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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.

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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:

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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!):

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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.

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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.

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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…

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Capital to Capital: Across Armenia to Tbilisi

This update is a little later than originally intended.  This is not due to any unfortunate mishaps, mechanical disasters, or internet access issues.

It’s simply down to nostalgia and Georgian wine.  Which is entirely unavoidable here in Tbilisi.

Hold on a minute, though.  I’ve just skipped blithely on to another country.  You thought I was in Armenia.  I’d better rewind a little…

It turns out that Armenia has three features which are hard to miss.  Firstly, it’s small.  I’ve just ridden pretty much right across it in two-and-a-half days.  Second, it’s absolutely beautiful, as you’ll hopefully agree from the pictures.  And third, it’s a little bit hilly.

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As soon as you turn north in Yerevan city centre, you start climbing.  There’s no avoiding it, whichever road you choose.  To get to Georgia, you have to cross the southern Caucasus.  You can get an idea of the climbing involved from the picture above; the TV tower poking over the near horizon is massive, and perched on a hill above the city centre.  So the city is a long way down from where this picture was shot.

You might also have noticed the giant volcano in the background.  That’s Mount Ararat (where Noah allegedly parked his ark).  The Armenians love Mount Ararat, and there are hotels, cognac, and all sorts of products named after it.  The slight downside is that, although the town of Ararat is in Armenia, the mountain is now in Turkey.  This is one of several reasons that the two countries don’t get on too well.

Regional politics were not the biggest issue on my radar on Sunday, though, as I laboured uphill out of town.  Yerevan sits at an altitude of about 1000 metres, so the air’s already a little thinner that one would like.  And the day’s ride would take me up past the huge lake at Sevan, which is another 900 metres higher.  I was gasping a little bit, I must admit.

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Still, the big benefit of climbing hills is that the scenery is generally a little more interesting than on flatter ground.  And Armenia is pretty stunning all the way from Yerevan to the Georgian border.  Wiggling through narrow gorges and straining over passes was a fantastic change after the flat lands of the last few months.

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By Monday lunchtime, I was over my second significant pass (above), and dropping in to the town of Vanadzor.  With the exception of a few minor rises around river bends, it’s about 80 kms of generally downhill road from there, all the way to Georgia.

That’s not quite as easy as it sounds, mind you.  There are a handful of scary tunnels (think pitch black with potholes and trucks), and a few rough-ish patches of road.  And Armenian dogs are the most enthusiastic bike chasers that I’ve yet had the displeasure of running away from.  But to be honest, it was a blast, essentially just dropping down one long, stunning gorge for hours.

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My last night in Armenia was where the blog update procrastination really kicked in.  I stayed at a little B&B in Alaverdi, about 40 kms from the Georgian border.  It was a really nice, family-run place, and they made their own wine.  Of course, not to try would be to offend, wouldn’t it?

A few glasses later, and writing anything was off the agenda.  And my journey to Tbilisi yesterday (Tuesday) also got off to a remarkably sluggish start.  There’s a lesson in there, somewhere…

Still, start I eventually did, and enjoyed a relaxing run down to yet another astonishingly easy-going international border.  The Armenian immigration guy had a quick chat, the Georgian just stamped my passport and waved me through.  Maybe a minute of formalities all told (plus a three or four minute ride between border posts), and I was rolling into country number 22.

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I was looking forward to Georgia, although I’ve never been here before.  Long, long ago, when I was in Russia as a student, I kind of fell in love with Georgian food (and also, their sweet and dangerously alcoholic red wine).  Although I’d seen an increasing amount of Georgian restaurants in Armenia, I was going to hold off until I got to Tbilisi, for the full, authentic nostalgia experience.

It wasn’t a hard run from the border, despite a last-minute headwind whistling down the valley as I entered town, and first impressions of the Georgian capital are really quite good.  Entering from my direction, you run along the river, with cliffs, old churches and fortresses overlooking the road.  Apart from the mildly aggressive traffic, it seemed like my expectations were going to be met in full.

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Having found my accommodation, I ran into an Irishman and an Australian who were about to head out for dinner (if anyone’s got any Englishman, Irishman and Australian jokes, let me know).  This, fairly predictably, meant that I consumed a colossal amount of Georgian food, topped up with the obligatory dose of red.  So a blog update was once again out of the question, and a late night round of talking rubbish was inevitable.  And quite enjoyable.

I had a sore head this morning.  Poor me.

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And so, today (Wednesday) was restricted to a slightly tentative exploration of Tbilisi.  Thankfully, I’m right in the middle of the old town here, so there wasn’t too much walking involved between either sights or strong coffee.

As with so much of the Caucasus region, there’s a lot of history here, from churches to monasteries to castles, to impressive city squares.  There’s also a cable car, which was an especially handy addition, given my fragile condition.  The views of the city from the top are really quite impressive.  Although they do remind you that the hills certainly aren’t over yet.

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My next destination here reminds you of that too.  Assuming the weather stays decent (which it may well not, unfortunately), I’ll be aiming for Gori tomorrow.  And Gori (in Russian) means ‘mountains’.  It’s also home to another side of Georgian history; it’s where a certain, less than cuddly dictator called Josef Stalin grew up.

So Georgia should continue to be interesting, with a bit of luck.  I’ll just have to try to stay off the sauce long enough to update the blog again before Turkey…