I made an early start that morning as I had a 400k-plus kilometre journey to consume and wanted to make Chamonix by early evening and get there via the mountain roads. It wasn't long before I felt the temperature dropping as I ascended the rolling terrain of the Vercors Regional National Park, then skimmed the outskirts of Grenoble making excellent progress.
Unbeknownst to me, I had managed to plot a route that was occupied by Stage 12 of the Tour de France, which I knew was taking place but hadn't bothered to check its whereabouts. The many kilometres of cars parked nose-to-tail on both sides of an earlier quite valley road should have been the initial indication but I rode until the smartly dressed Gendarm at the eventual road block, confirmed the herd of cyclists were soon to arrive. What's more, it would be two hours before the road was returned to normal duties. So, it's either a detour of some 80 kms or why not join the already enthusiastic crowd that is building in numbers by the minute and give an extra cheer for our own, our very own, Bradley Wiggins,current holder of the Yellow Jersey.
"Une table, monsieur?" ... I must have been standing within the boundaries of a roadside eatery, the only building in fact for some distance either way ... "Mais oui", I unhesitatingly said as if already planning it in my head. Then within seconds I am sat at a just cleared table on the edge of the pending Tour De France passage.
"Menu, s'il vous plait?" ... "Poulet seulement", ... "Parfait". I felt like chicken anyway, honest.
A quick mention about the TdeF; the stage I witnessed covered a total of 226 kms and after the immense entourage of mainly motorbikes, police, support vehicles, camera crews, etc the various sized packs of cyclists came hurtling by and I mean hurtling. You really can't appreciate on the telly how quick these guys are moving, it's quite phenomenal. But what is more astonishing is that once the road was opened, my route retraced where this stage had been and for at least 50 kilometres, I was engine-braking a tight twisting mountain descent, having to constantly dab the back brake, it was that steep and these riders had just climbed it having already pedaled over 100 kms to the point of climb. Fit? Beyond fit!
Much cheering and scoffing done, I continue through the mountains and more spectacular scenery...
... roads, that are barely the width of a car and have quite literally been carved out of vertical rock faces leave me wondering how they were built (hopefully with safety nets).
As there is no traffic, I stop to take in the sheer enormity of the landscape and a brief look over the small-walled edge that might save a skateboarder but not much else, has my vertigo kicking in in a single heart-beat.
It is frighteningly straight down, like looking from the roof of a New York skyscraper, the magnitude is overwhelming yet beautifully breath-taking.
I arrive much later than anticipated at my dear friend's place in Chamonix, but within minutes, wine in hand, on the terrace, we are frantically talking at high speed, filling in the blanks since we last met some 5 years earlier and all at the feet of the mighty Mont Blanc; its ever-majestic presence towering like a king over his subjects.
I end up spending the weekend with his lovely wife and two very happy, bouncy children of 9 months and 3 years, whose relentless energy reminds me of those sleepless days past. We reminisce.
A phone call to my Dutch friend on the Saturday has me packing ready to leave the following day but with an attitude that collectively matches their children's excitement as I am about to climb high into the French and Italian Alps and witness what should be the 8th Natural Wonder of the World.
I exit the Mont Blanc tunnel, all 17 kilometres of it, into glorious sunshine and high expectation. I am not disappointed and the number of other bikers around, confirms that I'm headed in the right direction.
The bike never vertical, the road very challenging, requiring an immense level of concentration, if only because there are no barriers. Tarmac, 1 foot of grass then a steep slope that takes you back to where you came from. On that point, I have always loved that moment, the one that starts with a growling, low-revving, bike emerging from another hairpin bend, your head turning to look down and see the miles of grey and black ribbon below that are already a memory. All to often I want to stop and take pictures but that means disjointing the ride which as any biker knows, you don't want to break the rhythm, once in the zone, stay there. I'll store the views to memory or postcards.
After an exhilarating, adrenalin-pumping ride through patchy snow-lined roads with two French guys on sportbikes who cheer and punch the air, thumb's up, as they veer off taking an opposite fork in the road, I stop for coffee and a big drag on a rolly, the lighter still shaking in my hand as the remnants of the adrenalin wear off. Then I realise that I have another 230 kms to go to get to the valleys of the Ardeche and it is now 6pm. I've obviously been having way too much fun and although I've been high-octane riding for the last 5 hours, tiredness has yet to rear its sleepy head.
Cutting a long story short of trying to find the house (needle) in the no-light pollution, pitch black Valle de la Bourges (haystack), I catch sight of my 13-hours-of-driving tired, Dutch friend in the headlights as he had earlier heard the sound of a lone 1200cc motorcycle reverberating in the hills.
I've already told you about this truly idyllic place and as I mentioned to my host, Sander, on the first day, "if you can't relax here, you can't relax anywhere".
The river is blood-rushingly refreshing, it's deep pools interconnected by small waterfalls that zigzag through the white rocks that shelf considerately as jumping spots ...
... including a little sandy beach area and all this on the doorstep.
The cool fresh early mornings quickly warm to sun drenched days of hammock swinging reading interspersed with the odd snooze. As I type, the Isley Brothers 'Summer Breeze' is playing on the Hi-fi with its speakers perched on window sills filling the garden with the musical version of our lazy existence.
Since my arrival, I have willing taken on the role as chef but as it's my last night here and it has been unanimously suggested that I deck-chair sit comfortably while being waited upon with lashings of Pastis as the now grown to 7 people party prepares a vine-covered, alfresco dining extravaganza. Although tinged with a little sadness at the thought of leaving paradise tomorrow, the ice-cube clinking Ricard is already lightening the mind.
Albeit a short trip it has been such a pleasure, some fantastic riding in outstanding scenery and over-flowing with great friends old and new. I really couldn't ask for anything more, I am that lucky guy.
Other than an overnight pit-stop in a small pretty Logis near Le Mans that I stayed at 2 years ago, I will be heading for the tunnel at Calais for a UK arrival Saturday evening, therefore this is my last blog of this trip.
See you all very soon and even though Dione Warwick has just started singing 'Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head', I will do my best to bring some of this glorious sunshine home.
Living The Dream xc