Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Grand Day Out

I’m off on my annual bike trip overseas tomorrow. First up is the Biker's Classic event at Spa in Belgium, then a week or so touring around the French Alps. Norman has posted some more details on his blog here so I won't go into it again.

The last time I rode the Alps was on a trip to Chamonix in September 2008. That time a group of us stayed in a rented chalet for a week and used it as a base for exploring the various mountains and passes in the area. I came across this write up of a run I put together for myself one day near the end of the trip. Let's hope this year is as memorable.


I was determined to go for a decent run today, so I got up fairly early, had a light breakfast, checked my proposed route on the map and programmed it into the Satnav. Other than spending the day on the bike I had no great plan and proposed taking as long as it took.

I checked that I had my camera, chucked a few other things I might need into the top-box and set off on my own at about 08:00 am. It was a bit chilly, and it had been raining a bit overnight so the roads were a bit damp, but this would hopefully clear before too long.

I had opted for a straightforward looking clockwise loop leaving our base in Chamonix and taking in the Mont Blanc Tunnel, Courmayeur, the Petite St. Bernard Pass and some nice twisty A and B type roads. This route would take me from France where we were staying, through the tunnel into Italy, and back out again a good few hours later.

Entrance on the French side
First thing up was the Mont Blanc Tunnel. As we were staying just outside the ski resort of Chamonix, literally in the shadow of Mont Blanc, the tunnel was just along the road. Some of the others had been through it at the end of their ride the previous day and they reckoned that, what with being thoroughly exhausted at the end of a long day in the saddle, they didn’t enjoy it much and were just glad when it was all over. I wanted it to be something to be enjoyed for its novelty, rather than something to be endured, so I decided to go through at the beginning of my day when I was fresh, rather than the end when I was likely to be as tired as they had been.

You roll up to the toll booth and pay your money (the French really like their toll roads), the barrier is raised and in you go.  When all is said and done it’s just a tunnel even if, at 11.6 km (7.25 miles), it’s a bloody great big one. It takes about twenty minutes to ride through and it’s by far the longest tunnel I’d ever been in. 

Inside the tunnel
It does get a bit disorienting after a while. You have to keep a close eye on your speed and keep your distance, all sensible precautions really, and it does get hot in the centre of the tunnel, although fumes are not too much of a problem as there are extractors the size of transit vans sited regularly throughout.  After what seems like an age you exit the tunnel, blinking in the watery sunshine and you’re now in Italy.

On Italian soil
The first thing that you notice is that the roads are different, the surfaces not up to the standard on the French side, and you are immediately put on notice as you climb away from the valley floor and the road begins to loop and twist through the hills and a surprising number of small hamlets clinging to their sides.

It was very quiet on the road this early in the morning and, to my surprise, remained quiet throughout most of the day. Seeing as it was midweek and outside the main tourist seasons I couldn’t promise similar conditions were you to try this on a Saturday in July or August.

The road over the Petite St, Bernard should be treated with a degree of caution. Uncertain road surfaces, tight hairpin bends, sporadic traffic and the occasional flock of sheep or cows roaming loose made sure of that. In fact, I had to take some of the tighter, steeper bends at no more than about 35kmph (20mph) in low gear while using the entire road, big wuss that I was. It is, nevertheless, a fairly straightforward route, well-travelled and equally well signposted. It twists and climbs gradually upwards until you reach the top. You pass the old abandoned border post and enter France again, before heading downward once more. As spectacular as it is, I bet it would be a bit more exciting when it snows.

Back in France - spot the flag
Back on French soil, every so often I would come across a deserted chalet or small town all closed down and awaiting the start of the skiing season. It was a strange, and somewhat eerie experience to drive through these places as they were obviously quite new and well cared for rather than old and rundown, and it seemed quite wrong for them to be so deserted. In one such place I passed the St. Bernard Centre, outside of which was a statue of a giant St. Bernard dog. I stopped as I couldn’t resist taking a photo.

The day was working out better than I could have hoped.  Most of the roads were difficult enough to be interesting, the scenery breath-taking, the weather bright and sunny and traffic light enough as to be virtually non-existent. However, even better was to come.
It started with an unexpected detour.  My Satnav, a TomTom Rider, had proved invaluable on the holiday so far, but while on a newish looking bit of dual carriageway it decided that I had taken a wrong turn.  So I turned off, only to find that the ‘correct’ road was now closed and I would have to retrace my route. The newest bit of road was in fact so new that it wasn’t in the device’s memory at all. This can sometimes be a problem with technology, but with a map I would have been in exactly the same position, I suppose.

Road over the hills
At this point I decided that the busier road that I had just left wasn’t what I wanted anyway. It was a large, well maintained main road, and quite busy. Boring!  I could do this sort of thing at home. So I turned around and headed down a likely looking minor road heading in vaguely the right direction. It’s here that I feel the Satnav comes into its own, a spur of the moment decision to just change direction sees the unit automatically readjust itself to your new route and saves you having to stop and hunt for your maps to work it all out manually.

Having stopped a good few miles later on for a rest and something to eat at a picnic area I took a look at where I was in relation to where I wanted to go.  The map showed me a road that looked a bit more of a challenge, and it was heading once more in the right general direction. So, after I’d finished my snack, off I rode towards Col de Saisies.
‘Challenging’ was a bit of an understatement.  The road climbed up the side of a valley, over the top of a mountain and then down the other side in a series of tight hairpins, blind corners and sheer drops. Great stuff! The previous roads had merely been the warm-up for this, the main event. This bit took me about an hour and a half, but eventually all good things have to end.

Fun over for the day, I re-joined the main road about 25km from base and headed back to the chalet to unwind, stopping to top up the fuel tank for the next day and to pick up some groceries.

In all, it was a pretty long day to no real purpose.  However, that was the whole point. No expectations, no time limits, no fixed itinerary, not time to be back by, no one else to consider. Just bimble along, stopping when I felt like it, or when I wanted to take a look at something. Total mileage for the day was an unremarkable 225 km (140 miles), which took me a little over 6 1/2 hours to complete. On paper that doesn’t look like anything to write home about, but when I finished I felt like I’d just conquered Everest. I was tired, but in a good way, and quite pleased with both myself and the bike. The Skorpion coped really well - light enough to be manoeuvrable, but powerful enough to haul itself over the steep mountain roads without too much effort.

I’ll end by saying that the roads in this part of the world are fantastic and I would recommend that they be on anyone’s biking ‘to-do’ list. The only downside I can come up with is that all the ‘good’ roads that you know will all feel a bit unremarkable after having spent a week doing this sort of thing. The solution?  Do it all over again of course, or go somewhere equally challenging next time around.

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