The Alps part 1: are we nearly there yet?

Wednesday 27th May

Miles: 0

Today was our designated departure day, but unfortunately Eric was still feeling green around the gills, so we opted for staying in Grenoble for another day. 

This was so frustrating for both of us, because we had already waited almost a week for the weather to clear. By delaying for a day, we were missing our sunny window for crossing the Alps… which almost meant that we may as well not have waited at all! (Plus, we had carbo-loaded yesterday: if you do this and then don’t exercise, it is no longer carbo-loading but instead should be referred to as stuffing your face with pasta for no reason. Yes, that’s right, I am very annoyed that I have been tricked into eating a lot of carbs.)

Nevermind, what could we do? We went to see our landlady and asked if we could stay one more day. She told us this was fine, but that we should let the owner know. 

At least we could have a quiet day. I left Eric in bed (poor Eric) to go and get us some food for lunch. When I returned at 1, however, Eric was up and packing our bags. 

‘The lady said that there’s other people arriving at 2, so she asked us to pack up our stuff. She says that there’s another room where we can stay instead.’

It sounded like she had made a mistake about the room being free. I felt sorry for Eric having to get out of bed when he wasn’t feeling well. 

We exited the apartment and were shown to a half-built kitchen, where the lady fetched us a table and a couple of chairs. Eric slumped down onto a chair, head in hands, looking green. 

I made us some lunch using my camping stove and he managed to eat some. The lady then told us that the other room wasn’t ready yet, and that we should come back in 5 hours! She was keen for us to leave the kitchen, as soon some builders would apparantly be arriving. 

Next door to the kitchen was a room that was packed to the brim with old furniture, all stacked up together, making it impossible to even walk in there. We had an ominous suspicion that this was the room this lady was proposing that we stay in. Neither of us could imagine that this little elderly lady would be able to clear out this room… but maybe there’s another room we haven’t seen, we thought. I suggested just finding a hotel, but the idea of getting everything on the bike and moving was too much for Eric in his current state. 

So we went to the park, a location largely picked for the public toilet (poor Eric!). It was a beautiful sunny day, and we actually had a nice afternoon there. We did some reading, ate some barquettes, had a nap, took a stroll. We saw lots of interesting activities going on, such as tight-rope walking, a water-fight, volleyball, aerobics… it was good. And Eric was feeling much better by the time we started heading back at 7PM. 

So just before 7 the lady had called but we’d missed her. As we walked back Eric called her and they spoke. Eric came off the phone looking a bit confused. 

‘I’m not sure, but I think she was saying that we might have to find an alternative place to stay.’ 

We were both a little incredulous that she would make us wait 5 hours before telling us this. 

We returned to speak with her properly, and this is indeed what she had been saying. We persuaded her that we were happy to sleep on the kitchen floor. As we had all of our camping equipment this was fine. She agreed, looking quite relieved. 

Once she had left us to it, I went to have a look at the room full of furniture. Nothing had been done. So it wasn’t as if she had been frantically trying to fix it up all afternoon and then had realised that it wasn’t possible. She just hadn’t thought that we might want to know a bit earlier that this other room wasn’t going to happen. Bizarre. As many successes as we have had with AirBnb, I have come to realise that there’s a value in being looked after by professionals. 

Eric was feeling much better. We ate our dinner, got the sleeping bags out, watched A Knight’s Tale on Netflix and went to bed. 


Thursday 28th May

Miles: 30? Not sure – forgot to check the mileometer 

Today was interesting: interesting as in “may you live in interesting times”, not as in a fun afternoon at the Science Museum. 

We were up at 7 – this is early for us, you can tell that we were feeling serious about this Alps business.

Our landlady popped round with some pain au chocolats at 8. Guilt pattiserie I think. They looked quite fancy but to be honest they were a bit dry. 

  
We were out the door by 8.30, which is a full hour earlier than our usual start. I did the usual pre-mount tyre check… and it turned out that the back wheel had a puncture. On further inspection the inner tube (quite an old one which already had a patch on it) had worn out by the metal tube where you pump in the air (no idea what it’s called). The wheel ribbon around this area was quite rough and jagged, so we suspected that this could have been the cause. 

  
Eric sawed it down with his swiss army knife, stuck some elctrical tape over it and then inserted a new inner tube. 

I feel like if you wrote a list of things which can cause punctures, we will have pretty much experienced all of them!

We set off. It was now 9.20. So at least we were still starting at the normal time. We got our food from a nearby supermarket, and then Eric began the business of negotiating our way out of Grenoble. Although Grenoble has very good cycle lanes, they often move from road to pavement to road, and have frequent poles to stop wide vehicles entering, which are fine for most cyclists, but tricky for us with our large panniers and trailer. 

