2012 France

Climbing on Corsica

This is the report of our cycling trip on Corsica in April 2012. The trip takes us along the rugged west coast, over high roads and through deep gorges. Early in the season, the snowy peaks of the central mountain range are always in sight. In one week, Rudi and I cycle about 650 kilometers and climb 11,600 meters.

Day 1: Ajaccio > Porto (90 km)

From the campsite in Ajaccio we follow the wide and not too difficult D61 and later the D81 to the north. On top of the Bocca San Bastiano (400 m) we see for the first time the snowy peaks of the central mountain range that spans the island from northwest to southeast. We turn left and reach the coast at Pevani via a narrow road, where the waves are crashing against the rocks. At Ancone we have lunch on the sandy beach, where several people are sunbathing.

Between Sagone and Cargèse lies the beautiful Gulf of Sagone. We climb 500 meters through pristine hills to the Bocca di San Martino where we enjoy a beautiful view to the west. Piana is situated magnificently on top of a hill. The Golfe de Porto, snowy mountains and the steep rock formations rising from the sea called Calanches: all of this concentrated in one setting, illuminated by the evening sun. In Porto we find a nice spot on the almost deserted village campsite.

Day 2: Porto > Calvi (83 km)

We continue our route northwards on the D81. The road is well constructed: we climb at a constant gradient along the coast, with occasionally deep ravines on our left side. For a long time we have a beautiful view of the Golfe de Girolata with behind it Scandola, a peninsula that rises steeply from the sea. One can only get there on foot or by boat. At the Col de Parmarella we say goodbye to this exceptional area and descend 400 meters.

Just before Galéria we take the D81 bis, a road with a bad surface until the Bocca Bassa bar. The landscape has been a bit boring for some time now. That changes at the Baie Nichiareto: up to Calvi there are beautiful mountains and rugged coasts, nicely situated in the evening sun. In Calvi we first cycle to the citadel, from where we can look out on the snowy peaks in the southeast. After a snack we settle down on the municipal camping where we try to hide from the fierce wind.

Day 3: Calvi > St. Florent (108 km)

After a few kilometers on the busy N197 we continue on the D451. For a long time this road goes up at a mild gradient towards the hills, and once there suddenly via some steep (10-15%) hairpin bends to the strategically located Montemaggiore. The view from the D71 on Calvi, the villages on top of the hills and the clear blue sea in the background is great.

The road stays at approximately the same altitude from Cateri for a long time and leads through and past small villages that seem to be glued to the mountains. Via the narrow D663 we reach Speloncato. From this village the D63 leads steeply (8-13% with peaks towards the 20%) up to the Groce d’Olu (1,100 m). Here we enjoy the spectacular views, from the lighthouse behind Calvi all the way to the extreme end of Cap Corse.

On top of the pass road we order coke at a restaurant. I ask the host if the track to the northeast, which is marked with a dashed line on our map, is feasible, and he answers ‘Tout neuf!’. In reality it turns out to be a bad jeep track, but with its 360 degree view it is the icing on the cake. After having bounced down 400 meters, we take the D963 for a while and then descend further east on the N197.

After five kilometers on the N197 we turn left and reach Novella via a road along a railway line. What follows is a grandiose descent over a narrow, winding and recently asphalted chemin communal to the north, right through a green and completely deserted area. We cross the N1197 and at dusk we reach the port of St. Florent via the beautiful Désert des Agriates.

Day 4: St. Florent > Francardo (72 km)

In the middle of the night, the wind from the west becomes very strong. Not continuously, but with gusts. At first, we hear a rising sound, followed by strong gusts of wind that put the new tent to the test. In the morning, the wind has become even stronger while the mountains on the Cap Corse are shrouded in ominous air. That doesn’t bode well. We had in mind to do a tour du Cap Corse, but instead we decide to skip the Cap and head south.

Via the narrow D238 we go to Oletta. It is only a few kilometers out of the coast but the weather improves noticeably. We climb steadily over the D38 to the Col de Bigorno (885 m). Like most mountain roads on Corsica, this road has a moderate gradient of 4 to 5%. In front of us the picturesque village of Lento is bathing in sunlight, where we arrive after several sharp hairpins. It’s very beautiful here.

Next we take the D105, which runs via Canavaggia to Ponte Leccia. This is a wonderful, elevated road, with continuously offers views of the snow-topped mountains in Corsica’s central area. After about twelve kilometers we descend via a beautiful series of hairpin bends. After riding south on the wide N193 for a while, we stop at the Francardo natural campsite.

Day 5: Francardo > Corte (100 km)

Normally, cycling from Francardo to Corte would only take 45 minutes. However, today we want to make a detour. Now that we are here, we head for the Col de Vergio, the highest through pass on the island. After a few kilometers the Scala di Santa Regina starts, an increasingly narrow gorge with rugged mountains on both sides, and in the middle the mountain stream Le Gelo.

When we arrive at the reservoir, we sit on a bench in front of the supermarket and have lunch when suddenly three cows are walking on the street and in between the cars. On Corsica, straying cows and wild boars on the road are quite normal. About the pass that follows: Rudi is enthusiastic about it, but I don’t really like it. Not the twenty kilometers of false flat to the pass height, nor the wide road from the tiny ski resort.

