29.9.17

Cycling Through The French Alps - The Signal de Bisanne And A Whole Lot More



Approximately 1.5 kilometres west along the D925 from the bottom of the Col des Saisies is the small village of Villard-sur-Doron. That’s where you’ll find the start of what is sometimes referred to as a mythical climb up the Signal de Bisanne, 14.5 kilometres of long, winding, supposedly undiscovered road. In a box full of colourfully wrapped mouth-watering chocolates, it’s the odd one out, sitting there unopened and all alone.
Climbing up that steep, narrow road early next morning, the occasional glimpses through the dense forest revealed a sheer vertical drop to the valley below. As I’ve steadfastly maintained, the big climbs become increasingly harder the higher you get, and the Signal de Bisanne was no exception. Joining the Saisies almost at the very top, the final 5 kilometres averaged a near 10% gradient. But the 360-degree panoramic view, dominated by Mont Blanc to the northeast, was a sight to behold. While having precious little time to smell the roses on this remote summit, the fact that this isn’t a commercial climb wasn’t lost on me. It was the perfect finish to what had become an insatiable appetite for chasing European mountains.
 
Running short of time, I began heading down the mountain the same way I came up. By now the fickle weather had closed in and rain was bucketing down. It reminded me of my descent from the Col du Granier down into Chambéry, though at least this time I knew where I was heading: the very bottom of the Col des Saisies, to watch the Tour come through.
 
Standing a few metres from the 90-degree bend in the road was Roz, wearing her by now well worn-in pink rain jacket and brandishing an enormous green hand the size of a wicket keeper’s glove. She’d obviously got into the carnival atmosphere that preceded the passing of the Tour entourage, followed by the even more fleeting appearance of the riders themselves.
The hubbub and sense of expectation during the long wait was probably more exciting than the eventual arrival of the peloton, as the leading riders began making their way up the 15-kilometre climb to the top of the Col des Saisies. They moved so fast it was difficult to get more than a glimpse, especially from my interrupted view behind Roz’s incessantly waving cricket glove.
Probably no more than five minutes between the first few riders and the last, the peloton’s arrival and departure were history in the blink of an eye. Then, just as people were about to move, a voice behind bellowed for everyone to stay exactly where they were. Another five minutes of anticipation was followed by the appearance around the bend of just one remaining rider. Being the last, he received just about as much applause as the rest of the peloton put together. He looked to be going quickly, as fast as anyone ahead of him—and that, of course, was everybody.
Maybe he’d had bike trouble or had just stayed too long in Beaufort for a beer and pizza. Whatever the reason, he wore a wry smile as the oncoming crowd began cheering him up the col.

                 Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round, on Amazon
      


Easing over a short rise, the last thing I felt was fatigue. Filled with adrenaline, I wondered how a poorly placed professional cyclist might feel as he grinds out the last few days of a major Tour. I can remember a handful of spectators cheering on one solitary rider who belatedly appeared at the bottom of the Col des Saisies. It was Stage 17 of the 2009 Tour de France and only the second climb of the day. At least five minutes behind the group in front of him, all he would have seen as he braced himself for the long, lonesome climb was a steep gradient and the last few spectators heading back down the road. While the race leaders up ahead had the podium to strive for, his only reward was to make it across the finish line. An occupation as much as an elite sport, he was more than likely looking forward to packing his bags and moving on to the next event.
Hardly competing, and certainly receiving no remuneration for my toil, it dawned on me that I had more in common with the cyclist than I ever would have imagined. First, we were both riding alone, and second, the distances, the terrain and nature’s elements would all have been very similar.

Having cycled around France a few years earlier, I still remember the exhilaration I felt as I pedalled the few remaining kilometres towards the medieval town of Langres. The sense of achievement was instantaneous. But far more enduring was the memory of the whole experience; our closer understanding of the people we met, and our appreciation of their turbulent history, unique culture and spirited way of life. 


    Other books by Mark Krieger:


High Spain Drifter, on Amazon







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