Saturday, 6 December 2014

Wednesday, 3 December 2014


Thanksgiving and Beyond

Thanksgiving and beyond! The first time we've spent Thanksgiving with the family in San Fran. It was lovely to spend time with them all, going walks before dinner on the big day, meeting up with their friends, Sean and Jess, on a walk the day after. Beef Wellington, actually two of them, and all the trimmings for lunch- they really looked after us. The weather deteriorated after that, meaning we were confined to indoors and spent the time watching and helping Andrew make a side table out of a cross-section of tree trunk that he'd seen recently felled, whilst driving home! Lily is such good fun now and you can have a proper conversation with her. Charlotte is two months old and growing rapidly, not having too much difficulty filling a six month babygro! She smiles and occasionally chuckles, revealing a sweet little dimple on her right cheek. She lies on her back, kicking and waving her arm up and down. Sleeps well all night through, but 6 pm until 10pm are a difficult time. I remember that all too well! So after five nights sleeping underneath Lily in her new bunk bed that Andrew and Lizzy have just finished, once Andrew went off to work and Lily went back to Playschool, we took ourselves off to a Best Western, just down the road. The first day, we explored another part of the Bay Area called Sausalito, with its historic centre and marina after marina lining the shore, easily accessible on foot. Then parked up and walked over the Golden Gate Bridge almost all the way across. Had to be done and it is a wonderful bridge, but overall not as pleasant as walking over Brooklyn Bridge, where the traffic is further away from you, and there is less of it. With 6-8 lanes off traffic constantly flowing right next to you, it was a very noisy experience! The views were superb. From there, we drove to a higher point and overlooked the bridge from above. We returned to collect Lily for the day and take her to the California Academy of Science, in the Golden Gate Park. A bit pricey, but on another rain-soaked day, a great day out. Lily zipped around at first, as different exhibits caught her eye. There were lots of aquariums, and a tunnel with massive fish swimming around, which she named mummy, daddy, grandma and grandad, Lily and Charlotte fish! A three-tiered rainforest, beginning at the leaf-cutter ants on the forest floor, all the way up to the butterflies in the canopy, excited her particularly. She didn't like the rattlesnakes and anaconda at first, but after a massive picnic, made up for us by Lizzy, we went around the whole thing again, and this time, she took a little longer over the various displays, especially the extensive collection of tiny frogs! There was a starfish and sea urchin low level tank, that children could touch and experience sea creatures up close, and Lily eagerly got stuck in. A full day out with a break in the middle for us to sit down and watch her play in "the Cove", a lovely, safe children's play area. Home to mum and Charlotte and then back to the hotel for us and a rest! That night nearby San Anselmo clocked up 4" of rain, as it teemed down and the thunder and rain woke us up! More heavy rain forecast for tomorrow, when we planned to go to the cinema, to vacate the room for cleaning! It will have rained for seven days solid by the time it dries up! We had thought to hire bikes this week for a couple of days but we're still waiting for the weather to pick up!

Thursday, 27 November 2014


Sedona and Red Rock Country

The Red Rock Country and Sedona, on to Phoenix The landscape around Sedona is stunning, with its bright red rock formations, formed from iron infused sandstone, topped off with pale yellow sandstone. There are several clusters of massive outcrops, or vortex, in the valley. The New Age spiritualists and artists that flocked to live here believe that there are spiritual centres or vortex in the rocks. Now I would respect all this if it weren't for the commercially insensitive development of the town, with its hundred of art galleries, gift shops, cafes and high-priced restaurants. We counted jeeps from four different Jeep Tours spewing out into traffic! We thought we'd opted for the more sedate, environmentally friendly trip in a trolley bus, but, to our surprise, were treated to a frenetic, whistle-stop tour of a few of the rocky marvels and trails, and couldn't hear our guide for the sound and speed of the traffic! We visited at a very quiet time but had to queue in traffic to try to enter one of the canyon roads. Well, we didn't, we turned the car round and went to visit the Oak Tree Brewery instead! That was good, with local ale, Nut Brown Ale, and a tray of seven samples, a Mahi Mahi spinach salad and a shrimp salad. Good value. Nice surroundings, but set in a court that had a distinct Disneyland feel to it. A load of shops dressed up to look like a Mexican village. It's marketed as a spiritual stay, but is a world away from our experiences in Chinle, where we'd enjoyed walks and insight into Navajo culture and hadn't been required to spend a farthing! It's like Bakewell in Sedona, you have to buy a pass to park near most of the trails! That moan out of the way, the views of the surrounding Red Rock Country are superb, if only a lot more restraint had been taken with Sedona. The Cottonwood trees were glorious, bronze and yellow. Marlene had told us about them in Chinle, and said it was a shame we'd missed them because they'd looked like they were on fire, but the leaves had all dropped being at about 2000' difference in height. The following day we descended from the Colorado Plateau, where we had spent the previous five days at a much higher altitude and therefore much cooler. Immediately warmed up and soon hot again. We made for the Heard Gallery in Phoenix, which housed a private collection of Native American artwork, ranging from intricate basketry to painted ceramic pots, red on clay painted in cochineal, to beautiful rugs, blankets and clothing. Dozens of katsinas, doll-like depictions of various spirits, adorn two walls. We went on a guided tour and learnt, no holes barred,about the shocking treatment of the native children, taken from their families in the 1860s and forced into boarding schools, with a dreadful disregard for their culture and intelligence. Hair forcibly cut short, which they did as a sign of mourning in their own culture, meaning that they literally went into a grieving state. A form of social engineering reminiscent of Victorian England and Australia. Well worth a visit. I picked up a book on Navajo weaving, and promised myself to resurrect my loom at home, inspired by the spirit of the Spider Woman! Set off tomorrow , flying to San Fran. Can't wait to see all the family, especially Lily and little Glo-worm aka Charlotte, who we've nicknamed after the Glow-worm on the Gas advert!

Walnut Canyon and Flagstaff

Our journey over to Sedona would take us closer to Phoenix and our flight to San Fran. We decided not to stop off at Meteor Crater, about ten miles from Winslow. There were negative reports of an expensive, showy tourist experience, which boiled down to paying a lot to stare at a very large hole in the ground! So the book says that the crater is the largest on the planet, created some 22000 years ago, a mile across and over 500' deep. That's about it. We headed towards a large mountain which strangely rises up from the flat desert, the highest point of the San Francisco Peaks being 12600'. It's nowhere near San Francisco, maybe just a nod to the Saint, himself. We stopped off at Flagstaff on Route 66. As with Winslow, the railroad runs right through the centre of this interesting little town. You really feel like you're in a Western, with low-rise wooden buildings. We had lunch at the Beaver Brewery Pub, with good ale brewed on the premises and reasonable bar food. Nice to get out of the chilly, windy weather. At 7000' up, Flagstaff is bitter in the winter, and has a feeling of being a ski station. One of many impressive, bright yellow trains came by, pulling dozens of freight trucks that seemed to go on forever, pushed on by another massive engine at the rear. We drove on with the gusty winds blowing spiky tumbleweed balls across the freeway! Next stop, Walnut Canyon. Yep, another canyon, but this time one visited primarily for its dozens of examples of Puebloan houses built into the rocks. Some restored and some in ruins, they run along several shelves of rock along the Island Loop trail in the park, with soot still covering the back walls, caused by ancient fires. The Sinagua tribe lived here, in this steep-sided, pine clad canyon. Only needed a short visit, but still glad we went. Our final destination was Cottonwood, with its historic downtown. We stayed in the less romantic, but much cheaper Best Western, which is a great base for visiting the very expensive Sedona, in the Red Rock Country.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