From the Col de Vergio (1,477 m) we quickly go back along the reservoir and through the Regina gorge, and turn right at Ponte Costirla to Corte. After 300 meters of climbing, we have a magnificent view of the mountains that rise behind Corte. The evening sun illuminates the meadows and orchards in an astonishing way. Corte itself is a nice old university town with a castle on top of a rocky peak. After some searching and climbing, we find a nice campsite northwest of the city.

Day 6: Corte > Tattone (60 km)

This morning we will visit the ‘star attraction’ Valle de Restonica. This turns out to be a beautiful road: varied, with many bends, through forests, and with steep mountains around us and snowy peaks in the distance. The first part up to the bridge is at a moderate gradient (5 to 10%), while the second part is narrower and much steeper (9 to 15%).

From the end point (1,382 m) we return to Corte and then continue southwards. Where possible we avoid the wide and busy N193; we cut off at Botro and Santo-Pietro-di-Venaco (and gain considerably extra height). After a long descent to Pont du Vecchio there’s a climb to Vivario where motorists drive very fast. We’re not allowed to stand at Camping du Soleil near Tattone, because it doesn’t open until a few days later. We find refuge a bit further on, on a deserted campsite next to the railway line.

Day 7: Tattone > Capitoro (117 km)

From the abandoned campsite we immediately climb (15 to 20%) to the N193, and from there on to the Col de Sorba (1,250 m). This road is quite nicely constructed with hairpin bends in the upper part, but it’s a pity that track drills are making the entire pass road a few meters wider. While Rudi is performing an interval training today, I have my own troubles. Actually, I always have something to complain about: one day it’s saddle pain or cramps, and the other day itching in my eyes. And today it’s coping with the heat.

There is no shop in Ghisoni, so we have a sandwich at some bar. The owner asks where we come from. When he hears ‘The Netherlands’, he immediately shouts ‘Johnny Rep, captain of the FC Bastia!’ I don’t know Johnny Rep, and have no interest in football… After this, the Col de Verde (1,289 m) follows. This one is a lot more boring than the previous one and the views of the surrounding landscape are not inspiring as well. We descend quickly to Cozzaro, where we take the D757 to Grosseto. This is quite a nice road, except for the last, wide stretch to the Col de Granace (865 m).

In the intended finish town of Grossetto there appears to be no camping site, and it’s already 6.50 pm. We decide to cycle another 35 kilometers to a campsite at the coast. We go via Albitreccia to the Bosca d’Aja di Bastiano. Especially the last seven kilometers of the D55 are very beautiful. Then we turn right and continue on the D302 in the direction of Ajaccio. This is the ultimate descent: continuous 5% on a curved road. Near the campsite and just before sunset we enjoy a beautiful view of the Golfe d’Ajaccio.

Dag 8: Capitoro > Ajaccio (25 km)

On this last day it’s really hot. It is 32 °C in the shade and completely windless. We would have liked to make a big tour, but we lack the energy. That’s why we take a rest and read and drink a lot. Halfway through the afternoon we take a small detour through a rather uninteresting environment to the campsite in Ajaccio. It’s time to fly back.


– Day 1: Ajaccio > Porto (90 km; 1,544 altitude meters)
– Day 2: Porto > Calvi (83 km; 1,050 alt.m)
– Day 3: Calvi > St. Florent (108 km; 2,022 alt.m)
– Day 4: St. Florent > Francardo (72 km; 1,311 alt.m)
– Day 5: Francardo > Corte (100km; 1,643 alt.m)
– Day 6: Corte > Tattone (60 km; 1,784 alt.m)
– Day 7: Tattone > Capitoro (117 km; 1,924 alt.m)
– Day 8: Capitoro > Ajaccio (25 km; 350 alt.m)

2008 France Italy Switzerland

The Alps #3

This is the report of the Tour de Nivolet, my cycling holiday in mountainous areas in Switzerland, France and Italy. Results: nine passes and a very special off-road detour. In seven days I cycle some 600 kilometers and climb 12,700 meters.


When I was a kid I was studying the map of the National Park Gran Paradiso: all those narrow valleys leading to Italy’s pride. I also noticed a high pass road, the Colle del Nivolet, suited for motorized vehicles on one side. That was where I wanted to go once. Last year I was watching the map in order to decide exactly where in the Alps I should go next and googled ‘Nivolet’. One of the hits led me to Jerry Nilson from Sweden who had cycled over the pass road. It made me curious, so I mailed him, and his reply was as follows:

‘Hi Willem,

(…) it would be easy to just go right soon after the Refugio-shop where the asphalt ends and simply walk down the path along the little stream. You will probably not be able to cycle more than 200-300 m or so down this vague track, which soon turns into paths. I think you get over on the right side of the stream and try not get too far off from it – many confusing paths down there – but as long as you seem to go in a somewhat straight line ahead it should take you down to the cross and the serpentine path down to Pont. The serpentine path is wide and good, but I still managed to fall headlessly down the steep side (no good with cycling shoes). The walking takes you 3 hours at normal speed without stopping down to Pon, a bit longer than one would suspect looking at the maps and even while being there, but it is some way down. If you have heavy packaging it might take a bit longer. Hope you will have nice weather and a nice trip!

Jerry Nilson’

With the opportunity of crossing the Nivolet this way I really had to go…

Day 1: Martigny > St Gervais-les-Bains (80 km)

Yesterday I took a night train for the first time since I went on Interrail back in ’92. Not very cheap, but quite convenient. From Lake Geneva I am sitting in a train carriage with twelve Japanese tourists who make pictures of almost everything they see. The conductor informs me that this group booked the entire carriage, but he has no problem whatsoever with my presence. We have a nice talk about his house near Montey.

