Tour of the Alps 2002, Part 2

A Variety of Vars

July 10 (Wednesday); Barcelonnette - Col de Vars - Col d'Izoard - Briancon; 110 km Map

The little signs for bicyclists march north to the Col de Vars, marking the grade that starts at 2% and increases to 9 and 10% for the last several kilometers. On the steep part it begins to rain. The summit is bleak and chilly and there's not much worth stopping for, so I roll over the pass and splatter down the other side. The first sign announcing "Vars" marks a ski village with the usual array of sporting goods shops. The second Vars is Ste. Marie-de-Vars, which has trim buildings and cheery pots of geraniums, and the third Vars is St. Marcellin-de-Vars, another picturesque village.

The rain lets up to a drizzle as I roll into Guillestre, a neat little town which needs only a slight excuse to call a stop. It's nearing lunchtime, so I decide to give the rain a chance to clear up and duck into a cozy bistro. Soup of the day is French onion and it arrives in a brown clay pot, hot and steaming, with a brown crust of melted cheese. I glimpse the woman at the next table as she slurps the first delicious stringy spoonful. Her face reflects how I feel. For every rainy day there is a soup.

Mighty Izoard

The rain lets up in a couple hours and the clouds part to reveal patches of blue sky. I head towards the next col north -- the Col d'Izoard -- via the Combe du Queyras.

The Combe du Queyras follows the Guil River, which begins in the high peaks of the Queyras to the east. The canyon is full of rubber rafts and colorful kayaks, both in and out of the water. The skies are cloudy but it's a perfect temperature for climbing and there’s a good tailwind to boot.

Col d'Izoard
Col d'Izoard

At the junction with the Izoard Riveiere, I turn north and climb steadily to Brunissard. Here begin the steep switchbacks that have earned their fame in one of the revered climbs of the Tour de France. The road is chalked with names of teams and riders and I can now see why this col is indeed called "mighty." The switchbacks are steep and unrelenting. I mentally start an inventory of gear that could be jettisoned at the next post office. Maps, hairbrush, fingernail clippers…

The first summit is in the Casse Deserte, a stark moonscape of rocky spires and scree. After a short descent one can now see the rest of the course as it winds around the rocky bowl and angles up to the summit.

Col d'Izoard summit
Col d'Izoard summit

The obelisk marking the pass is familiar from photos and race coverage, and it's somewhat surreal to be here in person. The Tour de France museum is closed and a sign announces no public toilettes anywhere on the summit. The switchbacks down the north side are steep, but fortunately the pavement is dry.

I'm quickly down the mountain and enter the maze of Briancon, which is too much of a big city for my tastes. I follow the signs for Grenoble, then for Montgenevre, and once out of the main city, decide it's time to call it a day. I stop at a nice hotel in a small village just out of town which has the essentials -- a patisserie, a bar, and a grocery. The guest book at the hotel has a snapshot of a cycling team with thank-you notes around the margins. This place must be a good choice for a training camp.

Jul 11 (Thursday); Briancon - Col du Mont Cenis - Bonneval-sur-Arc; 125 km Map

Bardonecchia -- Winter Olympics Country

The highway to Montgenevre looks like a major trucking route, so I seek a less traveled alternate. A few kilometers northeast of Briancon, I turn north up the Vallee de la Claree towards le Rosiere. This route parallels the more famous Vallee de la Guisane, which leads to the Col du Lautaret and the Col du Galibier to the south.

The scenic road follows a rushing river through green pastures and lovely forest, though there's also a stream of traffic headed up valley for a weekend getaway. Before Nevache, I turn towards the Col d'Echelle (1766 m) and have the road to myself. It's a pleasant easy climb through the forest. At the summit I peer down the precipitous canyon wall to Bardonecchia directly below. I work my way down the wall on steep narrow switchbacks and cross the border into Italy without fanfare.

Bardonecchia looks a bit old and tumbly, but has at least one nice-looking hotel and a jumble of shops. A sign announces its role in the 2006 Winter Olympics, so the town will undoubtedly get some sprucing up before then.

The Tunnel du Frejus burrows north under the mountains to Modane, but I take the highway east, down the valley of the Bardonecchia River. Trucks rumble by on the parallel autoroute, as the two roads interweave. The descent follows the glaciated valley down to Chiomonte and then makes a final plunge down to Susa in the trunk valley, which is one of the extra deep scoops around the alpine peaks of meringue. What this means is a long climb back out, starting at a lowly 600 m, to the Col du Mont-Cenis at 2084 m.

