A Busy Birthday Week In The French Alps - Cycling, Running and Partying With Pups

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Sunday 24 September 2017

A Busy Birthday Week In The French Alps - Cycling, Running and Partying With Pups

Frankly it feels like an age since we braved seemingly arctic gales to cross the icy cold saddle of the Col du Galibier on our bikes, but it was in fact only 7 days ago! Since then we've been on a bit of an unexpected trip down memory lane. Well, I say 'unexpected'. As we've been broadly following the Route des Grande Alpes between Geneva and Nice in order to enjoy some of the Alps most famous and feared cycling climbs we always knew we would pass through the Durance valley and the wider area around Briancon, Guillestre and the Queryas Regional Park, the same area where we spent almost 2 months WWoofing back in 2015. In fact it is only really 'unexpected' in the sense that we never really know exactly where will go until we arrive, since our plans change so often at the last minute. Anyway, since we have found ourselves in such a familiar part of the French Alps, we haven't been able to resist revisiting some of our favourite places and activities once again in what has turned out to be a very busy (and chilly) week. However, rather than rewrite the various facts and figures I posted way back when, I'm going to a roundup with links instead.

We got started last Tuesday when, upon waking to cloudy skies and cold winds after a sub zero temperature night on the Col du Lauteret (2068m) in the shadow of the nearby Col du Galibier, we decided to rest our cycling muscles and take a jog across the nearby park boundary into the Ecrins National Park, following a route we had first enjoyed 'waaaay' back in 2014 that passed right under the tongue of the Lauteret Glacier. Ninety minute later and we had remembered exactly why we love the Ecrins National Park so very much with so much dramatic scenery crammed into a relatively geographically small area.



The next morning, after another sub zero night, the sun reappeared and we got back on the bikes with me attempting a ride up the short but fearsome Col du Granon (11.3km at 9.3% average) from the little village of Chantemerle just outside of Briancon. Back in 2015 Esther had cycled up this climb riding a borrowed bike simply because it had more gears than our own road bikes at the time while I had taken the 'sensible' choice and run up instead after deciding there was no way I could ride it on my own road bike. Well, now we were back with more suitably geared bikes of our own so I did try, and enjoy, the ride myself beneath a sunny sky that really showed off the snowy peaks on the horizon very well indeed. Esther, having already done the Granon, decided to take a longer but less severe route back up to the Col du Lauteret instead, although it wasn't until the evening when she showed her true mettle. Discovering that we were parked just outside of an outdoor 'bio' (i.e. no chemicals) swimming pool Esther showed how tough she was by taking a ('albeit brief') dip, despite the guard trying to talk her out of it ("are you sure, it's 4 euros, it's only 14 degrees, we're closing soon, we close for winter tomorrow........"). Definitely much tougher than me.



Thursday was another day on bikes, waking in Briancon and setting out together to tackle the nearby Col de Montgenevre which marks this particular border crossing between France and Italy. Again, this was one Esther had done 2 years ago while I had not, so it was a pleasure to ride it together and find ourselves pounding to the top in under an hour with it being only 13 kilometres or so from where we had parked and not obscenely steep. Although it was overcast again and there was a definite nip in the air we stayed largely warm through effort and the view along the Vallee de la Claree (another previous cycling trip of ours) was magnificent, even if the col itself was in a somewhat shabby looking (as it was of season) ski resort.


A more fearsome Tour de France monster awaited us on Friday.....WHICH WAS ALSO ESTHER's BIRTHDAY!!!!! Gosh the pups were generous with their gifts, they really showed me up the little swines.


Then, after a lovely morning we jointly cycled the northern slopes of the Col d'Izoard just as we had also done in 2015, 20 kilometres of 6%, which belies the fact most of the climbing lies in the final half of the climb. It wasn't really the gradients, however, which wore us down but the biting cold. It was so cold, in fact, that later in the day when we drove over the col on the way into the Queryas Regional Natural Park, we were driving through a blizzard! What we remembered as a picturesque, classic cycling climb was, this time around, an exercise in pushing numb feet using numb thighs. Fun though.



We rested a little on Saturday, only jogging along the banks of the River Guil from our overnight base in Chateau Queryas, a gem of a village in the heart of the Queryas Regional National Park. Plus, as luck would have it, we had arrived on festival day. Back in 2015 we had made a special trip here to enjoy the annual fete and this time we had blindly stumbled into it. Sadly (for us anyway) it wasn't such a large event this time as the national funding which had made this one of a series of events coordinated in different Regional Natural Parks was apparently no more, so there were no shows or free rafting this time, but that only made the agricultural feel even stronger. This was fantastic for the pups of course who got to get up close, almost snout to snout, with horses, cows, pigs, donkeys, goats and sheep for the first time along with countless other dogs and stallholders (the sausage seller was their favourite). The sun even made an afternoon appearance to bring some warmth to the day (and the motorhome) and emphasise what a stunning location this was to spend a few days. Chateau Queryas is probably one of my favourite overnight parkings as it is quiet, dark and fresh with scent of the mountains with a beautiful view in the mornings.


Another cold night later and Sunday saw us try cycling the Col d'Agnel together, another of our previous 2015 conquests. Topping out at close to 2700 metres after 21km of 7% average riding at another French/Italian border, this is (to put it mildly) a hard climb and Europes highest border crossing. One of the hardest we did in the past and, in hindsight, perhaps a bad choice on this particular day. It wasn't the climb itself that got us, but the cold. The final 500 metres of ascent in particular, with snow on the surrounding hills, should have told us we were perhaps getting out of our depth in temperature terms, but the top was in sight so we pedalled on all the way as the snow got deeper and deeper around us. Plus it was beautiful, with the snow really picking out the contours of the hills and making us feel the wild, untamed nature of the landscape we were cycling through. Stunning, as was the view into Italy when we did reach the top and straddled the national boundary. No shops or stalls on this untamed, narrow notch in the mountain ridgeline.


We always knew the descent would be painful, but when after just 2 kilometres Esther lost all sensation in her hands (despite 2 pairs of gloves) we knew we'd gone too far. It was the wind that sealed it, with the icy breeze that had helped push us uphill now square in our faces and taking the temperature well below zero (it had been minus 3 at the top without wind). Thankfully a mountain refuge was in sight and, being the hero I am, I suggested parking Esther there while I fetched the motorhome and so 'saving the day' which is what we did. But it was a stark reminder that winter is on the way and that September at the moment is unseasonably cold even for this altitude in the Alps.

Which brings us to Monday and, after a third night parked in beautiful Chateau Queryas followed by another morning jog along the River Guil, the end of a busy 7 days. It hasn't all been jogging and biking of course. We did laundry, some shopping in Briancon and continued with our daily pup routine of multiple training walks but that's just the background rhythm of life at the moment. The pups continue to thrive (as far as we can tell) on the many new locations and experiences they get to have and our motorhome setup (which we have been living in full time for a month now) is working marvellously.

Who knows what the next 7 days might hold. Some 'rest days' perhaps :)

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