Route de la Grandes Alpes – From the Start

Some years ago I was in Jausiers, at the very heart of the French Alps with my beloved Harls.

Passing an idle few moments whilst waiting to pay my hotel bill I noticed an interesting leaflet about something called “La Route des Grande Alpes.” Being an inherently inquisitive chap I picked it up and in a fleeting moment my life changed.

You see, here was not only a route map, but a reason to return to these enigmatic mountains again and again!

It was also the start of a mini obsession.

To explain; La Route des Grandes Alpes is a tourist itinerary through the French Alps between Lake Geneva and the French Mediterranean Riviera passing over all the high passes of the Alps within France.

For years, since picking up that blasted leaflet, I’ve pondered over maps planning to one day ride this iconic road and today, dear Blogonaughts, Harls and I have started to do just that!

Of course Harls was always going to be with me, she’s part of me.

I’ve decided to enjoy the whole experience without feeling the pressure to recount every detail each evening on this blog. That will follow when I get home.

For now, each day I’m just going to give you a status report.

RDGA Zero Kilometre, the start.


Today we stood at the Zero Kilometre marker outside the Town Hall in Thonon les Bains, started Harls engine and headed South on La RDGA.

Six Cols later we have paused for the night in a typical alpine hotel near Val d’Isere and are thoroughly pleased with ourselves.

On top of Europe.


Tired too, the technical term is “knackered” actually, but happy, very happy.

Our odyssey has truly begun.

Catch you soon.

Dookes

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Crocodile Hunting

Switzerland; a relatively small land-locked country in Central Europe known for its mountains, wonderful alpine roads, chocolate, watches, Swiss Army knives and . . . railways.

I have mixed feelings about Switzerland.

It can be a strikingly beautiful place, but it gets to me; the countryside is, I feel, often rather too over-manicured and can resemble pictures on a box of chocolates. For alpine motorcycling Switzerland is right up there, wonderfully maintained roads in some of the most magnificent landscape our planet has to offer. So I guess you can’t have it both ways.

It’s also undeniably it is one of the most expensive countries in the world to go shopping, though fuel prices are often reasonable. It’s public transport network is arguably the most efficient, punctual and integrated anywhere and fare-wise actually very reasonable to use. Busses, trams and trains all seamlessly link into each other with the precision of a fine Swiss watch.

The famous Swiss Railway Clock


So, lets look at those railways…

Railway construction in Switzerland got started in the mid 1840’s, by 1850 the famous British railway engineer Robert Stephenson was engaged to construct a network of over 600km of lines and the first true alpine route was opened through the Gotthard Pass in 1882.

In the early days of railways, nearly everything was powered by steam and for the Swiss there lay a problem; Switzerland has no source of coal. The country quickly became reliant on imported energy, which was both expensive and unreliable. The country was and still remains on the cutting edge of Hydroelectric power the Swiss railways became, of necessity, early pioneers of electrification. By 1939 nearly 80% of the network was electrified, whilst other European countries could only manage around 5%!

Most of the trunk and international routes are laid to what is known as “Standard Gauge,” the distance between the rails being 1435mm (4ft 8 1/2in) and many secondary and mountain lines are metre gauge, 1000mm.

Arguably the most famous of the metre gauge systems is the Rhaetian Railway, which operates in the canton of Graubünden in South-Central Switzerland and even extends to Tirano in Northern Italy. Serving the major tourist destinations of Davos, St Moritz and Klosters, the Rhaetian Railway has become known to travellers from around the world.

Rhaetian Railway train in Tirano Italy.

Two lines of the Rhaetian have grown to almost legendary status, the Bernina and the Albula, which are now both recognised as Unesco World Heritage Sites. The Bernina route is renowned for the “Bernina Express” which crosses the Pass of the same name, whilst the Albula is famous for Crocodiles!

At this point you may be forgiven for thinking that yet again Old Dookes has lost the plot, but please stick with me.

The metre gauge Albula line is 38 miles long (61km) and links Thusis with the spa resort of St Moritz, crossing the Albula Pass on the way. The route was opened in 1904 and is one of the most spectacular narrow gauge railways in the world. Originally the line was worked by steam locomotives, but by 1919 electrification work had commenced. For the technically minded, a 11Kv overhead system at 16.7Hz AC was built.

