pleasantly sunny. In the next valley up, we could hear the calls of marmottes, and we eventually saw one sitting on a rock a little way away from the road. After the next section of climbing, we emerged into the final valley that was much bleaker. The last section of the climb has only one or two bends, and we found that altitude was taking its toll, so it was a relief to round a hairpin to see flags flying at the summit only just around the next corner. It was only a few degrees above zero at the top, so we didn't hang around long before diving into the cafe for hot chocolates. These turned out to be surprisingly un-hot, which may be connected to the fact that my physicist friend tells me, that water boils at only 91 degrees celsius at a height of 2770m.
After donning more clothes and gloves, we sped down to Val d'Isere, the ski facilities a horribly ugly scar on the landscape in summer, and in the winter too for all I know, where we had huge sandwiches for lunch at a bar staffed by amazonian African women (if that's not a contradiction). We continued on past the dam at Tignes which has a heroic mural on the face, down towards Bourg St Maurice. Below the dam we passed some roadworks where a huge trailer carrying a bulldozer had got stuck going round a tight bend, so after carrying our bikes past the resulting traffic jam, we enjoyed 20 minutes of vehicle-free descent. We found a hotel (La Vallee de l'Arc) on the central pedestrian street of the town, convenient for a choice of bars and restaurants. We ate in the place next to the hotel on both nights, the first being "enlivened" by a party of national service squaddies from the barracks up the road, raucously singing what I can only imagine were filthy marching songs. Luckily we were sitting outside.
We had a rest day in BSM where we did no significant cycling, but I bought some new innertubes having suffered two irreparable punctures so far, and got my tyres reinflated by the local bike shop. In the evening, the French won their World Cup quarter final, a cue for much driving around pedestrian streets with one hand on the horn and the other waving a flag out the car window.
On returning to England, we found that an acquaintance of ours had been camping in the town at the same time we were there. More coincidentally, he had discovered that his English neighbours in the camp site just happened to be the parents of his brother's best mate. Time for Mulder and Scully to make a visit there I think.
We were looking forward to the ride over the Cormet de Roselend (1968m), having read a lot about this pass. We weren't disappointed. It's a minor road, but only completed comparatively recently, and it doesn't get much traffic. The road started up a wooded hillside, then came into a more open, rock-strewn valley. This eventually got quite wide, and there were good views of snow-capped mountains to the North. There's then a hairpinned section up to the summit, with things becoming more barren as we climbed. At the top, a friendly old chap from Boulogne took our picture by the sign. It was a bit chilly, so we didn't hang around long before descending down towards the lovely reservoir. Rather than continuing down the main road, we took Francis and Sheila's advice, and crossed the dam to the Col du Pre (1703m). Here we ate lunch on the terrace of a restaurant overlooking the lake with Mont Blanc occasionally visible in the far distance, which must be one of the best views in the Alps.
After lunch, we continued down the twisty descent of the Col du Pre, and then on to the gentler descent from Beaufort down into Albertville. There is a choice of roads for riding down the valley from Albertville, one on each side, and one in the middle. We picked the one on the north side, which was quiet, but rather lumpy as it went up and down the shoulders of the hills.
We arrived in St Pierre a little tired, and quickly found a hotel above the PMU. The slightly dilapidated exterior belied a completely refurbished interior, with modern rooms, electronic doorlocks and all, for 230FFr a night. We ate dinner at what seemed to be the only place in town, La Forestiere, which was a good honest local restaurant, and also great value.
We liked the hotel so much, we decided on an extra night's stay, and a baggage-free circular ride through the area of "moyenne montagne" between Annecy, Chambery and Albertville. We set off on a hot morning up the Col du Frene (950m), where we encountered other riders out for their Sunday morning trips. The road then descended gradually for 20km to Lescheraines, where after a cafe stop, we headed off up the D912 to the Col de Plainpalais (1174m). The roads were all very quiet, and the area has a lot of small roads and cols to explore. There was a shortage of places to eat, and we finally stopped for lunch at a hotel where there was a stereotypical extended family Sunday lunch in progress on the shady terrace, overlooking Chambery. We felt rather underdressed, and a bit cheap given that we only wanted to order salads, but the hospitality was good nevertheless. Afterwards, we struck out for St Pierre over the Col de Marocaz (958m), and a few final kilometres up the valley road. We were pretty tired after a fair amount of riding on "heavy" roads.