It is 11.15 am when I get on my bike and leave Martigny. After a few kilometers I turn right to the Col de la Forclaz: a not very spectacular road that starts between the vineyards. The height difference to the pass height is just one kilometer, but I have to do it in thirteen kilometers at 8% on average. The temperature – 30 °C in the shade – makes it a tough ride. From the beginning to the summit there is no shade, and despite that I am wearing sunglasses and a hat I develop a headache. Just like at off-days during previous cycling holidays in the Alps I declare it’s the last time I cycle with luggage in the mountains.

When I have finally reached the summit (1,526 m). I buy myself a large coke. On the bike again I go down to France until I have to climb again, this time to the Col des Montets. To be honest, it is pretty nice here, and certainly not as neat as in Switzerland. On top of the pass (1,461 m) I can see a large white bulb: that must be the Mont Blanc! The descent is beautiful, with at the left hand the immense Massif de Mont Blanc with all its steep ridges and glaciers.

Argentières and especially Chamonix are terrible places crowded with American tourists. After Chamonix a four-lane road starts, which even becomes a highway a bit further. I am lucky to find this road sign “cycling route” and continue on a secondary road. Great. For 90 minutes I climb all kinds of narrow and steep roads, and climb a few hundred climbing meters more than planned. The sun makes my hamstrings hurt. I cycle at such slow pace that a road skier is overhauling me. I hope nobody is witnessing this.

And then at last, there is the road to St Gervais-les-Bains. The ascent to the campsite, some three kilometers behind the ski resort, is easy. The friendly camping boss tells me that the temperatures in this region have been very high this year, between 30 and 35 °C. After getting instant noodles there is little time left to watch the bats fly before it’s completely dark.

Day 2: St Gervais-les-Bains > Bourg-St Maurice (96 km)

St Gervais is a nice town, quite sophisticated so to speak. In contrast, the higher situated town of Mégève is a ski resort without soul, the big supermarket where I get my breakfast being the only positive element. On the map the ride from Mégeve along the river looked promising, but in practice it is fairly dull. I am happy to turn left, onto the road to the Col de Saisies. From the very start there is quite some climbing involved. I do not enjoy the landscape around here: the entire area is destined for skiing. Even on the summit of the road (1,650 m) are ski slopes, drag lifts, a restaurant and other entertainment. French ski area planners sans frontiers…

But, let’s stop whining, as a much more beautiful part of France including the magnificent view of the Mont Blanc awaits me. In the nice town of Beaufort I have lunch in front of the mini-Casino. Next starts the ascent of the Cormet de Roselend. The first few kilometers I cycle in the woods and there it is relatively cool. But then the shade becomes less, and the temperature rises to 30 °C. Due to all the sweating I attract lots of nasty flies circling around my head all the time. After a while I cross the ridge and reach a high-altitude valley with a reservoir. It is beautiful here! The view of the surrounding mountains is panoramic, and commercial activities, as with some of the other pas roads, are absent. After a coke I climb another 400 meters to the summit of the pass road (1,926 m).

The descent on the eastern side of the Roselend is amazing. At some point I have a splendid view of the Mont Blanc, but I have no time to lose. I continue quickly through a canyon with hairpins. I finally arrive at 7.40 pm in Bourg St Maurice. As the shops are closed I have no choice but to go to McDonald’s. At the camping I meet a Swiss couple of about 50 years old, travelling by bike with their luggage all around the Alps. I am impressed! This week I will hardly see people cycling with luggage; unfortunately I will notice hundreds of motor cyclists.

Day 3: Bourg St Maurice > Lanslebourg (82 km)

After getting groceries at the Intermarché, I leave for the Col d’Iseran at 9 am. The ascent consists of four stages: first an easy-going slope, then fifteen kilometers climbing at 5-9%, next an easy part through the ski resort Val d’Isere, and finally some more climbing at 5-9%. So it isn’t too difficult. The valley is beautiful, particularly the right side where the snow-covered Mont Pourri (3,779 m) rises majestically above the forests and alms.

It gets ugly though from the moment the ski resorts become visible. Around Tignes, situated a few kilometers westwards, lots of ski lifts are visible on the high mountains. In my opinion it is hypocrite to draw the boundaries of the French national parks just around these high altitude lifts. They might as well stuff the whole area. Having that in mind I enter Val d’Isere, which in fact is fully stuffed with ugly hotels, bar/restaurants and lifts. After a few more kilometers it starts drizzling followed by a hailstorm and sounds of thunder. On the highest point (2,764 m) it is dry again. I want to make a picture of myself next to the summit sign, but the two Germans who just arrived there in their old Land Rover keep posing on the same spot for several minutes. Well, they deserve to celebrate after such an achievement.

The south side of the pass road is far more beautiful and rougher, and ski lifts are absent. After Bonneval sur Arc it starts thundering: on my left the weather is terrible, while the sun is shining on the mountains on my right side. Very special. I really have to keep going in this long stretched valley. For just 6.50 euros I find myself a nice, small camp site in Lanslebourg. The numerous mosquitoes and flies force me to stay in the tent. My legs and nose are burnt despite using sun cream factor 25.