La Posada

La Posada, Winslow, Route 66.
On the way here we drove through the Painted Desert, famous for its bright coloured rocks and for the way the sunlight and shadows affect them. This hotel, residence and private museum and gallery is situated in a fairly unassuming location. A little one-horse town, with apparently little to see or do. We chose it, again because Ian had researched it well, and it was a staging post on the way to Flagstaff and Sedona, where we headed. It was historically a staging post along Route 66, which runs all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles. Located right by the railway line, it was occupied by the Railway company as offices, in 1961. There are thoughtful benches so that railway buffs can sit and watch the trains coming through, but it was too chilly for that, with temperatures near freezing in the chilly wind, even though there was blue sky and sunshine. It has been restored in the manner of a Spanish Hacienda, and houses loads of hand painted, Mexican-influenced furniture, lighting in metal work, antique leather chairs and hand carved furniture. The couple who own also live in a wing of it. The guest rooms are faithfully restored and contain antique, painted furniture and artefacts. Tina Mion is an artist and an extensive collection of large canvases she has painted are hung all over on two floors of the building. We spent a few hours the following morning, wandering around gazing at her wonderful paintings, reading the helpful descriptions of what inspired these original works. Stunning colours and haunting expressions on many of the faces in the paintings. She explains how the bright light and colours in the desert inspire. What a fantastic place to come! Only stayed one night and splashed out on an expensive but lovely meal in the Turquoise Room. The chef is English, which makes you proud. Cameron, the bar man/jack-of-all-trades was attentive and welcoming. We ate traditional Hopi piki bread with hummus as a starter, a thin, light as air wafer,and green, made from juniper root, ash and water! I had elk in black currant sauce, and Ian had steak. Superb. Just when you're beginning to feel a bit burgered out and need a change from very good but very standard budget accommodation experiences, this place really hit the spot! La Posada is rated no.3 in the whole of the US for bargain hotels by Trip Advisor. The Turquoise Room is rated the 2nd best hotel restaurant in the whole USA by Conde Nast. For once, they're not exaggerating.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Photos Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly

Chinle and the Canyon de Chelly
From Tusayan, we drove for about 4hrs, covering 250 miles East, deep into the deserts of Arizona.  With the high plateau of the Black Mesa to our right, and nothing but scrub and desert all the way, with occasional small ranches and shacks and a few corralled horses.  Hard to see how you could live out here, but apparently there is some meagre farming.  The Navajo nation territory extends all the way from about 40 miles outside the Grand Canyon, all over the northeastern region of Arizona- Tuba City, Kayenta, Chinle, all the way down to Window Rock in New Mexico. The largest of all the Native American tribes and the most widespread.  During our stay here we have come across references to the Hopi, Havasupai, Sinagua, and the Cahuilla in Palm Springs.  The Navajo are famous for their trading and commercial skills, the craftsmanship in weaving rugs and baskets, and their skills in jewellery making.  Turquoise features in most of their beautiful silver bracelets and necklaces.
We pulled up at a hotel for the night, the Holiday Inn, known as the Garcia Trading Post, at Chinle, a very small town in the desert, very close to the Canyon de Chelly, pronounced "Shay".  We'd arrived by lunchtime so had time to head straight for the Visitors Centre in this National Park, always a mine of helpful and welcoming information.  Ian had done his usual thorough research and knew that the drawback of this visit would be the fact that this site is of great religious significance to the Navajo, so there was only one self-guided walk you could, but it was to be a very interesting one.  We were excited to find out that, as part of the Native American Awareness Month, there was to be a final Saturday walk into an otherwise forbidden area of the park, guided by one of the Rangers who was Navajo and had grown up in the Canyon and played there as a child!  It was to depart at 8am tomorrow and the limit was 20 people.  We put our names down, but tried not to get too excited as we were told it was dependent on whether we could carpool, as we didn't have an SUV, or high clearance vehicle!
We drove along the South Rim, and then descended steeply down into the Canyon, on the White House Ruins trail, the only route allowed.  Very different to Grand Canyon, much smaller, beautiful rock shapes and curves in a orange and red coloured sandstone.  Very magical.  Then we were on the valley floor, which used to be farmed by the Navajo, before the nearby dams were built and redirected the water.  There used to be peach trees here and the Navajo would grow squash and beans, and farm sheep.  About 1/2 mile along the valley you come to a dead end and the White House ruins, built and occupied centuries ago by the Anasazi, or "ancient ones", named after the White plaster which was used to cover the walls.  You can also see ancient drawings on the walls in the distance, but it's fenced off to stop souvenir hunters getting too close. I bought a stone painting from an artist there, who explained to me that there is a growing desire for the Navajo to be known as Dine, "dinneh", because it captures the essence of the Navajo people. The Dine still live in and around the Canyon, their physical and spiritual home.  It is where the Navajo returned after the Long Walk, when in the 1860s, they were driven out of their homes, which were then burnt to the ground by Kit Carson.  They were forced to march over 300 miles, known as the Long Walk, to live a miserable existence on a Reservation in New Mexico, until eight years later the government allowed them to return to their homeland.  So little wonder it has such a sacred place in their hearts.

That night we had a hearty meal with non-alcoholic beer, which tasted OK, and non-alcoholic wine, which didn't!  No alcohol to be consumed or sold in Navajo territory.  Had some Navajo fry bread, which was delicious, a bit like a doughnut mix, but much lighter and flatter and drenched in icing sugar.  We were up at 6.30am, breakfasted and waiting at the Visitor Centre hoping to catch a lift.  Fortunately for us, Marlene a Navajo woman from Shiprock, New Mexico and her friend, Alexis, an attorney from Aztec, New Mexico, had a very big SUV and we all drove in line over extremely rough terrain about five miles to the start of the walk.  There was no obvious route and it would have been impossible with the Rangers car to follow.  Once at the start of the walk, the ranger explained to us that this was a rare visit, maybe only once or twice a year that non-Navajo were allowed to do this walk.  He warned that it would be strenuous.  The route would take us 1000' down into Bat Canyon, rarely visited, and a bit trickier than the usual easy trails.  Rough under foot with a bit of scrambling, but then we were on the Canyon floor, with views up to ancient dwellings carved into the rock, high up in the distance.  Then the highlight of our walk, Spider Rock, which rises about 1000' straight up like a giant reddish brown finger, looking striking against the bright blue sky.  Nearby is another iconic rocky finger known as Talking Rock.  The story goes that Talking Rock would tell Spider Woman who lived on the top of Spider Rock, about children who had been naughty.  Spider Woman would catch them in her woven web and take them to the top of the rock, eat them and grind their bones to white powder, and that is why the top of the rock is white!  Petrifying!  Other stories say that it was Spider Woman, who lived in a home at the base of the rock, whose ruins you can make out, taught the Navajo weaving skills.
Spider Rock has featured in several Westerns, and we remembered watching Mc.Kenna's Gold, made in the 1960s.  There is an unforgettable scene when at a specific time of day, Spider Rock casts a long shadow and a gap in the rocks is highlighted, which is supposed to lead the Cowboys to a golden treasure.  Or something like that!
  We spent some time listening to the guide telling these stories, as we gazed up at this amazing site, brilliant blue sky and chilly temperatures.  Then we returned to the jeeps, climbing quite steeply back up.  There were about 14 of us on the walk.  Good company.  A marathon runner and his wife, who were teachers in New Mexico, who lived at 7000'. An ophthalmologist from Chinle Hospital.  Alexis and Marlene worked for the same legal department that dealt with cases of discrimination against Native Americans.  Our guide, William was accompanied by his brother, who was training to be a Park Ranger, and his girlfriend, who were all Navajo.  They were very informative and attentive, and it was a great experience.  We promised to come back here again in November on one of the other guided tours they do.  Two great walks and we hadn't spent a dime!  Which reinforces the fact that they're not trying to make money out of it but educate and share.
We made it back to the car by lunchtime and set off to Winslow on Route 66 and the historic  La Posada Hotel, and the widely renowned Turquoise Room fine-dining restaurant!  This requires a page to itself!!

