So a coworker of mine, Piaw Na, had done a trip through the Swiss Alps on a tandem in 2003 but had never done the French side. He, I, and Steve Purcell started training about 6 months ago doing a century and change every weekend, rebuilding wheels, shaking down equipment etc. Piaw wrote up some of his tips.
Overall we did a little but under 1300 km, or a bit over 800 miles on the flat, and a bit over 24 km of climbing (78,800 ft or 15 miles), starting in Geneva, over the Alps through Briançon to Nice, East into Italy, and then North back into Switzerland. We carried all of our equipment which weighed us down a bit but gave us a lot more flexibility to choose our route, take advantage of interesting looking trails, and since we were going at the beginning of the tourist season, we didn't bother to book hotels, so we were never in a crunch to reach a particular place by a particular time which made for a much more relaxing vacation.
The trip itself was good fun. The weather was beautiful with only a few exceptions, and the locals were friendly without exception, and very tolerant of my mangling of their native tongues.
You see a lot more of the countryside from a bike than from a car or backpacking, and cycling all day gives you an appetite. Ice cream at the top of every mountain that sells it, and lots of great French food, so the flavor of the trip was spinning wheels and beautiful countryside interrupted by cheap hotels and expensive restaurants.
United managed to lose my bike on the way into Zurich, but it had arrived by the morning, so we took a late morning train to Geneve and then made our way out of the city into the foothills. There was a nice view from the train, and we spent the trip talking to a German cyclist who had an extensive collection of maps and pass profiles.
We ate lunch at a restaurant across from the train station and then went hunting bike shops - cycling goggles and rain gear, but didn't find one until we were almost out of Geneve.
We had trouble getting out of Annemasse and had to ask directions from a Tourist Info lady and several helpful locals before we finally found the road to Cluses. The road was a minor one but fairly heavily trafficked with a few other cyclists. Slept at the Hotel du Gare for 41 €.
A three Col day -- the first real day of riding. We started at 7am after a breakfast of croissants at a local bakery.
It was a cold climb with beautiful views at the top. Sunday drivers meant lots of cars even on the minor roads, some racing -- the French love their noisy little cars.
A fast decent into Clusaz.
A pretty little town with steep narrow streets and a roofed town fountain. We had lunch at a restaurant across from the fountain with nice views of the climb out -- great food, I had the faux filet au rocquefort and then took a nap by the fountain to wait out the worst of the afternoon heat.
Climbed in the heat.
Still hot, but a light rain cooled us down. I had to keep stopping to adjust my saddlebag because it was resting on my rear tire which slowed me down on the ascent.
Exhausted, stopped at Beaufort about 7pm or so, and found the last room in a hotel, the rest of which had been booked by a British package tour with SAG and luggage vans and the whole nine yards.
Today was a bit shorter -- 1 and a half passes, but Col de l'Iseran is a major pass. It used to be the highest in France, but a new pass Col de la Bonette has taken that title.
We had another bakery breakfast against the advice of Peter, the hotel owner, and waited until we found a hardware store open. I got Bungies to fix my saddle bag, and we oiled our chains after the rains.
A beautiful climb out of Beaufort with waterfalls, fields of wildflowers framed by mountains, small meandering streams. The descent was a lot less scenic -- rough curvy roads, but I still managed to get up to 68.7 kph.
No one serves food until noon, but we managed to find a sandwich shop before we started the climb to Col de l'Iseran.
Val d'Isere is about halfway up towards Col de l'Iseran. We climbed in the noon hear, so it was slow going, but the scenery was nice -- Mountains and waterfalls. There were a lot of trucks going up which was encouraging since they don't usually do more than 8-10% grades. Once we got up a bit there was a cool cross breeze on one side and the sun beating down on the other, so I was cold and hot at the same time.
We stopped at Chalet du Lac at about 3pm near Val d'Isere since there was a lot of Thunder and the sky was starting to grey. It's right across from the Tignes damn with beautiful views of the lake. 78 € for a room for 2 with breakfast. The food was really good - Capacchio de boeuf au parmesan.
Only one Col today, but we had to cover some flats to get to St. Jean de Maurienne to put us in position to do the Alps d'Huez the day after next.
The hotel didn't serve breakfast until 7:30 but good. We started up about quarter past 8 and did the 22 km to the top in a little under 2 hours. There are signs every klick with altitude, distance, and grade. Not many cyclists on the climb -- I passed a pair of touring cyclists, and wasn't passed. Piaw caught up with those two cyclists, Alain and Jean-Claude, just before the top, and they were heading roughly the same direction as us, so we compared notes.
