Sunday, August 25, 2013

Summer Cycling in the French Alps

Leysin, Switzerland, August 25, 2013

I started this blog post sitting in the lovely little French town of Guillestre, in the old house being restored by my sister Saakje and her partner Henkka.  Terri and I were there for a few days of vacation before I start work again for an unprecedented 4th consecutive year in one place.  I'm a little surprised myself that I've stayed stationary for so long, but I seem to be having a great time and getting just enough time to travel to keep my wanderlust at bay temporarily.  This is a summary of the bike touring I did this August in France (I finished the big tour on August 15th, then went back down to Guillestre with Terri and came back to Leysin on the 21st; the blog post was finished once I got back to Switzerland.)

So those of you who are faithful readers of my blog know that I love bicycle trips; I've taken at least one long bike trip every year since 2000 except for in 2008 and 2012.  However, this summer, having done my bike trip through Iceland with Terri in June, I decided to try something new in August.  I was in Canada and the US in July, visiting family and friends, but came back to Europe a couple of weeks before school began in order to do a different style of bike trip.  I have always taken camping equipment and ridden with a fully loaded touring bike, allowing me to stop wherever I want, sleep cheaply (or for free) and make the bike trip more of a complete adventure package.  This time, though, I wanted to experience riding the great passes of the Alps, the ones that the Tour de France goes over, travelling as light as possible.  I booked some (not-so-cheap) hotels, got a small back rack trunk to carry a change of clothes, some toiletries, a few spares and a Kindle and set off with my racing bike on the TGV for Avignon on August 6th.  The plan was to spend 9 days cycling back to Switzerland over as many of the great cols as I could.  It was a different sort of travel experience, centred much more on the cycling and less on sightseeing than I am used to.  Here's a summary of what I got up to.

Day 0:  August 6th, Avignon-Carpentras

Distance:                                 36.9 km
Total to Date:                          36.9 km
Final Altitude:                             180 m
Vertical Metres Climbed:            294 m
Time:                                             1:49
Average Speed:                    20.1 km/h
Maximum Speed:                  43.2 km/h

After I got off the TGV in Avignon (man, was it hard to get a booking and a reservation for my bicycle!  It eventually took my sister and two employees of the Swiss railways almost an hour to get it done.). I took a long time and a lot of wrong turns to get out of the city and onto the right road to Carpentras. It was an urban cycling nightmare of one-way streets and misleading signs.  Once I was finally pointed in the right direction, I raced along the road easily, looking up at the white summit of Mont Ventoux all the way to my lodgings above a little restaurant in the pretty old town of Carpentras, a town apparently entirely populated by immigrants from North Africa.  I was awakened repeatedly in the night by thunderstorms of apocalyptic violence.

Day 1:  August 7th, Carpentras-Mont Ventoux (1911 m)-Digne Les Bains

Distance:                                176.5 km
Total to Date:                         213.4 km
Final Altitude:                              615 m
Vertical Metres Climbed:             3312 m
Time:                                            8:59
Average Speed:                      19.7 km/h
Maximum Speed:                    52.8km/h

Happy and tired atop Ventoux!

Of all the iconic climbs of the Tour de France, two loom larger than any others in the public imagination.  One is the climb to Alpe d'Huez, a ski resort near La Grave; I cycled that last October on a weekend jaunt to La Grave with Terri.  The other is the Mont Ventoux, featured regularly in the Tour, including this year when Chris Froome imposed himself on the field with a dominant victory on the climb up the Ventoux.  The mountain is not enormously high (just over 1900 metres in altitude), but since the surrounding countryside is only a couple of hundred metres above sea level, the total altitude gain to the summit is about 1500 metres from Malaucene, one of the three towns from which roads lead right to the barren summit of the highest peak in Provence.
Looking back at the barren summit as I descend the classic route towards Bedoin and Sault

I started the day not knowing whether I would even be able to make the attempt; violent storms the night before were still raging when I woke up, and the proprietor of my hotel was dubious about the wisdom of trying to reach the summit.  Ventoux is named for the violent winds that buffet its upper slopes; last year Terri had the plastic cover blown right off her cycling helmet by gale-force winds near the top of the climb.  I had visions of the same sort of weather hitting me, especially as it was raining on me as I left Carpentras.  By the time I reached Malaucene, however, it was grey but not actually raining, and I set off undeterred.  I rode quickly, trying to race up as quickly as I could.  I passed a few cyclists, but nobody caught up to me until near the end, when a Dutchman about my age came up on me.  We rode together for a while before I had to stop to rest and take a few pictures just as we emerged from the beautiful forested lower slopes onto the barren scree slopes that look like snowcaps when seen from far away.  I took a couple of minutes to myself, then climbed the last few steep kilometres to the summit, emerging into another world right at the top.  Hundreds, if not thousands, of cyclists come up the other way from Bedoin and Sault every day, and I met the horde at the summit.  Somehow I managed to get a picture of me alone with the sign before bundling up into warmer clothes for the descent.  I felt tired and a bit dehydrated, but I was pleased with my time of 1:49 for the 1500 vertical metre climb.  It was the fastest that I would climb until almost the very end of the trip.

Lovely village of Montbrun-les-Bains, just north of Sault
The rest of the day was a long, tiring blur.  I descended at speed towards Bedoin, branching right towards Sault partway down.  I passed the memorial to Tom Simpson, a great British cyclist who died of a heart attack on the Ventoux in 1967, killed by a fatal cocktail of alcohol and amphetamines.  British cyclists leave water bottles, flowers and other mementoes.  I took a photo and kept descending.  In Sault I stopped for disappointing lunch at a restaurant on the main square, and didn't get going until 1:30 pm, with still 100 kilometres to go until my hotel at Digne-les-Bains.  It was a long slog, with a surprising amount of climbing over two smaller passes until I started a long descent that lasted most of 50 km to Digne.  I got in fairly late, around 7:30, with my legs tired and my body crying out for food.  I slept like the dead after a great meal of roast lamb.