I stop for groceries at a market downtown to ensure survival through the early afternoon dead time and then begin the climb. Temperatures are quite warm in the valley, so I'm looking forward to some relief at higher elevations. After a long stretch of climbing, a sign says 5 km to the French border, so I'm thinking the ridge ahead must be the summit. No, the first false summit gives a view of the hydroelectric plant and five switchbacks up to the top of the dam. That must be the top. No, the second false summit reveals the road that climbs above the dam, past several bars/hotels, and then seems to descend to the true summit. The reservoir has rings like a bathtub and doesn't do much to enhance the natural scenery, but the wildflowers are thriving even on this rather stark and impersonal pass.

There's not much to stop for, so I take the fast bumpy descent to Lanslebourg, a spic-and-span town geared up for the ski and summer vacation crowds. I finally stop for the grocery lunch hauled over the pass -- sweet peaches, juicy yellow plums, and a tart apricot-like fruit that I've never had before.

Arc to Iseran

The switchbacks leading out of town to the base of the Col de l'Iseran beckon, and a tailwind pushes me northeast over the small bump labeled the Col de la Madeleine on the map. Then the grade slackens and it's mostly a gentle downhill through the valley. I know from the map that Bonneval-sur-Arc lies at the base of the Iseran, but where is the town? It's not visible until the last curve in the road, and then there's not only a view of the town, but a preview of the formidable switchbacks crisscrossing the wall above it.


Bonneval-sur-Arc is reinventing itself as a tourist destination and there are many choices for accommodations. I land a room at the Hotel La Bergerie for 22 euro and have a choice of three beds.

There are few restaurants in town other than at the hotels, so dinner is in the downstairs dining room. While waiting for the meal to arrive, I try to decipher a geologic map of the region. Sitting across from me at the next table is a well-dressed French lady with perfectly coiffured silver hair, also dining alone. She seems to know exactly what to do with each of the many implements on the table and disapprovingly eyes my uncouth American table manners.

I get a good night's sleep in preparation for one of the most anticipated climbs of the tour.

July 12 (Friday); Bonneval-sur-Arc - Col de l'Iseran - Cormet de Roseland - Beaufort; 103 km Map

After a hearty breakfast at the hotel, I'm on the road by 8:30 a.m., about as early as European breakfast schedules allow. I take a quick dip down to the old town to see the "most beautiful village in France." The houses have no house numbers, but only family names above the doorframe. The stone-and-slate dwellings have survived war, fire, and flood, when other villages in the region succumbed.

Col de l'Iseran
Col de l'Iseran

I climb back through the new Bonneval and start up the switchbacks. The road, which is narrow and patched with fine chip-seal, climbs out of the valley at a moderately steep grade to an upper hanging valley. Streams flow through the meadows, the hillside is green and dotted with wildflowers, and an imposing glacier sits on the mountain, presiding over the scene. Rocks change from limestone to schist to gneiss and back to schist, as faults and folds have shuffled the bedrock. Forget-me-nots, yellow sunflowers, and blue star-shaped gentians decorate the rock garden. A song of the mountains is playing in my head, an upbeat melody for one of the most spectacular passes in the Alps.

Col de l'Iseran
Col de l'Iseran

I finally spot the row of flags flapping at the summit and pedal up to them. A gal on fully loaded touring bike spins up from the other side, and I congratulate her on completing a much more difficult climb than mine. She grins, obviously pleased with the accomplishment, but doesn't skip a beat in layering up for the descent.

A stream of cyclists is coming up the pass from the north, so that must be the side to do for bragging rights. The south side is prettier, though. I head down the mountain to the Val d'Isere, which is a new clean ski town with lots of hotels, bars, and sporting goods shops. I stop by a bar to warm up with a caffè. The big screen is playing the Tour de France live. It breaks to a special on Jacques Antequil and shows old footage of the race. Are we in France now?

A nice lady who speaks a little English asks if I'm headed for the Tour of Mt. Blanc, a popular trekking loop. Well, I'm on a touring bike, but I might try the Col de la Seigne. She rummages around in the back room and brings out a 1:25000 scale map that shows the hiking trails. It would be quite a challenging bicycle ride, she suggests. This only convinces me that it must be done, even if it means more hiking than biking.

