(2010) French Alps


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Day 1, Friday, July 9th, Langnau to Ollon

It’s been almost 11 months since we last rode the French Alps, and we’re very much looking forward to another motorcycle adventure in that fantastic place. We’ll be riding for 4 days now — one more day than last year. Or actually, half a day, because it’s 2pm on Friday afternoon already. It’s been a busy week work-wise, and this time fits Markus’s sleeping schedule much better. The bikes are topped up, the luggage loaded in my two large side cases and we’re ready for a cool tour in 32C/90F weather.

The plan is to ride from home to Morzine, 40km/25mi across the border from Switzerland. It all starts with a ride through the well known terrain of our “backyard”. These are nice winding roads with some changes in elevation. Nothing major, but always good for a warm-up. Summer also means roadworks here, and there are plenty on this route, most of them with traffic lights ensuring alternating traffic flows on a single lane. The longer ones are especially annoying, because their timing is configured such that any granny in her old car can make it to the other side before the direction changes. The blazing hot sun doesn’t help either.

Lane splitting isn’t legal here, but we do it anyway, to shorten our wait in the queue. We slowly creep forward until we notice a police car, rather late, and behave like law-abiding citizens again. Thankfully, they are as attentive as we are, saving us a Swiss traffic fine that would have been enough to cover our hotel bills for the next two nights.

The ride through Entlebuch, Schallenberg, around Thun and over Saanenmöser is quick but rather uneventful. Our third pass of the day is more like it: the Col du Pillon is almost empty except for a not-so-slow BMW Z4. We stop at the pass and decide to find a place to sleep in Leysin, which is cooler due to its altitude, or in Aigle where I know a good hotel. All hotels in Leysin seem to be full, as the receptionist of the Mercure Hotel in eighties style (the hotel, not the lady) tells us. This déjà vu from last year’s hôtel search in Briançon helps me to practice all the HTML special characters again.

We decide to ride down to Aigle. I can’t find the hotel there, until I see a street sign with “Ollon-Villars” on it. That rings a bell, and a quick look at the GPS confirms that the hotel I was looking for is indeed in the next village. The family-run Hôtel de Ville in the center of Ollon is the same friendly place as eight years ago. They allow us to park the bikes between the flower pots behind the gate. The entrance is small, and I take a case off the bike before I ride through. Some of you will recognize this situation, except that I’m not blocking my riding buddy on a busy street now.. I put the case back on the bike as a theft deterrent — not only because of the looks, but now it won’t fit through the gate anymore.

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### Near the lake of Sempach (Click to enlarge)

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### On the Col du Pillon

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### Hôtel de Ville

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### Ollon

The horse steak is excellent and the ice cream too. And very reasonably priced, as we find out the next day on the bill. This indeed is a long way from Zurich. We discuss the next day’s route, and decide to call a hotel before noon tomorrow, regardless how well we make progress. We would like to be in the same hotel as last year, this time for two consecutive nights, so we can ride with less luggage on Sunday, and it will leave us more time for riding instead of searching hotels. The town of Valberg is central enough for a big ride on Sunday: we plan to do the Col de Turini, known from the Monte Carlo Rally, then ride down to Monaco itself, just to see it once, and mark another visited “country” on my list. Sunday could be a 500km/300mi day. Let’s see what Saturday has to offer first.

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Friday’s total: 255/158mi in 7h22m (incl. stops)

Markus’s “Harley” alarm clock sounds around 7am. I shouldn’t call it that because, although it is loud and ugly, it is reliable nevertheless. After a good breakfast we encounter the Pas de Morgins already after 10 minutes. It’s already getting hot in the valley, and we’re happy to trade temperature for altitude. We pass the touristic village of Abondance. The last time I was here was on my See-if-I-can-ride-around-the-Mont-Blanc-from-Zurich-in-a-day-tour. I remember being annoyed by many tourists back then, but today it’s still quiet up here. There are fewer motorhomes than last year too. In Seytroux we find out that my uncle has indeed sold his house. His neigbour remembers me visiting 8 years ago with the Bandit. Right.. that Bandit over there.. It’s still going strong at 74,000km/46,000mi.

