Alps June 2016 – The back story

preps (497 x 350)In June last year (2015), I found myself at the end of a ‘rolling’ six-month contract (in the Oil industry) which had rolled its last. With no prospect of renewal and, more importantly, no desire to look for more work in the corporate world, I was at a cross-roads.  I had just celebrated my 50th birthday in the Alps, with a celebratory climb up Col de la Colombiere, which may not be every bodies idea of fun, but for me it fulfilled a lifelong ambition to cycle some big alpine passes.

When I say lifelong, I mean from my teenage years.  When I was 16 my Grandma took me on an ‘older persons’ coach tour of Switzerland, a bit like a paid companion.  It was interesting in many ways, mostly not relevant to the current story, but one of my abiding memories was of looking out of the coach window and wishing I was on my bike. I was trapped on the wrong side of the glass.

Spin the wheel another 34 years and at last I found myself on the right side of the glass climbing through beautiful alpine scenery on a bike I could only have dreamt of back then. Within days I was completely hooked. A couple of months after my alpine birthday, I received a text from a friend who had accompanied me up the Col de Colombiere, saying she was going to do the Marmotte Sportive in July 2016.  It wasn’t exactly an invitation to join her, in fact I think I’ll call it a provocation.  I was stunned that somebody with so little experience would ever contemplate doing such a thing. 5000 metres of ascent in one day.  Really?  It worried me on so many levels, but mainly because I found myself saying ’if she can do it, why can’t I’?  So we both signed up.

As the winter months very slowly turned to spring all my worrying had sadly not converted into a disciplined training regime and it was late March when I realised I was seriously behind the curve.  This has never stopped me doing anything and my luck was about to turn. Via my network of Facebook friends, I was offered the opportunity of being a ‘resident cyclist’ for a Chalet near Bourg Saint Maurice for 3 weeks; a perfect finale to my less than perfect Marmotte training, I thought. Unfortunately, my luck was short-lived.

One week before my trip to Bourg Saint Maurice, I discovered that I had high blood pressure and an unusual ECG response. After a lot of tramping around London to various medical establishment, I realised that no-one was going to sign my Marmotte medical certificate.  The Doctor didn’t tell me I should stop riding, just that attempting 5000 metres in one day probably wasn’t wise, until I had investigated both things further, and the investigating was going to take time and money that I didn’t have.  The stress of running around all week trying to get things sorted, and finally on the eve of my departure, being told that my Marmotte dream was over, added to the stress of discovering that I had high blood pressure, which was probably caused by stress and that being stressed about it was going to increase the stress further!  If I didn’t have high blood pressure before, I certainly did now.

I awoke the next morning feeling anxious (stressed even?) and took a blood pressure reading with my latest gadget, a blood pressure monitor I brought on the way back from the cardiologist the previous evening. It was high. I was wondering how I was going to get 40kg of luggage, including a bike, from Clapham to Gatwick airport. I only had to negotiate one flight of stairs but what if no-one helped?  I couldn’t do it alone. Was it sensible to rely on the milk of human kindness in such stressful circumstances? It was all going horribly wrong.  Surely I would die before I even reached the airport?

By the time I was sitting in my Easyjet seat, I had started to calm down. I found myself contemplating 3 weeks of alpine riding with no need for extreme training schedules hanging over my head, and that thought alone gave rise to a little internal smile and a small sigh of relief.

The following blog is a record of me riding where the hell I liked and at my own pace. Looking back, it is the story of me reconnecting with the way I used to ride in my teens and early twenties, when we always made our own routes, and it was about exploring and getting lost. I loved it and within days my blood pressure had fallen back down to normal levels.

(top featured image: View across the valley from Alpe d’Huez)

An unfortunate turn of events.

The mission for the day was to temporarily relocate to a house further up the valley, as the chalet I was staying in was booked out for a couple of nights. My new residence happened to be the home of the chalet owner, who was away, so apart from watering a few plants, my time was my own.

The ride. I stuffed my pannier with enough food and clothes for a couple of nights, and ended up filling a Sainsburys shopping bag with luggage ‘over-spill’ and strapping it to the top of my rack with a bungee cord.  I don’t think this would be acceptable in the relatively new world of ‘bike packing’, but being acceptable is over-rated (like I would know!).  The additional weight made the bike super stable and reminded me of my cycle-touring yoof.  I stopped in Macot for some bread, which added to the bag-lady tourer look, and set off up the hill.

My new abode was 500 m higher than Landry and the going was even more sedate than usual, owing to the extra weight and the fact that I was wearing my big woolly jacket, due to lack of packing space.  In the end I had to take it off and add it to the burgeoning rack.  It is amazing what you can fit under a bungee.

I arrived at the small hamlet of Montvilliers, found the house and let myself in.  Although I had been there once before, I hadn’t had the chance to look around and had no idea where the bedrooms were or which one was intended for my use.  I found the nicest, which had a freshly made up bed, but was drawn to the sound of running water coming from the en-suite.  There was a fine jet of water coming out of the hot water inlet to the shower, but as far as I could tell, all of the water was going down the plug-hole.  Not ideal, and I found myself wondering whether I could sleep with the noise.  As I continued around the house I realized there was one room that I had missed on the ground floor.  I opened the door with some effort and was confronted with a room full of sodden plaster-board.  I realised to my horror, that the ceiling was now on the floor.  So the jet of water in the en-suite wasn’t all going down the plug-hole, as I had originally thought!!

Would it be quicker to locate the stop-cock by opening all the cupboards and getting lucky, or should I just ring the owners right away?  I did a mad dash around the utility room and kitchen to no avail and decided ringing was the only option, if only I could locate my phone! When I found it I realised that the owners number was in an email, so I had to find the wi-fi box and input the worlds longest password which was printed so small that I needed my reading glasses. It took a while.

