See the Jobst Brandt's Tour of the Alps Collection under the section for Europe of the Trento Bike Pages

Tour of the Alps 1996 - Part 2

By Jobst Brandt (, Mon, 16 Sep 1996 18:07:08 -0700. Revised: Thu, 11 Sep 1997 8:43:45 PDT
This is part 2 of a report consisting of 4 parts. See Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, the Index, or the (big!) one-file version.

5. Monday, 8 July (Robilante - San Martin Vesubie; 137km, 3344m):

As we rode up the valley along the rail line, famous for being either in a tunnel or on a bridge most of the 80km from Borgo San Dalmazzo to Ventimiglia, we saw only a local passenger train. While the railway gained altitude in looping tunnels and bridges and vanished in the mountain for long stretches, we pushed up the 4% grade to Limone (1010m) where the road gets steeper and the 8.09km Tenda railway tunnel, completed in 1913, bores through the mountain to Vievola. Farther up, the highway enters the 3.18km Tenda highway tunnel (1320m) that was completed in its present form in 1882. We headed up to the pass on the old road that has been smoothly paved nearly to the Tenda summit (1908m) by the ski concessionaire.

Pavement ends at the border as the road reverts to its 19th century surface, a kilometer before the top, giving us practice climbing on baseball sized gravel. The view at the summit exposes a greater panorama than the altitude might suggest, in addition to stone roadhouses that served travelers before the turn of the century, huge fortifications, some of which were part of the Maginot line, stand empty as sentinels of history.

Today the road's harsh ancient roadbed is gradually being paved, a few curves at a time. Historic photographs of animal teams, steam tractors, and solid tired chain driven trucks that traveled this road, make today's "hardships" pale in comparison. The south side is still a real 19th century road, steep and with more than sixty loose surfaced hairpin turns that make tight going even for a jeep. The road drops into the rocky gorge of the Roya river where it rejoins the tunnel highway. We made our way carefully down the deeply rutted turns as moto-cross bikes roared uphill, visibly relishing the challenge of the old road.

We rejoined Italian Rt N20 as French Rt N204 at the south portal of the tunnel and rolled swiftly down the generous sweeping turns of the new and improved road. At Vievola the railway emerges from its tunnel only to vanish into a loop tunnel followed by many bridges as it descends to Tende (816m). We stopped for lunch in Tende and visited the ATM for French money.

After lunch we coasted down the Roya canyon through the vertical and overhanging walls of the Soarge Gorge. We could barely make out the road to the town of Soarge as it bores trough cliffs high above, and whose tunnels have few windows to reveal the route. Soarge is a linear cluster of houses glued to cliffs with houses that have more than a hundred meter freefall from their windows. As most of these hill towns, Soarge is surrounded by olive trees that find root between the rocks. Besides olives we found figs and a late fruiting "glass" cherry tree that offered its bounty as a pleasant adjunct to water from fountains along the route.

We turned west just before Breil (286m) on Rt D2204 up the Col de Brauis (879m). Although the weather was cool, the southern exposure and lack of wind made the climb noticeably warm, making the roadside spring under the willows 2/3 of the way up a pleasure. The landscape here is Mediterranean with sparse vegetation, olive trees and leafless broom (gorse) blooming bright yellow with the smell of honey. As we descended, the west portal of the relatively short rail tunnel from Breil to Sospel (349m) was visible far below as fog from the sea rolled over the ridges to the south. With cool weather the great ice cream store and bar at the junction of the Brauis, Braus, and Turini lost its draw as we took pictures of the old stone arch bridge over the Bevera, reminiscent of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence with its collage of buildings.

We rode north up the valley on Rt D70 to the Turini pass (1607m), that figures prominently in the Monte Carlo Automobile Rallye. The climb starts gradually as the road heads into the ever narrower rocky canyon of the Bevera before it passes through the monastery of Notre Dame de Menour that straddles the road at a high narrows of the canyon. From here the road is fairly flat through Moulinet, after which it is mostly in the shade through a pine forest on the way to the summit. Without stopping because there is no view at the forested summit, we descended toward the Vesubie river where, in a few kilometers, a huge panorama opened with the walled village of la Bollene-Vesubie perched picturesquely on a knoll in the foreground amid the dry hills of olives, gorse, and golden grass.