Day 2:  August 8th, Digne Les Bains-Col d'Allos (2250 m)-Barcelonette

Distance:                                111.6 km
Total to Date:                         325.0 km
Final Altitude:                            1130 m
Vertical Metres Climbed:             2110 m
Time:                                            5:56
Average Speed:                      18.8 km/h
Maximum Speed:                    58.3 km/h

My second day on the bike was a lot easier than the first, which was good news since I awoke with my legs feeling pretty stiff, tired and leaden after the race up the Ventoux.  Digne intrigued me, since all I knew about the town was that it was the setting of important parts of Les Miserables.  I had forgotten, or perhaps never knew, that one of my favourite Western explorers of Tibet, the redoubtable Frenchwoman Alexandra David-Neel, had lived in Digne and left behind a museum and foundation for religious studies.  I wished that I had time to go poke around the museum. As well, there's an intriguing-looking Valley of the Ammonites, and signs for prehistoric archaeological sites just south of town, all of which I had to leave for another time, if I ever make it back to Digne. I rode out of town after another night of thunderstorms, climbing slightly over two heights of land before joining a river valley that was, as roadside signs proclaimed, part of the route followed by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815 during his Hundred Days, when he escaped from Elba, took over France and was defeated at Waterloo.  I raced along a valley that seemed to be a monument to forgotten industrial towns and railroads until I turned north towards the Col d'Allos.  I spent several hours toiling up the pretty valley, part of the Mercantour region, until I reached a little ski resort and got serious about climbing.  Late in the afternoon I reached the summit of the Col d'Allos (2250 m), took a few pictures, put on lots of layers for the descent and rode down nearly 30 km of steep, narrow roads across a dramatic landscape of gorges and cliffs before ending up in the pretty tourist town of Barcelonette, where I stayed in Le Grand Hotel, a place adorned with old black and white pictures from the glory days of the Tour de France.  I went to bed tired but full of good pizza, and slept the sleep of the exhausted.
Col d'Allos, feeling less fresh than atop the Ventoux

Day 3:  August 9th, Barcelonette-Col de la Cayolle (2326 m)-Col de Valberg (1673 m)-Col de la Couillole (1678 m)-Audon

Distance:                                135.3 km
Total to Date:                         460.3 km
Final Altitude:                            1595 m
Vertical Metres Climbed:             3548 m
Time:                                            8:11
Average Speed:                      16.5 km/h
Maximum Speed:                    55.7 km/h

This was the day that I discovered why professional cyclists dope.  I awoke with my legs absolutely dead, and despite making my way south  again over the incredibly beautiful Col de la Cayolle, my favourite high pass of the trip, in a reasonable 1:57, I was useless for the rest of a long, tough day.  The Cayolle starts with a dramatic gorge, then climbs up an almost deserted valley to the top of a beautiful forested pass.  There's almost no traffic (no trucks, no buses, no campers and only a few cars and motorcycles) and the scenery was suffused with a loveliness enhanced by the first morning of perfect cloudless weather of the trip so far.  It was hard to believe that this pass was a deforested semi-desert 150 years ago before a serious reforestation program rescued it from overgrazing.
The top of the lovely Cayolle

From the top, I rolled south down a beautiful valley (the Var) to the town of Guillaumes, where I turned left and started the second big climb of the day.  This one was only 850 metres in total, but in the heat of the day, on legs that were crying out for EPO, it was a rough climb.  I reached the lovely Col de Valberg and its unlovely ski resort, dropped a few hundred metres to another ski village, Beuil, and then climbed again, very slowly, to the Col de la Couillole before starting a memorable plummet down the red rock gorges (reminiscent of Ladakh) of the Vionene valley to St. Sauveur sur Tinee, past spectacular Roubion perched atop a precipice.  This looks like a classic climbing route, as there's a narrow tunnel and small bridge that keeps the campers, trucks and casual tourists off the road.

The pass that killed me after the Cayolle

Beautiful cliff-top Roubion
At this point, I was physically pretty finished, but I hadn't been able to find accommodation in the valley, I was obliged to turn uphill again and cycle up the Tinee valley for 28 hard-fought kilometres.  An Austrian guy on a bike with a small backpack passed me, and I was fated to keep crossing paths with him for another week.  I made it to the turnoff to Audon, the ski resort where I had found a room for the night, and turned uphill.  It was only 5 kilometres of climbing to Audon, but after 2, I was completely spent.  I stopped, lay beside the road, started again, quit again and generally made an ass of myself until I finally crawled into the ski resort completely dead.  It was the first time in 3 years that I had cracked so totally on a climb.  A beer and a salmon sandwich revived me from the dead, and a subsequent burger and fries completed the rebirth, but I was a sad excuse for a cyclist as I went to bed in my strange little hotel in which I was the only guest.

Day 4:  August 10th, Audon-Cime de la Bonnette (2802 m)-Col de Vars (2109 m)-Guillestre

Distance:                                96.5 km
Total to Date:                         556.8 km
Final Altitude:                            1000 m
Vertical Metres Climbed:             2654 m
Time:                                            6:12
Average Speed:                      15.5 km/h
Maximum Speed:                    59.4 km/h

The little summit loop to the Cime de la Bonnetee (rising diagonally to the left)
This was the day that I realized that I really, truly needed a day off the bike.  I got up early, froze on a frigid descent back to the Tinee valley, had a belated breakfast with the local madmen in front of St. Etienne church, then spent a tough two and a half hours climbing high up over the highest pass so far, the monstrous Col de la Bonnette.  I loved the scenery, with lots of forests and dramatic gorges, but the heavy traffic detracted from the enjoyment, as did my legs, which still seemed to be set on empty.  I reached the top of the col at 2715 metres, then took the steep extra loop that led pointlessly around a little lump on the ridge to make the road reach an altitude of 2802 metres, the highest road in the French Alps (although not in Europe; there are higher roads in Spain and Georgia).  It was a zoo at the top, with campers, motorcycles, cars and bicycles jostling for parking position.
Highest elevation of the trip, on the Cime de la Bonnette