The owner gave me a crash course on the plumbing of the house and I managed to locate and turn off the water at the ‘mains’, the only problem being that if I was to stay there for a couple of nights I needed to isolate the correct water circuit so that the other parts of the house where still functional. So I wasn’t out of the woods, but the house was.  ‘Water circuit central’ happened to be under the stairs in an unlit space which, if I had not taken up alpine riding, I would simply have not been able to access.  It consisted of 8 valves, some with levers attached, some without.  As an easy first pass, I decided to turn all the levers to the off position in the hope that the ‘dodgy circuit’ was one with a lever attached.  I gingerly turned the mains lever back on and rushed upstairs to see if the shower jet re-started.  Much to my dismay, it had, so I raced back down to the cellar and turned the mains off again.

Within the next couple of hours, I had learned how to attach a lever to a stop-cock valve as well as locate and use my phone torch.  I had also go to know the neighbours, removed the majority of the ceiling to the side-passage and possibly most importantly I felt at one with the internal workings of the house.  And there was me thinking it was going to be an easy day.

The Verdict. Could have been worse on many levels.  As a reward for my efforts I got to stay in a house with a room that has to be in my top 5 of favourite rooms.  Small, book-lined, with a couple of comfy chairs and a window-seat that looked right down the valley.

(two views from my favourite window seat, a temple to the sun and mountains)

Col du Petit St Bernard II or a ride ‘gastronomique’?

Improving on my last ascent of this col shouldn’t be too hard, as on my previous trip I found the road ascent a bit dull, and then got chased off the mountain by the rain and cold, so surely room for improvement?  I decided to take the off-road track up the opposite side of the valley for starters.

waterfall-306-x-600The Ride.  The frost was thick and white on the road-side grass, a timely reminder that winter is lurking around the next bend,  I crossed the valley and broke-out into the sunshine, but was glad I had brought my buff to go under my helmet.  It stayed there all day. I stopped and picked up a treat from the Boulangerie in Seez, and what a treat it was …..a chocolate, almond croissant; two of my favourite flavours wrapped in to one warm fatty mass!

I turned left onto a small road leading to St Germain, passing a very picturesque waterfall and managing to resist the warm croissant in my pocket for at least half an hour, surely worthy of sainthood?  The road eventually turned to gravel and the next hour and a half was tough going.  The track is a far cry from the smooth ‘marble’ road above la Planay, but is rideable, with mixed gradients between 7 and 10%.

Back out on tarmac and passed what has to be one of the most brutal and incongruous buildings in the Alps; the hospice at the top of the Col.  I guess it is a case of kill or cure?  To my relief,  the Italian restaurant was open for a much welcome cup of coffee (or two), so I didn’t have to use the restaurant attached to ‘the asylum’, before my ‘grand descend’. I chose the alternative road through Montvalezan, passing Chapelle St Michel, where I ate a delicious piece of salmon quiche, with amazing views up to Val d’Isere.  Such a contrast to the last time I was here.

The Verdict: A tough, more interesting ascent for those that like gravel tracks, and a quick stop at Chapelle St Michel is definitely worth it on a clear day.  A quick stop at the boulangerie in Seez is also to be recommended.

 

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(top: the off-road track up to the col, bottom: the view from the steps of Chapelle St Michel where salmon quiche was consumed!)

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(from left to right: the tower of Chapelle St Michel, an unusual way-marker on the chapel hillock, the village of le Chatelard with Chappelle St Michel in the background)

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(left: the Hospice & St Bernard at the top of Col du Petit St Bernard, top and bottom: basic time lapse photography, 10.30 am and 10.32 am)

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GoogleEarth ‘3D phantasmogram’ of my day out.

(top featured image: reflection in the lake behind Bourg Saint Maurice on a frosty morning)

‘Doom’ du Vaugelaz II

I planned to extend Dome de Vaugelaz I, which was one of my favourite rides in June.  So why try to improve it?  Dunno!  I just thought that perhaps it wasn’t quite long enough, so I added an additional loop to the beginning and the end.

St Guerin Chapelle, close to Mt Rosset

The Ride. The weather was becoming a habit of clear blue sky days, but gradually getting colder.  As my ride was on the sunny side of the valley, I was soon ditching my full fingered gloves.  The climb from Vulmix (unfortunate name) to la Thuile was an easy warm-up, the road above la Thuile soon turning to hard-pack gravel and becoming more of a grind.

On the road…at last!

After reaching the dizzying height of 1600 m, the route then descended 300 m, only to rise another 600 m.  The descent was horrible and had I known I wouldn’t have included it, so I started the last ascent in a bad frame of mind and I just couldn’t shift it to a sunnier place, even though the sun was shining.

I have a running friend who reckons he can tell when his body changes from processing easily accessible energy (like what you’ve just eaten for breakfast) to your long term energy store (the fat on your thighs and stomach?).  Anyway on that account, I felt like my body was accessing a cheese sandwich I had eaten 15 years ago!  My legs were complaining and I was fighting to enjoy it.  I think my over-expectation probably added to the battle.

I eventually got to the top of the road and caught a glimpse of the valley that I wanted to explore, which cheered me up.  From here on I was on new trails and the scenery of the Mont Rosset valley did not disappoint. I stopped for a while at St Guerin chapelle to chat to an English couple on E-mountain bikes, before heading round the hill on forest tracks to the Cormet d’Areches road and back down through Granier, Aime and home.

The Verdict.  A difficult one to objectively assess, because it could just be me having a bad day, but my overall impression was that I had pushed the off-road section too far and that a lot of it was too steep or rough for a road bike, unlike the previous ride, were the off-road bits were fun. I think it was more suitable for a mountain bike.