The newly electrified route needed some pretty powerful locomotives to keep the trains moving and therein lay a problem, because back in 1919 electric motors were bigger than we can make them today, a lot bigger!

The solution that the Rhaetian settled on was to use two of the biggest motors available. Then to mount them on the frames of a railway locomotive and link the drive to the wheels via a system of shafts and rods; quite crude, yet brilliantly simple.

The new locomotives weighed 66tonnes, were 43ft long, had a centre cab and long noses at each end.

With that impressive long nose they soon gained the nickname of “Crocodiles.”

For over 50 years the 15 Crocodiles were the sole motive power over the Albula route and each notched up impressive mileage during their working lives. Gradually their numbers began to dwindle, today there are only two left in service on the Rhaetian and then only for special workings. Four others survive as museum exhibits.

Last September when Harls and I were passing through Switzerland I planned that our route would take us over the Albula Pass. I also knew that one of the museum Crocodiles was on display at Bergün railway station which is almost the halfway point of the Albula Railway, so it seemed logical to pop in and have a look.

The road over the Albula Pass is delightful; it would have been even more so if we didn’t have seriously sub-zero temperatures that morning. Thank goodness for heated gloves and jackets! From the South the hairpins start almost as soon as you turn onto the Pass road in the village of La Punt Chamues, but unlike some other passes they don’t go on for long as you are already at serious altitude.

Heading to Albula.

Early snow had given the scenery a delightful dusting of the white stuff and for Northern Hemisphere dwellers a sense that Christmas was coming. Fortunately the road was dry and clear, even if the temperature took my breath away as we climbed to the summit. Poor old Harls was having a tough time of it though, her carburetor was icing up in the thin alpine air and the lack of oxygen saw a serious drop in performance, good job we weren’t in a hurry!
We paused at the Pass, partly to take in the moment and also to let Harls warm up a bit; I know, it seems strange to stop to let the engine warm up, but it’s the way in the mountains.

As we began our decent, I set my sights on Bergün and the elusive Crocodile, but first there was a load more lovely twisty bends to enjoy.

For anyone that hasn’t either ridden a motorbike, or even a pedal cycle, it’s a little difficult to explain just how fantastic it is to ride around sweeping bends as your machine leans into the curve. Get it right and it’s simply magical; get it wrong and it’s, well, not so nice. . . fortunately we mostly get it right!

Pulling into Bergün station car-park, I kicked Harls side-stand down, grabbed my camera and went off in search of the “Croc”. I found it sitting in it’s own protective shed at the North end of he station and duly took a number of photographs.

The preserved “Crocodile.”

It’s quite an impressive beast and I must say that by and large it looked pretty well looked after. I have a bit of a hang-up about any machine that is parked up as a museum piece, yes its great that it has been preserved, but just sitting lifeless and cold it’s like the living breath has been sucked out of it.

Crocodile captured I wandered back towards Harls, but being a railwayman at heart I couldn’t resist a visit to the station platforms just to see what was going on. In short… not a lot! There were no scheduled departures and no-one else about, but wait a minute that signal is showing a “Proceed” aspect; perhaps there’s a freight train about.

Within a few minutes the rails began to sing their distinctive metallic song indicating a train was approaching. I looked to the North, scanning the line eager to spot the approaching train.

My jaw dropped open and I had to look twice; approaching me at speed was a Crocodile on the head of a train of excursion passenger cars!

A living breathing “Crocodile!”

The 78-year-old locomotive, one of only two left in working order, swayed over the point-work and tore through the station, it’s air whistle echoing a shrill warning off the surrounding hills and it’s side rods clanking a happy song as it passed by me.

Yes I was a train spotter again, but hey can you blame me!

I’d come hunting Crocodiles and my word, I’d found one alive and well in it’s native habitat!

“The biggest kick I ever got was doing a thing called The Crocodile Rock.”

Catch you soon.

Crocodile Dookes

Red Sky In The Morning.

Sometimes it’s worth getting up the first time the alarm sounds and not hitting the “Snooze” button. Yesterday in Brittany was a case in point.

Surprisingly the evening with Denis didn’t get out of hand and I slept “The sleep of the just,” with only the alarm disturbing me. I got out of bed and threw open the shutters, dawn was breaking in the Eastern sky with rich hues of amber, red and gold; it was too good to miss, so I sat I the window taking in the show that the sun was giving.

