Tour of the Alps 2002, Part 1

Milan to Monte Rosa

July 4, 2002 (Thursday); Milan-Malpensa to Vallero; 136 km Map

Flying into Milan-Malpensa gives a bird's-eye view of the Alps - a meringue of whipped peaks crowning a dark green filling. To the east, mountains yield abruptly to the floodplain of the Po River and its tributaries. Fields are outlined in black and hatchered with green like a kid would color with crayons. To the south, the wrinkles gather into the warp of the Maritime Alps.

I can now begin to match landscape to topographic maps of Italy and France. After many hours of poring over maps, photos, books, and tour reports, the big counterclockwise loop is etched in my mind and highlighted in yellow on the Michelins. From the Italian Lake District, follow the eastern edge of the Alps south; traverse the plains of the Piedmonte and climb the edge of the bowl into southern France; explore the limestone canyons and cols of the Mercantour; turn north and climb the mighty Col d'Izoard and Col de l'Iseran; clamber around the south side of Mont Blanc, head east into the high Alps of Switzerland, and complete the loop by rounding the northern end of the Lake District in Italy. The details are left to weather, whim, and serendipity.

Piedmonte and Alps
Piedmonte and Alps

A quiet corner of the airport serves as the bike assembly area, and as soon as the bike box is empty an airport worker whisks it away, obviously practiced at the routine. I ride out of the airport with gear for a month on the road packed into a rack pack and two small panniers. Staying in hotels, rather than camping, means a light load, about 15 lbs, and more scenery per energy expended.

I loop around the airport ring road, exit right towards Vizzola Ticino, and head for Monte Rosa, sister peak to the Matterhorn and tallest mountain in Switzerland at 4633 m (15203 ft). Already I'm in the Italian countryside. "It's a great way to start a bike tour," advised Rick Pappas, who leads the LaCima tour group I'll meet in a couple weeks.

I pick up the bike path along the Ticino River, which flows from Lake Maggiore, and join the parade of Italian cyclists out for their morning ride. The air is warm and sultry, but there's a cooling breeze along the river. Vegetation is a tangle of trees, shrubs, and vines, and birds warble melodiously in the trees.

A few kilometers from the lake I veer west and zigzag through small towns dotting the cornfields of the Piedmonte. Interfluves of the floodplain give glimpses of the distant Alps and Monte Rosa looming through the haze. A hedge of wild roses grows along the road, and the simple open blossoms are the color of alpenglow. The semitropical lowlands lie in vivid contrast to the dark icy peaks.

Crossing the grain of the land doesn't allow a direct route west, but I avoid the main roads and aim for the southern tip of Lake Orta, westernmost lake of the Italian Lake District. The road climbs above the western shore in a shaded canyon with waterfalls and ferns, and through the trees I glimpse the tiny island of San Giulio with its ancient basilica in the lake far below.

It's not long before the first climb of the tour, the Colle la Colma (942 m). Maples, oak, and sprays of wildflowers garnish the road. A young man is manicuring a bank of ferns with a hand scythe, smoking a cigarette and trying to look busy.

After crossing the ridge, the road drops to the valley of the Sesia, one of half dozen rivers that appear on the map like tentacles of a jellyfish centered on Monte Rosa. The descent to Civinsco is fast and curvy. Three cows graze in a lush green pasture. Their hollow-sounding bells are tuned to a bluesy third and start a tune going in my head. Birds belt out a running chorus line of chirp-chirp-chirp-ch-ch-ch-ch-drink-beer. Maybe it is getting a bit warm.

In Varallo I find a room at the beautiful old Hotel Monte Rosa. The gracious hostess seems delighted to have a guest on bicycle all the way from California. She seems less impressed with my endeavor when I admit that I started from Milan-Malpensa.

After unloading gear in a comfortable room, I ride up the Sesia valley hoping for a view of glaciers. There are glimpses of distant sawtooth ridges, but the valley walls block views of the higher peaks. At Piode, partway up the valley, I turn around. The white buildings of the Sacro Monte sparkle on the hill overlooking the town. I have my first gelato of the trip -- lemon and strawberry -- and return to the hotel for a good night's rest.

