UNDER CONSTRUCTION (photos to be sorted)
Ride Report of a Motorcycle Tour Through the French Alps. August 15-17, 2009
Day 1, Saturday, August 15th
It has been high on our wish list since last year: a motorcycle tour through the French Alps. It didn’t take much persuasion to get Markus to meet me at the local gas station at 7am this Saturday morning. This is unusual, as I typically get complaints whenever I try to start earlier than 9am. But this is an exception, as we intend to cover a serious portion of the western Alps. We’ve planned to cover more than 1900km/1200mi… in three days, which is probably more than we can chew.
Our common preference of avoiding freeways doesn’t stop us from using one for the first bit, around the shores of the Zugersee and to Brunnen, where we take the Axenstrasse along the Urnersee. A small stretch of freeway gets us to Amsteg, where we take a local highway in the direction of Andermatt. This route is much nicer than the freeway, and it gives me a chance to look up to Gurnellen-Dorf from the valley, which is the a place where I stayed on my first motorcycle tour, eight years ago. Fond memories of very short blankets and seriously burnt coffee recur to me.
We happened to pick the same route as many groups of cyclists, supposedly on some organized tour up the Gotthardpass or Furkapass. We take it easy and give them plenty of space. It’s tough enough for them already, and the other motorized traffic doesn’t leave us much of a choice anyway. After overtaking a rather annoying Belgian driver, who doesn’t stop flooring the accelerator on his car as we attempt to overtake him, we decide to take a coffee break bit beyond the summit of the Furkapass. In the parking lot, we get a live demonstration of how a beautiful view can literally knock someone over. We help grandpa (80+) back onto his feet, and the three of us lift his slightly incontinent Honda Transalp back into the intended upright position.
As we descend the west ramp of the Furkapass road, I overtake a very slow car before a tight hairpin turn, well within the speed limit and with a safety margin the size of Alaska. Later, I hear from Markus that the driver made wild gestures out of his window while shouting at me. Not knowing of all of this happening, and happily riding out of the curve, I wave at Markus, who is still stuck behind the agitated driver. In retrospect, I certainly hope the driver thought my waving was meant for him. We’ll never know what caused this reaction.. an allergy to stunning mountain scenery, cold feet all night, or a lousy breakfast?
Except for the beautiful views in this sunny weather, the ride through the long roundabout-riddled valley of Wallis is rather dull and uneventful. There is too much traffic and I almost think the freeway from Zürich, Bern and Vevey to France would have been a better choice. It’s too late to do anything about it now, and I welcome the freeway from Sierre to Martigny, where we top up our bikes. There’s more traffic up the pass road to the Col de Forclaz. We are stuck behind several cars and a motorhome. The winding road gives us too few opportunities to overtake (safely), and I decide to just sit it out. There will be many more opportunities to enjoy curves in the following 1600km/1000mi.
After crossing the border, and getting a great view of the Mont Blanc, the traffic doesn’t get much better. It’s a hot Saturday afternoon, which coincides with shopping time in France. After a while, I decide to leave the planned route to Albertville, and ride up to Les Saisies, where I have been before. This is a “yellow road” on my Michelin map, and the traffic thins out almost instantly. I make a mental note of trying to avoid most of the red roads on my map for the next two days. These are the main through roads, and they are no fun at this time of day. From the overcrowded town of Les Saisies, it’s a few hundred meters up to Signal de Bisanne, where we enjoy the view in all directions. This small excursion is certainly recommended, even with its long descent on narrow roads to Villard-sur-Doron.
### Signal de Bisanne:
We ride through Alberville, which still shows some signs of the 1992 Winter Olympics, and onto a short stretch of motorway that takes us to the north ramp of the Col de la Madeleine. The road is narrow and a bit bumpy, but the landscape is very nice. This is the first time today that have a winding mountain road almost to ourselves. On top of the pass, we decide that our original goal for today (the small village of Bauvezer at the latitude of Digne-les-Bains) is not achievable within a reasonable amount of time, and we agree on trying to find a hotel in Briançon, which is one of the larger cities in the area, and only two-and-a-half passes or 120km/75mi away.
