Chevauchée des Alpes 3

Chevauchée des Alpes 3

Day#1 – Planes, Chains and Automobiles

It’s a truly ungodly hour, 4.10am, Thursday 16th June. The sun is barely above the horizon yet and I’ve already been up for more than three-quarters of an hour. Now I can be found desultorily dragging an over-sized bike bag across the dusty floor of Newcastle International Airport.

I’ve been slightly thrown off course by the closure of the main, A1 route to the airport and having (half-awake) to follow multiple, poorly positioned diversion signs, plus the fact that Mrs. SLJ had to pay £4.00 just for the very dubious privilege of dropping me off outside the airport. Four-feckin’ pounds to just pull up at a kerb and unload some baggage? Pure highway robbery and generating a feeling of resentment only slightly less dark than scrambling around to try and pay for parking when you’re visiting a dying relative in hospital.

So how did this come about? Well, I accept I’m partly to blame. After a two-year, COVID enforced absence, I signed up for yet another chevauchée des Alpes à vélo. We’d originally booked the slightly more civilised 06.00 flight from Newcastle to Heathrow, until British Airways decided to cancel this with no explanation. Given the choice between a flight at 05.25 and one at 09.15, we’d bit the bullet and chosen the earlier one.

18 days later British Airways also deemed it necessary to cancel (again without explanation) our connecting, 09.25 flight from Heathrow to Geneva and we ended up on the 08.20 instead, so change all round. Still, somewhere along the line, we managed to dodge a bullet as the alternative 09.15 flight from Newcastle to Heathrow which had also been an option, was cancelled while we were actually in the airport – and just hours before it was due to depart.

I made it through the formalities of check-in, security and baggage drop, quite pleased to discover my bike bag weighed in at just over 16kgs. I think I’m finally starting to get the hang of this travelling light malarkey. As a precaution, shoes, helmet and most of my cycling kit were packed into my hand baggage in case the bike went AWOL and I had to hire a replacement.

So the bike was ready to go, but the same couldn’t be said of the rider who was way off his fighting weight and pushing close to a portly 70kgs. It was definitely going to make the up bits a bit more of a struggle, but would maybe add a little impetus to the descents.

Relieved of the bike bag, I wandered upstairs to Departures and tracked down the rest of the crew, lurking in our traditional pre-flight venue, the Caffè Ritazza. I was the last to arrive so the usual suspects had already convened: Crazy Legs, the Hammer, Goose, Captain Black and, new conscript to our ranks, the Ticker. Meanwhile, tremulous-flyer Buster and the Big Yin are off seeking dronkemansmoed encouragement in one of the bars and we’ll not see them until after the flight is called.

Not the Fat Controller

Busy times at the airport. Crazy Legs said the oversize baggage handler (the handler of over-sized bags, not some Ivor the Engine-type Fat Controller) had revealed they had 50 bikes going out on flights today. Actually, they had at least 51 as, unlike my compadres, I’d taken the British Airways website at its word and hadn’t pre-informed them I would be flying with a bike. (Although, as a precaution, I had taken a screenshot of the webpage that said you didn’t need to let them know in advance that you are bringing a larger bag or item.)

There was some discussion about a name change for the Ticker, whose beloved Hunt wheels, with their ridiculously loud freehub, have worn out and been replaced with quietly refined Mavic’s – which on a positive note means much more peaceful free-wheeling within our group.

With temperatures in Grenoble, near our destination, currently residing in the mid-30’s, we were heading into especially hot weather and there was some discussion about whether this might affect our rides. Goose took this as a reminder to go and buy some sunscreen and then had the dilemma of trying to determine if we’d need to pass through security again at Heathrow, in which case the sunscreen would be well above his 100ml liquids hand baggage limit and would need to be abandoned.

“It could always be inserted into a body orifice and smuggled through,” I suggested.

“Good plan!” he replied quick as a flash, “Just bend over there will you … “

And we were off!