July 5, 2002 (Friday); Vallero - Lanzo Torinese; 164 km  Map

Skirting the Piedmonte

I awake to the sounds of traffic and rain. The bike is out on the covered patio, and I haul my gear downstairs and begin packing and wrapping for rain. At 7:30 a.m. the signore throws open the shutters and gives me a look of surprise.

"Buon giorno!" He and the signora come out and watch with curiosity as I load up the bike. I gesture anxiously at the rain.

"Piccolo," they smile and shrug, unconcerned.

In northern California, a morning like this signals a day or two of cold rainy winter weather. But I’ve come prepared. Rain jacket with hood, rain pants, pack covers, waterproof gloves. I bid my hosts arrivederci and roll down the driveway looking like the Michelin Mum, riding forth to battle the elements.

At the main road I stop short. A woman in skirt and blocky high heels calmly pedals by on a black city bike. She is carrying a flowery umbrella and has a bag of groceries draped over the handlebars. We eye each other in astonishment and amusement. I am miserably overdressed and completely outclassed. Perhaps it won't last all day...piccolo.

As I head down the valley towards Borgesesia, the rain picks up, dampening my enthusiasm for exploring this town famous for its woolen goods. I cross to the west bank of the river and take a road through dripping green woods towards Crevacuore. The road has a surprising amount of traffic, though it appears as a secondary route on the map.

In this corner of the Piedmonte, all roads lead to Biella and every few kilometers there's a town with an intersection like a wagon wheel hub and a sign pointing towards Biella. Once in Biella there are still signs pointing towards Biella. Getting out seems to take forever. Apartments, old mills, foundries, and stores are strung out along the road. It appears that a rather dreary Biella has seen fairer days.

The rain has let up by now, and I cross the Elvo River and finally exit the metropolis via N338, which becomes a gentle climb over a low ridge to Ivrea. It is a relief to be in a forest again with only light traffic. Temperatures are warming up and the "drink beer" birds are out again, warbling with even more conviction.

I descend to Ivrea, bumpity bumpy through the cobblestone streets of this old Roman town, and cross the Dora Baltea, which drains the Aosta valley from Mt. Blanc and provides the hydroelectric power for industries in the region. The most obvious way out of town dumps me on the N26. Now all roads lead to Torino, which I'd rather avoid, even though it means crossing the grain of the land. With a quick exit I correct course west towards Castellamonte and zigzag from town to town through fields of corn and wheat. Navigation is less than straightforward. Road signs only list the next small town, so one must stop every few kilometers to check the map, sort of like a treasure hunt.

I finally join the busy highway leading to Lanzo Torinese, a town that cloaks a defensible position on a steep hill overlooking the Stura di Lanzo. This short river heads on the east slope of the spectacular Massif de la Vanoise, which I plan to cross to the west via the Col de l'Iseran in a few days.

After looping through town a couple of times I finally land at the Hotel Sangri-La, located near the tunnel and the river. It has a restaurant downstairs and very nice rooms upstairs and appears to be a destination for locals eating out. The senorita at the registration desk is anxious to practice her English, which is much better than my Italian, and introduces her friend who makes the pizza. So I, of course, have pizza, which is perfected to a thin crispy crust, a sprinkling of fresh ingredients, and a size just right as a meal for one.

A nearby table is served spaghetti and I carefully observe the national culinary technique. An Italian gentleman snags a couple strands on his fork and methodically twirls them into a perfect ball in his spoon. There's not a single loose end to slurp or gnaw off. I'll have to practice this.

After a gelato and a caffè, I'm ready for a rest from navigation.

July 6, Saturday; Lanzo Torinese - Roccavione; 177 km Map

The Saturday morning fruit market just outside of town provides a breakfast of peaches and apricots, and the bakery down the road supplements it with yogurt and raisin bread. The sky is overcast and sprinkling a bit, so I am again packed and wrapped for rain.


I ride up the wooded canyon of the Val di Viu to the town of Viu, which is stacked up above the river and has a good view of the valley. At Viu, I turn south, cross the river, and climb to Col San Giavana. The climbing continues to Colle di Lis. The morning is cool and fog is draped over the hills, lending a mystic aura to the quiet climb.

Well trodden trails meander off through the woods in no particular direction. I wonder what they are for. Three men in knee-high leather boots carry small round buckets and are traipsing through the forest, surreptitiously gathering something. We pass each other several times with little more than a nod. They eye me carefully. What are they hunting? Mushrooms perhaps? Whatever it is, I get the feeling I shouldn't be an observer, so think better of asking.

