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On the road . September 2010 . France

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Gerry and Shoko's apartment, Nîmes, France, 02-10-10
Over the hills and far away

Morbier to Thoiry (8 cycle days; 2 rest days; 444km; 6316m)

Morbier to near Anthy Sur Léman (56km; 734m)
near Anthy Sur Léman to Cluses ( 57km; 1000m)
Cluses to Thônes (47km; 1194m)
Thônes to Albertville (46km; 691m)
Albertville to Champagny-en-Vanoise (49km; 1060m)
Champagny-en-Vanoise to St. Jorioz Lake Annecy (89km; 470m)
St. Jorioz Lake Annecy to Seyssel (16km; 399m)
Seyssel to Thoiry (48km; 768m)

The hills are alive with the sound of cowbells
Cold and crisp are the body and mind respectively. So is the weather. The superb blue skies hang around for the whole day. The first 5 kilometres is downhill-ish with only 50 meters of altitude gain. At this point we have cycled the main highway to the last entrance point into Morez. It is way easier than dropping further into town. Though the traffic isn't too bad, we happily slip off the thoroughfare and onto the quiet D25 for the long ascent. Up until the bridge you warm up on simple gradients between 1 and 3%, but then the climbing really starts and it is a solid 5-6% grind for 6 kilometres to the town of Pre-manon; you will be nudging 8% on some of the curves. Just a few more kilometres until to the border and then a further 3 kilometres of similar terrain to the Col de la Givrine [1232m].

I don't know what it is about Switzerland, but every time I think about it, I have visions of the Von Trapp family fleeing to freedom over the alps at the end of the Hollywood hit: The Sound of Music. While the only sound I can hear is that of hundreds of cowbells; it is just as picturesque and heart moving as the last scene. However, all fantasies I once had about this famous film have now disappeared. While looking up how to spell the family's name, I stumble upon a website that reveals the real Von Trapp family didn't escape into Switzerland at all. They simply caught a train to Italy before leaving for America. How unromantic! Furthermore, Maria looks absolutely nothing like Julie Andrews and she didn't even marry Georg for love. So, that entire dance scene with grace and tenderness finishing with the affectionate eye contact was all made up. I am totally devastated.

A 20 kilometre drop of winding hairpins and brake squeezing plunges takes us passed a magnificent vista over Lac Léman [Lake Geneva] with the French Alps on full display. Mount Blanc is in all his glory today: plastered with white christmas frosting and glistening at all angles of the 4810 metre summit. It is the highest mountain in western Europe.

We fall to just short of 400 metres above sea level; grab a very expensive ferry ride from Lyon to Yvoir [11.80 CHF per person and 8.00 for the bikes, which is about €28.50]. It is also one of the shortest boat rides as well and within 15 minutes we are on the other side, where the scene is more like an elderly waterside convention, than a general pier. The ferry will certainly earn its money on the return trip.

The over-crowded exit bay, full of over-anxious customers is difficult to manoeuvre through. The village is quaint and colourfully picturesque with flowerbeds and hanging baskets brimming with simple flowers. Its souvenir shops and cafes are full of lunch time diners that can afford a glass of house wine costing more than the bottle of Ventoux blend I buy for our evening's dinner.

A short trip on a quiet path leading around the lake finds us at Camping du Lac near Anthy Sur Léman (56km; 734m). We plop down on a grassy patch overlooking Lake Geneva and enjoy a pleasant afternoon, piping hot shower followed by an even more pleasing evening with a somewhat angled, but decent night's sleep.

Col de Feu: A good days pedal
A winding road leads us from the campground to the entrance of the D1005. Just a few hundred metres of highway pedalling, but that is enough. It is streaming with traffic. The sharp climb in and continuing out of Allinges takes my breath away. Finally, after an early morning's effort of 9.4 kilometres and 223 alti-metres we hit the turnoff to the Col du Feu. The D36 path leads up a pretty well steady 6% with a few steeper sections to make you appreciate the lower gradients. After a further 3.2 kilometres and 132 metres of altitude gain, another branch sends us along the D36A. This leads directly to the pass. A signpost says it is 5 kilometres away. It is spot on.

The initial thigh crunching for more than 500 metres on double figure degrees is a killer, but that is the worst of it. We come to rest at the top of the Col du Feu [1117m] after an eventual total from Lac Léman of 17.6km and 730 alti-metres.