Click here to relive my pain!

Ghostly ski resorts & off-road bliss

The plan was to ride along the valley to Villaroger and then try the un-surfaced road up to Les Arc 2000, keeping high above Les Arc 1600 & 1800 and linking with Peisey Nancroix ride that I did last trip.  A higher than average balcony ride above the Isere valley was what I had in mind.

The Ride.  I set the alarm to ensure an earylish start, knowing that the weather was wall to wall blue sky and I’d better make the most of it.  It was cold as I set off along the valley to Bourg and I had to use my ‘*imp jacket’ (a black incredibly  thin and clingy shower proof jacket that looks like a dustbin bag but is incredibly effective and reduces to the smallest of sizes ……have you got the picture?).

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The ‘marble road’ from Le Planay to Les Arc 2000

Once I’d skirted the less pleasant aspects of Bourg, I was treated with the lovely quiet forest road that climbs steadily to Villaroger, from here I took the road up to Le Planay, where the tarmac ends. I stopped for a bite, which unfortunately allowed my legs to cool off just before the most gruelling kilometer of the day.  The track was rough and the gradient 12% + in places.  I didn’t know whether to concentrate on keeping the bike upright, or keeping the front wheel on the ground and really thought my planned ascent was doomed, but soon enough the track turned into a steady easy gradient (made from powdered marble) and remained like that for the rest of the ascent.  Perhaps the bottom section was there to test peoples resolve or put people off.

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Along the bumpy road ….

The track came out on the tarmac road that runs between Les Arc 1800 and 2000.  The sight of Les Arc 2000 looming over me was not a pleasant sight, and it had the added down-side that it was a dead-end, one of my pet hates.  I thought about giving it a miss but decided to go for the ‘tick in a box’.  I had loaded that section into my GPS but realised half way up that my GPS route stopped quite a long way before the resort, and that all the missing metres were up.  The resort was like the Marie Celeste, not even a coffee shop open.  It’s not the most attractive winter resort, so its summer ‘look’ was even worse. Definitely not a repeatable experience.  I ate my lunch and enjoyed the down hill stretch through the other ‘Arcs’, picking up a great bit of un-surfaced section which kept me higher than the built up areas.

As I descended into Vallandry, my need for a coffee or some kind of drink related stop increased, and I noticed a sign, giving the impression that a cafe was open somewhere.  My hunt for Chez Betty was long and hard and eventually rewarding.  Betty was a lady with a big smile, and a coffee machine.  I think she was as pleased to see me as I was to see her. It must get lonely up there all day.

Me with the head-cam on. Road above Landry.

(picture left: Me with the head-cam on. Road above Landry.)

Then there was the decision point.  At the Peisey Nancroix valley road, do I have the focus and commitment to turn left and do the additional loop over to La Plagne or do I just turn my wheel for home.  And the answer is ……… I don’t have the focus or the commitment.  The idea of sitting on my balcony with a cold beer and sauntering down to the butchers for a sausage for tea was just too enticing.  As part compensation for my wimpery, I decided to explore the small roads above Landry rather than going down the main road.  What a blast!  Probably the best track of the day, all down-hill, mainly un-surfaced and at the edge of what a road bike can comfortably do.  With the help of Betty’s coffee I was hoofing it and decided to stop worrying about my expensive wheels.

Just to round the day off, and widen the grin on my face, I found a fridge full of beer on the empty lower floor of the chalet.  It solves my beer/pannier/transport problem and I’ll pay the chalet owner when I see her!!

The Verdict. A lot of fun un-surfaced roads (16 out of a total of 58 km) , and in my books, the best way to keep clear of the ski resorts but still see the area.  I wouldn’t include Arc 2000 in future rides.

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(above: Google earth of the last section of my ride)

(top featured image: Landry Graveyard on the way down the Peisey Nancroix valley.) 

Peisey Nancroix Bike and Hike

The Plan was cycle up the Peisy Nancroix valley, lock the bike at the end of the road and continue on foot up to Lac de la Plagne and a Refuge called Entre le Lac. It was 40 km in total, a 24 km cycle and and 16 km walk, both involving around 700 m of ascent, so 1400 m in totaI.  I planned to come back via some smaller roads through the village of Villaret. Something to ease my city legs back into some alpine hills.

Looking down the valley, shortly after setting off.

The Ride.  I awoke late. 9.15 to be precise.  I’ll blame the 1 hour difference, but blame unfortunately didn’t solve anything.  I rushed around like you do on the first proper day of the trip, forgetting everything and double checking everything so I wasn’t out of the door until 10.45.  Woeful!  I set off up the valley on a picture post card day, with not a cloud in the sky.  I was interested to see if my increase in tyre width from 25 mm to 28 mm would adversely affect my riding, particularly on the uphill bits, but alas,  my legs were fresh and it was impossible to feel anything but joy!  I was riding at approximately 600 m vertical ascent/hour which is on the absolute lower limit for a sports rider but that’s fine, I’ll put myself at the top of the leisure category instead!

I locked my bike at the Refuge Rosuel and set off up the valley, through a large herd of bell ringing cows.  The walk  started with a reasonably steep climb up the valley side and eventually reached a grassy plateau surrounded by the high peaks of the Vanoise National Park.  The lake was further than I had imagined and when I eventually reached it, it was way past lunch-time.  There was a sign with the menu for the refuge attached (including Tartiflette and Hot Chocolate), so I set off around the lake only to find that the Refuge was shut for the season. So it was just me and the Marmottes and my bike snacks.  I was aware that I had to push on due to my late start, but the going was fairly easy and I made good progress back down the valley.

