italy

Alpine Balm

This update’s been a long time coming.

For those who see my Facebook, you’ll know why.  It was because I’ve been afraid since Thursday that, if I started writing, you would just end up getting a rant about the fact that my country has gone completely nuts in my absence.

So, I thought I’d get back to the big mountains, and see if they calmed me down.  And they have.  If only by tiring me out.

IMG_2058 Edit
I’d made it to Novara, (roughly) between Milan and Turin by the time the Brexit nonsense began on Thursday night.  I’d already decided on a day off there, partly because I was due one, and partly because it was getting very hot on the flat, northern Italian plains.

It was a decent plan, as the temperature flirted with 40 degrees centigrade (104 F) on Friday.  I didn’t feel like doing much anyway, so lounging around and keeping cool was all that was going to happen.

But on Saturday, the weather had freshened up.  The temperature was back to being reasonable to ride in, and the plains remained flat.  Oh, and the wind was at my back for the first time in a while.  I piled on the miles, stopping that night just north of Turin.  And then getting back into the mountains by Sunday evening, rolling up a long valley towards the French Alps.

IMG_2074 Edit
Although I was still extremely grumpy at that point, it was time for the therapy to start.  As seems to be traditional with borders in mountains, my entry to France would take place close to the top of a high pass.  It was time to get the climbing legs out again.

A whole day of climbing got me close to the border by yesterday (Monday) afternoon.  The heat was back, and I was struggling as I hit around 1100 metres (3600 ft) of vertical gain for the day.  Then the road steepened as it set course for the top of the col.  Plenty more climbing to go.  Ouch!

IMG_2097 Edit

And then, amazingly, a bike tunnel appeared (above).  A couple of kilometres long, it was the old road tunnel.  More importantly, although I was still climbing, it was shady, cool, and with a nice breeze rushing through it.  Just in time to save my climbing bacon.

And so, as refreshed as you can be while still climbing a 6% gradient, I popped out of the tunnel, through a little village, and into France.  Within another mile or two, I finally hit my first col of the French Alps:

IMG_2109 Edit
After a very fun plunge off the top (the French downhills have been superb so far, if over much too quickly), I was in Briancon last night.  Watching England’s football team shamefully following the rest of the country out of Europe.  Two results that are hard to understand in less than a week…

Still, I had to do it all again today.  Another huge col, this one the Lauteret, which is a Tour de France regular, and goes up to over 2000 metres (6500 ft).  This time, I was helped out on the climb by already being reasonably high up at Briancon.  And also by getting a bit of company from Ivor, a semi-expat Brit, who was riding up a whole lot quicker than me (though without the bags, in my defence).  Nice to have a cuppa and a chat at the pass, rather than just dropping straight over…

IMG_2123 Edit

And then, it was another long, long downhill.  So long that I’m going to try to illustrate it with two pictures.  The landscape changed as I dropped from the high peaks at the top (above), to the narrow, but still massive, gorges and valleys (below, on a rare uphill section – spot the big truck).

IMG_2127 Edit
And I eventually got down off the mountain to the town of Bourg d’Oisans, which is right in the middle of a whole ring of enormous climbs.  Bizarrely, the smallest of these (or at least, it looks the smallest from the town) is the legendary Alpe d’Huez, which zigzags up the side of the valley, and is one of the most iconic Tour de France climbs (often, as in 2015, it’s where the race is decided).  Most of the other climbs around here are much bigger.

But, as a result of having the Alpe just across the road from town, the area is swamped with recreational cyclists.  I rolled into town in the company of a little peloton coming back from an afternoon run up to Huez.  They said it’s not actually a difficult climb.  I’m not so sure that’s likely to be the case on a 40kg touring rig, though…

IMG_2130 Edit

So I’m still considering whether it will be Alpe d’Huez, or one of the other famous cols near here tomorrow.  What I do know is that the rhythm of climbing all morning, and then dropping down a vertical kilometre of twists and turns in the afternoon, is very soothing.  It’s almost stopped me brooding about Brexit, which is quite an achievement.