We fly down the 3 kilometres to Lullin [858m] only having to climb back up again to 1114m. Another sweet 700 metre drop over 2.7 kilometres follows. We fall even further, stopping only to admire the glimpses of Mont Blanc, into St Jeoire [565m]. This steady downhill over 14 odd kilometres sees us in Cluses (57km; 1000m) in no time. Unfortunately, the brilliant cycling day is dampened somewhat by the really crappy La Corbaz Camping. It doesn't deserve even one of the two stars awarded from the ASCI officials. Atmosphere: zero; upkeep: minus points; and price of €16.30 for the tent and us for one night: outrageous.

Col de la Colombière: Go for it!
The Col du Feu might have been pretty tough going yesterday, but we are still ready to attempt the Col de la Colombière today. While it is not particularly high at an elevation of 1613 metres, it is technically a very difficult cycle. The pass first featured in the Tour de France in 1960 and has since been included 20 times. It was even part of the race this year too.

Now, before we set off, I wasn't aware that this was a Category 1 ride. After however, I have even more respect for those guys that pedal up slopes like these in lightning speed.

The sky is a classy sparkling blue and the forest sweet pine green. Plenty of dappled sun shines through leafy trees for the first section which is a steady 6-7% climb. By the time we reach Blanzy we have already climbed 115 metres. It is here that the ride really starts. Seven kilometres of warming-up the thighs is followed by a rather worrying 3 kilometres averaging just 2%. We enter the village of La Reposoir [994m] soon after, realising that there are still 600 metres to climb and only 7 kilometres to the top. That's some pretty mean average climbing.

We are not alone in our pursuit and when Ali gets it in his head that he can keep up with some of the more amateur riders, I tell him to go for it. He soon finds out that a loaded bike on these gradients is harder than he thought, but there are no winners today: everyone is puffing and spluttering; sweating and groaning at the 10% plus climb in the last kilometres. I'd say, this pass has to take the cake for the most energy zapping, thigh crunching, knee jarring, muscle grinding ascent I've done in a long while and I don't telling you I walk several sections of it. Even that is difficult and it is on asphalt.

Getting to the Col de la Colombiere [1613m] is a great feeling, which I achieve about 25 minutes after Ali. We fill up with carbohydrates and sweet lemon water before enjoying the almost 26 kilometres of downhill splendour. We arrive at campground Le Tréjeux in Thônes (47km; 1194m) quite exhilarated and pleased with our daily effort.

Three cols in one day: Col du Marais [843m]; Col du Esserieux [755m]; and Col de Tamié [922m]
Thônes [652m] is quite a happening place this morning and it takes a bit of weaving in and out of the market sellers and potential buyers before we start the ascent out of town. The road is narrow and in very poor condition, but nothing much unusual for French villages. They usually get better once you have left established townships.

Climbing is difficult: not so much the gradients, but the fact that my thighs just don't want to work after yesterday's heroic endeavour. They ache for the entire day. It is the usual steady climb of 3 to 4% with stretches lingering on 5 and 6%. Some curves peak at 8%, but nothing too dramatic. The road is busy at the beginning: not only with cars, but with cyclists too. Ranging from professionals to amateurs; the more mature to the young at heart and age: all are pushing their way up to the top of at least one summit.

We are doing three passes in total today. After 9 kilometres and 226 alti-metres we reach Col du Marais [843m]. A decent 3 kilometre drop into Serraval is short but kind on my body. The next pass: Col du Esserieux is only a few metres above the lowest point, so it hardly counts. Even the roadwork's department didn't see it as an important landmark, hence there is no sign. The drop thereafter is a smooth 10 kilometre glide to the bottom and the town of Faverges.

Our next pinnacle is one of those long aching and very boring 2% inclines that just seem to go on forever. Baked tedious in the sun, we finally pedal up to Col de Tamié [922m]. Another spiralling descent of roughly 10 kilometres follows all the way to Albertville (46km; 691m). A four kilometre jaunt through town finds us at the municipal campground, where gypsies have taken up residency in the bottom field. The campground is therefore closing earlier, by demand of the mayor. France seems to have some unsolved issues with the roaming population.

We have problems of our own to rectify. While sourcing a bike shop is easier than finding a telephone the mechanic is a little reluctant to attempt fixing my problem. Ali persuades him to take the risk. It is as I suspected a completely worn out, 'old as the bike' headset. It is a small blow to the bank-account, but the job is incredibly good. After attempts elsewhere, the campsite guardians allow us to use their phone. We are set for meeting Olivier and Odile tomorrow: a couple we bumped into close to the Nepalese border in northern India.