Grand Canyon Photos

Grand Canyon

Tusayan and the Grand Canyon
The next week or so would be a road trip sightseeing in Arizona.  We started with a seven hour trip from Palm Springs 430mls to the Grand Canyon, pausing for lunch at a Cracker Barrel in Kingman.  There's no direct route because there's a vast expanse of rock and desert in the way!  So generally headed in a NE direction.  Hundreds of miles of vast scrub land and desert.  Eventually climbed up to a high level plateau of forests of conifers and significantly cooler, about 8'C.
It was dark when we arrived, so the trip to the Canyon would have to wait until the following day, the park being closed at dusk until dawn.  Cloudy all day today but good forecast for tomorrow.
Having done a long hike here a few years ago, we knew carrying plenty of water was essential, so we carried a couple of litres each.  As it happened there was water at Indian Garden, about halfway through our hike.  Lovely sunny but chilly day as we parked at the Visitor Centre and then warmed up our muscles on the  2 1/2 mile hike to Grand Canyon Village and the start of the Bright Angel trail, a hike along the South Rim, gazing down into the expanse of the Canyon.  Still truly awesome!  That word should be reserved for sights such as this, which describe it literally.  Magnificent!  The Bright Angel Trail drops gradually 3000' over 6miles to Indian Garden and on to Plateau Point with views down to the Colorado river below, a further 3 miles down.  It's possible to hike all the way down and back in one day, but all the signs warn it's not recommended!  So of course that made us think it might be something to do in the future!  Some people break the trek by camping down in the bottom, or at Indian Garden, and we saw plenty of people who had done just that, but were put off by the massive rucksacks they were carrying, and the forecasted drop in temperature to minus degrees tonight and early morning.  If you going to do it, go for it, travel light with plenty of water at a cool time of year, like now. we climbed back up, and tried to stay ahead of a fit, lean French couple, so pushing on quite speedily, I remember thinking, "don't let me think of doing this whole route down to the river".  It would be possible but challenging!  And as the sign says, "Descending is optional.  Returning is Mandatory!"
We were pipped by the Frenchman, with only a few yards to go, but he'd clearly had us as much in his sights, as we had him!  The upside was that we got back up to the top from Indian Garden in just less than 2hours.  Felt better than the last time we did it, when I sent Ian out for a McDonalds, cos I couldn't face going out.  Went out for yet another Mexican meal, and a massive pint of local lager/beer!  Plaza Bonita- good food.
Really cold at night.


Walking in Murray Canyon Palm Springs

Monday, 24 November 2014

Palm Springs

New York to Palm Springs
A long day ahead.  5 1/2 hour flight to Phoenix, Arizona, and then a 4 hr drive into the desert to Palm Springs, California, arriving in the dark, gaining two hours time difference on the flight and a further hour on the drive, and much warmer temperatures.  Staying at a Best Western Las Brisas right in the centre for three nights.  Brilliant location, within a few minutes walk of Downtown.  Dumped the bags and went to our favourite Mexican, Las Cazuelas.
A warm bright blue sky welcomed us the following morning.  Up, breakfasted and in the car driving just up the road to Indian Canyon, by 8.30am.  Thank you jet lag!  Walked the Palm fringed trail through Murray Canyon, following a stream and waterfall and lush vegetation all the way up the canyon to the Seven Sisters and the end of the trail, and the very last Palm trees, green lushness giving way to dry, barren, harsh, sun-baked Rock.  I love walking in the desert.  It's so strange and dramatic.  By 10am it was already getting hot and sticky and after five miles we'd had enough and set off back to the hotel and the pool.
Later that night we facetimed Andrew and family.  Busy building bunk bed to do over head of double bed, ready for when we come and share with Lily.  An excited Lily wanted to know whether I was bringing some "pieces puzzles" with me ie. Jigsaws!  A little podgy Charlotte put in an appearance, looking bemused!  Looking forward to seeing them all soon.
The following day we drove up to the Living Desert, which we've visited a few times before.  It's always worth repeating because there's so much to see.  This time we spent more time visiting the animals.  They have a reasonable number of big cats:  three leopards, a mother jaguar and two large Cubs and cheetah.  Giraffe, bighorn sheep, warthogs, wild dogs,ostrich,Eagles, owls.  The enclosures are imaginatively landscaped, with a Savannah area, tranquil pools and impressive planting showing the different climate zones and the plants they support.  The desert plants are most interesting, chollas, ocotillos, cacti etc.
A coffee in town, people watching!  There's a wide mix of visitors to Palm Springs.  A lot escaping snow in their hometowns of eg Vancouver and beyond, the older pensioners, the very rich sitting at white-table clothed restaurants enjoying Californian fine-dining, whatever that is, a big gay community, homeless veterans,sleeping rough in a warmer climate.  It's vibrant and colourful.  In the bar later, we got talking to a couple over from San Fran for a few days, publicising and launching a comic-strip book she had drawn, in collaboration with a Frenchman, who was the writer, sending up the Palm Springs scene, in a light-hearted un-pc way.  We took her card and promised to look it up.
Off to Tusayan, close to the Grand Canyon tomorrow, a long 7hr drive, back towards Kingman and the North, stopping at Kingman specifically to visit a Cracker Barrel to enjoy a great brunch in traditional ranch style setting, with rocking chairs on the porch, waitresses dressed in long apronned frocks with mop caps, the works!