The road descended to the Vesubie where it joins Rt D2565 that climbs gradually to St Martin Vesubie (930m), a pleasant town before the narrows at the foot of the Col St Martin (1500m). It was about the right time and the pass was a bit far to reach before dinner, so we called it a day in the lovely old Hotel Les Tres Ponts within the walls of the old city. We ate at a restaurant up the main passage from the hotel and watched the street litter being swept away by water rushing down a stone flume in the center. In the morning, just before sunrise, the water was turned up high enough to wash the whole street. The sound of cascading water down the stone steps was enough to get my attention from my bed near the open window.

6. Tuesday, 9 July (San Martin Vesubie - Col d'Allos; 129km, 3772m):

The climb up the Colmain or Col St Martin exposes a beautiful view down the Vesubie valley as the road clings to rock walls between rough hewn tunnels along the upper part of the pass. Martins, swallow like buff brown birds, were flying through these tunnels where they nest in the crags of the ceilings. The summit exposed a large grassy ski area on the west slope through which the road descends into dry and sparse vegetation of the Tinee river gorge.

This descent reveals an entirely different panorama of mountains, with roads that are tiring just to look at, as they thread a tortuous path along barren rocky walls to high mountain villages. On the final descent to the Tinee river and Rt D220, we traversed rugged rock walls where the river seemed to be directly beneath us as we rode through tunnels connected by bridges. We followed the Tinee, gradually climbing toward St Sauveur sur Tinee (496m), where we turned west up Rt D30 to Rubion and the Col de la Couillole (1678m). We stopped briefly at the summit hotel, hoping to say hello to Sophie the proprietor, but she was not in. We rode on to Beuil (1435m) and Valberg (1829m) where we took the "back" road, Rt D28, that descends next to a huge steep rocky riverbed, to Guillaumes (819m) where we ate a hearty lunch in the shade of garden umbrellas.

We followed Rt D2202, that had practically no traffic, up the Var river toward the Col de la Cayolle, enjoying pleasantly cool air. We crossed the "temporary" Bailey bridges over the Var that looked just as permanent as they did in previous years. We stopped for a snack refresher in San Martin d'Entraunes (1260m), the sleepy village at the foot of the Col de Cayolle (2327m), before heading up the Col de Champs (2191m) that, like the Cayolle, lies in the Parc National du Mercantour, a nature preserve with wildflowers instead of ski lifts, hotels, and kiosks. The serenity (and lack of mostly diesel powered cars of France) on this route through high meadows made this a wonderful experience. The descent to Colmars (1235m) is over an even smaller rough asphalt road that is mostly hidden in a forest of larch. From Colmars the road climbs gradually to la Foux d'Allos (1425m), where we stopped for the night at a mostly empty ski hotel with a good menu.

7. Wednesday, 10 July (Allos - Col du Lauteret) 157km; 3708m):

From Allos the road got smaller as the ski influence waned and we climbed higher into fields of wildflowers with grazing sheep and cows. The road made the last traverses on bridges and revetments as it clung to the steep slope on the way to the top of the Col d'Allos (2250m). The 21km descent was again in the park as it traversed pristine high alpine terrain along the canyon of the Bachelard river to Barcelonnette (1150m) to join Rt D902, the Route des Grandes Alpes.

Here in the Ubaye valley we rode to Jausiers (1215m) where the road from the Bonette (2780m), a scenically less rewarding but higher route, comes in from the south. Above Condamine, the Col d'Larche (1991m) took most traffic to Cuneo as our road got smaller. At the base of the climb we stopped in St Paul sur Ubaye (1470m) for a grocery store snack before climbing the Col de Vars (2111m). We bought some postcards and a soda at the old sheet metal shack on the summit that was already decrepit in 1960 when I first rode here. The difference is that they have power now and offer refrigerated drinks. After a short descent a panorama to the north, up the Durance river toward Briancon, opened with Guillestre (1000m) far below in the foreground.