The Squall

Crazy Legs was delighted that the Ticker was sitting flanked by two babies when he took his seat on the plane and they naturally started howling in stereo as soon as the plane began to gain serious altitude. “That’s just how they clear their ears,” he helpfully suggested later. I wondered whether I should just scream incoherently rather than pinching my nose and trying to blow out, I mean it wouldn’t be particularly dignified, but it might be an entirely more effective way of dealing with changes in air pressure.

We picked up Steadfast at Heathrow to complete the gang and there was just time for us to grab some lunch and for Captain Black to tell the Starbucks staff his name was Hans. I’m not sure they were aware they were engaging in a much valued and time-honoured tradition. Then we were being hustled aboard our short flight to Geneva.

Games Without Frontiers

I managed to reclaim a little sleep on the flight and we passed seamlessly through passport control. The stern and hostile border officers of our first trip that had transitioned to completely indifferent border officers on the second, had now been replaced by cheerful, happy, warm and welcoming types. Perhaps too welcoming, as the Hammer couldn’t get away from his, a guy who’d studied at Newcastle University and wanted nothing more than a good chinwag about the changing fortunes of our local football team.

With typical Swiss efficiency, the bike bags were awaiting pick-up – alongside many, many others, in what looked to be at the very least a “special operation,” if not an outright invasion of continental Europe by British cyclists.

Elevator, Going Up!

We then had to make our way to the French side of the airport to pick up the hire cars, passing through a security checkpoint and manouvering our bags and boxes into a lift for a short hop up to the next floor. The doors behind us swooshed closed, the lift lurched up and then the doors in front opened so we could step off without turning around. The doors closed again and the lift disappeared, heading down, while we pulled to one side and waited for it to disgorge the next batch of cyclists.

With a bright ‘bing’ the lift returned and the doors rolled open to reveal not a bunch of hairy-arsed cyclists and their bikes, but an old couple with two fully loaded trolleys that they’d pushed into the lift, then jammed side by side so they couldn’t push them out again. No matter how hard they barged and banged at the trolleys, twisting them this way and that, they were stuck fast and not moving. The doors silently closed on their struggles and the lift descended again.

‘Bing!’ A few minutes later the lift reappeared and the doors open on the same couple, with the same stuck trolleys and the same frantic efforts to try and move two immoveable objects. Nope. No go. Down they went again and then back they came. Again.

Bing! This time Crazy Legs leapt forward like a madman and started wrestling suitcases off the trolleys until he’d created enough space to pull first one and then the other out of the lift, watched all along by the appreciative, somewhat sheepish couple and the rest of our gang, who’d given up on the lift and decided to use the escalator instead.

Jumpy Around! Jumpy Around!

After that mini-drama, the car hire pickup all went surprisingly smoothly and quickly, but, despite two identical orders, we ended up with two different vans, with vastly different capabilities. I was assigned to the first, a Citroen Jumpy, the other was a Ford Transit. The Transit was brilliant, with loads of space and highly efficient air-con. The Jumpy? Well, that was a bit crap. The seats seemed immovable (or at least the car hire rep didn’t know how to move them and we couldn’t figure it out). Our designated driver, Goose, also felt it was a bit underpowered and the air con struggled with the 37-38℃ we experienced on our journey.

Still, we managed to jam 4 people and 4 bike bags inside, but that was the limit. On the return the Ford took 6 people and 6 bags, so would be the vehicle of choice if we could ever specify. Unfortunately, the best you can ask for is a large van and then it’s a bit of a lottery what you actually get after that. With two Jumpy’s I think we would have struggled mightily, so thumbs up Ford and big thumbs down to Citroen.

