After ten days and 500 miles of zig-zagging over, around and through the Alps searching out sundry sites of bicycling lore I've made my escape. My legs are thankful to be back on the relative flat. At times I thought I was mired in a maze trying to reach a destination via a network of narrow river valleys and high passes, some I sought out and others that were an unexpected surprise.
My final night was spent two miles from the summit of the Cormet de Roseland camped between the stone barn and stone house of an abandoned homestead above the tree line with patches of snow here and there. It was a most quiet night, with no one driving the road after dark and no birds at such altitude.
I made my camp with an hour of light remaining. I could have finished the climb and begun the descent, but I would have had to camp somewhere on the way down, meaning I'd have to start the next day with frigid air stabbing daggers into me as I continued the ten-mile descent. I preferred to start the day fully warmed up finishing off the last two steep miles to the summit. It was a slight risk that rain could move in and I would have another perilous cold descent, but I put my faith in the rain being done with me.
Not so. I was awakened at eight a.m. with light drops on my tent. I broke camp in record time before the rain began in earnest. Twenty minutes of climbing warmed me up short of working up a sweat. The rain remained light, but at my increased speed it seemed to be coming down much harder. During the descent I kept my speed to under 18 miles per hour, not wishing to demand too much of my brakes. Half-way down, I could hear that excrutiating sound of metal on metal as my front brake pads finally wore out with all the steep braking in the rain they had endured lately. I knew they were wearing down, as I'd had to make several adjustments to tighten them. Half-way down at a turn-off to a dam I came upon a bus stop with a shelter, just what I needed to replace the pads and also to add a few layers to my torso.
The Cormet de Roseland was on my itinerary to seek out the sharp turn where Johan Bruneel crashed in the 1996 Tour and came within inches of going over a steep cliff that would have been the end of it. He makes frequent references to the incident in his autobiography, "We Might As Well Win," and it can be viewed on youtube. It was a mile or so after I'd replaced my brake pads just before a guard rail. There is no plaque or monument to mark the spot, though at one time the guard rail had been spray-painted, but it had worn off.
The Pyrenees have a handful of noted crash sites. The most prominent is the huge monument to Fabio Casaratelli at the spot where in died in 1995. There are also plaques at the spot where Luis Ocana crashed in the 1971 Tour when he was wearing the yellow jersey and was set to upset Eddie Merckx. There is also one to Wim Van Est, the first Dutch cyclist to wear the yellow jersey, where he lost it in a crash in 1951 on the Col d'Ausbique.
The Cormet de Roseland is just one of two climbs that uses the archaic "cormet" rather than "col" to describe it. It begins at the center round-about in Bourg-St. Maurice in that nook of France just below Switzerland. It is one of those climbs that has kilometer posts for cyclists giving the grade of each of the 20 kilometers to its summit.
I had one more surprise ten-mile climb just after I finished the Roseland in Beaufort. I spent an hour in its library trying to dry out and warm up until it closed at noon. The Col des Sais to the ski town of Sais quickly warmed me up. When I stopped after a mile to shed a couple of layers I leaned my bike against a fence post and received an unexpected shock, as it was electrified to keep its horses behind it. Then I got another shock when I pulled my bike away. But my worst stings of the day came from my campsite when I pushed through a patch of stinging nettles hidden in the tall grass. Despite my fatigue it was hard to go to sleep from the throbbing pin pricks from my knees down. When I finally did the pain woke me up a couple hours later. It wasn't until late in the night that the pain finally subsided. It was a long, hard final day in the Alps.
After the Cormet de Roseland I had one other plaque to search out in Sallanches, after a final descent through a series of ski towns. It was there in 1981 that Bernard Hinault won the world championships. Unfortunately I arrived half an hour after the tourist office closed and no one I asked knew anything about the plaque. The tourist office may not have either, but they may have been able to google it. But I will no doubt be back in the region in the coming years and will have another chance to find it. At least I have a good strong image of Sallanches and its town park.
My foray in the Alps also took me to Albertville, start of the 11the stage of this year's Tour. A cluster of yellow and green and red-polka-dotted bikes hung from a high tower in its Olympic Park where the peloton will set out. I followed the first twenty miles of the stage to the foot of the Col de Madeleine at the small village of Pussy and continued on through the river valley towards the Cormet de Roseland.
I also passed through Bellegard-sur-Valserine, finish of the 10th stage. It will be an uphill finish on the Avenue Saint-Exupery after a climb over the Beyond Catergory Col de Grand Colombier, included in The Tour for the first time. It will be the first big climb of The Tour before its full immersion into the Alps. I was just a few days early for a lecture by Tour historian Jean-Paul Ollivier on Monday, a man who has written quite a few books, some translated into English. He is so respected his nickname is " La Science" (Knowledge).
There have been quite a few monuments in this region to the Resistance and another of the many museums to the Resistance in Nantua. There was a particularly spectacular towering sculpture honoring the Resistance half way town a steep descent at a sharp bend in the road after Nantua. If I ever run out of bicycle mementos to search out, I could spend years of cycling around France going to Resistance sites.
The Tour starts three weeks from today in Belgium. I could spend days there alone going to its many bicycle monuments. In the mean time I have to try to connect up with Andrew from Sydney, who flies into Paris Monday and will be following The Tour for the first time. We met in Laos ten years ago and haven't seen each other since. He will be filling in for Vincent from Melbourne, who has joined me the past three years, unless he has a sudden change of heart and makes it over once again.