We were pedalling along when Eric misjudged a curb, scraping the front wheel along it until the bike jammed, throwing us both off. It all happened very quickly: by the time I knew what was about to happen it was happening, and by the time I knew what was happening, it had already happened. (Sorry about that sentence.) In a second I found myself on the floor, feeling very surprised. I quickly established that I could move and apart from a couple of grazes was fine. I looked over at Eric, who was lying on his back, clutching his head. 

‘Aah, aah, my head,’ he said. 

I think I might have said: ‘Did you hit your head?’

He kept moaning and wasn’t getting up. 

Two lycra cyclists appeared. 

‘Is he OK?’ one of them said (probably in French). 

‘He’s hit his head,’ I said. 

Another man appeared. 

‘Try not to move,’ he said, and then, ‘Should we call a doctor?’

The two cyclists conferred. One of them pulled out their phone and dialled. I was very grateful that the decision had been taken out of my hands. I would have dithered as to whether things were serious enough for an ambulance, but they were right to call. 

As we waited for the ambulance, Eric started to recover. He said he was still feeling dizzy, but was able to talk with the people who had stopped to help us. 
Within 10 minutes the ambulance arrived, and 3 paramedics hopped out. The two cyclists who had stopped to help us bid us goodbye. The other man who had stopped stayed to explain to the paramedics, who didn’t speak much English, what had happened. 

One of the paramedics asked Eric: ‘Do you remember what happened?’

‘I think so,’ said Eric. 

‘Did you lose consciousness?’ 

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Can you tell me the date?’

‘Err… I don’t know. I’ve been travelling for weeks,’ said Eric. 

I had the urge to tell Eric what the date was, but realised that this wasn’t the point of the question. 

‘The day of the week?’ 

‘… Thursday?’ said Eric. 

‘Can you see?’

‘Yes… I’m a little bit…’ he wiggled his hand, indicating “so-so”. 

The paramedic had a good look through Eric’s hair. I felt a bit sorry for her, Eric had been neglecting the 100 combs rule and his hair wasn’t looking too great.

She then prodded his head (quite hard I was later told). ‘Does this hurt?’ she said. 

‘No,’ said Eric. 

She moved her hand and prodded again.

‘Does this hurt?’

‘Yes,’ said Eric. 

She then said that as there was no abrasion and no indentation, he was probably fine. ‘But if it gets worse, see a doctor,’ she said. We filled out a form, the paramedics told us to wear helmets next time, and off they went. We thanked the man who had stayed with us and said goodbye. Yet more kind strangers. Every time somebody stops to help us I’m very grateful, and now am practically chomping at the bit to find a stranger in trouble so that I can pass on the good deeds done for us. 

So, I think I’d better give a quick explanation about the lack of helmets until this point. We haven’t worn them, but have always kept them with us in case we felt the need. The helmet/non-helmet debate is not straightforward, there is a lot of research supporting either side. The biggest argument that we have come across against helmets, is that when a collision occurs cyclists sustain greater long term injury from glancing blows to the head which force the neck to twist. By wearing a helmet you increase the radius of your head, so increase the amount your neck will twist if your head is given a glancing blow. However, there is no doubt that if Eric had been wearing a helmet he would have been much better off when he fell from the bike. So, we may be preparing for the last war, but from now on helmets it is. 

Eric was determined that we should not stop, so we continued out of Grenoble. It was now 10.30, and it had been a rough morning (especially for Eric. Poor Eric).

We left Grenoble at a steady incline, and soon the beautiful mountains started appearing… 

    
At midday we stopped in a picnic area for lunch. It was nice just to have a rest from what had been a stressful start. 

Next problem: we started seeing some worrying roadsigns, saying that the road we would need to reach our destination was closed. We were trying to reach Briancon. The roadsign said to reach Briancon we should instead take a road to Gap. This was a massive deviation, and would add an extra day to our journey, so we really weren’t keen as we were trying to make it to a hotel room we had booked in Briancon. Besides, we speculated, there might be another way through, the road might re-open tomorrow, there might still be a way across for pedestrians and cyclists… we listed many justifications for not changing our route and carried on. 

    
The signs were increasingly ominous. Along the way any mention of Briancon on roadsigns had been taped over with a black bin liner. This is pretty official for France. 

At a little village called La Bourg d’Oisans Eric spotted a tourist information office and went in to find out about the road closure. He found out that the road was well and truly closed, with major roadworks being done until mid July! They suggested an alterntive route, which took us further and higher than the road to Briancon. Instead of one major ascent there would be two. Oh dear. 

More pretty pictures.

      
To take this route we would have to go back the way we came a little. We turned back around and off we went. We decided to stop at a campsite in Rochetaillee. It was a 5 star campsite. Snazzy! I was curious as to what being a 5 star campsite meant. It turned out to mean good grass, handwash, toilet paper and toilet seats. Worth the 21.50 we paid? Not really. 

But a nice view was included.