The top of the pass is fogged in, but a number of cars are parked there and people are milling about, imagining the view one gets on a clear day. The south side is a windy descent on a newly paved road, and the hardwoods on the north side yield to pines and larch on the south.

The descent runs out in the Susa valley, a major transportation corridor linking Torino to the recreation areas of the Alps. Rubiana, Almese, Avigliana. The towns sport swank vacation homes, and more are under construction. Luxury automobiles abound and yachts populate the lakes south of Avigliana. Giaveno is crawling with tourists, and policemen are directing traffic in the town center. This appears to be a major shopping destination. I ride through without stopping and continue south to the steep climb over Capp. di Colletta to Cumiana.

Floodplain of the Po

Although I've succeeded in skirting the flats, the only practical way south is out to the plains, so I take the busy S589 to Pinerolo and continue on to Cavour. Thunderclouds are building, darkening, and filling the valley. Slanting gray rain is headed this way from the east. First comes lightning, then thunder, then the splat, splat, splat of fat raindrops hitting pavement. The rain picks up to a full-fledged downpour as I enter the outskirts of Saluzzo, and the thunder is now a continuous roar. I duck under the first available canopy, which fronts a motorcycle shop, and join a bedraggled group of motorcyclists and shoppers waiting out the storm.

Piedmonte south
Piedmonte south

After about an hour the storm moves west and I continue south towards Cuneo. The sky is clearing, the fields are washed clean, and the sun brightens the orderly furrows. I pass orchards of cherries, apricots, and peaches, and rows of wheat, corn, and oats. A strong tailwind propels the bike southward and bends the corn leaves over to show their silver undersides.

On to Busca, Caraglio, and Borgo San Dalmazzo. From the foothills the Maritime Alps loom ahead, beckoning. With the rain delay, it's now late afternoon, so I stop at the first hotel in Roccavione near the base of the Col de Tende.

"No single rooms, absolutement," insists the manager, crossing his forearms in the gesture that goes with "absolutement."

"Doubles?" He shrugs and shows me to a double, which costs only a few euro more than a single. Bathroom and shower are down the hall.

In the dining room men with matching polo shirts are seated at two long tables. They are evidently on some sort of club outing. Dinner is several heavy courses, enough for a good week of hunting. A large bouquet of lilies, in white, gold, and yellow, brightens my otherwise empty table. I feel out of place here, but no one seems to notice me, anyway. Tomorrow is the first day in the high mountains, where I'll feel more at home.

July 7 (Sunday); Roccavione - Col de Tende - Sospel - St. Martin Vesubie; 143 km Map

Col de Tende

In the morning I'm anxious for an early start, but find that I'm locked in. The hotel door is bolted and there is no way out until the manager finally opens it at the late hour of 8:30 a.m. The breakfast of white rolls, jam, and boiled coffee isn't worth the wait.

The morning is clear and warm, refreshing after yesterday's rain. Already there's a beeline of traffic heading for the Col de Tende. It's a steady climb up to Limone Piemonte, a ski area with a string of condos and hotels. Signs warn of the tunnel ahead, which doesn't allow bicycles. A few kilometers from the entrance, I turn off to the right on a narrow road leading to the ski area.

At the ski village, a narrow paved road crisscrosses the green hillside, and motorcycles, campers, vans, autos, and jeeps are crawling up and down. I join the procession, hoping at each tight switchback to not encounter a vehicle. The village is soon far below. At the top, there's a traffic jam. A policeman is attempting to unsnarl it, but with limited success. People are out of their cars, checking out the situation, and taking the opportunity to visit.

I wind through the double row of cars and pedal up the gravel road to the top of the ridge. The verdant meadows are filled with wildflowers. Ruins of a Roman fortress command the ridge. Paragliders sail overhead, their sails bright red and yellow against the deep blue sky.

Col de Tende
Col de Tende

I peer over the south side of the col and finally get a look at the sixty-some switchbacks of the old Roman road cascading down the slope. I launch out. The surface is loose and rutted from motorcycles and 4WD's grinding around the corners. I walk, scoot, slide, and ride, excited to finally be on this historic route. I wonder how it must have looked with wagons and horses plying the route.

