I always look forward to spending a good few days on the bike in Europe – apart from the variety of roads, there is the culture, food and thirst quenching offerings that are so different in every country you go to.

This year’s Continental Jaunt (or CJ) was organised by Neil (or to give him his Italian name, Neil Nerobruciare, but more of this later) and we were heading for the French Alps, then going on into Italy.  It was to be a first for us all – we were using Bike Shuttle to get the bikes across to Europe, rather than having the two day slog into the Alps (not to mention the return trip!).

Day 1 saw us ride down to Bike Shuttle’s base near Northampton – an easy ride, which we used the motorway route for speed (well relative speed, given all the 50 limits in place!).  Breakfast at our usual stopping place – Hollies Truck Stop on the A5 near J12 M6 – it has been renovated significantly, and offers good value, no nonsense grub – recommended (http://www.rktruckstops.co.uk/ ).

We arrived for our 11.30 check-in time, the bikes are quickly loaded onto the purpose built transporter, and our helmets, leathers etc. put into transportation boxes.  All we needed was a small overnight bag for our hotel in Geneva.

Whilst the drivers got underway (they travel overnight, double-manning, so they are in Geneva at our hotel when we get up the next morning), we were taken by minibus to an excellent local pub for lunch… and a little liquid refreshment.  A couple of hours later, fed and most definitely relaxed, we are taken to Luton Airport to catch our Easy-Jet flight.  Easy peasy so far!

 

A couple or so hours later, we are in Geneva, collected by the hotel’s courtesy coach and dropped off just in time for a night-cap!  So far so good.  The gang head to bed – they are me, Dave (Il Piccolo), Gary E (Prosciuttoest), Gary L (Dominare) and of course our guide Nerobruciare!  The daft pseudo Italian names appeared on team t-shirts to celebrate the trip.


True to promise, when we’d finished breakfast, we went out to find the bikes unloaded and ready, the sun shining and the Alpine roads beckoning.  Our leader (Nerobruciare) had the routes ready on his Tom Tom (which by the way, rarely agrees with my Garmin on details of route planning), and led off along the Southern shore of Lake Geneva… where there are far too many 50 limits, but we got past them as we headed out onto the foot hills of the Alps, starting to get the feel of the twisty and mountainous terrain.

The first three days we were to ride the Route des Grande Alpes (RdGA), using the routes from the Ride magazine website, with no modification.  Have to say, they worked a treat too.  We also used the hotel recommendations suggested by Ride’s Simon Weir, and again, they were all absolutely fine.  Day One took us over the first part of the RdGA, passing close to Morzine, and over a number of passes, including Col de la Colombière (1613m) and Col des Aravis.  Although total distance covered was only about 125 miles, it felt like a full day, and our appetites were well and truly whetted, looking forward to the next day.

Day Two took us a further 175 miles (around 7 hours riding…) along the RdGA – by now we were pretty adept at hairpins… there were literally hundreds!  Skirting Lac de Roselend, we followed the Isère valley, reaching Val D’Isère, as the low cloud and rain started to spoil the views.  A quick coffee before heading up the highest pass we would cross – the Col d’Iseran at 2,764 metres… or over 9,000 feet to you and me!  We expected the temperature to drop, but didn’t quite expect the all enclosing cloud (which stopped us “enjoying” the vertiginous views along the road), nor the snow… approaching the top of the Col, the temperature dropped to 1 degree, and the snow came down, or at least came at us horizontally!  Fortunately not for long. But we definitely hoped for warmer weather as we descended!

And we weren’t disappointed!  The route took us through the Arc valley, taking in Col de la Madeleine (1,993m), more tight, tight bends to enjoy, with some respite between to enjoy the majestic scenery.  Col du Galibier came next – a magnificent 2,645m climb, with views to make you giddy… yet again.  It really was a case of sensory overload.

By this time we were getting quite good at the old hairpins… not complacent, I’d add, but definitely a lot more comfortable!  Parts of this day’s route were quite open and flowing too – a nice change from the rigours of the hairpins!

So… what next?  You guessed it… more passes, more hairpins.  Before reaching our night stop in Guillestre, we crossed the Col du Lautaret (2058m), then the impressive Col d’Izoard (2,360m) – often playing a pivotal role in the Tour de France… I can’t imagine cycling up there!  The Col is generally closed from October to June… glad we chose wisely!