We were “entertained” on our road trip by Goose’s play-list, a somewhat eclectic mix of Radiohead, Abba, Stephen ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy, the Glee soundtrack, a heavy smattering of The Gypsy Kings and some American feller I’ve never heard of that Goose referred to as Jay-Zed. I would like to say it helped pass the time …

Still, we did all right, with no delays or missed turns and, dropped Steadfast off at his campsite at the foot of l’Alpe d’Huez to await the others, while I pressed on with Goose and Captain Black, through the centre of Bourg d’Oisans to the Hôtel Oberland where we’d booked a room for the duration.

Hôtel Oberland, Bourg d’Oisans – kinda hard to miss

Saddle Saw

The early flights did have one benefit, we were here already and there was still plenty of daylight left, so we set to assembling the bikes for an afternoon ‘leg loosener.’

I thought my bike had survived intact, but somewhere along the way my saddle had taken a hefty knock, the rails were crushed and it was deformed. I continued to ride it throughout, though it’s fair to say that after a good few hours it very literally became a real pain in the arse.

Reg. Assembled and ready to go, but enjoying some shade in the grounds of the Hôtel Oberland

Butterfly Kisses

The three of us set out with a vague idea of heading to the next town down the valley, Allemonde, and then doing a short loop that Steadfast had used on one of his previous trips. It was a good plan, only complicated by the fact that we had only the vaguest notion about which right-hand turn we were supposed to take to circumnavigate the village.

Though late afternoon, it was still what would in North East of England, have been classified as an absolutely scorching day, and it was nice to get moving and get the air flowing as we pushed our way down the main road. There’s a well-marked and maintained cycle path here, but your still mixing with a lot of commercial traffic on a fairly busy route.

At one point a butterfly came and kissed me on the lips and then fluttered away and even this unwanted attention seemed superior to the swarms of black flies we’d encountered a few weeks ago back in Northumberland. (This gentle introduction to the region’s insect life would prove somewhat duplicitous.)

There was some serious road re-surfacing going on in Allemonde itself, which makes me suspect the Tour de France is going to be routed through the town in a few weeks. Still unable to find the right-turn we were meant to take, I suggested we just take the Route des Cols, the start of the climb to the Col de la Croix de Fer and then we could call at Crazy Legs’ all-time-most-favourite crêperie/cafe, Les Favets at Le Rivier d’Allemont.

In lieu of a better plan from anyone else, this seemed acceptable and so we started our zig-zagging way up the face of the barrage skirting Lake Verney and heading up into the hills beyond.

Goose was hugely intrigued by a group of teens jumping from a viaduct into the lake and took a lot of dissuading from joining in. We suspect on some of the solo outings he tacked onto the end of our group rides he’d visit this spot and try to work up the courage to hurl himself into the lake. The only alternative explanation we could attach to his meanderings was an infatuation with the waitress at Les Favets, with him passing this spot multiple times on his odyssey to pay homage to her.

Leaving the lake and heading under the trees, the climbing proper began and, even under the shade of the leafy canopy, it was still brutally hot as we crawled slowly upwards.

“Is it much further?” Goose asked plaintively after we’d been working away on the climb for a good while. Truth be told we were all finding it much longer and much harder than we recalled,

“Another 3 or 4km,” I suggested, although I was just guessing. Then a few houses appeared at the crest of a rise.

“… Though hold on though, maybe not.”

This was a false dawn though, the few houses were all there was to the very quiet hamlet of Articol (I think) and our destination was still further up the climb, with 3 or 4 km being surprisingly prescient.

The cool air exuded from the streams and rivulets that rushed down the mountain and dashed under the road proved temporary relief, but never lasted long enough and we were all dripping with sweat and in need of liquid replenishment as the gradient slightly levelled and we finally reached our destination.

I told you half and hour ago I’d be ready in 5 minutes!

We arrived at the cafe just after 5pm, just as the place was due to close. Throwing ourselves on the tender mercies of the extremely pleasant and friendly waitress, we didn’t have to try too hard to project the image of sun-frazzled and tired cyclists in desperate need of refreshments. For whatever reason she took pity on us, “Okay, but we’re closing in five minutes!” We ordered cola’s all around and my companions indulged in a beer for that Ice Cold in Alex experience, as we took our seats in the shade, admiring the views up to the peaks above.

