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France & Italy (2004)

This is the report of my cycling trip around the border of France and Italy, June 2004. Highlights are some of the big pass roads (Agnel, Bonette) and a few less known pass roads (Fauniera, Sampeyre). I also bump into Marco Pantani (i.e. his statue). In six days I ride 315 km and 8,700 altitude meters.

Day 1: Guillestre > Sampeyre (78 km)

|route| Yesterday I arrived in Guillestre late afternoon. It was 34 °C when I pitched the tent. Today it is cloudy and a lot cooler. My chain gets off after just a few hundred meters. I continue through the gorge to Queyras with filthy hands. The Parc de Queyras is one of those quiet places amidst of the large French ski areas. It is relatively rough and primitive around here. After a while I see a junction. I think: haven't I been here before (1993)? Left is the Col d'Izoard, so I must turn right. After a few very steep miles I doubt this. I find out that I took the dead end road to Ceillac. Stupid me. I turn around and get back on the right track.

After Chateau Queyras I turn right on the D205 in the direction of the Col d'Agnel. I drink sports drink and eat some of the Isostar bar. A colleague of mine said to me that this nutrition would surely help me climbing better. But to be honest my stomach starts aching. I can see the highest mountain of the whole area: the Monte Viso (3,841 m). Still 20 km and 1,350 m up the mountain. The landscape is marvelous here: wide and deserted. But the pass road is tough: after 1,200 m climbing the last 6 km are 8,5% on average. Added to this the Isostar misery: I feel sick and have to throw up. I will never eat that shit again.

At last I reach the last few curves. The weather has not been great today, but now it even starts to snow. Completely on my own and sick I cycle here at a height of almost 2,750 m. The descent must be spectacular, but I cannot see much of it. Furthermore cycling is hardly possible: I cannot use the brakes because of the cold fingers (why did I leave the gloves at home?). This leaves me no choice but to walk for the first few kilometers. I am relieved when I arrive at Sampeyre. The local camping is nowhere to be found, and I do not fancy camping in the wild when being soaked and cold, so I decide to look for a cheap hotel room. An excellent choice, since I can let my clothes dry and watch the world championships football lying on my bed.

Day 2: Sampeyre > Ponte Marmora (32 km)

|route| I have not quite recovered from yesterday's tour. I am sick and have no energy, and am certainly not motivated for a ride. On today's menu is the Colle di Sampeyre, i.e. more than 15 km continuously 8,6%. To compare: this is 0.5% steeper than the eastern approach of the Stelvio. But that pass road is far more impressive! Most of today's ascent, starting from Sampeyre, is situated between the dense trees and has no interesting details. Only when I reach the very summit I suddenly realize the beauty of the view behind me. I can see the Col d'Agnel very sharp next to the mighty Monte Viso.

The south side of the pass is more varied. After having followed the narrow road for a few km I can choose between Stroppo or Elva. I chose Elva. This valley appears to be a gorge. The torrent leaves hardly any room for the narrow, carved road. The tunnels through the succeeding mountain rims do not look very solid. Very beautiful! The spectacular descent is steep so I am down in a few minutes. There I bump into the camping site, which is not open yet. Someone is busy preparing stuff for the tourist season. He lets me take some water in the toilet block (which closes in the evening). This night I am on my own on the lawn till dawn.

Day 3: Ponte Marmora > Demonte (46 km)

|route| Today's route brought me here to this area. I became curious when I found out that the unknown pass road to the Colle del Fauniera (or Colle dei Morti), which is not on the Michelin map, had recently been surfaced for the Giro d'Italia. (A truly revolutionary insight to all Europe cyclists: the holy Michelin map does not contain all panoramic roads.) So there I had to go!

The climb consists of three parts: first in a rather narrow valley along the Marmora stream and several curves through an inhabited area. Next a long steep part through the widening valley to the Colle d'Esischie (2,370 m), including over 5 km of 8,7% with much higher percentages in some hairpins. Thirdly the other side of the Esischie to the Colle del Fauniera, an area that is rocky and rough compared to the green Marmora valley.

