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Cycling over Europes highest pass on a tandem

A Tandem to the Top

WHILST in Britain the summer was the wettest for years (aren't they all?) the rest of Europe, most of the time, enjoyed normal weather. For three weeks, from mid-July to August, Barbara and I cycled on a tandem through France. We decided to catch the train and ferry to Calais and start cycling from there, heading towards the Alps and choosing our route from day to day.

Although only 20-odd miles from England, culture shock soon set in. We hadn't realised that clocks should go forward, and had set them back , thus what was 12.30 pm we thought was 10.30am. We wondered why villages seemed half deserted and shops closed at a small untidy cafe we found out! It must be said we never really got used to the daily routine of French life and were often caught without food at lunchtime.

Over the next eight days we averaged 50mpd as we travelled through the sweltering northern plains, passing endless fields full of grain. We felt that this was not by any means the most beautiful part of the country, being rather bleak and unkempt, though there were rewards such as the forest of Reims. By this time we had covered about 500 miles to frequent cries of "Tandem!" as people caught sight of this rarity; we seemed to be quite a novelty in France, and didn't come across any other tandems during our travels.

Soon the Northern Alps slowly appeared on the horizon. Taking our only day off in Gray to rebuild the rear wheel we then reached Besancon, and immediately started to climb. After the long distance of virtual plateau these mountains were a spectacular change. Looking north the plains stretch into distant haze; nearer to us a castle stood on a rocky outcrop high above, like an island in the sea.

For a while our daily mileage dropped slightly, the tandem's bottom gear of 42 front - 21 rear being rather hard work. Magnificent scenery led south, and our most memorable view of the trip was from a belvedere overlooking the gorge we had just cycled up. The approach to our 1 ,OOOm viewpoint, earned with hours of sweat and toil, was breathtaking; the world seemed to fall away beneath our feet, and we could see spread below five villages through which we had ridden. The roads south of Besancon must surely be some of the most spectacular cycling country in Europe.

Eventually these gorges led us towards Geneva, though we headed instead for Annecy, which isn't the place to go if you are searching for peace and silence! Here we looked and felt very out of place among droves of scantily-clad holidaymakers; however, during the evening the crowds disappeared from the shore of this beautiful lake, edged to the east by dramatic limestone peaks. The water was surprisingly clear and enormous fish moved lazily around the shoreline; it was worth the day's toil to sit in virtual solitude on the end of a pier watching the sun set and the stars creep out one by one.

Our route from Annecy led us towards the big Alpine passes. Col des Aravis at 1,498m (higher than Ben Nevis, Britain's highest point) was our highest peak yet, and gave us views of the Mont Blanc Massif 30 miles to the east. While descending the tortuous hairpin bends we came across an unlikely collection of pets: a camel, a Ilama and two Shetland ponies. The camel at least was friendly!

A road tunnel on the way to the high Alps

Over the next few days we were thankful that the weather cooled. We had been getting up at 6am to avoid the sweltering mid-afternoon heat, although we still often ended up cycling until late afternoon. The weather turned decidedly British when at our only non-campsite pitch at 1,600m on Col de la Madeleine, it rained solidly and we stayed in the tent for 18 hours regaining our strength for efforts to come. The weather at l,900m on the Cormet de Roselend was bitterly cold; strange to think that only two days previously we had been frying under a scorching sun on Col des Aravis. On our rapid, bitter descent we met a super grimpeur, we came across many on the big passes. We talked about the Tour de France, Bernard Hinault's name featuring strongly amongst those daubed on the road from a month earlier when 'Le Tour' passed by. It was odd, but all the cyclists we talked to on these passes thought that we were mad and said they had never seen a tandem on mountain roads before. It made us feel quite special ! Certainly our fitness had improved. We could cover 50mpd, often involving 25 miles of uphill. We were going to need all our strength for the last two passes.

On the summit of the Col de L'Iseran

Descending the Cormet de Roselend we revived our frozen feet and hands in Bourg St. Maurice and then headed for Val d'Isere. At 1,600m it is an ideal base for Col de I'Iseran, although it was somewhat chilly at night and we were treated to a sharp frost which forced us into an early start. At lpm we were at the top of one of the highest passes in the Alps; at an impressive 2,790m we felt a great sense of achievement. We had seen many snow patches by the roadside and the panorama from the top was superb, with snow-clad summits in every direction.

The descent was equally breathtaking, plummeting down the southern slowly upwards in ultra-slow 'granny' gears. That night we reached Modane, not the most picturesque of French towns, but the next day we passed through St. Jean de Maurienne which had a very beautiful cloistered churchyard, and headed towards the Col de la Croix de Fer. This was, we agreed, our hardest col, very steep at grades of 1:8 in places, climbing then dropping through frighteningly dark tunnels and surrounded by spectacular mountain peaks. Eventually, at 6pm we reached the top and were rewarded with perhaps our best view yet: clouds tumbled down off a nearby mountain, the deep blue sky a perfect backdrop for the iron cross from which the pass is named.

From there it was all downhill to Grenoble, but as we had at least a dozen punctures due to the heat lifting off our patches, it wasn't the ideal way to end the tour. As they say in France, however, "C'est la vie!".

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