Tignes was very peaceful early in the morning. It has been the destination of the Tour de France only once, in 2007, but today there was no sign of life except for the people loading up ski equipment into their car in front of the hotel. Yes, it was quite cold when we departed from our excellent hotel and I was glad that I had put on the several useful layers of clothing. The first part of the ride was a rapid downhill one but luckily at this time of day there was no traffic to speak of. The hairpins were fairly wide, so I made good progress. The slower group splintered quickly and I was soon alone with Greg. The scenery was outstanding, and we stopped several times for photos. I went ahead by myself because I wanted to get some pictures from the top of the dam.
View northwards from the dam
Constructed to meet France’s rising energy demands after World War II, the dam (250 m long and 180 m high) was built in 1952 and resulted in the flooding of the original village of Tignes, the remains of which can be seen once every decade when the reservoir is drained for maintenance. Unfortunately, from our position on the road we could not look down at the face of the dam and see the world’s largest fresco, an enormous portrait of Hercules, painted over two months in 1989.
I turned right onto the main road and up ahead I saw the first of a series of tunnels that we had been promised. I absolutely hate riding through tunnels but this time I had come prepared with some blinking lights for the bike, with a big red one on the left rear seatstay and two flashing white ones on the fork. The first tunnel was fairly long and not very well lit, but the subsequent five were shorter and not so bad. The other good thing was that there was very little traffic. Although I am not so worried about being hit by a car from behind in a lit tunnel, the noise of motor vehicles inside a tunnel is quite deafening and very unpleasant and you cannot generally tell in which direction the vehicle is going.
It was with some relief that I passed through the last tunnel and found myself in Val d’Isère, the village that was the site of the men’s downhill ski race at the 1992 Winter Olympics. A charming place, with a population of around 2,000, it was where the famous French skier Jean-Claude Killy. Summer skiing has been cut back, as is the case in Tignes, as the glacier is receding rapidly as the Alps become warmer.
It was here that I caught up with Frank and Heike, who had been the first of our group to start off. As we left Val d’Isère we could see the start of the real climb for the day. We stopped to take off our windvests and armwarmers as the Col de l’Iseran was before us. Although it technically starts in Bourg-St-Maurice, the climb for us would be enough starting from here: 15 kms (9.3 miles) at a consistent average grade of 6%, with a total gain of 895 m (2936 feet). It is considered an HC climb for the Tour de France, which most recently went over it in 2007 but first climbed the pass in 1938, where it played a key role in the overall victory by Gino Bartali that year. In 1939 it was the scene of the Tour’s first mountain time trial. Altogether this climb, which is the highest paved pass in Europe at 2770 m (9087 feet) ASL, has hosted the Tour de France seven times.
I spent a good part of the ride accompanying Heike as Frank sped upwards, and we were joined by others in the group as we progressed. At each kilometer of the climb there was an attractive wooden sign indicating how far we had come, what our altitude was and what the grade for the next kilometer would be. The climb was very steady and I enjoyed it enormously although as we got near the top I began to feel the effects of the thin air a bit. It was also bitingly cold at the summit.
Reaching the top, we went into the inevitable restaurant and warmed up with possibly the most expensive hot chocolate in France. There was some traffic here at the top but nothing too problematic. It seemed to be a destination for motorcyclists, and some inconsiderate ones left their bikes in front of the col sign, to our irritation when we took our photos. But no matter: our plan was to get off the summit quickly before we got too cold and head down into the valley for
The ride down to Bonneval-sur-Arc was superb. I was accompanied by Tim the Tornado and we had a great time tearing down through the curves. After Bonneval, the road flattened out somewhat and we followed the river valley of the Arc at time-trial pace along the D902. This went swimmingly except for a bit of a headwind. Just to the east of Lanslevillard we came to an unexpected climb in the road and we could feel the day’s effort in our legs.
Frank digs into his galettes
In Lanslevillard everyone assembled for lunch in a café and we made our plans for the afternoon. The original idea had been to just ride the Col de l’Iseran but since everyone felt good and it was still early Udo suggested that we ride up the Col du Mont Cenis nearby and descend into Italy where he would meet us with the bus. After enjoying our galettes (savoury crepes), we got back on our bikes and began the ascent of the col on what had turned into a hot and sunny afternoon.
The Col du Mont Cenis has been the scene of some epic battles in the Tour de France. The road was built between 1803 and 1810 by Napoleon. After a steepish start from Lanslevillard, we joined the main road from Lanslebourg and began the roughly 10 kilometer (6.2 mile) climb, which would average 7% and take us up 682 vertical m (2237 feet) to 2083 m (6834 feeet) ASL. It was a very pleasant climb, although there was a nasty bit around the 6 km mark where the grade was 10.6%.
When we got to the top we stopped for some coffee at the pleasant restaurant, and talked about the descent, a fantastic drop into Italy and to the town of Susa. We had planned to meet the bus near the railway station and then get driven to Briançon, our next overnight stop but our plans did not work out. Udo came up with the bus and told us that the road was closed to vehicles over a certain width, including ours. This was not an issue in previous years he had driven the road but it seems the Italians want to force larger vehicles to use the new and expensive tunnel at Fréjus. We were luckily able to collect everyone before they did the descent and got stranded in Italy.
After looking at the scenic lake, we packed up our bikes and enjoyed the lengthy ride through the Alpine world into Italy and then back into France. We got a little bit lost in Briançon and Udo’s bus did not like the steep streets but soon we were in our centrally-located hotel and putting the bikes into a special storeroom. We saw that there were a lot of very high-end bikes in another room and you could see that tomorrow the Tour de France would be coming through town!