After some messy routing by my GPS through Morzine’s center we’re enjoying the route to the Col de la Colombière. There’s not much traffic here, except for some cyclists. They have lunch like us on the pass, but most of them have a large beer that they deserve. I try to ignore the loud Dutch cyclists 15 meters behind me. Markus remarks that they sound very Rudi-Carellish.

### Col de la Colombière
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Passes are following in quick succession now. On the Col des Aravis we get a free lesson in obstacle avoidance by a car with a trailer losing a part of its load. We succeed in missing the buckets and other stuff that is rolling across the road. Last year, the Col des Saisies was a tourist-infested chaos. Thankfully, there are only a few motorcyclists and cyclists here now. I must be the Arab-Pop they’re playing from one of the restaurants.

We see rain clouds coming in from the south, which is where we’re heading. A few drops hit our visors as we head down. Minutes later we’re in quite a downpour. I stop to let Markus cover himself in plastic. The road is foamy, meaning that it hasn’t had much rain lately. I wipe up some of it with my fingers, but it doesn’t seem much more slippery than normal water. We continue carefully anyway.

And then there’s the Col de la Madeleine again, which is very nice until we reach a stretch where many motorhomes are parked at the side of the road, because the Tour de France will be here on Tuesday. These people are actually waiting here already, for three days if not longer. I can think of worse scenery to spend three days in, though. Quite a few of them stand on the road, obviously not bothered by traffic at all. I slow down every time, but feel like blasting by in second gear. If they don’t mind waiting that long for a few minutes of cycling excitement, why don’t they just wait inside for the Maillot Jaune to appear? This road should be ours now. Near the pass summit we encounter a guy in a bee suit, with a fly swatter, just like a real bee.. It’s funny as Markus and I try to avoid it while riding by. It makes me sad when I realize that bee-man will be practising for three more days, waiting for his 5 seconds of fame.. perhaps.

### Col des Saisies
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### Motorhomes galore
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### A happy 900SS owner
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Our actual plan was to ride to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, then south and west over the Col de la Croix de Fer, to the south ramp of the Col du Glandon, continue to Le Bourg-d’Oisans and over the Col du Lautaret. To shorten the route, and gain some time on the 480km/300mi planned route, we decide to ride the Col du Télégraphe and Col du Galibier like last year. On the way to Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne heavy rain and thunderstorms set in. We decide to wait until the worst is over, meanwhile looking at the local drunk talking to the rain, and at a group of motorcyclists, who seem to be riding in circles around the building that we use for shelter. After an hour, it seems to quiet down a bit, and we move on, hoping that the weather will improve in the direction of the Col du Galibier. As we ride the first curves toward Col du Télégraphe, there are motorcyclists coming down, waving fingers and shaking their heads. We assume a landslide, and return, not wanting to find out ourselves. We complete our visit of the valley of sanctity inflation by backtracking until Saint-Etienne-de-Cuines.

The detour means we’re riding the entire Col du Glandon now anyway. The rain has stopped and the road is nearly empty and nearly dry. The scenery is great, and I’m glad we didn’t pass up this one. In the apex of a not-so-fast left curve a late-1980s Suzuki motorcycle comes right at me in my lane, just having overtaken a car before the curve, and something my memory reconstructs as a cyclist at the side of the road. All I can do is veer to the right, which Markus perceived as much more violent than I did. The oncoming rider not only misses me, but also my side case, by a margin of less than half a meter (a foot-and-a-half). Markus is far enough behind me to be merely a shocked spectator of this guy’s serious misjudgement. As there is no point in turning around and punching him in the face, I continue to the top of Col du Glandon. Markus and I both hope the other rider learned something from this event. In retrospect, I think it was the right decision to swerve into the small margin between my originally intended path and the guard rail. Braking would only have postponed a possible collision for a fraction of a second. During the event, there was no time to be shocked, and avoiding the rider actually felt very natural to me, like changing course to prevent riding over a metal cover in the rain or a patch of gravel. I’m glad I always do this meticulously, allowing this to become an automated behavior that doesn’t require much conscious thought. If you manage to avoid an obstacle, it doesn’t matter that it’s as high as a motorcyclist.