Definitely over the hill
We leave just after the gypsies have pulled out in their Mercedes towing trailers with spanking new washing machine and dryer units or caravans. Definitely not the 'poor' image you would expect to be associated with these folk. As they go off in search of new territory, we embark on the quiet 25 kilometre ride to Montiers, where we wait at the train station for Olivier and Odile to show.

What follows is supposed to be quite a difficult ascent and since my knee locked again yesterday evening, Olivier offers to lighten my load and take my back luggage. Beginning at 526 metres, we rise to an elevation of 1256 metres after close tot 25 kilometres and the charming ski resort village we reach is not even over the hill. Instead, Champagny-en-Vanoise (49km; 1060m) snuggles in on the side of the Rhône-Alpes known for some of the best skiing and snow-boarding in south eastern France. But we'll remember the town more because of the warm and wonderful welcome Olivier and Odile gave us.

Ali also turns 44 here and to demonstrate that he is not yet over the hill he goes on a rock climbing expedition with Olivier. He gets to celebrate both accomplishments with chocolate cake and champagne.

With the flow
The good thing about going up, means you have to eventually come down and the journey back to Albertville is just that. We say goodbye to Olivier and Odile on a cold, misty morning in Champagny-en-Vanoise and start the tumble towards Bozel. Gliding through the non-resistant flow of fog, it is a smooth descent only requiring a bit of braking in the deep curves. As we spiral towards the town, the mist clears and the sun glistens on rooftops and the ceramic tiles of the church spire. It turns out to be a perfect cycle weather day after all.

A little bit of up [40m] occurs before we roll with the flow of traffic and the icy blue stream into Moutiers. A small rise then takes us up onto a service road running the length of the highway. We manage to keep on small paths all the way to Albertville. The flow of revolutions is interrupted by me snapping my front derailleur cable., but it is a enough job to fix.

A cycle route leads us to and around Lac d'Annecy [Lake Annecy]. It is a well used bike path almost our entire journey and the 'once upon a time' railway track makes an easy pedal all the way to Annecy. By 5pm, we are within 10 kilometres of the Haute-Savoie capital. A cheaper campground at the back of the municipal camping near St. Jorioz (89km; 470m) is exceptionally friendly. Coffee and appreciatively impressed guests and owner alike are our warm welcome.

What a treat!
Annecy is full of holiday makers even this close to the end of season, but it stands to reason since it is gorgeously picturesque with its canals reflecting colourful boats and waterbirds; flowerboxes bursting with vibrancy; and plenty of history to gobble up as you amble through parks and historic lane ways. We follow a bike path taking us well out of the centre which shoots us out onto the less remarkable D1020. It is not only a route planning mistake due to the amount of traffic, but our safety strip stops halfway into the industrial terrain. I'm not sure what road planners where thinking here. Maybe we are expected to pull out the magic wand and turn our two-wheeled transport into something motorised?

A smaller road eventuates followed by a sigh of relief from myself, though we end up grinding some pretty steep gradients while entering and leaving long forgotten French Villages. One last climb takes us up, over and then down to the Rhône River and the small town of Seyssel (16km; 399m). Weather turns a bit nasty, but the storm clouds never really come close enough, so we manage to stay dry.

The camping municipal is a small affair, though the showers are built for giants with the rosette being so high. A giant mind you, that may not wear his shoes in the shower. I'm not quite sure about the reasoning behind the footwear prohibition, but since there is no fluffy bathroom mat for me to stand on and since the water from the shower head goes everywhere - like in most camping bathroom cabinets, I ignore the request and enter the shower with my fake rubber crocs on. At least now, when I'm balancing on one foot trying to get my leg in the trousers, without dangling the cuff in the water pools on the floor, I can stand on my shoes and keep my feet reasonably dry. In the last four years, I have mastered the art of this equilibrium poise quite expertly.

I'm excited. It is just 50 odd kilometres before seeing a life long friend again. I haven't seen Helen for nine and a half years. Way too long as we both work out immediately that we see one another.

There is quite a bit of climbing and falling as is characteristic of south eastern French countryside. Also typical is the ghostlike appearance of villages around lunchtime. The French stop all things business during the middle of the day to go home and enjoy a family meal. We can smell the pots of stew as we cycle through. No-one in sight; no shops open; only the church bells chime.

iA climb winds us up past an old fort set into the cliff and then we counteract the hard work by whirling down to the Rhône River again. We crawl back up a small incline before rolling our way into Thoiry (48km; 768m). And what a treat in store.

