Greetings from the Inn.
The sweetest of all my bicycle tours have been in the alps. Once you have gone on a tour
across the USA and have sharpened your teeth on the steep slopes of the Appalachians, and the
high passes of the central Rockies, the Alps will beckon you like an obscene finger. And
well they should. They have everything a cyclist could really want. First, they have a
great variety of personalities. The brooding, icy alps and snowfields of the French Alps, shown
a few panels further down, bear little resemblence to the bright, cheerful grey/silver of the
Austrian alps, shown here. This photo shows the swelling river of the Inn, which begins high
in the Swiss cantons near St. Moritz and falls steadily into Austria, from which Innsbruck
gains its name. Many people are familiar with the river in its lower sections, but to be
honest it is sheer joy to follow the waterway from its earliest descents. As it turns out
the road is not a steady downhill; as is often the case when following a waterway, you must
ride up and down the bluffs on both sides, sometimes near the water and other times, as
here, far above it.
The Alps over Barcelonette But you should start your tour
of the alps in the Maritime regions of France. That is where i begin; but it has the
disadvantage that in those early days in June, the weather still tends to be cool, wet and
overcast. On the other hand this means the mountains are still covered with snow, the
streams swollen with runoff, the glaciers and aretes like knife edge against a dark blue sky.
To avoid depressing you unduly, I will start with this sunny shot of the day I got
Barcelonette. But I had earned that sunshine! Only twenty four hours before, i was
slogging my way over the Col de la Cayolle (for the 2nd time) and got blasted by a snowstorm
that swept over the pass in the final hours. I needed to get a 'rescue' from the top by a
pair of French/Canadians who gave me a ride down in their van (warming me in copious
blankets on the way.) Well below the snow and rain line, THEY in turn got a flat tire, and I
reassembled my bike to continue down the hill. In a reversal of roles I sent a police
patrol back up after them to see if they needed help. The next day they were camping at the
same site as I, and we shared breakfast and adventure stories. Barcelonette is a pleasant
french town, with a bakery just near a the small campsite in the town center! Heaven! It
made for a good cup of coffee and croissant before i headed back up Col de Larche,
and on into Italy.
The alps at this point are still feeling their oats. As you head north from the medittereanean
coast the peaks tower ever higher. I consider my 'arrival' in the true alps to be at Col
de L'Iseran, just south of Val D'Isere; although col de Galibier is no slouch.
The final ascent to Col du XXXXX
Feeling their oats these alps are...but keep in mind, it takes a lot of oats to feed a
horse. The final ascent to most passes--and the alps are no exception--tends to be a steep
set of switchbacks. The reason for this is the road must eventually leave behind the stream
or river you have been following up to that point; and so what most engineers do is try and
make a made dash over a saddle and find a river going back down the other side as soon as
possible. This is fine for the truckers and the sportscars; but for the cyclist it is a
tough break, for you have been climbing for many miles (and hours) to finally arrive at
such a point, and it can break you! But take heart: the more you ride and train, the less
damage these final ascents will do to your body, your mind, and your soul. With the gearing
bicycles have nowadays you should be able to ride up these passes with conviction; if not
exactly with ease.
The Grand Canyon of the Alps.
I said before the alps will beckon you. For a range as compact as it is, arching from the
French Medittereanean to the Suburbs of Vienna over the course of 700 miles or so, there
is a remarkable diversity and uniqueness to many sub-parts of the range. Few people know
about the Gorges du Verdun, or, as many people call it, the Grand Canyon of the Alps. Served
by the small French town of Castellane, with full camping and facilities, you really are
in a region of big, sedimentary hills sliced by the rivers which rush toward the sea in this
region. There is a road that goes around the entire gorges region, but you will see little
of interest if you circle them on your bike. It would be better to camp at Castellane and
take a day ride to some of the gorges where you can walk down into the dark, damp, green and
cool walls. it is quite a relief from the blinding sun and heat of this region in summer.
The Ascent of col de Lauteret
Further north, east of Briancon (which boasts 250 sunny days a year, only a few which i have
seen in my years of alpine cycle touring) begins the long and scenic climb up to a pair of
passes dear to all French cyclists: the cols de lauteret and Galibier. If you have
been working your way north from the Alpes Maritimes, as I do, you begin to realize at this
point these mountains are soon going to seriously challenge you. The Parc National des Ecrins,
which lies to the south and west of Briancon, escorts you with a series of stark, icy and
snowcapped peaks as you climb higher. Expect to get wet...storms love to form over the pass
sweep down the valley, and you can see them coming miles ahead, as the late spring sun fades
into the clouds and soon a bitter, soaking rain starts to fall. It will soon pass and the
washed spring air is so blue, and the contrast with the glaciers so glistening white, that
you will probably have to squint.
Cleft in the hills hides massive ascent
to Cayolle Pass
Back in my home of massachusetts there is a great cycling route, 202. Surprise, a similar road
in the Alpes Maritimes weaves thru the country north of Castellane. One comes to this odd
cleft in the rock wall, which begins your ascent of the col de Cayolle. Very interesting climb
with gorges of its own (the Gorges de Daluis). The beginning of the climb is in broad,
fertile valleys but soon the road begins its ascent. It is a long climb and should be
started in the early morning if you plan to reach Barcelonette, far on the other side,
by the end of the day. There is a stretch where the road weaves thru a series of rock beds
so dark I almost thought they were coal: here too, i was plagued by rain, one of my grimmest
days ever riding a bike. This was the same day I was pelted by a snowstorm at the summit--
so perhaps this road has bad karma for me. Does not matter...I will get back soon enough.
Never underestimate the experience of repeating previous tours and rides: if you think you
saw it all the first time, you are sadly mistaken!
To start your climb may be the hardest part!
And why, Roughstuff, do you always patter on about having coffee and croissants with breakfast
before a climb? Alas, because in the June weather of these french alps where i start my trips,
this is how I often start my days. What a rude awakening, after snoring soundly in the
comfort of a down filled tent, to awaken to grey skies and know that, as you climb it will get
cooler still! In fact you may climb into the clouds themselves. *sigh* But that is as much a
part of cycling as anything else. Besides--the coffee and pastries go a long way to cheering
me up for the day's riding. Once you start to climb your body will generate more than
enough heat to keep you warm...at times in the alps I have actually started to steam
from the effort. I find it impossible to ride thru a town like this and not stop for a coffee
and chat. It allows me to practique mon Francais!. The French are just so happy to
be alive, and have such a fierce love for their country and where they live, that soon you
find yourself liking it just as much. So after a swig of cafe au lait, its back out into
the chill, dull morning and on and up ya go!
Yes Virginia these mountains can be sunny and warm.
I'll leave you with this typical photo of the Maritime alps, not far from col de Bruis. Yes the sun does shine, and it
can be pleasant and quiet in these parts. Do not miss this area in the alps for cycling,
because this little visited region not only will cut your eye teeth for the bigger mountains
further north, but will allow you to be snooty about just how much about the Alps you actually
know. Very few of the Austrians, clambering over their hills of Burgenland on a Sunday
afternoon outing from Vienna, know that this corner of the alps even exists, let alone
contains such charm. It is a secret that will be well kept.