Although I still had a week to the planned start of my tour I got quite mad, as for the next day I arranged a meeting with my Swiss friend, Fred Meier and we were planning to ride around Lac Leman area along his favourite routes. Not having any more time to waste (it was almost midnight), I filed a claim and ran to the trains, swearing in all known languages at BA, Heathrow and air travel in general. The only advantage was I did not need to carry the heavy bugger - but still I had only 50 meters from the Vevey train station to the Pavillon hotel I was staying at. I calmed down a bit sitting in the train and watching at the lake waters reflecting the shine of almost full moon.
First thing in the morning I called the airport to find out whether any good news can be heard. But when I heard the voice of the answering machine I knew there would be none. „Please refrain from calling us - we ‘ ll call you when your luggage is located". Very helpful. Almost as BA Swiss office which I called next - „if you have no clothes or toiletries, you can buy them, sir and present us with the bill". The next sound of telephone brought Fred calling about the planned ride. With pleasure, Fred, there is only one problem - I have nothing to ride on. He wasn’t particularly surprised as he experienced a travel with BA just couple of weeks before - with a very similar result.
But, he was a happy owner of two bicycles, and after borrowing some Look compatible shoes we went on a ride with Fred and his son. Excellent weather added a special charm to the travel around splendid Swiss countryside towards Gruyere's lake. After completing a ride which made me feel good about my form we spent a great afternoon in Fred’s garden nested nicely on the slopes above lake of Geneva.
The bike finally arrived on the next day and after a week spent on absorbing extensive financial knowledge I was ready to start the proper exploit - the mountains were waiting!!!
30 August 1998: 157 km, average speed 18.5 km/h, elevation gain 3230 m.
This first day was not particularly welcoming - skies were dark gray, with a constant promise of even worse to come. After a flat warm - up between Vevey and Monthey I started the climb up the first mountain - Pas de Morgins. This road seems to be usually busy, with Swiss going to France, and French visiting Swiss, but I was so keen to ride that I covered this fifteen kilometers climb in 1 hour and twenty minutes with no need to go lower than 42/19 gear for all of this time. Which, for me, was something big. When I arrived at the top of the pass, the skies made up their mind and poured buckets of water onto the French ground. I was getting cold on the ample descent so I stopped at Abondance to warm up and get some French cash. Then, instead of following D22 till its end where it joins D902 road going north, I took a shortcut along D32 climbing up Col du Corbier. This is only 5 kilometers ascent, so after half an hour I was at the top, again in the pouring rain which limited the scenic advantages of the road which otherwise would be glorious. But the real bad part was just about to start, with riding busy D902 in a fierce rainfall. I stopped at the roadside supermarket to eat some grapes and drink, but weather did not get any better in the meantime. Besides, the road was going constantly up, which I did not expect and it made me feeling tired. On one of the bends of the road around Morzine I was passed by the car, suddenly heard the bang! and felt pieces of glass hitting me from the left side. The idiot was going so narrow that he hit oncoming car’s mirror.
I felt relieved to see that at les Gets most of the climbing was over and I could ride much quicker to Taninges and with one more short climb reach Cluses which I remembered from my last year’s ride to Switzerland. This time instead of heading towards Mont Blanc and Chamonix my destination was the South - guarded by the final ascent of Col de la Colombiere. Jokes were over - this was a steady 20 kilometers up after quite tiring day and I started to feel it. The worst part came after passing the Chartreuse de la Reposoir - beautifully located among the mountains, where 9% gradient became a standard. It was also the view of the straight 3 kilometers section going up steadily (a bit like the last part of Furka ascent from the East) which made me switch to a miserable 30 teeth chain ring. Which, obviously did not help. I was so tired that when I realized that I left my sunglasses at the roadside during a drinking stop, I could not force myself to go back down these two kilometers to retrieve them (you guessed - they were not very valuable). I reached the top of the pass after two and half hours. Descent was very nice, leading through le Grand Bornand which I found very nice place, but still preferred to cover few more kilometers to call it a day in la Clusaz.