Roseland and Beaufort

A busy road continues down the valley through several poorly-lit tunnels. I have to stop a couple of times to wait for road construction, which is O.K., because it is for a good cause. I warm up with the descent to Seez, a nice little town with a couple of hotels, and then continue on to the larger Bourg-St-Maurice, which would also make a good overnight stop.

Cormet de Roseland
Cormet de Roseland

At a deli, I stop for a quick lunch for tarte myrtille and ice cream from the Miko cone machine, which is quite an amazing contraption that turns hard ice cream into a fluffy mass. Then I begin the climb of the Cormet de Roseland. The switchbacks are lazy, the pavement is good, and the traffic is light. The route opens into a high valley and passes the turnoff to Les Chapieux, which lies at the foot of the Col de la Seigne. I'll stop there in a couple of days after an excursion to Beaufort.

A few more switchbacks lead to the summit, where there is a small information booth. The fellow manning the station says that I've been lucky with the weather so far, which can get quite blustery in July. However, the forecast for tomorrow is rain. He pulls out a well-worn map of Col de la Seigne ("It was my father's map") and says that two Germans on mountain bikes came through yesterday with "no problem." He suggests securing lodging early, because accommodations on the popular Mt. Blanc trek often fill up quickly.


With rain in the forecast, I decide to drop down to Beaufort for a day or two of out-and-back riding. It's a quick descent in anxious traffic and I find a room at an older hotel in town. The initial welcome from the older gentleman who serves as bartender and manager is a bit gruff, but maybe it's just because I'm so tired and low on politeness myself. He shows me to bicycle parking in a storage room adjacent to the garage and surreptitiously fetches the key from its top secret hiding place. "Le frigo," he says with a twinkle in his eye.

After checking e-mail and finger wrestling the French keyboard at the tourist bureau, I wander around town under overcast skies. With messages to remind me of friends at home and abroad, I suddenly feel tired and very alone here.

Baskets of flowers hang on railings and along bridges over the river that flows through town. Souvenir shops smell of sausage and sport whistling marmots that quickly become an annoyance. A carnival is set up in an empty lot by the river and its raucous entertainment ruins the peaceful mountain setting. Thumping music and amplified DJ run through the evening and require a night with earplugs.

July 13 (Saturday); Beaufort - Col des Saisies; 40 km Map

The weather lives up to its billing, and the morning dawns with heavy gray clouds that are building to saturation. The meteo in the morning paper announces snow levels down to 2500 m, so my route yesterday over the Iseran may have seen some snow. The mountains are steep and heavily vegetated on all sides, and I feel hemmed in. I'm glad to leave the dingy hotel and get on the road, even if under cover of clouds.

Signs announce that Beaufort and the Col des Saisies will be on a stage of the Tour de France on July 25, so I set out to see some of the route. The climb isn't steep and the road is in good condition, but the legs are dead today. At the top, Saisies is yet another ski town with all the bland trimmings. I stop at the pharmacie for an assortment of drugs to combat the cold that's coming on. Then I stop at a fancy chocolate store for an assortment of delicacies. We'll see which remedy does the most good.

Beaufort Boulangerie
Beaufort Boulangerie

The clouds begin to leak and I decide to head back down to Beaufort, though on a sunny day and with more energy the plan would be a loop out to la Clusaz. Back in town my mood improves with a salad, vegetarian pizza, peach melba, and a caffè. Two cyclists descend from the Roseland with only thin windbreakers on. I've never seen recreational cyclists here with much more than that, even in the chilliest and wettest conditions. The cyclists are shivering and soaked to the skin and grip hot cups of coffee with both hands while trying to warm up. One of their bikes is a Trek with USPS team colors, and it draws admiration from onlookers as a "classique."

Back in the hotel room, the television gives only a snowy picture of the Tour de France, so I instead try to nap through the thumping music of the carnival. The clocks of different churches ring the hour several minutes apart. Are they out-of-sync on purpose, to hear all the bells, or are they just not keeping time?

The local paper sums up the weather forecast: "Depression sur le centre de la France."

July 14 (Sunday); Beaufort - Les Chapieux; 28 km Map

Shadow of Mt. Blanc

After a twelve-hour sleep, I feel better in the morning. Today is Bastille Day, to be celebrated with fete and fireworks in Beaufort, but I'm ready to move on.

Cormet de Roseland
Cormet de Roseland

I climb back up a well-soaked Roseland, with lush and dripping vegetation that reminds me of the west side of the Cascade Mountains in my home state of Washington. The sun is trying to clear away the clouds and the pavement is drying out. The clank of cow bells signals the summit. I take the small road through cow pastures to Les Chapieux, a cluster of buildings down by the river.