  

Friday 29th May

Miles: 25

So aside from the good weather and beautiful views, yesterday secured a place in our hall of “Days we’d rather forget but never will”. We were hoping for better things today. 

Navigator Eric had obviously been mulling over our route in his subconscious overnight, because at 5.30 in the morning he woke up and immediately told me that with the time it would take us to do the alternative route suggested by the tourist office, we could cycle to Gap and reach Briancon from there, which would involve much less inclines. He then rolled over and went back to sleep. It’s good to know that the knock on the head left a few braincells behind. 

It was a chilly night, but in the morning the sun quickly heated us up. After scoffing 4 pain au chocolats, a banana and a few dates (that’s just over 1000 calories for breakfast) we packed up and were on our way. 

A man who worked on the campsite asked us where we were off to. We told him and he said: ‘Ah yes, a nice easy route. Very gentle. Just one col at the beginning, but after that, fine.’ 

We could take a good guess at what a col was. My money was on bloody big incline. 

Here’s Eric, about to start climbing the Col d’Ornan. 

  
At the beginning of this road was a time trial sign for cyclists. This was a little worrying. Eric also saw the following sign and read it to me:
12.5KM / 6% 

I heard what he said but mentally blocked this information out. Sometimes it’s better not to know. 

Coming out of Saint-Jean-de-Luz we encountered a 3KM climb of 5% and managed 1.5KM before getting off and pushing. Today was a testament to how far we had come without realising it. I am immensely proud to say that we cycled it all. No getting off and pushing. It’s without a doubt the hardest cycling I have ever done along the most beautiful road I have ever seen. 

Pictures on the way up:

   
 
We took about four breaks of a few minutes, taking advantage when we could of the water fountains which some villages had.

  
We were passed by several lycra cyclists. We chatted a little, exclaimed over the views a lot, played I-Spy (as in ‘I spy something beginning with “m”‘) but mostly just panted away in silence. Our speed tended to be about 4-5mph. We plodded up for almost 2 hours. 

  

Reaching the top, at 1371 metres! 

  
It was a happy moment. One made even more happy by the restaurant/bar at the top. We decided that we should treat ourselves to a drink and a snack. We went in and ordered a couple of cans of Oasis Orange and a croque monsieur each. We went and sat outside on a picnic bench, with 3 other lycra cyclists who had also just finished the col.

There was one Dutchman, one Italian and one Belgian, and they all spoke excellent English (it puts us to shame, but is undeniably quite handy). We got talking and they asked us all about our trip. We got some route recommendations from the Italian guy, who also told us that from here on the route to Gap would be easy, and in turn found out where they were going and what they were up to. The Belgian guy told us that he couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw us on a tandem up here. We were getting props from the lycra guys. We felt dead chuffed. 

After a while we all wished each other luck and departed. Now for the fun bit… time to go downhill!

  
With our upsetting history of punctures on descents, we were both quite worried about undertaking the 10KM decline. We took it slow and stopped now and then to let the red-hot wheel rims cool down a little, giving lots of time for photos.

            


  
We made it to the bottom puncture-free (which neither of us had really been expecting). 

The scenery was even more stunning than on the way up. The sheer scale of the mountains is breathtakingly amazing, and sometimes intimidating. It makes you feel very small when you look up at tonnes and tonnes of rock rising a thousand metres or more above you. 

    
As the euphoria of completing the climb and coming back down wore off,  the tiredness hit. We saw a sign for a campsite, and it didn’t take long for us to agree that we deserved the rest of the day off. We stopped at about 2 in the afternoon in a little campsite by a lake in the village of Valbonais.

This campsite was just absurdly beautiful. 

    
And what would a blog post about a tough day’s cycling be without the obligatory big dinner at the end of the day photo? 

  

Saturday 30th May

Miles: 32

Here is some advice: if a whip-thin, lycra-clad cyclist on a 5KG bike tells you that a route is ‘easy’, don’t believe a word that he says.

For the past 2 days we have thought that we would reach Gap. Here’s a spoiler for you… we are still not there! An ‘easy’ day in the Alps is a super hard day anywhere else! 

We spent the day making our way round mountains, climbing up and descending again and again between altitudes of about 750-1000 metres. 

The views were absolutely glorious. It’s been such hard work but we are both loving it! Here’s the best pictures…

Some friendly ducks manipulated me into feeding them some cake this morning.

      
Nice little village where we stopped for lunch.

        
We’ve ended up in an empty campsite with a closed reception in Saint-Bonnet-au-Champsaur (you know the one). We had a funny stroke of luck: there was a sign in the reception saying that the camping ground is open from the 30th May. I think we may be their first customers. 

They had a slack-line (a big tight-rope) in their park so we had some fun messing about on that. Then it was time for bed. 

Maybe we’ll reach Gap tomorrow. 

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