In the back of my mind I pondered the old adage,”Red sky in the morning, sailors warning.” Hmm, oh well, we’ve taken pretty much everything that the weather clerk has thrown at us this trip, something else won’t matter. Will it?

Denis was waiting when I wandered downstairs, his smile every bit as warm as the sun.
“Bonjour Gallois, bien dormi, ça va?”
“Oui mon ami ça va et merci, j’ai très bien dormi!”

He broke into a rare bit of stilted English,
“Bacon and eggs? Zee full English?”

He roared with laughter as I shook my head…he knew what I was going to say.

“Merci, non. J’aurai une omelette, comme d’habitude!”

More laughter, Denis knows I always have an omelette for breakfast with him; it’s because they are the best, which I frequently remind him. Anyway he gets fun out of the bacon and eggs routine!

Of course there’s the usual French breakfast fare to go with it; bread, croissants, pain au chocolat and as this is Bretagne, little Madeleine cakes…which just beg to be dipped briefly in your cup of coffee to give sublime breakfast happiness!

Soon, too soon, it was time to hit the road again and in the French way there were hugs and kisses all round. Ann stood on the steps of the Château waving me goodbye, Denis had disappeared off to feed his horses, he doesn’t do the actual departure bit very well.

I turned Harls North West and headed for our ferry port at Roscoff, just over 100 miles away through delightful Breton scenery. True, Brittany isn’t as spectacular as the mountains that we’ve been in for the last fortnight, but to me it has a homely feel. It’s the region of France where I first “got it” about the country and the people, that’s wholly down to Mrs Dookes; she worked here years ago and imparted her love of the place to me. I’ve never really looked back since!

Then there was the weather, what a lovely day it had turned into and stayed that way right to the ferry. Thank you La France, I’ll forgive you the downpours we had to endure previously!

….and so to sea. The ferry link between Brittany and Plymouth is really convenient for me as Dookes H.Q. is only about 25 miles from the port and usually a doddle to cover.

I like travelling with Brittany Ferries, that’s not an advert for them – I’m just a satisfied customer. I always get a cabin, irrespective if it’s a day or night sailing, as it makes a good base to securely dump things whilst I enjoy the facilities of the ship and also because I appreciate getting some sleep. No difference this time either!

Getting near to the U.K.the weather closed in and by the time we docked it was full-on driving rain. Oh joy in the darkness!

Then, just to add to my overflowing cup of happiness on the way home, the highways authority had decided to dig up the road and install diversions…then we ran into fog and still it rained…bear in mind that these are rural roads with no street-lighting, not fun. That blasted red sky!

Grumbling aside, it was good to roll Harls into my workshop, shut the doors, turn on the dehumidifiers, thank her for a job well done and promise in the next couple for days to wash the considerable amount of road grime off her.

2736 miles without missing a beat. “Pas mal,” as Denis says, yes not at all bad for an old lady, the true star of the show!

Incredibly big thanks to Mrs Dookes for the latitude that she gives me to go travelling, whilst she keeps H.Q. ticking over; yeah I know that I’m a lucky chap in so many ways.

There’s more to tell about this trip dear reader, so please pop back again soon when I post more pictures and stories of things we saw along the road.

“Let me be a travelling man, I’m a roadrunner baby, roadrunner.”

Catch you soon

Dookes

Playing Amongst the Clouds

Apologies before you start reading this dear Blogonaughts; I’m still having trouble loading pictures, so until I can make the technology work, please read on, enjoy and by all means comment or message me. – Dookes

There are times when I find it quite difficult to articulate exactly what I think without reverting to boring superlatives, or even worse, tedious exclamations.

Tonight, I’m enjoying dinner at my hotel which is located in Ritten, just North of Bolzano, Northern Italy.

Well, that’s the first problem.

Look on the map and yes, indeed, we are in Italy. Speak to the local people and you’ll find out that we are in the South Tirol. The predominant language is German and certainly in the restaurant tonight, that’s all I can hear. The food, is pretty Germanic too, some rather nice Schnitzel.