By the time I got back to Refuge Rosuel, I was heartily sick of my bike snacks.  Too much instant energy and not enough slow burning food, and I realized that I didn’t have anything quick and easy to cook when I got back, so I decided to see if the Refuge would solve my problem.  One humongous baguette stuffed with vast quantities of cheese and ham and a pression of Lager later and the problem was well and truly solved.

I whizzed back down the valley with the sun low in the sky and picking up every nook and cranny of the ‘sunny-side’ mountains.  A worthy treat at the end of my first day out.

The Verdict.

Highly recommended!  I would set off earlier if I did it again, and take my swimming things for a quick dip in the lake.  A leisurely Triathlon!

 

(above left: old man’s beard, top: looking back on the Bellecote ridge as evening approached, middle: grassy plateau at the top of the Peisy Nancroix valley, bottom:  Knobbly mountain in the sun on the Vallandry side of the valley)

Notes: I took a small rucksack, with an extra layer and a waterproof and used them both on the way down (waterproof for wind not rain), I took a cap not a helmet, but would take a helmet next time and lock it with the bike.  I also wore trainers and used my half and half pedals (flats on one side)

GoogleEarth ‘3D phantasmogram’ of the hiking section of the trip (including a little more detail about the Bellecote Ridge which dominates the valley)

(top featured image: view above Vallandry, looking up the Peisey Nancroix valley)

Knotted Chains

Today was about bike building, buying food and sussing things out. Bike building involved a knotted chain which tested my zen bike maintenance skills. I was on the verge of splitting it and using my super-link, when I decided to think about it logically instead of getting upset and feeling useless. It worked.

Unlike last time I stayed, there was no minibus into town, so I bought my bike rack and 1 pannier to do the shopping. I decided to go into Bourg along the bike path so that I could make some more adjustments to my bike.  The front derailleur  wasn’t getting the chain onto the big ring.  More fiddleage!  By the end of the path, it was purring along.

My SuperU shopping experience was underwhelming and badly planned.  I wasn’t settled enough to make the right choices and ended up with a basket full unrelated miscellaneous items.  The only thing I did get right was the food for the bike trips, and even then I didn’t find any flap-jack squares! My decision to only bring 1 pannier was also a little on the optimistic side.  A large bottle of beer and a packet of cereal and there was room for little else.  Something was going to have to go!

South London to Landry

Ned, my Scicon bag, ready for the long haul.

The Plan was to get from South London to Landry, a small village close to Bourg Saint Maurice in the French Rhone Alps.  It involved many stages and means of transport, but the bit that stressed me out the most was going through central London with a massive bike bag at rush hour on Monday morning.  There was only one flight that arrived in Lyon in time to catch the train to Landry and it flew out of Luton, so I just had to get on with it.

As I stood in my lounge with bags packed, it occurred to me that my Scicon bike bag looked rather like a Shetland pony (about the same size anyway!), so to ease my stress I decided to call it ‘Ned’.  Just one of my many survival strategies.

As I left the house and arrived at the main road, I saw a 322 bus at the bus stop, and although I had planned to pull ‘Ned’ to Brixton station, I decided to see if the bus would allow him on. The bus driver raised his eyebrows, but said if I could get the thing on without his help, I could take a ride.  Easy! It was a great start and my trip across London to Luton was pretty straightforward, apart from a wobble (4 faults) on the concourse at Kings Cross.  The shuttle from Luton train station to Luton airport was rammed, so I allowed a  woman to rest her bag on mine, which unfortunately dislodged a bag in Ned’s ‘internals’, so by the time I got to the oversized bag counter, he was trotting along at an extremely jaunty angle and had to undergo major surgery.  There were bits coming out all over the place, but once the top bar bag was re-secured everything seemed to settle down.

The journey from Lyon to Landry was pretty easy. I was going to say ‘like falling of a horse’ but I think it takes things too far.  Getting from Landry station to the chalet was the last challenge of the day.  The village has a petrol station and a butcher, and if it was Midwest USA it would probably have tumble-weed blowing down the main street.  It was dark and the station platform was more grass than concrete and I was alone as the train pulled out of the station.  My four-wheeled friend and I faced a half a mile of uphill, with a section of 9% at the top.  I know because I’ve cycled it on many occasions.  I clipped the two strap handles together  to make a harness and attached it to the front of the bag, then got inside the harness and pulled the bag along with my hips, like being attached to a sledge.  It must have looked like I was undertaking some kind of bizarre challenge or new sport, and it was only the fact that it was dark and deserted that allowed me to do such a thing, but it worked really well.  Necessity is the mother of invention indeed.

So, a whopping 13 hours later my bike, my luggage and I arrived for chapter two of my alpine 2016 adventure.

(picture of women at Lyon train station using a pedal powered phone re-charger.  I think she was playing Candy Crush Saga)

Notes:

  1. Started from the house at 7 am to avoid the worst of the rush hour.
  2. Brixton to Kingscross via Victoria line (step free both ends),  5 lifts from Victoria Line to Thameslink platform.  All working.
  3. Kings Coss to Luton Aiport via Thameslink and shuttlebus
  4. Easyjet from Luton to Lyon airport.
  5. Rhone Express from Lyon airport to Lyon central train station. Local train from Lyon to Landry.  All step free, except getting on and off the final train. The Gaurd was helpful, even though I forgot to validate my ticket at a ‘validating’ machine before I boarded the train.

If you are transferring your bike to and from Heathrow, Gatwick or City Airports the easiest option is to use these guys.  portr.com. They deliver to and from any of the above airports to your home.  I will be checking them out on the way back as I fly into Gatwick.  I am hoping they expand their business to Luton and Standstead!

Post script:  Unfortunately ‘Ned’ lost a hoof on the homeward journey.  As it was one of his rear ones, the bag was surprisingly stable on three wheels and my journey was not adversely affected.  I will be ordering some new ones for the next trip.

