Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Motorbike Travels in the Alps 2011 Pt 1

The 2011 trip was hatched on a dark, dank, winter night when four of the original tourists met at a quay-side pub in Ely to discuss and plan. Craig was never going on the trip, he came along just to have the piss taken out of him, but AJ’s untimely and expensive bike malfunction, dashed his hopes only three weeks before we left. Better then than half way up some Alpine pass in the pissing rain, I suppose. That left just Mike and I.
The day before we left, Mike hosted a barbecue for some of us. Though it rained, we carried on regardless, coats zipped up, hats pulled down over our ears and parasols protection from rain not sun. We had a great afternoon. Ah, summer 2011, I remember it well.

The whine of Nigel’s VFR800 approaching surprised me as I readied myself for the off. He’d turned up to escort us some of the way, riding with us to Birchanger Services on the M11, where I filled up with the first tank of ridiculously priced unleaded, though it’s even more ridiculously priced there than most places.
There’s never much one can write about a motorcycle ride from Cambridge to Dover on the motorway, but we dodged the torrential downpours which followed and threatened us all the way through Kent, arriving at the hotel after circumnavigating the adjoining petrol station a number of times. Whilst removing our luggage, we were greeted by an old git, who initially feigned interest in the bikes, but was, in fact, intent on telling us what route he’d driven from Spain. Now I’m more interested in routes than most sad old bastards, but was in no way interested in him, his wife or where he’d been. Or how economical his car was, which would have bettered mine even if I’d managed 204 miles per gallon. He was, in short, a twat.
An early night beckoned, but not before scampi and chips at the nearby plastic-pub, where Mike attracted an admirer who, having left the building, came back in to stare at him. The man was wearing a tee-shirt and had tattoos.
It didn’t really get light all of Monday morning and was miserable as we battered our way south under grey skies into the teeth of a gale in the rain. So windy was it I struggled to hold my head up and my helmet was pushed so far back the visor was touching my nose. I can normally get 53 miles per gallon on  the motorway, but only managed about 48, the wind in my waterproofs were causing so much drag. It was bloody hard work.
The ferry had been uneventful, except for the sight of an attractive, statuesque woman I tagged Deutsche-Bundes talle birde for no apparent reason. (Don’t get picky about my German, I don’t speak it, it’s a stupid joke included only to prick our memories.) Other than the weather the journey was fairly uneventful too. We made the obligatory stop at services near Chateu-Villain, where Mike ripped my waterproofs helping remove them and a bird shat on his seat. Late in the day, finally the cloud broke and we rode the final 100 miles or so under blazing sun. It was actually hot when we stopped somewhere for yet another Snickers/Coke/fuel stop and I deigned to attach my dark visor and don summer gloves.
I have said elsewhere that the Autoroute north, from Clermont l’Herault towards the Viaduc de Millau in southwest France, is the best bit of dual carriageway ever, but I lied. I’ve now ridden the stretch through the Jura Mountains twice and it is both spectacular and entertaining. The road rises and bends, then drops and bends some more, passing through tunnels, which open onto near-unimaginable vistas accompanied by cool shaded air and the smell of wild garlic. There are stages where the carriageways split, each hanging impossibly from the mountainside in ways you have no time to see. We made good progress along here, despite Mike getting caught behind a 1973 Citroen 2CV, and stopped for the final time that day at a service station which overlooked Geneva and its lake. With the towering Alps, Mont Blanc among them, as a distant backdrop and clear blue sky above, to proved even motorway days can be rewarding.
The final run in to Annecy was spiced up by missing our junction, being overtaken by a Renault Mégane as it was flashed by a speed camera, and a tour of some of the less salubrious areas of town, before finally arriving at the l’Hotel des Alpes and our room with it’s spectacular views of the neighbouring flats, more slum-like than cultured France. It had been a long day and our ambitions for exploring were severely diminished by fatigue. We turned left out of the hotel, walked no more than 20 metres, before saying, “This place looks OK, why don’t we eat here?” We did, and were rewarded for our lack of adventure at Antonio Caffé, which turned out to be good enough for anyone, let alone as an emergency food stop for tired motorcyclists. We sat outside, wispy clouds in the blue sky above, the buzz of life in the city all around, drinking bierre blanc with a slice of lime, I ate creme brulée of foie gras, followed by mignot de porc with tiramisu to finish.  All for €76 for the two of us. Life is good.
Mike awoke to the sound of me chatting to myself about the route. I was asleep and laughing at my own jokes as normal. I woke to the sound of the hairdryer, which Mike was using. What’s wrong with a towel? It’s not like he has flowing locks. I can only presume that he has gender assignment issues. The day was to be a good one: we rode good roads in mostly great weather, we visited great places and finished the day by drinking far too much beer.
Leaving Annecy we headed south, down to Albertville, before further penance on the Autoroute for a few miles. I’ve tried doing this route by going cross country before, but it takes ages to get nowhere and leaves little time for the high Alps. We finally left the motorway at Saint-Etienne-des-Cuines and headed for Mike’s first Alpine pass. The weather was still good and the Col du Glandon is not too taxing, though Mike didn’t seem to need to adapt to negotiating tight hairpins, settling down fairly quickly. I stopped for photos then met Mike at the top. He was babbling excitedly, like a schoolboy with the latest 
XPS-weebox, though, being much more experienced on these roads, I was cooler, especially as I had cocked up virtually every bend, taking them all at walking pace, bolt upright. Bastard. The view was fantastic, and we wandered amongst the other bikers and those cyclists stupid enough to have ridden up there for fun, taking photos, Mike babbling on and bloody on.

