Saturday 6 September 2008

Tour d'Enfer Day 8: to the Roof of the Alps

Today's ride profile

We are too lucky for words: yet another perfect day! This time our menu is two more climbs, but one is fairly small. After breakfast, we ride to the nearby town of Jausiers, which we had passed after coming down from the Col de Vars, and then turning to the south.

I have made a slideshow of our ride that day:

The first climb is another superb ride, the Col de la Bonette. A very long climb at 25 kms (15.5 miles), it is not terribly steep at an average grade of 6.6 percent. Oddly enough, it has only seen the Tour de France cross it four times: in 1962 and in 1964, when the legendary Federico Bahamontes, “the Eagle of Toledo,” was the first man over the top–the first year from the north, the second from the south; in 1993 the Scot Robert Millar enjoyed a solo breakaway; and a few days before we rode here a South African rider for Barloworld, John-Lee Augustyn, was the first across from the south, winning the “Souvenir Henri Desgranges,” the prize that goes to the rider who crosses the highest point of each year’s Tour de France. Shortly after crossing the summit, he fell off his bicycle after misjudging a hairpin turn and went down the side, sliding along the shale for 30 metres before being rescued by spectators and rejoining the race. The 5,000 Euro prize would have been some consolation.

The only prize for us today was the enjoyment of riding this beautiful pass. Beginning at the settled community of Jausiers, we soon left domesticity behind as we climbed at a very steady rate. The climb is unusual in that it has so many twists and turns that you do not get a good feeling for where the summit is. At 13 kms we passed a small restaurant, La Cabane Noire, carved into the side of the mountain, and at soon afterwards a small lake where some people were fishing. I felt very good and quite relaxed in the climb, which had very little variation in the grade.

The road travels through the Mercantour National Park. The trees eventually disappeared and there was only the green hillsides and the grey rocks around us as we passed some old French barracks and then came to an intermediate summit, the Col de Restefond at 2690 m (8825 feet) ASL. A few cars passed but it was not a very busy road and we mused about riding the road all the way to Nice and the Mediterranean. Soon the vista opened up even more and it became cooler. We made a turn to the right and there ahead of us we could see the summit of the Col de la Bonette. But even better we could now make out the ridiculous road that circles the Cime de la Bonette.

The Col de la Bonette is at 2802 m (9192 feet) and is the second-highest paved pass in Europe, after our old friend the Iseran. Locals were miffed that their pass was second-best so they took out a bulldozer and cut a road around the peak next to the Col. With this silly loop it could now be said at its highest point, 2860 m (9383 feet), that it is the highest paved road in Europe even if it doesn’t go anywhere.

We came to the pass, where there was a lot of traffic from the Nice side. There was a footrace on and the runners were going up the Cime de la Bonette in a clockwise direction so we decided to go the other way. What looked like a silly loop was much more than that as the road pitched up sharply, probably to close to 10 percent, as we huffed and puffed in the thin air.

It was with great joy that we reached the big stone marking the highest point, giving us 1647 m (5400 feet) of climbing for the day so far. We managed to get some photos although a lot of paramedic types were around to help the runners, and after admiring the impressive mountain views we continued on the loop and back to the pass.

Downhill now and with plenty of warm clothing we accelerated rapidly down the mountain back towards Jausiers. At the speeds we were going it was easy to feel the cold and when we came to La Cabane Noire we decided it would be a good thing to stop for some hot chocolate. Clearly the staff were completely overwhelmed by all the customers and it took a while to get looked after (not an unusual occurrence in France).

After warming up we continued. I was riding with Frank and Heike and as we approached Jausiers we stopped for photos in front of a display of old bicycles decorated to celebrate the passage of the Tour de France. It was actually hot so we had to start taking off the windvests and armwarmers and long-fingered gloves you need for descents here. We passed the first houses on the outskirts of town, seeing the strange house, inspired by King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein castle, built by a local silk baron. We crossed the Ubaye again and were in Jausiers, which was still decorated for the Tour de France, where we stopped for lunch.

Jausiers, which only has around 1,000 inhabitants, is quite charming. Some of our team popped into the local bike shop and bought very nice “Col de la Bonette” bandanas which, in green and blue, nicely matched our special Tour d’Enfer jerseys.

After a simple lunch of pasta, I decided to do the second climb of the day with the Andrew the Thin Man. We rolled back out on the D900, following the river, until we came to La Condamine-Châtelet, where we turned left and began the torturous climb up to Ste-Anne-la-Condamine. This is a very small ski resort. The road was very poor, with a lot of loose gravel and some very hard grades, not to mention what must have been the most persistent horseflies of the entire trip. A small bridge took us over a waterfall and then there was more climbing. Eventually we came to a small chapel dedicated to Ste-Anne, at which point the road turned to gravel.

There were several cars sitting there that had brought up a group of Italian mountainbikers but there was not much for us to look at. If we could have continued on the dirt road it would have taken us to a tunnel through the mountains 10 kilometres away but that was not so attractive so we turned around and headed back, carefully making our way back down the nasty descent and enjoying another time trial ride along the D900 (this time without the headwind) through Jausiers and then back towards Barcelonnette. Of course we still had the final climb up to Le Sauze but Andrew and I had a nice chat about opera and I really did not notice the effort. The others told us afterwards that we had missed the turn to the Ste-Anne col sign but that was okay; we felt that we had added the climb to our list and that was enough.

We all gathered around the television in the bar that evening to watch the final time trial of the Tour de France. Carlos Sastre was able to hold onto his lead and of course the next day road to Paris wearing the Yellow Jersey a final time.


Will said...

That video is yet another reason why I descend like a wimp.

I think for a lot of people Bonette was one of the best days of the trip.

And my wife making it to the summit was a big highlight for me.

I especially loved the Pizza at the top (after 4 slices I found out ot was only for the runners).

Yeah - St Anne was a disappointment.

Sprocketboy said...

Will, if you want to see the definition of "scary descent," check out the video of the Angliru with the motorcycles on the Cozy Beehive...

Looking at the photos, I really have to think that it was indeed one of the best days of our tour. But I never saw the was bad enough that Steve swiped one of their thermal spaceblanket things!

I managed to get my slideshow up today, with some expert advice from the folks at Flickr. I feel so with it now, as the kids say.