On Brooklyn Bridge
Laura in Lakeville, Connecticut

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

New York

Trip to USA  November 2014

New York.
Set off to US later than usual, in order to be with Andrew and Lizzy for Thanksgiving, for the first time since they moved to US.  First of all, stayed with Emma and Laura in New York.  Their baby boy is due early December.  Weather warm enough to sit on their roof top in the sunshine, but much colder weather is forecast!
The day after our arrival, we walked across Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. Weather not great but still exciting. The day after we visited Laura at her new offices in Manhattan.  A spacious, bright 16th floor in a high-rise building with far-reaching views across the city.  We met her boss, Mandeep and other members of the team.  Laura and Ems had a hospital visit at nearby Mount Sinai hospital, and we went off to the Museum of Modern Art, affectionately known by locals as Moma.
There was a feature exhibition of the works of Matisse, specifically his "cut outs".  I've never been particularly struck but it was a very informative and enlightening feature, which gave you a really good understanding of the technique of cut out and how he achieved body shape and form from cutting, pinning and folding bits of bright blue paper, and used the gaps between the blue pieces to allow the background to emphasise movement and shape.  Fascinating.  Apart from that, there was an extensive collection of Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Dali, Picasso. Then the less inspiring minimal stuff by Mondrian et al!  A lot of stuff by Warhol, including his famous baked beans pic and Marilyn.
Met up with Ems in the Irish bar next to the offices, Laura having gone back to work.  Baby's lying cross-ways, and if he doesn't turn, it's looking like Emma will be having a C-section the first week in December.  With Xmas looming, Emma is trying to get things organised well in advance, because she knows she's going to be very busy soon.  Xmas decorations out in the corner of the room ready to trim.  Cake made, but unable to find marzipan in the shops, as well as some spices, double cream, caster sugar, to name just a few.  So between us we looked up Delia and now home-made marzipan sits in the freezer, ready for assembly nearer the time!
After the usual long 12 hr day, Laura rejoined us and we all went off into Chinatown to Shanghai Asian Manor.  Great, good value food and helpful, courteous staff.  Tried the famous soup dumplings, soft doughy dumplings filled with pork and broth, which oozes out when you pierce them. Also the lovely "pot stickers", which I've made with Lizzy before now.
The following day was a chilly start, with a drop in temperature of about 12'degC.  Laura had booked the day off.  Caught the tube to Grand Central Station, a wonderful temple of a building, softly lit with dozens of opulent chandeliers, gateways to trains resembling doorways into rooms in a museum or national library.  Very Grand indeed and well worth a visit, even if you're not catching a train.  A little time to kill, so we all sat with a coffee, listening to a couple playing fiddle, called the Poor Cousins.  Really relaxing Irish folk music.  All this before 9am! Caught the northbound train to Wassaic, Connecticut, a couple of hours away, and then a short, not very fragrant taxi ride to Interlaken Resort hotel, where we spent the night.  Accommodation generally around here is very expensive, but Emma had done some research and found this taste of the country outside NY.  The countryside is hilly but not mountainous here, quite swampy and wooded, East of the Hudson River, with pretty wooden traditional houses.  The hotel is situated near a lake with an impossible Native American Indian name, but it was a bit too cold for a walk down there, so we opted for a more sheltered one in the woods nearby.  A recent dusting of snow and frost gave the landscape a very fitting winter feel, to suit its Swiss name!  Back to the hotel and a rest for Emma, whilst Ian and I went off for a session in the gym, and my first one mile run in years!  The evening meal was excellent, with a wide variety of starters and entrees. I opted for Swiss chard and Granny Smith apple salad, followed by Arctic char, which is a bit like cod but tastier.
We returned in time for lunch back in Brooklyn, the following day, and caught up with news of home and relatives on the journey back.  Had lunch at a great little cafe in Fort Green, called Olea,specialising in tapas. Very busy, and buzzing atmosphere.  Everything we ordered was so tasty and reasonably priced, including wine in a carafe, rather than the often overpriced bottles!

Felt sad to be leaving but the girls have a busy few weeks ahead of them, with friends from UK staying, baby shower to attend and baby to prepare for!  Strange to think that before we leave to come home, there will be another little baby in the family!  

Sunday, 3 August 2014

La Marmotte 2014 by Ian Webster

La Marmotte Cyclosportive 2014 by Ian Webster

Before I forget the details, I thought I would write down my experience of the La Marmotte for posterity and for anyone who is considering doing it. For some, there will be too much detail for others, not enough. Anyone wanting more information or too pass comment please contact me on
La Marmotte was one of the original cyclosportives first run in 1982. If takes place on the first Saturday in July from Le Bourg d'Oisans near Grenoble in the French Alps and finishes on the Alpe d'Huez, the famous 1000 metre climb often used in the Tour de France. It is 174 kilometres (108 miles) in length, but more importantly, and worryingly, includes over 5000 metres (16800ft) of ascent over the Col du Glandon, Col du Telegraph, Col du Galibier and the Alpe d'Huez. All of these climbs are often used in the Tour de France and are all "hors categorie". In other words - long and hard! It is named after the large ground squirrel often seen in the high Alps. It is a cuddly and docile looking animal so not a lot in common with this event!
I have been cycling for last 4 years, having been a classic overweight, stressed middle aged man who ate and drank too much. I managed to get fit and get my weight down to just less than 80kg  from 97kg four years previously. I have entered a number of UK Sportives up to 100 miles in length and had enjoyed cycling in the Alps for previous 3 years. I always said that I would do the Marmotte when I was 60, so here I was, committed and about to be in France on the 5 July when most of UK was in Yorkshire watching the Tour. I lost count of the number of times that I had to explain why I was not in UK when I was "supposed" to love cycling and lived 15 miles away from the greatest event of the year!


Some people just want to complete the event in any time; others like this year's elite winner, Peter Pouly want to do it in under 6 hours. For me, I want to make the gold standard ( under 9hrs 27 mins for my age group) and preferably get close to 8.5 hrs.
There was two elements to my training - start winter training early to build up my endurance and make sure that I included some serious amount of climbing, preferably in the Alps, prior to the event. I am very fortunate that I am retired, so could devote time to both aspects. It is not essential to do the latter, indeed a luxury for many, but, I find that unless you are especially fit, it is important to complete 2/3 long climbs to acclimatise your body and back! That is not easy to do in the UK as we do not have similar length climbs of several miles. I find the gradient isn't the problem, most of them are between 7% and 8%, but getting used to over an hour of continual climbing takes it's toll.
I steadily increased my mileage to 1000 miles a month for May and June having done 600 - 800 miles in March and April.
I was also concerned that I had not ridden more than 10000 ft of climbing in one day, and then found that I struggled on the next 2/3 climbs especially in the Alps. I would need to pace myself better. I have a habit of "clogging it" up the first big climb and then suffering especially as temperature goes up in the afternoon. This was my biggest concern - reaching the bottom of the Alpe d'Huez after 100 miles and 4000 metres of ascent to be faced with an unrelenting 8% gradient and 1000 metre ascent in 30 degrees of heat. For me, this meant using a heart rate monitor and ensuring I kept to about 135 - 140 bpm - about 85% of max (162 ) on the climbs.
Incidentally, making sure you get into the event takes planning, as it sells out in 24 hours. You need to make sure you know the opening entry date which us usually about end of November.