We arrived in Guillestre just before noon and bought a grocery store lunch that we enjoyed in the shade of the church on the main square. Well sated, we headed toward the Izoard pass along the cliffs above the Guil river, where the road climbs gradually along the crags, going in and out of bare rock tunnels, before joining the rushing river above a dam. At Chateau Queyeras our route D902 takes a sharp left up the Riviere valley while the road to the Colle dell'Agnello (2758m) goes straight. We arrived in Arvieux (1544m) at about 2PM, as the otherwise closed grocery store was receiving supplies and the owner invited us to shop for what we needed, a convenient serendipity.

Above at Brunissard, the road was under construction without much attention to dust abatement, so it was loose and dusty right at the steepest part of the climb. Traffic control was so poor that the little traffic there was caused a snarl of cars in the midst of the construction for the next couple of kilometers. Once past this obstacle, things got normal and we rolled over the false summit, took pictures at the Coppi monument, and rode to the top of the Col d'Izoard (2361m) with its museum of bicycle racing memorabilia from the Tour de France when alpine passes were unpaved and gears on bicycles were few.

It was fair sailing down to Briancon (1391m), with a mixture of sun and clouds, and without the headwind that usually blows up the valley. Just before town, Richard's seat post broke off at the joint between head and post, but because the road was so rough, he wasn't sitting at the moment of failure. Fortunately we were a stone's throw from an excellent bike shop and got a Vitus replacement that looked sturdier than the old post. From Briancon we rolled up Rt N91 with its gradual slope at 4% to 5% to the Col du Lauteret (2095m) while in the distance, at the end of the valley, the summit of the Galibier was visible to the experienced eye. We stopped for the night at the Hotel du Glaciers on the summit of the Lauteret where my old friend Paul Bonnabel had turned over the operation to his nephew Domenic who seemed to have the kitchen and other things well in hand.

8. Thursday, 11 July (Lauteret - Seez; 157km, 2976m):

We set out in the morning under a clear cold sky that called for a jacket for the first few kilometers before reaching the lee side of the mountain where the sun did some warm-ups. Here, only two days earlier, the Tour de France had been turned back by snowstorms. We, on the other hand, found green wildflower bedecked fields with scattered patches of new snow and marmots that whistled sharply as they ran to their burrows at our approach. Above the old summit tunnel (2555m) the road follows the older right-of-way, irregular in width, grade, and alignment, and with a bit of 13% to wake up the sleepers before the top of the Galibier (2645m). Here we took pictures of glaciers glistening with fresh white coats and the long valleys to the south and north. If the glaciers, of the Massif du Sorieller (4000m) to the south and the Massif de la Vanoise (3600m) to the north, don't make an impression, the sign proclaiming their beauty couldn't help.

From here the road, covered in graffiti for this year's canceled TdF stage, descends in broad curves to Plan Lachat. Much of this section is visible from the summit and is a common scene in TV reports of the Tour de France. Speeds are about 60km/h if you try hard, but often these "accidentally" get translated to 60mph by TV commentators.

From Valloire (1430m), the road climbs gradually up a mild but significant rise to the Telegraph (1570m), a Roman signal relay station and early French fortress that commands a clear view up and down the Maurienne valley of the Arc river. The road descends with many turns in a pine forest from the Telegraph to St Michel (712m) where it joins Rt N6. We headed up the valley toward Modane (1057m), the portal of the Frejus road and railway tunnels, where we stopped at the Super Marche for lunch. We checked out the large rail yard at the passenger station were several SNCF 1500VDC (French) locomotives were parked on the south side of the voltage division and a bunch of "brown bomber" 3000VDC FS (Italian) locomotives on the north end. Diesel locomotives handle movements that cross the voltage change and each railway uses switchable voltage tracks to bring trains into the yard. Dual voltage passenger locomotives travel straight through.

Above Modane, below in the valley at la Bourget, we saw the supersonic wind tunnel that seems out of place, there being no major airstrip nearby. Our road leveled off as we arrived high above the narrows at Avrieux. Here a huge fortress covers most of the rocky ridge that blocks the gorge of the Arc while the Pont du Diable, a spindly suspension foot bridge that spans the chasm, makes it look even more threateningly deep. Farther up the valley at Lanslebourg (1399m), where the Col du Mont Cenis heads south to Torino, we turned north up the Col du Madeleine (1746m), a short steep bump on Rt D902 to the high valley of the Arc.

