Kate and Greg bike the high cols of the French Alps

In 2007 Kate and I biked from Venice to Milan over the Stelvio Pass. When we got to the top of the Stelvio we found that this was the second highest pass in Europe. So this year we decided that we really needed to bike over the highest pass in Europe. This is the Col de l'Iseran, which, at 2770m, towers over the Stelvio by a full 13m.

To do this we decided to start from Marseille, and bike up to Bourg Saint Maurice, where we ended a previous trip over the Grand and Petite Saint Bernard Passes, and knew a friendly hotel. On the way we would see the Gorges du Verdon, the biggest canyon in Europe, and climb the Col d'Allos, the Col de Var, the Col de l'Izoard, the Col de Lauteret and the Galibier, and finally the Col de l'Iseran. Here is a map of our trip...

map of our trip

Kate in front of our hotel in Marseille.  Departure.
This shows the bikes. This hotel is the same one we stayed in last time we were in Marseille, but they changed it's name (they flipped the hotel sign over); but it is still the full one-star hotel we knew.

Two years ago we went over the Pyrenees using these bikes. These are Dahon folding bikes with 20 inch wheels and 24 gears. They are lighter than our normal road bikes, but they are not really as good a ride. We accept this tradeoff because we can disassemble them into boxes the size of the maximum allowed luggage size for overseas flights. These boxes fold flat and we carry them on the back of the bikes; seen here as the black plastic on the rear carriers. In general, the bikes are quite comfortable, although I do worry about mine on long, fast descents.

Gorges du Verdon

We left Marseille on the same road we used to return to it eight years ago. This was a wonderful downhill run into the city and we remembered it fondly. Going the other way, however, it was uphill. We remembered it as being more than a 350m altitude gain (about halfway up Cypress Bowl, for those in Vancouver) and so turned out to be a pretty pleasant ride.

The road out of Marseille.  Uphill this time.
Both sides of the road have an excellent golden asphalt shoulder meant for bikes.

We were heading for the town of Trets, about 40km from Marseille. A short first day, for us to get used to biking again. It was pretty easy, but on the way there, Kate found that one of her pedals was wobbling. She hadn't tightened it securely, and it had started to strip the threads. I tightened it hard, and stripped them some more, but Kate could bike to Trets, where a guy in a bike shop that knew what he was doing, retapped the pedal arm and fixed it.

Trets was a pretty little town, and our hotel was comfortable and friendly. It was a two-star and from the research I could do, the only hotel for a considerable distance around. We ate at a small restaurant on the main street, and I'm pretty sure my Beouf Tartare was poison.

Gaston Rebuffat, R.I.P.
This was a memorial to Gaston Rebuffat, one of the great French alpinists, in the middle of a roundabout just outside the small town of Rians. I remember running into him in about 1971 when we were climbing in the Alps.

The next day, after Kate's bike was fixed we headed off for a fairly long (for us) ride to Aups (about 70km), just south of the Gorges du Verdon. We stayed in another two-star hotel (this time a Logis de France -- which are generally good), while I had a sick day to get rid of the Beouf Tartare. Twenty-four hours of bed or bathroom, we had to stay an extra day. The patron called ahead to the next hotel where we had already booked and got our stay there put back a day.

Gorges du Verdon
First view of the Gorges du Verdon.

After our unplanned extra day in Aups, we headed north to the Gorges du Verdon. We reached the pretty town of Aiguinnes by lunchtime and ate. Aiguinnes is at the western end of the Corniche Sublime as the road along the south rim of the Gorge is called. It is indeed a beautiful road. Moderated always when biking by the fact that it is also extremely hilly. We reached our hotel, the Hotel de la Grand Canyon du Verdon which is alone on this stretch of highway and in a spectacular situation. It sits at the top of the Falaise des Cavaliers (Falaise is french for Cliff) and has an incredible view of the canyon.

View from our balcony.
This is the view accross the dining area of the hotel.

The next day we finished the Gorges du Verdon, and cycled along the Verdon, where the valley had widened and it was just a pleasant riverside ride into Castellane. This section of the ride could have been anywhere in BC in the summer.

As we were approaching Castellane, we watched two kayakers try to get through an obvious rough patch. The woman failed, fell out, and had to swim to shore leaving her kayak and paddle for the man with her to retrieve. He did so yelling at her the whole time. Kate and I had planned some "aquatic adventure" from Castellane, but agreed that we did not want to experience that whitewater section.

