Well what a trip! As planned it involved lakes and mountains, not planned a minor fall and a whole load of new skills and confidence.
As you know I haven’t been riding long and this trip seemed somewhat foolish after the ‘dry run’ to Wales. Only foolish as in my limitations and experience so far – mind you no amount of training could have prepared me for the continuos and relentless hairpins, bends and cyclists! I was very lucky to have a dear friend who is an experienced rider to accompany me and I’m so pleased that I did the mission!
Luggage was minimal – one pannier clothes, the other side important bike stuff and tools, tent, eider down duvet (very important although is a pain to try and squeeze into the canoe bag especially in the mornings and before a cuppa coffee!) and a half tank bag with map, handbag and shoes.
After the awfully cold and cramped night in the one man coffin tent in Wales I upgraded to a 2 man tent with generous porch that was plenty big enough to store all the tat from bikes and protective gear. It was well worth the extra 3kg of weight!
Lesson 11. Don’t skimp on bedding and accommodation. A bad nights sleep will lead to problems riding especially on extended tours! The duvet was amazing and didn’t take up much more room than 2 sleeping bags, it was however much more comfy and particularly useful in the Isle of Man towards the end of the trip!
I’ll start in the Alps as the journey through France was exactly that! apart from seeing seas of sunflower fields there is not much to report!
The first main camp was at Serre Poncon near Gap and located on the D94 (I shall come back to this later!) The lake itself was beautifully clear and actually quite warm, although not the warmest that we visited.
The region itself was a great place to chill for a day and we visited the hot springs at Plan de Phazy where the best chips and sauces were made! I mean these tasted like the chips you got in the old days made with beef dripping and served with a thin white rectangular plate of 5 coloured sauces that looked like a bit of Warhol art. We sat enjoying a pression and watched the carers contain the 15 or so adults that were on a respite trip. Next a young woman has come over to the table and is looking at the chips, she is staring a little like a dog so I offer her one, she takes the chip puts it in her mouth and goes “Yuck” she then uses the sauces as finger paints. She is obviously a Warhol fan herself. We laughed and she toddled off back to her group. That was our signal to leave and hit up another lake.
The water at La Roche de Rame was the warmest of anywhere in the Alps and was a great place to chill, look at snow capped mountains and watch bikers ride past on the glorious D94. The willow set off my motion sensor and the poor guy sat next to it looked terrified muttering something whilst making “It wasn’t me, I didn’t touch it” gestures, whilst I knew it had disturbed his quiet Sunday sit down. The cafe is expensive but the place very biker friendly.
I would recommend the Cafe de Gare in Chorges. The owner serenades the tables with his saxophone and they clearly have the best karaoke in the area (as we found out after eating at a few different places!) The Entrecote steak is accompanied by a cheesy potato thing, salad, chips and melon (very refreshing after the rest of it!) and at €17 was well worth the money.
After resting and sleeping off the journey down we set out for the tour.
See the map here http://goo.gl/maps/4mp5a
Embrun – St Tropez : ride through he mountains down to the coast and hang out on beach for a few days before heading up to Menton via Monaco, and cross the border to Italy.
The idea to use Serre Poncon as a base was that it was close to Barcelonette which is a gateway town into the highest roads that cross the Alps. Even to get round the lake was an adventure and I had my first taste of gradient and tight winding roads with no safety barriers and sheer drops. This trip was a slow ride the first time and I was so nervous all the way. I found point fixation a nightmare and was trying to catch up with my mate who had stormed ahead with his 30 years of riding under his belt. My measly 13 weeks was not enough and I doubted myself- this was the first 15km of the 330km journey. You can imagine how I felt!!
The nerves did disappear when I had to concentrate so hard on the road ahead but I wasn’t particularly enjoying it. When we got to near Barcelonette we hit traffic and this was the first opportunity to stop.