Alps Autumn 2016

With my first alpine trip becoming a distant memory,  I decided another trip was in order and much to my delight, the chalet extended my ‘residency’ to another three week trip. This time I built on my local knowledge and didn’t waste time disappearing into tunnels, getting stuck on main roads and ignoring the weather forecast. I did however get lost, and find tracks that were bordering on un-rideable for a road bike, but all in the pursuit of the perfect adventure biking route.  If you would like to read more about my adventures on this trip please click here.

(carousel picture: The lake behind Bourg Saint Maurice on the morning of my second ascent of Col du Petit Saint Bernard)

To Dartford (and not beyond)

After the surprise delight of my first trip ‘up east’, I decided to extend my route beyond Woolwich, with the original plan of getting to East Tilbury, via the Tilbury Ferry from Gravesend.  I was becoming increasingly aware of the disappearing summer, with every warm sunny day potentially the last for 6 months, so off I set post haste. (map at bottom of post)

The Ride.  I started along the now familiar Quietway 1 from Waterloo to Greenwich, except that it wasn’t as familiar as I had hoped.  I kept taking my eye off the GPS and finding myself way off track.  I think complacency was creeping in after having cycled it only once before.  Such arrogance!  At the Thames Barrier I found myself in a Car Park at the back of the building and discovered a free museum.  At a distance it looked like a load of strangely shaped metal objects on a roundabout and on closer inspection, that is indeed what it was.  The objects were parts from a fully operational scaled down model of the barrier, built at Imperial college to test the concept, and check that it would withstand the water pressure in times of flood.  You could see the dents in the metal ‘paddle’ where they had ramped up the pressure above and beyond what I hoped would ever be reached in reality.  I didn’t feel entirely re-assured.

woolwich

Beyond the Woolwich Ferry to Woolwich Arsenal, and an area that I had no knowledge of before now.  It is crammed full of buildings and history dating back to the 1600’s and is currently being re-developed.  As military history is not ‘my bag’, I stopped briefly to examine the sculpture next to the pier and found myself peering inside a set of iron statues and for some reason felt that looking down on them might have given me more of a clue to their meaning.  I continued east to Thamesmead and a structure called Gallions Hill, which is a small grassy mound made up of rubble and building waste from an eco-friendly affordable housing project called Gallions Reach Ecopark. I cycled up the helical path to it’s summit, for what the Londonist describes as ‘probably one of the least famous view-points in London’.  I have to say that on this particular visit, the ‘eco’ and the ‘friendly’ credentials were not at all obvious, but the view was interesting, and more importantly, I got a snail shaped motif on my GPS route.

The path from here to the Crossness pumping station changes to gravel, and skirts the edge of the as yet un-opened Gallions Reach park.  Having seen Henry Bazelgettes pumping station building at Three Mills a couple of days ago, I was looking forward to seeing  his ‘sister’ pumping station at Crossness.  I was disappointed on two counts, one was that the architecture was much less elaborate, and the other was that it was closed to the public except on Tuesday. I consoled myself with a couple of Sainsburys flapjack squares (chocolate topped).

The last section of the Thames path, before Erith, is dominated by two large industrial sites, that I was educated about by a very  informative plaque next to the Thames on Erith Marshes. The less attractive and smaller building has the dubious honour of being the largest sewage treatment works in Europe and handles enough sewage to fill 20 Olympic size swimming pools every hour, and the larger building is the Crossness sludge-powered generator, which burns dried sewage as a renewable energy source.  I could have missed these details out of my ride description, but as I looked back and noticed the wind-turbines, I was aware of the slow but inexorable change from fossil-fuels to renewables and how it is starting to change the landscape.

At Erith, I had to make a decision about whether to continue along the Thames path.  The Erith Marshes are divided down the middle by the Darent river and the map hinted that there was a way across the Darent, from one side of the marsh to the other, but when I arrived at the river, there was no way across, forcing me to go inland on a single-track gravel path, and into the less attractive suburbs of Erith.  My resolve to continue to Gravesend and the Tilbury Ferry dissolved in the late summer heat, somewhere in the middle of an industrial estate just outside Dartford.  The Thames path effectively comes to an end at Erith and the inland cycling options in an easterly direction seem pretty un-enticing until you get beyond Gravesend, and I think I’ll leave that for another day.

The Verdict.  Points off for being an  A to B route rather than a loop, but getting the train back from Dartford was very straight-forward.  It has put me in mind to make a loop ride which includes exploring the Darent valley.

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Essex from Erith Marsh, looking across The Great Grey Greasy ………Thames

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Going ‘Up East’

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Deptford Creek

I think I’m at the start of a love affair.  I decided to ride to a friend’s house in Wanstead a few weeks ago and planned a route that was as traffic-free as possible.  It took me through parts of London that I had heard of, but never seen, and I loved it.  At one point I was riding alone down a disused canal cut, past abandoned warehouses on a narrow tow-path with a steep drop into a green soupy canal, the next minute I was dodging around the side of hidden marinas and dry docks, and then the Olympic Park full of waterways, bikes paths and strange looking buildings.  Yes I am 10 years behind the curve when it comes to discovering East London, but I made it in the end.

So with my wheel set firmly towards the rising sun, I set off on another journey of discovery.  I planned to ride Quietway 1, which is a new almost traffic-free bike route from Waterloo to Greenwich, and then follow the NCN Route 1 to Woolwich and beyond.