View down the road from the Col du Glandon
Mike set off down first, the arrangement being that he would get some photos as I passed. You’ll note there are none here. He photographed the hundreds of other BMW K13Rs that overtook me, and was just examining his camera as I trundled past, cursing my inadequacies then looking for a place to stop and get a picture of him further down. Just after being overtaken by another K13R, I found a layby and managed to grab this bit of photographic genius. I blame the camera. Or Mike.

This is a pretty good road and the surface isn't bad either, I even managed to a get a rhythm going, finally catching Mike some way further down. A group of Bundes-Deutsche-bikers (there’a theme here) tagged on behind us, and were probably getting über pissed off with the pace when I slowed slowly (I do nothing quick on a bike,) having overshot our turn and ridden onto a resurfaced bit of road which was about three inches deep in gravel. They went past, taking the short, but hazardous way to Alpe d’Huez. We carried on, wanting to ride the whole of the famous road there and its 21 hairpin bends. The Glandon road continued into the valley, unusually with a couple of hairpin bends on the face of a dam, finally meeting the D1091 at Rochetaillée. We turned left and rode to Le Bourg d’Oisans where, despite a plethora of sign posts and the Garmin telling me both visually and audibly to take the third exit at the roundabout, I inexplicably took the second, forcing Mike and I to perform a U-turn about 100 yards up the road.
The road up to Alped’Huez is famous as a motorcyclist’s road, but its main claim to fame is as one of the most brutal climbs on the Tour de France. Only a few weeks later Pierre Rolland won a short but dramatic stage up the Alpe in front of literally hundreds of thousands of people crowding the roadside. Today though there were no crowds, just us, a few cars and a few cyclists. The first ramp is shockingly steep and must have been a very depressing sight for those cyclists racing up there a few weeks later. We powered up it, over hundreds of names adorning the tarmac, to the first of the 21 hairpins. The road is wide and generally well surfaced, not too taxing at all and we negotiated it fairly swiftly. 
The first part of the ski resort was busy, with little apparent in the way of parking and every restaurant terrace packed, so we rode higher up the mountain, finding a less crowded restaurant, near the sports hall, for those of you that know it.

We sat and gassed and I had what can only be described as minced beef and fat on a pizza; it wasn’t that good. We had a brilliant view looking back down the valley, watching ominous looking clouds creeping up, bringing and depositing showers, before heading on, in the direction we were to take later. Inevitably it rained, though only enough for all the diners to relocate before it stopped, saving itself for later in the week. 
The journey down the 21 hairpins was less fun. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said quite a few times, I don’t like riding down hill, I’m not good at it, though this time not even I enjoyed being stuck behind two very large lorries, past which there was no way. We headed now towards Briançcon, over the Col du Lautaret. I really enjoyed this road. It was somehow dry, despite the showers, and is every type of mountain road, wide sweeping bends lower down, tighter bumpy hairpins near the top, steeper straight sections, the odd flat bit, some villages and the obligatory spectacular views. There are a few tunnels too with blue lights on the walls which make you feel like you’re in a scene from Tron as you pass. 

Glacier de la Mieje

Having noticed Mike was not behind me, I stopped at La Grave and took a couple of photos but became increasingly concerned about his absence. It was only after about five minutes of waiting that he rolled in to the car park, complaining about his pea sized bladder. We continued on, up and up to the 2058 metre Col where the cafés were open, their customers milling about outside, with many motorcycles parked nearby. I know from experience that bikers watch other bikers as they pass, often commenting on the bikes, their riders and the riding. We were under scrutiny here, so I managed to cock up one of the first bends, a left hander just past a packed café. I went in too fast for comfort having been distracted by yet another K1300R in the car park. I expect it’s rider, sat at a table with the froth of another cappuccino in his moustache, wearing the salopettes that all German bikers seem to wear, probably laughed at me as I tiptoed my way out of sight.

Unusually, that was the last bend I contrived to cock up between there and Briançcon. It was brilliant. As we’d gone over the top, we’d been followed by two other bikes, but soon left them behind, speeding and sweeping our way down the mountain, through the ski resorts and into town. The sat-nav guided us to the Hotel Edelweiss by the most direct route, down a rutted track and we parked among a few other bikes.