To the best of friends
Thoiry to Nîmes (8 cycle days; 4 rest days; 546km; 4872m)

Thoiry to Seyssel (52km; 578km)
Seyssel to St. Geoire-en-Valdaine (80km; 724m)
St. Geoire-en-Valdaine to Seyssins (56km; 738m)
Seyssins to Grenoble (10km; 22m)
Grenoble to Manthes (87km; 476m)
Manthes to La Concourde (105km; 590m)
La Concourde to St. Martin-d'Ardèche (85km; 889m)
St. Martin-d'Ardèche to Nîmes (72km; 855m)

You're my best friend
Best friends are wonderful. I had a best friend at kindergarten, but we got put in different classes in primary school and the comradeship was immediately over. I also had a best friend in high school, but she ended up at another university and we eventually moved on in opposite circles. I had travel days; Adelaide days; band days; London days; restaurant days; Dutch days; and a number of best friends to see me through the tribulations, but ultimately, we all went our separate ways. Only two remain: Andrew and Helen: they are both from the good old days.

And how amazing is it, when you see one and other after so many years have passed in between? Well that is actually it. The amazement comes more because it is as though none of those years ever existed. Somehow they have been gobbled up by a time machine and dished out to someone really wanting to feel as if time has passed by. There is something pleasant and relaxing about merrily picking up from where you last left off: as though it were yesterday that you lived together in the same house; that you planned logistics regarding Saturday night's gig at the Punter's Club; that you moved a couple of kilometres down the road to shack up with your boyfriend; that you spent a weekday afternoon sipping coffee in a cafe on Sydney road gossiping about the owner of the bar where you both worked.

Yes, what an incredible treat to see a good friend again.
And Colin and Gabriel and Alice and Harry too.

A big chocolate bike cake is ready to greet us and I think the kids are just as excited about eating it as we are. We are blessed with an original and spontaneous circus performance; lots of great food and evening conversations over glasses of wine. There's walking up and down mountains, visiting opportunity shops, preparing for a dinner party and Helen and I get actually get some quality girl talk in too. The days roll by as quickly as cycling the descents on the hills close to their home.

Harry has packed his day bag with clothes, a favourite toy and some apples. He is determined to come with us, but becomes quite upset when he notices the trainer wheels on his bicycle. That could be a flaw in his plan. Alice soon follows suit with her ladybird backpack and pink two wheeler. Gabriel just watches quietly from the sideline, which is unusual for him. And then it is time for all the adult hugs and kisses and a few tears too.

Saying goodbye to best friends is hard.

Only the route out of Thoiry is easy. The 6 hour sleep tiredness and the sad nagging feeling are a little hindrance as is Harry's cold, which attached itself to me. I feel quite miserable and we stop early at Seyssel (52km; 578km). The same camp spot is available, but for variety we choose the one next to it. It is an early night.

Stuffed up and shut down
The even more miserable feeling this morning turns into a sore throat, stuffed up nose and thumping headache by lunchtime. After a flattish start following the Rhône River, the climbing turns into quite a monumental load. The apparently open municipal campground in St. Geoire-en-Valdaine (80km; 724m) is closed. But a local man, who directs us there says, since he is part of the municipality and the campground falls under this department too, he is certified in giving us permission to stay overnight. We thank him for his community spirit. Luckily a stream runs close by, because the water too has been shut down for the season.

The road to recycling
The next morning, we take the smaller road out of town clambering us high over another pass in the direction of Saint Sixte. Its a long steady ascent, but free of traffic and the last stretches end up on a walking trail with beautiful mountain views. From an elevation of 388 metres in St. Geoire-en-Valdaine we climb to the 836 metre peak in just over 10 kilometres. The downhill dash sees us in Voreppe where a bike path guides us all the way into Grenoble.

Our intentions were to meet up with Baptiste, a young guy we met cycling around Lago Calima near Cali in Colombia. Unfortunately, we can't get in contact with him, so we make our way out to Camping Les 3 Pucelles in Seyssins (56km; 738m): Paying €14.50 for a leaf covered, clay patch in a campground full of resident builders in Quechua tents on prime grassy spots is a bit over the top.