The Ride. The route immediately out of Waterloo was slow and busy, with too many white vans doing U-turns, but at least the path was well marked.  I was soon beyond Borough and heading to South Bermondsey on quiet back roads, and as I headed further east, Quietway 1 really did live up to its name.  I passed the Millwall football stadium, where the biggest visible advertising hoarding was a local funeral directors and it reminded me of a guy I used to go to college with.  He was a big Millwall fan and use to show off a mended slash in his leather jacket from a stabwound he had suffered at a particularly lively game!  Onward and over the Ha’penny Hatch footbridge, which spans Deptford Creek just before it joins the Thames. Through the railway arch on my left I glimpse a small collection of boats moored on the eastern bank, and to my right a notice on the bridge inviting me to wade through the mud at low tide. For a mere £10 you get a pair of waders and the chance to get really muddy.  I’m tempted!.

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Sand and Gravel Works beyond Greenwich

At Greenwich, the Quietway 1 spits me out on the main road in to town.  I pass the Cutty Sark, which is always an impressive site, and follow NCN route 1 to a little Thames-side pub, just off the main-stream tourist trail, with the rather unoriginal name of The Cutty Sark. A freshly cooked scotch egg and half a pint later, and I’m back heading east. There are a couple of very big roads to negotiate which the route manages pretty well, and I’m soon back on the Thames path whizzing by a massive aggregates (sand and gravel) depot, with a multitude of conveyor belts and piers jutting into the widening Thames.  With a backdrop of the Thames Barrier and the imposing Tate and Lyle sugar refinery on the northern bank, you could never be in any doubt that this is the working side of town.  I wonder why I am attracted rather than appalled by such views, and put it down to a lifelong curiosity for how something works.

At Woolwich Ferry and I find myself making a split second decision to take the boat rather than the foot tunnel or carry on further east. It is free after-all.  The foot passengers ‘quarters’ are below the car deck,  all white painted metal, wooden benches and incomprehensible signs which only make sense if you are a ferryman.  It reminded me of an oil rig; smelt like one as well!

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A glimpse of canary wharf from the Greenway near Stratford

And so to northern shores, and the bit of the ride that I was most curious about.  I wanted to stay as close to the river as possible, following the Capital Ring walk around the eastern lock gates of the Royal Docks.  I cycled through Royal Victoria Gardens and found my way along the front of the Gallions Point housing complex, and then to the first set of locks.  At this point the ride took on a wild and wacky feel.  The main lock gates where relatively easy to negotiate but the ones across the Gallions Marina where decidedly dodgy and not wide enough for a bike and rider.  There was an alarming gap between the two lock gates which I had to hop over and I found the whole experience rather ‘knee wobbling’.  The path out was completely over-grown with rather a desolate feel, and I was starting to imagine finding a dead body around the corner, but only found a pile of laughing gas canisters.  Although the maps indicates paths and roads continuing along the Thames, most of them no longer exist, and I kept ending up at the back entrance to a Tescos Extra.  However much I tried to continue along the Thames, in the end I drew a blank and conceded defeat. I turned landward towards the Greenway, a recently opened traffic-free route along the top of a sewer pipe that runs from Becton to Stratford.

I found the pros of the Greenway (traffic-free, wide, straight, high-up, good views) outweighed the cons (not breathing too deeply when you go past a vent), and any way it is the end of a hot summer so aroma could be seasonal.  As it neared Stratford and the Olympic Park, there were some great views of Canary Wharf and Joseph Bazalgettes Victorian masterpiece, the Three Mills pumping station.

With the last leg of my trip to go, I felt in need of a coffee so I stopped at the Three Mills cafe for what turned out to be a massive bowl of the stuff.  From there to Tower Bridge it’s like an adventure park for bikes, and with a coffee inside me I was whizzing along the gantries, wobbling down the pontoons, taking the curbs to say nothing of the jacob’s ladders and cobbled back streets behind St Catherines Dock.

I completed the loop back to Waterloo past the Tate Modern and couldn’t help comparing it to the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery. It seemed like a fitting end to my industrial tour.

The Verdict. A great ride. One of the ones that doesn’t need a second or third recce to improve upon.  I have two version of this ride in ridewithGPS.com; one which includes the Gallions Point adventure and one which sticks to easier paths at this point in the ride.  

click here ………With Gallions Lock

click here…….Without Gallions Lock

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The first puffa gillet in bronze!

Post ride notes:  I’m not normally someone who waxes lyrical about history (I was thrown out of history lessons and banned from taking the O’ level) but on my return I couldn’t help googling some of the things I had past and I found myself being totally drawn in by what I discovered.

The Ha’penny Hackbridge in Deptford appears to have been the site of The Battle of Deptford Bridge in 1497 and also the final resting place for Francis Drake’s Golden Hind.  All of this and more can be found in a blog called the Greenwich Phantom.

Gallions Reach, which previous to my ride had evoked a rather romantic picture of tall ships, was actually named after the Galyons family who owned Thames-side property in the area in the 14th century.  It was also the scene of the biggest Thames disaster and the site of an Inn that Rudyard Kipling stayed at and you can read more about it on the Hidden London website.

Three Mill pumping station was built by Joseph Bazalgette as a remedy for the Cholera outbreaks of the 1800’s.  It pumped sewage to the outer reaches of London before allowing it back into the Thames on an outgoing tide.  If ever there was a cathedral to sewage, it’s this!

Three Mills Island has been the location of a corn mill, a gin distillery, a gun powder plant and is still the worlds largest tidal mill.  It is explained in more detail in the London Unveiled blog.

The two ships in front of Tobacco dock are replicas of pirate ships built in the 1990’s and are associated with a doomed shopping precinct that never came to be.  They are now ghost ships crumbling into their dry docks.  Read more on the Tired of London, tired of living blog

R & R

T’was a day of rest, contemplation and noting down everything before I forgot it.  It felt like everything had lead up to the last ride; The Roselend Epic.  I couldn’t get it out of my head, but also couldn’t help wondering how many more epics there are to be discovered.

