24 July 2011

the impossible road

vendredi 22 juillet
Michelin publish astoundingly detailed maps of France. Roads come in different colours, red and yellow for major and connecting roads, green bordered for scenic routes, a broken red and white line for difficult and dangerous ways. The D219 that sneaks out the back of Bourg d’Oisans is red and white.
I like to study maps, and wonder what it’s like up this squiggly line on the paper? Each day in France I set out to find the answer. Five of us set off for Villarde Notre Dame, the only place the D219 takes you. And what a journey it is.
As in so many places, the road seems impossible: this one doubly so. A sign tells us the road is closed, but nothing is closed to determined men on bikes. It kicks quickly up to ten per cent—and stays there—as it literally hangs onto the cliff-face heading south-east away from Bourg above the Romanche valley.
Four tunnels punctuate our progress, the first a mere hole in the rock. Beyond this the road is carved into the cliff, overhung at the top and falling away into an abyss on the open side.
The second tunnel is 250 to 300 metres long, curved, and pitch dark, our lights mere glow-worms in the impenetrable gloom. The bike wobbles beneath me, my sense of left and right, of up and down, utterly discombobulated. Walking into total blackness is one thing; riding into it is eerie. Palpable relief greets the light at the end of the tunnel.
The third and fourth tunnels are not so long but the last is curved and water showers from the unseen roof onto the unseen rider.
Small rocks and rubble litter the narrow cracked bitumen from bottom to top. The views stop us in our tracks.
Eventually the road cuts back on itself and leaves the face of the cliff, turning into an unseen fold of mountain away from the main valley below. Villarde Notre Dame is snugged away at over 1500 metres. It’s tiny but has an open café-cum-bar for weary travellers.
A German cyclist sits on the terrace, maps spread on the table. His English is heavily accented but fluent and accurate. We reveal our secret way into Huez for the afternoon to see the tour riders sweep up to the arrivée at Alpe d’Huez.
The impossible road blows my front tyre not far into the descent. The German and some Americans sweep past, tut-tutting my bad luck. Further down I pass one of the Yanks removing his tube. “My turn,” he says.
Wingnut, Robocop and Rambo sit on the parapet between tunnels four and three, waiting. The German told them of my puncture. Rambo notices a split in the sidewall, removes the tyre, patches it from the inside, and slips my €20 note in for insurance.
From Bourg we cane it back to Allemont and change hastily for the ride up to Huez through Villarde Reculas to see le Tour. Rambo replaces my dead tyre with the new carbon Michelin I brought with me from Australia. Michelin: maps, tyres. Is there anything they don’t do?
The morning’s adventure ends and the afternoon’s begins.
[83.66kms @ 19.9kph. Montage 1963m, Max alt 1567m, max climb 13%]

1 comment:

  1. Rather late commenting on this, but I'm one of the "yanks" you saw on the funny folding bikes. I would love to head back up there again sometime; that ride is one of the highlights of my many trips to France during the 'tour.