The descent in to Bonneval is long and windy without guard rails. Top speed 67.2 kph. Bonneval is a pretty little town of stone houses with slate rooves, but it was still early so we headed into Lanselbourg for lunch -- none of the restaurants looked promising so we got a baguette and blackberry jam at a bakery.
We left Lanselbourg on the way to Modane and did about 10 km pedaling downhill into a nasty headwind so we decided to take an alternate route via Aussois that had a bit of climbing but got us off the main road. The trees broke the headwind and so we climbed with a nice breeze, and had a really fun fast descent into Modane.
The only way to get to Modane seemed to be via 40 km of busy road with a headwind. We decided to skip the flats and took a train to St Jean de Maurienne -- about 30 minutes by train.
St. Jean de Maurienne is a sizable town, but we had a bit of trouble finding a hotel because of the fête de la musique. We ended up finding a hotel in the middle of the festivities -- for some reason mostly American music. Piaw had a broken spoke and realized his spares were the wrong length, so he rushed out to find a bike store and ran into a bike mechanic who'd just closed up shop, but was kind enough to reopen.
Dinner was ok -- pepper steak 19 € ea.
Two cols put us into position to do Alps d'Huez.
Late breakfast of jam and croissants at the hotel, and started up at 7:45.
We climbed to Col du Mollard in the morning cool. The ride up was shaded and really beautiful with about 1000 m of climbing total followed by a pleasant 500 m decent before the climb to Col de la Croix du Fer.
Another 1000 m climb which was shallow at the bottom and steeper towards the top. Great views and ice cream at the top.
The decent was rough at the top but smoother farther down. We had a slight headwind, and the road was windy but there was a long straight stretch where I clocked 76.8 kph. There were some nice views of the mountains and reservoir on the way down.
We stopped fairly early since we'd made good time into Bourg d'Oisas but wanted to do Alps d'Huez in the morning cool. We found a room at the Chalet la Source across the street from a Casino where we bought salmon and pasta to cook.
A long day: Alps d'Huez and 2 Cols and then a slog into Briançon.
We left our saddle bags in Bourg d'Oisans so that we could do Alps d'Huez unloaded -- my bike felt sooo light.
This is a steep climb, mostly about 10% grade for about 14 km along 21 hairpins. It was cool on the way up but I didn't notice the scenery much since I was worrying about mechanical trouble. Around hairpin five I realized that I was a bit slow, especially since I was riding with 30 pounds less baggage than normal. I stopped and realized that I had a huge chunk of bitumen wedged between my rear brakes and the rim, presumably from some construction we rolled through on the way into Bourg d'Oisans, so I'd been effectively riding with my brakes on the whole way. I fixed that and had to stop once more to realign brake pads, but the climb was otherwise uneventful. I saw a number of cyclists coming down, but passed no one and was not passed on the way up.
My time to the top was 1:31 including the time from Bourg d'Oisans to the base and the fact that I didn't see the finish line and went a ways past -- my best guess is 1:15 for Alps d'Huez. For reference, Lance Armstrong does it in 0:39:41.
We descended a bit from the top of Alps d'Huez and then climbed Col de Sarennes. This is a really beautiful pass with lots of varied scenery. The road is patchy in parts, and has some steep bits, but my only problem was trying to navigate through a flock of sheep pouring down the hillside. I saw some ewes pushing their lambs over, and other lambs would dash after their siblings until the hillside was an avalanche of awkward white balls of fur rolling down on a cloud of dust. I took a few pictures but didn't have much luck getting through until a long suffering shepherd sent his dogs around to clear me a path.
The descent was slow at the top since the road was punctuated by slate lined drainage ditches, but it was smoother down below. I started hearing a high pitched noise on the way down, and sure enough my rear wheel was out of true. The tinging in my bottom bracket also got a bit worse.
We swung back by Bourg d'Oisans and picked up our gear and stayed for lunch. The waitress was Chinese -- the first non whitey I saw in the Alps -- and Piaw spoke to her in Mandarin. Apparently she's from some obscure part of mainland China, and works in Bourg d'Oisans and sends money home.
We started up at 1 or 2 in the afternoon and so did Col de Lautaret in the worst of the afternoon hear. It's a shallow climb rising 1400 m over 28 km with a max grade of 9%, but there was no shade to speak of, the views were unspectacular, and there was quite a bit of traffic.
The descent wasn't bad though -- drafting trucks for the first 10 km. Then we rode rollers into Briançon, arriving around 6:30.