When I arrive at the Fauniera I am surprised to see a tall statue of Marco Pantani, the road cyclist who recently died after taking a drugs overdose. I am on top of a very long mountain ridge on which several surfaced and non-surfaced roads are located. Probably engineered long ago when France and Italy were at war. The cycling possibilities must be endless, I will definitely return here. Suddenly it becomes very cloudy, and thunder is in the air. I head down on the steep narrow road through the deserted valley and seek shelter.

Day 4: Demonte > St Etienne de Tinee (67 km)

|route| On this drizzling day the Colle della Lombarda (2,350 m) is on the menu. I have not recovered too well of the Isostar-disaster on the flanks of the Agnel. There is no energy in my body, so I cannot strain myself. Which is fairly difficult baring in mind that the first 7 km of the pass road are 8,8%. The Italian pass roads are steeper than the French and certainly the Swiss cols. The second part of the climb is easy. The summit itself cannot satisfy. So I carry on right away. The descent is through Isola 2000, a disgusting ski resort with ugly buildings and lots of ski lifts. However there is one advantage: the wide road from Isola 2000 to Isola is perfectly suited for cycling fast.

Down I arrive at the road from Nice to the Bonette. From here 15 km separate me from Saint Etienne de Tinee. The camping is focused at outdoor people. The chef de camping gives me, quite premature, a Col de la Bonette-sticker ('la plus haute route de d'Europe') for my bike. Next to my tent there is a man in a tiny little tent. He appears to be a very gentle Tukker (for non-Dutch: from the eastern part of Holland) of around 50 who has been made redundant recently. He is so furious that he decided to ride the French 100 Cols tour. We have dinner in the nice village. The daily distances and altitude metres he cycles are way beyond mine. I am starting to realise just how relaxed my vacation has been.

Day 5: St Etienne de Tinee > Chatelard (55 km)

|route| When I wake up my neighbor has already left. The Tukker will go for the Bonette and the Vars today, I stick to just one pass. My stomach is happy at last. I celebrate this by eating baguette with cream cheese and drinking a liter of milk for breakfast. For a couple of km I ride next to a German who started in Nice yesterday and is heading for Frankfurt. It is his first cycling tour in the mountains, is a bit corpulent and has to let go after a while. I hope he will reach the summit. I am feeling great!

This is another road with three sections: first a long and easy approach (5%), next 5 km of hairpins on the rim (8,4%) and then 10 km of almost 7% to the pass height. From the hairpins the climb becomes interesting. Just at the moment that I wonder where the road on the rim is leading to, I can see a thin but clear line to a 'sugar mountain' far away: the summit. I like it here. I am doing so well that I forget that it is only 5 °C; when I reach the pass height I put on something warmer over my sweat shirt.

From the Col de Restefond a narrow road leads to a higher summit named the Cime de la Bonette (2,802 m). Unfortunately it is not possible to complete this road by bike. Too much snow and rocks block my way. This means I have to walk for the last part. Up here I have a spectacular view of the brown colored (due to erosion) Alpes Maritimes. The descent on the north side is completely different, also steeper. A true effort for the oncoming cyclists. In Jausiers I eat again and turn right to Chatelard where the windy camping is located.

Day 6: Chatelard > Guillestre (40 km)

|route| In hindsight, I would have tried the partly unpaved Col du Parpaillon today. However in 2004 I do not know that this high pass road exists and go straight to the Col de Vars (2,108 m). This road is moderately beautiful and not too hard, except from one or two bits of 10%. I am on the top before I even realize, and there I buy myself a coke. When I descent the view of the Ecrins is marvelous. I arrive the camping in Guillestre and take a shower. Too bad, this vacation is history. I have to return to The Netherlands.