We fill up again in Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, which takes longer than it should because of the complicated automated pump. Markus fills up with 95-octane fuel, and as I am too stupid to find that one, I pick 98 octane. The engine of his Ducati 900SS seems run much hotter now than in the heat of the afternoon, and the power delivery is not as evenly distributed. The reason is probably a higher ethanol content in the 95-octane fuel. If that is the case, it is also damaging to the rubber gaskets of the engine on the long run. I’m glad I filled up with 98 octane. Not that I would have noticed, as my Suzuki Bandit 600 doesn’t have a temperature gauge, and the power delivery only occurs in the higher revs anyway. Life can be so simple.
The cheerful spirit of unimpeded curve hunting is continued on the Col du Télégraphe. When we reach the north ramp of the Col du Galibier the sun is already quite low, which makes for great photos of the jagged mountain peaks. The Galibier pass is the third highest on this trip, and definitely worth another visit some day. The the south ramp is perpendicular to the pass road at the summit of the Col du Lautaret. Whether we can actually check off that pass should be discussed over a beer some day. There is a nice hotel at the pass, and I’m tempted to stop right here, taking a good rest and perhaps some pictures of the sunrise. But I ride on anyway, knowing that the distance to Briançon can be covered quickly at this hour of the day.
### Col du Galibier near dusk
I should have listened to myself on the Col du Lautaret, and take the hotel, because now we we’re in trouble finding a room in Briançon (pop. 11,000). Some event that is taking place in town leaves no vacancies for us, in any hotel. We need the better part of one-and-a-half hours to find one in a village that we’d already passed when riding to Briançon. Due to the friendly cooperation of the lady at the desk, we get the last free room in the hotel, which she prepares in a jiffy. After some discussion and route planning, Markus and I decide to ditch the original plan of riding the Gorges du Verdon, and head “straight” for the Riviera tomorrow, paradoxically on smaller roads because that will be faster and more fun. I’ve been on top of the Verdon Canyon before, and despite of it being very beautiful, it is also a tourist trap in the sense that we will be trapped between tourists who try to tackle their first narrow mountain road. We’ll come back here some day, and ride that canyon right after sunrise, or just before sunset.
Zürich to La Salle Les Alpes near Briançon (563km/350mi)
- Furkapass (2431m, 7976ft)
- Col de Forclaz (1527m, 5010ft)
- Col des Montets (1461m, 4793ft)
- Col des Saisies (1650m, 5413ft)
- Signal de Bisanne (1939m, 6362ft)
- Col de la Madeleine (2000m, 6562ft)
- Col du Télégraphe (1566m, 5138ft)
- Col du Galibier (2646m, 8681ft)
- Col du Lautaret (2048m, 6719ft)
### The route of Day 1 (magenta)
Day 2, Sunday August 16th
Steel blue sky, sunshine. We have breakfast without plates, or perhaps the tables are considered big flat plates on legs. The owner of the hotel tells us we’ve parked on his spot. Oops! If our French were good enough, we’d tell him that the other motorcycle was already on his spot yesterday, and we’d thought it wouldn’t hurt sharing it. Instead, we apologize. He doesn’t seem to mind much as we have some small talk while we pack the bikes. He asks us about the route, and when we explain that we intend to ride the Col de Vars, Col d’Allos and Col du Belhomme to Sainte Maxime at the Méditerranée, then follow the coast to Cannes and head north to the Gorges du Cians, his reaction is a loud “Aujourd’hui?”. Telling him that it’s only 436km/271mi, does not lessen his facial expression of disbelief.
Today is already very different from yesterday. The Col de Vars is a joy to ride. The curves are smooth and wide, and the sparse traffic is easily overtaken on this road. The Col d’Allos is very different from Col de Vars, except for the little traffic. The pavement is narrower and a bit wavy. The curves are a lot tighter, causing my view to close up more frequently, and thus requiring more braking. But the curves are arranged in such a way that it’s a very pleasant exercise in smooth riding. It reminds me of the east ramp of the Sattelegg in Switzerland, which is like ballet on two wheels on a good day.
### Col de Vars and Col d’Allos (R)
The ballet changes to a snail’s pace when we encounter the next motorhome. The driver is overestimating the width of his vehicle by a meter on each side, which makes him think he should stick behind a bicyclist. Uphill, mind you. The road is not quite wide enough for us to overtake the motorhome safely, especially because I know that my side cases are very wide. I’ve joked with Markus that they look like hippo’s buttocks, and that I should cover them with some grey leather and mud. Markus suggested putting a rubber bird on top, to complete the disguise.