Day 4: Lanslebourg > Viú (103 km)

My left hip hurts so much that I cannot sleep any longer so I get up at 7 am. This must be what ageing feels like. No bread is sold in the supermarket, but no worries: I have saved some from yesterday, and have already cooked noodles before I left. The ascent of the Mont Cenis is not too difficult and in fact quite boring: a series of long stretched hairpins with only a few shade spots. At the pass height (2,084 m) the landscape changes. On the opposite side of the reservoir lake I can see beautiful mountains with lots of snow on their flanks.

Cycling down to the Valle di Susa is enjoyable: more than in Switzerland or France, Italian mountain roads tend to follow the shapes of the mountains better. So no boring straight roads with hairpins, but instead meandering roads with after every bend a surprise. Half way the descent the road is under construction and not passable, but I manage to lift the bike over large concrete blocks.

The lower valley going from Susa to Torino is hot due to the lack of shade. I follow the S24, a broad main road, which is relatively quiet thanks to the nearby parallel highway and siesta time. Then after a while, I encounter another roadblock. This time they have removed an entire bridge over a wild mountain river. I manage to find my way through a meadow and push my bike under the barbed wire just before the farmer and his cows arrive there.

The ascent to the Col del Lys has been giving me headaches for some nights. The height profile that I had grabbed from the web shows, amongst other things, one continuous part of three kilometers at 15%. With that steep part in mind, but also a temperature of 32 °C and a shortage of water, I am extremely reluctant to start this climb. But, after just a few kilometers cycling through a rich neighborhood I notice a roofed fountain where I can fill the bottles. Cycling on much happier I drink a large coke for only 1.50 euros in the shade.

I am starting to realize that the altitude profile I brought with me can’t be correct. The road is just fairly steep, between 5 and 10%. The profile must originate from an alternative ATB track. According to the road map the landscape is beautiful, but unfortunately I can’t see hardly anything due to all the trees along the road. One kilometer before the summit it starts raining and hailing. The temperature drops to 15 °C. On the pass height (1,311 m) I find shelter in a café and buy another coke. Immediately after it has stopped raining I get on the bike again. The beautiful road meanders along the flanks of the high hills and through little villages.

In Viú I buy groceries and check in at the camping. It appears to be one for mobile homes, but I am allowed to pitch my tent on a small piece of grassland covered with molehills. It keeps raining and with no camping alternative available I decide to stay. At the moment the camping manager charges 12 euros for one night (excluding a shower coin) I explode. He offers 10 euro instead and I accept reluctantly. After the cold shower (the coin didn’t work) I run through the rain to my tent where I will cook a delicious meal.

Day 5: Viú > Prese / Ceresole (89 km)

First on my action list of this morning is visiting Viú’s cozy village shop: a hot room full of flies and all kinds of food. The shop girl works very hard to help the many customers. After fifteen minutes it’s my turn. I am completely warmed up when I walk out of the shop with bread. The road to Lanzo meanders downstream along the hills. Lanzo is a nice town on a hill, with a long-stretched shopping street in the center, and also (covered) alleys and staircases. A small version of Perugia, one might say.

Next I arrive in Corio, where I eat the bread on a picturesque church square. In another village I ask a car driver the road to Rivara. The young woman points to the right direction and, to my surprise, keeps driving behind me for many kilometers until the junction where Rivara is mentioned on the road sign. This ‘service excellence’ confirms me in my belief that many Italians are helpful and cordial.

From Rivara on it is hot (30 °C) which makes cycling a challenge. There is barely any shade, but luckily also little traffic on the excellent road. I now enter Valle di Locana, the southern entrance to the Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso, which lacks ski areas. The Gran Paradiso (4,061 m), the highest mountain entirely on Italian grounds, is covered in the clouds today. Nearly 20 kilometers further on in the valley, in Locana (613 m), I buy myself a coke and eat a second roll with marmalade.

Next I climb for some ten kilometers to Noasca, which lies 400 meters higher. Time for another coke. Just after Noasca follow five steep (up to 15%) hairpins, and yet this “interval training” seems to suit me better than incremental climbs for long stretches, like previously today. What follows is a 3.5 kilometers long tunnel, 5-8% on average and in the middle for one kilometer 10-15%. This is doable, thanks to the low temperature here. Today I love tunnels!

Right out of the tunnel I see a gigantic cumulus in the air in front of me, and, at the same time, a road leading to a camp site. Time to call it a day. I can recommend this camping to all people interested in pitching a tent on a quiet, flat place and do not need hot water. The view of the Levanna mountains on the border with France (behind which the Col d’Iseran is located) is really splendid.

Day 6: Prese > Aosta (74 km)

I can definitely recommend the Colle del Nivolet! I first climb to Ceresole, which is situated at the border of a long-stretched basin. There are few hotels here, but at least six (!) campsites two of which packed with scouting army tents. I have breakfast at a lovely spot near the end of the lake. Ski lifts are absent. Instead, I see huge traffic signs stating that during the summer, motorized vehicles are not allowed on the upper part of the pass road, to give some space for hikers and bikers.

From the lake onwards I cycle some 600 meters in eight kilometers before I arrive at a smaller basin. And from here it’s another 400 meters’ climbing along a steep mountain wall to reach the pass height (2,612 m). The road is narrow, diverse and not very steep, and offers excellent views of the part done so far beneath me. The only negative thing are these terrible flies, which are only absent when the wind blows them away – for a few seconds.