I found a cheap hotel there, went through the routine of washing clothes and myself and started to look for a place to eat something. Whole village (town ?) wasn’t a cheap place, so I ended up at a kind of pizzeria mixed with restaurant where I could not even eat much - my stomach was cramped.
31 August 1998: 113 km, average speed 16.4 km/h, elevation gain 2900
Although I slept quite well, still got up at seven in the morning and went downstairs to have a breakfast which must have surprised the lady who owned the hotel - but she quickly brought some rolls and jam - not really something to fuel up for a coming day, so I needed to resupply in a local supermarket before leaving town. When I was taking the bike from the hotel’s garage, the lady still under impression that I was a Brit tried to communicate to me in French that something had happened to Princess Diana. I understood the words „Paris" and „accident", but I did not think about anything serious, so I just turned my face into something like (supposedly) expression of surprise and rode away. The climb started immediately leading through pastures in a chilly air of the morning until the junction with the choice of the roads between the one going to the Col de la Croix de Fry and mine turning south - east to the Col de Aravis. It is an easy and beautiful climb, with maximum gradient not willing to exceed 8%. Within half an hour I was at the top of the pass decorated with a charming stone chapel. Local merchants started to fill the area with their souvenirs and „specialites du pays"
The descend was of great beauty with the road winding through a deep canyon. And soon I was going up again - past Flumet turning right from the main road approaching skiing resort of Megeve to tackle the Col des Saisies. If similar to the previous climb in terms of beauty, its difficulty belonged to a different league - this one was just longer and the sun decided to work quite hard this Sunday morning. There was nothing interesting to contemplate at the top of the pass - it is located on the saddle between two hills heavily armed with skiing facilities, as the place was the venue of cross - country skiing races during Albertville’s olympic games. As soon as I started going down the other side of the pass I had to stop to take a look at the unbelievable panorama of Mont Blanc which appeared on the north, its glaciers contrasting with the juicy green of surrounding hills. Back on the bike, I said goodbye to the majestic mountain, but with no reply - it was to be the constant landmark of the whole tour.
There was still a big one awaiting me that day, so I rushed down
following the red Peugeot with children on the back seat having great fun
watching a bicycle riding as fast as their Dad’s car. When looking at the
map I noticed that there was possibly a nice alternative to the main road
to Beaufort if I took a minor road in Hauteluce. I passed this charming
village and fifteen minutes later just managed to get into Beaufort’s Casino
(„c’est votre equipe") supermarket before the lunch time closure. Equipped
with the nice bucket of grapes I sat down on a pavement in the town centre
and prepared myself both physically and psychologically for the coming
climb up the Cormet de Roselend. Quite unexpectedly first part of it passed
rather quickly when I met the companion - American traveling through France
and cursing at his freshly purchased Decathlon tourer. We exchanged some
stories and e-mail addresses and I needed to leave him behind if I was
to reach Aime in the next valley on the same day as I had planned.
This part of the ascent was very good for the sunny and warm weather - in large part hidden in the woods, occasionally giving a chance to admire the views to the west, where the top of Saisies pass seemed to be so far away now. Finally the road reaches the lake - although artificial, still giving a special charm to the place - and a chance to take a rest on a flat section before attacking final hairpins leading into dramatic rock gorge. I spent some twenty minutes at the top, basking in the sun and looking at the great number of cyclists passing the summit on that beautiful Sunday afternoon.
When I went back on the road, almost immediately I reached very high speed on a steady section of rather poorly surfaced lane. Soon I had to slow down facing some twisty turns, one of which seemed strangely familiar. I stopped to think for a moment and yes, it was that infamous bend which almost cost Johan Bruyneel his life in 1996 Tour de France when he squeezed himself between the rock and steel barrier right into the ravine. I looked down and let me tell you, he was lucky to land on the bushes which prevented him from falling way, way below...