I was glad to snap a photo, put on warmer layers and start the long descent back towards Barcelonette.  I reached the bottom, turned away from Barcelonette and towards the second climb of the day, the Col de Vars.  While I didn't completely crumble as I had the day before on the climb to Audon, I suffered on the steep (10%) grade to the summit, and had to take a long breather a few kilometres from the summit.  I rode much of the last part of the ride with a French guy my age from the Jura who was here on a week's cycling/hiking vacation with his wife.  We had a celebratory beer atop the Col de Vars before I set off through the unpleasant heavy traffic of a French ski resort in the summer.  By the time I reached Guillestre and the shelter of my sister and her boyfriend's house, I had decided to change my plans.  I had originally decided to ride up the second-highest true pass in the French Alps, the Col d'Agnel, the next day, but my slow pace (my average speed had dropped every day since the beginning of the trip) and my real weakness the last two days made me decide to leave the Agnel for later and take a day of slothful indolence instead.

That is one tired-looking cycle tourist!

Trying to revive with some amber nectar on the Col de Vars

Day 5:  August 12th, Guillestre-Col de l'Izoard (2360 m)-Col de Galibier (2642 m)-St. Michel de Maurienne

Distance:                                122.8 km
Total to Date:                         679.6 km
Final Altitude:                              740 m
Vertical Metres Climbed:             3165 m
Time:                                            6:36
Average Speed:                      18.6  km/h
Maximum Speed:                    64.8 km/h
The view down towards Briancon from the top of the Izoard
After a day devoted to eating, napping, playing guitar and then eating some more, I awoke on Monday morning feeling more human and with my legs greatly revived and less heavy.  I got going at a reasonable hour (around 7:30) and set off immediately climbing up the iconic Tour de France setting of the Col d'Izoard.  The road leads through a flattish section of dramatic gorges along the Guil river before turning uphill to climb through pretty scenery towards the steep summit and its stretch of Ventoux-like desert (La Casse Deserte).  I felt strong and set a good pace, not getting passed by anyone until a young racer and a tough old 60-something rode by me a couple of kilometres from the summit.  I was secretly pleased to see the greybeard catch up to, pass and streak away from the youngster near the summit; the youngster looked crushed by this.  At the summit, I relaxed for a few minutes, took a few pictures, put on warmer layers and set off downhill to Briancon.

La Meije, the mountain dominating the view from the Col de Lautaret
Pierre, Daryl and myself looking smug atop the Galibier
Briancon was a nightmare of traffic jams and heat, but once I had escaped I had a fast, pleasant ride up the gentle grades of the Col de Lautaret, the prelude to the famous Galibier.  I kept up a pace of over 20 km/h, which didn't seem that hard at first, but at the top, I definitely felt the lactic acid in my legs.  I had an ice cream, filled up my water bottles and met a couple of fellow Canadian cyclists, Daryl and Pierre, whom I accompanied to the summit.   Daryl was an ex-racer and was quicker than me, but I managed to keep up with Pierre.  Pierre recognized my Butterfield and Robinson bike since his parents used to take holidays with them.  The climb to the summit is absolutely stunning, through wildflower-dotted meadows under reddish cliffs.  It's not too long (8.5 km) or steep (average 7.5%).  It's really from the other side, the long climb over the Col de Telegraphe to the Galibier, that the pass lives up to its fearsome reputation.  I rode partway downhill, had a sandwich and then cruised the rest of the way to the town at the bottom of the Telegraphe, St. Michel de Maurienne.  I was having a celebratory beer by 5 pm, and was asleep by 8:30, happy after a good day in the saddle.

Day 6:  August 13th, St. Michel de Maurienne-Col d'Iseran (2770 m)-Bourg St. Maurice

Distance:                               118.8 km
Total to Date:                         798.4 km
Final Altitude:                             850 m
Vertical Metres Climbed:             2457 m
Time:                                            6:05
Average Speed:                      19.5 km/h
Maximum Speed:                    64.6 km/h

Midride fuel for the Iseran, both physical and mental (reading Proust)
Partway up the final climb to the summit of the Iseran
Although the Iseran is the highest pass in the French Alps, this day was the easiest one of the entire trip in terms of riding.  It took 75 km to get up to the summit, in a series of steep steps followed by long flattish stretches along a river valley that's postcard perfect.  I stopped partway to have a hot chocolate and a pastry, enjoyed the views and, sooner than I had expected, I was at the foot of the steep final wall.  I really enjoyed this part, with dramatic precipices framing oceans of wildflowers, and I arrived at the summit feeling pretty strong.  It was cold and windy at the top, so I didn't linger but raced down the steep road into the sprawling ski resort of Val d'Isere for a beer and a plate of fries.  I made it into Bourg St. Maurice by 5 o'clock and found my hotel, full of gregarious Dutch and German cyclists.  A great meal in an outdoor restaurant and I was asleep by 9, ready for a big ride the next day.
Riotous wildflowers carpeting the slopes of the Iseran
Top of the French Alps (at least by road!)

Day 7:  August 14th, Bourg St. Maurice-Cormet de Roseland (1961 m)-Col des Saisies (1657 m)-Col des Aravis (1486 m)-Col de la Colombiere (1613 m)-Samoens

Distance:                               142.9 km
Total to Date:                         941.3 km
Final Altitude:                              750 m
Vertical Metres Climbed:            3784 m
Time:                                            8:17
Average Speed:                      17.3 km/h
Maximum Speed:                    58.5 km/h

The Aiguille de Glacier seen from the Cormet de Roselend
First pass of the day!

