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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Monday, 16 June 2014

Two Cols

Still in Barcelonette, two beautiful cols.
Grey, cool weather.  Down to about 15'C!  The stifling heat of Provence was long forgotten.  We set off early to get as much cycling done as we could before the weather worsened, as it was forecast.  Our Spanish camper set off two hours before us at 6am, as he'd planned to do a 170km circuit with 10000 ft of climbing taking in Col de Cayolle, Col du Champ, Allos and Col d'Allos.  We planned to shorten it by cycling up Col d'Allos, which I've never done before, and back down into the Ubaye valley and then up to Col de Cayolle and back to campsite.  The route up to the Col d'Allos is carved into the rocks, suspended above the Bachelard gorge.  The views up to the peaks are breath-taking.  With an average gradient of 7% and max of 11%, the climb is testing but not to difficult.  You climb 1115m over 21 km.  A superb col where you're straight over the top and down into Colmar, if you wanted to,  our friend Lorenzo would be climbing up from Colmar.
Time to put on cagoule, warmer gloves and twist and turn back down the climb, trying to get warm!
At the bottom, a right hand turn took us on the much further ascent up to Col de Cayolle.  29km is a long way but you can maintain a good pace with an average gradient of only 4%, with a max of 8.2%   Ranked by "Le Cycle" magazine as one of the 30 most beautiful climbs in Europe.  Not a lover of league tables but it is glorious.  Cannot understand why there were only a handful of cyclists on the route, and in fact, Ian and I were the only ones on Allos at the time!  The area is very understated, not very touristy and not big on self-promotion.  Doesn't try too hard.  In fact could say it doesn't try at all!  Tried to buy some food when we got back but they shut at noon on Sunday.  Understandable, but then when we returned on Monday at a reasonable time,10am, shops were closed then also!
Anyway, back to Cayolle, the road hugs the river Ubaye, a grey-blue glacial river, claims the narrow gorge of the torrent, passes through sleepy hamlets, before ascending through alpine meadows, with Spring flowers, over 9kms at 7%.  Disturbed several furry dog-sized marmots, crossing the road and sent them whistling down the slopes.  Time yo stop at the top, take a photo, put on cagoule, leg warmers, warm gloves and head scarf.  Freezing.  Fast but long descent into Barcelonette, avoiding debris on the road left behind after the winter.  Cold and hungry, didn't take enough food with me- only a couple of biscuits.  Stupid!  Back to pasta before walking into town to watch last stage of Dauphine with Lorenzo, in a cafe.  Froome struggled and Talansky, USA, won the tour, with Contador, looking great, hard on his heels.  Great day.  First time I've tackled two cols in one day.  Total of 56miles and 7500' of ascent.

Saturday, 14 June 2014


We high-tailed out of there and drove through Sault and on to Forcalquier in the Luberon.  Ian had heard about another climb from Forcalquier up the Montagne de Lure, also known as the mini-Ventoux.  We'd use this site as a base and wanted to check it out.  Just to be clear Mt de Lure is only 100 m lower than Ventoux, so it's not what I'd call a "mini"!
Anyway too hot to stop, but something to come back for.  We picked up the autoroute, having had enough of the twisty roads, and drove on to Barcelonnette, in the Alps, close to the border with Italy, to a site we've been at before, small and friendly.  We were here a few years ago, when Ian did the Route des Alpes.  The town isn't particularly interesting, but there's lots of good climbing to be had.  As we pitched up, we felt the benefit of the cooler alpine air. Forecast isn't too sparkling for the next few days, with thunderstorms and rain, but a welcome reduction in temperature.
With rain forecast for later in the day, we set off the following morning at 8.30, on route for the Col de la Bonette, debatably the highest pass in Europe, at 2800m.  We're not setting off at sea level, but it's still a fair old climb.  Reasonable gradient, especially the final few kilometres, which sweep around the side of the glacial mountain.  It was so lovely to breathe in the cool mountain air.  Not very busy, but then this whole area isn't.  Can't think why, but it's just not touristy.  2hrs 55 to top.  This time I did the last kilometre or so up to the Cime, the peak at the top, which it seems was artificially added, to ensure the fame of being the highest paved road!  Not sure you get any better view, but it felt good to have done it finally, as previous years snow has blocked our way.  Even now, I had to carry the bike over a barrage of snow to get to the narrow road beyond, covered with glacial debris!
The descent was fast, but chilly, and the only danger was watching out for old racing cars flying up the mountain, on the annual motor rally.  I waited for Ian, who had added on a climb up to Pra Loup, a nearby ski station, wanting to get a bit more climbing in his legs, ready for the cycle event ahead.  Got talking to a fellow camper, Lorenzo, a Madrileno living in Pau, in the French Pyrenees.  He'd cycled over from Italy and gave us several good tips on where to camp, and what the cycling was like.  He'd also spent some time in Tenerife, cycling, had lived for 17years in Galway, Ireland, as a musician of Irish pipes. Really interesting chap, with fantastic English.
5520' ascent over 40 miles.  Reason I mix feet with metres is that my new Garmin bike computer ( Christmas present) shows ascent in feet!
Thunder rolled around again, with a little rain.  Getting cooler.  23' today.