The visitor shack displays produits de pay -- sausage, goat cheese, pain de montagne, miel de montagne. Tents sprout like giant mushrooms in the campground meadow. A rustic auberge with restaurant is the high-rent district. There are rooms available and the clouds are building, so I decide to take a rest day, rather than continue over the Col de la Seigne. The mountain air is invigorating, the hot shower reviving. Potage du jour is vegetable, which hits the spot on a chilly day.

Torrent des Glaciers
Torrent des Glaciers

I walk up the road under gray clouds and drizzle. Sound of rushing stream, sheep droppings on the road, faint tinkle of bells in the distance. On the hillside, little girls are picking wildflowers. They toss the bouquets over their shoulders, loudly singing "dum, dum-de-dum", "Here comes the bride."

Back at the hotel I study the map of the Col de la Seigne, wondering how it will feel pushing a bicycle over the trail. After many of years of backpacking with all its attendant aches and pains, I'm hoping it might be easier to carry the gear on the bike. I'll soon find out.

In late afternoon the solitude is interrupted by the clumping of boots, an invasion of the British. A Mt. Blanc trekking group soon fills the hotel, clomping around, slamming doors, and looking for the "loo."

Dinner features a buttery soup dotted with tiny green flakes. The classy madame makes the rounds of the tables, explaining in various languages that this is nettle soup, and no, she did not pick the nettles herself.

I'll be glad for some rest tonight and peace on the trail tomorrow.

July 15 (Monday); Les Chapieux - Col de la Seigne - Etroubles; 87+ km Map

I take breakfast outside on a rain-soaked table to avoid being stuffed in a corner of the cramped dining room. There were no fireworks for Bastille Day last night and I slept well.

I pedal up the valley on the mostly paved road to the Ville des Glaciers, a hiking hut with a rather military ambience and rows of bunks and blankets. On the way, I pass a large group of high schoolers, carrying daypacks and draped with raincoats and ponchos. They're walking slowly and talking quietly, like refugees. Fog sweeps up the valley, enveloping the hotel and the trekkers.

Col de la Seigne
Col de la Seigne

At the hiking hut, the switchbacks begin. The trail is narrow and fairly steep, but I can mostly push the bike, rather than have to carry it. I pass a backpacker who has stopped to take pictures.

"You're taking velo over Col de la Seigne?!" he asks in astonishment. Yup. On one of the shortcuts I shouldn't have taken, he lends a hand in hoisting the bike by tugging on the front wheel.

"Perhaps it is not good idea to take velo over the col," he suggests. He may be right, but that only makes me more determined to continue. "Thanks, doing fine," I smile with more confidence than I feel. I leave him and the other trekkers behind.

It feels great to be on a rough and unpredictable trail, a change of pace from well-graded switchbacks and perfect pavement. To see the wildflowers up close, savor the views, and listen to the rush of mountain streams. I roll the bike through the streams while trying to land cycling shoes on the stepping stones.

Near the top of the switchbacks, I can see the "refugees" slowly ascending the mountain. They stop for a rest and I continue towards the summit. Now fog is rolling down from the pass and a strong wind sweeps the hillside. Rock-strewn glaciers occasionally peek through the clouds. The deeply rutted trail braids through a spongy carpet of wildflowers and thick alpine grass. Buttercups, blue violets, anemone, red astragalus, and gentian clump around outcrops of shiny schist and metaconglomerate. The summit cairn emerges from the fog as a cold wind swirls around the pass.

Col de la Seigne summit
Col de la Seigne summit

I pause for a photo and then launch into the clouds on the most well trodden track down the other side. I hope it's the right way. The trail is steep and requires a bit of bike wrestling here and there. I pass more backpackers under heavy load and am glad to be wheeling the gear. At the Refuge Elisabeth, there's road again, though it is rough and gravelly. It switchbacks down to a wide valley drained by a glacial stream running full and silty blue-grey. Here it's fairly level and mostly rideable, though still mushy from the rain. After a few more steep parts, I'm back on pavement, though there are a couple washouts in mid-repair. It's a fast descent to Courmayeur.

The Grand Col Ferret, sister pass to the Col de la Seigne, beckons, but the Val Ferret is socked in and it's now beginning to rain. I reluctantly decide to forego the trek and instead take the highway down the Aosta valley.

