over the alps

Here is my route from Paris to Menton (it’s not exact, Google won’t display bike coverage):

On my way out of Paris I biked past a homeless man who was sleeping in a tent pitched in a bike lane. Is that legal? Can I do that? I struggled out of the city, dodging glass and garbage, shuffling along sidewalks, squeezing between cars, and carrying my bike up one flights of stairs. I pitched my tent on the bank of the Seine, 10’ from a road. 12:00AM found me awake, traffic still going at full speed, in the middle of a lightning storm. Every time I saw a flash through my closed eyelids, I would start counting. At one point, I only got to “2”. How had this happened? 8 hours before, I had been wearing a full-length dress, nibbling (devouring) macaroons in an apartment in the middle of Paris. Now, was there any difference between me and the homeless guy I’d seen on my way out of the city? I was strutting a fine line.

The ride to Geneva was relatively the same as the rest of France: fields, rolling hills and tiny villages. But, it turns out that France has something else to offer besides fields, and as I got closer to Geneva, they made their presence known.

Mountains (oh joy!). They rose to greet me and I started to climb and climb and climb. Before the border of Switzerland, I was climbing small mountains in 35°C+ heat. I’ve developed an addiction to lemonade and would drink 2L of it every day: switchback fuel. I made it to Geneva and spent a couple days sleeping, eating and jumping into the Rhone. France has bigger mountains than the peaks I had gone over to get there, and I was heading for them. The “Route des Grandes Alpes” runs from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean Sea. It’s about 700 km long, goes over 16 passes that are among the highest in the French Alps and includes some sections on the Tour de France. Yes, I am regurgitating the website description for you, guilty.

16 mountain passes, back to back. As you go down the back of one, the next becomes higher and higher in front of you as you descend. The only reason you are going down is to go back up again. It’s nature’s rollercoaster. Here are the 16 I went over, in chronological order:

Col de Gets (1,170m), Col de la Colombiére (1,613m), Col des Aravis (1,486m), Col des Saisies (1,650m), Cormet de Roselend (1,968m), Col de l’Iseran (2,770m), Col du Mont Cenis (2,083m), Col du Montgenèvre (1,854m), Col de l’Izoard (2,360m), Col de Vars (2,111m), Col de la Cayolle (2,327m), Col de Valberg (1,671m), Col de la Couillole (1,678m), Col St-Martin (1,500m), Col de Turini (1,607m) and Col de Castillon (706m). Say that five times fast. The roads that climb up each col are anywhere from 7km to 48km long.

These roads are chinked and chiseled (romantic euphemism for “lots of dynamite”) into the side of the mountains. Cliff face on one side, a sheer 1,000m drop on the other, and then me, cruising happily between them. From the map, these passes don’t look long, but when you unwind that tightly coiled road, it’s farther than it looks. The road almost overlaps itself as it snakes upwards, before spiralling around the side of the mountain, only to wiggle upwards again in another set of switchbacks.

The pass road to get to Col de Colombière began after the descent from Col des Aravis. It had started sprinkling rain and as I was stuffing my backpack into its dry bag, a woman opened the window beside me and exclaimed, “Bonjour!” I told her I was going up the col when she asked where I was going. She mimicked a fainting motion. Not encouraging. She asked something about “bois”, so I handed her one empty water bottle through the window, which she returned full. Col de Colombière is a road where I am convinced they were running out of money by the time they constructed the top. The road gets skinnier and steeper as you go up. Hey, Joe, if we increase the grade to 12% for the last 3 km and cut out the 50 cm shoulders, we can save another €5,000! Approved.

I camped at the top of Col des Saisies, which required a little off-roading. As it got dark, the little town below lit up, and I could see lonely car headlights flickering as they snaked their way up the next pass. Cowbells put me to sleep and woke me up in the morning in time to watch sunlight creep into the valley, lighting up Beaufort, the starting point of Cormet de Roselend.

crawl up these passes. I slowly reel in kilometer after kilometer. Road cyclists pass me (if they don’t, then I am the only one on the mountain) and usually say bonjour, or, just as often, bravooo. A group of Brits passed and one hung back, which means I had to pick up the pace and he had to kill his. We cycled side by side for 3 km and he shared a protein bar with me before sprinting up an 8% grade to catch his crew. Near the top of the pass, there is an alpine lake, the colour of Kool-Aid. I did not make this colour up.

When the grade flattened at the top of Roselend, I probably had a stupid grin on my face as I rolled passed the motorcyclists. Don’t get me wrong, I quite like motorcyclists… when they aren’t passing me like lunatics. One of them chatted to me while I inhaled two croissants (ladylike, probably –girl’s gotta eat). He was from Belgium –how I miss the friendly countries of Belgium and Holland. He rolled out, snickering, “OK, I am going to go do three more cols today! Byee!”

Five passes in, I sat in Bourg-Saint-Maurice, the bottom of Col de l’Iseran, the highest and longest climb. Up and over I went:

I camped at the top, about 100m from the sign. I just walked down the bank of the mountain for 30 seconds and pitched. It was so silent during the night that my own heartbeat kept me awake. I woke up with a frosted-over tent and splinters of ice in my water bottles, triggering nostalgia for Iceland when it used to take me an hour to will myself to get out of my sleeping bag in the morning.

A Kiwi told me that the next pass was closed due to a rockslide, and the French detour was closed due to a tunnel collapse. The other detour went through Italy, and I took it. I climbed Col du Mont Cenis, a brutal but short pass and descended through the clouds into another country.