### Half a meter
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### The Col du Glandon is a matter of perspective
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### Maillot Jaune
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### Fabulous scenery at the Col du Glandon
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### Lac du Grand Motorhôme
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The road down from the Col du Glandon along the shores of Lac de Grand Maison shows that the French Ministry of Curves has created a masterpiece. Near Le Bourg-d’Oisans we see more thunderstorms, but fortunately they’re still at a distance in valley to the west. We’re going south now and decide to have dinner in town, as it’s 8pm already. We steer clear of a restaurant with loud “entertainment”, and enter another with a suspiciously Dutch looking owner. When I ask him for a table, he plays along, answering “à l’intérieur”. The interior is decorated in orange, awaiting the world cup soccer final Spain-Netherlands around this time tomorrow. The food is good. It rains a bit more but when we’re out again it’s dry, which is excellent because we’ve got 174km/108mi to go tonight. Darkness falls shortly after we leave, but the road to Col du Lauraret is smooth, with good fog lines. This means we can almost ride a daytime pace and it’s a lot of fun. When we stop for fuel near Briançon, Markus’s enthusiasm culminates in a high-five and a big grin.

I remember last year’s ride from Briançon to Guillestre on a fast wide road with few curves, ensuring good progress. At Guillestre, we trade the longer-but-wider route to Lac de Serre Ponçon in the west for the road over the Col de Vars. This pass obviously divides two French départements, as the road quality changes instantly from good to poor at the summit. The south ramp is quite bumpy with mostly bad or absent markings. Even when riding as slow as 40kmh/25mph sometimes, the bad road requires a lot of concentration, at this hour anyway. At least we have it to ourselves so I can let my high beam plow through the moonless night until we reach Barcelonnette.

The shortest route to our hotel from here is over the Col de la Cayolle, where I’ve never been, but recall as a tiny squiggly line on my paper map. As we ride into the narrow canyon it gets a lot cooler quickly. Sunset must be early here. I enjoy the fresh smell of pine trees as we creep along the paved but bumpy single-lane road. Even at this speed, my rear wheel sidesteps on invisible gravel patches sometimes. The advantage of having a GPS on the bike is that you know the distance to the summit. The disadvantage, however, is that you know how long it still is until you reach the summit at your current speed.. 45 minutes, that is. We briefly stop at the pass sign, and only now realize how clear the sky is here. We’re in the middle of the Parc National du Mercantour, meaning almost no artificial light for miles. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the milky way that clearly. There must be a hundred times more stars than I can view from my balcony in Suburbia. Before we crawl down the south ramp I compensate for all beauty, by “marking” the pass sign. The cold does that to me.

The ride downto Guillaumes is as uneventful as the one down the Col de Vars and I start getting quite tired. At first I thought it’s just the time of day, but as we ride up again toward the Col de Valberg with good pavement and proper markings again, all is forgotten and the ride becomes very enjoyable again. Close to Saint Bres I am surprised by a big deer that crosses 40m/120ft in front of me. I expect deer in uninhabited areas, but this one is really close to the edge of town. A few minutes of increased attention later, we arrive at the hotel in Valberg. We open the door with code that hasn’t changed since last year. At this hour (2:25am) we are not suprised to find the reception unattended. Our key is there and we sneak up the stairs. Markus demonstrates that it’s really time to go to sleep now by trying to open the door with his motorcycle key. Before we hit the pillow, we agree that tomorrow’s ride should definitely be shorter because it would be unwise to do another midnight dash after today’s adventure.

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Saturday’s total: 594km/369mi in 16h58m (incl. stops)

Day3, Sunday, July 11th: Valberg to Valberg

The Harley-alarm rings a bit later than usual, but still in time for the great breakfast they serve here. Yesterday’s ride was a bit of a stretch, partly beyond our control, but it has returned the adventure that belongs to tours like these, and that was absent during Friday’s ride. Instead of going all the way to Monaco and the Gorge du Verdon, we decide to skip Monaco and ride to the Gorge directly. This way we can return to the vicinity of Valberg tonight and watch the world cup soccer final. The receptionist at the hotel desk confirms that the vacation season will start next week, and that the Gorge du Verdon shouldn’t be a problem today. I remember it as very beautiful from a visit 22 years ago, but also that the drive was really long and slow going. It was probably main season then, and kids perceive time differently from the back seat of a car than kids riding motorcycles all day..

