Annecy – France
While on the road through the flat plains of southern Germany and Austria, I had often wondered what the Alpes would be like to cycle in. Having been there some years ago, I remembered them as being big and steep, in fact, much much bigger than anything we have in Ireland. But over the last 18 months, we’ve cycled up to nearly 4600m high and crossed many mountain ranges around the World including the The Andes in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, the Tian Shan Mountains in China, the Suusamyr Too mountain in Kyrgyzstan and the Caucasus Mountains in Armenia. And so with the jagged silhouette of the Alpes looming in front of us, I wondered if they would remain as being the leviathan of mountains I remembered.
Our first climb into the Alpes was up to the relatively low 1370m Brenner Pass on the Austrian/ Italian border which was a fairly gradual ascent up a pretty, tree lined river valley, and with the sun out and warming our pasty white arms and legs, it was lovely cycling indeed. At least it was until we woke up after a nights camping to find it snowing heavily outside. As we climbed the final section to the pass, the snow built up on our clothes in thick white layers and on occasions found a gap in my clothing fortress to sneak down my back causing a frosty shiver as it nestled next to my skin. The descent was a pretty sketchy affair, mainly as the falling snow often hit my eyeballs, stinging them and leaving blurred vision. It wasn’t any better with my shades on as the snow built up on the lenses as it had done on my clothes, but eventually we found a compromise of looking down all the time, and only taking occasional sneaky glimpses of the road ahead. We managed to slowly make the descent into a flat river valley and followed the wonderfully smooth cycle track which we shared with groups of chattering Italian roadies that whirred by us on snazzy expensive race bikes.
Like in Spain, the rain in Italy seems to stay mainly on the plain, so we spent all of the Easter weekend slogging along in soaked clothes across the plain of Lombardy (near Milan). The Italians took to us well though, and we recieved great hospitality in the way of free dinners, wine, morning coffees and cakes which we greatfully recieved, and having eaten and drank our share, we reached Turin at the base of the climb up to the 1854m high Montgenevre pass. Again, this road was fairly gradual, unlike the horrendously steep roads in Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. Only the final section of the climb up the head of the valley was in any way comparible to the Soviet roads, but even so, we reached the top after 3 hours of non-stop cycling, where we shared the road with colourful skiiers who ambled about on their way to their morning hot tottys.
We whizzed down towards the French town of Briançon, our climbing efforts rewarded by an excellent downhill complete with a multitude of hairpins and fast sweeping turns. The last proper climb of the Alpes (and probably of this expedition) up to the 2058m Col du Lautaret was truly idyllic. As we cycled upwards we passed a wild Ibex, with its huge curved horns and a church that was buried in many feet of snow, then as the sun was dipping behind the snowy peaks we reached the top of the col and descended into the mist, with the last of our Alpine climbs behind us.
So were the Alpes as I had remembered? Well, unfurtunately, the higher and more remote climbs were still closed for winter, so we couldn’t do any of the more famous sections that I’d seen on the Tour de France or Top Gear. But with beautiful quaint villages, well kept forests, clean rivers, great roads; and of course mammoth sized mountains, the Alpes are definately some of the most beautiful mountains I’ve seen.