Since leaving our workaway host in Switzerland, we’ve cycled across the French Alps into Italy. A question we’ve been reflecting on a lot apres-cycle, is whether or not our tour can be considered truly adventurous as we are cycling across the more developed parts of Europe. Many other cycle tourists move quickly through Europe to get to the “adventurous” countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, China, India or even Slovenia, Hungary, Turkey. So, can what we are doing really be counted up there with that sort of adventure!?? What defines an adventure?
It certainly feels like a wilderness adventure to us! Whilst being surrounded by luxurious ski chalets, mostly well paved roads, and being never too far away from a hotel, restaurant or bar, we have existed for the last two weeks in a self imposed wilderness, our minds, goals and wallets being the only true barrier to accessing all the comforts the world could possibly have to offer. It’s an interesting situation to place yourself in; we theoretically could sleep in a campsite, or even hotel, and we could eat at restaurants, but instead we choose to bivvy every single night and cook all our own meals. Even if we had enough money to have luxury every day (which we don’t, most people spend more than we have on a weeks holiday!), we would still choose to travel in this way, because this is where the adventure happens for us. Surviving in the wilderness, even if that wilderness exists only through the parameters we have chosen to live by.
We also certainly could have avoided cycling through the Alps themselves, sticking to well trodden (mostly) trusty Eurovelo routes which carve cycle friendly routes through countries avoiding unforgiving gradients. There was definitely no need for us two choose to cycle two Tour de France Mountain passes, including one which has been used four times for the ‘King of the Mountain’ part of the competition and includes 9% gradients that are utterly brutal for our heavy touring bikes.
We could also have travelled lighter, like the four other cycle tourers we have seen in these enormous mountains. There really (we are discovering) was no need to bring a slackline, a laptop, two 38 litre rucksacks, walking boots and loads of different clothes for doing workaways! The frame creaking weight of our bikes multiplies the difficulty, and adventurousness, of ascending 2087m mountain passes.
Our musings have led us also to recognise the ways in which the adventurousness of our cycle trip is more limited! Whilst braving the elements on a rainy evening, we *know* we could just book into a hotel. Whilst fearing dehydration in the baking sun, we realise we could just stick out a thumb and ask for help from a passing car. But we don’t. However, it provides a buffer of comfort knowing that we could immediately escape our situation from the simple act of sticking out our thumbs, or waving down a passer by, or reaching for a credit card… or phoning our parents. And yet… even in less developed countries the same is true! Sometimes more luxury is possible outside Europe as it is more affordable. Credit cards, or cash, work everywhere to bail you out. To some extent.
My thoughts are that whether our trip can be counted as adventurous or not, will remain an unresolved and interesting debate. Adventure is relative, and deeply personal. I will let the reader decide!
We left our amazing Swiss workaway hosts, who dropped us just outside of Lausanne in the midst of another 35 degree heatwave. After three weeks off the bikes, including one week at a festival drinking way more than we should have, we did not feel at our fittest. Oh, and Liam had a horrible cold. Our mission: cycle across the Alps to Italy, via a stop in Morillon to meet some workaway hosts for a potential job opportunity. Climb two Tour de France passes and wild camp the whole way.
The first days cycling was extremely hot, but despite setting off at 2pm, we managed about 50km as it was mostly flat. High point was having a lovely swim in Lake Geneva just past Lausanne. We found a quiet place over a stone wall so I felt comfy to swim wearing my amazing pants bought in Nepal. Unfortunately they are flesh coloured and completely see-through. Doubly unfortunate then that we were joined by a couple of guys smoking an afternoon spliff, an older couple having a swim and a young guy sunbathing. Oh well, I lost my dignity where nudity was concerned somewhere back in week one.
Low point was having to push our bikes through a seemingly never ending snake of street stalls set up for an enormous festival. Battling a tsunami of pedestrians not looking at all where they were going is not fun with a fully loaded bike.
That evening we found ourselves accidentally back on the Via Rhôna cycle track Eurovelo 17, the track we had followed for 500km to Geneva! We found a seemingly amazing camp spot tucked beneath the cycle track next to the river. All was going so well until the plague of mosquitos began. We were hit by hundreds of the things and bailed to set up a mosquito net and peg it down. Hot dinner plans cancelled, we sat gloomily in the mosquito net eating peanuts and cold chorizo, and watched the sun go down. We were treated to spectacular stars that evening, and we got by with minimal bites, even if our bellies were left wanting for more.