Maybe the answer to all the world’s problems can be found in the French Alps, on a bike…

Advertisements

Out of Aprica (And How to Cross Switzerland in 90 minutes)

Up into the big hills.  Turn left.  Keep going until you hit the lakes.

That’s pretty much it for the last few days.  After another rain-enforced rest day on Sunday, of course.

Naturally, there’s a bit more to it than that.  These are big hills, after all.  So there’s been over 3000 vertical metres of climbing (around 10,000 ft) in three days.  And a comparable amount of decending.  And boy, is northern Italy beautiful.

20160620RTW_1 Edit

The first and biggest pass was the Passo Tonale, which topped out at 1884 metres.  It’s used fairly regularly by the Giro d’Italia bike race.  The pass itself is ‘only’ 15 kms (9 miles) of fairly hard (6-7%) climbing when coming from the east.

But this ignores the fact that you have to climb nearly a thousand metres just to get to the ‘official’ bottom.  The picture above looks nice an unthreatening, doesn’t it?  But it’s all gently uphill, and the climbing doesn’t stop until you hit those snow-capped peaks at the back of the picture.

Here they are again, a couple of hours later, and a little bit closer:

IMG_1999 Edit

Stunning, but ever so hard.  Thankfully, there’s the payback of a nice (but all-too-short) downhill to come.  Once again illustrating that, while headwinds and hills are both hard, hills do, at least, give you something in return for your efforts.  Though I have to say that this would have been more comfortable with working brakes (fixed now!):

IMG_2016 Edit

A dip, and another climb to another pass at Aprica. The climb to Aprica is rated (by none other than the arch-villain of cycling, Lance Armstrong) as one of the hardest in Italy.  It certainly looked it, from the sweating faces of the recreational cyclists I flashed past in the other direction.  It’s certainly another contender for ‘downhill of the trip’ as far as I’m concerned.  The brakes were heating up, and the insects dying in droves against the crash helmet once again.

I could feel the temperature increasing as I plunged down.  And, I was dropping quick enough for my ears to ‘pop’ twice before I got to the bottom.  I’d highly recommend it to anyone (though you may want to get the cable car up to the top!).

From the bottom of the Aprica downhill, it was a long, flat valley road to Lake Como.  Quite a different landscape, but still with those big mountains lurking in the background.  There’s nothing like lakes and mountains, as far as I’m concerned, and I’ve been cruising around staring at picture-perfect views for a day-and-a-half now.  It makes me very happy.

IMG_2028 Edit

And from Como, I’ve managed to cross a country today (Wednesday).  It only took and hour-and-a-half, and some of that was due to traffic problems.  A massive tunnel, a city, and a few kilometres of road near the airport.  And that was it.  There’s a slightly odd-shaped wedge of Switzerland jutting down into Italy around the town and lake of Lugano.  And a gentle ride today, including plenty of coffee stops and chats with other cyclists, took me straight across it.

IMG_2032 Edit
I’m now back in Italy (literally by fifty yards).  But don’t worry, I will be giving Switzerland a bit more time on the way home.  I just have to nip across and have a look at the French Alps first…

Rediscovering the Adventure Mojo

What a difference a day or two and some sunshine makes.  And the mountains, of course.

Thursday was the last of the flat, straight roads for a while.  Constantly harassed by showers and big black clouds.  But I realised halfway through the day that my diversion plan must actually be working.  Despite missing the north of Slovenia and a little bit of Austria, I was still moving.  I was beating the big storms.

And yesterday morning (Friday), I awoke at the entrance to the mountains.  The sun was out.  And I was ready to get my exploring head back on.  No more whining about being nearly home.  Or the weather, if I can help it.

IMG_1968 Edit

The nice thing about the Alps (and the Dolomites, to which they are joined with no obvious boundary – I think I’m in the Dolomites at the moment, but will apparently be climbing in the Alps tomorrow) is that, although the mountains are big, the valleys in-between tend to be wide and quite flat.

There is the odd place where you have to climb, and then drop, a few hundred metres to cross to another valley, which can be quite spectacular:

IMG_1974 Edit

But, if you hit the right valley, you can make quite a lot of progress without too much climbing.  The flip side of this, of course, is that when you do hit a proper climb, it’s likely to be massive.