Last Chance Saloon

I awoke from a terrible nights sleep due to eating a huge portion of pasta the previous evening, and the women in the room upstairs going to the loo at least 3 times.  I couldn’t decide between Col de Madeleine (with a train ride) or going up Cormet d’Areches, with the tantalising possibility of completing the ‘Roselend Epic’; a loop ride that included 3 cols and had been taunting me all week.  The weather forecast predicted the best weather for the last 10 days, which wasn’t saying much, but I was aware that it was the last good day before my return to the UK. I set off to do Cormet D’Areches, or at least ride up as much of the valley as possible.  It seemed more exciting than a train ride followed by an ‘up and back’ route.

The Ride. I climbed the small set of switch-backs that Sam and I had discovered in the van, and on through Valezan and Granier.  It seemed like I had been waiting an age to ride up this valley, and what had stopped me was a degree of fear for it’s remoteness, coupled with not knowing the state of the un-surfaced road at the summit.

I rode past the ‘Cormet d’Areche road closed’ sign, taking no heed, steadily climbing the valley-side above Granier. When I glanced back the view of Mont Pourri peeping through the clouds was breath-taking. It is the highest and most eye-catching mountain in the valley. The road climbed through the tall pine forests and out into the high Alpine meadows. It was the toughest climb of the trip and coupled with a slight headache I kept doubting my ability to make it to the top.  I finally reached the end of the tarmac, but the un-surfaced road gave me no excuse to turn back as it was hard-packed with only a small amount of loose gravel.  As I climbed higher, my resolve to reach the col hardened, and I started to contemplate doing the ‘Roselend Epic’ rather than turning for home at the top.

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No turning back at the top of Cormet d’Areches

I decided to change the route on my GPS to reflect my change of plan, but in doing so completely confused the device, and as I neared the summit my ‘battery low’ sign started flashing.  Was it a sign? Should I turn back once I had ‘bagged’ the col, or was I just using it as an excuse?  After all, I had studied this route so many times, surely I could navigate it by memory?

I took the obligatory picture at the top and carried on down the other side.  It was only after 500 metres or so, that I realised I had committed to the longer ride without giving it any serious consideration.  By now the road was rocky with a lot of loose gravel but as I slowly picked my way down it, I knew that I wasn’t going to turn the bike around. So that was decided then; I was on for the biggest day of my trip.

As I turned a bend in the road a whole new landscape opened up to me; the Beaufortain Massif.  I was surrounded by 360 degrees of beautiful alpine landscape. Soon back on tarmac, albeit extremely patchy, I swooped passed a huge dam at the end of Lac du Guerin, and on down until I could see the start of the switch-backs up to Col du Pre; a sobering sight.  I stopped at the bottom to eat the last of my Tesco’s flap jack squares and an egg from breakfast, washed down with ice cold alpine water, and started the second ascent of the day.  It was a short but steep 6 km, with gradients up to 10.6%, and very hot.  I stopped at a restaurant at the top for a coffee and a myrtle tart, and filled my water bottle with water that ‘wasn’t always drinkable’ according to the waitress. It was better than nothing and I knew there would be plenty of places to re-fill now that I was nearing a more populated area.

 

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20 kms to go …& the best bit yet to come.

So, onwards and downwards again, with the Lac de Roselend in my sights, and soon behind me. I emptied and re-filled my water bottle with icy water from a roadside tap at the start of the final ascent of the day.  7 km up to the Cormet de Roselend, playing cat and mouse with a group of German road-bikers. Their back-up van kept over-taking me and parking up, perhaps thinking I needed a lift.  If only they knew how close I was to completing my own personal challenge, and that I would rather crawl to the top with the bike strapped to my back than accept a lift. I realised at this point that, bar a massive mechanical hitch, my mission was almost accomplished.

There was just one last thing left to be done, a 20 km descent into Bourg Saint Maurice, and if the last 60 km had blown my mind, then the next 20 took it to another level.  No switch-backs here, just massive sweeping turns passing high snow-capped mountains, and valleys begging to be explored.  As I flew down the road, tilting into the curves and picking up unrecorded speeds, I felt the pressures of the day lift and found myself singing, and then a lump in my throat.

Later, I sat in La Cantina next to the roar of the white water of the Isere river, with a large glass of biere blonde, and realised that nobody knew about my day but me, and for some reason I wanted to keep it that way for a little longer; like someone who’d accidentally stumbled on a nugget of gold. I drank another glass before turning my wheel towards home, after what has to be one of my most awesome days on a bike, ever.

The Verdict.  Need I say more?  Can’t be improved on.  Put it on your bucket list!  I have since discovered that Cormet de Roselend is considered by some to be in the World top 50 ascents, but I like to think that approaching it from the top and descending it, is even more fun.

click here to go to the route in ridewithgps.com

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A low point

A bit of a low point for me. I don’t know if I was losing patience with the weather, or just using it as an excuse.  It was cold and wet, not pouring rain or freezing cold, just uninspiring.  I knew that my residency was nearing an end so why wasn’t I just getting after it?  I set off to do the little road Sam and I had discovered the previous day, but as I tackled the first hill, my legs felt like lead.  I just felt glum.

Photo-shoot and a surprise find

Predicting the weather was becoming a real obsession.  We decided that a photo shoot was in order, so set off with Sam, the bike and the dog in the van to find some worthy shots.  The bottom line was that the light was wrong.  We weren’t really getting anything better than shots taken with my phone, except that I was in the shot …….and sometimes favvie!  We accidentally stumbled upon a road from the N90 to Valezan.  It was tiny, only the width of the van with no passing places and sometimes the hairpins were so acute that the van had to do a two-point turn to get around them, but all tarmac. Definitely one for the adventure road biker!

