Sunday. We were hoping to find a local via ferrate route, climb for a couple of hours and then head home. The climbing book we had brought with us had a lot of information but we still couldn’t find out where the nearest route was. The desk clerk was helpful and finally got us pointed in the right direction. After packing up the bikes and sitting in traffic for too long, we were on our way.
Traffic in the morning sunshine
We were heading south of Annecy, along the lake and through many small towns. We had another adventure at the gas pumps, holding up cars while we figured out how these pumps worked (which were, of course, different than any other pumps we’ve come across). Once we broke free of the small towns the road starting to rise away from the lake, heading up the side of a mountain. Then we came upon our second realization: we were ON the route that the Tour de France had taken the previous day! Paint and chalk decorated the road and there was still evidence of the crowds that had watched the racers go by the day before. The coincidence was amazing and exciting. And so were the roads.
Whoops – we took a wrong turn
After winding through some rolling grazing land and hay fields, we crossed a slight valley before tackling the road that would take us to the top. It cut deeply into the hillside – we could see the scar from across the valley – and snaked its way along every in and out that the mountain had to offer. The road was fairly narrow, crowded with bicyclists and many blind corners. Dan had the benefit, as he did the entire trip, of having me lead and using the Sena to let him know if a corner was bad, had a decreasing radius or oncoming traffic. But I had no such help; every corner was a surprise, some of them being more surprising than others. Such as the sharp blind left with a camper coming around the corner and a bicyclist passing him in my lane, both of them coming in my direction and with no where for me to go. An adjustment in my speed and a swift return to his lane by the bicyclist meant that no one would require an ambulance, but it was still unnerving.
Then the trees disappeared and I was at the base of an alpine field. Once again, I was surprised at the variety of landscapes that I encountered and this one was no exception. Parasailers were making practice runs, motorcycles were buzzing up and down the road, bicycles were laboring their way to the top and cows were grazing underneath the chair lifts. In the distance, snow-capped peaks blended into the clouds, but the closer mountains gained clarity as the morning haze burned off. Once again, I was impressed.
There were still large tents set up at the top of Semnoz Peak and the finish line, remnants of yesterday’s excitement. We sat down for a drink while we discussed our climbing option (which was becoming less and less of an option) and waited for the kitchen to open for lunch. By the time we were served our lunch it was much too late to do anything but head home. At least now we knew that a lot more pre-planning needed to take place, and more time dedicated to the climb itself. We hauled out the map of Switzerland and planned our route home. Based on yesterday’s travel estimation vs actual travel time, we were more conservative with our route, but still took advantage of being in the French Alps.
We took another route down off of the mountain to Annecy and I have to say, if there was ever a single road that fulfilled all of my motorcycling needs, this would be it: great views across a wide valley, predictable clean corners piled one after another, a gentle descent that let me set my gearing and kept my speed consistent, little to no traffic and it went on for a good 20 minutes. I wanted to turn around and ride it again, but we had some miles to cover.
The way down – I was having too much fun for more photos
As predicted, traffic back through Annecy was intolerable. Vehicles crawled slowly along the waterfront and I baked in my gear while the Honda blew hot air onto my legs. When this bike’s fan kicks on, it isn’t kidding around; it felt like my legs were on fire! But we finally reached the other side of the town and were able to open up the throttle as we climbed away from the lake. At one point I saw someone standing in a gravel pullout, his camera pointed behind us. I looked quickly over my head and caught of glimpse of what looked like a Disney castle. I looked it up later and it was the Castle of Menthon
Image borrowed from Les Oratoires
Eventually our elevation was high enough that cool patches of air were felt, but it wasn’t enough; we stopped for a break in the town of Thones to drink water and shed any remaining clothes that could be shed. After that stop, the road gods were good to us. As Dan described it, his GPS route looked like a disemboweled worm. We had some curvy roads ahead of us! The scenery until then had consisted of valleys dotted with small villages, green fields, tree-covered hills and snow-capped mountains. Above it all were fluffy white clouds and colorful parasailers against a blue sky. I could not have requested a more beautiful day.
I’m getting pretty good at these “over the shoulder, on the fly” pictures!
The road dropped down severely, deceptive in the fact that it did so through pastures and towns. There was barely a straight section in sight, although that didn’t stop others from passing us occasionally. Sheer rock faces gave evidence to past geological upheavals and frighteningly deep canyons were bathed in waterfalls. The towns we passed through were decorated for summer, with flowers, bunting, flags and festivals at every turn. Lakes were populated with people splashing in the cool water.
And then the carnival ride ended: we had reached the Flumet area apparently, so had the rest of the country. The roads, while enjoyable looking, were full of slow (unpassable) vehicles. I watched as one bicyclist took refuge in the watery ditch at the side of the road as the bus behind him tried to navigate the sharp turn and pass him at the same time. The towns we came to were full of happy tourists, cars circling around looking for parking and people milling around looking for shade. Even with the massive glacier of Mont Blanc looming above us in the valley I could only look forward to getting out of there. As we made the descent and rolled into Martigny, Dan knew that he couldn’t do it any longer. He was miserably hot and tired and just wanted to get home. I knew how dangerous it was to ride in those conditions, and having heard Dan exclaim in alarm as he took a bad line through a corner in front of an oncoming car really set me on edge. We took another break and agreed that we’d all go home together. Bob was welcome to make his own way home, but as it was our arrival would be after 8pm and it had been a long day and he decided to stick with us.
Dan and Bob in front of Mont Blanc
Martigny in the valley
We hopped onto the Swiss autobahn and passed out of the windy valley of Martigny to the beautiful town of Montreaux and then left the lowlands as we turned north. We had one more adventure with gas pumps, but then it was an unremarkable ride home past Fribourg, Bern and Solothurn. We arrived back in Basel around 8:30 that evening, happy to park the bikes and take off our sweaty gear.