A creek splashes through vertical stone slots, and buttercups, gentian, phlox, and Queen Ann's lace decorate the roadside. A herd of brown cows is bedded down in the lush pasture, and cowbells tinkle gently. Some of the lower switchbacks are paved to preserve the road on the steeper grades. I enjoy the solitude while I can, but am soon at the intersection with the main highway, where the traffic is pouring from the tunnel.

Col de Tende south
Col de Tende south

I roll down the beautiful Roya Gorges de Saorge through the picturesque village of Tende and take a right to Sospel via the Col de Brouis. Temperatures are toasty, and the climb offers little shade. Fortunately there is tank of cool running water at the top.

As I descend into Sospel, snatches of Renaissance music waft up the road. In town there is a festival of traditional music in full swing. Flutes, whistles, pipes, recorders, and lutes. Small groups in medieval costume march ceremoniously across the stone bridge over the river that divides the town. I get a large tarte de framboise and settle on a bench to listen.

Sospel music festival
Sospel music festival

After taking in a rousing jam session by the gourd band, I decide that there's time for one more col, so head northwest towards the Col de Turini. The course of the famed automobile race features a beautiful climb up the gorge to the Notre-Dame-de-la-Menour, and well-graded switchbacks continue to the summit. In contrast to the exposed Broule, the forest on the upper part of the climb provides much-needed shade. A bicycle club with custom jerseys and snazzy bikes is out for their Sunday ride and I get caught up in a game of tag. "Il fait chaude," remarks one of the riders, wiping his brow. They seem unaccustomed to heat.

I descend to La Bollene-Vesubie and continue to Roquebilliere, which has several nice hotels. But it's still daylight and St. Martin Vesubie is only 13 km away, so I continue on the gentle climb up the canyon. St. Martin Vesubie is a trim town with a gargouille (small stream) running down the main shopping alley. I order tomato and cheese panini at the crepe stand in the town square and chat with a woman who lived in San Francisco for a few years in her youth. She now lives in Nice, but would love to return to California because of the problems with security, the economy, and too many people. For me, the reverse, similar reasons.

I find a room at the Hotel Restaurant Le Gelas, formerly the Hotel de Trois Ponts, which Jobst Brandt recommended to me. The window of my room opens to the river, and I fall asleep listening to the soothing rush of water.

Maritime Alps

July 8 (Monday); St. Martin Vesubie - Col de la Bonette - Barcelonnette; 116 km Map
St. Martin Vesubie
St. Martin Vesubie

The hotel breakfast of cornflakes, yogurt, and coffee needs supplementation, so I stop at the bakery in town for a crusty round loaf of pane noix, a local specialty that has plenty of staying power for hiking and bicycling. Col de St. Martin (1500 m) is the warm-up for the featured climb of the day, the Col de la Bonette (2715 m), but does not have a warm-up itself. It is a stiff climb starting right out of town and doesn't let up. Once over the divide, there is a seemingly endless descent to the Tinee River, 1000 m below.

At the river, a hard right sends me up the canyon to St. Sauvier sur Tinee. I continue up the Gorges de Valabres to Isola, where I bypass the road to the Col de la Lombarde climbing steeply out of the valley. I get peaches and yellow plums at the grocery store for lunch, as insurance for the early afternoon closing time.

Creaky handlebars have been disturbing the peace since the last downpour, and no amount of bolt tightening seems to help. I need grease. Then I remember that Jobst Brandt once mentioned repacking a hub with suntan lotion. That I have. A quick swipe of the stem and the creaks are gone. I'm ready for the long climb up the Col de la Bonette.

Bellflower on Bonette
Bellflower on Bonette

I continue following the Tinee up the mountain till it branches into a network of tributaries cascading from the surrounding peaks. The road narrows and traffic peters out. Above the trees, mountain meadows are ablaze with wildflowers, and with each hairpin turn there's a new species. Yarrow, phlox, bluebells, forget-me-nots, and wild parsley are just a few that I recognize. Thickets of pale pink wild roses scent the air.