The road down from the Col d’Allos is wide and winding, allowing for good progress and big smiles under our helmets. Because I’ve been riding less than I used to, it takes me a day or so to take my riding up to a next level, with more ease, smoothness and fun as a result — a level I’d forgotten about, and which Markus has never seen because this is our first multi-day ride together. Although his bike has more power and torque than mine, I hear no complaints from the man following me.
The good thing of riding together for a long time, is that you get to see how you riding companion greets riders with the same type of bike. In Markus’s case it was very frantic waving and a big thumb-up to the oncoming Ducati 900SS rider. My imagination takes this a step further, sketching a Matrix-like scene in which a revolving camera catches the two riders jumping off their bikes and falling into each others arms in mid-flight, and then riding on.. each on his own bike of course, otherwise it would be silly. It is time for my pills.
A change of scene once more, as we ride along the shores of Lac de Castillon. The water is very clear and blue, and the wide curvy road with tunnels and bridges is a dream. The fun continues beyond Castellane, with the Col du Luens and Col du Clavel. Excellent pavement, almost no traffic and lots of sunshine. And it’s not too hot either because we cross a few high plains at an altitude of 1000m/3000ft. After a long straight stretch of road, we and another motorcyclist are pulled out of traffic by la gendarmerie. I assume a routine check as we stuck to legal speeds and didn’t do anyhing to arouse their attention. They check our licenses and registrations and warn us to take it easy because there are many motorcycle accidents in this area. We thank them and continue.
### The clear water of Lac de Castillon and the village square of Bargemon
After a longer break in the shade of big trees on the picturesque village square of Bargemon, we ride south for the last leg to the coast. Nature suddenly looks much more Mediterranean, with dry red soil and tough trees that are able to withstand the hotter climate down here. Unfortunately, our projected route over the Col de Gratteloup is cut short because of a road block, supposedly due to an accident. Now we’re stuck between hundreds of cars on a detour on a narrow mountain road that goes in the wrong direction. We decide to skip Sainte Maxime, turn around and aim for Saint Aygulf.
Scores of tourists are pouring out of Saint Agyulf, which is only half as good as it sounds, because we’re among the scores of tourists that attempt to get into Saint Aygulf. Apparently unaware of my big side cases, a bicyclist encourages us to split lanes: “Vous pouvez passer! Vous n’êtes pas à Zurich!”. We find a parking spot along the main road in the town’s center and have dinner at an Italian restaurant. While waiting for coffee and desert, the crutch of an elderly lady at the table next to us falls to the floor, and I apologize, not being sure whether I actually knocked it over. Markus (a physicist) suggests that this may happen when the aura of my leg gets entwined around the aura of the crutch, causing it to start moving. “Of course”, I add, “and the rest is physics!”
After dinner (8:45pm) we use the GPS to estimate the distance to our original destination. Even though it’s getting quite dark already, we decide to go for it, and do the last 140km/87mi in the dark. We call the hotel, and explain we’re going to be rather late. In exchange for credit card data, they give us the code of the door’s electronic lock, and promise to leave the key to our room on the hotel desk. We’re happy about this because we figured I’d be hard luck again to find an available hotel room so close to the overcrowded coastline. Besides, every kilometer ridden to the north is one kilometer less tomorrow. One last sniff of the Mediterranean seawater, and we head for the péage (toll freeway) toward Nice (50km/30mi).
Most of the toll booths are automated — actually all of them at this hour, and foreseeing the cumbersome process of juggling gloves, wallet and money while the barrier is open, I put my credit card in an outside pocket of my motorcycle jacket and zip it shut. When we arrive at the first booth, I unzip my pocket, get the card out, put it in the machine and wonder why it is refused. The mystery is solved quickly, as I see that I didn’t put my credit card in, but my driver’s license. Doh! So instead of juggling with gloves, wallet and money, I now have the hassle of dealing with gloves, zipper, keys, side case cover, wallet, and my credit card. Thankfully nobody was waiting in line behind me.