Before we reach the road to Castellane, we ride through the Gorge de Daluis, which is really pretty and has an interesting road too. Because of the lack of space, the road planners decided to lead the mountain-side traffic through a series of tunnels. Thankfully it’s not one contiguous tunnel. The tunnels are not lit, meaning that I’m practically blind for a few seconds when riding in from the sunlit road. Because my high beam is quite useless in this situation, I just aim for “the light at the end of the tunnel”.

The road from the end of the Gorge de Daluis to Castellane is absolutely fantastic. It’s wide with long sweepers of great pavement and after two days’ practice we really have a lot of fun while making good progress. I remember last year’s ride along the Lac du Castillon as one of those where the bike felt completely united with me, doing what I wanted, when I wanted. This year it’s the same, with less traffic. I think I’ll need to wait for my grin to subside before I can get my helmet off at the next stop.

### Gorge de Daluis
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### Happy moments on great roads near the Lac de Castillon
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### The town of Castellane
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Lunch time in Castellane. There certainly are many people here for a Sunday off-season. One waiter tells us his place is completely booked, which we don’t believe but find another restaurant anyway. The waitress is delighted with our choice of French over Italian mineral water. I am afraid of her reaction if I’d order French dressing for my salad.

After lunch we head for the gorge, which is (being) carved out by the Verdon river, that runs from the mountains in the east to the lake of Sainte Croix in the west. There are roads south as well as north of the canyon, and we plan to ride both. After some more fun on nearly deserted roads south-east of the canyon, we finally reach it, reviving old memories of nature’s finest. Traffic is rather light and we don’t mind staying behind a few cars occasionally because it gives us some more time to enjoy the view. We’re reminded of how pleasant the temperature in the canyon was, as we descend to the lake. Although the altitude difference is only moderate, the temperature difference feels like 15C/30F. And it’s crowded too. I have an image in my mind of a few pedal boats at the entrance of the Canyon, but today it’s almost filled with pedal boats and looks quite ridiculous. Due to all these people and the heat, we keep on riding and are fortunate not to be stuck for long behind a very slow and sooty polish touring car on the narrow north canyon road.

Appreciating the temperature drop again, we ride a one-way loop that brings us closer to the edge of the canyon. Apart from enjoying some more of this fabulous scenery, we also witness a peculiar scene. There’s a young French couple in a small Japanese hatchback, parked with the trunk facing us. The bare-footed girl gets out and opens the over-filled trunk, gets the thing she was looking for, and goes back inside. He then starts the car and they both look at each other, wondering why my horn sounds so loud. He, also shoeless, closes the trunk, thanks me, and drives off. Perhaps I shouldn’t have warned them, and practice some more obstacle avoidance on the next few miles.

### Empty roads not far from the gorge
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### It takes a while to carve this out
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### Quick photo stop
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### Grand Canyon du Verdon
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### Heating up near Lac de Sainte Croix
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### Don’t kill anyone with stones below
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### Big bird of prey
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### Hairpin turn on the loop road
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Riding the 10-mile loop takes longer than I’d imagined and it’s bumpier too. A French one-way sign seems as symbolic as an Italian no-passing zone. Many drivers interpret it as a suggestion.. The route to Castellane is busier than this morning. There are a few bad drivers that won’t stay in their lane, which makes overtaking tricky.

We’re having a blast, quite literally, riding from Castellane to the Gorge de Daluis again. We’re overtaken by a maniac in a small Peugeot who doesn’t seem to understand that “knowing the road” doesn’t mean you can dive into blind curves all the time. I hope he’ll only take himself out when he has his accident. The GPS says there’s plenty of time left to ride the Gorge du Cians before the soccer final. This gorge runs east of and almost parallel to the Gorge de Daluis that we rode through this morning. We’ve ridden it last year, on another midnight dash, so riding it now in the remaining daylight would mean we’d actually be able to see it. But our plans change quickly, as we discover the village square of Puget-Théniers, where one of the restaurant owners has put his large TV outside for anybody to watch the soccer final and buy his drinks. He must own stocks from the local pizzeria as he recommends us to get our food there. We decide to stay here, meaning that we’ll be able to enjoy the Gorge du Cians by the light of my high beam again..

