Tuesday 3 July 2012

Rastatt, Germany - The king and queen of cols

As I pedal my way north along the Rhine in the rain, the world’s most famous bicycle race, the Tour de France, is underway. I never paid much attention to it myself but this year I’ll be eager to catch the mountain stages. You see, Bart and I have just finished an eight-day cycle tour climbing some of the highest Alpine road passes, many of which have been made legendary by the cyclists of “Le Tour”. 

Many people may find it a bit strange to want to cycle every day up one, two or even three high mountain passes in the stinking heat of a European summer, only to come straight back down the other side. But “collecting” these passes, or “cols” as the French call them, can become quite addictive! We’d loaded up our bikes and parked Bart’s campervan in the quiet ski village of Saint Sirlon d’Arves, where it would be safe while we were away, and started our tour with one of the most famous and beautiful cols, the 2642m Galibier. Hours of hard climbing took us up into the mountains and the last of the winter snows alongside hundreds of other cyclists keen to add this col to their “tick list”. Most cyclists undertaking these rides are cycling superlight race bikes with no luggage and some even have support vehicles.  So I was pleased to do the climb on my superheavy touring bike with all my kit for a week on the road and to make the top not too far behind Bart! The climb was rewarded with spectacular views of Park Nationale des Ecrins and a bit of a party atmosphere on top as all the cyclists celebrated their achievement and queued to take a photo in front of the sign! 

Our next famous pass was the 2360m Col d’Izoard, a bizarre landscape of bare mountains and weathered rock formations. As we sat on top eating our picnic, we watched with admiration as an elderly coupled arrived by bicycle on the summit. They were probably in their sixties or seventies! When the man stepped off his bike, he was almost bent double with a bad back but the woman was fit and beautiful for her age with long, plaited hair and tanned skin. We hoped to still be cycling when we were their age! After Izoard we ticked off the easy 2109m Col de Vars which was notable for me as there I passed the 15,000 miles mark on my world bicycle trip. 

I never come first or win anything in life but that was about to change as we pedalled on to tackle our next legendary col! The highest road pass in Europe is the 2802m Col de la Bonette which seems to sit on the roof of the Alps, high up in remote and rugged mountain scenery. Bart and I couldn’t believe our luck when we got to the final section of the long, hard climb to the col – snowploughs were just clearing the last remnants of the winter snows to officially open the road for 2012! As soon as we could, we squeezed by the machines and pedalled furiously to be the first official cyclists over the col this year. Forever a sweetheart, Bart let me go ahead to reach the col first and crowned me Miss Col de la Bonette 2012! 

We added many more miles and many metres of ascent as the days rolled by and we conquered one col after another. And as the temperature soared into the thirties, we watched the world go by sipping cold drinks on the terraces of bars and cafes in the pretty, little French towns that we cycled through. On our final day we cycled over the easiest col of the tour, the 1367m Col d’Ornon, and then the most difficult one, the 2067m Col de la Croix de Fer. As Bart’s GPS gave a temperature reading of 36 degrees, we climbed a long and initially steep approach road that dispiritingly plummeted back down several times, forcing us to climb again all the height that we’d lost. But eventually the top came and we cycled over the col which is dominated by the impressive rock spires of Les Aiguilles d’Arves. A short descent took us back to the van at Saint Sirlon and we were surprised to see it joined on this quiet spot by about twenty other campervans. Bart and I laughed all evening when we found out that we had parked in the middle of a campervan club reunion! 

All-in-all on our 8-day tour we conquered 14 cols over a distance of 632 kms and with 14,567m of climbing! We may not be signing up for next year’s Tour de France but I think we have earned our title of the “King and Queen of Cols”.

Photos on Flickr in the Alps folder


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