Castellane has a really impressive cliff behind it with what is currently a chapel on top. They have found ruins beneath this chapel going back to Roman Antiquity when this was a city on the trade route from Italy to Gaul. During the middle ages it was attacked and sacked by the Saracens so severely that they moved the whole town up and behind the cliff, but this was abandonded as life became safer, and now as you hike up to the top of the cliff, you can see the ruins of this abandoned walled town.

The cliff behind Castellane with the chapel on top.
This is the very impressive cliff behind Castellane.

We found a good hotel in Castellane -- the guidebook recommended it as one of the cheapest, and we liked it, although the restaurant wasn't great. Kate had wanted to float down the Gorges du Verdon and so we signed up for an "airboat" trip. Airboats are inflated kayaks, that are designed to be impossible to sink or drown tourists.

The next morning, bright and early we biked the 2.5km to the launching area and got briefed and trained in our airboats, with another couple, and, with a guide, headed off down the river. It was generally fun and entertaining until we came to the exact spot that, yesterday, we had seen that poor girl get dunked. The guide explained it to us and mentioned, casually, if you do get dunked, don't let go of your paddle. He would have to go down and get it and bring it back. Well ... I later asked him how many people actually make it on their first try. He was non-commital about the actual numbers, but allowed that it was a rare occurence. Thanks. At least Kate and I held on to both our paddles and our airboats. Still the water was warm and the day was sunny, so we quickly forgot our embarrassment.

The Cols of the Alpes Maritime

The next day we were leaving the hills of Provence and heading into the foothills of the Alps. We biked pretty continuously up the Verdon River itself to the fort town of Colmars (les-Alpes, not to be confused the the big Colmar up North). Much of this trip was spent biking along the Italian frontier, and we were constantly passing forts meant to "enhance the invasion experience" from Italy. Clearly, these were started a long time ago.

Colmars is a pretty little town, with two forts (one obviously started as a Castle) and walls. The interesting thing (to me, maybe only to me) is that the smaller redoubt was designed by Vauban, although it looks kind of dashed off. [To those who do not follow fortification design with any zest, Vauban was a seventeenth century Frenchman who, more or less, changed the design of forts radically from high walled castles, to the low walled star-shaped rampart and trench designs we see left around today.]

The small redoubt at Colmars
This is the small redoubt that greets you as enter Colmars; the turrets at the corner are called Echaguettes.

We had a nice room and sleep, but this was one of those hotels that charge for extra coffee with breakfast, Kate hates that, because we need a lot of coffee in the morning. In fact, this was the only time it happened during the entire trip.

From Colmars we start into the Alps, and the next day took us over our first col (term alert col is French for pass -- same term is used in mountaineering), the Col d'Allos. This is just a practice col for the ones following but was either a ghastly death-ride (Greg), or a pleasant outing (Kate), depending on your weight and viewpoint. The descent was not much fun for either with deep slumps in the pavement hidden in deep shadow.

Looking down at the Foux d'Allos from the road to the col.
Looking down from the road to the Col d'Allos. Obviously this is a ski area in winter.

Trophy shot at the top of the Col d'Allos
Our heroes at the top of the Col d'Allos.

From the top of the col, we had a fast run down into Barcelonnette, where we had booked a hotel for two nights; figuring we would need to rest up. It turns out that it was a good idea, as I needed to have my brakes replaced, and have someone look at a wierd noise in my bottom bracket.

After a relaxing day in Barcelonnette we headed up the Col de Vars, another pretty easy pass. Then down into Guillestre, where we found our hotel. Here Kate had her first tartiflette, the regional dish. Tartiflette is a potato and cheese dish with extra ingredients to boost the cholesterol. While good, Kate didn't have another one.

Trophy shot atop the Col de Vars
Here we are at the top of the Col de Vars. From here it was down to Guillestre.

Starting out the next day from Guillestre we(I) decided to take a shortcut across town to get to the highway out. This avoided what, on a map, looked like a pointless loop. It turns out that while the loop went uphill at about 5-9%, the shortcut had us going up hill at about 15%. The beneficial effects of being exhausted right at the start of a ride are obvious of course. There is no worry about husbanding energy for later, or pacing oneself to preserve your legs for the climb of the pass, one can simply go at one's normal exhausted pace without guilt.

