Simon Hartwell tackles the Galibier after breakfast… and it all downhill from there, until it starts going back up the Cime de la Bonnette
Riding the Col du Galibier (2645m) straight after breakfast is a rude awakening. This was quite a tough climb with an epic feel that had me lost in a world of my own. The sun was blazing down, the scenery was beautiful, and I was riding alone up one of the most legendary climbs of them all. The kilometres passed quickly as the summit became a reality rather than just a distant thought.
The view across the snow capped mountains from the top was amazing, and as more of the group gathered at the summit, we started to look out for Ben and his singlespeed. We needn’t have worried. He came into view on the twisting road below us, making good progress. Employing the technique that Graeme Obree had taught him to great effect, he zig-zagged across both lanes to reduce the gradient, still out of the saddle, as he had been from the start, and still swearing! Nothing could stop Ben.
We started down the Galibier and passed the memorial to Henri Desgrange – the first organiser of the Tour de France – where I had fully intended to stop. Instead, I got carried away with another breakneck descent and the memorial was relegated to a brief blur in my peripheral vision… Oh well! The road split at the Col du Lautaret (2058m) and we went left to Briancon – not the best descent but the miles ticked by in some stunning scenery.
The Col d’Izoard (2360m) starts steeply as soon as you leave Briancon. I was alone on the road again and loving the solitude, while the views were stunning. The road then dropped for a couple of kilometre. I’d worked hard to gain the height; losing any wasn’t welcome.
It was soon business as usual though, as the road continued on up through wooded slopes, climbing towards Cervières. Then it took a sharp right and continued up the ravine. Mostly long straights, I could see the road running into the distance, clinging to the side of the ravine as it rose towards the summit.
As the ravine opened out, the road started to climb up the face of the mountain toward the pass. This meant lots of switchbacks and steep gradients, but the rock-lined hairpins and oak forests kept me from noticing the hard work.
The last couple of kilometres see you transition from the wooded banks out onto the rocky scree slopes to the top, and the final 100m or so flashed by as I blasted up to the top and located the customary cafe. What a climb! This ranks as one of my favourites.
Once over the pass, the Casse Déserte appeared – a strange landscape of giant orange standing rocks that looks like a petrified forest. I intended seeking out the memorial to Bobet and Coppi and soaking up the history. Instead, the steep slopes had me picking up speed quickly; a sweeping left, then straight into the first of the hairpins. That was it – I was hooked.
The Casse Déserte and the Coppi memorial went past in the blink of an eye. Damn! More sweeping bends, more speed; I was right on the edge again. I was coming out of every bend in a sprint and jumping on the pedals to get me back to warp speed. This was amazing!
The road started to straighten out from Le Chalp, and finished off with a long descent to our next overnight stop; Guillestre. We regrouped in one of the many cafes in the village square and re-lived the amazing descent.
Today’s totals 108km with 2650m of ascent
We dropped down through the village of Guillestre, and then started climbing toward the first summit of the day, the Col de Vars (2109m). The Vars climb starts with a series of sweeping bends that are tree lined, with rocky banks on the side. It’s long and straight so you gain height without being that aware of it.
Higher up, it becomes an alpine meadow landscape. The gradient is hard but the scenery makes it seem more innocuous Stuart and I were talking about taking it steady, but as we passed a group of French cyclists a couple of kilometres from the top, we started to push hard in the big ring, out of the saddle.
We found ourselves gasping for breath, so backed off and regained our composure. At over 2km’s elevation, you could hold a steady work rate, but if you put in a hard effort you found your heart rate and breathing ramping out of control.
Once the customary chocolat chaud was despatched at the summit cafe, it was straight into the descent. On the outskirts of Jausiers the weather took a turn for the worse. The skies darkened and the rain came down torrentially. Time for another espresso!
After lunch we set off up my most anticipated challenge of the tour, the long climb to the Cime de la Bonnette (2808m). The road climbs through open farmlands, passing houses and buildings, before it moves into its first set of switchbacks. A few more kilometres and the buildings start to thin out as the road snakes up into more forested slopes, then another short section of hairpins. The complexion of the climb changes as you gain height. The rocks surrounding you start to become barer and greyer as the vegetation gives way to a more oppressive landscape.
The climb was long and lonely as the landscape became dark and ominous. It really did feel desolate up there, with snow and vast expanses of rock in front and grey skies above. I rode past the gravel track that officially led to the Col de Restefond about 30 yards away; I claimed it as mine.
A little further on and a break in the rock wall to my left marked the Col de la Bonnette, the road pass over the mountain. I was taking the right fork though, on to the Cime de Bonnette, the highest and possibly most pointless road in the Alps. This tarmac loop adds about 90m of elevation and was created to give it the honour of being the highest.
As soon as I entered, it felt like I was in no man’s land. The gradient ramped up to 14% straightaway, rock slides and snowdrifts covered most of the carriageway, and scattered boulders littered the road. There was nothing ahead but sky. It felt like climbing into oblivion, and an intimidating kilometre followed, then joy as the summit marker stone hove into sight.
An amazing view unfolds from the Cime. I was awestruck. You look down into the swirling clouds and snow-capped peaks. I gazed at this spectacle for 10 minutes. The clouds would form into spirals and sweep up the rock face in front of me, then disappear above.
