Col d'Allos & Col de Vars - July 2011

Sunday's motorbiking ride from Castellane, up the upper valley of the river Verdon to the Col d'Allos (2250m). Then down to Barcelonnette and on up the Col de Vars (2108m), which is a section of the classic route des Grands Alps.

The southern approach to the Col d'Allos runs long and relatively straight up the higher valley of the Verdon. We paused in Colmars-les-Alps and looked around the fortified town and one of Vauban's forts. The road for final 5km up from the ski report is pretty and rural but not much fun for motorists on two or four wheels, nor for cyclists. The view from actual the Col d'Allos is mainly of the ski resort: the spectacular view north comes from the refuge Napoléon which is a few metres further than the col. The descent to the valley d'Ubaye and Barcelonnette is not fast riding and is also relatively unimproved: it's a charming ride through pastures and forests with spectacular views to the valleys leading to the Col de la Cayolle and the cime de la Bonnette and its section of the Maginot Line. And vertiginous views down to the river far below.

On from Bacelonnette there is either the Col de Vars or the route over to Italy via the Col de Larche (1996m) - historically Col de l'Argentière - the name is an indication  of the complicated history of the area, with changes in nationality between Savoie, France and Italy. Several more of Vauban's forts survey the crossroads and the valleys.

The Col de Vars is the prettier option. It's often closed to motor traffic: this summer the cyclists have had the road to themselves on Friday mornings. The road to the Col de Vars was improved recently but, like the Col d'Allos, it is not a fast route; the tunnels on the south side have removed some of the obstacles to traffic but also reduced the charm of the route. Higher up, the road passes through pastures and the as the view widens out. Marmotte calls up above 2000 metres and there's a traditional bar and boutique at the col. The refuge Napoléon further on the road down the north side offers more extensive fare, has a charming view of a small lake and the new management is very welcoming.

Arno continued back to Annecy and I returned to Castellane: the late afternoon traffic was much lighter. The views stayed clear as the shadows lengthened but riding alone is not the same as riding as a pair. Lots of other bikers on the road, mainly Italians in packs out for the day, all riding new bikes in smart new leathers, mostly with a matching female pillion. Economic crisis: what crisis! Seems not for them from Turin and Milan, or at least not yet.