TwoLegsTwoWheels

A record of my cycling trips in Britain and abroad

Jul
30

Monday: trial by bike

180km riding; 3,500m of climb; Agnel; Izouard. For anyone who’s watched the Tour de France these names will be well-known. They are two of the most spectacular - and hardest - climbs on the route of the tour, and this year they were riding them both in the same day. We didn’t quite follow the same route as the race - the race will ascend the Col Agnel from the Italian side on Thursday, whereas we rode to it from Briançon on the French side - but ours was similar. The Col Agnel is the pass over the border between France and Italy between Briançon and Sempeyre, and at 2744m is one of the highest in the Alps. We started out from our cottage at around 1100m and took a brief detour up and down the side of the valley to avoid the main road; we saw lots of cyclists on this route, rather to my surprise; perhaps they were all doing a similar thing to avoid the Monday morning traffic. We dropped down again and rode into Queyras valley to start the long climb up to the base of Agnel. On the way, we passed a sign showing that Izouard was closed due to a rockfall; well, we would do Agnel first as was our plan, and then see if Izouard was open in the afternoon. Agnel acutally lies at the head of the Queryas valley, but from where we were there is a long, flat road along the valley for a good 30km or so before the climb proper starts. Gorge is perhaps a better term than valley, as the steep sides drop down leaving barely enough room for the road to run alongside the river (indeed in places there isn’t room, and the road runs through tunnels cut into the cliffs). At a height of about 900m, the road turned sharply upwards, and it was obvious that the climb had begun.

We’d been working fairly hard along the road up the valley. It wasn’t flat by Cambridge standards - not at all - and we’d been keeping up a steady but reasonably fast pace, so it was even more of a shock when we hit the hairpins and our speed slowed to a crawl, our breath soon coming in gasps as we struggled up through the cloying, still hot air, heavy with the scent of pine sap. Despite the difficulty of the climb, I was not quite too exhausted to take in the scenery; the valley stretches for 20km from the start of the climb proper (where it reaches about 1 in 8) to the pass, and the road wends its way through small alpine villages and then next to a cool, clear stream, and finishes with a vicious series of hairpins zigzagging their way up to the top. We stepped into Italy and took the obligatory photos, and then donned our jackets and gloves for the descent; despite the hot weather making us sweat buckets on the the way up, the fierce sun and lack of wind wouldn’t keep us warm during the long, fast descent. We decided to stop on the way down for lunch at a cafe, rather bizzarely plonked in the middle of the valley, on its own in the middle of a field of grass; they made probably the tastiest crepe I’ve ever had, smothered with honey and cream - delicious!

After the Agnel, we then had the same all over again with the Izouard; not quite so high, but every bit as steep. We also had another element to contend with: the sun, which had been hot but tolerable in the morning, but which was now out with a vengance to fry us like ants upon the road. However, there was one welcome (and rather amusing) episode that meant the whole climb was virtually free from traffic: back down on the valley floor, as we were crossing from the road up Agnel to the road up Izouard, a lorry and a large caravan thought they could pass each other at one of the narrowest points of the road. They couldn’t: it was narrow and it turned through a sharp corner, with a shear drop on one side into a tributary stream and a cliff face on the other. However, by the time they’d realised one of them would have to reverse, a large queue of traffic had built up on both sides, stretching round out of sight - so new cars were arriving at the back, on both sides, and pulling right up to the queue as they couldn’t see its cause. By the time we arrived, the queue was perhaps a mile long, all of which would have to reverse to give enough space for either the lorry or the caravan to move. I don’t know how long it took them to move; perhaps they’re still there. In any case, I felt rather smug as we sailed on down past the line of traffic, just managing to lift our bikes round the caravan and continue. We cycled past the landslide that had blocked the Izouard in the morning, with earthmoving equipment clearing the last of the rubble off the road. It was a truly awe-inspiring sight: a swathe of mountain the size of a town that one day tired of being perched up high fell into the valley. I suddenly felt very small and vulnerable: nobody, no human creation, could survive, had they been there half a day before. I felt like I might not survive to the pass without a landslide. However, I did, and met Si and Vince at the top (Oli had contiued straight on down). Shortly after I arrived, another cyclist came up, a guy from California who was spending 6 months cycling round Europe. Hats off to him - he’d made his way up the Izouard too, but unlike us - carrying minimal baggage and out for the day - he was carrying a tent sleeping bag, and 6 months’ gear in his panniers! We took each other’s photos and started on the descent.

That descent: one of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. (Perhpas I’ve over-used superlatives in describing this trip, but in this case they are definitely justified.) A mixture of hairpin bends and long straights, the road dropped away from the Col before plunging down into the trees, here and there showing through the branches as it snaked on down to Briançon. We set off, this time with me leading the way (I can keep up on the descents!). And what a descent that was! Building up speed on the sweeping turns, then standing up out of the saddle at the end of the bends; tucking right down on the straights for speed, then jamming hard on the brakes with the back wheel nearly lifting off, lying the bike right over on its side round the hairpins. Then power again out of the curve, tuck for speed, brake, and turn. And all the time with trees flashing past and the clear mountain air biting at my lungs. Each turn gave a glimpse of the town through the trees, gradually drawing closer; and then all too soon it was over, and we were pootling back along the road to our chalet. We watched the sunset over the furthest ridge ahead of us, and then it was back, shower, and time for a very well-earned dinner, washed down perhaps with glass or two of Bordeaux!