This was the first of nine bivvies – all perfectly adequate. Our worst one was the next night, sleeping in a lay by half way up Col de Forclaz. Liam was feeling really poorly and after ascending nearly 850m in a day with our dwindled level of fitness, we were both worn out. I had not so cleverly (as it turned out) treated us to some pricey marinated meat to cook, but unfortunately Liam in his exhausted delirious state couldn’t get the stove to work consistently with a new fuel we were foolishly experimenting with. In the dark, we couldn’t tell whether the meat disguised by sauce was cooked or not. I sat there, alone with a man down, in a dark layby 800m up a mountain, holding a bag of expensive, query cooked, Swiss meat in a zip locked bag, ready to throw in a bin lest it attract unwanted animal visitations in the night, ravenously hungry and seriously questioning my life choices. The tale has a happy ending. Motivated by both hunger and the repulsion boiling within at throwing away perfectly good and expensive meat, I managed to work with Liam to get the stove to work for just long enough to cook the meat to a crisp. Cremated- definitely. Going to give us food poisoning? Absolutely no chance. Winning.
The next day, after a restless night peppered with passing high beams of cars racing up the mountain, we slogged over two Cols at 1500 and 1400 metres, in a blistering heatwave. At the top of the first one, I pretty much climbed into the drinking water fountain to cool down! It took us an eternity to cycle up, pausing every 25-50m of ascent to dive into any shade, lay-by or non switch back we could find, catch our breath, rest our jelly legs and attempt to cool down. I prevented Liam from pushing the last 12metres of ascent, sniffing through his cold, and we got there and could claim some sort of victory. We had laid siege to the mountain. We had got there. After an expensive Swiss ice cream and beer to celebrate (both the ascent and leaving pricey Switzerland), we used our last Swiss Francs and cycled down to Chamomix to bivvy at the foot of Mont Blanc (highest mountain in Europe) in a spot recommended to us by a warm showers host that I had messaged to ask for advice about where to sleep for free in the bustling and pricey ski resort. Along the way, we whizzed through Argentiere, stopping to fill our panniers full of delicious French supermarket wares, to the sound of an outdoor Orchestra playing part of a Star Wars score!
As we pulled into the recommended wooded area on the outskirts of Chamonix, we passed loads of vans parked up for the night, and saw a woman doing yoga underneath a tall canopy of gorgeous pines twinkling in the evening sun. We tiptoed past her as quietly as we could manage with the unruly bikes, and later, after she finished her practice, she joined us for an hour to share her incredible story of cycling around the world with her two year old son! Now working as a mountain guide in Chamonix, she left us rich with some useful tips about local hikes, her phone number in case of any problems, and an invitation to stay in her flat down the road over the weekend as she was away!
The following day we left Chamonix and cycled through the valley drinking up the glacial scenery before sleeping next to a beautiful fishing lake, hidden from the public and the rain (but not the ducks) by yet more beautiful pine trees. We were kept awake some of the night by an incredible thunder and lightening storm projected over the snow capped mountains, and winds that kept changing direction blowing excitedly through our tarp.
By now, it was my turn to be poorly. Dosed up on cold and flu medication, we had another hard day slogging up hill again to Morillon, a skiing resort, to meet a workaway host and take some rest in their chalet. The heat wave was markedly over, replaced by unceasing torrential rain only the product of towering mountains. Our unfit and abused legs groaned and complained as we cycled on, and on, devouring an entire rotisserie chicken with mayonnaise on the roadside, navigating endless switchbacks and drinking litres of water. As we approached the chalet, we got lost in the middle of an exceptional part of deluge when google tried to direct us to cycle up a gravel walking track with a no entry sign on an impossible gradient. No thanks Google! Instead, we had to push our bikes briefly up a road with an impossible gradient. We became a spectator sport for people having a spot of luncheon on their covered chalet balconies.