The hotel reminded me of the sort of building you might have seen in a 1960s spy film set behind the Iron Curtain. It had high ceilings, was dark with polished, cracked stone floors and mostly brown. Situated half way up the steep Avenue de la Republique, it was overlooked by the huge fortified Cité Vauban, but had a pretty good view of it’s own, looking out over the newer part of town and down the valley towards Guillestre and Embrun. The best thing about the hotel was the maps at the bottom of the stairs. Though I could have done with a torch, I stopped and examined both, which were large and plastic with the mountains in scale relief. I’m sure that type of map has a name, but I don’t know it.
We had a beer in the bar, got showered and changed, then headed into town. There’s not a lot in the new part of town, but it was incredibly lively, with loads of people and a fabulous atmosphere. Mike was up for a few beers, I was more conservative, wanting to feel good for a full day of riding the next day. We had dinner preceded by a couple of beers and accompanied by a bottle of wine. I told Mike that if I wasn’t me I’d like to know myself, at which we started giggling. My resistance was crumbling and evaporated when we arrived outside Le Bar Centrale. There was a band playing The Verve’s The Drugs Don’t Work on the other side of the road and crowds watched, drinking beer and the atmosphere. We fetched some beer of our own and joined in. 

The drugs might not work, but the beer does
The band played more and I visited the toilet which was at the top of a narrow flight of stairs and reminded me of a treehouse. A young French man told me that my tattoo was beautiful, so I didn’t speak to him again, but spoke instead to a British bloke I found in the throng. He lived there, having given up work in The City as some sort of computer expert. He was there with the rest of his band, the lead singer of which looked suspiciously like Gary Glitter, but without the ridiculous clothes. They were due on at midnight but, as the hour approached, the first drops of rain darkened our shirts. It was time to go. But the rain beat us, hammering down. I ran up the hill, from one bit of shelter to the next. Mike didn’t.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Club Run

Throughout Britain, at least once a week, cyclists rise early, early at least for their days off, to join their club mates for a ride, come rain or shine. These rides are both social and training; at our club we usually split into three groups, depending on ability or ambition and cover about 60 miles, mostly with a coffee stop somewhere about half way. Often, in the faster groups, these rides degenerate into races, riders battling out sprints for village signs, or pushing so fast they drop their colleagues. It’s all friendly. Well, mostly.
Late yesterday, I rode the first nine miles on my own. Enveloped in the lonely silence that freezing fogs bestows, I rode alone, hoping to catch the others. My glasses steamed up, condensation formed on the fingers of my gloves, overshoes and my knees as they pumped up and down, pushing far too hard. Having had no warm up before a big effort, I was blowing hard and relieved when the social group appeared out of the gloom. I joined the back of the group and recovered from the exertion. They rode a leisurely pace, chatting, waiting at the top of any hills for the slower riders, going just fast enough to keep the cold at bay. Occasionally the lights of cars appeared silently from the whiteness and villages unfolded from the mist.
When riding in the cold there is a balance to be found. Go too fast and you over heat, sweat much more, so freeze when you slow or stop. Go too slow you never warm and suffer with the wind chill. It was cold yesterday and I was freezing when we arrived at the café. I glugged a painfully hot cappuccino, then set off with the middle group. The cloud now forming a thin blanket on the fields, our wheels in it, but above our heads was only blue sky.
For me, it was as if the sun had raised the pace, not us. We raced along now, averaging well over 20mph, the group tight, closely following the wheel in front, chat forgotten and replaced by effort. It was brilliant; jerseys were undone as exertion and sunshine raised our temperature, tyres whooshing on the tarmac the only noise other than the occasional clunk of a chain shifting sprockets. Through villages, past farms, rows of trees and occasional parked cars, we flew, communicating hazards with hand signals or sometimes a shout. Perfect.
Nearing home, we dropped down a hill, at least that’s what we call it in Cambridgeshire, back into the gloom. Glasses stowed once more, zips done up again up and I won the sprint for the final sign. I love days like that: the golden leaves of autumn are now nearly all gone and the fog heightens the solitude or togetherness of your situation. As you cycle through the countryside however, just occasionally the cold, silent fog gives way, revealing life and glorious reminders of summer rides long gone. 

Note: I stole the picture from I'll delete if required

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Don't Wash Your Helmet

By all means make sure the outside, especially the visor, is clean and shiny but, if you can remove the lining of your crash helmet, don't. Why would you want it smelling fresh, to wash away all the memories and emotions the sweet perfume of a stale crash helmet evokes?

Removing the lining may tempt you to look like a tit

I hadn't ridden my bike for three weeks or more; too soft, too lazy and checking the rear tyre pressure on a BMW K1300R is a proper pain in the arse. This morning I could be bothered. The bike stood on my drive, warming up in the middle of a drifting cloud of exhaust fumes on a cold misty November morning. I pulled on my Arai and was transformed from a bloke going to work into a motorcyclist with thousands of miles and experiences. The odour, familiar, not offensive, instantly pricked my memory: rainy days in the Alps, hot sunny days in the Pyrenées, a freezing blast to Rutland water last winter: every moment precious.

I lifted the visor and the moment disappeared into the mist. I waved goodbye to my children, stepped through the thinning cloud of fumes and rode off. A motorcyclist once again.