I’ve never been very fond of night riding, as the light of the headlamps doesn’t reach all the way around a curve, which is where I am supposed to be looking when riding one. But with so little traffic in the gorge and tunnels that follow the Route de Grenoble out of Nice, I can ride with my high beam on almost all of the time, which makes a big difference. We reach the Gorges du Cians quickly. This canyon is supposed to be lined with red rocks, which I can only verify in a turn, when my headlight shines on the rocks. The fun of riding this excellent road compensates for the scenery that we’re missing (I think..). Like the Verdon Canyon, this one should also be on our list, next time ’round. After evading a couple of rocks, a small fox and two mice, we arrive at hotel Le Chastellan in Valberg at 11:30pm. The code works and the key is there. Sweet dreams.
La Salle Les Alpes-Valberg (436km/271mi)
- Col de Vars (2109m, 6919ft)
- Col d’Allos (2247m, 7372ft)
- Col du Luens (1054m, 3458ft)
- Col du Clavel (1060m, 3477ft)
- Col du Belhomme (915m, 3002ft)
- Col de Boussague (431m, 1414ft)
- Col de Gratteloup (225m, 738ft)
### The route of Day 2 (green)
Day 3, Monday August 17th
Breakfast is very good. Coffee, a large selection of cereal, bread, eggs, toast, cake, orange juice and they even have plates! Blue skies again. We pack the bikes and head off to Col de Couillole, which is narrow and bumpy, and doesn’t leave much space to overtake the few cars that are in front of us. Things look up on the road towards the Col de la Bonette. There are quite a few fast stretches to get us warmed up properly.
I’ve been on the Col de la Bonette about twenty years ago (by car), but I only remember that the road around the peak (Cime de la Bonette) was in worse condition than it is now. It used to be bumpy and had some streams of water running across it. It is the highest paved road in Western Europe at 2802m/9193ft. We don’t want to mix with the crowd of tourists who walk up from the road to the peak. The view is nice enough as it is, and we still have 704km/438mi to go today.
### Col/Cime de la Bonette
There is a bit more traffic on the way down than we’re used to from yesterday. Still a bit tired from the last two days, I am not in the mood yet to overtake every single one, except for an old couple in a tiny white Fiat Panda with Italian plates. When I stop for a short break a little while later, Markus suggests to ride on for a bit more because we might encounter the Panda again. At that very moment, we see the undersized vehicle already driving around a corner a bit above us. We hurry to get our gloves on and I make it onto the road just before it reaches us. Markus’s glove doesn’t want to cooperate, and he get stuck behind the Panda on this curvy road, much to my enjoyment for the next kilometer or so.
The Col de Vars is a totally different experience than it was two days ago, when we rode it in the other direction. This time especially because there is an agressivly fast motorhome driver (from the German county of COC, as his license plate reveals), who doesn’t give us the required room to pass him on the straight bits. Our prayers are answered when we encounter a line of cars and another motorhome, all stuck behind a slow tractor with a heavy hay-laden trailer. It is so slow that we are able to pass the entire bunch at once. We wish the German COC a wonderful tractor sandwich for the rest of the day.
Because today is a long day, we plan to stop at the town of Guillestre for a larger meal, so we won’t have to stop for dinner anywhere, and make some good progress later, when everybody else is having dinner. The main road through town is completely closed (route barrée), as we’ve seen in quite a few towns in summer. The reason is not some kind of tourist bazaar this time, but cleaning… probably after a tourist bazaar. The detour through the smallest of back streets is adventurous, for a hippo at least. The exceptionally tiny restroom under the stairs in the restaurant is peculiar as well. We’re still debating whether it is an elevator with a toilet in it, or a restroom with an elevator. Neither of us dares to push the buttons to find out.
The road up to the Col d’Izoard first leads us through a beautiful and narrow canyon. Wide curves of brand new pavement follow and they’re a lot of fun to ride. An appropriate place to document my 70,000km trouble-free kilometers on this great bike. The generally beautiful scenery continues all the way to the pass summit. When riding down, we see a BMW R850R rider negotiate a tight left-hander in a very special way. Going rather slowly in mid-turn, he closes the throttle and compensates the abrupt lack of t(h)rust by sticking his left leg out. After the sudden wobble he finds the throttle again, and I see him jetting off in my rear view mirror. If this promising technique catches on, I think we’ll see a lot more of it next riding season.