Bourg St. Maurice was almost deserted when I rode through it at the time of late afternoon siesta. Not wanting to add car fumes to the strangling effect of very hot day I opted for a side road through Vulmix and Piccolard to Aime. Despite some additional climbing needed it was a good choice allowing for occasional glances onto the other side of the valley hiding rather ugly skiing resorts of les Arcs and la Plagne. I was a bit surprised by a small size of Aime as a town, but still managed to find the hotel next to the big supermarket. When I switched on the TV it was full of news on Diana’s death. Now I realized why my hotel lady was so keen to pass the news earlier that morning.
1 September 1998: 129 km, average speed 16 km/h, elevation gain 3330 m.
Morning greeted me with a nice sunshine and after another hopeless breakfast I didn’t hesitate to start riding to avoid early rush hour along the main "olympic" carriageway connecting Bourg St. Maurice with Moutiers and, further ahead, Albertville. It was an easy task as the road goes slightly downhill most of the way until at Moutiers it transforms into a proper motorway. As usual, I was unlucky enough to miss the exit before that point and faced two of the cyclist’s nightmares in one: riding a motorway in the tunnel. Fortunately this speed training didn’t last too long and soon I discovered the relief of peaceful road through Aigueblanche. The scary part has started then - I was going up to Col de la Madeleine. But the combination of morning muscle freshness and equally stimulating cool breeze helped me in crossing the first part of the climb ending after passing a small skiing village of Doucy quite quickly. Ascent there is rather consistent, averaging some 7%. Then a surprise - almost two kilometers long drop ending at the crossing with a nice mountain stream just before joining alternative ascent route starting at La Lechere. I passed two small villages and entered a wilder landscape with a pass already looming in a distance, but still not easy to reach - by this time I started to feel a little tired and stopped at the miniature waterfall formed by the piping system not far from the top. Shortly after that I reached an excellent viewing platform facing my old friend Mont Blanc far to the North.
I rode through the top of the pass during lazy lunch hour realizing
that it took me over three hours to conquer 28 kilometers. Bearing in mind
some more vertical ones to come I dived down onto descent having impression
that it was much steeper than "my" side. Time was bad again when I reached
La Chambre as far as eating was concerned, so I satisfied myself with two
Isostar bars and plenty of water from a drinking fountain on the right
hand side just before starting the ascent of Glandon.
At first it didn’t look or feel bad, despite the time of the day and merciless heat I was able to reach St Colomban - the middle of the climb - rather easily. But then I found myself fooled by a profile which I remembered from the Atlas des Cols which quoted consecutive 10% kilometers but they were average gradients. Parts of this section were on good 13% side and with this nasty character where you do not really have an impression of the road going up but feel it in your legs instead. I gave up and surrendered to the services of my granny ring here. But even with that the last bends going up before reaching the top of the pass made me wonder until this time whether they were really that steep or was it only my knackered impression. Whichever was true, at the top I didn’t feel like going up another two kilometers to Col de la Croix de Fer. It was also then that I realized I didn’t have a chance to conquer la Marmotte route on the next day as I had planned originally. I excused myself with not enough time to ride such a harsh route and set myself up for a rest day tomorrow.
But it wasn’t over yet, the descent from Glandon had a surprise in form of a short climb midway plus the final section before reaching this evening’s destination camp at Bourg d’Oisans was just tiring with all the traffic going from Grenoble. I had no problem with getting a room in the town - probably because prices weren’t showing the indication of post season mode. Despite feeling slightly depressed with my inability to stick to my original plan I enjoyed walking the streets of this small but quite charming and lively town and even more importantly treating myself to a full blown dinner including obligatory pasta.
2 September 1998: Rest day, except mere 28 kms with average speed of 13.8 km/h (!!!) and a kilometer of elevation gain.
My mood has changed a bit from the day before
when I promised myself not to do anything but just sleeping, eating and
in best case walking, and when I saw early morning sun through a window
of my hotel’s room I started to feel guilty - to be at the foot of Alpe
d Huez and not to attempt this legendary climb? Something just didn’t feel
right. My doubts increased during the breakfast when I talked to two Dutchmen
who had scaled the Alpe just two days before.