The Event 5 July 2014

We managed to get into the French Alps three weeks previous to event and did several climbs with my wife Marie. Two ascents of Mont Ventoux, Col de Bonette, Col d'Allos and Col d'Agnel plus a few smaller climbs in the Drome were great preparation along with 34 chainset and 29 tooth granny gear. I got used to ascending at about 135 bpm or 6-7 mph on on most climbs.
We have a campervan and arrived in Bourg on the Wednesday before, camping at the base of the Alpe. This is ideal. Some people stay in Alpe d'Huez which is great when you finish but not much fun when descending to start at 7am in 8/9 degrees.
I decided to cycle up the Alpe on the Thursday to register but took it easy. Rested on the Friday.
With 7000 entrants, it's a busy start but well organised. The elite go off early at 7.15; old gits like me much later! I went through the start at about 8am.
I took two water bottles filled with energy drink plus several bars. The weather forecast was looking good - sunny spells with 22 degrees.
You need to have your wits about you for the first few miles as people overtake and are overtaken on both sides of road. I stayed in middle mostly and kept safe. By the time you start the climb of the Col du  Glandon, 10 miles later, it is usually more settled. There is a steep climb to Le Rivier followed by a descent and then a very steep climb out of valley. Be ready for this and engage granny gear quick! A lot didn't and it wasn't easy to circumnavigate the casualties with crunching gears and attemps to re-cleat!
One of the best bits about the Marmotte, is that due to safety reasons, the descent off Glandon is neutralised so you can eat and drink at summit without worrying about time. Just as well really, as it is a bit chaotic with so many riders arriving. Just remember to cross timing mat.
Felt OK as had kept to my 135 bpm guide on ascent
The descent down Glandon to the Maurienne valley is beautiful, especially when not pressurised by the clock. Once in the valley at Sainte Marie de Cuines, you cross another timing mat and then up the valley to St Michel. You would think with so many riders, getting into a group would be easy, but found myself on my own just out of reach of group ahead by about 100 metres and pushing hard to catch for some time. I thought I was on my own until I looked around and saw 50 riders in a line behind me!
Eventually a Spanish guy did his turn and I arrived at base of Col du Telegraph not as fresh as I would have liked.
The climb from the valley at 500 metres to top of the Galibier at 2650 metres via the Telegraph is one of the iconic  climbs in the Alps and a must for most cyclists. The Telegraph climb is at about 7% for most of its length and then a short descent to Valloire and the feed station at the beginning of the Galibier ascent. I overtook about 40/50 people on the climb and was feeling reasonably comfortable, although any feelings of discomfort would have been an indulgence compared with the one legged cyclist who amazed everyone with his efforts.
Having eaten, and refilled my bottles at Valloire I started ascent of Galibier. The first half is not too bad but the climb from the Le Plan Lachat is at about 9% for 7 kilometres. Starting to see some cyclists suffering now, but kept my rhythm and overtook another 30/40 people.
There is a feed station at the summit but I decided to miss it, as I roughly calculated that I could possibly finish in less than 9 hours allowing for roughly an hour to Bourg and an hour and half up the Alpe if I just allowed for one more feed stop in Bourg.
The descent from Galibier makes the climb more than worthwhile. The views of La Meije glacier are stunning and the closed road means you can really let go on descent to Le Bourg. I often freewheel on descents but was determined to get down as quickly as possible averaging about 27mph. I wouldn't like to go through some of those tunnels at that speed when there is traffic!
A quick refuel at base of the Alpe and resisted temptation to pop into campsite for a coke, then start final ascent to finish.
Using granny gear, managed to keep up good rhythm and, again, overtook many cyclists on ascent. Even managed to really push on final kilometre when it gets easier. Crossed line in time of 8 hrs 26 mins, having taken about 1 hr 15 mins on climb.
Well pleased. My wife said I looked ashen but actually felt ok although very emotional. I think it is the anticipation, training, worry and then relief that wells up.
Picked up my certificate and went back down the mountain as more and more cyclists continue to climb to finish. It was reasonably warm but not as hot as some previous years, but a number of people struggled with the heat. There were lots of willing supporters with water thankfully.
My position was 2450 out of 6400 so in top 40%. The winner in my age category did it in 7 hrs!
My average heart rate was 75% of max.

In summary

Iconic event but I think you need to train for it if you want to complete without too much trauma. It is well organised but busy. Nervous riders may want start off later. Fast riders earlier.
Minimise stops by carrying food and drink if you want best time, but not Glandon! Looking back I could have managed with just Valloire after Glandon if I had filled both bottles.
It may be obvious to many, but finding a comfortable climbing cadence and heart rate made all the difference to me. It filled me with with confidence and I actually approached the Alpe feeling good!
Even climbing the Alpe to register and taking it easy gave me confidence.
On returning to UK I decided to do faster shorter training runs as was worried that I would have become one paced. That coupled with Alpine experience meant that, at next sportive ( Etape Pennines) I did better than I expected.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Etape Pennines 2014

Etape Pennines
When we applied for the Etape Caledonia, we were told it was fully booked, but you could enter, if you signed up for the double with the Etape Pennines.  A bit cheeky, but we thought it would be good to explore new cycling territory.  So a month earlier, we drove over to Barnard Castle in County Durham, and reccied the route, which starts there.  Barnard Castle is a very attractive market town with a castle, High Force waterfall and miles and miles of moorland on the doorstep.  We did a slightly shorter route, because it was only a few days after the Etape Caledonia, so got a slightly false sense of just how hilly it was!
On the day of the race, we cycled up to the start at 6.15am!  A closed road event, but they clearly wanted the minimum of disruption to traffic, as we would likely be finished by lunchtime!  The route takes you up past High Force,  into Weardale, up several hills and over to the highest metalled road in Britain, apparently.  Once over that, it was a steep, fast descent into Weardale, going north towards Northumbria.  Up and down to Ireshopeburn, north over the moor to Hunstanworth, up some more roads with arrows on them, south to Stanhope, another nasty climb out and back over the moors to Eggleston, and a super fast descent to Barnard Castle.  Only 62miles but tough, with 7500' ascent.  Really pleased with average of 12mph, which brought me in in 5hrs 10mins.  Ian had an amazing ride, averaging 15.1mph in 4hrs 05 mins.  Think we both felt that our time in the Alps had helped a lot.
The following day we moved on to explore Hawes, on the route of the depart of the Tour de France, Leeds to Harrogate.  In fact, they went right past the campsite, where we were staying, on route for the Cote de Buttertubs!  Great site, within a short walk of Hawes, six pubs and the delicious Black Sheep bitter!
The following day was hot and sunny as we set off up Buttertubs.  Apart from a couple of steep short ramps, it's not a daunting climb and short, at about 4miles.  The views over the surrounding moorland were gorgeous, as we dropped down to Thwaite and Swaledale.  From there on to Keld, where Colin and I called in the Coast to Coast, three years ago.  Up the climb to Tan Hill, and the highest pub in Britain.  Through Arkengarthdale! Very picturesque and on to Reeth, where we also stayed, and an early shared sandwich and a coke.  Over Greets Moss to Redmire village and into Wensleydale.  Climbed up Bishopdale and over to Hubberholme, and a brief stop to visit an old church, which Ian remembered visiting with his dad, when he was about ten.  His dad showed him the carvings of little mice on some of the pews, carved by the famous "Mouseman".  Off again, no time for a restorative pint at The George, which is shut on Tuesdays!  A gentle climb up Langstrathdale, which gets very steep towards the top, at 20%!  A precarious descent of 17%. Down into Gayle and on to Hawes, and a pint of Black Sheep, finally!  Hard cycle!  55miles and 6500' ascent!  The climbs around here average about 16%, but are not too long.  Well, long enough!  But an amazing day.  A bit too hot really but incredible.  Great route!