It’s one of those unfortunate situations that history has bestowed on the world. In this case until the early 20th Century the region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then along came war. The fighting in the Alps and Dolomites during World War One was vicious and protracted, men fought at altitude in trenches dug in rock and snow. The casualty rate was incredibly high and a considerable number from the weather conditions and malnutrition. It became known as “The White War.”

After hostilities ceased, Italy claimed large tracts of the region as war reparations. Then twenty years later along came World War Two and Mussolini tried a further land grab. Once everything had settled down in 1945 new lines were drawn on the map, but unfortunately no-one spoke to the local people…I believe that you can colour a map, but not people’s hearts. The end result is a fascinating bubble of Austrian-ness nestling at the very top of Italy’s boot.

To the credit of the government in Rome, they have recognised that there is a difference and Bolzano is now recognised as an “Autonomous Region.” Travel around the area and you will see many more Austrian flags hanging from houses than the Italian Tricolore. I consider myself lucky to have had a very interesting conversation with a couple of local folk earlier today about both their history and identity. There will be more of that in a future post, but today I rode around their truly beautiful region.

The weather accurately lived up to forecast, changeable. We are in high mountains after all and what we missed from time to time in panoramas, we gained by playing in the swirling clouds and enjoying tantalising glimpses of wonderful limestone crags.

In many ways the lack of distracting views was a bit of a benefit, we rode literally hundreds of hairpins today. If I was rusty on them before, I’m an old hand now!

At the start of the South West climb to Passo di Giau, 2236m/7336ft was a sign, 34 Tornante, 34 Hairpins…after riding 22 I found myself screaming, “No, there’s only another 12!”

It was heavenly, in a totally indulgent two-wheeled petrol-head sort of way!

I am so glad that I brought Harls with me; I really wouldn’t have enjoyed it, or probably even attempted where we rode today, on Big Baby Blue. The more I got into the swing of things, the better my Harls responded, her exhaust seemed to spit contempt at the gradient as she conquered each climb and bend. Yes, she’s a bit of a handful going downhill; the rear brake has a delightful habit of fading as it gets hot or wet, fortunately her engine braking helps out a lot, but hey I’m sort of used to it and wouldn’t have her any other way.

At the top of Passo di Giau is a delightful “Refugio,” sort of cross between a bar, restaurant and hotel. This being the South Tyrol, I went native and enjoyed an “Apfel Strudel und Kaffee” for lunch and very good it was too.

Overall today we topped the following Passes:
Costalungo 1745m
Fedaia 2075m
Di Giau 2230m
Tre Croci 1809m
Falzarego 2105m
Valparolo 2197m
Campolongo 1875m
Gardena 2121m
Sella 2240m
Pordoi 2239m

Not bad for an Old Geezer on a getting on a bit Harley Softail!
Favourites, by a country mile, Di Giau and Pordoi, hairpin heaven.

Was it a good day? You bet is was!

“My uniform is leather
And my power is my age!”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Crazy Photos

Regular Blogonaughts may be wondering just what’s going on with some of the photos that I’ve slid into the last couple of posts.

Just to reassure, old Dookes hasn’t had a sudden rush of blood to the head and isn’t going round riding his motorbike with a camera in his left hand and his right on the throttle!

No it’s a bit more dull than that.

Ages ago I got hold of a nice little Sony video camera, with the idea of capturing some video of my mountain exploits. The original plan was to slot in the odd video on the blog, but to be honest it hasn’t happened for a couple of reasons; I find even my own ride videos a bit boring and I wasn’t over happy with the results without a load of editing…something I haven’t the inclination to do! BUT, I’ve recently been playing around with the little camera and found that it takes semi-reasonable still photos, if a tad wide-angle. Best of all is that I can just press a button and the little thing happily snaps away at a pre-set interval, leaving me free to ride the road and download later.

Hopefully we will get some decent weather to see some real nice shots!

In the meantime, if you see a picture of the road that looks a bit leaning over….it’s because we were and you get to see it as it really is.
So welcome on board and please sit still.

Catch you soon Dookes

Hard Miles

Some days the miles seem to fly by, blink and that’s a hundred gone, other days it can seem like you are getting nowhere very slowly. Today had elements of both!

I said “au revoir” to Claudine and Jacques this morning and hit the road. I wanted to fill Harls with fuel and decided that a convenient supermarket on the outskirts of Bourges that I knew would be ideal. For some reason I thought that it would be fun to stick to “normal” roads and avoid the Péage, after all it was only 25 miles away….BIG mistake! That 25 miles took an hour, with road works, heavy traffic and speed limits.