Finally I made the decision to ride up the mountain and if the place was interesting - stay there overnight before heading further East towards Italy. Therefore I took all my luggage and soon crossed the small bridge, turned left and after a short straight section I reached the first ramp. I was warned that it makes no sense to force yourself on the first two straights - they are very steep and I would be burnt even before the game starts for good. I wasn’t in sporting mode anyway so I went straight down into a granny gear and... so I stayed for the whole ascent. At least I didn’t stop even once, although climbing time of hour and a half wasn’t something to cheer about. Neither was the village - typical soulless skiing resort caught in the middle of maintenance works before coming season. But still a legend.
The feel of the place was depressing enough to send me back down the road to Bourg d’Oisans where I chose another hotel, got a couple of hours sleep and walked to the town where I spent rest of the day in a cafe at the corner of the main streets writing cards and listening to the music played there - I liked it so much that I asked the barmaid who that was - and so I found out about Ben Harper who became one of my favourites since.
3 September 1998: 145 kms, 19.85 average speed, 2675 elevation gain.
I had no excuse of being tired or having not
enough sleep next day, so I was left with no choice - start as early as
possible because I had no idea where I’d end up that day. In a foggy weather
I left Bourg d’Oisans heading up the valley along 40 kms climb to Col de
I had a feeling I was missing something as the surrounding mountains were
promising great views in better weather. Especially around la Grave where
I stopped for refreshments normally I should be able to see the Meije with
its magnificent glacier. When I reached the top of Lautaret the skies let
some sunshine out and I admired the rough atmosphere of this place from
the hotel’s bar where I filled myself with ice cream before going up towards
the pass of my dreams - the Galibier.
I saw the pictures and read the descriptions of this legendary mountain so many times that it became a kind of obsession to see it - preferably on the bicycle and in a good weather. Although first condition was met, the other one was letting me down quite dramatically. Thick clouds filled the valley and went up to the top of the pass. The monument of Henri Desgranges, founder of Tour de France, whose rather ugly column stands on the left corner very close before the summit was wrapped in the mist when I passed it. The surface and steepness of the road changed there too - on preultimate corner I had to give up my 42 ring and apologize granny again.
But soon it was all over - a sharp right hand turn revealed the other side of the valley - with astonishingly bright weather - I mean the skies were still covered with clouds but the fog, so omnipresent on „my" side of the pass, was only hitting the rocks of Galibier in a raging but hopeless effort to get through.
I was simply delighted to be there. An inspiring chat with Belgian cyclist who came there all the way from his home country kept me at the pass for several more minutes, but soon it started to get cold and I came back the same way - down to Lautaret. On the descent to Briancon I joined a group of Swiss cyclists who seemed to be on an organized tour of the French Alps. It was very enjoyable ride with them until the moment when the missing link of evolution chain driving a green Golf deliberately came so close to one of the riders that he lost the balance and only miracle saved him from falling down. I don’t know the Swiss equivalents of the words starting with f***, a** or mother... - but I could just feel they were in use.
In Briancon there was a time to make the decision what next - stay here for the night or continue. I was feeling very good, pushed another set of ice cream down my throat and attacked the wooden slopes of the Montgenevre. I remembered the pictures of the short stage of 96 TdF going up the same road but they were lucky to have the traffic stopped. Although the road surface was excellent (probably renovated before the Tour last year) it attracted large number of trucks turning dangerously quick in the sharp corners.
There was a nice surprise at the top - sunshine again ! I looked at the map again and decided to try to reach Susa before the evening - to start the next day with straight climb of Mt Cenis. But before that I rode down the impressive valley guarded on the left hand side by the chain of mountains defining Italian border. In Oulx I crossed the highway connecting Frejus tunnel with Torino and followed the road to Susa basking in the late afternoon sun. Somehow the Italian ambience could be felt strongly - forgotten villages guarded be magnificent fortresses, olive trees, dusty road and lots of Fiats - all of them led me to suburbs of Susa. One of them was called Olmo which led me to suspect that it was a site of bicycle manufacturer of the same name, but I’m not sure if I was right. In Susa my currency conversion abilities led me wrong way to Hotel Napoleon - place which I thought was reasonably priced proved otherwise when I received my credit card details a month later. But I liked the feel of the place - narrow streets with people just starting to flow out of their homes for the wine dominated evening.