Anyway, this part of Italy is a mixed area.  There are German speakers as well as Italian speakers here, and many of the towns have two names.  It’s probably the only place in the world where a frankfurter pizza is actually an authentic local dish.  Or at least, that’s what they told me… Which suits my healthy touring cyclist’s diet perfectly.

20160617RTW_6 Edit

It’s also an area with more fairytale castles than you can shake a stick at (one pictured above).  And as you roll up the valleys, you hardly notice that you’re gaining height, as the mountains on either side just open up more and more astonishingly beautiful vistas.

But there are definitely easier ways to climb in the mountains than by pedalling.  I’ve always fancied having a go at paramotoring (essentially flying around on a parachute with a propeller attached to your back), and the guy below was having a great time dive-bombing cyclists in the valley this morning:

20160618RTW_6 Edit

Maybe that’s the next challenge; it’s certainly a lot less sweaty than cycle touring, but possibly more dangerous in thunderstorms…

My musings about how I could attach a bike to a parachute were, however, rudely interrupted by the tunnels.  As you can see from the rugged landscape, there’s a lot of call for them, and the Italians seem to love building them.  This is the entrance to the second of three on the drop down to Trento:

IMG_1984 Edit

The last of the three tunnels was by far the longest I’ve done on the trip so far, at over 3km.  And it was pretty steeply downhill.

Downhill tunnels on a touring bike are a bit like a theme-park ride.  Italian tunnels are well-lit, and I remembered to take my shades off this time (I’ve done a few nearly blind due to dark glasses), but the inside is still dark enough compared to the bright sunshine to to be disorientating.  Then there’s the noise, with every engine echoing and amplified by the tunnel walls.

And then there’s the wind, as every truck, bus and car creates a pressure-wave of air which has nowhere to go.  So it pushes you about.  And pushes you forward.  Faster and faster and faster.  The Italians have electronic speed warnings on a lot of their roads.  I hit the speed trap in tunnel three at 77 kph (48 mph).  And still accelerating.  If you want to know the speed limit, I’ll refer you back to the photo above.  Oops…

IMG_1985 Edit

I exploded out of the end of the last tunnel like a cork out of a bottle, and, after a little break to let the adrenaline subside, headed up the valley through Trento.  I was on a short day today, which ultimately joined me up with my original intended route, after the longish detour of the last few days.

Returning to the original plan made me happy, and I began looking at the slightly menacing clouds over the valley walls (above) as just a spectacular landscape feature rather than anything to worry about.

This was nearly a mistake, as there was a rogue downpour lurking, which almost pinged me before I got to shelter:

IMG_1988 Edit

The benefit of that shower is that it stopped me getting too intimidated by being able to see much of tomorrow’s climb.  It’s the only hill I’d class as a ‘monster’ before I get to the French border (I’m using the valleys to good effect), but it’s unavoidable if I want to get further west.

Nearly 1900 metres (or nearly 6200 ft).  Gulp…

Here’s how much my attitude to the weather has adjusted itself.  There’s a chance of heavy rain tomorrow afternoon.  Just for a few hours.  I’m thinking that I might be glad of an excuse to break that climb into two manageable chunks.

It’s just possible that I’ll actually be wishing for rain…

Deflection. Reflection.

I’m not where I thought I’d be.

One of the joys of bike touring is that you can pretty much go where you like, and change your plans when you want.  One of the pains of bike touring is that sometimes your plans get changed for you, and you have to miss things to keep moving.

So I’m in Italy today, when I should really be in either Slovenia or Austria.  I’d better explain why, I suppose…

IMG_1942 Edit

About two inches of rain fell in my part of Croatia on Saturday, in the couple of hours it took England to make a typically underwhelming start to Euro 2016.  In contrast to the football, the lightning was pretty spectacular.

Then it rained all day on my day off (Sunday) too.  Thankfully, my now well-tested bike chrysalis stood up to the deluge (above – a good reason to carry a tarp, even if you never use it to keep yourself dry).  So the Beastlet was saved from drowning.  And the rain failed to dampen the spirits of the locals, who celebrated Croatia’s first goal in the competition by lighting every flare in the marina, while running around in clouds of early-afternoon alcohol fumes (below).