This beautiful flat valley, with side valleys to the east that expose views of glacier covered peaks, ends at Bonneval sur Arc (1783m). Bonneval, at the foot of the climb to the Col d'Iseran is a small village of ancient grey stone buildings with stone roofs and catacomb like cellars. In the sun it has a friendly appearance in stark contrast to its deathly grey when under cloudy skies. We got a snack and headed up the hill toward the first high valley where the falls that cascaded from the higher valley were not as spectacular as in other years because most of the snow had already melted. The road crosses the river and sweeps up the steep north slope to begin the second climb to the narrows above the falls. The road levels off on a bench in the rock above the falls and passes through several tunnels before crossing the river again and climbing up the side of the highest valley with its ski slopes and piles of avalanche snow.

At the end of this valley we rounded its only hairpin and headed up the last kilometer to the summit of the Iseran (2770m) where we had our pictures taken sitting on the large concrete and stone road sign that is more a monument than a sign. The sign, that demands to be climbed, seemed fairly new when I first had my picture taken on it in 1960 with two friends. Today it is still pretty solid although a bit faded.

The pavement on the descent to Val d'Isere was pleasantly smooth and with light traffic for a change. As always, the mountains with glaciers on 3700m peaks were impressive. We coasted briskly right through town and climbed the little bump before entering the series of tunnels down to the Lac du Chevril (2000m) dam. After the dam, the road descent is steeper with some fairly swift sections before it levels out at the bottom of the valley to Seez (920m), the junction of Rt D902 and Rt N90, the Petit St Bernard (2188m) pass to Aosta. We stopped before Seez in a hotel that I discovered a few years ago.

9. Friday, 12 July (Seez - Argentier; 134km, 3112m):

We rode through Seez and down to Bourg St Maurice (840m), where we turned north toward Les Chapieux (1552m) and the Cormet de Roselend (1968m) on Rt D217. The climb was pleasantly cool and as we passed Les Chapieux we could see the Col de la Seigne (2516m) off to the east beneath Mont Blanc. We met an antique car rallye at the summit with Amilcars, Bentleys, Bugattis, and Model-A Fords of all things. We rolled through a large herd of cows and a smaller herd of rallye cars that were still making their way to the summit, as we coasted down to the lake and the huge Barrage de Roselend [dam] (1475m). From the dam the road drops precipitously into the Defile d'Enteroches, an almost closed canyon just above Beaufort (743m). In the first restaurant on the right, as we entered town, I enjoyed a "frutta di mare" seven seafood pizza with a large Pelforth beer.

From Beaufort sur Doron, a road cuts north across the mountain over the Col des Saisies (1633m) to Flumet (917m). From here Rt N212 stays high as it crosses to St Gervais (807m) above which we could just make out Mont Blanc through the haze. A cogwheel train climbs through St Gervais (807m) up to the Nid d'Aigle (2386m). It's a short descent to le Fayet (589m) where we took the elevated highway to Chamonix (1037m). As we approached town, we could see bits of Mont Blanc (4248m) directly above with its glaciers descending almost to the valley floor. Foot traffic in the center of Chamonix, a pedestrian zone, was dense enough to make walking faster than riding.

We finished the day, four hairpin turns above Argentier (1257m), at a friend's house located on a meadow overlooking the valley. As luck would have it, he was home, although several earlier telephone attempts to make contact had been unsuccessful. Before turning in, we watched the Argentier Bastille day fireworks, celebrated two days early to not conflict with the next night's show in Chamonix.

10. Saturday, 13 July (Argentier - Argentier; 0km, 2805m):

We got a good breakfast, dressed like civilians, and drove into town to take the aerial tram to the Aiguille du Midi (3842m) on Mont Blanc, a rise of 2805m, nearly straight up in two swings. With perfectly clear skies, zero degrees C, and no wind, we enjoyed perfect viewing of the mountain, the many climbers, the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa in Switzerland, and a solid panorama of white peaks to the south as we stood on the observation platform. This is the way to enjoy a rest day. We stayed up there about two hours, after which we visited the outdoor market and bought groceries including a bag of chanterelles and some fine cheeses. That evening Chamonix put on its fireworks one day early to avoid celebrating the holiday on a hangover Sunday night.
This is part 2 of a report consisting of 4 parts. See Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, the Index, or the (big!) one-file version.