We started off with a flat ride to Chambery, and on to le Bourget du Lac which, tautologically, is situated on the Lac du Bourget. It was a very hot day, and we stopped for lunch by a small harbour at Bourdeau. Here we watched various maritime comings and goings, both nubile and senile bathers, and a bad tempered middle-aged English couple launching a small boat from their trailer.
From Bourdeau we climbed most of the Col du Chat (633m), then carried on along the cliffs at the side of the lake, where above the Abbaye de Hautecombe, there is a roadside cafe whose terrace has an incredible panorama, another candidate for "best view in the Alps". After descending, and looking for longer than usual for a hotel, we found the quiet Auberge du Lac at the northern end in Portout.
It was raining hard when we finished breakfast, but was somewhat lighter when we set off. We were heading for the Jura, with a little detour along the Rhone to begin with. We followed the river south and east to Belley, where we changed some money and I had the most fantastic hot chocolate I've ever had. It was still raining sporadically as we carried on along the lorry-infested N504, the natives giving us a wide berth as usual, only the two with British number plates cutting us up mercilessly. At Tenay, a small, and rather down at heel town, we grabbed a sandwich and spent a happy lunchtime watching a road gang at work in the main square, mending a drain. They clearly weren't in much of a hurry, engaging in much inspection of their admittedly impressive hole from every conceivable angle.
Tenay was where we turned off the main road, and climbed up through the Gorges de l'Albarine, which briefly rewarded us with an OK view near the summit. From here, we crossed a thinly populated unspectacular plateau region, which we thought a bit spooky, and headed down through forests into Nantua, just before a seriously heavy storm. We got a room at the only hotel that was open, a 1960s style Logis de France affiliate by the lake. The food here was very good indeed, with the added bonus of a table looking out over the water.
This was our first day in the Jura proper, with cooler weather, a bit too cool really at the highest points of the day. From Nantua, we took the main road to Oyonnax where we turned right, and up the D13. The Jura is a heavily forested area, with wood and farming as the major native industries. There are a selection of flatter uplands at just over 1000m, separated by valleys that go down to as low as 400m, so there can be a fair amount of climbing and descending involved. The scenery is quite different from the high alps, and a little anti-climactic after what we'd seen earlier in the trip (but it still beats Hertfordshire). Our route took us along the D13 to the Col de la Croix de la Serra (1049m), and down to St Claude for a lunchtime pizza.
From St Claude we climbed up the D69, passing a group of women riders on their way down what would have been a fine descent. This road took us along another high valley, and then down to Morez, apparently the centre of the French spectacle industry. We then took the D25 back road, much quieter than the N5, and on into La Cure, passing on the way our female cyclists from earlier, who were obviously doing a circuit the opposite way to us.
In La Cure, we stayed in the "Hotel Franco-Suisse", whose main feature is that you walk in one door from France, and out of the other side of the building into Switzerland, avoiding the customs post further down the road. I asked the barmaid which country we were drinking in, France or Swizerland, and the answer was confusingly, "les deux" (i.e., both). The prices were Franco-Suisse as well, but it was the best room of the holiday.
After a 2km side trip into Switzerland to the Col de la Givrine (1228m), we headed north east along the Vallee des Joux, crossing back into Switzerland after a few km. Once again there was a chill in the air, but with a good tailwind along the flat valley road we had big chainring fun. Following the road in a straight line for about 30km in all, we noticed that all the farm buildings and houses had an extra layer of insulation in the form of wood planks or tiles nailed onto their western sides, a nicely agricultural touch. We knew we were in Switzerland when we stopped in some roadside public toilets in a small town, and they were a) very clean, and b) centrally heated.
