Day 33: Tuesday 3 July 1984
Briancon. Altitude 1321.
75km Total 1897km. Col d’Izoard 2,361m
At 6 am I can see red sunlight on the tips of the tallest mountains. It is very cold even down here. Taking the tent down so early means that everything is cold – touching the pegs and poles is unpleasant. Patches of sun are warm already, however.
Our route to the first stop is a steep National road, with views unpeeling slowly before the eyes of always-higher mountains. For a short while we can see tall Himalayan–looking peaks with cloud clinging coldly to their tops. These are the Ecrins.
Beside the road busy with tourist traffic, a woman hoists bales of green hay up by a rope to a barn door, from a wheelbarrow. We climb steeply to Guillestre where we find croissants, and coffee in a bar where there are views of the alpine style church, which tells us that it is 8.25, and mountains, with snow behind.
Many cyclists pass, most unladen, a few girls and a few tourists. We begin the col, pleasantly inclined, beside a truly turquoise rushing river, and pass through several tunnels. The road peels off to the left leaving much lorry traffic behind and passes through a couple of shanty like towns, chalets, old and new in disarray together.
Beside me, as I slowly pass I can watch the alpine flowers appear, many wild meadows full of hundreds of kinds of flowers- all new to me. Also a tiny butterfly which is navy blue with fine white wingtips. We stop to eat figs under a tree where the wind begins to get cold. And again for water suncream and a wee. I wade through the meadows, sloping sharply, looking for a place to hide.
The total climb is 36 km long and about two thirds of the way along this, the hairpins begin, prefaced by a long stretch of very steep road so that I thought I may not make it The sky is deep blue, all details of the mountains as they reveal themselves are sharp and bright. Always we see small chalet houses way way above.
Altogether the climb took three and a half hours, much of this I don’t remember as anything except very slow pedalling, controlling the breathing (save up for it if you want to drink or clear the throat by taking a few extra deep ones), noticing bright, single flowers as I pass and saying bonjour to cyclists coming down the col. Many people, car drivers, cyclists, Frenchmen, encourage us.
A great wave of wind nearly knocks me off, cars are parked- the summit. With difficulty against such a strong cold wind we lean the bikes on a bench and find a sheltered place. Beneath a sloping bank of pines, above a dark blue carpet of gentians, alpine lilies and anemones, we sit eating a high calorie lunch which tastes excellent.
With numb hands and all our clothes on, we continue, downhill and then very soon uphill to more hairpins. I am furious- we were one and a half kilometres from the top and the hardest effort is still to come. It is difficult, but we pass great snow patches, tan coloured ground where nothing grows except weird tall stalactite shapes of the same coloured rock White snow fields, jagged skyline.
Once more, we are at the top, – the real top, over 7,000feet high. There are superb views of cruel hills in Italy and France, and a great wind. An Englishman comes out of his car to take a photographs of us. Descending through the lunar landscape, motorcycles pass, backfiring with the altitude. Briancon is a disappointing destination, an ordinary looking busy and noisy town, and we find the campsite expensive and are allotted a small gravelly patch with nothing to see.