Monster Ballads and the Stations of the Cross
Wednesday finds me piloting a car utterly packed to the gunwales through a downpour of truly Biblical proportions, as I transport Thing#1 and sooo much stuff back from University. Her First Year Is done, dusted and in the bag. Already. It seems like only yesterday we were taking her down and years are becoming too short a currency to measure time by. Like the old Soviet Union, I think I need to start thinking and planning in 5-year cycles.
The electronic ghost of Josh Ritter’s riding shotgun and providing the soundtrack, warbling about steamboats, gold leaf pyramids and wearing an iron albatross on his bonnet, as I find the outside lane of the motorway and accelerate. A pigeon spirals lazily down from an overhead gantry and lands directly into my path. There is a dull thump, the pigeon disappears and I suspect I’ve left a sodden corpse in a feathering pile somewhere in my hissing wake.
Arriving home I find the pigeon corpse is actually deeply embedded in the front grille of the car, it’s wings spread-eagled (spread-pigeoned?) outwards, like some grotesque and macabre hood ornament. My own personal albatross? I hope it’s not an omen, as this particular ancient mariner is packing to journey southwards…
Thursday Morning, 7 A.M.
Seven o’clock in the bleary morning, the very next day and, more by luck than good management, I join a line of skinny blokes, carting over-large bags through a relatively quiet Newcastle International Airport. Four of us, myself, Crazy Legs, the Hammer and Steadfast are returning to the scene of past crimes, hoping the good citizens of the Haute-Savoie have forgotten about us, or forgiven the trail of desecrated and devastated toilets we left across the region two years ago – a serious international incident at the time that had left the OPCW scrambling to respond.
Having been blooded in our Pyrenean Expeditionary Force last year, Kermit and Caracol have signed up too, along with rookies Buster, Biden Fecht, the Big Yin and Ovis, bolstering our numbers and replacing missing comrades, Goose and Captain Black.
Clearing check-in, baggage dump and security, nervous flyer, Buster heads for the nearest bar for a little Dutch courage, with the Big Yin in tow. The rest of us desport ourselves in the café to indulge in idle banter, hot beverages and breakfast bites.
Ten of us, in total then, are heading to the Cascades Campsite in Bourg d’Oisans, our base of operations for various sorties into the high Alps by velocipede.
Lord have mercy on our souls.
Maps and Legends
In the cafe, the Hammer unfolds a large map of our Area of Operations and points out lines of supply, strongpoints we need to conquer and various lines of retreat. Rides are discussed, but with it being a much bigger group, there’s plenty of scope for different options. Personally though, I’m planning something similar to two years ago, with only minor variations:
Day#1 – an ascent of Alpe d’Huez with additional bits tagged on to test the legs and the bikes.
Day#2 – the Circle of Death, a 9-hour monster loop taking in the Col du Glandon, Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and Col du Lauteret – 165km with over 4,000 metres of elevation gain, seemingly always destined to end with a race against the sinking sun. Caracol has determined finding travel insurance while suggesting you are going to be engaged in an activity known as “The Circle of Death” is somewhat problematic and has been seeking a more user-friendly name for this ride.
Day#3 – a leisurely amble back up the Alpe, for lunch at the top, ideal for shredded legs and a bit of sight-seeing and souvenir shopping, before retiring to the town for a congenial round of celebratory, ice-cold beverages.
Donald, Where’s Your Trousers?
Clothing restrictions for using the camp swimming pool are discussed, with the Hammer insisting that in France, for some unknown reason, only budgie smugglers will cut it. Swimming shorts and anything else that doesn’t make you look like a pallid version of Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast are strictly verboten. Or interdit, if you prefer.
Biden Fecht expresses disappointment that he wont be allowed to wear his traditional kilt to the pool.
“But, you’re not Scottish,” Crazy Legs insists.
Biden Fecht declares he’s of mixed-race and questioning his ethnicity is akin to extreme racial prejudice, venal bullying and personal harassment.
And so the banter begins…
Chatting about films, Ovis reveals he’s always getting Matt Damon confused with “that other actor.” His observation is somewhat spoiled as he can’t remember the actual name of “that other actor.”
“Is it Denzel Washington?” I ask, helpfully.
“Is it not Jackie Chan?” Crazy Legs wonders.
Caracol tells us he’s left behind a small leak in his kitchen, with nothing but a bucket to collect the intermittent dripping. We naturally spend a good ten minutes conjuring up a series of disaster scenario’s he’ll find when he returns to a devastated and destroyed home. He’s far too laid back to bite.
And then the gate is called and we’re all shuffling off for the first stage of our journey…
Leaving On a Jet Plane
… which proves relatively uneventful, especially as this time Crazy Legs manages to avoid being trapped in his seat by an overlarge, ridiculously solid, prop forward looking to make a name for himself with a French rugby club.
We are disgorged from the plane, pass down a bland, corporately decorated corridor and are spat out into Terminal 5 at London Heathrow, in the Departure Hell (sic) opposite the giant Starbucks. We then trail Crazy Legs from one end of the airport to the other, sensing he has some unspoken mission that’s driving him ever onward.
He’s looking for the Starbucks…
We reach the end of the terminal, a series of desolate, empty and uninhabited gates and then start to backtrack. The Hammer wonders if I might like to visit one of the champagne and oyster bars, the perfect repast, he suggests, for someone who’s been as sick as a dog the first two times we’ve made similar trips. I (very) politely decline.