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Tour comes to Cassel

The Tour de France comes through Cassel
After Guignicourt we drove up to Eperleques, near St Omer in Flanders.  Heavy rain most of the way up!  A flattish not particularly scenic area, known mainly for the impact the first and second world wars had on it.  We arrived here at about lunchtime and by 2pm were out on our bikes watching the Tour come through Cassel.  Not the crowds we'd seen in Yorkshire, but still good fun and support, particularly seeing my favourite Tomas Voeckler out front, straining and pulling his usual faces.  Lovely climb up to Cassel, which we'd definitely come back to in the future, maybe giving ourselves an extra day here to explore Belgium, which is only about 20miles away.  32miles at a lovely faster speed.
Catching the Chunnel tomorrow after a fantastic and memorable time in France.  Looking forward to getting home though!

La Marmotte

The day of reckoning has arrived for Ian!  Spent all year training hard for this event.  Lots of climbing and distance.  The route goes over Col du Glandon, down to St Marie de Cuines on to St Jean de Maurienne, which we've already done so far, but on to Col du Telegraphe, over to the biggest climb of the day, Col du Galibier, all the way down to Bourg d'Oisan, some 25 miles, and the tough climb up the Alpe d'Huez, at potentially the hottest part of the day, with very tired legs, to the finish!  110 miles and 16600' climbing.  Really tough but very stunning scenery and a classic circuit, much beloved by the Dutch and celebrated as a classic event.  Very difficult to enter, in that it gets booked up almost immediately.
Having told a few people he was going to do it, Ian was beginning to doubt he was up to it.  Hoped he might do it in about 9 hours.
I had always wanted to ascend Galibier from Bourg.  Not a particularly difficult task, but a classic route following the Romanche river up past the barrage, through several badly lit tunnels,  on to La Grave, with spectacular views of the Meige Glacier and then zigzagging up to the Col du Lauteret, where the real climbing starts. Although a long 20 miles so far, the gradient is rarely steeper than 8%.  But from Lauteret, you frequently see 10% on the climb up to Col du Galibier, where I started to see more and more cyclists summitting from the Valloire side.  Must be doing the shorter version of the Marmotte.  The speed some of the faster cyclists descended down to Lauteret and eventually on to Bourg was breath-taking and frightening. I was glad of my flashing lights in the tunnels, as cyclists zipped past me with no lights, at twice the speed.  I was doing about 28mph!
I was glad to see the back of them at the reservoir, as I ascended the climb up to Col de Sarenne to transit over to the finish on Alpe d'Huez. Wouldn't be able to follow the riders up the Alpe, so chose this route so at least I could see Ian at the finish.
Climbing up Col de Sarenne after Galibier was quite tough, but I was ready for it, as I'd descended the same road only a few days ago.  The freshly laid gravel made the steep ascent tougher, because getting out of the saddle was difficult with rear wheel spinning in the loose gravel!  Anyway made it to the top and cycled over to the top of the Alpe, to see Ian come in a few hours later, in an impressive 8hrs 26mins.  Amazing and recognised as gold standard.  So proud of him.  The weather had played a part.  Cloudy and pleasant with little wind.  The sun came out later in the afternoon to really punish the poor beggars who were already suffering and coming in much later.  As we descended a few hours later, there were people walking up at the 4th hairpin with 17 more to go!  They looked exhausted and hot!
Ian was really pleased with his performance and was in good shape.  For me, it had been a tough but enjoyable day. 65miles and 10800' ascent.
The following day we set off on the long journey home, breaking it at Guignicourt, just north of Reims.

Alpe D'Huez

Whilst Ian started reluctantly to wind down,("I'm not doing this again, cos there's a lot I want to do, but have to think about resting!), I went off and had more fun in the mountains.  Aiming to continue this new phase of more distance, summitting a col and dropping down into pastures new and another valley, I cycled a route which took me up Alpe d'Huez, attempting a faster time than last year, over to the Col de Sarenne, which, literally minutes earlier had acquired brand new Tarmac and a shed-load of loose grit.  Not good for the tyres and even worse for the very steep and tricky descent into the Ferrand valley, where I've never been before.  Saw our Belgian neighbour from Allemont, who'd managed the steep ascent from the Ferrand valley! He'd been into Bourg the previous day to get a new cassette for his bike, especially for this ascent!
The narrow road winds down to the dam at the Barrage du Chambon, on the road to Galibier.  Then it climbs again up to Auris and a spectacular high-level balcony road which clings to the side of the hill, hundreds of feet above the valley.  A single track road, twisting and turning, requiring concentration, but amazing.  Comes out at La Garde, number 16 on the 21virages of the Alpe d'Huez, so quite low down!
Managed the ascent of the Alpe in 1hr 25mins and 42secs, wiping nearly 4 whole minutes off my previous time, so well-chuffed!  Overall distance today 32 miles and 5000' ascent. Ian cycled up the Alpe taking if steady to register in the afternoon.
In the evening we'd went to la Romanche restaurant which is best in Bourg. Full of Dutch and equivalent noise!
The following day, Ian went stir crazy and rested at the van, whilst I went off on the beautiful road to La Berarde.  Saw a very large, very dead pine marten at the side of the road.  Another spectacular balcony route, in places, culminating in a dead-end and a mountainous full-stop at the hamlet of La Berarde.  The Barre des Ecrins in front of you, the highest being Mt Pelvoux at 3946m.  Stunning. 41 miles and 3876' ascent.
Marmotte tomorrow and my date with Galibier!

Col de Glandon and Croix de Fer Circuit

Lovely day for the Col de La Croix de Fer circuit
After the efforts of the Vaujany, we just pottered up to Villard Reculas on the Monday and continued on a little of the balcony road, but didn't go far, as we have a longer expedition organised for the following day.  It's a cracking circuit but again a long one.  If you want to drop down into a different valley a take in more than one col, it's always going to be a long day.  But we're in no rush!
I set off half an hour ahead of Ian, climbing the long straight section up to La Rivier, going North of Allemont.  Five miles of steady climbing!  Ian's going to have to do this all again, in a few days time when he cycles the Marmotte challenge, so it's more practice for him.  After the massive hydro-electric dam and lake of the Grand Maison, there's the last ascent up to the Col du Glandon.  The mouse had just been caught by the cat!  First break of the day, and a coffee at the cafe.  Not following the lovely final climb which sweeps around up to my favourite col, the Croix de Fer. But we will come to that later in the day.  Over the Col du Glandon, and down the other side into the Vallee des Villards.  Beautiful descent through alpine meadows and following the river all the way down to the little town of St Marie de Cuines, on to St Etienne de Cuines and eventually St Jean de Maurienne in the valley of the same name.  Time to grab a sandwich and two cokes each, before beginning the long gradual climb up to St Jean d'Arves, getting steeper as you cycle through St Sorlin d'Arves.  Told Ian to get off at his own pace and I'd see him back at the van!
  A little pause for a swig of water at the curious church of St Sorlin, with its funereal crafted iron and silver wreaths, fixed all over the outside walls.  Last slow pull out of the ski village, which the local cafe owner at the summit later told me was 65% owned by the Dutch in the form of second homes.  No wonder the place is full of them!  Fun-loving and friendly, but you wouldn't chose to sit next to them on a restaurant!  A bit loud!
A celebratory hot chocolate at the friendly cafe and a chat, a bit one-sided, with family members of the owner.  Off on the final descent home, sweeping past the turn-off for Glandon from earlier in the day.  Fast but careful descent into Articol, and eventually past Vaujany and into Allemont.  Tough day but fantastic.  72miles and 11000' ascent.
Weather was rubbish the following day so made it a rest day!  Moved the van down the road a few miles to Bourg d'Oisan, in preparation for the start of the Marmotte.  Site now in Peak season and costing 45euros per night, as opposed to 16 at Allemont, and the cheeky beggars want all you payment up front, which we've never known anywhere else in France.  We'll stay at Allemont next time.  They may have a lovely swimming pool, but so what!
More about the Marmotte later, but Ian's spent all year doing lots of miles and climbing in preparation for this race.  Extremely tough and not for the faint-hearted (that covers me then!).