Next morning though, Baptiste is there with his memorable smiling face ready to take us back to the apartment he shares with Gabriel on the outskirts of Grenoble (10km; 22m). Once again, seeing another traveller we met on the road in a far off land is as exciting in familiar territory. And once again they welcome us with open arms into their home. We tour around a bit on the bikes one day, get plenty of internet work accomplished on the others while Baptiste is building up his recycling enterprise. Check out

It is great to connect with someone so dedicated to processing used or discarded materials for creating new products. We need more people like Baptiste pedalling the road to better and more efficient recycling treatments.

A warm goodbye and welcome on a cold wet day
The cycle out of Grenoble and up until Moirans would have been a beautiful ride: along the fast flowing river Isère and along a bike path for practically the whole trip. As I said, it would have been, had it not rained. But it does rain and it rains a lot. Too much, but still Baptiste cycles the first 20 kilometres with us. The weather looks like it might pick up as we say our warm goodbyes, but it doesn't.

Cold and wet, we shelter opposite a bakery in Moirans until the sun tries his best to cheer things up. We hit a nasty highway with an even nastier climb. We are on the D1085 with no shoulder. The footpath of sorts, but long forgotten in the maintenance records, is better than fending off the inflexible traffic. We eventually plateau off on quieter country roads.

The rest of the ride is pretty flat as we curl through farmland. Rain threatens a few times more, but clears without too much dampness to leave a cold, crisp afternoon. We arrive at Florence's in Manthes (87km; 476m), another acquaintance from our South American adventures, to a warm welcome. Back in june 2009, we spent 6 days with her, Stan, Morgan, Linn and Fabian on Sailing Koala: the boat we sailed with from Portabello in Panama to Cartegena in Colombia. A few things have changed quite radically in her life since then. She is now married to, her then Mexican boyfriend, Ernesto and they have become a family with the birth of Anna just two months ago.

The mighty mistral
A few days of hanging out, relaxing, doing some more internet work, walking, chatting and watching what sort of attention a two month child needs passes really quickly and before we know it we are saying goodbye once again to another beautiful family.

We only have to step out the door and we are being blown in the right direction. A small climb starts the day but as soon as we hit the flats, the moment I have been waiting for my entire touring life has arrived. Not only do we have tailwind, but by the way the temp has dropped so suddenly and the eagerness of the bluster; its got to be the Mistral.

And we couldn't have asked for more perfect conditions; we are heading south to Nîmes and this strong cold wind is coming from the north. I'm doing 25 kilometres per hour on the flat and I don't normally do that!

We power along the kilometres to a little campsite on the N7 highway La Concourde (105km; 590m). Ali has marked it on our map and my first reaction is: "That looks nice. It's near the river". Ali replies with: "I doubt it, there's a nuclear power plant across from it too". The small print is obviously difficult for me to see without glasses. Sure enough, after a few kilometres of rather busy riding there they are: four giant cement columns with steam billowing from them. The campground is a little dowdy too, though a warm shower can make you overlook a lot of things.

After a morning of industrial terrain and not so pleasant cycling, we finally turn off onto the D362 which takes us up and through winding vineyard lanes and into a solitude that makes us want to pull the "I love cycling in France" t-shirts out off the panniers. It is definitely a ride to recommend.

After the climb up to the turnoff to the Gorges de l'Ardeche, we are initially surrounded by lavender farms. Even a lavender museum en-route is dedicated to this fragrant plant. Soon enough a plummet takes us towards the start of the Gorges de l'Ardeche, where the river of the same name has persistently etched a path through the limestone walls creating cliffs of up to 300 metres high. The most prominent feature, the Pont d'Arc, is a natural 60 metre arch spanning the river width. Not only is this road famous for its stunning panoramas, but it is also a well-known cycle route. And rightly so with 25 kilometres of relentless undulations along the circumference of this looping landmark. It is a decent drop down into the picturesque town of St. Martin-d'Ardèche (85km; 889m).

Again the route to Nîmes is completely scenic. We skirt in and around farms and villages for the most part of the ride until the Pont du St Nicolas. Here a steady, but low gradient climb takes us up to military terrain, but before we make the top, Gerry comes flying down the other way.

We are escorted for the easy ride into the north of Nîmes (72km; 855m), where we quite excitedly catch up on the last few years of stories with Gerry and Shoko. At the end of February 2008, we stayed with them in Singapore. They couldn't have removed themselves to a more different place in the world. Singapore and France: like chalk and cheese, but more about our stay in the historical town of Nîmes next month.

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