A Gravelly Descent

The plan to do the Roselend Epic (via the ‘closed’ Cormet d’Areches road) with a local cyclist called Ben had cratered. It was raining at 8 am and then again at 9 am and after a bout of email ping-pong we decided against it.  It was a ride that for some reason had captured my imagination and I really wanted to do it in good conditions.  At 11 am there was a gap in the clouds, and I was hastily on my bike.  Decided to explore the small roads around La Plagne and link to the Peisey Nancroix valley.

The Ride.  I felt I had neglected this side of the valley a bit, because it is on the north-facing shady side and also has the ski resorts on it, both points against it in my quest for the perfect route. True to prediction it was chilly and I wished I had my full-fingered gloves on.  That said, as I started to climb the small switch-back road out of Macot-la-Plagne, the clouds lifted giving some great glimpses of the ‘sunny side’ mountains and a tantalising glimpse of the Cormet d’Areches valley that we had planned on climbing.

The old narrow road was between 8 to 10 percent all the way up, but in my normal style, I just put the bike in ‘first’ plodded and day- dreamed my way to the top, with my legs and lungs now thinking it was par for the course.  I ignored my GPS and found my self way-off route.  I descended back down and found myself back on course, contouring around the side of the mountain through pine forests on un-surfaced roads, which were easy for a road bike, even with a lot of water on them.

Back on small tarmac roads and going through the lower parts of the La Plagne resort at around 1600 ms, I recognised some of the lifts and runs from a ski holiday 5 years ago. After more contouring around the hill and up a small valley which linked to the Peisey Nancroix valley, the basic tarmac road turned in to a rocky jeep track descent to the village of Nancroix.  A tough descent and not for road-bikers with no mountain biking experience. Hard on the hands and had to ‘pick a line’ ……..for a little too long.  Would be better with disk brakes I think.  Whizzed down the valley back to the chalet, max speed 72 km/hr.  Perhaps I was a little too enthusiastic to be back on tarmac!

The Verdict.  Some great views and a real variety of surfaces.  Definitely better going up the un-surfaced sections rather than down so would choose to do this ride backwards.

Notes for future rides:

  1. The ride could be extended by continuing to Longefoy before starting the climb, then going through Bois Croizelan, La Roche, Plangagnant & La Frasse.  This would join the route just above Les Granges.  Needs to be reccied as includes un-surfaced roads.

(top featured images, left;looking across to the ‘sunny-side’ valley near Granier from La Plagne, right; road to Peisey Nancroix from La Plagne)

The Southwest passage

Woke to more grey clouds and heavy rain, but predicted to ease after lunch so Sam, Favvie (a large shaggy mountain dog) and I set off to find a route west of Aime which linked the south side of the river with the Notre Dame du Pre road, therefore avoiding the dreaded N90.  This particular linkage is taking on the same significance as discovering the Northwest passage, except that it was southwest!!  I feel I am getting a bit obsessed with it, but it’s just that the Notre Dame du Pre road is lovely, but like a loose end because you can’t include it in a loop ride without coming back on the N90 and through the tunnel. Nuff said.

We decided to walk as the rain didn’t stop and walking is more pleasant than cycling in the rain (in my opinion), and Favvie isn’t so good on a bike.  We re-traced my steps along the new section of road I had discovered on the Charvaz village loop, but instead of crossing the river, found another track which continued through the forest to a small hamlet called les Esserts.  The track, which was rideable, stopped at the hamlet but, rather tantalisingly, another track (still jeep track but grass rather than gravel) continued on.  We were wet and it was a long way to the Notre Dame du Pre road so we turned back, leaving the southwest passage still uncharted.

(right photograph: inquisitive cows near to the hamlet of les Esserts)

Charvaz Village Loop

I set off late in the afternoon after a car trip to Albertville in the morning (in search of some sunshine). Turned west on the D88 and decided to see if I could find the VTT route that keeps to the south of the Isere beyond Aime.  This was attempt number 2 at trying to link Notre Dame du Pre to Aime without going through the tunnel.

The Ride.  This time I started out on the right road which followed the valley, with wooded mountains on the left and the ravenous fast flowing Isere river on the right.  The road started as tarmac and then poorly maintained tarmac, and finally hard-pack gravel with occasional rocky sections. The road came to an end, I back-tracked and turned right into the valley down a steep rocky section, all ride-able.  I crossed a little bridge and had to push the bike up a steep fairly rocky ascent (~10 mins).  Ride-able on a mountain bike but didn’t have the gears on the road bike.  Came out on the dreaded N90 but turned left and almost immediately right on to a long straight section of a small road through Villette.

After 1 km I turned right on a very small tarmac road that rose steeply up the valley side via a narrow set of switch-backs.  Steep but loads of things to look at and no cars! Eventually came to the village of Charvaz, where I turned left and crossed the Tessens.  Decided to keep high and take an un-surfaced road that linked with the Granier road, passing an unfriendly farmer with a mobile milking parlour and his noisy cows.

Returned home along the D86a through Granier, clocking the turning up to Cormet d’Areches and passed a sign saying it was closed, before turning down to Landry via Bellentre. (was Cormet d’Areches really closed or just playing hard to get?  It was the start of one of my larger rides that I had pre-planned before I came out so I wanted it to be open at some point ….)

The Verdict: Infinite amount of variations, but a good 2 to 3-hour ride for a gap in the showers, with some lovely small quiet lanes and a minimal amount of un-surfaced road.

Notes:

Some interesting sections which would slot into other rides, particularly the southeastern extension of the river valley road (the beginnings of the closing of the southwest passage…..) 

 

More Rain ….

It rained in the morning, it rained in the afternoon and it rained in the evening.