We backtrack, all the while Kermit complains about the amount of walking we are having to do, obviously concerned about saving his legs for travails ahead. Still, at least this year he isn’t trailing cabin baggage large enough to smuggle a small child in, so manages to skip along relatively unburdened – even if he does have to take two steps for every stride the Big Yin takes.
We finally find the Starbucks (again) and settle in to kill a little more time. Here we learn Steadfast has made it in safely from his home on the south coast and will join us, once he’s finished wallowing in the somewhat more rarefied atmosphere of the Executive Lounge. He proves understandably reluctant to smuggle any of us chancers in with him, or even liberate any of the free goodies on offer and bring them out to us, so we’ll not see him until we’re at the plane.
Band on the Run
We meander to the gate for our Geneva flight, where we queue with a group of extraordinary Italian gentlemen. Their leader appears to have modelled himself on a cross between Al Pacino, circa Dog Day Afternoon and John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. He has big floppy hair with enormous chads, Ray-Ban aviators, open-necked shirt with a collar wide enough to park a car on, over a tan leather jacket with lapels that somehow manage to dwarf the shirt collars. He’s also wearing an enormously wide pair of flares containing enough loose material to re-upholster a small sofa, should you ever want a purple paisley sofa.
His collection of mid-70’s styled colleagues, sport an arresting array of big hair-do’s, cravats, gold chains, wide-lapelled, leather jackets in lurid autumnal colours, flares worn with belt-buckles the size of dinner plates, platform shoes and everything else bad from fashion’s darkest, most tasteless era.
We surmise they are possibly wearing what is considered the very latest, cutting-edge, haute couture in Geneva – it seems a logical assumption, the place does seem to be 40 years behind the rest of Europe, but, it’s just as likely they could be a highly sophisticated Italian stag-party.
We’re scattered throughout the plane for another largely uneventful flight and I pass the time between reading and sleeping.
War Without Frontiers
At the other end, the glowering version of passport control from two years ago seems to have been replaced with one of studied indifference. I’m not sure this Mark 2 variant is an improvement. “Welcome to Geneva and have a nice day. If you must.”
By the time I’m through, into the Baggage Hell, the bike bags and boxes have miraculously appeared and all have been accounted for. I realise that, like cats, cyclists don’t take well to herding, but I thought we had a general consensus as, after extended dallying, we finally make for the exit and the car rental desks.
I was wrong. At the other end though we score a measly 6 out of 10 for togetherness, Buster, the Big Yin, Kermit and Biden Fecht have all disappeared.
Frantic texting reveals that Kermit has hired his car from the French side of the airport and, as I’m travelling in his party, I’m in the wrong place. I have to work my way back up and through the terminal, passing the Big Yin and Buster heading the other way. I then get to experience the humourless, unwelcoming security and passport control all over again. Joy. Luckily, I still have a boarding card for my inbound flight on my phone. If I’d had a paper one, I might well have discarded it once out of the airport and I don’t think I’d have been allowed through again.
Later, Crazy Legs reveals the League of Extraordinary Italian Gentlemen are actually a band working a 70’s pastiche angle. Pastiche? I prefer shossage rowlsh, as a much funnier person than me once commented. At the car rental desk the assistant is warily eye-balling their instrument cases and, assuming Crazy Legs and Ovis are part of the band, trying to work out what sort of hellish, exotic and bizarre instruments, they might have packed into their over-sized, square boxes.
Having re-crossed the frontlines, I join up with Kermit and Biden Fecht on the French side of the airport and after trawling up and down several flights of stairs we finally locate our rental van. We load her up, I figure out how to work the Sat-Nav and we consign ourselves to the tender mercies of our French guide.
Elle à dit
Apparently, hiring a car from the French sector of the airport saves you paying a €40 vignette, or road tax to use Swiss motorways. Sadly, it also means you don’t get to use the Swiss motorways. And, while the car should come pre-equipped with a breathalyser kit, supposedly a legal requirement for any driving in France, as far as I can tell, isn’t actually enforced. The downside of missing Swiss motorways is a seemingly endless circumnavigation of the entire airport on minor roads, before you begin your journey proper.
We settle down for our two hour plus, elongated road trip, occasionally re-tuning the radio as the signals fade in and out and enjoying an eclectic mix of Euro-pop (only Mylène Farmer, The Dø and a French version of Snow’s, pseudo-reggae, “Informer” distinguish themselves) some golden oldies and, appropriately, if somewhat bizarrely, “Airport” by British one-hit wonders, The Motors.
Interspersed in-between the music are some truly execrable, unlovable radio ads, “Oui! Oui! Aussi!” – which serve only to advertise that the complete dearth of creative ad talent at home, is matched by an equal paucity in continental Europe.
We occasionally get sit-reps from the other groups who are encountering heavy traffic trying to leave Switzerland, but still seem well ahead of us and likely to arrive in Bourg d’Oisans long before we do.
Still, as if triggering a slow-motion Venus flytrap, the mountains start to rise up on either side, still resolutely snow-mantled and the sky retreats until it’s just a patch of bright blue directly overhead. We trace a fast-flowing, turbulent river upstream and into Bourg d’Oisans and I recognise “that Dutch bar” as we cut through the town centre. I direct Kermit to the campsite, past the counter which shows how many cyclists have climbed the Alpe d’Huez today.
We see Crazy Legs on our way in and learn everyone’s convening at “that Dutch bar.” Grand. We know where that is. We park up, quickly dump our bags in the cabin and head into town to join up with our compadres. The bikes can wait until the morning.
We’re all present and correct, a solid 10 out of 10 and it seems an auspicious start. What could possibly go wrong?