A Change of Plan

Another Epic!
We had planned to take it easier today, and then do two ascents of Ventoux tomorrow, but there was a forecast of more wind tomorrow, which unfortunately Ian didn't pick up until this morning, so swift change of plan!  The weather is very "special" on Ventoux, like all big mountains.  It's rare not to feel the cold and the wind.  So a pleasant climb can mean a freezing experience on the summit, but a pleasant summit can mean a hot, fly-ridden ascent!
Set off cycling at 7.30 am, about an hour too late!  But warm temperatures, rather than hot.  A shady, pine tree-lined ascent from Bedoin, with a relentless 9%.  Not too bad, apart from the flies.  Had to take my glasses off because they were buzzing up the inside!  The last 4km are a stinker, labouring up in the heat, past photographers, Tommy Simpson's memorial, and grinding away up the last 500m at 11%!  It always makes me sad to see how close Simpson got to the summit, a mere one kilometre away, before his heart packed up, with footage of him trying to get back in the saddle, before losing consciousness!  The power and the pressure of drugs!
The descent into Sault is delightful.  Met up with Ian, who was on his way back up, but paused for five minutes with me.  He'd made the summit half an hour faster!  A thirty minute break, coffee, coke and cheese baguette, and I was off again!  It's an achievement to ascend Ventoux twice in 98' heat, but that said the ascent from Sault is the easiest.  In third gear most of the way, with patches of faster gears, as the ascent levels off near Chalet Reynard, an average of 4.5%. Sheer bliss!  Still had to repeat the last 6km again, past the same photographers and Simpson's memorial.  But this time, ironically, felt less weary, helped by the clouds bubbling up and a breeze. Fast descent into Bedoin, to 98' heat again, just in time to catch Ian, who'd taken the longer route back through Malaucene.  A lovely cold large beer, with talk about what might have been if it hadn't been too hot!  There is a challenge of three ascents up Ventoux, from Bedoin, Malaucene and Sault, in descending order of difficulty, to be undertaken in 12 hours.  Ian would have had no difficulty.  I might have just about managed it, including stoppage times, as I'd managed two in 6hrs 45 mins, with at least another 4 hours of climbing, a descent and stoppage time to be added.  Ah well, that'll keep for another year, but hopefully in the near future, before we get too decrepit!
Anyway, a few provisions from the local shop, with strawberries stuffed down my front, and onions rammed into back pockets, and a slightly wary cycle back to the nearby campsite.  Thank heavens we stopped at one beer!
Crazy though it sounds, it's harder being back at the site apr├Ęs cycle.  Hot and sticky.  Forecast for foreseeable future, scorchio, scorchio, scorchio.  Stuff acclimatisation, give me Scottish weather again.  Forecast for further North, 14'.  What is going on!
Just to add.  It's the cherry season here in Provence, with the sweetest cherries for sale in large quantities for a few euros.  The lavender is not out yet, probably nearer July.

The Dauphine powers through the Drome

The thunderstorm yesterday evening hadn't made the slightest difference to the daytime heat.  Fortunately the night time is pleasant and even cool at about 3am.  Pity we can't cycle then, but I am going to have to get myself going much sooner than the usual 8am start.  Up at 7am, but not away until 8.  Need to nudge that nearer to 7am.  Lovely start to the day, on my favourite road over to Malaucene, weaving through pine trees and pineapple-scented broom, with far-reaching views over the hills of Provence.  On to Vaison-la-Romaine, with its Roman heritage, and eventually on to Nyons, of black olive fame.  Out to Curnier, about 8miles east of Nyons, on the main road to Gap.  Here we paused for over an hour waiting for the Criterium de Dauphine to come through.  A pre-cursor to the Tour de France, it's often held in Lyon and the surrounding area of the Rhone-Alpes.  Froome won it last year, and has won two of the seven? stages so far.  Contador and Nibali are also in the race.  So we hauled up in a nearby cafe and downed two cokes and a piece of apple pie each, sitting in the shade as the temperature climbed up to 38'C!  The front runners powered through at speed, eating up the gradual climb to the top, where we were waiting.  A good five minutes at least elapsed before the peloton, led by the Sky Team, with Froome in yellow, surged past.  A couple of water bottles we thrown clear and nearly took us out, cheering at the side of the road!  I picked up a Europcar bottle, that I like to think may have belonged to that housewive's favourite, Tommy Voekler!
Right, off again, being only half way round our planned route, and because of the delay, we were getting towards midday and the heat!  Over the biggest climb of the day, the Col d'Ey, 717m.  Not much shade on the climb up, but not too steep.  The descent off to Buis-les-Baronnies, where we stayed last year, was stunning, with views stretching out to Mt Ventoux.  The Drome-Provencale region. Lovely descent, and a lovely ascent for a future time.  Time to sit in the shade again, and another coke and a croque-monsieur.  Off again to Entrechaux, and up and down to Malaucene again.  Last climb of the day up to Col de la Madeleine, and over to Bedoin.  66 miles, about 4200' climbing, and unbelievably average temperature of 99.7'F!  Sat with feet plunged into cold water, in an effort to reduce body temperature.

