It started early with a breakfast at the hotel before bouncing the bike down the stairs and loading it up in the courtyard. The first 500m would be downhill but I was under no illusion the ride from here would be harder. It was harder but initially just a gentle gradient as the road weaved it’s way between the mountains. Within the hour I was starting to climb steeper slopes and before long the first walk of the day. It was a glorious morning with bright sun still hidden behind the mountains. Looking into the distance I was sure I could see snow. Surely not, we have just had the hottest summer on record and its now the hottest September on record. The walking became more frequent as the ascent continued. I was passed by two tractors that pulled into a large layby ahead. I walked past and glanced over at the two drivers who were stood eating breakfast, simultaneously they did the wavy hand thing but without the wavy bit, just a steep incline of the hand and a look up the road. I guessed it meant there was worse to come. However the satnav was going to give me a break or so I thought. Turn right to save 6km. the right turn was so steep I had trouble keeping the front wheel on the ground just pushing it. It was ridiculously steep but a 6km saving was to be had. I pushed and gasped for breath as I walked up the massive incline which showed no sign of giving me a rest anytime soon. A car came whizzing down the hill and the driver indicated that the road may not be the best option. By now I was 20 minutes into the struggle and gasping for breath I stopped to check the map and guzzle some water. On studying the map it appeared the road gave way to a path which eventually became ski slopes. Now I like a challenge but the road was showing no sign of relenting anytime soon, the driver had clearly signalled not to go that way and my arse was not going to accept that kind of terrain for any length of time. Plus I had the option to zoom back down the hill I had just come up. Decision made, about turn and climbing on board the wind rushed through my sweat soaked top as I went back to the road and the extra 6km. No sooner did I get back on that road than the speed fell away and I was back down the gears and pedalling with burning legs and rasping lungs. Rasping maybe but alpine air is wonderfully refreshing.
(At most, this bit of road is flat, I can only imagine the camera makes it look downhill as there were none that I recall)
The long walk and minimal cycling continued but Briancon was calling me. I stopped for my first Orangina of the day, at a little roadside bar. It had a cycling theme and a poster showed a zig zag mountain road that I had knowledge of. Lautaret, or the 21 bends as it is known to the riders of the Tour de France. Having huffed and puffed my way to lunchtime I was in awe of those riders who do any kind of racing, let alone power up what looked like a massive mountain road with its relentless bends and climbs. Lunch was yet another salad with trail mix of nuts and fizzy drink, all available at Aldi in the small village of Le Bourg d Oisans and eaten on the picnic table at the front of the store.
Returning to the road I once again tried to use the cycle route option, but having been led along a gravel trail for about a mile only to find it got smaller and smaller, eventually becoming a split driveway to two houses, I had to turn round and return to the village, picking up the D1091 again. What was becoming apparent was that the day was going faster than I was. I always knew the journey to Briancon was going to be a push. The initial distance was about 90km but the mountains and steep inclines were eating into the hours of the day. I went through my first alpine tunnel and came out the other side to see a hydro electric dam at Le Freney-dOisans. I stopped to take pictures and get my breath when a cyclist came past with a chirpy Bonjour. I pedalled off slowly and shortly caught up the guy who was waiting for the other cyclist he was with. He pointed out that he knew a route that was much better for cyclists as it was away from the D1091 and I was welcome to join them.
I agreed and set off behind the guy who’s friend had gone past us as we chatted. He was on a proper race bike but I had glimpsed that the female was on a hybrid bike so I hoped I could keep up. The road had been hastily built after a huge landslide had closed the main road a few years ago. It was now abandoned as the main road was open again. It was decaying and the guy warned me that there were sharp stones to avoid. When we regrouped I saw that the female was middle aged and clearly very fit and active. I cycled along trying to keep up with the guy assuming it was father daughter as he was clearly older than me and she younger. The road was lovely and flowing mostly downhill and offering great views of the lake and waterfalls. There was a slight hill and then it levelled out. We stopped to wait for the lady to catch up. We started chatting as the guy stated “We should wait here for my wife”! It turns out they cycle most days and go quite some distance. I didn’t want to keep them so I was happy to part company and do the last bit at a slower pace.
I was glad we parted company as there was a huge climb to return to the main road and then more uphill. I cycled on but was becoming more aware that time was running out, my legs were burning hot from exertion. It was mid to late afternoon and the heat was, as usual, oppressive. There was only about 20km to go to Briancon but I was feeling tired, hot and I ached. It was time to check for a hotel and then pace the rest of the afternoon to reach that and relax. What happened next was probably the best thing so far. I found a hotel that was only 1km from me at the little village of ‘La Grave’ and the price was good. My body was telling me it was time to have an early night at what looked like a nice place. I knew the scenery was stunning in this area, after all I had been living it all day. At the time of booking the hotel I was in a shaded area between two near vertical rock faces in a little village that offered cheap lodging, but I had chosen my hotel and paid for it. I got back on the bike for the last bit. As I set of I saw the married couple cycling back the other way, still looking fresh faced as I was stood up pedalling in the lowest gear to climb the little rise towards the hotel. They waved cheerily and I managed a smile back. As the steep rocks cleared the view of the hotel was a welcome sight. As was the view from the hotel.
I was truly in awe of the beauty. This was not going to be an early night as I just couldn’t steal myself away from the views. After locking the bike away in the garage, putting all the tech on charge, showering and changing it was time to hit the restaurant. The food was amazing and washed down with red wine the evening was pure bliss. Other guests at the hotel were adventure cyclists who used the hotel as a base for some serious mountain bike riding. There were a lot of expensive downhill bikes ridden by rugged outdoorsy types. I was very much the only touring cyclist on an inadequate bike. Having said that, yes, the bike was old and had less gears than when we set off. Yes, it was too small for me from the day I purchased it. Yes, it was badly loaded with cheap luggage and a cheap rack. Yes, I was ill prepared and struggling in the mountains but my weary legs and sore bum had pedalled this heavy inadequate bike to the French Alps and I was going to have another day of it tomorrow. Sleep came easy that night.