Looking at the elevations of these passes, this day doesn't look that hard; not one of them is over 2000 metres above sea level.  This impression is wrong; it was in fact the hardest day of the entire trip.  Four passes and a final climb into the Samoens valley added up to 3700 vertical metres of climbing and a very tired pair of legs.  The first climb was the highlight of the day, one of the top three passes of the trip (along with the Joux Plane and the Cayolle).  The Roselend was quiet, cool and very pretty.  Almost no traffic disturbed my peace of mind along the narrow road.  At the top, a green jumble of hills tumbled down to a reservoir before tumbling down to the busy tourist town of Beaufort.
Second pass of the day!

From the lake onward, traffic picked in a harsh crescendo that lasted for the next pass and a half.  The climb up the Col des Saisies was unpleasant:  hot and wall-to-wall traffic up to a typical pre-fab concrete ski resort.  I was glad to head down to Flumet, cross the Albertville highway and start climbing up to the Col des Aravis.

Third pass; starting to feel and look tired!
The climb up was pleasant, but my legs were starting to complain.  I had seen the other side of the pass last fall, but the climb was through new territory.

The fourth pass of the day:  a pass too far!
I raced down to Le Grand Bornand, passing graffiti from this year's Tour de France, and then started a rather weary ascent of the Col de la Colombiere, again familiar territory from a trip last fall.  The downhill to Cluses left me more than ready for the end of the day; it was after 6 pm and all I wanted was a meal and a bed.  Instead I had to traverse the rather bleak post-industrial wasteland of Cluses and make a final 300-metre climb over a ridge to gain entry to the Samoens valley.  I was bone-weary, but I managed to fly along the flat valley bottom at 29 km/h and climb up to my hotel, the slightly pretentious Edelweiss.  I wandered down to have dinner only to be told that the restaurant was full and I would have to find dinner elsewhere.  It was a long, tired walk back to the hotel after a huge steak frites dinner.

Day 8:  August 15th, Samoens-Col de Joux Plane (1700 m)-Col de Joux Verte (1760 m)-Pas de Morgins (1369 m)-Leysin (1300 m)

Distance:                                 93.0 km
Total to Date:                       1034.3 km
Final Altitude:                            1280 m
Vertical Metres Climbed:             2848 m
Time:                                            5:53
Average Speed:                      16.0 km/h
Maximum Speed:                    65.3 km/h

One of my favourite passes!
This final day of the trip was a lot of fun, even if I again was starting to feel the effects of four straight days of big climbs.  The Col de Joux Plane was almost traffic-free, steep and pretty.  I managed to make it to the top, a 950-metre climb, in just over an hour of steep climbing (the average grade is 9.5%, making it the steepest pass of the trip).

The Mont Blanc looming large above the Col de Joux Plane
I rolled down into Morzine, a downhill mountain-biking mecca, then turned uphill again and climbed another 900 metres to the Col de Joux Verte, just outside Avoriaz.  From there I descended to the lift station of Les Lindarets and used the ski lifts to get up into the Chatel ski area.  A slightly dodgy walk down along a steep scree slope finally led to pavement and a descent into Chatel.  I turned uphill for 3 easy kilometres to the Pas de Morgins and descended into Switzerland.  In the town of Morgins, I met up with my friend Avery and rode with him back home, first downhill to the Rhone Valley, then uphill to Leysin, my home base.  Despite having lived here for three years, I had never done the complete climb from Aigle before, put off by the heavy traffic.  I climbed up fairly slowly in the heat, and Avery left me behind.  I climbed the last section, from Sepey into Leysin, as slowly as I have ever done.  It was sort of sad that after so much cycling, I was so slow, but I think of the trip as training.  I would be faster afterwards, after my legs recovered, even if I was turtle-like that day.

Addendum:  Four more days in Guillestre!

No sooner was I back in Leysin than I was packing the car with two bicycles to drive right back south to Guillestre with Terri.  Terri had a week off between summer and fall terms and was keen to do some cycling, and Guillestre is perfectly located for that sort of thing.  I think that Bedoin, La Grave, Bourg St. Maurice, Barcelonnette and Guillestre are probably the five absolute epicentres of road cycling in the French mountains.  With the Vars, Agnel and Izoard right out of town, and more passes just a short distance south near Barcelonnette, Terri was excited with the possibilities.

Looking from the top down the last two kilometres of the Col de Izoard
We were in town for four days.  We started with the Izoard, and Terri really enjoyed it, although there was a lot more traffic than there had been a few days before.  I think the Izoard is a good test of climbing ability, with 30 kilometres and 1360 vertical metres, as well as lovely scenery and a great warmup ride through the gorges.  I rode faster than I had the first time (2:11 instead of 2:18, starting in Guillestre) and Terri had a great ride, really enjoying the scenery and the challenge.
Terri riding the dramatic Gorge de Guil on the way back from the Izoard
Terri chugging up the long slog up the Agnel
The second day was harder, as we rode the Col Agnel, the second-highest pass in France at 2744 metres.  It's a substantially longer ride (42 km) and gains more height (400 m more).  The Agnel leads to the Italian border, and gets quite a lot of motorcycle and bicycle traffic, making it slightly too busy for my taste.  It's a long approach along a valley that seems to climb fairly steadily the whole way until the final few switchbacks.  Both of us were feeling the effects of the Izoard in our legs, and weren't as quick or effortless as the day before.  I made it to the top in 3:05 and shivered at the top in the swirling mist, dodging the tangle of motorcycles, photo-happy tourists and cars infesting the summit.  Terri and I rode back, trying to escape the rain gathering atop the pass and feeling pretty tired.  We decided to have a lazy day the next day, and felt justified when it rained.
On the French-Italian border atop the Agnel (2744 m)
On the last day, we drove south to Barcelonnette and rode the Cayolle again.  This was my favourite big pass the previous week, and so I recommended it to Terri.  She absolutely loved it, and conditions could not have been better.  There was almost no traffic, not a cloud marred the sky and the scenery was even better the second time around, with the lower gorges and the larch forests of the upper stretches bathed in mid-day sunshine.  I got up the pass 13 minutes faster than the first time around (1:44 instead of 1:57) and Terri absolutely flew up the pass, feeling stronger and quicker than she had on previous climbs.  It was a great final day.
Triumphant atop the Cayolle
On the way home to Leysin on Wednesday (yesterday), we stopped the car at the Col de Lautaret and rode the last 8.5 km up to the Col de Galibier.  Terri hadn't ridden this last year on a weekend in La Grave, so it was unfinished business.  Starting from the Lautaret, the ride is easy, beautiful and spectacular.  Terri loved it and found it much less daunting than its reputation.  I made it up in 0:49, rather than the 0:57 it took me the week before (after doing the Izoard.)  I was pleased that I was faster on all three climbs that I repeated; maybe all that "training" on the Avignon-Leysin ride paid off.  Or maybe riding on fresher, better rested legs makes a big difference!
Terri riding the Galibier with the Meije looming behind
At any rate, it feels good to have done so much bike riding up so many great cols in such a concentrated period of time.  I feel fitter than I did before, and I would be curious to see if I've gotten faster on the local rides that I have been doing for the past 3 years.