France June 2014

More as an aide memoire than for anyone reading!:
First used the van on a trip to Anglesey in May, to reccy the annual Whitbread walk.  Glorious weather, great coastal walk from Holyhead to Treardurr Bay, where we were camped.  Beautiful rugged coastline.  Would definitely return.  So close to home and yet very different landscape.
A few weeks late saw us camped in Pitlochry, ready for the Caledonian Etape, 81 miles around Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch.  We've done this event a few times before, in mixed weather.  Booked the site on 3rd January, as Pitlochry is deluged with up to 5000 entrants this year.  Mercifully the weather was fine, but chilly, and we both achieved good times of 3 hrs 58 mins  and 5 hrs 13.  No clues for guessing who did what time!  With a little help from friends and family, raised a good chunk of money for Marie Curie Cancer Research.
We spent a couple of days on Skye, with a lovely cycle to Glen Brittle, and the following day an 85 ml tour of Northern Skye, taking in Portree, Old Man of Storr, the pass of Quiraing, a bit like a mini alpine climb, Uig, over the hills to Dunvegan, and back to Sligachan campsite.  Unfortunately that was it!  No trip further into the Hebrides this time.  Try again later in the year.  With poor weather forecast for the foreseeable, and good weather elsewhere, we legged it back to England, and explored a route we'll be cycling in July, the Etape Pennines.  Camped at Barnard Castle and cycled over to High Force waterfall, and from Teesdale to Weardale and back.
A few weeks later, we were off again, back to Anglesey, this time staying at the Pen y Bont campsite, near an inland "sea", near Treaddhur Bay.  Run by a very welcoming couple, the campsite is spotless with gorgeous views towards the coast.  The 32nd Whitbread Walk, organised by Ian and Julia, and this time, Peter, was a great success.  16 people turned up from all over the country, with only Graham still working for the company!  100% success in terms of everyone finishing the 14 mile walk (we usually lose a few along the way, and there was a wobble at the pub with 5miles still to go!
So that's a quick catch up.  Now for France 2014.  Not started too favourably, with a dicky water pump, which occasionally worked, deciding to pack up.  So prospect of four weeks in France with no water on board.  Never mind, as Ian keeps telling me, we've got plenty of water bottles to fill up at the taps on site!  More contrary than the pump is the fact that as the French are beginning to plan their trip to Yorkshire, to see the start of the Tour de France, we're off in the opposite direction.  The bad timing was unavoidable, as Ian has a cycle event planned in the Alps, on the day the tour opens in Yorkshire.  We've both entered one the week before also.
So a long journey from Anglesey to Surrey and an overnight stop, with a cycle up to the top of Box Hill, of Olympics fame, on the Eurotunnel through to France, a long journey down to Arc en Barrois, and then the third leg down to Bedoin, Provence, our destination.  Arrived at our favourite campsite to be told they were full.  Had tried to book, but the cheeky beggars wouldn't let us book for a stay shorter than 2 weeks!  Is she joking!  We've never stayed longer than 5 nights anywhere!!
So off to the cheaper alternative, but as it turns out, the equally good municipal site, also in Bedoin, Camping La Pinede.  Set on terraces amongst the pine trees.  We arrived with a high temperature alert, at 38 deg.  Absolutely boiling wandering around the site, deciding which pitch to move into.  Too much choice, and out of season, because the swimming pool was closed!  Crazy people parked by the dozen on a nearby Aire, with no shade at all, in the blistering heat!
After a comfortable night's sleep, we set off over to Malaucene.  Ian said he was taking it steady, but I lost sight of him after about 30 mins!  Climbed up Le Mont Ventoux, with the sun beating down.  Easier than the Bedoin ascent, so seemed like the sensible option, for our first tough climb, after three days of driving.  Very hot, but still took another layer and cag, just to be on safe side, because I can't remember ever being warm on Ventoux.  21 km and 5600' ascent always takes me by surprise.  Felt good but excruciating pain in toes!  There's always something, sore back, sore bum, sore neck!  Relieved that it clouded over near the top, but constantly wafting away dozens of flies, buzzing around ears, sunglasses, gloves etc.  Like Pigpen, in Peanuts, I looked just behind me to see a cloud of flies, competing to see who could land on me first!
A chocolat chaud at Chalet Reynard cafe 7km from summit, on the way back down and a fast descent into Bedoin.  The heat hit you on the descent, like an oven, and people were still making their way up the mountain.  Thunder was beginning to rumble behind, and the odd spot of rain!  Back at camp, the storm clouds gathered behind us, and later lightning and heavy rain broke the heat!  Hopefully it'll be more comfortable tomorrow.  Good for getting acclimatised to cycling in the heat but there is a limit!