I’ve always thought that the best days on the bike are the ones that are as much a journey, a voyage of discovery, as possible. Nothing beats the satisfaction of all day ramble whether ridden hard or just pottering. I’ve never been one to go chasing segments or sucking up the less interesting roads just because. For me riding a bike is about that time to decompress, to free the mind, to let it wander and soak up the world around it free from thought or daily life.
Despite the fact that vicariously, through any number of channels, we can all delve into any number of experiences from our homes, it is still possible to set yourself loose on a modern day odyssey, a release from the flow of the tide. A kind of grand tour of the Alps had been on my agenda for many years and the impending relocation to Europe was just the opportunity to finally get my teeth into one. As it turns out, Bike Dreams, a Dutch based cycle tour company, have been running Les Dix Alpes, a journey from the shores of Lake Como to the Mediterranean at Nice, for a few years now. It offers a magnificent opportunity to explore some of the grandest of the French cols but still leaves plenty unexplored for future European raids. If you want to get a real tasting plate of the Italian and French Alps, there are few easier ways to start.
Mark and I converged at Milan airport after two very different journeys – I’ll take 3 hours over 24 anytime, thanks - oh the joys of now living in Europe! We were arriving a day ahead of the tour start to take in some of the roads around Como. For me this was familiar territory after my trip last year (http://theclimbingcyclist.com/the-italian-job-mortirolo-gavia-and-stelvio-in-one-day/) and I was keen to show Mark how good the riding was going to be. After a lazy start, building our bikes over breakfast, we set out along the lake, heading north on the rollers for a coffee at Bellagio. Our targets for the days were the legendary climbs of the Ghisallo and the Muro di Sormano. Like last year, the weather was perfect, the legs warmed up and the coffee delicious. We were soon winding through the first of many switchbacks of the trip and topping out at the chapel of the Madonna del Ghisallo, an almost mandatory pilgrimage for those interested in the history of Italian bike racing.
That evening, we caught up with the crew and the riders on the tour, an entourage of 40 all up (35 rides plus guide, drivers, chef and mechanic). Tomorrow we would be heading north, crossing borders into Switzerland and back into Italy.
A chilly mass start following a team photo beside the lake and we were soon off, heading north along the lake and then inland. The group was soon splintered by a couple of rollers and early form was tested as Mark and I contrived to put in a punishing pace on one of the early climbs (why not?). Soon we were riding as a pair, enjoying the quiet and smooth roads on offer. It was a day punctuated by lakes and tunnels and was really a transition stage to the mountains on the following day. Swiss roads were generally busier than the Italian ones, with less patient drivers. Today was also the first day we experienced the somewhat impressive lunch spread that was to be provided every day on the roadside. It was difficult to prize yourself away and get back on the pushie!
Tours like this are all about routine. Tonight was the first night camping and getting used to how it all worked. Arrive at camp, setup, have a shower, have some soup, decompress the ride, talk about anything and everything, dinner, cleanup and climbing into the tent! I love the simplicity of camping. Once dinner is done (and what a dinner was put on every night!), the light starting to fade and the temperature dropping, what else is there to do but go to bed? A healthy dose of sleep is enforced!
Riders trickled into camp in groups, pairs and solo. One of things I loved about this trip was that you are self-sufficient during the day – a map or GPX file your companion, no guides here. You have a start point, an end point and lunch in between and you cruise or flog yourself as you feel, riding in a group or on your own depending on the form and the head. Support is a phone call away should you have a mechanical but the day is your own to enjoy.
Early impressions of the bunch were what a diverse group it was, chock full of years on the bike and a majority of Aussies. The only surprise was the amount of leg fur on display and a lack of (excessive) Beach Rd bike bling!
The route for Les Dix Alpes is designed as a continuous journey without transfers. This inevitably means there are some transitions along the valley between the various passes. Stage 3 was by the far the longest of these, with an 80km flat valley ride (not being a flatlander myself, I reckon it was the flattest 80kms I have ever done) to the base of the Col du Grand St. Bernard. After some interesting navigation, meanderings and a bonus bit of gravel, we caught up with a larger group and Mark and I then proceeded to set the pass for the bunch to the lunch stop at the base of the climb – “We thought we would let you young ‘uns do the work. You seemed to be enjoying it” was the consensus!
By now, we were deep in the Alps and the big hitters were looming on the horizon.
Stay tuned for part 2, Les Grandes Alpes.
Climbs of Part 1
Muro di Sormano
Col du Grand St Bernard
Col du Petit St Bernard
Prologue - Ghisallo & Muro di Sormano
Stage 1 - Lakes & Tunnels
Stage 2 - Simplon Pass
Rest Day - Moosalp & friend
Stage 3 - Col du Grand St. Bernard
Stage 4 - Col du Petit St. Bernard