The Tour de France will not be gracing us with its presence this year, something which you might think is a bit of a disappointment to us all. And indeed it might be if you’re the owner of pretty much any kind of local retail or hospitality business, but as far as the rest of us are concerned it’s something of a relief, to be honest. Last year I had to dump the car two kilometres out of town and walk home through stalled traffic and abandoned vehicles. This is what the end of days looks like – roads strewn with redundant machinery while dazed survivors carrying backpacks pick their way through the carnage trying to get home. I suppose we should be grateful there weren’t zombies.
Of course the absence of the event itself doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm of our cycling freak visitors, who spend their mornings trying to kill themselves on the roads before coming back to town to sit in a bar and watch Bradley Wiggins wipe the floor with the opposition on one of the huge screens without which our various hostelries may as well say goodbye to any summer trade whatsoever.
I gather the Wiggo effect has turned road cycling in the UK from a slightly nerdish minority pursuit confined to single men who probably only did it as an excuse to wear tight shorts, into the lastest uber cool sport. This is great news for the manufacturers of bikes, lycra and cycling gadgets, and even better news for anyone looking to pick up a good second hand bargain two years down the line when people realise that a) merely spending £2000 will not miraculously rid you of the beer belly and turn you into Mark Cavendish, and b) cycling to work in the UK involves getting cold, wet and probably run over.
I have to confess at this point that after ten years spent wondering what institution our summer visitors had escaped from, I too have been sucked into the strange world of biking up big hills at every available opportunity. Not very far in so far, but I can tell that it’s the start of a long dark tunnel full of unnecessary pain and suffering. On the bright side, I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone trying to deal with depression or other mental or emotional trauma – cycling will remove all of your anguish and distribute it evenly between legs and lungs, leaving none for anywhere else. It also means you will be so shagged out at the end of the day that you can barely get the cork out of the wine bottle and click on the next episode of The Walking Dead, let alone brood over whatever’s bothering you.
My embarking on this programme of blatant self harm has less to do with the exploits of Mr Wiggins and his colleagues at Team Sky than the fact that I’ve pretty much run out of flat bits, something which happens all too quickly round here. If I lived in Holland I’d probably never dream of doing something as ridiculous as biking up an alp, but there’s a limit to how often you can ride along to the end of the valley and back without wondering if there’s more to life.
My first foray into this madness needed to be something relatively easy (note use of the word ‘relatively’ there), so I picked the Col de l’Echelle on the road from the Val Claree near Briançon over to Bardonecchia in Italy. The reasons for this were as follows:
1. It’s only about 16km from La Vachette at the bottom of the valley to the col.
2. Most of it looked fairly flat (you can tell I’m not really committed here)
3. A friend – also a beginner biker – did it last summer, so how hard can it be.
4. It’s far enough away to offer an excuse to go camping again. Yay!
The route up from La Vachette towards Nevache near the head of the valley is indeed fairly flat and very nice as well, what with the river and the mountains and all that alpine meadow business. If you’re on holiday in the area and fancy a nice bike ride, I recommend it. Take a picnic.
The road up to the col is a right turn about a kilometre before Nevache, and it doesn’t mess about. This cycling lark is as much about psychology as anything else, I discover, and that moment when you realise you’ve gone through all three of those big gear wheels on the front plus the little ones at the back, and you can no longer make it any easier, is as bad as the point where your body runs out of sugar and switches to burning fat. Not that I got that far, obviously. In fact according to my iWidget the whole project didn’t get rid of the calorific equivalent of a Mars Bar, which was most disappointing. Evidently I have a super-efficient metabolism, which will stand me in good stead come the zombie invasion but isn’t great when it comes to those Nutella doughnuts the boulangerie insists on producing.
I’d like to say I got to the col in a oner without stopping for a wheeze, but resolution (and legs) gave out at a point which turned out to be a mere 50 or so metres from the top. Gutted. Which is more psychology – if I’d known the holy grail was just around the corner I could probably have found a last morsel in the corner of the motivation bag. I bet those Tour riders spend all the rest of the year obsessively driving the routes, noting all the landmarks and working out the gradient. Cheating, I call it.
Still, wheeze break or not, I did it. I rode up a col on a bike, thus proving that it is in fact possible for mere mortals and not confined to the machine-creatures who get to wear that yellow jersey. If it stops raining tomorrw I might try the Col du Glandon – bits of that look flattish as well.
This week’s camping spot:
Site: Camping Les Gentianes, La Vachette
Pitches: Choice of sun or shade, bit stony but peggable
Facilities: Tiny swimming pool, extortionate wifi. Bread from the snackbar in La Vachette, order the day before. (What kind of campsite doesn’t sell bread? Bizarre.)
Showers: Huge cubicles with ensuite wasbasin – you could have a party in there. Adjustable water temperature.
Price: 13€ a night in July/August for a car and a tent plus one person.