Wednesday, October 22, 2008

European Cycling 2008 Thursday June 26th

Barcelonnette-Jausiers-Col de la Bonette-Cime de la Bonette-St. Sauveur-Col St. Martin-St. Martin Vesubie

72.1 miles 9197’ climbing

The Col de la Bonette was the scene of a fierce battleground in this year’s tour, and it was here that several riders lost their chance at the GC victory. After countless attacks on the incredibly long southern ascent of the col, Christian Van de Velde was dropped just before the top. Trying to make up the 30 seconds he lost, he crashed on the descent.

The top of the Bonnette is also where during Stage 16 of the 2008 Tour; John-Lee Augustyn crested the Col de la Bonette in first place before shortly and spectacularly overshooting the first hairpin bend on the descent. Both he and his bicycle flew over the embankment, and he slid over the loose shale, and plummeted quite a ways down the slope. His bicycle kept going until it was out of the camera’s view.

In this year’s tour, Dennis Menchov also took himself out of contention for the yellow jersey on the long descent to the stage finish at the village of Jausiers. For whatever reason, he was unable to follow the pace of the leaders on the technical descent, and lost not only 45 seconds, but any chance he had of winning the 2008 Tour.

Tim and I actually rode the Bonnette in the opposite direction (from the north). Television never does it justice, but I can personally verify that the grade is over 14% at the point the rider catapulted off the road, and it was a hump for us at 9200’ elevation.

This little section of road did not even exist until a few years ago when the local politicos decided that they were sick of the Bonette being just a few meters short of the Iseran, the highest col in France. The Col de la Bonette used to be 2715 meters high, or 49m lower than the Col de Iseran (see 6-20 blog). A new, higher road was constructed from the actual col to around the Bonette, topping out at 2802m (9193’), a scant 60m from the Bonette summit itself. The road then loops down to rejoin the original road at the col. The locals call this steep, exposed road the “Cime de la Bonette”.

One now has the option of looping around this precariously perched ribbon of road. In the middle of the curve at the very point of the mountain is a monument. It’s in French, of course, so I couldn’t read the full story that I am certain is engraved into the stone.

This new section of road makes the Bonnette the highest col in France, just a few meters higher than the Iseran. Maybe, depending on how you interpret it.

According to Wikipedia:

“The two kilometer long teardrop shaped loop around the Cime de la Bonette peak (2860m) from either side of the pass is the highest paved through route in the Alps.

A signpost at the foot of the climb makes the claim "Col de la Bonette - Restefond, 2802 m above sea level, highest road in Europe". This claim is incorrect for various reasons. The actual Col de la Bonette rises to 2715 m, but there are three Alpine road passes whose altitudes are higher: Col de Iseran
(2770 m), Stelvio Pass (2757 m) and Col Angel (2744 m). The road around the Cime de la bonette reaches an altitude of 2802 m, but this is not a "pass", but merely a scenic loop. It is, however, the highest asphalted road in France and is the highest through road in Europe”.

I guess one should just decide what to believe for themselves—I know the French do.

From the south, the climb starts at Saint-Etienne-de Tinee,
and is 16 miles long. Over this distance, the vertical rise is 1652m or 5420’ (an average percentage grade of 6.4%).

From the north the climb starts at Jausiers
and is 15 miles long. Over this distance, the elevation gain is 1589m or 5213’ (an average percentage grade of 6.6%). No matter from which direction you approach, the Bonette is simply a “beast of a climb”.

Just like the Galibier and so many other climbs we did on this trip, one wished that the climb of the Bonette would just go on forever (well, maybe until that final 14% section). Of all the incredible cols we climbed, this is the one that both Tim and I picked as our singular favorite.

Since we left Barcelonnette at 6:45am, the lower slopes of the climb were shaded, and the sun was shining on the peaks above us. The lighting was spectacular.

It was still very early in the morning as we headed south from Jausiers. Shortly outside of town, we had a 10 minute wait as a local rancher drove his sheep alongside the road. I say rancher, but it was really a dog that did the work. Tim and I watched with amazement as this dog ran from the front of the herd, to the back, and then kept control of the sheep by continuously moving back and forth.

Not only was it wonderful to see an animal working at the task he was born to accomplish; this dog was the most incredibly muscled dog I have ever seen. His breath hung thick in the cool morning air, and his coat had a wet sheen. He nearly ran right into me as he whipped around the corner of the herd at full speed. He was a spectacularly gifted athlete, kind of the Lance Armstrong of French dogs.

Once we were way above tree line, the resemblance to the Rocky Mountain west was uncanny. The road we were on reminded me of Trail Ridge Road, which traverses Rocky Mountain National Park northwest of Denver.

Just like yesterday, we had no support today. Laura and Katie got a late start, and then they were delayed by construction. It was just Tim and I out in the middle of nowhere, and also like yesterday, the route was almost devoid of cars. We stopped for croissants, we stopped for spring water, and we spent a little more time smelling the roses, perhaps because we both subconsciously sensed that the trip was drawing to a close. I decided that the prettiest smile of the trip belonged to our croissant salesperson, and she was friendly too, even though she spoke not a word of English.

Towards the top of the col, high above the tree line, there was some type of army maneuver taking place. I was passed by a truck, and then I spotted another way up above me on the road. It looked like a tiny toy truck, and I was reminded at how difficult depth perception becomes when there are no trees to serve as yardsticks.

By the time we reached the Col St. Martin, our leisurely itinerary caught up with us, as we were now in the throes of a serious afternoon heat. It was a blissful descent from the top of the col into town, but the climb was very hard.

As with almost everywhere else we had been, late June in St. Martin Vesubie is a very slow time of the year. In addition to having to wait at curbside for over an hour until our hotel front desk manager emerged from Siesta, we had difficulty in finding a restaurant.

Quality 10
Difficulty 9
Route 10
Scenery 9

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