I woke in the couchette of my sleeper train, to find that it was already daylight, and we were rolling up a valley, with gorgeous and steep mountains on either side. The train puttered along slowly; the line was winding and steep, and rose through several tunnels. I spent the morning glued to the window of the compartment, gazing at the gorgeous mountains and the clouds that danced around their peaks.
Soon enough, we arrived at L’Argentère-la-Bessée, where I would be staying the next few nights. I hauled my bike and bag off the train, and found myself on a low platform at a small, rural station, though it was large enough to have a small building and ticket office for the 10 or so trains that came by each day. I put my bag on my back and rode my bike into town, in search of my hostel.
Fortunately, the town was small, and the hostel wasn’t far away. It was a three-storey, detached building with a café/bar at the bottom and rooms on the upper floors. At first, I thought the building was locked, until the manager of the bar showed me in; the bar and the hostel were part of the same establishment. The manager showed me up to my room, and invited me to get settled and take a shower, which I did happily. After cleaning myself, I checked in formally at the hostel and payed my room fee. I then headed out to the local supermarket in search of breakfast, returning home with some cereal, milk and grapes which I ate in the hostel kitchen. I wasted no further time, and went upstairs to change into my cycling gear.
The Tour de France was finishing that day still a few hundred kilometres away, so I knew that I couldn’t catch up with the race then. However, that didn’t mean I was going to waste a day in the Alps. The next two days promised two of the highest passes in the French Alps, and having just come from incredibly flat Cambridgeshire, I wanted to try my legs out on a nearby climb. I had decided a while ago, that I would climb to the ski resort at Risoul. This was a climb that had been recently used in the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and the Criterium du Dauphine races, and was only just down the road.
I left L’Argentère-la-Bessée heading south down the valley. Normally, valley riding is quite flat, but there were two different roads to choose from. One was the main highway, with lots of fast cars heading into Briançon. The other was much quieter, but hugged the lower slope of the mountainside, and consequentially was not flat. I opted for the latter, preferring the quieter, more rural, feel.
A few kilometres out of L’Argentère-la-Bessée, I reached the first climb of the day. The road kicked up sharply from a bridge by the river up to the village of Pallon. The climb was steep, in excess of 10% for over a kilometre and a half. It was a rude shock to the system, having been so used to the flat for so long. At the top, there was a lookout with beautiful views over the valley and the mountains beyond.
In the village itself, I stopped at a fountain to fill up my water bottles; many of the French alpine villages have fountains where the fresh mountain water trickles slowly through, meaning that in the valleys, you are never far from refilling water bottles. The day was hot, though, so much of the refreshing glacial melt was squirted at the back of my neck or on top of my head.
A few kilometres of winding road later, and I reached a 3 km long descent near Champchella. The road was narrow and windy, and I was on my brakes for a lot of the way. This took me down to the wide valley floor near Guillestre, riding among fields with crops ready to harvest. Finally, the road crossed a narrow road-rail bridge, and I reached the base of Mont Dauphin, an old fortified city on a small but steep hill.
I cycled around the edge, and reached a roundabout which signalled the beginning of the 15 km climb up to the ski resort at Risoul. In the mountains above me, I could see buildings built into the mountainside, about three quarters of the way up. I knew where had to get to. The first few kilometres of the climb were on the main road into the town of Guillestre; they were wide and relatively shallow. It wasn’t until I went through the town itself that the climb began in earnest.
Being a road to a ski resort, it was well maintained, especially when compared to roads up mountain passes. The road needs to be accessible year round, unlike pass roads which only are open in the summertime. It also needs to be able to handle large amounts of coach traffic in the winter time. Hence, relative to other climbs, the road was wide and relatively consistent the whole way up, hovering about gradients of 7%. I plodded up at my own pace, past each of the many hairpin bends of the climb. The lower parts were mostly forested, but the trees thinned as I approached the summit. On many, but not all, of the hairpin bends, were big signs celebrating a particular current or former pro rider. I couldn’t, however, pick out why each were chosen; occasionally, it would seem like they were the multiple Grand Tour winners, but then maybe it was those who had won up the climb, but maybe it was neither. Maybe it was just the local’s pick.
As with most alpine climbs, there were mileposts every kilometre indicating the remaining distance and the gradient for the next kilometre. These were useful, as I would count down every hundred metres or so as motivation for how near the summit is. Eventually, I could see the buildings of the ski resort, and soon enough, the end of the climb arrived. There was an information centre at the entrance to the village, but it was closed as the French like to do around lunchtime. I explored the lookout for a bit, but then decided it was time to get some food. Unlike other, similar ski resorts I’d been to in the summertime, Risoul wasn’t completely dead. I found a series of cafés on the north side of the village, right next to the ski lifts. There were a number of people around, and so I sat down to have lunch. For lunch, I had a large piece of bread, with melted ham, cheese and tomato on top, with salad on the side. I drank through plenty of water; having used the last of my bottles on the climb, and refilled using the water from the café. It was then time to head down again.
The descent from Risoul, back down the same road, was very fast. The road was wide and smooth, and there were long straight sections to build up speed between the hairpin bends. Before long, I was back in the valley floor, in the heat, heading for home. I rode back up the same road, which meant the descent near Champcella was now a 3 km climb at a gradient of 7%. This was frustrating, as I just wanted to get home and cool again. As I climbed, I was distracted somewhat by watching gliders landing in a nearby airstrip.
Once over the top of the climb, it was a relatively straightforward run for home to complete the 73 km loop. I parked my bike in the hostel, and went upstairs to shower and change. I was fairly exhausted, and so had a little bit of downtime in my hostel. It was then time to head out for dinner.
There were only a few restaurants in town, so I picked one and sat outside in the warm, summer air. For dinner, I decided to try some of the local produce, and so had a piece of local beef steak; served with a delicious salad and potato. After, I sampled some of the local soft cheese, which was served alongside some blueberry jam. It was very creamy, and blended excellently with the taste of the blueberries. Now, finally, it was time to head back to the hostel and to bed, ready for the big day of climbing tomorrow.