When I reach the pass height there is no summit sign. How can I prove that I have been here… One kilometer further I drink a coke and eat a banana, and while enjoying the view of the Gran Paradiso, I leave for Aosta. The hikers up here look surprised that I’m cycling on a non-suspension bike with luggage on a hiking trail. But I have “secret information”: Jerry Nilson’s e-mail has convinced me of the possibility to descent on trails by bike. And hey, he did it in three hours, so I can do that as well.

The first part goes more smoothly than I’d expected. I cycle through a high valley in which a small stream is meandering. The trail follows the east side of this stream. Often I have to walk, but sometimes it is possible to cycle for a few hundred meters. I really haven’t got a clue what took this Nilson so long – this is really easy! I am getting very excited and imagine that, on a happiness scale of 1 to 10, I currently score a straight 10.

Shortly thereafter appear a few man-sized rocks which I have to clamble. No problem. But then yet another rock, and another… There are boulders, rock plates and mud all over the place. This continues for a long while. This is not very enjoyable with a heavily loaded bike. But, I keep on going because, according to Jerry’s briefing, from a cross a simple path to Pont leads down to Pont.

It takes me more than 90 minutes to reach that cross. But then the real trouble starts. I look into the deep and notice a small path zigzagging 300 meters down. At this very moment I realize that Jerry might have cycled on a cross-bike or a racing bike with only a small rucksack… For the next two hours I manage to take myself, the bike and 20 kilos of luggage down over and between rocks. The brakes, which I am using all the time except when I carry the bike, are having a hard time. Several times the left pedal sticks into my right heel, I am fortunate not to fall.

I am so F U R I O U S that I want to keep ahead of an older lady walking here, but eventually I have to let her pass. Her companion declares it’s silly what I’m doing: it isn’t possible to descend from this mountain with such a bike. Sure, so what am I doing right now?! When I finally see the little village of Pont below me, I can hear thunder and it starts raining. All in all I took me some three and a half hours to get down from the Colle del Nivolet, which doesn’t sound too bad at all.

I put my raincoat on and head for Aosta at once, hoping to avoid the thundershower. Wishful thinking… It starts pouring down so heavily that I can hardly see the road. Using the brakes is difficult as the brake pads are worn out due to the constant use during the way down from the cross. After a few kilometers I am fortunate pass by a youth hostel where I can shelter under a canopy for a while. The shouting and screaming of the bambinos is louder than the noise of the heavy rain and the wild mountain stream nearby.

After twenty minutes I am so chilled that I have to get on the saddle again. The rain intensifies as soon as I am cycling. But now I really want to continue, even while some parts of the road are floated with water. Despite that I have to keep my eyes almost closed, I notice the beauty and roughness of the valley, which for many kilometers offers little more room than for the river and the road I am riding on.

Then at last I arrive in the sunny and broad Valle d’Aosta. The main road leads me into Aosta’s old town center in no time. I order a tourist menu at Ristorante-Pizzeria “Moderno”. The starter, a simple pesto pasta, is just perfect. But the main dish, a tasteless piece of chicken, is gross. Fortunately the ice cream tastes well again. The camp site is located a bit higher next to the St Bernard pass road offering a view of Aosta (600 m). I drink three cups of tea, listen to the thunder far away and dive into my sleeping bag. What a day!

Day 7: Aosta > Martigny (78 km)

All that I take for breakfast is one liter bottle of milk; I have to score bread somewhere along the road. While still riding in the outskirts of Aosta I see a hitch hiker with a folding bike standing next to the road. I shout: ‘Come on, cycle with me to Switzerland!’ After a few minutes he appears next to me! His name is Ingo, is German, works in Algeria, and arrived yesterday by plane in Milan to hitch-hike to Switzerland via the Grand St Bernard. At the other side of the tunnel he will meet a friend with whom he wants to go rock climbing. Ingo cycles with for several kilometers, quite a performance with those little wheels and an old weekend bag on the rear carrier. After having climbed some 300 meters he stops and resumes hitch hiking again.

The pass road is not steep, and this encourages me to cycle a little bit too fast. As a result I almost get cramp in my left leg. From Étroubles (1,264 m), where I can buy bread and chocolate, I decide to continue in the lowest gear, to prevent any more cramps with still 1200 meters climbing ahead of me. Near the junction of the pass road and tunnel road it starts raining. Too bad these low-hanging clouds, but at least it’s not so hot as earlier this week. Most people use the other, covered road leading to the entrance of the tunnel. The old pass road, that has little traffic, is being renovated completely. Bulldozers, excavators and laborers are all around here.

After five and half hours of cycling I finally reach the pass height (2,469 m). It is raining and the temperature is below 10 °C. As usual on pass roads in the Alps, German Motorfahrer take pictures of each other after their “riesen Leistung”. Toll! What remains for me is a long descent. The upper part is fairly steep and has some hairpins, but thereafter I can cycle 50 kilometers per hour for a long time using neither pedals nor brakes. In Martigny I use the shower facility of the local camping and catch an early train to Basel, where I switch to the night train to the Netherlands.

2004 France Italy

The Alps #1

This is the report of my cycling trip around the border of France and Italy, in June 2004. The highlights are some of the big pass roads (Agnel, Bonette) as well as a few less known cols (Fauniera, Sampeyre). I also bump into a statue of Marco Pantani. In six days I travel 315 kilometers and climb 8,700 meters.