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Vaujany Sportive

We had to be in Allemont, in the Isere area of the Parc des Ecrins, for the Vaujany cycle race, we were both entered for. For Ian, it's just a preparation for the Marmotte, and he has done the Vaujany before. For me it was my first French cycle epreuve or sportive. Just had a bit of a warm-up cycle down into nearby Bourg d'Oisan and then reccy the last 10kms culminating in the steep climb into Vaujany, for the "mountain top" finish.  Not quite but still steep averaging over 9% for 6kms into the finish.  Registered and then rested ready for the race.  Ian warned me that the forecast didn't look good.  Rain all day and lots of it!
It poured with rain all night and we sprang a leak again in the van!  Got up at 6am to the sound of heavy rain!  The thought of not turning up never crossed my mind, even as we set off, downhill, at 20mph down the Sechilliennes valley.  Dark and gloomy.  Street lights on.  Couldn't look up because hard rain was belting my face.  Was wearing all the clothes I carried, free arm warmers(I was given on entry), vest, leg warmers and cagoule.  Energy bars and gels and carb drinks.  Some cyclists already cycling back, after 10miles.  Never considered doing the same.  At the foot of the Alpe du Grand Serre, it struck me that I was soaked to the skin and cold, and unless the rain eased off, it wasn't going to get any better!  A good 15km climb up Grand Serre with a gradient of 7%.  Ideal for keeping moving at a good pace and warming up a bit.  Climbed through surreal forest landscape with swirling mists and poor visibility.  Really atmospheric.  Just getting warmer when we hit the top and started the very long and very cold descent into the Valbonnais valley.  Normally fantastic views but not today!  Really cold.  Food stop in Valbonnais and then the climb up to Col d'Ornon, which is not too bad from this side.  Still raining but not as heavily.  Not too steep but it goes on a bit!  Starting to warm up again nicely, ready for the cold descent to the main road to Bourg.  A steady climb back and then the stinky finish up to Vaujany.  Sun decided to poke out for a few minutes as I crossed the line.  Glad to have finished.  69miles, 8000' climbing in 6hrs24, including stops.  Silver time, and only 7mins outside Gold time!  They allow you more time for being a female and then for 50-59yrs.  Maybe they realise you need more "wee" stops over a certain age!  First in that category, out of three!!  Not bad, bearing in mind time lost on slower descents in the foul weather.  Maybe next time.  Ian did really well having improved on his previous time, in spite of the weather, 4hrs 59.  Amazing. Third in old gits category!


Weather still unsettled so headed slightly SW for 30 odd miles to Veynes for slightly easier climbs, slightly better weather and to explore another new area, although not far from Serres, where we were a few days ago.  Site is Camping Solaire about a mile from Veynes.  Beautiful facilities but not really open!  Still cleaning and repairing ready for a very short season to come.  Beautiful swimming pools not open till 1st July!  Consequently off-peak price.
Picked up another great little map from the local tourist office showing several itinineraires partages from  11 routes with varying degrees of distance and ascent.  Picked the moderately difficult Boucle de Haut Buech, which sets off from Veynes and goes right past the campsite.  78 kms with 1093m of ascent.  It's a delightfully fast and gentle cycle touring through farmland and quiet, little hamlets like Oze, Chabestan, Savournon at the base of Mt d'Aujour, on to Serres and Sigottier, Aspremont, la Baume, Montbrand and then along the Buech river to Veynes.  Saw no other cyclists and only one car on most of the route.  So quiet that I turned the bend at one time to catch a massive bird of prey, picking up and carrying away a 3' snake in its talons!
The following day, Ian planned to do a tougher climbing route into the Drome area, so I went my own way and set off on the Tour de Montagne d'Aujour, again reliably signposted every kilometre, 64kms from the campsite and 1127m ascent.  From Chabestan to Le Saix on to the tiny hamlet of Chateauneuf d'Oze, over the impressive Col d'Espereaux along the side of a gorge, through Barcillonnette and then Monetier-Allemont.  A spinach quiche warmed up by the Boulanger and a can of coke from the bar opposite for lunch. Just me and two elderly men chatting and drinking pastis in this quiet little town, and yet the bar-man was friendly and smiling.  I've always found the French very pleasant and more than happy to chat, if you show any inkling of ability to speak French.
After lunch, along the quiet roads over the climb up the Col de Faye, covering some of the route we'd done before in a terrible thunderstorm, so it was nice to relax this time and enjoy the views!  Down the beautiful valley of Savournon, Chabestan and then back to the campsite.  A bit barren on the first half.  The terrain is drier and rockier around here.
The following day we left for Allemont and drove through the Devoluy region.  Looked very interesting with its forests, topped with impressive rocky peaks, gorges and rivers.  Another area very close by worth coming back to.  That's the difference this time, we've tried not to do too much driving, but still explore new areas closer by.  The more we look, the more we realise how much there is to see.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Boucle de L'Izoard