The weather changed in an instant – a sleet storm. Stuart and I decided to get on with the descent. It turned out to be the most memorable of the tour, but not for the reasons I’d expected. It was freezing, I was soaked to the skin and the speed just made it worse. The road was wet, the skies were dark, and my hands were numb… only 500m into a 30km technical descent.
It became a balancing act between going as fast as possible in order to get down before hyperthermia set in, and making it round the never ending bends in one piece. We were still moving at a good pace but I was shivering so hard that the front end of my bike was shimmying.
I was behind Stuart as we swept around a fast right-hand bend, and watched in horror as his bike skated out sideways at 35mph and headed straight towards the rock wall. All I could think of was how I was going to get an injured rider down this long, isolated mountain.
The relief I felt as I watched him flick the bike back up and ride out the manoeuvre was short-lived – I found myself skating sideways as if I was on sheet ice. I wrestled the front end of the bike back into control, and slid until traction returned. I was back in line and pulling up behind Stuart, heart pounding out of my chest.
It turned out that we’d crossed a metal bridge and the road surface was sheet steel. In the torrential rain and dark skies, we’d had no chance of seeing it. We feared the bridge would claim other victims, so we hung around to see if anyone was close behind. No one came and the weather meant we needed to get moving.
By the time we found our hotel, we were cold, wet and tired, and we later heard that one of the riders behind us had indeed fallen, and had taken Graeme Obree down with him.
Today’s totals 105km with 2900m of ascent
We’d completed all the major climbs so I wasn’t expecting that much from today other than a picturesque ride. It actually turned into one of the best days of the trip.
Yesterday’s bad weather had vanished leaving clear skies and blazing sunshine from the off. A fast, twisty, adrenaline-filled first few kilometres started the day off well, and the quicker members of the group all seemed to be up for some fun.
The early descent met the valley road which followed the path of a river heading to the Mediterranean. Tracing the river’s path down through the valley for about 40km, we kept a good pace, riding through and off.
After the long downhill, we faced a 5km climb to our lunch stop in La Tour. Stuart, Gareth and I set off up the climb and into the first hairpins at a steady pace. We once again talked about taking it easy, but each kept upping the pace until it became clear we all wanted to make the summit first.
I decided to kick as hard as I could and got a gap. It was a steady 8% climb and I was in the big ring, out of the saddle, riding as hard as I could. I kept the gap all the way to the village square where the van was parked, food laid out, and Graeme cheered me in. Gareth followed and we both headed for the stone fountain and dunked our heads in the freezing water… bliss!
The village square felt lost in time. Shabby, chic Georgian villas rose up on all four sides to hide it from the outside world. Lime trees formed an inner square, stretching up out of the cobble-stoned courtyard, with wrought iron benches nestled beneath in the shade. I could have stayed all day in this perfect little oasis.
After a leisurely lunch, we headed out of the village and further into the mountains. It started easily enough with a fast run down to a small river crossing before the road started to climb up the mountain to the next ridge – a steep climb and my lunch wasn’t far from the surface!
Stuart, Gareth and I were ahead on our own, and with each hairpin the road seemed more isolated and remote as it weaved its way through the tree-lined mountainside. The gradient was tough, mostly double figures. Added to the mostly gravel road surface, this made for some tough riding. I wasn’t expecting that from today.
The next 10km made up for it though, as we flew down the other side of the mountain on a twisty road towards another river crossing. We regrouped on the bridge, which looked down on a huge drop to the river bed below, then a short climb up to follow the road as it clung to the side of the valley.
The drop from the roadside to the river below, the towering rock face above, and the view across the valley to the steep, forested banks opposite were breathtaking yet strangely claustrophobic. We followed this road for about 25km until we reached the turnoff for Castagniers, which marked the descent to our hotel and, at 80m above sea level, the lowest elevation point we had seen for the entire trip. We were close to the Med, and the temperature and humidity were a marked change from that of the high mountains.
Today’s totals 110km with 1500m of ascent
The last day and just a 35km run to Nice. We stayed as a group, chatting and rolling along at an easy pace.
Once over the top of the climb back to Castagniers, it was downhill all the way to the sea. The descent into Nice was fast and twisty, and recognisable from the run in of the Paris-Nice race. We were now among the urban sprawl and having to weave through heavy traffic for the first time since our start in Geneva. We joined the Boulevard Gambetta, and the view at the end of tree-lined street was of the stunning blue Mediterranean.
There it was, after eight days of riding through the most stunning scenery imaginable – we were within touching distance of the finish. We rode onto the seafront for the obligatory photo opportunity and to dip a toe in the Med.
I must just finish by saying that Gavin McDonald, our road leader, was in no small part the reason this was such a great trip. His organisation skills were only bettered by his incredible ability on a bike, plus a sprint speed that had to be seen to be believed. I hope to join him again in the future on another adventure.
Tony has been editing cycling magazines and websites since 1997 starting out as production editor and then deputy editor of Total Bike, acting editor of Total Mountain Bike and then seven years as editor of Cycling Plus. He launched his first cycling website - the Cycling Plus Forum at the turn of the century. In 2006 he left C+ to head up the launch team for Bike Radar which he edited until 2008, when he co-launched the multi-award winning road.cc - which he continues to edit today. His favourite ride is his ‘commute’ - which he does most days inc weekends and he’s been cycle-commuting since 1994. His favourite bikes are titanium and have disc brakes.