Day 1: Guillestre > Sampeyre (78 km)

Yesterday I arrived in Guillestre when it was already late afternoon. It was 34 °C when I pitched the tent. Today it is more cloudy and a lot cooler. My chain gets off after just a few hundred meters. What a start! I continue my trip with filthy hands through the gorge to Queyras. The Parc de Queyras is one of those quiet places amidst of the large French ski areas. It is relatively rough and primitive around here. After a while I see a junction and think: Haven’t I been here before (1993)? and turn right. After a few very steep kilometers I get second thoughts, and then I find out that I have taken the dead end road to Ceillac. Silly me. I turn around and get back on the right track.

After Chateau Queyras I turn right on the D205 in the direction of the Col d’Agnel. I drink sports drink and eat some of the Isostar bar. A colleague of mine said to me that this nutrition would surely help me to climb better. But to be honest my stomach starts aching… I can see the highest mountain of the whole area: the Monte Viso (3,841 m). Still twenty kilometers and 1,350 meters climbing to go. The landscape here is panoramic and deserted. But what a tough pass road: after 1,200 meters of climbing the last six kilometers are 8.5% on average. Added to this the Isostar misery: I feel sick and have to throw up. I will never eat that shit again.

I finally arrive at the last few curves. The weather has not been great today, but now it even starts snowing. Completely on my own and feeling sick I cycle here at a height of almost 2,750 m. The descent must be spectacular, but I can’t see much of it. Unfortunately cycling is hardly possible: I can’t use the brakes because of my cold fingers (why did I leave the gloves at home?). This leaves me no choice but to walk for the first few kilometers. I am relieved when I arrive at Sampeyre. I can’t locate the local camping, and I am no fan of camping in the wild when soaked and cold, so I decide to look for a cheap hotel room. An excellent choice, since I can let my clothes dry and watch the World Cup Football lying on my bed.

Day 2: Sampeyre > Ponte Marmora (32 km)

I have not quite recovered from yesterday’s tour. I am sick and lack energy, and am certainly not motivated for a ride. On today’s menu is the steep Colle di Sampeyre: more than fifteen kilometers continuously at 8.6%. To compare: this is 0.5% steeper than the eastern approach of the Stelvio. But that pass road is far more impressive! Most of today’s ascent, starting from Sampeyre, is situated between the dense trees and offers no interesting details. It is only once I reach the summit that I suddenly realize the beauty of the view behind me: the Col d’Agnel next to the mighty Monte Viso.

The southern approach to the pass is more diverse. After having followed the narrow road for a few kilometers, I can choose between either Stroppo or Elva. I opt for the latter. This valley appears to be a gorge. The torrent leaves hardly any room for the narrow, carved road. The tunnels cutting through the succeeding mountain rims do not look very solid. The spectacular descent is steep so I am down in just a few minutes. There I bump into the camping site, which is not open yet. Someone is busy preparing stuff for the tourist season, and lets me take some water in the toilet block (which closes in the evening). This night I am on my own on the campsite till dawn.

Day 3: Ponte Marmora > Demonte (46 km)

Today’s route was the very reason to come to this area. I became curious when I found out that the unknown pass road to the Colle del Fauniera (or Colle dei Morti), which is not on the Michelin map, had recently been surfaced for the Giro d’Italia. (A truly revolutionary insight to cyclists in Western Europe: the “sacred” Michelin map does not contain all panoramic roads.) So I really needed to come here!

The climb consists of three phases: first I cycle through a rather narrow valley along the Marmora stream and take several curves through an inhabited area. Next follows a long steep part through the widening valley to the Colle d’Esischie (2,370 m), including more than five kilometers at 8.7% on average, with even higher percentages in some hairpins. Thirdly the other side of the Esischie to the Colle del Fauniera, an area that is rocky and rough compared to the green Marmora valley.

When I arrive at Fauniera I am surprised to see a tall statue of Marco Pantani, the road cyclist who recently died after a drugs overdose. I am now on the top of a very long mountain ridge on which several tarmac and gravel roads are situated. Probably these have been engineered long ago when France and Italy were (almost) at war. The (off-road) cycling possibilities must be endless, and I will definitely return here. Suddenly it becomes very cloudy, and I hear thunder coming. I head down on the steep narrow road through the deserted valley and seek shelter.

Day 4: Demonte > St Etienne de Tinee (67 km)

On this drizzling day I want to cycle over the Colle della Lombarda (2,350 m). I have not recovered too well from the Isostar disaster on the flanks of the Agnel. There is no energy in my body, so I can’t strain myself, which is fairly difficult bearing in mind that the first seven kilometers of the pass road are at 8.8%. (The Italian pass roads are steeper than the French and certainly the Swiss cols). Fortunately the second part of the climb is easy. I’m not impressed by the summit itself, so I carry on right away. The descent brings me to Isola 2000, a disgusting ski resort with ugly buildings and lots of ski lifts. There is one advantage, however: the wide road to Isola is perfectly suited for descending fast.