4 September 1998: 90 kms, 13.8 average speed, 2990 elevation gain
Another sunny morning! The view of green hills
over bleak red roofs of Susa set me into good mood for the coming day.
As it turned out later, rightfully so.
Due to my currency conversion mistake I ate hotel breakfast in the company of a bunch of Italian businessman - I must have looked quite odd to them in my cycling outfit, with face bearing no closer relationship to the razor or cone.
But soon I changed the environment. The road to Col du Mt. Cenis starts right up from the town and I had no time to adjust to the harsh rhythm. The Atlas des Cols promised 25 kilometers with 7 - 8 % gradient all the way up. No mistake this time - but it wasn’t very tiring. First climb of the day should never be anyway, right? Scenery, at first shaded by the trees changed after passing an Italian douane post where I met local student assembling his mountain bike before hitting the rough terrain above. He showed me a map of the area assuring to find great views above. Then we said hello and went our own ways. Which for me meant entering a short valley filled with souvenirs from Napoleon era - fences, tunnels and other military gadgets. Few zig-zags led me to the false flat from which I could already see the dam on the Mt. Cenis lake. There was a parking above it with the chapel and museum devoted to building French - Italian friendship. But as it occurred it still wasn’t the top of the pass - this came a bit later in quite unspectacular form. But the descent was more than rewarding with its truly alpine surroundings, huge pine trees and distant glaciers on the horizon. Instead of going all the way down on the main road to Lanslebourg I turned right and made a shortcut to the charming village of Lanslevillard. It was just about time - quarter to twelve and all the shops, not numerous anyway, were about to close. I sat in front of the local bakery and while eating regular ice cream calories’ bomb enjoyed the silence and relaxing atmosphere of the gateway to Iseran.
First set of turns leaving Lanslevillard brought back bad memories of Glandon with very misleading impression of flat terrain. But this time it was easy to conquer - didn’t last too long and soon converted into a truly flat straight road passing the winter sports station of Bessans (looked like a great place for cross - country skiing enthusiast) and slowly but surely approaching the stone houses of Bonneval sur Arc where the road leaves the ease of the valley and starts to scramble up the steep slope above the village.
But before that I stopped at the roadside bar for more food and drinks to get strong enough for coming torture. The view over the valley slowly built up as I dragged to the top leaving green world behind and entering rough and rocky surrounding of the Iseran pass. With an element of surprise I found the pass at the same place where I was skiing just few months before - no trace of road was visible then. I haven’t spent too much time at the top, 2770 meters of elevation was high enough to be cold.
On the descent I found some more skiing pistes along the road when specific view of Val d’Isere squeezed between rocky walls came into sight. Despite rather early time of the day - it was only 4pm - I decided to stop there hoping to enjoy lively evening at the resort. Nothing more wrong ! Village was almost empty, probably because summer season was already over and winter had still couple of months to come. Even the bars and restaurants were closed so I finally had enough and visited local Casino to stock with food and beer and made myself dinner of the champions. Long live Alsatian beer ! I didn’t need even five minutes to fall asleep !
5 September 1998: 148 kms, 18.34 average speed, 3185 m. of elevation gain.
I dressed myself warm for the morning as it
was still cold when I left Val d’Isere trying to sneak quickly through
a series of tunnels covering the road along Lac d’Chevril. As soon as I
passed the road to Tignes and ugly picture on the dam the road dived down.
But it never got very steep so I rarely touched the brakes. This steady
descent brought me to Seez, just over Bourg St Maurice where I turned right
on the road to Petit St Bernard and Italy. Very soon fields and pastures
gave way to the pine woods but the road remained the same - very well paved,
with almost no traffic and very moderate gradient. This is the kind
of the climb which I would recommend to all beginners who would like to
feel like Tour de France stars powering up the corners at 20-25 kph! After
skiing station of La Rosiere the road changes character again - pave
is more rough, gradient just a bit harder and the surroundings more desolate.
