I'm in the Alpes Maritimes on my motorbike for a road trip from Nice to Annecy, following my version of the Route des Grandes Alpes. Last week of August and the weather is "Set Fair" as aneroid barometers used to be marked. A lot of the tourists have gone home so no problems with hotels being full. I'm not booking in advance so I have the true freedom of the road! In practice this means finding myself in a room above a small town bar facing a Baroque style church. The other hotel guests are a couple of pairs of French builders and a Ducati biker (Italian) also on his own, on his second night: he left his bag here yesterday so as to ride a loop with the bike light.
I've a room above a bar/hotel facing the façade of a baroque church, in good state with the statues recently painted. It's not a cathedral, Isola is a small town with a convent church a few doors away. Then my bike is parked in front of the façade and I enjoyed eating dinner on the terrace of the hotel facing them both. So the biker dream complete!!!
Fine ride out of Marseille to Nice. A couple of hours after leaving my garage and I was filling with petrol at the same fuel station that I used for the GLME Ascension camp earlier this year. And enjoying the same boulangerie for my lunch, a Quiche Lorraine and a Tarte aux Pommes for me. Side trip up the vallée de la Vésubie to the col de Turini (1607 m.), a motorsport classic because of its challenging hairpin bends, which just seem to keep on coming endlessly. It rises more than 1000 metres altitude in just a few kilometres so although it's not as high as the other cols I plan to ride this week, it's still a very serious ride. I've never seen sunshine at the col and this visit was no exception. Cloudy but at least the road was dry.
Back down to St-Martin-Vésubie and up to the col-St-Martin (1500 m.), a rather sad ski resort at the col but a challenging road down to the Tinée, another kilometre down vertically in not much more than ten kilometres road length.
A lesson in not booking in advance, the village where I had planned to stay and for which TripAdvisor had nothing adverse noted, looked hot, dusty and noisy. Running on, the village of Isola (920 m.) looked welcoming, even free wifi in the centre of the village that's good enough for Radio4 on iPlayer!
Another clear dawn and sunshine next morning. A slow breakfast whilst the sun rises enough to take the chill off the valley floor. Again eating on the hotel terrace facing my bike and the Baroque church. The builders go off to work at the ski resort up at the col de la Lombarde (2350 m.). Some British bikers from Hull turn up for breakfast, they're on their way down across to Castellane and the valley of the Verdon.
On the road to the Cime de la Bonette (2802 m.) with not much traffic going in this direction, away from the Mediterranean. The highest road in Europe, according to the signposts, a carefully worded claim. Clear skies, dry roads. Road repair crews painting the lines and brushing away the little rocks coming off the mountain. A berger tending his flock of sheep with two efficient long-haired dogs, which looked like spaniels. Views increasingly extravagant as the route climbs almost two kilometres altitude from Isola, the town where I stayed. And the, suddenly hordes of cyclists, bikers, and just a few cars at the precarious one-way road around the Cime. All of us vying for the trophy photo shot of course but clearly grouped by transport.
On and down, but the dream ride untangles. The problem used to be camping cars but they don't seem to do the big cols any more. Hurrah! Gone also are the desperate French riders on slightly ageing sports bikes used for weekend fun since before the kids arrived; also gone, our Italian friends riding new track type bikes wearing stylish and impossibly tight leathers, riding like Biaggi or Rossi.
What you have now are hordes of adventure motorbikes, the big BMW style, wearing uniform northern black or maybe "Long Way Round" sand coloured synthetic gear. They cruise along majestically, the German over-engineering taking in its stride everything even the most extreme roads can throw at the motorcycle. Just occasionally accompanied by a more colourful rider on a KTM, style of riding also more individual.
And swarms of cyclists. "Swarms" as in David Cameron's comment about migrants/refugees at Calais seeking to enter the UK. These cyclists are not bred for cycling who spend every moment on in the saddle nor are they the jolly members of cycling clubs, who are at least disciplined riders as a group on the road. No, they are the same cyclists who terrorise commuters and they're behaving as badly on the col roads as on the city streets.
The cars are either only as numerous as they ever were or possibly even have stopped bothering with the hills as there's just too much risk of collisions. And the cost of fuel.
But even more seriously than the traffic, I lost confidence with the front brakes, there was juddering and some fade coming down from the Bonette. I've enjoyed that ride many times before on this same bike so there was a problem. A roadside examination showed the brake pads were not down to the the wear indicator although not far off. The local bike shop didn't have the specific pads in stock, it would take a day or two, so I decided to return to Marseille. Unfortunately here, my usual bike garage usually goes on holiday the last two weeks in August so isn't available until after the weekend and the Honda concessionaire similarly can't see the bike till next week.
Once I'd made the decision to return to Marseille, I chose a favourite route through Seyne les Alpes, the sleepy hill town suddenly made famous in a way it didn't want by the impact nearby of the doomed German A319, of which I could see no mention. No sign "This way to the crash site" Equally no German tourists making a grim pilgrimage.
Light traffic, clear open roads and so a delight to ride conservatively. But that wasn't the plan...
See also my other rides to the Cime de la Bonette