The Boucle d'Izoard
Had planned to climb the Col dIzoard, which I've never done before, but had seen signs for a Boucle, or circuit, which seemed more interesting than just climbing and then descending the same way.  So we picked up some information from the Tourist Info, a great simple map with twelve proposed routes.  Naturally the Boucle was the longest and the most strenuous.  I'd have expected nothing less from Ian!
After a day's rest, when Ian went off on his own to explore Ceillac, I was up for the challenge.  The route took us up the Queyras gorge again, but then you turn left off the road, before Queyras and start the ascent, up through pine woods, through the alpine meadows of La Chalp, on through the trees again, climbing higher, eventually to the Caisse Deserte before reaching the top of the Col.  It's so strange to come out of the woods and on to a lunar landscape, similar to the top slopes of Ventoux.  The scree extends for miles with the road twisting through it.  Huge dolomite peaks rise straight up from the scree.  Must look incredible in the snow.
A coca cola, and piece of foil-covered fruit loaf and then we were both together off down the descent into Briancon.  We'd packed a sandwich for lunch and drank another coke in a bar before setting off on the return to Guillestre.  The route very cleverly took us South crossing the main N94 road, through forests and villages, with minimal traffic, mostly downhill, but occasionally climbing with clear views of the Durance river and the valley floor below.  A spectacular route of  62mls and 7000' of ascent.
Called in at the pub in Guillestre for a celebratory pint of Guinness, before heading back.
That night we were besieged by ants!  Everywhere in the van, even in bed!  3am buttoned myself inside the duvet cover to try and get some respite.  Moved the van to another pitch early in the morning.  I then went off on a second attempt up to Risoul.  When I got back, chuffed at knocking 10mins off my time, 1hr 16secs, was less chuffed to find thousands more ants in the van.  Everywhere!  Ian went off for some chemical help, put powder all around tyres, and sprayed all over inside of van.  Emptied it of carpets, clothing, bedding, food, mostly everything!  Sprayed and then cleaned the van thoroughly.  Took all afternoon, which ought to have been rest time!
Slept like logs that night and no ants.  Ian's new campagnolo wheels, ordered at a good price from Wiggle have arrived, so time to move on.  I've been badgering him to buy some new wheels, ever since Lorenzo told us his story of how his wheel had "exploded" on him going uphill!  Ian finally admitted that he had done a good deal of mileage on these wheels, and it could be time to change them.  With visions of them and him exploding on a fast downhill section, he succumbed to ordering them express from Wiggle.  They flew them to Marseille and then drove them to Guillestre, for £15!


Back to the big hills, NE to Guillestre, in the Hautes Alpes, where we've been before, when Ian did the Route des Grandes Alpes a few years ago.  Lovely site, Camping de St James, by the side of the glacial waters of the Guil.  Canoeists are keen on the river Guil with its fast flowing, turbulent water.  Saw a group from UK launching into river.  Guillestre has many very old buildings, dating back to the 17th century, with painted frescos on the outer walls of the church.  Very small, but a little more lively than it was when we were here a few years ago.  Even managed to watch the England v Uruguay match, which we lost!
Back in the big mountains with a number to choose from.  Set off separately for Col de Vars, but decided to climb to ski village of Risoul first.  It features as the final climb in a stage of this year's Tour de France.  Easier and shorter than the Alpe d'Huez, but very similar.  Climb to 1850m with stunning views of the mountains which surround Guillestre and on up to Briancon.  There's a striking Napoleonic fort on the hillside across from Risoul, perched high on a rock face.
Back down into Guillestre and then the start of the long climb up to the Col de Vars. The road twists and turns to start with, with a great view across to the Mademoiselle Coiffees, set in the forest opposite.  There known as the Fairy Chimneys in English.  Strange columns of rock, eroded over time, which stand about fifty foot tall, with darker rock caps on, shaped like hats. The tops are of one of the hardest rock, gabbro.  Once the gabbro top erodes, the whole chimney breaks down rapidly.  Had time to read about this as I stopped on a tough section of the climb to drink some water.  Can't drink and breathe heavily at the same time!
The climb up through Vars village is the hardest bit, and then it easies up a bit near a Refuge Napoleon before climbing steeply over the last few kilometres.  A great pit stop at the top, with a very friendly proprietor, a hot chocolate and then the fast descent back down the same way.  Beautiful but found it hard.  42 mls. 6906' ascent.
The following day, we went up Col d'Agnel, on the border with Italy.  At 2700m, it is the highest pass in this area.  It starts off with 10miles of gradual climbing twisting along the Queyras gorge, going through Chateau Queyras, and then through the villages and alpine meadows, past another Refuge Napoleon, built for the infantry to defend the borders.  The climb to the top is a stinker, with gradients of 10%+, for the last few kilometres.  But climbing up on a road edged with high banks of snow and mountains all around gives you such a thrill, and a real sense of how high you've come!
Freezing at the top, but time to put on as many layers as you've managed to stick in your tiny back pockets.  Nowhere to eat, so cereal bars and jam sandwich will have to do.  Sit and take in the views of the Pain de Sucre mountain ridge and Monte Viso, 3841m, and the steep climb from the Italian side.  Surrounded by Italian cyclists, chattering away, clearly delighted to be at the top.  A fast descent all the way down to Ville-vielle, where I caught up with Ian for a coca cola.  Cycled back into the brisk afternoon winds, which build up every afternoon in these valleys.   54mls and 6716' ascent.

Serre South Circuit

Serres, the Buech valley, and the Gorge de la Meouge
Serre is a medieval town on the river Buech, about 30 miles SW of Gap.  Thought we'd try and head for some better weather, with thunderstorms and heavy rain forecast.  Located in the Provencale part of the Hautes-Alpes,  there aren't any big passes of note, but loads of smaller passes, making for a different and still quite challenging cycling area.
 Found a site up a forest track high above Serre.  We spent some time positioning the van in the shade.  We needn't have bothered!  The following day we set off early intending a long day, with a lot of miles but much less climbing than usual.  The morning was fine as we cycled at speed along a quiet road, all the way south to Orpierre, on to Laborel and then a lovely steady climb up to the Col de Perty, with gorgeous views of the Montagne de Chabre, 1312m.  Left at St Auban sur l'Ouveze , left to Mevouillon, and then an enforced longer lunch break than normal, as it poured with rain.  We shot into an unassuming local bar, the only one in Sederon, and ordered a coffee.  As it continued to pour, I asked what the plat de jour was: veal, duck and filet mignon. We opted for the third choice, which came after a small salad with home-made goats cheese quiche.  The filet looked like veal and tasted like lamb, and was delicious with a gently spiced couscous and deliciously flavoured spinach.  Could have had a pudding of tarte au citron and choice of wine, but we were only half way round and opted for no pud and no wine, or we'd never get going again!  Whilst we were there, more soggy cyclists dripped into the bar, no doubt having seen our bikes parked outside.  12euros each for a great lunch, which left us feeling satisfied but not uncomfortable and all good protein and carbs.  Meanwhile it had stopped raining but the roads were absolutely soaked, so wet feet, wet bum, soaked within a few minutes.  From Sederon, our furthest point south, in the Drome region, which we love, we cycled almost due East towards the Gorges de la Meouge.  A lovely cycle down, but will have to try it the other way another time, because some of the best views of the rocks towering above the Gorges were behind us.
A quick coffee in Laragne-Monteglin, and then north through Lazer, Ventavon, with sky darkening all the time.  Over the Col de Faye, 943m, with lightning flashing close by and thunder rumbling!  Too frightened and soaked to enjoy what was clearly a stunning route.  The rain was heavy and relentless.  On to Savournon, on a pretty rural road and then the main road back to Serres, with lights on front and back, water running down our legs, arms and faces.  Absolutely freezing and desperate to get back to the van and out of the lightning!  Last mile steeply climbed up through the forest back to the van.  Don't think I've ever got up quicker!  Heater on, kettle on (blowing the sensitive electric connection!), wet clothes off and stacks of wet clothes and shoes hanging around the van, like a Chinese laundry!  Still a good day's cycling, but wondering what happened to the heat of less than a week ago!  87miles and 5600' climbing, averaged 13.4 mph.

Saturday, 21 June 2014


Guil Valley Queyras


Col de la Bonette

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