Sunday July 8 2012
Col d’Areche. 2001m
Heavy rain fell this morning, so we are on a slow start until we see what the weather is going to do. We have been invited to use the mountain bikes that live in the vaulted cellar of the chalet, so go to have a look and try them for size. They fit, and they even both have the right type of pedals for our shoes. We spend a while making sure all the parts work and oiling them (yes, I did oil the disc brakes) and then set off, feeling slow on the knobbly tyres and odd riding position. We ride to the next village, les Bergeries, on small roads, and swing northwards on the very steep road, aptly named Route des Montagnes, that will lead us to our col via tarmac and track. We actually cycle higher than we needed to, nearly to the end of the road at a chapelle, and then take a rough section to get us back onto the track again.
The road is very steep, but often passes through forest, keeping us cool, and we have to keep giving our posteriors a rest from the unfamiliar saddles pressed into them so hard with the uphill pedalling. I shouldn’t have taken my large bumbag, it gets right in the way, and eventually I settle for having it slung over my shoulders, where it occasionally drops down to the front.
At Laval, houses are built into the grassy hillside under the mountains, and protected by large boulders with low sloping roofs, to both repel and offer no resistance to the winter snow. Soon after this, the road crosses a small river, which can be seen up above falling in a spectacular waterfall, and becomes a track. Cars are able to drive up it, but every time one does, we have to get into the verge.
In places the track is very rough, and it is also very steep, taking us up to 2000 metres (6,500 feet) As we near the alpine pasture in the hanging valley, the road is blocked by a lonely mountain farmer who is milking his cows at a mobile milking parlour. Every time anyone wants to go past, he must hurry to his electric wire and undo it to let them across. He is very cheerful and friendly, maybe glad of the human company.
We are in open mountain country now, with just the odd farm or cheese maker and the road is loose and steep towards the col. Finally we approach the summit auberge, and make our way to the cross and trig point that mark the col. It’s the highest I have ever been on a mountain bike.
The auberge serves us with excellent crepes, and coffee, before we set off again down hill, which owing to it being so steep, and the fact that in my preparations I have oiled the brakes, (not understanding the way disc brakes work) is probably almost as slow as the ascent. Once we join the metalled road, the descent is a wonderful long sweep down through the small villages of Grainier and les Bergeries, back to the chalet.