(A few days later:  I did the climb that I have to do every time I ride back into Leysin, the Sepey-Leysin road, yesterday.  I had had two days off from cycling, I warmed up with a quick flattish ride to Diablerets, and I basically had ideal conditions.  I did in fact climb faster than ever before, 17:10.  My previous record of 17:25 was set last year when I was coming down from six weeks at high altitude, effectively blood-doping me.  My non-altitude record was 17:50, so it's a pretty reasonable improvement in climbing speed.  On the other hand, when the professional riders in the Tour de Romandie came up from Sepey in April, 2011, the winner made that same climb in a bit over 9 minutes, so there's an awfully long way to go to be genuinely fast!)

I'm not sure that I would want to do a bike trip in this style again; although the riding is great, I feel as though it sacrifices too much of the joy of sightseeing that I love in bicycle touring.  The days become just about riding and take away some of the serendipidity and spontaneity of rolling along seeing what's over the next hill.  Like Lance Armstrong said (correct in more ways than one), it's not about the bike.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Iceland Cycling--The North and the Interior

Frankfurt Airport, August 5th

I managed to write this blog post last week, but only got a chance to upload it today, after a great week more or less unplugged in the mountains of Jasper National Park.  Now I'm off to ride the classic cols of the French Alps, starting tomorrow.  I can't wait for another bike trip, since I had so much fun on the Iceland ride.  Here's what I wrote last week.

On the train from Edmonton to Jasper, July 26

The countryside of the plains of Alberta are sliding by at a frustrating pace after a three-hour delay in departure.  I love the imposed simplicity of being on a train, as it provides few excuses for not reading or writing.  With any luck I will be able to complete this post about the second part of my Iceland trip before we pull into Jasper, and my writing conscience will be clear for a week or two.

It’s been almost a month since I returned from Iceland, and some of the immediacy of my recollections has faded.  This is why I try to keep a decent journal and take lots of photos; re-reading the journal while flipping through the pictures helps organize my memories and stirs up forgotten details from the murky waters of a middle-aged brain.  So, with the aid of these two invaluable crutches, one visual and one written, here goes my best attempt to summarize my impressions of the post-Westfjords part of our cycle trip.

Arriving in Akureyri reminded me of two of the reasons I usually prefer to cycle rather than hop onto and off public transport:  unsociable hours and equipment damage.  We arrived at nearly midnight bleary-eyed and with our brains not working very clearly.  I was probably a bit grumpy with Terri as we put together our bikes, loaded them up and cycled a couple of steep kilometres to the municipal campground.  On the way I found that my cycling computer had stopped working, presumably because the cable leading from the front wheel had gotten snagged on something and pulled.  The campground, once we arrived, was sub-par by Icelandic standards and lacked any sort of shade or wind shelter.  We went to sleep in the twilight of 1 am and woke up to blazing sunshine and howling winds.

Our  evening ritual in camp:  a peg of Scotch
It was one of those days that starts off promisingly and peters out into petty frustrations.  We wandered across the street to the city swimming pool, one of Iceland’s finest.  All of Akureyri seemed to be there soaking up the sun and the warmth of the various hot pots.  Terri’s favourite was the shallow solarium pool, while I found the steam bath and the hottest pool to be just what my tired body wanted.  After a post-bathing hot dog, we went back to the campground to pack up and start riding towards the whale-watching centre of Husavik.  It was then that we discovered that Terri’s bike had fallen over and somehow torn loose the connection between her brake lever and the hydraulic brake housing.  I’ve never had hydraulic brakes on my bikes, in part because of they have always seemed more prone to damage and harder to fix than cable brakes.  I tried my best to fiddle the offending tiny metal ball back into place, but it seemed to require a specialized pair of calipers that I didn’t have.  Terri had the campground receptionist make a few phone calls and we got the address of a bike shop on the outskirts of town.

En route, we passed another bicycle shop which promised to try to fix the issue.  I was looking for a spare cable for my computer and left Terri there while I went off in search of the distant shop.  There were no cables to be had there, but I found the cheapest cycling computer in stock, installed it and cycled back to Terri.  As I set off, I discovered that now my new computer wasn’t working at all, but my old faithful Cat Eye had come back to life, presumably because I had moved the cable in the process of installing the new computer.  Back at the first shop, I found that the mechanic had come back from lunch but didn’t have the fancy calipers either.  Wincing at the loss of an hour, Terri and I cycled back to the distant shop where the mechanic didn’t have the calipers either, and had never repaired hydraulic brakes before.  Luckily, however, he did know where he could find the necessary tools, and by the time we had finished a late lunch of hot lamb subs and the inevitable French fries, Terri’s bike was ready to roll, its brake handles protected by lengths of tape to prevent them being hyperextended in the future. 