Our five minutes respite had turned into fifteen by the time a group of Swiss motorcyclists took the table behind us.

“We’re closing in 5 minutes!” the waitress cheerfully called out to them in passing.

“Yes,” I assured them, “She told us that 10 minutes ago, too.”

The motorcyclists were largely appalled that we chose to go on holiday to ride up mountains and suggested in Switzerland the general form was to drive your car to the top of a mountain, unload your bike from the back then enjoy an effortless descent. You know, on face value that seems eminently sensible, but maybe it’s cutting out half the fun …

As we were leaving a new set of tourists sauntered up to the familiar refrain of “We’re closing in 5 minutes.” I do wonder what time they actually managed to close.

Most of the road down to Allemont had been resurfaced as it featured in the recent Critérium du Dauphiné the upcoming Tour de France. It’s a fast, easy descent anyway, with long, sweeping bends and not too many pinch points, but the plush surface just encouraged more speed, so I laid off the brakes and let gravity run its course. I managed to hit over 80kph before I caught a white Hyundai Tucson and couldn’t find a way past, Nonetheless, great fun. while it lasted. Maybe the Swiss have the right idea after all?

We stumbled across the rest of the crew as we passed through Allemond and they tagged on for the ride back. We’d just crossed the bridge and were about to start down the man arterial road, when Goose spotted a sign for a cycle-track, off to the left and supposedly also heading back to Bourg d’Oisans. We decided to give it a go and called everyone back.

What a revelation, the track was a wide, smoothly tarmacked and traffic-free strip running alongside the Romanche river. It was perfect and became our go to route whenever the roads took us north. In fact, it was such a pleasure to use that on the last day I rode up and down it several times with Crazy Legs just as a superb way to decompress and spin the holiday out a little longer.

The meal that night saw us heading back to the Dutch bar where Goose revealed he has a very well-developed internal filter that he uses to carefully process everything he says before he gives it voice. It was quite a startling revelation and one that we all had cause to question in the coming days.

Our meal was somewhat interrupted when one of the guys at a table behind us passed out and dramatically collapsed. They were a bunch of English cyclists from Nottingham and had been touring around the country putting in huge distances by car each day to take in all the iconic climbs. It seemed one of them had been pushing it a bit too hard and was down and out with heat stroke, or possibly something even more dangerous.

His friends pulled him out of his chair, cleared some space and laid him on the ground while the manager of the restaurant hovered, concerned and with the number of the local emergency services tapped into his phone just in case. The guy seemed fully recovered after a few minutes, and appeared none the worse for the episode, even happily looking ahead to more climbing and pushing himself just as hard tomorrow.

We’d already found out today it was debilitatingly hot, even for the modest efforts we’d put in. For us at least this simply didn’t seem like the right time for any crazy long rides or heroics and I was already thinking our usual ‘Circle of Death’ – the Croix de Fer-Télégraphe-Galibier, long Saturday ride wasn’t on the cards this year.

Let’s see what tomorrow would bring. After the odd interruption to our meal, we all seemed a bit distracted and disorganised, so in lieu of any other suggestions, I (wholly uncharacteristically) proposed the Oberlanders would set out early tomorrow to climb Alpe d’Huez as the first order of business and we could decide what to do after that slight obstacle had been accounted for. I agreed with the Hammer we’d swing by their campsite at 9:15 to pick up anyone else who wanted to join us, but wasn’t hopeful we’d put on a unified front.

I’ve said it before, organising cyclists is like herding cats. In a thunderstorm. At night. On a ship. Still, half a plan is better than no plan, so let’s see what happens.

Day & Date:Thursday 16th June at 16:32
Time:1 hour 46 minutes
Distance:38km
Elevation:626 metres
Average Speed:21.6 km/h
Temperature:29℃ to 31℃

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