After seeing a Spaniard getting kicked in the heart, and the Dutch deservedly lose their third world cup final, we saddle up and ride the last bit. There are fewer animals now than on last year’s ride through the canyon, and it seems shorter too. We’re in bed well before midnight.

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Sunday’s total: 301km/187mi in 13h11m (incl. stops and a soccer final)

Day 4, Monday, July 12th: Valberg to Langnau

Today is going to be a long ride. The planned route is over the highest French passes again, and exactly matches last year’s. You really can’t improve perfection. The Germans that I recognize from breakfast are already in trouble after 10km/6mi. One of their bikes seems to have lost quite a bit of oil and is parked in a narrow curve. They don’t seem to need help as they wave us through in an orderly German manner.

### Breakfast
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When riding up to the Col de la Bonette we’re stuck behind a motorhome for a while. Just as I find an opportunity to pass, I see Markus park his bike on the side of the road. I figure he wants to take some photos again, but keep on riding because I don’t want to overtake the motorhome again. As Markus’ bike is much more powerful than mine, he’ll find more suitable spots to overtake it, I figure. But taking care of a wasp sting takes longer than a quick photo stop, so eventually I park on the inside of a hairpin turn, waiting for his return and make a video of it. Sorry for the messy camera work: the camera wiggling is me gesturing to Markus that I’m filming and he shouldn’t stop here. I wasn’t clear enough and he held back in the curve, causing me to mess up the framing. Perhaps we should communicate a bit before we do any more filming.

### Video of Markus on the Col de la Bonette
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### South ramp of the Col de la Bonette
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### A cyclist who made it to 2800m/9200ft
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### View on Col de la Bonette, facing west
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We’ve learned from last year that taking a lot of time for lunch around 1pm doesn’t necessarily increase your average speed. This time, we’ve had a decent breakfast and eat some fruit and snacks for lunch, so we can have an early dinner and ride when most people have theirs. No long stop for pizza at Guillestre, that is. We continue to Col d’Izoard immediately. There’s much less traffic than last year, but more cyclists too. Some of them are from a group of the Dutch University of Twente, who have covered about 8 times the maximum altitude difference of the Netherlands just by riding this pass.

Riding downhill is usually not as much fun as riding uphill, but the Col d’Izoard is an exception. Apart from an Alfa Romeo driver who seems to want to play catch, there’s almost nobody and the curves are really wonderful. On the way down, I see a strategically parked van with a web address on it, and a photographer behind it: clearly an invitation for a good lean angle. I’ve ordered our photos, which aren’t of suberb quality but good souvenirs nevertheless.

###Wonderful landscape and nice curves at the Col d’Izoard
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### Having fun on the Col d’Izoard
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We reach Italy over the Montgenèvre pass. Last year, this pass was a disaster with a never-ending stream of cars, but not this time. The first curves on this pass are a lot of fun, until we encounter a slow truck. We fill up the bikes just north of Cesana Torinese. Markus and I agree that the attendant must be in the top-13 of most unfriendly gas station attendants in the world.

There are some roadworks here, and in Italy this is something special. The road is just fine most of the time, there is nobody to be found who has anything to do with the roadworks, and there are many signs aiming to slow down traffic. It typically goes like this: a roadworks sign, a sign posting a 50 kmh speed limit, 3 seconds later a 20 kmh sign, 1 second later 50 kmh sign, 3 seconds later a 30 kmh sign, 3 seconds later another 30 kmh sign, and a notoriously missing end-of-roadworks sign. On each separate occasion the numbers may vary a bit, but one rule seems to apply: they never make any sense. Over time, I’ve come up with my own method to deal with this stuff: I add up all the numbers, divide that by a million, and add 70 kmh. That works mighty well every time.

