Courmayeur-Passo St. Bernard (2188m)-Seez-Val d' Isere-Col de Iseran (2770m)-St. Jean Maurienne
84.33 miles Climbing 10942 ft
After a good breakfast and loading the car, I swung a leg over my bike and prepared to descend the very steep driveway from the hotel down to the village road. Luckily for me, there was about five feet of flat cobblestone before the drop. Lucky because I had no brakes! Obviously plummeting brakeless down the steep pitch would have been an embarrassing way for my big European riding adventure to come to a close.
Tim and I had adjusted cable tension on my Zero Gravity Brakes, and we both had failed to notice that our adjustment was preventing the cam arm from retracting far enough to squeeze the brake pads onto the rim. It was an inauspicious start to what would prove to be a phenomenal first day in the Haute French Alps.
First we had to get to the French Alps, and that involved riding from Courmayeur over the St. Bernard Pass. At the top of this col, the Italian Alps miraculously become the French Alps, and the view is panoramically stupendous. The ride up wasn’t too bad either, as the early morning air was cool, and most of the light traffic we encountered was a collection of Ferraris, both vintage and new, as a club must have been on a rally. The climb was about 12 miles in length with 3600’ of climbing, but it was never really steep.
The descent into the French valley below was to be the first of many remarkable pieces of smooth and exhilarating roads we would be riding in the Alps. We paused for a quick bite at the bottom in the village of Seez, and then almost immediately we started up the longest climb in France.
At over 31 miles, the climb up to the famous ski town of Val d’Isere, and then on up to the HC rated Col du Iseran, well, it really does seem to go on forever. Despite the heat making it difficult even when the grade would ease, climbing to the second highest col in France was a delight. Considering that we did roughly the same amount of total climbing (6000’) over the 16 miles of the Stelvio in the Italian Alps, in comparison this climb really wasn’t that hard until the final steep slopes high on the Col du Iseran.
The Iseran used to be the highest col in France at 2770 meters (9088’), but more on that when I report on the Bonnette (June 26th) in the Maritime Alps. Hint—the Iseran has not shrunk in height, and no new cols have recently been discovered!
Val d’Isere looked to be a very cool town, and with lifts operating above 9000’ in elevation, taking in the views of the surrounding mountains would be relaxing, if we didn’t have to grind up through the heat. Right before town, I passed two riders, who then went by me when I stopped by the car for water. I caught one of the riders, but the other one must have felt a much stronger second wind than I did, as I never saw him again.
The skies were deep blue, and the temperature was close to 90 degrees at lower elevations, but miraculously we had a helping tailwind for much of the big climb. The subsequent headwind on the descent just gave us a little bit of an air brake, and made it a little easier to look over the edge of the road to the valley thousands of feet below our wheels. Down in the valley we could swivel our heads and trace the ribbon of tarmac that we had just descended, and I thought back to the Pyrenees trip I had taken the year before. Cycling in the Pyrenees is spectacular, but the views in the Alps were so much more dramatic.
Down in the valley, the hot headwinds continued, and after 84 miles of riding, we called it a day and jumped in the car for the final somewhat boring route into the town of St Jean de Maurienne, where we would spend Friday night. We would return to the same hotel on Sunday night after riding Alp du Huez.
Besides very friendly hotel staff and an excellent big serving of pasta for dinner, we had the additional pleasure of air conditioning in the hotel. This was to be something I would look forward to on Sunday…and reminisce about over the ensuing days.