Almost exactly a year to the day after we last boarded a train to Grenoble planning to ride from there to Avignon, James and I boarded the same (early) train. But whereas last year we headed north out of Grenoble and went around the mountains, this time we headed south and went over them.
The Col de la Haute Croix is just shy of 1200 metres high. No big deal for any self-respecting cycle tourist, but a huge deal for a couple of knackered old prongs like us. To put it bluntly we were shitting ourselves. This was us facing our fears: for too long we’ve been looking at interesting routes and discounting them because of a couple of hills.
So we decided fuck it, let’s give it a go.
The first 30 km or so were lovely and flat but the payback was that we then had to push our fully loaded bikes up a 23% gradient gravel track for a kilometre or so. Gravel is slippery, 23% gradient is steep, fully loaded bikes are heavy and a kilometre is a long way when you’re walking. It was a massive pain in the arse.
Aching and pissing sweat, we joined the D1075 and started on up the hill and after all the fear and trepidation it really wasn’t too bad. In fact it was pretty easy-going, plus the views were – predictably – amazing, so if at any time you got pissed off with cycling uphill you could have a look around and instantly feel better.
It was very satisfying to realise that basically this was going to be OK. It wasn’t going to kill us. We could DO hills. Not even some old dude on a lightweight road-bike zipping past us at speed could dampen our mood, although when his son flew past pulling a fully loaded trailer it grated a bit. Oh well, I mused, he’s young and therefore stupid and his old man is probably mad and cruel.
In fact they turned out to be very pleasant people, and we stopped for a drink with them in the Restaurant le Monest in Monestier de Clairemont where they told us all about their crazy adventures whilst they drank children’s cordial syrup and we drank beer, chuckling as they regaled us with wild tales of boozing and bad behaviour. The previous day, for instance, the old guy had a beer at lunch, just the one mind, and he had regretted it later since his legs feel heavy going up the hills. Rock’n’roll!
As soon as they left we piled into a 4 course lunch accompanied – of course – by quantiful plentities of different coloured wines and two hours later, exuberantly shit-faced, we set off again up the hills. About an hour in we began to understand exactly what the old gipper had been on about. It all became very hard work indeed and by the time we stopped for a mid-afternoon reviver we were knackered, so it was a relief to spot a billboard pointing us to a nearby camp-site (with showers and a swimming pool).
The pool turned out to be freezing cold and closed, but the showers, oh lord the showers. There is nothing as perfect as a very hot powerful shower when you’re sweaty, tired and suffering the after effects of booze and it totally made up for the fact that the camp-site was run by a fat serial killer and populated by elderly swingers who threw us meaningful looks.
Lalley is a tiny village with just one restaurant, the Auberge du Grand Champ. The place has had a bit of a kicking on tripadvisor and didn’t look very prepossessing. Well you should never judge a book by its cover, or an establishment by its tripadvisor profile since tripadvisor is populated largely by drooling mouth-breathers who distrust any food that doesn’t have a trademarked brand-name.
It was excellent. Simple creative home-cooked food made with ingredients from the back garden and local farms. It was cheap, the wine was good and the terrace was amazing.
We were appropriately fulsome in our praise and gratitude and ended up sitting with the enthusiastic young owner and his chef discussing many things, including the surprising number of hipster food businesses (craft beers, organic wines, artisanal hand-made charcuterie and so on) in the area. Surprising because we were in the middle of the countryside halfway up a mountain. It turns out that the hipsters in question are proper hipsters who have escaped their urban habitats and are making their way out into nature, a bit like London foxes in reverse. We sampled several of the hipster-made products and they were very good, as you’d expect really: Hipsters may be annoyingly bland and have stupid beards and revolting ear adornments, but they know their way round a small batch pale-ale and beech smoked slow cooked pulled pork brioche.
We ended the evening talking what drooling mouth-breathers tripadvisor writers are.
And thence to bed, where I slept the sleep of a man who has paid 8 euros for his camp spot so isn’t subconsciously worried about getting woken up in the middle of the night by angry wolves with sub-machine guns.
Dawned bright and lovely and freezing fucking cold. We were at 900 metres altitude after all, though by the time we’d packed, had breakfast, evacuated solids, brushed teeth and were ready to set off up the hill it was baking hot again.
