We decided to move on from Puget-Theniers late on Friday evening, heading slightly deeper into the mountains to the medieval town of Guillames at the head of the stunning Gorge de Daluis, which we'd cycled up a couple of days previously. Travelling through the precipitous scenery and narrow tunnels in the rapidly fading twilight, with thunder and lightening illuminating the jagged peaks above and around us was a thrilling experience although maybe one Esther would prefer not to repeat soon.
Waking to a sunny Saturday morning, it was time to don our lycra once more and take to the mountain roads on our bikes. We had discovered that Guillames sits on the Route des Grande Alpes, a 700km cycling route (or collection of routes really) that traverses the French Alps from Lake Geneva to Nice taking in some of the highest and most spectacular mountain passes. Some of the cols are enshrined in cycling folklore thanks to the Tour de France, such as the Galibier, Colombiere and Izoard to name a few.
Our destination today, however, was the less well known but no less spectacular Col de la Cayolle. At 2326m high it was a full vertical mile higher than our starting point and some 33km away. Initially the going was easy, averaging roughly 3 – 4% incline, which we calculated after each kilometre thanks to the handy road markers which showed altitude, allowing us to steadily warm up over the first 16-17 kilometres or so whilst admiring the high, bare peaks in the distance and the layers of rock swirling in the cliffsides of the valley.
However, any complacency was short lived as passing through the village of Entraunes at 1250m altitude (where we took a quick breather), still with some 14 kilometres to go until the high point, the road took a marked turn upwards. As we rose up, climbing anywhere between 7 – 9% and grinding the pedals kilometre after kilometre, the views around us opened up to reveal a stunning perspective in the midday sunshine back along the valley we had sweated our way along.
With hearts racing we covered the final few kilometres of sharp hairpins, keeping a close eye on the clouds just starting to gather, until finally we reached the Col de la Cayolle at 2326m, exhilarated and thrilled to have made it so far under our own steam in just a few hours. It was almost sad to start descending, but after a rest, some photos and adding some extra layers we started the much, much quicker and easier cruise back down the winding road. Sailing through the villages we'd struggled through hours before we arrived back at the van in less than an hour! That evening, after some much needed food, as we enjoyed the evening sunshine we felt very happy to have discovered the Route des Grande Alpes and felt eager to try some more of its climbs in the weeks ahead.