And that would have worked well, except for the detour. They were working on the road in the canyon we had to get through, so they sent all traffic up a road that clung to the side of the canyon. It was only one lane, so they alternated traffic every half hour. We were waiting with the cars and motorcycles, when we noticed other cars coming down, and a local cyclist just went up. We reasoned that if it was safe for those cars it must be safe for us too, and a cyclist didn't have to worry about oncoming traffic, so we headed off and had the whole road to ourselves. After about half an hour we were down on the highway through the canyon of the Guil.

Today was the Col d'Izoard, this is a serious col, and the approach was continuously steep. While we were resting at one switchback a Dutchman packing a load from a moving van riding a bike that weighed only slightly less than an Abrams tank came sweating up to us complaining that the posted inclinations on the road were wrong. We agreed. This was Hans.

Hans was doing the Tour of 100 cols. This is a tour of the 100 highest cols in France, that, for full enjoyment, they say you should complete in three months. Hans was nearing the end of his tour, and had until the end of September (it was now the 16th -- Kate's Birthday) to cover the major passes from here to the Rhine. Because of the weight he was carrying he travelled at about the same speed as us -- he called it a rest pace, which I didn't. So we went over the Izoard together and he got a room in the same hotel as us in Briancon.

Hans, Kate and Greg at the Col d'Izoard
This is Hans, Kate, and Greg at the top of the Col d'Izoard (2361m).

The next day the weather was poor, and similarly the following day. Since we were all going to go over the Lauteret and Galibier, we wanted good weather. The Galibier is a serious pass. So we saw the sights. In Briancon this means the forts (Vauban again). Italy is only 15km from Briancon over the Montgenevre Pass. So it is amazingly fortified. It's the sort of fortification that makes an army think of going elsewhere. It was besieged during the Napoleonic Wars, but after three months, the besieging army went elsewhere.

To me though, the interesting thing about Briancon is that this is where Hannibal came through the Alps into Italy. The latest scholarship has him coming through here at the head of the Durrance, and this is the only pass that makes sense of Polybius. When Kate found this out (we were home by then) she said that they have missed out on a tremendous tourism opportunity -- Elephant rides! So hard to argue with, for so many reasons.

Hannibal's route to Italy.
This is where Hannibal went. The Montgenevre Pass is 15km away through this notch.

The next day was clear and the three of us started for the Lauteret. The Lauteret is the col on the highway from Briancon to Grenoble, a good straight-forward road the whole way. The road to the Col de Galibier takes off from the top. We rested and had lunch at the Lauteret, and then started up the Galibier, which we made in the early afternoon.

Kate clowning at the Lauteret.
Kate and Greg at the top of the Lauteret. This is a "sub-col" where the road to the summit (of the Galibier) takes off.

At the top of the Galibier.
This is us at the top of the Galibier.

From there we headed down to Valloire, this is skiing country, and the whole valley is given over to skiing in the winter, and high-country tourism in the summer. We stayed in a hotel just outside of Valloire, where we said goodbye to Hans who had to get over more passes than we did, and he wanted to do the next few major ones before the weather changed.

We found out from Hans when we got back that he made the deadline and he actually did the whole Tour of 100 Cols within the one-summer time allowance; which is really good biking!

By now we were in the off-season for the Alps. It was too early for skiing in the Winter and too late for hiking and biking in the summer. Hotels and restaurants in the holiday areas were starting to shut down. We were the only guests in the hotel we stayed at just North of Valloire. The impact of this is that you don't have much choice in the food. They cook what they have, or you can bike for kilometres in the hopes of a restaurant.

Col du Telegraphe
Kate at the top of the Col du Telegraphe. In our direction a gain of about 100m.

The next day we had to go over the Col de Telegraphe. We shouldn't even mention it because from Valloire it is a gain of about 100m to the top. Then down the precipitous drop to the Valley of the Arc. On the descent of this col I passed a guy walking down with his bike, obviously he had a flat. Normally, I always stop and offer to help people with flats, but this time I was having too much fun screaming down the hill, it was near the bottom, I figured he'd be okay. Two short bends later, my rear flatted. Karma! While I was fixing my flat, he walked down and I offered him my repair kit, which he needed and thanked me for, but the bikes we were using used schraeder valves, his used presta, so I couldn't help him with my pump. He had a pump that sort of worked and was good enough to get him going. That was the only flat we had on the whole trip.

Once we got down into the valley of the Arc it was just valley biking, past Modane up to Lanslebourg. We were again in skiing country and hotels were closing. We decided to press on to Bessans -- we didn't have a hotel reserved this time because we didn't know where we would get to, the weather was supposed to start turning tomorrow and we wanted to be over the next col, the big one, the Col de l'Iseran, before the weather turned. The trip from Lanslebourg to Bessans was surprisingly stiff because there was a small col, the Col de la Madelaine, in the way. This is not the big Col de la Madelaine further West, but at the end of a long day, tiring none the less. It reminded me of grinding over the Hope Slide after a long day out of Vancouver.