Lesson 12. Look where you are stopping – yes this seems obvious doesn’t it? Let me paint the picture… I have short legs, I mean really short for my 5ft 6 stature. I had already had a fair section of the FZR seat removed so I could touch the floor with more than my tip toes. With all the luggage on the suspension lowered about another inch so I could get my boots down. Now when I stopped I didn’t notice the camber of the road and yes you can imagine what happened next… as my right foot went down it carried on going another couple of inches! NO! weighed up with the luggage and panniers the bike and I toppled onto the barriers between the road and the stream in slow motion. How embarrassing! There was no way I could lift the bike with the gear on and my dear friend helped me get it up and we started again. Damage? a little scrap on tape wrapped around the indicator! The panniers took the fall and luckily that was my clothes side! For a fall in the Alps I thought if that is all I get this week then I’m lucky! Oddly enough my nerves got much better after that and I actually started to enjoy the trip
Lesson 13. Biking is 90% psychological and 10% skill.
So instead headed down the Col de Cayolle to St Tropez with the intention of coming back up the Col de Bonette from Menton. This was a fabulous road, although the first section was very bumpy and uneven in the surface. Cyclists would be every 100m as they started their ascent up the 1200m over 29kms from Barcelonette. Fair play to these guys! I needed a 600cc to get me up the mountain! The road climbed steeply with tight twists until it opened out to the peak.
After a steep winding descent there is a wonderful stretch through red rock gorges (Gorges de Daluis) that can be ridden fast and are welcomed after the seemingly never ending hairpins and cyclists! This was one of my favourite stretches of road through out the trip.
If you stop in Entraunes check out the salads – you must try the jambon, Roquefort and onion with walnuts. It was the best salad of the whole trip!
This led out on to the N202, this is my sort of road, winding, wide and fast with not too many hairpin like surprises or changes of gradient which gave my back brakes a good rest. Missing the left hand turn into Castellane we ended up going quite a lot further but captured the scenic road from Barreme to Castellane.
By now I was flying and my second favourite road was the D563 to Mons. Wooded, bendy and with very little traffic on this made for an enjoyable ride with a wonderful view of the town. Totally buzzing we continued at pace to Frejus.
Ha, after 6 hours of beautiful roads with the odd car, lorry and cyclists we hit the French coastal road in peak holiday season. I hate filtering, I find it stressful and totally unenjoyable. I first tried this skill in London on my second solo trip out on the bike and decided to follow other riders to see how they maneuver through the traffic. Although all was going well I happened to witness an accident where the biker got taken out by a car pulling out from a junction. This has put me off and put a massive dent in my confidence. Living in the countryside it’s something that I just don’t need to do. However this traffic was backed up. I am talking 28Km of slow/stationary Porsche /Merc/BMW 4×4’s. Welcome to hell.
My friend lives in London and filtering is almost a sport for him. You need to use a certain amount of brain power in psyching the oncoming cars out and trust me when you command them to move out of the way its wonderful how French drivers pull over and let you pass (something that is frustrating me greatly about English motorists who seem to actively move into the way) but I certainly did not posses this power. Frustrated, shouting in my hemet and on the verge of tears thinking ‘take me back to the mountains – those roads were fabulous’ carried on. Well it didn’t get better in St Tropez and my friend who was leading had no idea where he was going so we were riding round the centre blind with me trying to still weave through traffic following my spritely mate. It was shit. After nearly being knocked over by a Rolls Royce doing a u-turn in the road, I cried. That was enough. I really felt broken and tired and we had nowhere to camp. My mate didn’t understand why I was crying and I couldn’t understand how he was being so inconsiderate in the pace he was weaving. Turned out that was slow for him it just wasn’t slow enough for me, I needed the power of the psych.
Trying to find accommodation in peak season is a nightmare, people had booked up since April and there we were just rocking up. Luckily his Susuki DR Big 800 was unusual for Europe and as we pulled into a campsite the guy on the desk came out as he had the same bike but an earlier model. Even though the site was full they managed to find us a little plot to stick the tent up and put the bikes for the night. Thank goodness!
The sea here was amazing and genuinely was 29 degrees at night! what a way to freshen up after the journey and hello beach! I refused to ride in the traffic again and so we went for a spin and I was pillion (this is where I saw the master filterer in action) and was relieved to be clinging on the back for once!