I could not understand a thing, I didn’t know how to navigate the grocery stores, I couldn’t find my go-to brands of food, I couldn’t read the signs, I couldn’t have a basic conversation (key: just say “ciao” for everything) and I couldn’t find a croissant to save my life. I hadn’t realized how incredibly French, as much as I hate to admit this, my daily habits had become; I wake up, I bee-line it to the nearest boulangerie, buy a “half” baguette and quatre croissants, buy my French-brand cheese, my French-brand yogurt and my French-grown fruit and rejoice in the very basic small talk I can hold en français with the help of charades, even though I still regularly got the stink eye for my English accent and being a completely incompetent Canadienne. The next day it was 10°C at 1,000 m and I had to go up and over 2,000 m to get back into France. I climbed into cold, dense clouds in freezing rain. And then, tunnels happened.

Oh, didn’t I mention that Italians are obsessed with brandishing the power of tunnel boring machines? Roads plunge into the sides of mountains with a vengeance I can only describe as meticulously designed. Sometimes bikes were forbidden –in these cases, I was redirected to that old, decrepit, 100-year-old tunnel that the carsused to use, but now they have a better tunnel. What did school actually teach me? Just enough to have no faith in these atrocities. These were the tunnels that didn’t have drainage pipes on the sides; the water dripped onto your face as you blindly pedalled forward. All I was thinking about was all that excess pore water pressure, a lurking timebomb ticking down to a buried/collapsed fate. These were the tunnels that collapsed on the next pass over. These are the tunnels that have parallel lines because they need to be phased out. I topped Montgenèvre and flew back into France feeling relieved.

I climbed Col de l’Izoard and Col de Vars in one day. I planned on this, but it was ambitious. I did Izoard easily enough, but when I got to the bottom of Vars, I was having second thoughts. I deadpanned the first 7 km. Head down and floppy, pedalpedalpedal. I was going even slower than my usual slower-than-everyone-else pace. At 8 km in, when the light began to change to that “golden hour” hue, I reasoned myself out of it. You can’t climb an Alp if it’s already beaten you at the bottom. So I flipped a switch and pretended it was a really important race. This worked so well that I started passing people near the top, but came at the expense of complete exhaustion and burning lungs.

Col de l’Izoard marked a changing point in the landscape. Where before I had been frolicking in lush pines and clouds, now I was cycling past pines with prickly needles. Before there were marmots, now there were daring little geckos darting in front of my wheels. Grasshoppers sprang across the road and the pavement was plastered with their buggy guts. Water spouts became more and more infrequent, and the dirt and rocks took on a reddish, pinkish hue that everyone associates with deserts. Dry has a sound: a blaring non-stop high-pitched insect buzz that comes from every direction and eventually becomes background noise to your every thought.

My tourist pamphlet depicting the location, elevation, elevation gain, average grade, maximum grade and length of each col had become my Bible. I was nearing the end of the road; I felt so close. I diligently set to work on the next col but the signs were all wrong –my pamphlet said the next col was Col de Couillole, but I was climbing Col de Valberg. I knew I was on the right road, so I figured that they had just changed the name. Wrong. Here’s what probably happened:

“Hey Boss, if I put 17 lines on this table, it won’t fit on one page of this pamphlet.”
“Hmm, well are there any cols that are very close together?”
“Col de Valberg and Col de Caillole are within 15 km of each other.”
“How about we just lump those two cols into one, and put it in the pamphlet under the name of the higher col? Draft that up for me, Jimmy.”

And thereafter, every cyclist who has ever used that pamphlet, hatesits author. I ended up cycling three cols that day, and they weren’t small or short. It wasn’t pretty.

My last day on the Route des Grandes Alpes, I felt like I could taste the ocean, but I couldn’t see it. I was hoping for that light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel glimpse of deep unwavering blue to somehow reveal itself before I climbed Col de Turini and Col de Castillon, but that’s not how mountains work. It did not reveal itself until I was over the last col and when it did, it was every bit as glorious as I thought it would be. That’s the end, that’s the end, no more cols, no more cols! I descended into palm trees, pastel coloured buildings and thick, smouldering heat. As the Mediterranean drew up beside me, my odometer ticked over to 6,000 km.

There is nothing more fun than going down a mountain. It seems like the only gears I used on this road were my two lowest, and my two highest. No moderation, go fast or go slow and try not to blink on the way down. I love switchbacks because they have a high reward. You climb upwards in very little distance (although it takes forever), the world falls below you and the views just get better as you keep going up.

My legs were not happy these last 9 days, I could hardly keep my eyes open, my cheeks were eternally sun and wind burnt, freckles turned up to 11, everything was always soaked with sweat, my braid was well on its way to becoming a dreadlock and my shorts tan wasis atrocious. Sure, it may look like I’ve seen better days, but I will be the first to tell you, I haven’t. Winding along beside a sheer drop makes me so happy that I would giggle out loud as I went down. Call it what you want: endorphin high, fatigue, insanity… but I call it joy in its purest form. You can’t buy this, there’s no brand label, it’s not an acquired taste, you can’t rip off the tags when you get home, it doesn’t need upgrading, and you won’t find it on the internet. But, if I try hard enough, I can find it almost anywhere -I’ll chase it across fields, on dirt roads, over rolling hills, alongside rivers, at the edges of ice caps and over mountain ranges. I will chase it thousands and thousands of kilometers and if that takes me around the world… well, no complaints.

Cheers from Menton, France

Using Format