But I could already see the pass in the distance and when I reached it
greeted by the figure of St. Bernard himself (as it later occurred, not
the last time that day), magnificent figure of Mt Blanc was there again,
admired from a different angle.
Surprisingly, the descent on the Italian side was very smoothly surfaced and not surprisingly, surrounded by fine views. As I was leaving France for good and still had some francs left I stopped at charming village of la Thuile to change money. On the road between la Thuile and Pre St Didier I hit the bee and was bitten just a centimeter from my left eye - lucky to have shades on. At one moment I thought I saw the clouds behind the trees surrounding the road but the closer inspection revealed that they were not the clouds but the snows on the top of Mont Blanc again !
The next section to Aosta was depressing for at least two reasons. Incredible traffic, mostly trucks and the view of the huge mountain on the left hand side which must have been the next destination: the ancient pass of Grand St Bernard. Just looking at the statistics I knew it wouldn’t be a piece of cake - 40 kilometers to be climbed in a very warm and humid air. Therefore I stopped at the small trattoria in Aosta and treated myself to a delicious spaghetti carbonara and huge bowl of ice cream. No regrets - I still lost almost three kilos of weight during that trip.
As it is widely known, the first part of the ascent to Big Bernard must be shared with the whole traffic going to the tunnel connecting Italy with Switzerland. But most of the way I was able to stay on the shoulder of the road and keep the pace quite steady. Unbearable heat gave way to afternoon cool breeze as I progressed up the valley to the place where the tunnel traffic abandons the old road. From there I could have felt like entering true world of mountains. It took some time though before I could ride through the last tunnel and go through a narrow rocky gate which opened the small basin with the lake and St Bernard monastery. There were two hotels to choose from - one on Italian side and the other in the Hospiz, opposite to the monastery. Funny enough I needed to answer few questions to the carabinieri before I was allowed to enter Swiss zone. I decided to stay at the Hospiz - it was undergoing serious renovation and the room, although quite rough was fresh and clean - just what I needed for that night. I took the shower and still managed to walk around the place looking at the statue of St Bernard and finding out that genuine St Bernard dogs are bit different than their famous Hollywood cousin called Beethoven.
6 September 1998: 109 kms, 23.7 average speed, 975 m elevation gain
Sunny Saturday morning...and my trip was coming to an inevitable end. Task for the day was easy - go down from the top of Grand St Bernard and then along the Rhone valley to the Leman’s shores. Even too easy, and following the smooth, quick and barely motorized descent from the pass I was tempted by the variation offered in the Michelin map. It showed the possibility to go to Martigny over the Col de la Planche. This almost unclassified road took me over chalky cliffs visible from St Bernard route into a delightful valley covered with fields and traditional Swiss chalets. Top of the pass revealed part of the Alps panorama to the north, but mostly obscured by the woods occupying the hill.
to Martigny, again in the shade of the trees, was very steep and
very bumpy - to the point where I felt that my rear wheel wasn’t tracking
very well. No wheel wouldn’t with broken spoke and well out of true - it
must have happened a bit earlier on the same descent. The rim was bent
so strongly that I had to disengage cantilevers to enable it rolling. I
passed Martigny just few minutes after 12:30 - late enough to be refused
service in the shop.
At first riding this relatively flat part wasn’t easy against head wind and with the rear wheel in state of agony but as I progressed I felt better and better. I approached Aigle welcome by graffitis memorizing this year’s Tour de France crossing over Col de la Croix and with speed around 40 km/h. Not far from the infamous Chillon castle I was passed by a cyclist in full blown Festina colours. I sat on his wheel for the kilometer or so and suddenly realized I could go much faster !! So I left him behind, cruised through busy streets of Montreux, passed few other training cyclists and spotted a policeman on scooter in front of me. Half a minute later I was sitting on his wheel - he must have guessed my thoughts and opened the throttle to the full speed position. And so we rushed into Vevey at almost 60 kph ! And suddenly it was all over - the hotel’s door, quick shower, back to ‘civil’ clothes and all that remained was a set of pictures, head full of memories and now - these pages. Well, I forgot - not only memories - images of exploits still to come, too...