Over the next few days quite a few English people stopped and had a chat. All of them were bikers who had left theirs at home. Had some great discussions about specially lowered bikes for shorter ladies and everyone who did it would never go back.
It’s amazing how many people seem to have kids and give up the bike and it becomes something to polish on a Sunday. I thought how bizarrely I have entered biking and none of them could believe how well I was doing (apart from Barcelonette) which did make me feel a little better as it’s pretty cool when strangers are proud of your achievements.
Lesson 14. Ride for yourself, not anyone else. Comparing and riding with different abilities is frustrating for both parties. I can whole heartedly recommend solo riding to avoid these problems and you will have an adventure on the way!
Disaster struck as we were leaving St Tropez to head up the coast. We had already planned to leave my bike and the gear somewhere and to head into Monaco on one bike to save me the stress of the traffic which we had been warned was bad in epic proportions! After fueling we got on the road when my battery died. It was already bad after Glastonbury and sitting for 2 days in ST hadn’t helped it at all. In fact it had triggered the temperature sender and wouldn’t even start with a jump. So it had to be pushed up the hill and bumped. Took 3 goes to get it running including unloading and reloading all the luggage to get it up each time. Change of plan and headed south to a Toulon to get a new battery from a supplier. The next 3 hours included falling out with my friend, solo riding to Orange up the motorway and a Thelma and Louise style maneuver that would get me into trouble should I write it!
Out of all of this came a glimmer of goodness as I decided to head back to Serre Poncon instead of riding home, I hadn’t finished yet! This is where the wonderful D94 came into play.
Orange to Embrun: Favourite road of the trip
I must thank the brilliant small white van driver for the 90km race through tunnels, wide fast winding roads and even more impressively he gave me the power! He drove like a tetchy bike rider, always in the centre of the road and overtaking at any opportunity (If this were a film this would be a brilliant action sequence – if only I could afford a GoPro!!) After our spat he pulled into a garage before Gap and waved at me, I felt sad that it was over but there was no stopping me, I had the power!! (see lesson 11 for importance)
This basically meant that the 20Kms of queueing the cars were doing all the way from Chorges to Embrun I simply rode right through with them parting like the Red Sea, It was amazing, totally psyching them out. In fact the only vehicle I couldn’t move was a timber lorry after a bridge so I didn’t feel too bad!
I got back and was buzzing as I had ridden the type of roads I liked at my own pace (which was getting quicker and quicker), a very satisfied customer indeed and the issues of the day were forgotten. My friend also had a similar encounter through the much more bendy mountain roads with a German rider. He on the other hand knackered his starter coils through running the engine too hard. So we were down to one bike.
Lesson 15. Get your own bike!
Pillion. Hmm not to sure about it, I blatently have control issues and don’t like clinging on round corners not when I could be riding them! We did another 200km trip to a swimming gorge at Lac de Sainte Criox and I was perched on the back of the FZR. I actually have no idea how the girls and women I see being carried around do it. It was uncomfortable, sickness inducing and nerve wracking. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Get your own bike! How can changing gear be so hard to get smooth? is all I could think!
When you have your own bike you know how it runs, what it likes ect… now the FZR has a peculiar fueling. When not ragging it can comfortably do 150 miles to the tank. The first bar goes after maybe 50m and same for the second. But the last 4 goes quickly. Now my friend decided that to save my poor aching arse that he would go up the motorway home and avoid the tight windy roads. Good plan but he was riding at well over a comfortable speed. I tried to get him to slow down but he couldn’t hear and finally as I watched 3 bars drop to 2 in 20kms I knew we wouldn’t even make it off the motorway. Well he did slow down, right down to 40mph as we drove around on a Sunday evening looking for fuel. With another 15kms to Gap it was a limp and to be honest I didn’t fancy the walk to the petrol station and I was the only one with a cash card to get it… hmmm… an imminent bad mood warning was about to be issued when we saw a station. Hurrah! even though it was expensive fuel it definitely saved the day. with it’s mega 15l capacity it took 14.75l to fill up. Phew 😉
Lesson 16. Know your bike and impart that info on to anyone riding it before you set off!
