I was now out of France and briefly heading through Italy towards the Iseran; parked up in a field overnight I had no idea what I had accidentally planned for myself the following morning.
Back home I had plotted a route with Mont Cenis as part of the day. In my head I’d picked the long, gradual climb out of Susa and back over the border into France, in reality I’d chosen some stupidly steep little road that would pop me out half way up the mountain. Note to self: check the route a bit better in future you giant muppet!
Despite the devastingly hard gradient, the route I’d picked up the mountainside was actually pretty gorgeous, and despite the bank of mist that blanketed the valley below, was a beautiful road to climb. I won’t lie and say I made it up this steep road in one go; if I had then I’d expect a call from Sir Dave. Instead I broke it down into chunks and stopped every kilometre or so to check my legs hadn’t imploded yet. Eventually I reached a village where the horror would end and questioned why anyone would live up such a disgustingly steep hill.
Only then did I finally join Mont Cenis and it’s silky smooth road back over the border into France. It’s rare I feel surprised by anything whilst I’m out on a ride but Cenis did a great job of surprising me; having climbed all morning in the mist I suddenly turned a corner out of the clouds and discovered I’d been riding alongside a massive snow capped mountain for the last two hours without knowing it was there. Photo opportunity duly taken!
I hadn’t intended to say much about Cenis, using it only to get to my biggest climb of the trip but given it had been so hard to start and so beautiful at the top I felt I had to say something. Ultimately though, I used it as a way to get back into France to one of the most legendary climbs on my trip, the Col D’Iseran. This beast of a climb is one of the highest paved passes in Europe and reaches a phenomenal 2770m at the summit.
I would tackle it from the shorter and more isolated Bonneval Sur Arc; the shorter side of this climb being 25km in length, as opposed to the 40km climb from the other side.
First thing first, lunch. I had learnt in Italy that most shops close from 12pm to 3pm so when I managed to raid the bakery at 11:55 and get my hands on some awesome quiche and a cheese baguette I was pretty chuffed and decided to take a break before summiting.
Stupidly though I waited until around the hottest part of the day at 1pm to start my ascent and was immediately flagging on the lower slopes. A Yorkshireman does not tackle heat very well. I decided to stick to my game plan and just ride at a power I knew would be manageable but fast enough to see me to the summit before I ran out of water.
As I climbed higher though, I realised the heat was going to be much less of a problem as the temperature quickly dropped away with altitude. I was blessed with the weather and the thermometer never got below 16c but it was cool enough to make the climb manageable. Once again though, the altitude took it’s toll in the higher sections and I was left asking myself if I need Froome’s doctor on speed dial...
The Iseran is special. It was the only climb where the snow walls still hugged the road in later June and in places reached over 20ft high. The summit was so high the sky becomes a deeper shade of blue and the air is so clear from the pollution of the valley below. You can almost understand why someone would want to build a church up here in the peace and tranquillity of the mountains.
It’s a shame than that in no time at all you’re most of the way down the 40km descent off the otherwise of the mountain and passing through Val D’Isere. I was confused by this little town; it’s so beautiful in the pictures online but when I passed through looked more like a building site than pretty little ski resort. Thankfully I passed by quickly and ended the day right at the bottom of the valley in the prettier Bourg Saint Maurice, mulling over the epic day of climbing with a McFlurry, trying not to let my renewed smell of Brie detract from such luxury dessert.
I’d had a few undramatic days up to this point so inevitably something was going to happen. First up was a storm warning. I knew after last time I didn’t want to be caught in a storm so opted for the 6am start heading up the Petite Saint Bernard. Possibly the easiest mountain of the tour I can’t really add anymore other than to say the woman at the top will try and sell you a fluffy dog teddy and you can say no.
Now the drama. Nothing screams danger more than pulling over to take a photo and discovering your tyre sidewall has blown a hole and you can stroke the inner tube, all in the knowledge you had a 4,000ft descent and no phone signal. Fantastic! The only real option was to pull a quick fix and roll off the mountain in a slightly more steady fashion. There is a fine balance between boiling your brake fluid and not dying when your front tyre explodes and throws your bike into the barrier, thankfully I found it.
I made it all the way to Aosta in time for lunch and another Lidl special, treating myself to some Pringles to make my survival meal all the more special. There were three bike shops in town, all of which were closed until 3pm; not forgetting the storm warning, I really didn’t have the time to wait if I wanted to avoid being flash fried on a mountain. Decision made; I would ride to the end of the day on my dodgy tyre as the repair was holding up well.
Grand St.Bernard. The bigger, uglier and hotter cousin to the mornings climb. It took my three hours to tackle this horror show into a block headwind and as a result made it the one climb I would happily never see again. Whilst the cars can take a cheeky shortcut through a tunnel, I had to take a road to the top that had hairpins designed by someone drunk; each one was nearly 1km apart and seemed to try and get further from the summit than the last.
The tyre held out well and after the three hours were up and I reached the summit I felt such relief; I didn’t know climbs could be that hard or elongated until that point but boy was I glad to be at the top, and with that, into Switzerland. Bring on the chocolate!
All I had to do now was make it down the other side without dying, buy a new tyre then settle in for my first rest day. Step one proved the hardest; I was pitted in some strange sweet spot whereby anything below 25mph and over 40mph was pitching me into a speed wobble but anything in the middle was seemingly pretty good. Stupid tyre. Given I’m writing this we know I survive but that doesn’t take away the squeaky bum moments along the way down.
I made it to Martigny where I was able to replace the tyre and chill out a little at last. Now it was finally time to rest.