I’ve got to admit that I wasn’t a very happy Dookes. When I started this trip, I resolved to chill and definitely cut down on the swearing…good job I haven’t got a swear box with me then, I was even going at it in Welsh!!!!

Then we got on the N151 and things got a whole lot better.

Normally I avoid “N” roads, or Route National to give them their proper title. These days they are often poor relations to the toll roads and suffer from toll-road-avoiding trucks beating them to pieces.

The 151 is different though.

Enjoying the N151.


First up it’s an old Roman road, so it’s almost dead straight, but occasionally enjoys some wonderful sections of multiple curves. It passes through delightful towns, like Charité sur Loire, Vézelay and Clamecy and crosses from the Val de Loire into Bourgogne – that’s Burgundy to the non-French speakers.

Passing through small town France.

I love Bourgogne, it’s so “me” and like me it seems to burst into life in the autumn, I was an Autumn baby so maybe that’s got something to do with it! The list of wonderful Burgundy produce reads like an encyclopaedia of high quality foodstuff. There’s some of the most delightful (and expensive) wines in the whole of France, nuts by the tonne, grass reared beef, mustard, cheese, Marc de Bourgogne brandy and of course all kinds of game. Its reputation for fine gastronomy is well deserved. Unfortunately, today, we were only passing through, drat!

Then after Avallon we rode onto the A6, Autoroute de Soleil, or to coin Chris Rea, “this is the road to hell!” To be fair, it doesn’t go to hell, but it’s purgatory travelling along it! The A31 and A36 that follow are pretty “merde” as well. These were 150 hard, hard miles, just grit the old teeth and get on with it. No-one can hear you scream in space, or inside a motorcycle helmet.

Finally after Besançon we turned off and began to pass through small towns and villages as we climbed towards the Vosges. Along the way we had crossed the line where water drains towards the Mediterranean Sea rather than the Atlantic and had bridged the river Saône; I always feel sorry for the poor Saône, it’s a mighty river in its own right, but normally it’s just dismissed as a tributary of the Rhône.

Seeing the Vosges Mountains rise up around us, it occurred to me that France is big, really big. Not in the space sense as The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy once said:

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Well, when you live in Cornwall, a county about 70 miles long and only around 40 miles at its widest and where the Sea is only ever 20 minutes away tops, France might just as well be Outer Space!

Then we hit the mountains and the smile returned!

Smile time, mountain roads!


Ok, the Voges isn’t the Alps, but hey after the day we had just endured you gotta cut me some slack! We rode past our B&B for the night and on to Gerardmer to cross off some Cols, just because we could and also because I needed to get the old head straight on a few hairpins!

“Wheels spinnin’ round my brain, driving you insane.”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Today’s mileage 329; Trip 691 from Roscoff..

The Galibier

Yesterday, my good blogging friend AGMA published a post about her love of the Tour de France cycle race. Please pop over to her blog by clicking here and check it out.

Regular blogonaughts may remember that Hogrider Dookes is also rather partial to the “Le Tour” and it is certainly one of my guilty pleasures to sit inside on a bright summer day watching the action on television. My excuse is that live Tour action simply did not exist when Dookes was a lad!

Chris Froome attacks in the mountains.

Today the weather outside is OK, but not great, so not too much guilt is involved…but today is a very special day for “Le Tour,” today the race crosses the iconic Col du Galibier!

Col du Galibier

This was a mountain that I always dreamed of climbing. The domain of Merckx, Zoetemelk, Coppi and Jiméez, it stands at 2645metres, 8678ft, above sea level and has featured in the tour since 1911.

This year “Le Tour” is crossing Galibier from the North side, 18km of climbing at an average gradient of 6.9%….that’s bloody tough! Oh yes, I nearly forgot, they also had to climb Col du Télégraph first, 11.8km at 7.3%!

Galibier is to me the home of “Le Tour” in the high Alps and also for me a place of great spiritual significance. The first time I rode up her glorious majestic slopes I had serious tears running down my cheeks and to be honest it’s not changed much since! I love the place.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go watch a cycle race!

Catch you soon.

Dookes