Briançon is a beautiful city -- the highest cathedral city in France. We found a hotel, L'Auberge de la Paix, in the old city (3 beds and breakfast for 62€) amid a maze of narrow streets, easily navigable by bike, with lots of restaurants and interesting nooks.
We ate at a Rajastani restaurant, Palais de Jaipur, and had a good dinner: mango lassis, rojan josh, chicken vindaloo, kulfi for 55€ for 2.
A rest day that put us in position to do Col de Parpaillon.
This was a pretty straightforward climb -- shallow at the bottom but steeper at the top for about 1200 m of climbing in 20.5 km from Briançon. The views were underwhelming, and there was no water at the top except for money, and no food at all. Despite the unspectacular views, there were lots of hikers and bikers at the top. A few cyclists at the top -- I was passed by 6 unloaded cyclists, mostly Italians, on the way up.
The road was closed to cars on the far side, so the descent was nice. We had one false peak, and then descended past some construction and a crew shooting a car commercial. The road got smoother after a bit and we passed a large group of cyclists coming up. Then the road straightened out a bit and I clocked 75.8 kph into La Chalp through a headwind so strong that I had to blink despite wearing goggles.
We stopped at a grocery store in Guillestre and met Alain and Jean-Claude, the two cyclists we'd been leapfrogging since Col de l'Iseran. We all grabbed food and retired to a park to eat. Sun, shade, good food, lots of cute women, and Alain gave us a map that he had that included Col de Parpaillon. Alain and Jean-Claude were going a different way (and thought us a bit loony for wanting to do Parpaillon) and so we said goodbye and headed into Embrun.
The road to Embrun had a headwind and lots of traffic, so Piaw found a side road on Alain's map which turned out to be a nice shaded route with lots of up and down but no traffic. We asked for directions at a hostel (le Milieux?) that gave us directions to La Grande Ferme on the way to Crevoix.
La Grande Ferme turned out to be a beautiful stone farmhouse turned into a youth hostel with very gracious hosts and a great view of Embrun and the river. The owner had run a successful restaurant out of it for a number of years before retiring and turning it into a hostel. The restaurant was really nice -- it used to be stables, but had been artfully converted.
We got a room for 2 for 26€ (breakfast for 5.50€) and I sat under a cherry tree enjoying the view while cherries literally fell into my lap.
The hostel doesn't normally serve dinner, but we had nowhere to go, so they very graciously offered to "whip something up." For 14 € ea. we got the best meal of the trip: tabouleh, pork paté, duck in a wine sauce, pasta, and lots of it.
Not much distance today, or climbing, but one of the harder days of the trip since all the climbing was on unpaved roads, and the descent was white-knuckled over the same.
The hostel owner had said Col de Parpaillon was closed because of ice in the unlit tunnel at the top but we decided to try anyway. It's only about 22 km to the top but the top 10 km is unpaved and steep in places.
It wouldn't be very technical on a mountain bike, but everything is more technical on a loaded road bike. We only had to walk twice -- once trying to sneak up on a groundhog like rodent, and once over water.
The scenery was gorgeous. The path up wound past wildflowers and waterfalls backed by dramatic views of the mountains. The climb itself was cool -- it was overcast most of the day, but occasionally a few rays of sun would peak through to play across the mountainsides, and we saw no one else on the ascent, except for two German bikers about 2 km from the top. There were no houses on the ascent except for 3 hikers' shacks.
The tunnel was closed at the top, and was completely unlit, but I had a battery powered headlamp, so we decided to walk it. The water was a few inches deep in places, and there was ice in places, but we slogged through to find the German motorcyclists waiting for us on the other side. I think they may have taken bets on us, because they waved and left as soon as we exited the tunnel, and we saw them waiting again at the chapel at the bottom where the paved road starts.
I put on my arm and leg warmers for padding in case I got thrown from the bike, and then started descending. The first 5 km was a white knuckled descent over rough gravelly road punctuated with ruts and rocks. I heard thunder on the way down, and so sped up a little but not too much since I saw a few patches of fresh rockfall.
We passed 6 identical SUVs winding up in convoy carrying some affluent older looking tourists, too well-dressed to be contemplating any hiking.
About 6 km from the top we passed a shack selling bbq to hikers, but thunder was still threatening, so we skipped it and ended up rolling into a small town for lunch just as the sky opened up.
We didn't have to wait long for the rain to stop and then descended the rest of the way into Barcelonette where we found 3 beds at "le Touring Hotel" for 41 € sans breakfast.
I wandered around a bit -- bakery, internet café, and bought maps of Nice and its surrounds.