IMG_1947 Edit

But the rain was starting to get to me.  You might have noticed that the last few posts had lost a little sparkle.  Spending what has felt like weeks dodging thunderstorms wears you down eventually.  But I think I’m also suffering from quite a bad case of end-of-trip blues.  Of which more later.

Monday morning dawned cloudy and drizzly.  Some time before I eventually woke up, needless to say.  I was heading for Slovenia, my last ex-Yugoslav country.  I’d been there on a brief work trip years ago, and was looking forward to heading north through the big hills, and reacquainting myself with the pretty capital, Ljubljana, and lovely Lake Bled.

But the central European storms are back.  I’m not sure they ever really went away.  I can’t imagine it’s been much fun for people who live there for the last few months, as storm after storm has just bombarded the whole area.  But the weather forecast on Monday showed an area of storms nearly as big as Germany sitting all over the mountains to the north.

It looked like I could squeeze across the border before the rain hit on Monday, so I hammered along, trying not to notice the damage I was doing to my quads by climbing over a thousand vertical metres much too quickly.  I suppose it’s good training for when I hit the Alps…

And I did just get under cover in Slovenia before the rain hit.  And then got soaked to the skin just getting to the supermarket and back.

My only hope yesterday morning was that the weather forecast might have changed miraculously overnight.  It hadn’t.  At least three days of heavy electrical storms if I continued north.  Electrical storms in the mountains are a terrible idea.  Half a chance that the rain would be intermittent enough to keep moving if I swung out of the hills and made a run for the lowlands of north-east Italy.

Slovenia’s not a big country, but it is very pretty.  So it seems very unfair that my enforced deflection from my intended route left me riding only about 40 miles of the country.  And in the pleasant, but entirely unremarkable, south-western corner.  So unremarkable that it wasn’t worth any photos.  And I’ve missed out on clipping Austria before getting to Italy, too.

IMG_1957 Edit

On the positive side, as the picture above may suggest, the plan seems to be working.  There’s been occasional drizzle, black clouds, isolated showers, massive downpours overnight, and wet roads.  But nothing that’s stopped me riding.  Yet.  And I’ll hopefully be able to get up into the Italian Alps to rejoin my intended route in a couple more days, when the weather has (hopefully) eased a bit up there.

Shops selling wine in milk cartons for less than 2 Euros a litre helps to ease the pain a little, too.  As does access to lovely Italian food.  And proper coffee.  It’s nice to be back in Italy.

IMG_1961 Edit
And that brings me back to those end-of-trip blues.  I’ve had plenty of time on long, straight Italian (probably Roman) roads to reflect on why I’m feeling a bit off at the moment.

Getting back into Europe when I arrived in Greece was stage one.  Things immediately got more familiar.  Then I had the fascinating and beautiful Balkans, which were adventurous again.  But ever since I began working my way up the Croatian coast, I’ve been in holiday country.  People from all over Europe go to Croatia for their dose of summer sun and relaxation.  Same with Italy.  And it’ll be the same again with France.  You know you’re back in Europe proper when every incline has a Dutch caravan on it.

The Italians have even named a phone network in my honour.  So my phone now says ‘I Tim’ on it, just in case I ever forget my own name:

IMG_1964 Edit

I think the problem is that these last few weeks before home feel more like a holiday than an adventure.  It’s exactly six months today (Wednesday) since I pedalled away from Hanoi to begin part two of the round-the-world ride.  And just over 23 months since I left London to begin the circumnavigation.

And after all those months and continents, after the big accident in Thailand, after the deserts, mountains, different cultures, and interesting people, it feels a bit like I’m already home.  And that I’ve just nipped away for a couple of weeks’ break.

I should be enjoying feeling this comfortable, and having all the benefits of civilisation available on demand again.  And I know that the idea of riding a bike across western Europe should be an exciting adventure in itself.

But it just feels a bit tame compared to Uzbekistan.  Or Laos.  Or Myanmar.  Or even Georgia.  Which is why I need to get back to the mountains.  The Alps should snap me out of it.  Just as long as it stops raining…