Next day I rode to Gap to get parts and took the scenic route (only another 60km onto the journey ;). This time I rode the same road as on the first day in the mountains but this time was fueled with the skills from the race and the desire to do it myself from being pillion, I felt much more confident and really enjoyed it! as you can see from the pictures! Thanks to the Italian tourist who took the picture 🙂
I bought a new battery in Gap and changed it by the side of the road with my little tool kit. Feeling very smug that I had actually managed to do something myself. Baby steps 🙂
Coil fixed on my mates bike and I was back on my own bike again ready to hit up the final Lake, Lac Annecy. This was our northern camping point with daily rides going from here. There were 2 nice rides, a short one round the lake which was circumnavigatable with a jaunt up to the gliders jump off point. It really did provide a beautiful view of the lake.
(Taken with camera) I love the colour on this shot, it looks like it’s been effected when you compare it to the crispness of the Samsung S3 camera shot below. That picks out the gliders nicely though!
The town itself is a very nice, neatly divided into the historic, canal centered old town and the modern bit! there are a series of outdoor eateries and bars. However I preferred it down by the waterside, especially at sunset.
The second ride was nearly 300kms and had a few variations but this is the route we ended up taking going across the D925 via Lac du Roseland and Col de Petite St Bernard
This was taken by a German guy who had got a moped and was basically planning out trip in reverse. He had planned 3 weeks for his pottering down!
The route goes through the center of skiing locations and the massive boards and chair lifts can be seen in the town. A little odd when its still 28 degrees but a lift was open as we got up to Col de Petite St Bernard. The roads are easy to ride in the first stage and the downhill before Seez is the only hot braking point where the endless hairpins returned. The Col itself seems long and the border to Italy is always a few more bends away.
The picture above was taken just before the summit looking down the valley. When we arrived at the summit/border there was a festival going on and suddenly we went from the odd biker to 1000 Italians in the road gesticulating wildly and parking cars at the most random of angles whilst wheeling out cattle and watching a little band. It was quite surreal for how peaceful the rest of the journey has been.
I hadn’t appreciated the quality of all the roads in France until we crossed the border and literally half the road surface disappeared. The signs going down in La Thuile numbered the hairpins but the ride was disrupted by numerous cars. When in Italy what do you do? Of course! we ate pizza. Now to be fair it was the best coffee and artichoke pizza I had all trip, it just seemed a shame that we were so far away!
To return we chose a route through the Mont Blanc tunnel. I had never been through a large tunnel on the bike like this and to be honest I was quite excited as the mountain had been looming over us for a a few hours! I was shocked at how expensive it was! €27 for a single! it’s only 12km of tunnel! and there was a queue for the car drivers of 90 mins just to get to the toll booth. Well you can imagine what happened… filtering through we got to the front in a conservative 10 minutes. It did annoy the car drivers who had sat there but still, this is why we have a bike isn’t it to ride not sit!!
My bike then started making a tapping sound when the clutch was out. Was it the clutch? chain? adjuster? too many things and by now we were some way from Annecy with the tools. Limping home the long route to avoid the mountain passes and more gear changes we took the N roads back around the bottom on the peaks, getting back just before dark, so much for making it up to Lac Leman the only lake I had planned to see but not managed to! Panicking about what the sound was and how to fix it in time to get on the ferry for England then straight up to the Isle of Man, I doubted if I would make it.
The good ole FZR did make it to the ferry and there I met another FZR rider but from the 2003 model. The poor guy was loaded up with a large coffee and can of Redbull so I stopped to see how his FZR had behaved in and where he had been. Unfortunately his mate had been knocked off in Switzerland when he looked the wrong way at the junction and pulled out onto a car. Luckily he was OK but the bike (Triumph Tiger) was a write off and his mate was flying home.
Lesson 17. Look the other way first when abroad, especially coming out of junctions
He had managed to get across in 5 hours straight and only needed refueling twice. We joked about how the petrol gauge is so inaccurate and that the last 3 bars don’t count for much! as I knew and Chris found out!
Will the FZR make it the next 400 miles to the Isle of Man and will it withstand the mountain course? You will have to wait for the next post …
Ride on 🙂