It was almost 5 pm by this time, and our prospects of making much progress seemed slim, especially with a strong north wind threatening us with headwinds all the way out of town.  We headed up the shore of the fjord, riding single file to try to minimize the effects of the howling gale.  Dozens of tour buses passed us, ferrying passengers from the cruise liner that dominated Akureyri harbour back to the ship after a day trip to lake Myvatn.  Iceland is not a very populous country, with only 320,000 inhabitants, and in the height of tourist season its main attractions groan under the weight of mass tourism.  The new Lonely Planet has apparently voted the Akureyri the must-see part of the country, and it certainly seemed to be enormously popular, with hundreds of tourist rental cars jostling for space on the Ring Road with the huge tour buses.  I found myself pining for the peace and deserted dirt roads of the Westfjords.  Eventually we turned inland, climbed a small pass between snow-capped peaks and picked up a tailwind for the descent.  A riverbank provided a perfect campsite, and we slept well, lulled to sleep by the sound of rushing water.

Lovely riverside campsite
The next morning started under grey skies and spitting rain with bacon and soft-boiled eggs followed by a tedious search for my cycling computer, which had gotten wrapped up in the tent while we were packing up.  It took forever to get going, but once we did, a memorable tailwind blew us the first 17 kilometres of the day through a lovely landscape of sheep farms and high peaks.  When we turned north towards Husavik and off the Ring Road, however, the same wind opposed our progress and made for a slow, tedious and cold ride to Husavik, past an enormous landscape that had buried the highway a few weeks previously.  Lunch, sandwiches consumed in the shelter of a roadside dumpster, didn’t lift our spirits appreciably.  By the time we got to Husavik, we were crawling at barely 10 km/h and both feeling pretty cold and tired.  With more rain in the offing, we splashed out for a room in a guest house at a hefty 8000 kronur (US$ 70).  It was a good move, as it ended up raining most of the night.  After a day of hard riding, we splashed out again on fish and chips in the local grill and were asleep early.

Thar she blows!
Everybody who ever goes whale watching takes a photo like this
We awoke to grey skies again and headed out for Terri’s early birthday present, a whale-watching cruise on one of North Sailing’s restored wooden schooners.  The entire town of Husavik seems to run on whale watching, and unlike southern Iceland, no whaling is permitted in the area, as the whales are worth far more alive than dead.  The boat had 30 or so tourists aboard, and it was one of over a dozen departures that day at 70 euros a head, giving a feel for the economic effect of whale watching on this small town.  Our first stop was at Lundey (Puffin) Island, home to hundreds of thousands of these comical birds.  We cruised through shoals of puffins and had a good laugh at their awkward attempts to take off and fly, many of which ended with an ignominious tail-first splashdown.  Underwater, however, puffins acquire the speed and grace of dolphins, so we forgave them their albatross-like takeoffs and landings.

Happy after the whale watching
After a cruise around the island, admiring the dense network of burrows that turned the grassy slopes into puffin-filled Swiss cheese, we headed west to where other boats had reported whales that day.  It was a spectacular show, with five or six humpbacks feeding right around our boat, sometimes passing directly beneath us, sometimes lunging almost entirely out of the water in pursuit of krill.  The rivers flowing into the bay are very rich in nutrients from volcanic lake Myvatn, and this supports a great density of krill and plankton, humpback whales’ favourite food.  There were three or four smaller minke whales present as well, along with hundreds of seabirds and some white-beaked porpoises in the distance.  For much of the time we spent with the whales it was hard to decide which direction to look, as whales were popping up everywhere.  It was a spectacular show, and we headed back to town at the end of a four-hour cruise satisfied with the glimpse of the great sea mammals.  Terri was more than pleased with her birthday present!

Eurasian golden plover in the highlands near Myvatn
We had a quick lunch at the harbour, then pedalled off towards Myvatn.  We knew we weren’t going to make it all the way, so we stopped off after 20 kilometres of headwinds for a long soak in a tiny roadside hot pot where we were the only patrons.  Across the road an enterprising farmer was using geothermal heat to run a series of greenhouses.  We rode until the road turned unexpectedly to gravel and climbed up onto moorland.  Terri had had enough of steep dirt roads, so we camped beside the road in a rather desolate, waterless spot, glad that we had carried cooking water up from the last stream we had crossed.

Myvatn Midnight
June 22nd found us riding up and down a moorland roller coaster of rough dirt roads until suddenly we dropped down onto pavement and, only an hour and a half after setting out, we rolled into the tourist epicentre of Myvatn and into clouds of its most infamous denizens, the mosquitoes, midges and blackflies that swarm In Biblical proportions around the lake.  We both had bug nets and wore them for most of the next two days to maintain our sanity.  Unlike Canadian blackflies, however, these bugs were annoying without actually biting very often.  We put up our tent in a busy, expensive campground (1500 kronur per person), then went for a long walk around the volcanic landscape that has made Myvatn famous.

Horned Grebe at Myvatn
Iceland lies directly atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where new basaltic oceanic crust is constantly being extruded to push Europe and North America further apart, and Myvatn is right where this volcanic activity is most prevalent.  It is full of geothermal heat and has frequent volcanic eruptions that spread lava all over the surrounding plains.  We hiked through a landscape of weirdly shaped lava that splashed around during fire-fountaining eruptions in the past to a small cinder cone that last erupted a couple of thousand years ago.  We walked through a series of collapsed magma chambers and a couple of lava arches back to the road and then trudged back along the busy main road, unable to thumb a lift from anyone. 

The latest line in bug-net fashion
That night we took advantage of having a cook tent with a big stove and good frying pans to try some of the local lamb chops.  Terri, as a good Kiwi, is a big fan of lamb, as am I, and the meat was one of the very few food items in the supermarket that wasn’t grossly overpriced.  We dined well on lamb chops garnished with caramelized onions, potatoes and actual vegetables, and then sat out admiring the peaceful lake and its reflections of the barely-set midnight sun.

