TwoLegsTwoWheels

A record of my cycling trips in Britain and abroad

Sep
24

Friday: up, up, up

The last day of cycling of the holiday arrived, and with it, possibly the biggest challenge of the trip: to cycle the Col de la Bonette, the highest road in France, at 2802m. This ride wasn’t so long as the others, it was just very very high. We drove out to the village of Jausiers, arriving there late morning. I find it rather charmng the way each alpine village has it’s own blend of national characteristics; Jausiers, for example, is quintessetially French, yet there is an unmistakable Italian influence, in such things as the central fountain, the character of the shops, and a dozen other little things, in a very different combination from, say, Sestriere, which is a similar size and also close to the France - Italy border.

We set off for the final challenge under a deep blue sky, with the sun beating down and not a cloud in sight, nor a breath of wind to be felt. The Tour came over the pass in 2008, and the town was still decked with ‘Le Tour - welcome to Jausiers’ slogans, as if we needed a reminder how seriously the event is taken here! The village is small, and we soon passed out across the bridge, after filling our water bottles from the picteresque fountain in the village’s central square. On the far side, as we started the climb, we passed a couple of houses, a pension and a farmhouse, and then we were alone with the road. It was lovely and quiet - surprisingly so for it’s status as the highest road in France - and I don’t think we saw half a dozen cars the whole way, and only a few other cyclists. Oli soon shot off into the distance, wanting to make the most of the last day’s riding, leaving Si, Vince and myself working our way up behind. With the heat and the still air it almost felt like we were on a different planet to earlier in the week, when we’d been climbing a glacier surrounded by snow and ice. Sweat was dripping from my brow as I pushed to keep up with the other two, and my legs were feeling leaden after the week’s exercise. Despite the effort, I managed to put my head up and look around; I don’t think anyone could fail to be impressed by the stark beauty of that valley. We climbed through lush pastures and past overpoweringly sweet-scented, velvet green pine trees. Leaving the fields behind, the trees gave way to rocky grassland, with an open vista behind us deviod of all human habitation.

We passed the halfway point and I had kept up with Si and Vince, so far. However, the constant 9% gradient had taken its toll, and I couldn’t mantain the pace any longer. I shouted to them that I would take a quick breather and grab a cereal bar, and I stopped by the side of the road. Thirty seconds or a mintue later, and they were out of sight ahead. The only sign of man’s existence was now the road, a thin ribbon of black heading up the mountain. Apart from that, I could have been alone in the world. Not a blade of grass moved, not a sound or a breath of air disturbed the scene. Only a bird of prey broke the motionless tableau, circling lazily on a thermal, jet black against the azure sky; perhaps 400 yards away, perhaps a mile, I couldn’t tell.

As I continued up on my own I couldn’t help reflecting that man is never more than a guest when visiting a mountain; the weather can change from fierce heat to freezing rain in a matter of hours, and however long he spends there, it is always by the leave of nature. Everything we do is so transeint and impermanent, and whatever villages we might build on them, however we may try to render them habitable, they were there long before us, and they will endure long after too. Anyway, I digress - these thoughts occupied but a small part of my mind at the time, my predominant thoughts were working out how long it would take me to get to the top, and also thoughts along the lines of ‘9% is a lot steeper than it felt yesterday’.

As I reached the vegetation line and the sparse grass finally gave way to bare rock, so too the hairpins levelled out and the road became, if not flat, at least no longer steep. I was finally able to change gear and pick up some speed. The road here skirted along just below the line of the ridge, in a vast, sweeping curve gently climbing up to the pass. On the far side of the bowl formed by the curve of the mountain I could see Vince in his blue top making his way up to the summit. Ah, not long now, I thought. I was quite unaware that the hardest bit was yet to come. There is a scenic loop up from the pass that goes up close to the summit; it is short but steep. But the toughest thing about this final stretch was not its gradient: it was the altitude. At 2800m the effects of lower air pressure well and truly kick in - exactly what you do not want when you’re at the end of a tough bike ride! However, I finally made it to the highest piece of French tarmac. And it felt good. There were a few other people up at the top, a few cyclists, a few in cars and quite a few on motorbikes. We walked the last hundred yards or so up to the peak - no mean feat itself, in cycling shoes! - and were rewarded with an unbroken view for miles around.

Oli and Vince set off back down the mountain, while Si and I decided to wait a little longer at the top and take in the view, having worked so hard to ge there. However, it wasn’t long before we followed them. I took my cycling shoes off to walk back to the bikes, but it didn’t help much, the rocks were so sharp that I couldn’t walk any faster than with them on. This descent was to be the last ride of the holiday; I definitely tried my best to make the most of it, alternating between adrenaline-pumping bursts of speed and pauses to admire the scenery in peace. All too soon we were back down below the tree line, where we stopped for lunch at a picturesque little restaurant nestling above a stream. Then it was time to return, and, with heavy hearts, to set about the task of packing.