L’Etape du Tour in July 2013 from Annecy via Revard to Semnoz (5,446 ft.) was hard work, but I completed it inside the time limit, just. I shouldn’t really have done it, the shoulder & ribs hadn’t healed properly after the crash in the rain during the 185km dash round Lac Leman 5 weeks before, which is another story entirely. So here I was at the end of September, outside l’Hotel du Chateaux in Annecy feeling fitter, much more confident with a challenge ahead and no time pressures, plus unfinished business to put Semnoz back in its box for starters.
This small family run 2* Hotel in the cobbled lanes of old Annecy is friendly, produces good breakfasts and they have a very secure garage in which to leave my bike box and suitcase for the duration of my trip. I used the hotel for the l’Etape, based on that experience I was confident that, at this time of the year, I would be able to find good accommodation throughout my route without booking ahead.
I had 10 days to do a trip that a keen cyclist with support could probably do in 6. This was about new experiences and minimum pressure. I also knew that if the worst happened; snow, storms, illness, then I could go down into the valleys and use public transport. I wanted to see what some of the big Tour de France cols really were like, Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux were also on my radar and I wanted to revisit Gorges du Verdon as my memories of that were still strong after 35 years absence. Route plans & laminated maps with a list of towns and possible hotels phone no’s on was at the top of my panniers. A simple list of junctions and destinations I set each day on my phone which now sat in its weather proof holder on my handlebars, the extra power charger neatly slung under the bars.
Day one broke cool, bright and beautiful over the ancient town and with 20kg twin panniers on the back of my Ridgeback tourer I set off for the lakeside that Annecy if famous for. The scenery was stunning and after a few too many photos of the early morning mist effect over the lake I realised I had missed my turn! Not a good start, but ..
My days started in warm clothing, usually going up through dense woodland peeling each layer off as the hard work opened up my pores . Beyond the woods high meadows ringing with cow bells give way to barren mountain scenery and inevitably to a ski station sitting quietly waiting for the winter. On this occasion, at the top of Semnoz, I was able to appreciate the grandeur of a fabulous Alpine panorama with the glory of snow covered Mont Blanc towering over everything. I hadn’t really noticed anything in July when I was tired out and just wanting to get back down.
At the top of most of my cols there was someone to exchange experiences with and take photos. On Semnoz they were Canadians over for a family wedding. On col de la Madeleine 6,500 ft. it was a group of mountain bikers from Ireland with whom I shared a great “cyclist special” lunch at la Banquise 2000. The top of Col du Galibier 8,600 ft. was shared with a group of young lightweight French guys on lightweight bikes who had managed to edge past me on the last 100 meters to the top. They had a car with hot drinks in support. I put on extra layers to compensate for the snow flurries. Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux were busy, busy; cyclists, tourists and coffee drinkers all sharing the moment with anyone who wants to talk, I usually do.
My downhill pannier control was much better now than in the practice set-up runs back home in the Peak District. The work uphill was a hard slow slog, the downhill was very technical requiring concentration for long periods, such as the 30 mile run from Galibier all the way to Bourg d’Oisans at the foot of l’Alpe d’Huez.
My loose planning proved worthwhile, arriving at the dull town of St Michel de Maurienne I was able to extend my Col de la Madeleine day , over the top of Col du Télègraphe (5,138) in good light and down into the ski village of Valloire. Only two hotels were open, as I knew, but there was an excellent restaurant which was full of interesting folks.
Continuing south and away from the very high alps, heading for Mont Ventoux in its isolated position, I spent a couple of days following or close to The Napoléon Road going over rolling mountain pastures, vineyards and ancient viticulture settlements with fabulous chateaux. I fixed punctures on the high moors over Col du Festre, watching massive white dogs tending flocks of sheep. Enjoyed a good Vietnamese dinner at the Fifi Moulin hotel in Serres. Then the weather broke, with very heavy rain and I cycled forlornly around the rim of the impressive Gorge de la Meouge without any knowledge of what I had passed apart from the information boards that appeared out of the gloom. I went over the top of the col de l’Homme Mort in thick mist and then on the way back down life returned and the weather cleared and I joined a couple of wet Dutch motor bikers admiring what appeared to be a high snow mountain in the centre on the plains of Provence. The top of Mont Ventoux (6,275) is mostly bare white rock and is impressive from where ever you first see it. Climbing Ventoux from the lavender decked town of Sault was a surreal experience, cycling from the grey overcast valley up through woodland in the clouds to arrive at the summit as in an aeroplane, above the clouds. As the day wore on they cleared completely for my run down towards Bédoin. Using iPhone mapping, I followed the 3rd side of a triangle back to Sault on minor lanes avoiding heavy traffic.
Re-stocked with inner tubes in Sault my journey took me over the high lavender plains of Provence that went on for miles in all directions. I eventually came to a magical village called Moustiers-Sainte–Marie set half way up a cliff and spanning a deep ravine with a golden star suspended above everything. The restaurant of Le Relais Hotel hangs over the edge of the ravine, the evening view from there across the valley is dramatic, my bike rested the evening in an outhouse of the old monastery.
To gain the northern side of the magnificent 800 foot deep Gorges du Verdon was a hilly but well rewarded ride looking down into the steep canyon. Fantastic scenery and a great ride down the side of the ravine to follow the river on to Castellane for lunch. The ominous clouds above the church up on the hill were to be the start of a few days of really bad weather. Rather than stay overnight and explore the south side of the Gorge I decided that the 50 miles down to the coast would be a sensible plan. I got wet ! A few minor 3000+ ft. cols and down out of the clouds and rain and into the sweet smelling town of Grasse with its perfume factories. The evening rush hour traffic was no fun and brought me back to reality as I continued through busy suburban towns to the Mediterranean city of Cannes, where I found a comfortable hotel with a secure place for my bike and just two minutes from the railway station. The local bar showing Euro cup football on TV with partisan Brits and Germans heckling each other confirmed that my great Alpine Adventure had truly finished.