While we’re having a have a meal in Susa we see dark clouds forming in the north west, which is where we’re going. Unfortunately, the wonderful road into France over Mont Cenis isn’t as much fun as last year because the rain starts and it’s getting foggy with altitude.

### Susa
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The rain worsens to a mild thunderstorm as we ride the Col de l’Iseran. The curves that are usually so much fun on the highest pass on the route aren’t so great now, especially because there are some gravel patches that are hard to spot and aren’t a good combination with the wetness. At the point where most alpine pass roads run out of steam, the Col de l’Iseran still has some 700m/2300ft of altitude to offer. Eventually, we make it to the top and are now closer to the thunderstorm in the next valley. There is no shelter, and as we’re not riding through vast plains, I decide to keep on riding close to the mountain side. At the next stop we joke that lightning is lazy by nature and prefers to catch slower objects first. There were enough cyclists up there to feel safe.

Things look brighter soon, and the roads are dry again shortly after Val d’Isère. We must have crossed another département border because people here are driving a lot more aggressively. It’s like the difference in driving styles between Switzerland and Italy. We make it safely to the south ramp of the Col du Petit Saint Bernard, in daylight this time. This is one fantastic road as well, with a succession of well-paved curves that doesn’t seem to stop, and I don’t want it to stop either.

### The small one
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### That way!
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### Alone on the Col du Petit Saint Bernard
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Down in the vally of Aosta it’s gotten dark meanwhile, and it’s time for Markus to fill up. I stop at a gas station, and for the second time this trip, Markus rides on for a good reason: a big tailgating SUV, the driver of which he didn’t trust to stop in time. He’s got over 120,000km/75,000mi on that 900 SuperSport now, so he must be doing something right. He returns shortly after, only to find out that this automated gas pump doesn’t work or doesn’t accept those untrustworthy Swiss debit cards. No drop of gas at the second gas station either. The next one on our route is in Switzerland, on the other side of the Col du Grand Saint Bernard about 50km/30mi from here. Markus decides to go for it. His Ducati doesn’t use much fuel when ridden carefully.

Careful is the operative word here indeed. The roadworks on the Italian side of the pass are still ongoing, like a year ago. Unlike most roadworks, these are serious, with big portions of the road milled out for repavement. It is especially exciting when such a section starts just behind a turn in the dark. After a few kilometers, the roadworks are finished or more accurately: haven’t started yet. We’re happy to be moving at a proper pace again. It starts raining a bit beyond the pass summit and it’s slightly foggy too. I wonder why this frog is here at 2,000m/6,500ft, hopping across the road. Maybe he just likes hibernation a lot.

We make it to the gas station that Markus’s bike was longing for. Theoretically, he could have run out right at the top of the pass, and then coast down to the first station, but we’ll try that another time. It’s 11pm now and this ride is almost over.. the fun part, that is. After Martigny, it’s 260km/160mi of freeway all the way home. And that is less fun than the bumpy south ramp of Col de Vars without roadmarks at night. I stop somewhere in the middle to have a break from the strain. Markus takes the opportunity to take off his rain gear, which seems to inflate like a sail beyond 130kmh/80mph. Perhaps it was designed by the traffic safety lobby with that purpose in mind?

Near Bern there are a lot of roadworks with confusing signs, at this hour anyway, and I take us on a little detour through a suburb. We’re back on the motorway soon, and cover an uneventful 130km to Zurich, which we reach around 2am. Not early by any standards, but more than 90 minutes faster than last time. There are no pretty ladies to hand us a champion’s cup though. We’re numb from the long freeway ride, too tired to chat, so I return Markus’s luggage and we each ride home.

The end of another great ride. Maybe we should ride five days next year..

Monday’s total: 797km/495mi in 16h48m (incl. stops)
### 20100709-12_French_Alps/report/track_day4-1_s.gif
### 20100709-12_French_Alps/report/track_day4-2_s.gif
### Elevation profile
### 20100709-12_French_Alps/report/elevation_profile_s.jpg
Trip total 1947km/1210mi in 54h19m (incl. daytime stops)