I initially allowed three days for this leg of the trip. It looked like the weather was going to close in, so I decided to do it in two. They were to be the toughest, but also most rewarding two days of the trip so far.
Leaving Joe’s was a straightforward autoroute blast along the coast to Menton, where the Route des Grandes Alpes begins. Unfortunately the French love arbitrarily closing things, like the tourist information office, which is where I had hoped to find a map and some advice about which passes were open. In a presse I found a map that covered at least the first part of the route and turned towards the mountains.
My first Alpine pass was the Col de Turini. I reached the top through a hailstorm where I took shelter in a café. The proprietor said that the pass between me and the next petrol station was closed. I didn’t have enough in the tank to go around it so chose to double back towards Nice, hoping there would be one along that road. There wasn’t, but I just made it to the outskirts of Nice where I filled up. I chose a different route back into the mountains and had the interesting experience of filtering through the rush hour jams at 80km/h with all the maxi scooters.
In some cases, like riding through Nice, it’s impossible to stop and photograph what is going on. It’s also hard to stop when the weather is bad because it’s no fun standing around in the rain getting wet hands, which leads to the misery of wet gloves. I have less photos of this leg of the trip than I would perhaps like. But at the same time I have as many photos as I was happy taking. There is a tension between photographing a journey and taking part in it. I probably spend the most time with the camera once I’ve stopped and set up camp. That’s when the light is best, in the mornings and evenings, plus I find it easier to concentrate once the riding, navigating and campsite locating is done or yet to begin.
I found my new favourite campsite at the foothills of the Col de Cayolle, a flat grassy spot completely surrounded by mountains. The altitude was about 1400m so I knew that under my sleeping bag I’d have to wear the full complement of leggings, a long sleeved top, wooly jumper and socks, plus a down jacket to get a good night’s sleep. As I climbed the col in the morning the snow line was only 200m above my camp so I’d estimate the night time temperature would only have been a degree or two above freezing. As usual I was up with the sun (at about 6am) but didn’t mind at all. It was fantastic to have the road all to myself, and I was so excited about the day ahead that I wouldn’t have got back to sleep anyway.
To take the above photo I removed a glove and set it on the ground beside me. It swiftly slid its way into the lake and I spent half an hour throwing lumps of snow into the water to push it backwards or forwards towards one bank or the other. I was unsuccessful and—probably wisely considering the temperatures—decided against stripping off and paddling in. I still had summer gloves at least, and on the way down saw some animals more suited to the climate than I now was.
There were loads of these little creatures on the road down from the Col de Cayolle.
It was Saturday and there were lots of bikes—with and without engines—in the mountains. Near Briançon I joined at about 100 cars and 50 motorbikes at a Police roadblock because there was a cycle race taking place on the road ahead. 45 minutes later the road reopened, and somehow I ended up being the first bike to leave. It was very surreal passing the few leading cars then having so many bikes in my mirrors, the road empty and flanked every now and then by a policeman or two.
Heading up the Col de la Croix de Fer I ended up in the middle of a group of Norwegians on very shiny sportsbikes. We all stopped at the reservoir pictured below. I talked to them briefly: they had trailered their bikes across northern Europe for 4 days just to ride the Alpine roads for a weekend.
It was still tricky picking a route around the closed passes, especially since I was now off the map I’d bought in Menton. I pulled over next to some German bikes and asked them if they had a karte that I could look at. They obliged, and seemed to think that although the next pass was officially still closed it would be possible to cross it. I tagged along and indeed, we reached the top on a snow-free road.
Coming down the other side of the pass the road was completely blocked by a huge digger. With a bit of manhandling we got all five bikes around it and we went our separate ways shortly afterwards. Many thanks to Kai and friends.
There were a few more passes to do, then a short stretch of motorway in order to get to Péron, where my cousin lives. The final couple of hours of riding were on the easiest roads, but I was mentally drained by the time of my 8pm arrival. 14 hours of riding in one day, and all of the cols in the second picture crossed in less than 24 hours. It felt like the rest of the trip had been training for this day. A month previous I would have found it too difficult.
It may not sound enjoyable to push so hard but sometimes that is the adventure. It goes back to, and deeper than, the tension between experiencing a journey and photographing it. There is some joy that doesn’t start until all else pulls out of focus, leaving only the sharp edge between the tarmac and the rest of everything, that cuts a line from one moment to the next.