Shortly after the breathtaking stop at the top of Col d’Izoard, we reached our overnight stop – the very pleasant Le Catinat Fleuri, in Guillestre.  Nice town with pleasant restaurants and bars… but we did end up in the locals’ disco bar, where chain smoking, banging music, tattoos and piercings were de rigeur… we had a quick drink and left, brave bikers or not, shut-eye called!

Day Three, and 145 miles to cover – M. TomTom suggested around 6 hours riding… so more hairpins, we guessed!  This day proved both fascinating and challenging, as the RdGA took a turn for the smaller, with the roads generally being narrower and tighter than the previous two days.  We were going through prime skiing country, again here, passing slope after slope, but with very few people about.  Passes included Col de Vars (2,108m), Col de la Cayolle (2,326m), plus a host of smaller ones.

At one point on this section, we came out of a small French town, feeling comfortable with our progress and hairpin prowess as we climbed towards the next pass… only to be blown off by a couple of locals on scooters… oh well, a little local knowledge always comes in handy.  We didn’t follow them… far too progressive for us!

The route today seemed busier with more cars about – especially sports cars with ambitious drivers behind the wheel.  It made blind bends (of which there were many) a bit more fraught at times!  In fact a hastily driven Porsche 911 encountered Prosciuttoest on the apex of a hairpin, and managed to beach himself on the concrete drainage gutter giving Gary room… we felt a bit guilty not stopping!


Despite the narrower roads, the scenery was magnificent – we stopped frequently to soak it in and enjoy the views.  At the stop shown here, we were overtaken (!) by a couple of Scottish guys on cycles.  They were going to Nice… which was a sobering thought, as we weren’t expecting to get that far ourselves in the day! 

After a couple of lesser passes, we reached our hotel for the night, L’Auberge Provençal in Sospel.  Our last night in France before heading into Italy. Again, another Ride recommended hotel, and it hit the spot – too far to walk out to local bars, but well-appointed and a good meal was had by all.

Day Four – a nice coastal run from Sospel to just outside Genoa.  On the map it looked great, with lots of nice seaside spots to linger in - it was a short 95 mile saunter, so plenty of time to enjoy the journey.  It turned out to be a bit disappointing, with end to end townships and 50kph limits.  If you are thinking of doing this link, you might want to plan an inland route!  Our hotel was great – the luxury one on the trip!  Hotel Punta San Martino in Arenzano was an oasis of comfort and friendliness from the staff – not cheap, but recommended.

Day Five - we had planned originally to go into Italy (heading for Lake Como) over the recently collapsed bridge in Genoa… S. TomTom helped us avoid the chaos there, and we had an uneventful, but not hugely exciting ride up to Como.  Northern Italy is an industrial heartland, and there are a lot of towns and villages running into each other, so plan your route carefully.

Lake Como is beautiful – really stunning.  Our small hotel (Hotel Anton and Art) was a short walk back form the waterfront in Como, whilst the (Sicilian) restaurant next door was “friendly, good value and not too expensive” to quote our receptionist… and he was right… we ate there both nights in Como.  House wine (quite acceptable) at €8 a bottle… remarkable!  We had two nights here, with a day off the bikes between.  We took the opportunity to soak up local culture (it comes in nice glasses) and take a boat for lunch in Bellagio – home of stars of screen and stage… but they weren’t at home that day!

Day Seven, we head north to return to Geneva.  The route through Italy to Switzerland was mixed, with open roads, then leading into more mountain areas.  An enjoyable run, if not epic.  Overnight in Martigny, an excellent beef fondue shared with Nerobruciare completing the Swiss experience!

The short final day saw us take the north shore of Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman as the locals call it), reaching our hotel in time to have the bikes loaded by BikeShuttle for the trip back to the UK.  We enjoyed a few beers, a nice meal, and then an early night before the morning flight back to Luton.  The bikes were ready and waiting for us at Northampton, everything having gone like clockwork.

 

BikeShuttle, headed by the friendly and helpful Guy are highly recommended.  The cost, including EasyJet flights really is no more expensive than riding out to Geneva… but you get up to 4 more days to play on the great roads of Europe.  They also do a route to Toulouse – perfect for the Pyrenees and Northern Spain.

Now where are we going next year?

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