Under the impression that we still had 8 km of pretty punchy climbing left to get us to the top of Col you can imagine our delight when we rejoined the main road and saw this:
By 10 am, and with only moderate effort, we made it to the top of our first ever col and celebrated by drinking 16 year old Caol Isla and taking lots of stupid selfies. It was a great moment: we had overcome our fear of hills, thereby opening up lots of new and interesting rides and we could stop feeling like a right pair of pussies.
Plus it was downhill all the way to lunch through the best scenery I’ve ever cycled through.
Lunch, at the Hotel du Nord in Serres was pretty ordinary, the daily menu a salade de chevre chaud followed by a steak frites, but as luck would have it over the last hour I’d been craving both so it hit the spot in a major way that made me fear something bad was lurking in my future.
It was. Unanticipated Hills, which are 30% worse than Anticipated Hills because you haven’t factored them into your day and have been looking forwards instead to a pleasant day of flatness. And to begin with flatness abounded, and it was most glorious. Pleasantly pissed and finally off the main road (which had been getting a bit much with its articulated trucks and loony Belgian drivers) we coasted down flat country lanes next to lakes, the bright blue river Durance and vividly emerald alps the backdrop.
Then the hills. They weren’t actually that terrible, but the heat had got hotter, the wind was blowing right into our faces and we learned the hard way that when you plan a trip that starts with a 1200 metre climb, the gradient chart flattens out all the subsequent hills into unnoticeable little pimples. So where we expected a gentle downhill gradient, we got 8% climbs in a 30°C headwind.
Then we got lost and had an argument with a Belgian man who’d put a “Private” sign on a barrier blocking the road next to his property and didn’t want us to go down it. We would have ignored him and gone on regardless but it is a well established fact that Belgians with large houses in remote woods have deep basements full of chains and butt-plugs and worse so we ended up in a dried up river bed instead, pushing our bikes over huge rocks.
When we finally found the main road again we just stuck to it all the way to Sisteron where we arrived feeling pretty frazzed.
After a glorious shower, courtesy of a very friendly man at the Tennis Club de Sisteron, we set about finding a place to camp. Unfortunately what could have been a very pleasant and convenient spot right next to the river had already been colonised by pikeys who had shat everywhere.
So James consulted Technology™ and found a place a kilometre away on the edge of town. But that turned out to be a field in the middle of the projects and was in any case inaccessible thanks to a man made swamp.
Almost out of tether, we agreed to sit down and drink an apero and deal with where we’d sleep after we’d dealt with food and drink. Over several cold and restorative glasses of Pastis I hit on a plan. We’d go devour a well earned feast at the expensive gastro restaurant I’d found on tripadvisor, neck a bottle of wine each, then head off in the general direction of that way until we found somewhere to sleep.
James completely disagreed with my plan. He felt strongly that we should head off in the general direction of the other way until we found somewhere to sleep.
We argued cheerfully about this as we ate our expensive, mediocre meal in the completely empty restaurant that so many drooling mouth-breathers had raved about on tripadvisor. No doubt the fact that it was expensive tricked them into believing it was good. The patron knew damned well it was substandard and tried to make up for things by putting a bottle of cold Genepi on the table at the end of the meal and telling us to help ourselves. We helped ourselves until it was empty, and it did kind of make up for the substandard meal in that we forgot about it quicker. The restaurant, by the way, was called Au Romarin. Avoid it.
Anyhow it was a beautiful evening so despite the rather crappy meal we set off high on life and Cotes du Rhone and Genepi and rode in the fading southern light until we found a great place to pitch camp right next to the canal. We sat by the still water watching the last light fade over the mountains, and polished off James’ hip-flask of single malt.
During the night we were attacked by a deer and I had a very vivid anxiety dream about my tent being aggressively shaken by moped riding teenagers.
Waking up next to water is a good thing. Also I (well James) had figured out how to roll up and attach the outer doors of my new tent (it’s not complicated, I’m just an idiot) so I got to lie there for half an hour watching a guy setting out his fishing lines and the sun edging towards my tent.
Then we got up, packed and fucked off to find breakfast, happy because we had the wind in our backs and we had put a 7 kilometre dent in our day the night before, fuelled by Genepi.
We were well south by now so it was getting pretty toasty and the landscape had turned from lush green into the red earth and olive trees of Provence.
The morning was progressing swimmingly until about an hour before lunch when we hit Unexpected Hills again and by the time we reached Forcalquier we were too tired to be hungry so we downed a couple of cold ones and went on our way.
