As I wrote to you a few months ago, Karsten-with-a-K came up with a great idea to celebrate my 50th year above ground: A simple week of riding through France, collecting 50 cols along the way. It sounds pretty impressive if you do the math – over 7 mountain passes every day for a week – but the reality is a bit different and truth be told we ended up descending to more than a couple of them, not to mention that we never climbed anything by the name of Galibier, Izoard or Ventoux. Regardless, the trip went as we had planned (‘tough but not impossible’) and we finished every day with enough time and energy to hoist a beer or two before dinner. A perfect balance of effort and reward.
I’ll get into the details soon, but first my back. I think I already told you that several months ago I woke up in the middle of the night with a hot, ripping pain across my lower back. I waited for it to get better, did my stretches and went to an Osteopath; all of which helped, but none solved the problem.
This week on the bike did…sort of. I kind of guessed that the origins of my back ills was the fact that when I’m not on my ass riding, I’m on my ass not riding. This has gotten much worse since moving to France, with two of my three jobs involving sitting behind a computer.
After 7 days of straight riding I didn’t have that niggling pain anymore. Of course it returned after two days back at the desk, but at least I now know the remedy.
Karsten took the TGV down to Nimes one cool Friday morning and we were off the next day on the local train to Ales, 30 min up the line and on the edge of the Cevennes. Here’s our entire route for those who can’t stand suspense.
Our first two days were mainly on roads I knew well and we bagged a bunch of cols both going up and down. The weather was sunny and cool and, as usual, the roads and paysage of the Cevennes didn’t disappoint.
On Day Three we rode through deep-France Ardeche, collecting 17 cols in the process, many of which were ‘bonuses’, since they didn’t pop up on ViaMichelin when we did our research. This department of France hosts one of the most famous cyclosportives in the country – l’Ardechoise – and we followed its route for much of the day, seeing little signs on the side of the road, plus larger ones on it, showing us the way. Note: if you are into gaudy cycling kit, do this sportive and get the jersey. Its design and color scheme resets anything you ever thought was ugly.
Another surprise on our full day in the Ardeche was the Col de Marchand, which had the typical French black-and-white pass sign…
…plus this one (painted in Ardechoise colors), celebrating an ancient man named Robert Marchand, who owns a couple of Hour World Records and still rides his bike (although he retired from competition last year) at 106.
This magic day finished at our hotel right on the Rhone River, with two pints of local beer, a bag of restorative cashews and a satisfying pasta dinner.
On our 4th day we crossed the Rhone to enter new territory – the Vercors. I’m ashamed to say that I’d never been inside this little piece of cycling heaven, which is only a couple of hours by car from my place. It’s one of those places you pass on the way to somewhere else (in my case, the Alps), but I always knew it was there and I always knew the riding would be wonderful. I was right.
The Vercors had the quiet roads of the Cevennes and Ardeche and a little of the grandeur you get when you close in on the Alps, with long, hard climbs, stunning vistas down back to the plains, and wide, hidden valleys in behind. Oh, and gravel. From this day on we hit tons of this stuff that the French love to lay down on 9% descents (but mercifully not on the hairpins) to play havoc with any bike that doesn’t have more than pebble-size clearance between fork and tire (me).
But we couldn’t blame the Vercors for that and it was a thoroughly satisfying day on the bike. We even found a col-top Auberge for a much needed omelet fix and ran across a man with an enormous map and great knowledge of the area. He recommended staying away from the ‘busy road’ through the gorge (our plan) and instead had us go up a ‘quiet road through a forest’. Of course this road ended up including a climb of several kilometers at 9% and 10%, but I’ll give him points for the quiet part.
A word on gearing. I won’t say I had the wrong gearing for this trip, but I will admit that I should have listened to Karsten and switched the 27 to the 29 before leaving. I was carrying 5 kg extra on my body (I hear this gets harder and harder to shed after 50), plus probably another 4 kg in my banana bag. It would have been sensible.
Don’t tell him that though. I do have my pride.
The Vercors is wonderful, but not that big, and we were out of it the next morning, heading straight north past Grenoble, and climbing the first insanely steep climb of our trip. I got tired of looking at the 14% on my Garmin after a while and just began to whimper silently, wondering where I could get my hands on a 29 ring, a triple chainring, or maybe even an e-bike.
Intermission: It goes without saying that my Garmin died on this trip; this time just freezing in the morning of Day Five. Here is Karsten’s device trying its damndest to talk to mine on the sidewalk that day. The solution was finally to do a hard reset, losing my courses. From then on I had to keep K in my sights or I might not make it to the beer at the end of the day.
Back to the 14%: all good and bad things do eventually come to an end and we made our way up, over and through our new set of mountains: the Chartreuse. We were now more or less in the Alps, or at least within spitting distance, and the roads were a little more trafficky. Still lovely scenery and awesome views, but more cars. We ended our day as we began it, with a screaming descent into Chambery, where a large Heineken awaited us.
Our last two days were spent traveling north / northeast through the Jura, one of France’s five great mountain ranges, and a regular playground of the Tour de France. After a few hours getting ourselves past Lac de Bourget in the morning, we hit the bottom of the Col du Grand Colombier. It actually looks like a sheer cliff from the town of Culoz and that’s exactly what it felt like for the next two hours. I had long given up on the extra ring I was missing and was now lamenting the lack of convenience stores in the wildernesses of France. My Garmin announced 35C almost immediately and that didn’t let up till we got pretty high up and hidden in the forest. Near the top Karsten sprinted a young Dutch guy who was huffing and puffing behind us for the latter half of the climb, possibly ruining his friends’ drone footage of him soloing the summit of this famous climb. Screw it, we concluded. If he wants to attack two guys twice his age and loaded down with a week’s full of clothes and toiletries, he deserves to get punked. We did have high fives all around at the summit and even shared some shade under the parasol of the snack bar, so we think he took it well.
Then for fun we descended the other side in rim-deep gravel for a few kilometers till our fork in the road (Yogi, we took it) brought us down a 19% road till we found a lavoir that we called home for a while and recuperated.
The Jura, we found, is pretty profonde. I think of it as a Cevennes with cows instead of goats, but maybe even more rural. Plenty of lush forests, too, which definitely isn’t the case down south.
A word on cols. By the 4th or 5th day we knew with some confidence that 50 mountain passes was going to be ‘easily’ within our reach, so at least 3 times during the latter part of our week we adjusted our routes on the fly, making sure we reached all our goals (cols, aperitif, etc.) each day.
I think we had actually bagged our 50 cols by the end of the 5th day, so the rest was gravy. Good thing because the Jura got pretty col lite and I think we only crested 3 on our last day into Geneva. That last day’s route, by the way, was partially planned by none other than Will the Cyclist, via friend Tim, who lives and rides in the Geneva area. Both those guys took a look at our original route and gave us helpful hints on how to improve it, with Tim going a step further and meeting us on the French side of the very last col of our trip (No. 57, I think) and guiding us into Switzerland to the bike path that would take us to our hotel near the train station.
All in all, I’d highly recommend trying to track down 50 cols for your fiftieth birthday, or even for your sixtieth if you head for the Ardeche and Cevennes where they are easy to find.
And now I have to get back to the bacon-eating contest that is my usual trip back to Canada.