Down I arrive at the road from Nice to the Bonette. From here some fifteen kilometers separate me from Saint Etienne de Tinee. The camping targets outdoor people. The chef de camping gives me, quite premature, a Col de la Bonette-sticker (‘La plus haute route de d’Europe’) for my bicycle. Next to my tent there sits a man in front in a tiny little tent. He appears to be a very gentle Tukker (for non-Dutch people: from the eastern part of the Netherlands) of about fifty years old who was recently been made redundant. He was so furious that he decided to ride the French 100 Cols tour. We have dinner in the nice village. The daily distances and altitude meters he cycles are way beyond mine. I am starting to realize just how relaxed my vacation has been.

Day 5: St Etienne de Tinee > Chatelard (55 km)

When I wake up my neighbor has already left. The Tukker will go for both the Bonette and the Vars today, while I will stick to just one pass. My stomach feels good again – at last. I celebrate this by having baguette with cream cheese and a liter of milk for breakfast. At the start I ride for a couple of kilometers next to a German who started in Nice yesterday and is heading for Frankfurt. It is his first cycling tour in the mountains, and because he is a bit corpulent he has to let go after a while. I hope he will reach the summit.

This is again a road with three sections: first a long and easy approach (5%), next five kilometers of hairpins on the rim (8.4%) followed by ten kilometers at nearly 7% to the pass height. Once the hairpins start, the climb becomes interesting. Just at the moment that I wonder where the road on the rim is leading to, I can see a thin but clear line in the direction of a “sugar mountain” far away: the summit. I really like it here. I am doing so well that I forget that it is only 5 °C and keep cycling in a sleeveless shirt.

From the Col de Restefond a narrow road leads to an even higher summit named the Cime de la Bonette (2,802 m). Unfortunately it is not possible to complete this road by bike, as too much snow and rocks are blocking my way. This means I have to walk for the last part. Up here I have a spectacular view of the brown colored (due to erosion) Alpes Maritimes. The descent on the northern side is completely different, and also steeper. In Jausiers I have some late lunch and turn right to Chatelard where the windy camping is located.

Day 6: Chatelard > Guillestre (40 km)

Today I go to the Col de Vars (2,108 m). (In hindsight, I should have tried the partly unpaved Col du Parpaillon. However in 2004 I had not yet heard of this high pass road). This road is moderately beautiful and not too hard, except from one or two bits of 10%. I am on the pass height before I even realize, and there I buy myself a coke. When I descent the view of the Ecrins is marvelous. I arrive the camping in Guillestre and take a shower. Too bad that this vacation is history now – I have to return to The Netherlands.

2003 France

The Cevennes

For the first time, I’m going on a cycling vacation alone for a week. My destination is the Cevennes: the area in the south of France with its high, arid plateaus and deep valleys, that looks so tempting on the Michelin map. In five days I cover some 350 kilometers and climb almost 7,500 meters.

Day 1: Florac > Le Rozier (67 km)

Yesterday I arrived in Florac after 1,070 km driving. I leave the car at the nice camping and start cycling in the area of the river Tarn. From Florac I immediately have to climb steeply to the Causse Mejean (five hairpins, 450 meters, on average 8%). Up this plateau I can see very far. As there is also strong wind here I decide to return to the Tarn as soon as possible. After a magnificent descent – a narrow road with continuously hairpins and with a superior view on the Gorges du Tarn – I quickly arrive at Castelbouc. The houses here are built right next to the cliff. Thereafter I ride 43 kilometers through the gorge. There is so much to see here that I hardly notice the distance.

In Sainte-Enimie I have lunch. I watch a Dutch couple pass on folding bikes, which seems odd in this hilly area. On the saddle again I head on to Saint Chély, which is beautifully situated at the other side of the river. From there I cycle through several tunnels in a row, after which the gorge becomes narrower. There is hardly room for a road here. Near Malène I notice a challenging road going up to the plateau. I hesitate, but no, one steep climb will do for today. So I just continue on my way through the gorge between the high cliffs and rocky peaks. High up the wall I suddenly hear two voices of two men climbing it some 150 meters above me. After another twelve kilometers I arrive at the camping in Le Rozier. The French female boss there is very unkind. Bienvenue a France!

Day 2: Le Rozier > Dourbies (64 km)

After breakfast in the beautifully located Peyreleau I go south. To get onto the Causse Noir I have to climb 400 meters. After a while I turn right to visit a special rock formation: the Chaos de Montpeiller le Vieux. Having arrived there it appears they charge an 8 euros entrance fee for the last kilometer. In my opinion this is inappropriate – this wonder of nature can go to hell. I return to the main road and descent on a narrow gravel road to La Roque Sainte Marguerite. Sometimes I wonder if I hear wolves cry. Down again in the valley the road follows the meandering Dourbie southwards. Saint Veran is a small village built on a rock some 150 meters higher. Amazing! Cantobre, just a few kilometers further on, is very special as well: also on a rock and hanging above the river. Next I turn left to the Gorges de Trevezel.

I cycle through one of the most beautiful valleys I have ever been. It is a genuine canyon with table mountains on both sides. Very green, very desolate. At the Place Municipal in Trèves I have my lunch accompanied by the ‘village dog’. Then I head onto the south. The height difference with the Col de la Pierre Plantée is 250 meters. Up the ridge I am surprised by the panoramic view on the gorges the Dourbie, which is narrower than where I cycled this morning. In the distance, about 50 meters higher, I can see Dourbies’ large church. Having arrived in the small town, I start searching for the camping. Eventually I find it but it appears to be closed. I can pitch my tent, but there is no water. The small supermarket is closed as well, but the owner lets me in anyway. I cook something and eat it on the unstable bridge over the river, where I have a view of rapids which could have been painted by Bob Ross. An excellent end of an impressive day.