Literally two minutes after leaving we were suddenly both starving, thanks no doubt to the magical properties of Booze®. The next village was Mane, and bang in the middle of it was a lovely looking terrace full of happy people stuffing their faces, so we joined them. What a great lunch. We both ordered the salade marinière, whose name doesn’t come close to doing justice to the enormous pile of fresh seafood perched on top of a few leaves that arrived in front of us a few minutes later accompanied by several cheap tasty carafes of cold pink wine.
Despite, or more likely because of, how juiced we were by the time we left, the afternoon’s riding was close to perfect. It began with a couple of hills, but the euphoria and alcohol carried us nicely through those, and then about 15 km away from Apt, that evening’s destination, we hit a perfect flat cycle path, and a good job too because by that time the booze had worn off and we were feeling fairly fucked. Arriving in town we were delighted to find that the municipal camp-site was right next to the cycle path. We politely asked if we could use their showers in return for a couple of euros but were told “fuck off, we don’t want your money, put it away, you can use the showers for free, sit down, here are two huge glasses of pastis”.
Someone should get funding from the CIA or the Pentagon or some other august institution with huge budgets to piss away, and use the money to conduct exhaustive research into the restorative powers of two huge glasses of pastis and a shower. It’s close to miraculous how much better they make you feel and the potential military uses are legion. If you ever steal this idea and need a control group, please get in touch – I might be interested if the money’s right.
Buzzing at the absolute excellence of everything we found a bar and drank more pastis, then sat down at a very good Moroccan restaurant and were served the biggest meal I’ve ever seen. I could barely eat half of it and even then I was so stuffed it felt like my eyes had come loose.
Incidentally Apt, should you ever find yourself in that part of the world, is a great place. The small towns and villages of the Luberon are pretty, but also twee and full of snotty Parisians trying their hardest to make everyone hate them and succeeding magnificently. Apt is also pretty but has managed to retain something, a roughness round the edges, which makes it more interesting and more fun.
Kicked several notches back down the evolutionary chain by all the food (OK, and the two bottles of red, and the enormous glasses of eau-de-vie) we waddled, grunting, back to our bikes. Somehow we managed to get to the safety of the cycle path and rode a few kilometres out of town until the effects of the food had subsided enough that we could think about sleeping, at which point we pitched camp and passed out.
We awoke feeling surprisingly un-shit and decided to get a few kilometres under our wheels before breakfast. Half an hour later we reached Coustellet where it was market day so we sat with our coffee and pain au chocolats being entertained by an ancient mad American hippie busker. I think he was going for a Tom Waits vibe, but only one man on the planet can pull off that sound. This guy just sounded awful, but he gave it his all and the sun was shining and it kinda sorta worked. We gave him some spare change and had a chat. Turned out he lived nearby in a charming little house and grew rocks in his back yard (his words). Busking was just a way to get out of the house and meet new people. I felt jealous and asked for my spare change back. No I didn’t.
A leisurely morning’s ride on tiny back roads brought us into Avignon in plenty of time for a decent lunch before our train left, so we headed straight for the exact same restaurant we’d gone to the the year before and ordered the exact same thing as the year before which sounds weird but is in fact very satisfying and probably something to do with why dogs piss in all the corners when they visit familiar old haunts.
The trip was done, we had plenty of time, it was a gorgeous day, we got the last table on the terrace on an elegant square on a Sunday afternoon, the place was buzzing and we kicked back, relaxed and ate and drank our fill… then realised that somehow we only had about 15 minutes left to make it to the station, time was extremely tight, we were shitfaced and the way to the station was tricky. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!
James was navigating and thanks to him we made it, but only just. We haired along like Lance Armstrong on cheap speed, we got lost, we ending up on a dirt track strewn with garbage and old mattresses next to a motorway and we arrived at the station with a couple of minutes to spare, rushing in total panic to the wrong platform. Literally 30 seconds before the train left we had made it to the right platform but were stopped from boarding the train by some twat in an SNCF uniform who was telling us we couldn’t take our bikes on the TGV because it was a TGV not a TER. We explained that we were taking our bikes on the train whatever so fuck him, and as the doors were closing we got on. He took it surprisingly well, instructing us to stash the bikes in the bar coach, and that was that. The end.
Here’s the route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/7958398