When we pulled into Bessans we found we had a problem. The hotel the notice boards said was open wasn't, and indeed, all the hotels in Bessans (population 320 souls) were shut for the season. We found a Chambres d'Hotes (B&B)that was very nice, even if a bit more than we normally paid. Kate really liked it because with the kitchen facilities, and the raspberry sherbet we bought, she could polish off the carton at leisure, in bed after a sauna.

After a good breakfast, we set out. Today was the day we were to go over the Col de l'Iseran, the highest col in Europe. If I was determined to prove I was an idiot I would tell you how much I was looking forward to this. You wouldn't believe me anyway. It turns out that from Bessans the altitude gain is really only 1000m, but it seems more, possibly because you are topping out at 2770m, which is around where the air starts to thin, or because I wasn't in top shape (!?!), or something. In any case, the road was continuously steep, the view was continuously magnificent, and summitting felt great!

Looking back on the road to the Col de l'Iseran
Looking back down the road up to the Col de L'Iseran from about three quarters of the way.

The highest col in Europe
This is us at the top of the highest Col in Europe.

We had a hotel reserved in Bourg St. Maurice for the night. Five years ago when we biked over the Saint Bernard and Petit Saint Bernard passes we had ended up in the same place and we liked the hotel, so we stayed there again.

The ride down from the Col de l'Iseran through Val d'Isere, and down the valley of the Isere to Bourg St. Maurice, has got to be one of the great bike rides in the Alps. It's 50km of downhill biking (there are some short flat spots where you need to pedal) that takes you through a very pretty mountain valley and scenic alpine towns. It's like the ride down from the snowsheds on the Coquihalla except twice as long and with towns.

As we were pulling into Bourg St. Maurice, we decided to stop first at the railway station to see about tickets to Paris on the train and the TGV. When I asked when the train was the day after next, the woman at the counter simply said "Non, pas des trains la jour.", "Quoi?" I said. "La Greve." she said. Much of France was on strike, it turned out, because they were being made to work for a living, which is counter to most EU policy. There was a rotating strike that hit the line we needed to use on the day we needed to use it. Perfect! We couldn't go earlier because we had no place to stay in Paris, and hotels in Paris are not easy to come by on short notice and within a budget. She told us to return tomorrow and ask.

Anyway, the next day they said Sure! we've put on extra buses to Chambery, where you can catch the TGV to Paris. I would have thanked God, but as a card carrying atheist, I was limited to simply cursing the French government workers who caused the problem and wouldn't tell us about the solution. I'm pretty sure atheists can curse; otherwise life as we know it would have no meaning.


After a rest day in Bourg St. Maurice we biked down to the Bus Station (which is the same as the train station) and disassembled and packed our bikes, converting ourselves into normal tourists with big suitcases. We hopped the bus to Chambery, where we were nearly late because a demonstration slowed traffic. We got on the TGV, while thinking that we need to add wheels to these bike boxes if we are going to travel with them much more. The TGV broke down on the trip to Paris, this is the first problem we've ever had on a TGV, and it may have been poor maintenance due to the strike or, equally possible, sabotage. We got in late to Paris and found our hotel only after I had spelled the name of our street to the cab driver (my pronunciation just wasn't that bad -- but Parisiens are inflexible in their pronunciation, I've found).

Kate looking Parisienne
Kate looking half Parisienne and half Vancouverite in front of the Medici Fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens.

We were in the 11th Arrondissment, just south of the Place de la Republique, which is pretty convenient for walking to the Seine (maybe half an hour), and we had a Metro station 50m away. While in Paris we saw Notre Dame, always worth a visit, the Orangerie where Monet's Lily Pads are kept. An interesting exhibit, also worth the visit. We also saw the Musee du Moyen Age which had the famous, and remarkable, Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, as well as the Rodin Museum. I hadn't seen the Rodin Museum since I had visited Paris about 40 years ago. One of the pieces I remember (Orphee) was completely different from the last time. We also visited Sacre Coeur in Montmartre and just looked at the outside of the Moulin Rouge.

We (barely) made it to the airport on time -- our shuttle was caught in traffic, then flew to Vancouver, and took a taxi home.

Next year, fewer hills.