Myvatn pseudocraters
June 23rd, Terri’s actual birthday, might well have been the most enjoyable day of cycling of the entire summer.  We awoke later than usual, sleeping in until nearly 9 am.  A leisurely breakfast of bacon and eggs followed, with the sky clearing up in the meantime to brilliant sunshine.  We stopped in at the supermarket and the tourist office, where the weather forecast looked dire for Wednesday and Thursday, with southerly gales predicted.  Terri decided then and there that she would skip a couple of days of cycling across the interior in favour of a bus ride and a couple of leisurely days of hiking while she waited for me.  Outside the office we ran into a Canadian couple, Jan and Paul, on nifty collapsing Rodriguez touring bikes.  They were at the start of a15-month world tour, so we swapped information and ideas, before we finally rode off just after noon.  The south side of Lake Myvatn was very pretty, with huge numbers of ducks, including the ornithological signature species of the area, Barrow’s goldeneye, along with lots of well-groomed horses and lovely volcanic scenery.  The pseudocraters in the southeast corner of the lake, formed when a volcano erupted under an icecap, attracted another cruise liner’s worth of tourists, but the landscape was pretty enough that we could forgive them.  Cycling away from the lake was a pure pleasure, not least because the persistent insects finally left us alone and we were able to shed our bug nets.  We passed another smaller lake, Masvatn, with tremendous views across the water to the distant snow-capped thousand-metre peaks beyond.  We climbed over another stretch of highland before plummeting down to the spectacular waterfall at Gothifoss where an Icelandic leader had symbolized the country’s bitterly contested decision to adopt Christianity by tossing his household gods into the falls on his way home from the climactic session of parliament.  Another hour found us at a school-turned-summer hotel with the inevitable hot pot in which we wallowed until a tour bus of German tourists descended upon us.  We rode through perfect early evening light to a riverside campsite not far from where we had been four nights earlier, cooked dinner, toasted Terri’s birthday with Ardbeg whisky and went to sleep after a wonderful day.
Terri crossing yet another pass across the moorlands

Gothafoss, the Falls of the Gods
June 24th was a red-letter day for me in terms of speed and distance.  We awoke late again and our departure was delayed by another half-hour search by me, this time for my Swiss Army knife.  For once we had a strong tailwind, and we flew along back towards Akureyri at a tremendous clip, especially once we had descended to the shore of the fjord.  We found ourselves averaging 30 km/h as we approached the head of the fjord, then suddenly slowing to 13 km/h as we turned back into the wind.  In Akureyri we got Terri squared away for the following day’s bus, installed her in the youth hostel, bought groceries and then had a late, leisurely lunch. 

Not until 3:50 did I ride off towards Varmahlith on my own, arranging that I would meet up with Terri in three days’ time at the highland hot springs of Kerlingarfjoll.  I had 125 kilometres of the Ring Road to go until I turned south onto the dirt road of the Kjolur route, and I was keen to eat up as many of them as  possible that day.  Little did I know that once I had struggled 10 kilometres through a headwind that I would regain the howling tailwinds of the morning.  I raced along for three hours at over 25 km/h, even though I was climbing steadily into the mountains.  Only once I had crossed a 500 metre pass did the winds reverse, and I found myself in the strange situation of going more slowly downhill than I had gone uphill.  Eventually I found a rare piece of unfenced land beside the river that wasn’t completely coated in goose droppings, put up the tent and slept soundly, having done 107 kilometres (the biggest daily total of the entire trip) without too much effort.

The next morning my plans for an early getaway were foiled by my first flat tire of the trip.  As I finished replacing it, I saw a van containing only Terri, her bicycle and the driver stop beside my tent.  She was the only passenger that day and had convinced the driver to stop to say hi.  As they sped off, I set off into the renewed tailwind at a good clip, covering the 18 kilometres into Varmahlith in only 45 minutes.  There progress came to a crashing halt as I wrestled with the annoying credit-card-only gas pump that refused to sell me only half a litre of gasoline (eventually one of the clerks took pity on me and showed me the trick) and then ground uphill into a big headwind that would last for days.  The Kjolur route started off quite pretty, with prosperous-looking sheep and horse farms in a deeply incised valley.  The road climbed steeply to the top of a plateau, past a hydroelectric plant that provided 10% of the country’s electricity, then undulated over a steadily deteriorating dirt surface through unremarkable moorland.  There was no drinkable surface water anywhere, something I hadn’t suspected from the map, so I was pretty dry in the throat by the time I found shelter for the night at a little oasis called Afangi.  The wind had freshened into a near gale over the course of the afternoon, so I was glad to soak in a tiny Jacuzzi, cook up my noodles and climb into my tent.

The wind slackened slightly during the night, but erupted with renewed fury in the morning, to the point that it was a major challenge knocking down the tent without it blowing all the way back to Akureyri.  The entire day was a miserable exercise in mind over matter as I rolled at little more than walking pace, each stroke of the pedals a major effort against a headwind that was probably a steady 70 or 80 km/h with even stronger gusts.  It reminded me, on a greatly reduced scale, of our windswept progress across the Aksai Chin plateau on our way to Tibet in 1998, even to the point of having my Cat Eye cycling computer definitively give up the ghost.  I had lunch in an emergency shelter beside the road, liberally grafittied inside by other cyclists sheltering from similar winds.  By 6:45 I managed to crawl, windburned but still standing, into the hot spring complex at Hveravellir.  There I found a message, a piece of cake and some bottles of soda sent from Terri via the bus driver for me.  I had been meant to make it to Kerlingarfjoll that evening, but the gale had prevented that.  I sent messages ahead as best I could via drivers heading that way, and settled in for a well-earned soak in the nicest hot springs of the trip, piping hot natural rock pools full of Slovak overlanders well provisioned with cold Pilsener Urquell.  Luckily, they shared!