At the end of the Lac de Joux, we took the short climb up to the Col de Petra-Felix (1144m). Pausing at the junction to study the map, another couple arrived on racing bikes. They were out for a ride from Lausanne, and gave us some ideas for our route. We then had a long descent of 30km to Yverdon on the Lac de Neuchatel, losing about 800m on the way, and taking a quick visit to the lovely medieval abbey village of Romanmotier. We were hoping to find somewhere to eat by the lake in Yverdon, but the town runs out into railway yards and warehouses before it gets there. So, we found an open air cafe near the castle in the town centre that obliged with a delicious curried chicken salad.
The idea was to head back to Morges on Lac Leman for the night, and we set off after lunch into a stiff wind, across rolling and rather exposed countryside. We managed to stick on a cycle track for about half the distance, which made a change. In Morges, the hotels were fairly expensive, but more importantly had nowhere to store our bikes safely, so we ended up nearer Geneva at the bizarre 1960s style Motel des Pechers on the main road in Etoy. This is run by an ancient and somewhat eccentric Swiss couple, and doesn't seem to have been updated since it was built. The rooms all look out over a huge peach orchard, hence the hotel's name. The old lady who sold us our room was complimentary about my French accent (yeah, but she was Swiss), but said she couldn't tell if I was English or German. In the morning when we checked out, her husband, who I hadn't spoken to greeted me with "Haben Sie Fruhstuck essen ?", so I guess that being tall and fair haired must mean something.
We started by properly climbing the Col de la Givrine (1228m), which seemed like hard work after a fairly flat, but longer than normal, ride the previous day. We went back through the customs post in La Cure once again, and then onto the main N5 and up the back of the Col de la Faucille (1320m), Thea finding this hard going. I was going better by now, and it always feels great to reach a col sign on your big chainring, an experience I've now had about, well... twice.
We knew it was all downhill from here to our destination, and I was determined to go for a really fast descent, on this highly enjoyable road. I found my top speed was limited on the steepest section by spinning out my 46x13 top gear, so I only hit around 70kph. Half way down I caught Thea who'd had a head start, stuck behind some lorries, which I soon passed. At the bottom she was a bit disappointed about getting stuck, and realised she should have either plucked up the courage to pass them, or just stopped for a few minutes instead to let them get far enough ahead.
We stayed at the "automatic" hotel near the Swiss border in Ferney Voltaire, where we acquired one of the handicapped rooms that was large enough to keep the bikes in, and a bargain at 195FFr. In the evening, we met up with our friends Piers and Sarah for dinner and several bottles of wine. Sarah's mum was over from Australia, and they also had two other Australian friends staying, all four of them were going off on a three day cycle trip round Lac Leman the following day. We all had a great time, and it was a perfect way to finish the holiday.
A trouble-free Easyjet flight back to Luton and the grim reality of an English "summer". Grey overcast sky, with rain threatening, and a strong gusty wind making it feel much colder than the ambient temperature that was all of 14C. Roads crowded with cars whose drivers, on their way to do some vital Saturday morning shopping, give you no room and no respect. Horrible.
We tried to cross the main passes in the recommended directions.
The Col de l'Iseran really should be crossed from the south, as this area is in a national park, and quite unspoilt. The north side is heavily developed, which is less noticeable at 70kph than at 10kph.
The Cormet de Roselend is better from the Bourg St Maurice side, the Beaufort side being much less interesting.
Particularly recommended hotels: Hotel des Glaciers, Col du Lautaret (260FFr). The one above the PMU in St Pierre d'Albigny (230FFr), but watch out, they don't take credit cards. Hotel Arbez Franco-Suisse in La Cure (360FFr).
Trevor's bike: Raleigh Dynatech bonded CrMo frame, RSX Triple STI (46/36/26) with 13-23 7-speed sprockets. I find that this gives me plenty of climbing gears, and also usefully close ratios for cycling on the flat.
Thea's bike: Graham Weigh brazed 531 frame, Campag Mirage triple (52/42/32) with 13-28 Sachs 7-speed block.