I stop for a lunch of fruit and bread and sit in a mountain meadow near a cascading stream with a view of the valley of the Tinee. How tempting it is to become a marmot, stretch out on a warm rock, and take a nap. But there's more mountain to climb. I continue up the switchbacks, which seem steeper than they look. Meadow gives way to rock garden, and the intense blue-violet of mountain gentian contrasts strikingly with dark bedrock. Near the top of the ridge, there’s a cluster of buildings that appears to be a sheep camp. But there are no sheep -- only three silly looking goats with floppy ears, wooden collars, and tinkling bells. They pop up and look inquisitively at the bicycle, then get back to munching. The goatherd is napping against a sunny wall.

Col de la Bonette east
Col de la Bonette east

At the top...there's more! I can now see the last 7 km or so of the route to the barren summit. The trees are far below and finally the wildflowers peter out in the last several kilometers of rocky ridge. The advertised "highest paved road in the Alps" climbs to the left around the Cime de la Bonette, but I pass on the honors as the view looks fine from here. The descent loops around conical spruce trim as Christmas trees. Sheep are bunched together on the distant hillside. Evergreens scent the air, and yellow mustard brightens the roadside.

Ubaye Valley and Barcelonnette

Temperatures warm up as I finally enter the valley of the Ubaye, which flows west to join the Durance River, then the Rhone, and on out to the Mediterranean. In the town of Jausiers, school is letting out for the day and school kids with backpacks are walking home.

Grand Hotel Barcelonnette
Grand Hotel Barcelonnette

A stiff headwind blows up the valley as I continue to Barcelonnette, where I find a room at the Grand Hotel. The town is a popular cycling base camp for the ring of passes in the area, and the manager knows just what to do with bicycles. It's valet velo parking. The bike is whisked away and will be produced on request. In the corridor to the back entrance are two antique bicycles, one from 1947, so my traditional steel-frame bicycle is in good company.

Outside cafes rim the central town square and a saxophone plays American jazz tunes. Posters advertise an upcoming jazz festival. Barcelonnette has long-standing economic and cultural ties with Mexico City. Mexican food appears on the menu and Mexican goods are for sale in the import shops around town. I have a huge salad of vegetables, papaya, and pineapple -- Salade Coco Loco -- and a Leffe Blonde. Chocolate gelato is for dessert.

I fall asleep with the window open to the murmur of conversation and tinkling of glassware in the square several stories below.

July 9 (Tuesday); Barcelonnette - Col d'Allos - Col de la Cayolle; 100 km Map

After a quick breakfast, I'm on the road by 8 a.m., headed for the Col d'Allos. It's a steady moderate grade up the canyon and the road soon narrows to a single lane. Signs mark the distance, elevation, and grade, and cyclists are parading the route. Clouds are building, and a few kilometers from the top they start spattering. At the summit cyclists are huddled under the portable souvenir stand, shivering. Clouds fill the valley on the other side of the pass. There’s no sign of clearing and the rain is now a steady beat. I reluctantly decide to scuttle the planned loop to Comars, Col des Champs, and Col de la Cayolle and head back to town to wait out the storm. Cyclists head over the pass with not even a windbreaker on and seem unconcerned about the cold and wet.

By the time I'm back in town, it's already clearing to blue sky and temperatures are warming up. Foiled again. I stop at the supermarche for groceries to supplement the meager breakfast of white rolls, jam, and boiled coffee. Lunch is peaches and a large banana Yop, slurped while sitting by the fountain off the main square. Two shaggy dogs with curly brown hair are going wild chasing each other around the square. Two women with mops of curly brown hair follow their antics while engaging in animated conversation.

Col de la Cayolle
Col de la Cayolle

It's early afternoon and the sun is now out, so I head for the Col de la Cayolle. The road follows a narrow canyon in contorted beds of limestone. The grade starts out at an easy 4%, but increases to 7-8% near the top, according to the little signs. It's a beautiful climb into a larch and pine forest with green meadows and wildflowers galore. Stone bridges arch over waterfalls. Col de la Cayolle ranks as the most beautiful col so far and would be worth a return trip to see it on the complete loop.

From the summit I peer at the steep descent into the canyon on other side. There's not time to go over and back, so I head back to town. A herd of sheep is browsing along the road, watched carefully by sheep dogs and shepherds. Clouds are darkening, but manage only a few sprinkles.

Back in town it's a cool, but mostly clear evening. For dinner, I enjoy crepes and tomato salad in an outdoor cafe.

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