On the Kjolur Route, after the wind had stopped howling
The next day, June 27th, was similar in the ferocity of the winds, but had an extra bonus of driving rain.  It was a tough, miserable day, but at least I managed to crawl the 38 kilometres to Kerlingarfjoll by 3:30, where I found Terri ensconsed in indoor luxury and concerned for my well-being in the ferocity of the storm.  We cooked up more lamb chops and turned in early; it was strange but extremely welcome to be sleeping indoors as the heavens opened again.  The scenery around Kerlingarfjoll was supposed to be spectacular, but all I saw was the inside of a raincloud.

Terri pushing up a hill near Kerlingarfjoll
June 28th found us sharing cycling stories and advice with two Canadian couples. Jan and Paul(whom we had met at Myvatn) had done a Terri and taken the bus through the storm as far as Kerlingarfjoll, while Sandy and Amy had ridden up from the south, propelled by a tailwind.  We cooked up a huge breakfast, helped Jan and Paul polish off their pancakes, and then cycled through the wind, much reduced but still in our faces.  The clouds had parted somewhat, giving great views of the two huge icecaps between which we were cycling.  A little café in the middle of nowhere provided a welcome break from the elements and some delicious cake, while one final climb and then we were descending out of the highlands, finally hitting pavement after 170 bone-jarring kilometres.  As we searched for a sheltered place to pitch the tent, we came across a completely unexpected emergency shelter which was spacious and clean inside and which could not have been a more welcome sight to two wind-swept travellers.  We spread out our Thermarests and sleeping bags, cooked on the concrete floor and slept like the dead, worn out by a day of battling Mother Nature.

Our emergency shelter, a welcome sight on a windy night
Our little home away from home in an emergency shelter
The last three days of the ride were almost an anticlimax after the rigours of the Kjolur route.  We had a short ride to the spectacular waterfall at Gulfoss.  The water plunged over two separate drops in a huge cloud of spray, and we managed to enjoy it before the parking lot completely filled with daytripping tour buses from Reykjavik.  We moved on to Geysir, where the tourist tide was in full flood, so we had lunch and a soak in a hot pot before moving across the road to see the geyser after which all others around the world are named.  Sadly the great Geysir no longer erupts, but nearby Strokkur goes off every few minutes, so we were able to satisfy my shutterbug instincts easily.  The rest of the area is full of steaming water, brilliant blue algal blooms and ominous warnings not to stray off the path.  We finally hit the road at 4:00, turned away from the heavy tourist traffic and rolled through a pretty, bucolic landscape until a river provided us with lovely camping and good birdwatching.

Stunning Gulfoss
June 30th saw us ride down to the southern branch of the Ring Road at the strangely unattractive town of Selfoss, passing an absolute epidemic of weekend cottages spread over the bleak volcanic landscape in some fairly strange spots.  In the distance loomed two of Iceland’s most famous volcanoes, the frequently erupting Hekla and  Eyjafjallajokull, the one that shut down European air travel back in 2010.  We rode down to the coast and explored the old houses of Eyrarbakki before wasting a couple of hours searching out an out-of-the-way bird sanctuary that was almost bereft of birds.  At least we got to see lots of elegant Icelandic horses up close along the way.  We turned up our noses at the municipal campground at Thorlakshofn, and after wallowing in their hot pot rode out to a fairly desolate campground beside the sea where it proved almost impossible to find flat ground for the tent, much to Terri’s dismay.

Beautiful Icelandic horses
July 1st, our last full day of riding, was a bit bleak, following a new paved road along the almost uninhabited south coast of the Reykjanes peninsula.  The two highlights of the ride were meeting a man with one arm cycling a recumbent tricycle at great speed the other way, and having a nap beside the road on a natural bed of soft lichen.  Pulling into the fishing port of Grindavik after a grey, uninspiring day we found by far the nicest campground in all of Iceland, with brand new state of the art cooking facilities, laundry machines and much-needed windbreaks.  We met a German couple in an overland Land Rover that we checked out, keeping in mind our plan to go around Africa in a similar machine in a few years’ time.  He is a doctor but designs bicycles in hisspare time; I got to try out one of his fat tire specials.  Terri and I cooked up another meat feast and slept well, knowing that we were almost finished the hard work.

After a prolonged brunch the next morning, we packed up and headed north, past the Blue Lagoon towards Keflavik.  We made surprisingly good time across the bleak lava plain despite a strong headwind, and then, sooner than we had anticipated, we were back in the expensive surroundings of the Motel Alex, where we took a little stand-alone chalet, boxed up our bicycles for the plane (the bike room, in our absence, had accumulated over 100 bike boxes waiting for their owners to return from their bike trips), cooked up our leftover food for lunch and had a princely fish and chips feast in (of all places) the local Thai restaurant. 

As we caught our ride to the airport the next morning, we reflected on the past three and a half weeks.  The scenery was good most of the time and spectacular at times, particularly in the W

estfjords.  The trip was expensive, even though we slept rough most of the time, but we had known that in advance.  The bird life was spectacular, the whale watching was a special treat, the hot pots made even the hardest days bearable, the locals we met seemed remarkably friendly given the tourist tsunami sweeping over their island, and the cycling was challenging.  I’m not sure I would go back to Iceland, having seen quite a bit of the island, but if I did I would concentrate on the north and east.  I thought the Kjolur track was perhaps a bit disappointing in terms of scenery, although the storm might have skewed my judgment.  To anyone contemplating riding Iceland, I would recommend spending as little time as possible on the very busy Ring Road (Highway 1) and as much time as possible on the small roads of the Westfjords and the northern peninsulas.

My next bike trip starts in a week, but this one will be a new experience for me, a lightweight trip on a racing bike through the legendary cols of the Alps that the Tour de France ride every year.  I’ll be sleeping indoors and carrying almost nothing other than lots of money.  It will be a great physical challenge and lots of fun, but I bet it will struggle to compete with Iceland for sheer adventure.  Already I’m planning next summer’s cycling/hiking trip to Madagascar:  I can’t wait!

Perfect timing; we’re pulling into Jasper as I type this.  I love it when I manage to meet an arbitrary self-imposed deadline!

Peace and Tailwinds