La Route des Grandes Alpes (Part II)

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5 days of cycling; 530 miles; and, what turned out to be, over 73,000 feet of vertical climbing. Self-supported and on my own.

It should still be fresh in my mind – I only finished it a couple of days ago – but it feels like a tapestry – made up of hundreds of little dots – and to focus on one or two moments would be to miss the picture as a whole. This ‘tour’ can only be described as the whole thing: the beginning and the end are the clearest punctuations – but it was so much more about the journey than the destination.

Fate had dictated that I was to do the whole thing solo – sometimes miles from any other human being. So a lot of time to think, and to watch the world slowly changing in front of my wheels, to think about my life; my family; and the future & past; to curse the weight of my panniers; and to wonder when the next water stop would come.

Over the latter 3 days, I did several climbs, a couple of hours of riding each, barely seeing another person, car or bike. It felt as though it was just me, a road and a view. Each summit, which started off looking like such a monster, would slowly get chiseled away as my bike edged skywards. Bit by bit I was able to take them down – tapping out a rhythm on my pedals, heart beating in time. Each time it felt like I was slowly bringing to its knees a giant that towered over me in strength – but that could be beaten by a gentle persistence and a thirst to see round that next bend.

The clarity of the air and of the light. Air so crisp that a ripple of wind would chill your skin; but that the sun would still burn it. I’d climb the cols removing more and more layers, often finishing in an unzipped T-shirt, but then would shiver at the summit as soon as I’d stop, before descending with full body warmers and a snood.

Regarding my battle with illness, I knew in the middle of night after Day 2 that I was going to be ok. I woke up at 3am suddenly urgently hungry, having barely eaten for going on 8 days. I wolfed down a baguette (plain and by itself) and then had too much adrenilin to go back to sleep. Instead, I spent half an hour or so checking over my bike and gears. This is how my bouts of MS usually end – suddenly. In the night. Like a switch has been clicked. I felt depleted and weak the next day – but not ill. I’d broken the back of this tour and still had 3 days left to enjoy.

By Day 4 I felt properly back. I was growing stronger and stronger as the day went on. Every little bit of food and drink seemed to replenish me more and more. I even climbed an extra col (Col du Lombarde), just because I could. Almost 5,000 metres of climbing that day – all carrying my own baggage every inch of the way. After my illness, the world was opening up and I felt capable again.

Cycling heaven

That fourth day was possibly the most wonderful day I’ve ever had on a bike. It’s difficult to express exactly ‘why’ without just listing off the superlatives that came to mind at every hair-pinning turn: the views were magnificent, and had variety too. And drama. Sweeping vistas afforded sight of where I had been; and also where I was going – stretching right off into the distance. There were small sections through shrouds of woodland, but largely the climbs were under an expansive horizon on perfect roads. Waterfalls and white water rapids passed me by; and tree-lines would be surpassed. The smaller vegetation would slowly thin out, then the cols themselves would be bald and windswept rocks. I would touch their tops, before screeching down their descents on the far side – back into the trees and their warmth.

This was some sort of cycling heaven.

21 cols came and went. And, to some extent, they have already blurred a bit in my memory. Another summit. Another twist or turn. But the Col due la Bonette probably deserves special mention. The self-proclaimed “highest paved road in Europe” certainly felt on top of the world at almost 3,000 metres. And, as I turned down its descent I passed my first signpost to “Nice” – my ultimate destination. It felt then that I was very much on my way.

Each little French village some how was still more picturesque than the last. After every col, I’d seek refuge in the next settlement’s cafe and sample their expressos. They always tasted great. Always strong (and one never quite enough). An expresso from the cafe and 2 bananas from the ‘epicerie’ became my routine. I also cursed the number of times I forgot the opportunity to then also replenish my water bottles.

Moment by moment, the metres became kilometres, and the hours became days. The Alps drew me closer to the Med. The landscape changed: the ravines grew steeper; the soils lightened in colour; and the architecture shifted from A-frame chalets to thick-walled, white courtyards. The wildlife progressed from the odd, lost and startled deer, to hundreds of lizards skittling for cover, and the occasional snake slithering off the road. The air lost its crispness, and the wind lost its bite. The permanent drizzle from the first half of the ride was long forgotten. A new smell appeared, of warm tree sap, sizzling in the afternoon sun.

The last leg

Early on Day 5, I glimpsed my first sight of the sea, still fully 60 kilometres away.

The final descent down to the coast was an epic. So long a downhill section that my hands were hurting from having to brake so hard and so frequently for almost 2 hours. I came down from a deserted summit, to initially encounter my first car, then a small queue. I removed layer after layer of clothing as the altimeter dropped away. More cars joined recently re-surfaced roads, and the drivers started to overtake with more aggression and urgency. It felt like I was re-entering civilisation.

I reached the seafront with my T Shirt soaking wet and water bottles empty. The sun was scorching hot. The beach smelt of a thousand layers of suncream and sweat.

It was the last day of my tour but I still had work to do. I had to catch my flight from Nice Airport in about 5 hours time. So somewhat in keeping with the trip, I now had to hot-tail it along the coast as fast as my tiring legs would take me. A detour through Monaco was almost my undoing: I soon became lost in a labyrinth of one way streets and 25% climbs. My sat-nav tried to direct me up one stairwell after another; the wrong way up one way streets; and, at one point, straight into a shop’s automatic doors. I cast my mind back to my arrival into Geneva 5 days ago, and it made me reflect on where I had been in between. At one point, I waited at a red light behind two red Porshes and a Bugatti and missed the wilderness from whence I’d just come.

I wish I’d had more time to soak in (and to celebrate) my arrival in Nice – but I had to rush to get to my flight.

I did make time to stop at the sea front though, as is tradition. My face was wind and sun burnt from the day’s extremes and my cold Coke tasted great. I looked at the waves gently lapping at the beach, with a couple of super yachts bobbing out there in the bay.

I felt incredibly…. happy.

“Here’s to you, life.

And to whatever you may hold.”

I arrived at the airport almost exactly 2 hours before my flight was due to leave. I drank a beer and slept on the plane – the deepest sleep of a man with a small ambition just fulfilled.

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