Grand St. Bernard

The city of Aosta is not very attractive and is large enough to get lost in. As I loop around town looking for the exit to Colle del Gran San Bernardo, I spy a Mail Boxes, Etc sign. Whoopee! All my fantasies about unloading extra maps and pamphlets are fulfilled in a 1.5 km package back to California. And there's Internet access, as well.

I'm finally on my way to the Grand St Bernard, following directions from the lady at the newsstand. It's still raining, though just enough to wet the pavement. At Etroubles, a small town partways up the pass, I stop at a three-star hotel, which is nice, but not demonstrably better than the one- and two-star hotels I've stayed at. It does produce a good dinner, though. Omelet, salad, spinach ravioli, and fries are hearty and filling after an invigorating day on the road.

July 16 (Tuesday); Etroubles - Col du Grand St. Bernard - Brig; 150 km Map

With a good breakfast at the hotel, I'm off by 9 a.m., later than preferred. The weather is still unsettled, but blue sky is poking through, so I'm hoping for a dry road over the pass. The Grand St. Bernard Pass (2469 m) crosses the spine of the Alps at the Italian-Swiss border and is the only vehicle route over the mountains between Mt. Blanc to the west and the Matterhorn to the east.

It's a lazy grade up to the split at the tunnel, where the main road carries the traffic under the mountain, and the old road takes bicycles, motorcycles, and sightseers on the scenic route over the pass. The road narrows and the grade increases. There's quite a bit of road construction here, but I don't mind waiting for work that keeps the pavement in such good condition.

Col du Grand St. Bernard
Col du Grand St. Bernard

Wildflowers are abundant -- a purple spire with big round leaves, white buttercups lining the stream, purple geraniums with cut leaves, meadow rue, and forget-me-nots. Cows with loud bells graze the upper meadow. Rushing mountain streams dash through green meadows rimmed by snowy peaks. Clouds hang around the peaks, deciding what to do, but blue sky prevails above.

The climb is delightful and I'm glad I've come this way, even though it was second choice to the Grand Ferret. The summit has the usual cluster of hotels, restaurants, and tacky souvenir shops, which now tote stuffed St. Bernards along with the whistling marmots. French and German are the most commonly heard languages, but American country music is playing at the bar.

I have an apple tart and cappuccino and then head out across the border, where I'm waved through by both the Italian and Swiss guards. In the parking lot at the summit, I meet a group of cyclists from Germany who are out on the third day of a week-long tour. They graciously lend their floor pump and an energetic pumper to top off my tires. So far they've been lucky with the weather, but are expecting that it could change tomorrow. I wish them a good journey and head off down the pass.

Downhill is a long cold tunnel and avalanche shed that seems to go on forever and restricts the view. When I'm finally back out in the sun, it smells of fertilizer -- Switzerland. Picture perfect villages set out baskets of geraniums, green hillsides are manicured by tractors and cows, snowy peaks rim the skyline, and recycling bins line the streets. A strong headwind stings the face and waters the eyes, and I'm anxious to see what direction it translates to in the valley of the Rhone River.

Rhone Valley Breadbasket

At Martigny, I circle town a couple of times looking for the blue signs to the secondary route, careful to not follow the green signs to the autostrada, and finally head east towards Brig. The highway has bicycle lanes and most of the traffic is on the autostrada. But best of all, it's a tailwind! I bike sail through orchards of pears and apples and every few kilometers pass roadside fruit stands advertising "abricots." The sides of the valley are terraced up to the practical limit and snowy ridges tower above the fields on either side. It's warm and humid, and thunderclouds clouds hang around the peaks, drumming up local showers that occasionally spatter on the valley.

Rhone Valley
Rhone Valley

With all the road signs in French, I have to keep reminding myself that this is Switzerland. Then suddenly the language changes from French to German and the signs now advertise "Aprikosen" for sale. The autoroute ends and all the traffic is funneled back onto the highway. The bike lane has also disappeared, so I tenaciously follow the white line on the side of the road into Brig.

Near the outskirts of town, there's a well-equipped bike shop with a mechanic on duty, so I get chain lube for a rain-washed chain and change out the rear tube, which seems to have a slow leak.

Rain begins to splatter as I ride into Brig, so after a quick loop through town, I pick the hotel closest at hand. Dinner is uncolorful and features a rather bland meat entree, but at least there is a salad bar. Country music plays in the background. As I eat and peer out the window, the spatters turn to a downpour. Good timing. Dessert is Coupe Moonlight -- sorbet of Zimt-rahmglace, aprikosen, and cassis.