Day 3: Dourbies > Le Vigan (66 km)

The épicerie is closed on Wednesdays but they let me nevertheless. Behind me lots of people come and buy bread, so I am not that special after all. Or I am, since the friendly owner invites me for a cup of coffee in the bar on the first floor. How nice! He tells that currently only 25 people live in the village. I guess this would mean that there a more buildings than inhabitants, and what about this large church! I get on my bike and continue the ascent through the valley of the Dourbie. Although I am deep down in France, the landscape, the dark clouds and the wind would suit England better.

Today my aim is to reach the summit of the Cévennes: the Mont Aigoual (1,567 m). According to the tourist brochures with annual rainfall of 2,200 mm it is called the “water tower” of France, and infamous for the stormy winds. And on this very day I find out that this is true. After a few kilometers on the ten meters wide road suddenly the wind starts blowing. Bits of clouds are moving rapidly above the trees. What is this? An oncoming driver toots. Further ahead only fog and still a lot of wind. Bizarre. Next a car stops in front of me. The driver explains: ‘C’est très dangereux pour le vélo. Vent forte. Le sommet est invisible.’ Damn. At this moment it is hard not to fall of the bike, what will it be like on top? It seems sad to get blown off a mountain when no one even notices. If I ever end my life early, please let it be somewhere with a nice view.

With only two kilometers left to the top I decide to return. This implies that I descent to the valley of Dourbie, next over the easy Col de Minier (1,264 m) and then through the rain to Le Vigan. This appears to be a typical French town, where oldies play jeu de boules and youth are hanging around looking bored. That is also where I find a nice and fairly empty camping site. The tourist season has yet to start. The guy at the reception asks where I came from today, and I answer ‘Le Mont Aigoual’. ‘Bad choice’ is his reply. Need I say more? I pitch the tent, cook dinner and crawl into the sleeping back hoping to forget this miserable day.

Day 4: Le Vigan > Capou (80 km)

After yesterday’s disappointment I lack the courage to try the Mont Aigoual today, so I decide to approach the mountain via a wide circle. First I head eastwards and then up north. Today’s goal is the Corniche. The first part – the D999 and a local road to Sumène – is quite boring. My legs feel good however, and I get 200 meters higher in no time. From Sumène the D20 meanders to the north along the Rieufort. Saint Martial is a beautiful little town amidst the forested hills. From there I go to the Col de la Triballe op (612 m), and next to an even higher pass in the distance. This is probably the best part of this vacation: relaxed cycling on my own in the sun, on a narrow road with spectacular views. The D152 which leads down from the Col de l’Asclier (905 m) is narrow and badly (or not at all?) maintained. At some spots grass is growing on the tarmac. Cool. It is a shame the descent is over so soon.

Down again I follow a wide road for a while, with fast driving cars and motors. After Saumane a nice ascent follows up the Corniche. This is the famous route leading from Saint Jean du Gard to Florac, constructed during the reign of Louis XIV. The road was constructed on top of the hills instead of down in the valley, allowing his soldiers to move quickly without being attacked. The road made it easier for them to kill all Protestants in the region. I am very hungry. In Saint Roma the owner of the closed restaurant brings me bread with cold meat on the terrace.

Back on the saddle I have mixed feelings about the Corniche. I must admit that the views are magnificent (I can see, for example, the Mont Ventoux far away, and the Mont Aiguoal has also been visible all day). But, the road itself is very wide, almost flat and extremely boring. So I am glad when I reach the highest point (840 m) near Pompidou and find a road going down. In the valley both camping sites near Saint André are closed, so I have to get back in the direction of Saumare. Near Capou I find a cheap camping. Today I climbed almost 1,500 meters.

Day 5: Capou > Florac (72 km)

I love getting up late, also when I am on cycling vacations. But today is different: the Mont Aigoual is on the menu. I ascent easily in the direction of Saint Andre de Valborgne and eat a baguette there. Then I turn left up the hill. This D19 is a beautiful road, but also a hard climb. Near the summit I turn left again and head on a very narrow road to the Col Salidés (1,014 m). Up here the view is great: I can see the whole of the north-eastern part of the Cevennes. Next I descent for one kilometer after which I have to climb again for two and a half kilometers at 8%. This valley is full of broom. After having arrived in Cabillac (1,194 m) I take the “highway” to the Mont Aigoual, which I am able to see this time as the weather is excellent. What I see is not what you’d normally call a “summit”; it is just a little bit higher than the rest. Only the first 4 kilometers or so I have to climb at 6 to 7%; the remaining part is easier.

The summit (1,567 m) is packed with coaches and other motorized vehicles – I am the only cyclist. The view is fairly okay, and I believe the brochures state that with a clear sky one is able to see the Alps, the Pyrenees and Marseille, but to be honest I am not impressed at all. So I go down again. After Abrillac I turn right from the wide D18 and go through the Gorges du Tapoul through a beautiful valley, on a narrow road, and cycling at high speed. The road becomes wider again after Rousses, when I reach the river Tarnon – not to be confused with the Tarn in which it ends. After ten kilometers I reach Florac, the final destination of my five-day cycling vacation. I am very satisfied: in these wonderful surroundings there is so much possible with a bike, and I have seen just part of it yet. I will return here for sure!