Mercantour – Day 3
Our final day of cycling in the Alps. We have been to the Vercors, the Northern Alps, the Southern Alps and the Alps Maritime.
And today it is another sunny day in the French Alps and the final part of our Mercantour excursion.
No lazy day to wind down though, we are going out in style (perhaps not much style, but a lot of push) with a final full-on big climb: TdF HC, the Col de la Cayolle tops out at 2,326m.
Many of the mountain ingredients we have come to love and respect, including:
Wide valleys, narrow sections of gorge, long balconies clinging to the hillside often with no protection between the road edge and oblivion and a sprinkling of tunnels. And in one place a Bailey Bridge over a chasm above the original collapsing bridge below. Needless to say plenty of hairpin bends. Road condition varying from good, to gravillon and/or bumpy. On one particularly bumpy section while descending at speed Sheila completely took off. Luckily she had the presence of mind to hang on with both hands and as we were going in a straight line at the time John could see her come back into view in the trike mirrors as she was caught again on her way down, with the seat bungee cord absorbing the impact. Also the usual bits of chausée deformé, from minor dips to bits of the roadside disappearing down the mountainside.
The terrain progressed from high pasture with tinkling streams, to rocky heights and cliffs with long cascading waterfalls. A geologist’s paradise from moraine, through disintegrating and land slipping shale, to wildly folded sedimentary rock and hard rock cliffs.
Possibly our best wildflower day ever – maybe because we were climbing the southern flank of the mountain. The lower pastures were awash with all colours and there was an endless mixture of flora in bloom along the roadside up to 1,900m. All colours of orchids and on the highest part the best banks of large gentians we have seen.
A few marmot calls but the head (full body crossing road just below summit) count for the day was one only.
The beginning of the climb was a fairly benign 4% to 5% (note how our steepness assessment has changed over two weeks!) but we knew we were in for several hours of unrelieved climbing and looking up at the mountains towering in front of us still had no exact idea where the road would go, so we stayed in the middle ring for a bit but took it at a steady pace. Good idea because lower gears and increased “grippyness” were soon the order of the day. Plenty of 8% climbing.
About a third of the way up a small hamlet offered a restaurant / bar and Sheila suggested it was time to stop for ‘elevenses’. John put up a rather half-hearted suggestion of continuing on, but agreed within half a dozen further turns of the cranks. Cold drinks at a proper table and chairs.
Needless to say later on we also made quite a few more roadside drinking and eating stops.
Things got increasingly tough. Not sure about getting stronger as the holiday went on. John decided that he had peaked about 2 days earlier. This was no help when Sheila looked at the altitude on a km marker board and calculated we had 5km to go and 500m more to climb. A 10% average – but we know the misleading nature of averages and sure enough for every slight easing there was a 15% or more payback just around the next corner.
Summit at last. Time for photos, a bit of self-congratulation, eating and drinking, and swapping a sweat drenched shirt for dry warm clothes and windproofs ready for the down. And a short time to enjoy the look on the faces of other cyclists and motorcyclists who could not really believe that two old pensioner farts like us had just cycled such a contraption as a recumbent tandem trike to the top of the Col de la Cayolle.
Down and down and down, with the full panorama laid out, as well as the scary drops and corners not to be misjudged – And hooray nearly at the bottom a cafe right on the roadside on the apex of a hairpin bend. Cold drinks, omelettes and salad for a very late lunch.
Back in Barcelonnette and the Trike is all packed up in the car ready for our two-day drive back to Lymington.
Holiday verdict: EPIC
Total number of named Cols climbed: 16
Total number of summit finishes: 2
Total number of highest roads in Europe: 1
Total number of marmots spotted: 35
Total number of p***tures: 0
Total metres climbed and litres of water drunk on the way: No idea, we lost count many days ago.
(PS. We have heard that there are pensioner holiday coach tours available?)