View from the Col d'Allos
July 28, 2008: and so begins the final day of the Tour d'Enfer, at least as far as cycling up climbs go. We will ride as we see fit today and tomorrow everything will be packed up for the long bus ride back to Geneva.
After breakfast everyone wandered off on their own, either in small groups or individually. A number of the Tourists d’Enfer had ridden the Col de la Cayolle on the day I walked into Barcelonnette and the report back was that it was very picturesque and a reasonable ride. I decided to go for broke and ride the two remaining passes within easy distance of Le Sauze: first I would turn right at the fork in the road and do the Col d’Allos, and then after returning downhill I would take the left fork and try the Col de la Cayolle.
My legs felt good as I enjoyed the screaming descent from Le Sauze for the last time and I quickly rolled through Barcelonnette, a sleepy place at this time of the morning. The road was smooth, there was very little traffic and I made good time, spinning gently and enjoying myself. Just outside of town the D902 turned south and I began to climb gently.
As I came up to the crossroads I saw a sign showing the direction to my two cols as well as to Pra-Loup, a ski resort off the to right that has also been the destination for a number of Tour de France stages. I thought that if I felt good after the two cols I might consider doing Pra-Loup as well, a climb of about 4 kms.
I was now riding the D908 and was heading on the road to the Col d’Allos (pronounced by the locals with the “s’, or “Ah-loss”). I was not sure what to expect but I do not think a pass could have been more different from yesterday’s Col de la Bonette.
Unlike the mere four times the Tour de France has gone over La Bonette, the Col d’Allos was included in every Tour from 1911 to 1939 and having hosted the Tour a total of 33 times it must count as one of the most popular passes, although it has not been used for the race since 2000. Calculating from Barcelonnette, the pass is 17.5 kms (10.9 miles) long, and climbs from 1132 m (3713 feet) ASL to 2240 m (7349 feet) ASL, for a gain of 1108 m (3635 feet). The pass looks fairly easy, at least on paper, with an average grade of 6.3 percent.
I could feel the climb hurting my legs as I gently swung through the curves. There seemed to be some variation in the grade, from around 6 percent to 3 percent and then up to 8 percent. Not only did this make it tricky to establish a rhythm, but the curves were constant and the road had become extremely narrow. The occasional cars that came through took up almost all of the road so it was necessary to be careful.
After about 11 kms (6.8 miles), the road passed began to leave the forest behind and it was carved, spectacularly, into the side of the mountain. I passed a mountain biker and shortly after a road cyclist, who soon joined up with me. He was a Frenchman from Saint-Malo, the Breton city famous to Canadians as the birthplace of Jacques Cartier the explorer. He was riding with his son (the mountain biker) and was riding the various passes around Barcelonnette for a holiday. We chatted for quite a while; I told him that it must have been hard for him to acclimatise as Saint-Malo is at sea level and the area around it very flat, quite different from the scenery we were enjoying. He laughed and said that he always came for three weeks and the first week was very hard. He was in his late 30s and rode very well and as we came closer to the summit I could no longer maintain his pace and let him go ahead.
I passed a charming little restaurant on the right and then was digging in for the last bit of climbing as the road reached for the summit. I caught up to my new friend and we took some pictures and then several other Tour d’Enfer riders came up as well. It was cold at the summit and after our photos I said goodbye to Monsieur Saint-Malo, who was continuing on the descent on the other side towards Allos, and turned back for coffee at the restaurant.
It looked like a mountain refuge and was almost as cold inside as outside. There were four or five of us and we enjoyed our hot chocolate or coffee and excellent homemade cake. On the outside of the building was a punchclock, similar to that I had seen in Switzerland. The tourism office in Barcelonnette promotes a seven-climb tour of the area to cyclists and at places like this you punch your special touring card. I am not sure what you get when you have done all of them but this was my fourth climb in the area already.
I rode out with Greg from Indiana and the Badger but the descent back to the crossroads was very technical, with exceptionally tight and narrow curves so I soon gave up trying to do it at any great speed but just relaxed and cruised through the scenery. Across the valley I could see the road to the Col de la Cayolle, my next goal. The sun was shining, I had already climbed over 1,000 metres for the day and my legs felt good. Although not the most difficult or the longest, I have to say that the Col d’Allos had to be one of my favourite passes of the tour. But then again, I felt that way at the end of each day!