### The 7th milestone on Col d’Izoard
Onward to Briançon for some fuel before we head up to the Col de Montgenèvre. This is a main road to Torino in Italy, and that means little fun. We’re stuck between Monday-evening commuters, as far as the eye can see. That gives us plenty of time to wonder whether the Italian road work planners think we take their perpetually abandoned road works with 30kmh/20mph speed limits, and the 40km/25mi-long no-passing zone to Susa very seriously.
The contrast with the road to the Col du Mont Cenis cannot be larger. It starts with a fantastic road through the forest, with seriously good pavement, properly banked curves and no traffic. When coming out of the forest, there are wide sweeping curves all the way up to the pass at Lac du Mont Cenis. Like yesterday during a few episodes of equally good fun, I am in the zone, which completely obliterates the unpleasant ride on the road deep down in the valley. I haven’t felt this good on my bike for a long time, and there are three more passes to be ridden today. Charge forward!
### Col du Mont Cenis
The highest paved pass of Western Europe is still to be checked off our list. The ride up the Col de L’Iseran is great in the evening light. Almost nobody is there, which allows us to park our bikes right in front of the pass sign and take some pictures. The famous ski resort of Val d’Isere is pretty too, with many houses built in a rocky alpine style. At 1850m/6070ft, it might also have one of the highest filling stations I’ve ever come across. Beyond Val d’Isere, the road is relatively straight. It allows us to reach the south-west ramp of the Col du Petit Saint Bernard around sunset. Prepared by yesterday’s dark ride through the Gorges du Cians, this is a piece of cake, and a very enjoyable piece too. The clearly visible markings on the road help me attain a pace that is not much lower than that of a daytime ride.
### Col de L’Iseran
When the markings are missing or have faded, that’s a different matter altogether. In one of the hairpin turns on our way down the Col du Petit Saint Bernard, there were nearly finished road works, leaving unmarked pitch black asphalt surrounded by dark rocks. This is the first hairpin I’ve ridden by feeling and without nearly any vision, but having practiced it for hundreds of times in the past three days, all goes well.
It’s 10:45pm, and we still have to ride to Aosta, ride the Col du Grand Saint Bernard, and then down to Martigny, where we can take the freeway to Zürich. That’s a total of 367km/228mi, and we think that justifies taking 34km/21mi of toll freeway to Aosta, which is actually a concatenation of long straight tunnels and some more toll booth practice. The pass is a joy to ride from Aosta, and the only traffic we find on our path is… a motorhome, what else? This one is cooperating, and we quickly make it to the summit. We’re glad we didn’t take the alternative tunnel, as we find out after the merge: there was a motorhome in there too! It’s like those sneaky drivers coordinate their routes to guarantee a maximum of annoyance for everybody, at any time of the day!
We arrive at Martigny around 12:45am. That’s a bit late, we think. Markus has a blister on his throttle hand, and I think that’s a first. I, on the other hand, have gradually shaved my Adam’s apple with the strap of my helmet in those hundreds of switchbacks. I can assure you that has never happened before either. We call it a draw.
Except for a a fuel stop near Fribourg, it’s a non-stop dash toward Zürich until we encounter some impassable wide-load transport at 2:45pm near Lenzburg. It’s traveling at 80kmh/50mph, an annoying two thirds of the speed limit. There’s nothing we can do about it other than remain patient in the queue of cars behind it. That is, until an interesting betting game unfolds as to which side of the freeway split it will take. We bet on the wrong side, but are able to merge into the other traffic just in time before the split. We make it to Zürich at 3:30am, where I quickly hand back half of my luggage to Markus. We say our quick goodbyes and each of us heads home into the night, or what’s left of it.
Many great memories will remain of this magnificent tour during these three tiring days. We shall return to the magic of the French Alps… the rest is physics.
- Col de Couillole (1678m, 5505ft)
- Col de la Bonette (2715m, 8907ft)
- Col de Vars (2109m, 6919ft)
- Col d’Izoard (2360m, 7743ft)
- Col de Montgenèvre (1854m, 6087ft)
- Col du Mont Cenis (2084m, 6837ft)
- Col de L’Iseran (2770m, 9088ft)
- Col du Petit Saint Bernard (2146m, 7041ft)
- Col du Grand Saint Bernard (2469m, 8100ft)
### The route of Day 3 (blue)
Tour total: 1,811km/1,126mi.