Barcelonette was full of tourists, and seemed to have a lot of places catering to them. Strangely, there seemed to be a lot of stores selling Mexicana, and most of the restaurants had faux Mexican food. We had a decent dinner, not Mexican, for 17€/head.
A lazy day on the way to Nice.
It started out as a shaded shallow climb next to a stream with rocky half arches overhanging the road. Nearer the top it was unshaded, and steeper, riding next with wildflowers next to the road. I saw some other cyclists, none loaded, and a lot of Sunday drivers -- no trucks but lots of cars.
We descended into Guillaumes and had lunch before continuing into a headwind on to Puget Therniers through many small tunnels. The hillside here is of a purplish rock with silver veins higher up and grey rock farther down. The road winds through rock arches and galleries that divert streams over the road. It was hot and unshaded except for the tunnels.
We found a hotel run by a loud gregarious Italian guy and spent most of the evening talking about other places to tour.
We started out next to a sign that said 60 km to Nice, but rather than ride on the highway we took side roads, and did a few minor cols before descending into Nice.
We headed through Ascros and Bronson and then down to the river for a short hop along and across the freeway to another minor road that climbed through Tourrette-Levens and down into Nice. There were a lot of nice views of small towns built into the hillsides, but no view of the Ocean until we were almost in Nice.
We had a good lunch in Nice and then found a hotel (Radisson, not recommended) and then I hit the beach for a bit before shopping for sunscreen, maps of Italy, and sport drink mix -- we managed to get everything but the last, which worried me since we were running out of salt pills.
We started out late (9:30ish) since we were waiting for a sporting goods store to open, but no luck. We then spent a while dodging rush-hour traffic getting out of Nice, trying to find a road to Tende that wasn't a highway but finally found our way out with advice from a few locals and a truck driver.
We did Col de Nice (412 m) and a hot unshaded climb up to Col de Braus (1002 m) which didn't have great views, but did have a lot of butterflies of various stripes. At the top was the grave of an old Tour de France cyclist and some ruined walls. On the way up I had to sprint over more fresh-laid bitumen to get through ahead of traffic queuing for the downhill. It did a number on my rear brakes again.
We descended into Sospel for lunch seeing a 16% grade in places downhill. Good: entrecôte au poivre vert. The wind picked up while we were eating, which gave us a breeze on every second switchback up Col de Brovis.
An easy col to miss because there's not much grade change at the top.
The sky started to fill with clouds as we approached Tende, and we started to wonder whether we could make it over Col de Tende before it started raining. Piaw got a flat and it started raining shortly after we got on the road. We stopped under a bridge as the rain got heavier, to wait out the rain. We were talking about sprinting the 2.5 km to the next town when it started to hail. The hail got heavier and heavier going from M&M size to gumball size, and a number of cars stopped and sheltered under the bridge.
The bridge had some graffiti. I'm not sure what the bowling ball of peace signifies, but "Occitan Lenga Viva" is a lot friendlier than the "death to all Arabs" I'd seen on a street sign on the way up Col de Braus. We waited for a good half hour, chatting with one of the drivers who'd taken shelter, until the hail subsided and then sprinted uphill until we found "Le Terminus" a hotel/restaurant a bit off the main road. It was 93€ for a room, dinner for 2, and breakfast.
Climbed Col de Tende and descended into Italy and then zigzagged through Italian side roads into Chieri on the way to Aosta.
This was my first time in Italy and I found Italian drivers a tad more polite than the French and Germans I'd talked to had led me to believe. The truck drivers are by far the most polite, and the buses by far the worst.
The tunnel at the top is closed to cyclists, so we did another 600 m of climbing over the old unpaved road. The climb was warm but with a bit of a breeze, so not at all unpleasant. The view while climb was forgettable, but once at the top, the views were great -- the hillside was covered with flowers, and the hillside was steep enough that I could see all the switchbacks laid out below, flocks of sheep farther down the hillside like little white tufts, and mountains in all directions. There was also a few pretty old buildings at the top, maybe a monastery.
We saw no other cyclists on the climb or at the summit but saw a number on the Italian side. I expected to at least see an Italian or French border guard, but no sign of any.
We descended into Italy. The area around Turin is mostly flat, so we zigzagged along side roads to avoid traffic and mitigate headwinds. The winds weren't bad though and we averaged 28-32 kph. We had a light lunch at a bar and I used Piaw's palm pilot to learn a few essential phrases in Italian. We planned to find a grocery store on the road since we didn't eat much so we rode til 2:00 but everything was closed. At 2:30 we found a grocery store that opened at 3, and at 3 one that opened at 4. Hungry, at 4:45, we finally found a grocer open and had a second lunch of bananas, bread, chocolate, and gatorade.