Once I reached the crossroads, I turned right back onto the D902, riding through the Gorges du Bachelard. The scenery was quite wonderful, with grey stone cliffs all around me. A few moments into the ride, Dr. Chef came rolling towards me. He told me that Michelle was just behind and that they had really enjoyed this stretch of road. He continued on and as I came up to a curve Michelle appeared and we chatted for a bit before she headed back down the road towards Barcelonnette. It was now becoming quite hot and I ate an energy bar and drank half the contents of one of my bottles.
The Cayolle averages only 4.1 percent but makes up for this by going on for 29.15 kms (18.11 miles), with a total gain of 1109 m (3094 feet). The road was, in spots, even narrower than the one up to the Col d’Allos and there were a few times I had to wait for cars to sort themselves out before I could continue. The road continued to climb gently but was in the narrow gorge for a good distance.
I was passed by a string of little mini-bike motorcycles and then crossed a bridge carved into the side of the hills but I was beginning to tire under the sun. Riding all by myself, I could feel my motivation start to slip away and I realized that my legs were getting very tired. I determined to ride on for a bit more and passed the village of Fours St-Laurent, with its little church. The road continued to climb and about four kilometers later I pulled off the road and rested for a moment, refilling my water bottle from a spring beside the road.
I knew that the last part of the climb was the hardest and I still had about 7 kms (4.3 miles) to go. I was tired and a bit sore but what made the decision to turn back easier was the appearance of a wall of black clouds up ahead. I know that storms can show up very suddenly here, and they can also be very localized and after seeing the massive thunderstorm from the comfort of our hotel I was pretty sure I did not want to enjoy one on top of a mountain. So I decided that I had ridden enough today and that since I was on holiday I was allowed to enjoy the downhill ride back to Barcelonnette and feel no guilt about not completing one climb on this trip.
The road back was enjoyable, except for those few occasions when oncoming cars caused problems. I was rapidly back at the crossroads, and decided to pass up Pra-Loup as well (Chill told me afterwards that the climb was not very nice, but there was a giant wolf statue on top). The road back to Barcelonnette was all downhill and I stopped there to treat myself to an ice cream to celebrate the day’s ride. Several other Tour d’Enfer folks were in the Place Manuel but I decided to cut my stay short and head up the nasty hill to Le Sauze once more. It had been a good day: 2553 m (8376 feet) of climbing over 79.63 kms (49.48 miles) so I had no complaints.
Andrew rides his own Tour d'Enfer: go, boy!
Our last evening at the hotel was pleasant; we enjoyed beer and each other’s company. It was the last time for those who wanted to use the ridiculous ski-bob track next to the hotel and we went over to cheer the Thin Man on.
The next morning we packed the trailer with our bikes for the last time and Udo took us on the long, slow road towards Gap, passing the truly spectacular Lac de Serre-Ponçon as the D900B took us high above the landscape. From Gap we headed northwards along the N85 to Grenoble, where we connected to the autoroute that took us on to Geneva, stopping only for lunch at a highway rest area.
Once the bicycles were unloaded at the hotel and everyone got themselves arranged, we met at possibly the worst restaurant in France, one of the Buffalo Grill chain, which was like a vastly over-priced Ponderosa Steak House. I was satisfied to have a large beer to celebrate the successful conclusion of the Tour d’Enfer, with everyone having arrived safely and with minimal issues, mechanical or otherwise to mar the trip. We had been fortunate with the route, the weather and, most of all, the company. With my riding in Switzerland before the Tour d'Enfer included, I calculated the I climbed almost 19,000 m (62,300 feet) over some 700 kms (435 miles) on my holiday. Not exactly as restful as some people expect vacations but a great experience all around for us.
After my return to Canada I felt terrible symptoms of withdrawal, missing the regularity of our climbing schedule, the great scenery and the camaraderie. Consideration is already being given to a route for 2009: anyone for il Giro d’all Inferno?
Day 9 of the Tour d'Enfer's profile