There are no town fountains in the towns around Turin, so we bought a few bottles of what turned out to be mineral water.
We rode on, and made quick time over the flats as it was overcast and cool the whole day. I felt a few raindrops but no rain. We reached Chieri a bit after 6pm, bought more sunscreen at a local mall, and found a room at the Park Hotel.
We couldn't find a restaurant open -- apparently they're all closed on Wednesday night -- but after schlepping halfway around town we found a Chinese joint down the street from our hotel. The waitress spoke Mandarin which saved us from having to read the menu in Italian. She confided to Piaw that they didn't make Chinese food; only Italian food with Chinese seasoning, but it turned out to be pretty good.
Another distance day over rollers in Italy to get into position to do Grand St. Bernard. I almost went under a truck on a narrow windy descent, but got out with only a bit of road rash.
We stopped at about the 75 km mark for lunch, and antiseptic, plastic wrap, and bandages for my arm. We couldn't find a restaurant and so ate at a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria. The owner was very friendly but I had more trouble making myself understood than usual. He was happy to fill our bottles with water though.
We stopped in Mont-Jovet for water. Mont-Jovet is a pretty little town at the bottom of a number of roads that wind up into the hills past terraced vineyards, and the only Italian town I saw with a proper fountain. It also seems to have an inordinate number of beautiful women for such a small town.
Aosta is just at the base of Grand St Bernard, but we stopped one town short in Saint Christophe, hoping to avoid having to navigate through Aosta on the way to Grand St Bernard. From the highway, Saint Christophe looks like a string of car dealerships, but as soon as you get off that road, it's nice. We found a hotel and got a room (~50€) with a balcony overlooking the mountains as the sun set. The view was like a postcard -- Alpenglow tinging the mountaintops red.
Dinner was good -- pasta Bolognaise, a lamb stew, some cheeses, and tiramisu. With beers and breakfast it came out to about 25€ ea.
My last day of riding. Over Grand St Bernard into Italy, getting lost in the fog in the process.
We started up at about 8. The first 25 km are flat and not very scenic but wind through some pretty towns where we bought bananas and gatorade. Even though it wasn't steep, we had a nasty headwind which required drafting uphill, and brutal crosswinds on the bridges.
At about the 25 km mark, we entered a wooded section that was very pretty -- beautiful wildflowers all around, fed by the fogs. It became quite a bit steeper, but the trees put us in the wind's shadow. It was getting cold enough that we stopped to put on arm warmers.
After another five km, I left Piaw behind because this was my last pass of the trip and I quickly passed above the treeline where I was greeted by gorgeous views of the mountains capped by clouds -- very dramatic.
It was steep all the way to the top and got cold enough that I saw my breath, and had to keep moving my fingers and toes to stop them going numb -- the only time I regretted wearing biking sandals.
The last stretch was steep, very windy, and cold. I knew where the top was because I could see the fog billowing through the pass and down the mountainside, so I tried to sprint the last km through a long gallery, but ran into an amazingly strong headwind a few hundred meters from the top and had to sit back in the saddle. I did the 39.5 km to the top in 3:30.
I walked into a little restaurant at the top, Bar ou Lac, to warm up with croissant and coffee and wait for Piaw. The restaurant is next to a lake with a cross in the middle, and the views would probably be nice, but the fog made it impossible to appreciate.
After 20 minutes or so I started keeping an eye out for Piaw, and after a bit longer I went and asked the border guard (Swiss -- no Italian border guard in sight) if he'd seen another cyclist with a Google jersey, and he answered with a clear "No." After another 20 minutes I headed down towards Martigny.
The views on the descent were nice, but between the cold and the cross winds, I couldn't pay much attention. I finally found Piaw at a restaurant in a town 19 km outside of Martigny. We'd apparently lost each other in the fog, and he had asked the same border guard who had claimed not to have seen me either. We talked to a nice English couple, since settled in Switzerland, who said that today was unseasonably cold.
We finished the descent into Martigny, and I caught the 16:51 train back to Zurich, and Piaw continued on to meet up with Steve to do a few Swiss passes. Once in Zurich, I used the train station's computerized info center to find a hotel in a part of town I recognized. The hotel, the X-tra hotel, turned out to be a combination club/hotel/something else, and Friday's are 80's night. Piaw prefers quiet hotels, but I didn't have to wake up early to ride the next day, so 80's night it was.