At one point, white fork lightening struck the road very close in front of us, causing us to flee to shelter desperately under someone’s car port. Thunder boomed menacing around the valley crackling like artillery fire as we waited for the storm to roll over. The car port owners peered curiously out their window at us, and a very damp Liam and I mused at the unlikeliness of them venturing out to ask us what on earth we were doing cycling touring bikes up a massive hill in a dangerous storm. We barely knew ourselves.
Finally, we reached the chalet as the storm echoed in the distance, and soaking wet through we met Jean and John the workaway hosts. God knows what they thought of the two bedraggled red in the face creatures asking where they could store their life’s possessions in filthy panniers. Bless them for not complaining at us dripping mud and water in puddles through their lovely chalet. At least we knew how to use a mop!
We passed a restful couple of days recovering and waiting for the bad weather to pass before embarking on the epic journey to Italy.
The morning we set off for Italy was a glorious descent with beautiful weather- not too hot and not raining! We cycled down hill until we re-entered the foothills of the Alps and the gradients started gently changing. We wanted to find somewhere to sleep before doing any climbs, but everywhere was decorated with the friendly Private No Entry signs and electric fences typical in agricultural areas. Fortunately we found a walking track marked on google maps, and after pushing our bikes along a gravel track, managed to find a slice of quiet scrubland tucked innocuously behind a row of trees on the trail. Liam cooked up a feast as always, and we slept extremely well and remained dry under a tarp despite the evening rain.
The following days cycling to the base of Mont Cenis were a mixture of cycling up and down, but mostly up. We passed through some of the most beautiful scenery of the trip, through gorgeous Alpine villages and amazing panoramic views of valleys below. We swam in Lake Annecy, slept next to a river, cycled through gorges and over hills and through alpine meadows. We visited a market and tried some local goats cheese, being sure to choose the fresh stuff and not the mature variety! We both agreed it was the best scenery of the trip so far.
A low point was caused by road works. We were loving life, cruising along amazing quiet roads to our next destination, when suddenly it turned out that our road was blocked and we had to take a diversion. We ended up climbing a big ascent on a baking hot dual carriage way with very fast traffic zipping past us. Morale was sinking as there was no shade for refuge, and seemingly no places to sleep. However, that evening, we found a turn in the road that led to a slag heap, and a hydropower river section. The place was hidden from view from the main road, and whilst not being very attractive, it was actually a perfect place to spend the night. As I sat on the gravel facing a slag heap and a railway line, ants crawling all over me, to the sound of the motorway in the distance, I reflected that this was not what I came cycle touring for. However, it is the nature of cycle tour life- sometimes you have to take the horrible road to get to the good road. Some days you have to sleep in the lay by on the way to the beautiful spot.
On the day of Mont Cenis pass itself, we woke up only a tiny bit daunted about what awaited us. Yet another Tour de France Col, with sections of a gradient average of 9%. We’d cycled for 6 days in a row over some mountainous roads, and our legs were exhausted. As we crawled up the hill, painstakingly slow, 25m-50m sections at a time, there were times both of us didn’t think we would make it. However, as with most things with cycle tour life, you just have to do it! Pretty soon we were at the top, with incredible 360 degree panoramic mountain views all around us, and an exhilarating steep switch back descent to look forward to. We sat at the top with a beer and an ice cream, feeling thoroughly satisfied with ourselves, taking great amusement at watching people passing by stare in bewilderment at our bikes. Their faces said: how did those get up here?! Which nutters would cycle a loaded touring bike up Mont Cenis?!
That evening we passed into Italy and after one more painful ascent, we found a spot to sleep which makes you really appreciate cycle touring. It’s much easier to wild camp when you are hiking as you can wander into woods, get away from roads, and reach places far away from human activity! On the bikes, especially with cumbersome loaded bikes, we have to always stay near a road. Consequently, we don’t often get wilderness spots. So, the spot we ended up in was a real treat. On a very quiet road to a small village, we found a small turn around spot for cars, which led to a maze of mountain oak trees and rocky platforms with a spectacular view over Italy. It was warm, there were no mosquitos, barely any cars, no people and we really felt in the wilderness as we could push our bikes away from the road. That evening we sat out late, enjoying the sunset and the stars coming out, and felt we had really achieved something! We were in Italy, and over two mountain passes!
The only problems we had now were, we hadn’t bathed in several days, we had dirty clothes, no food and limited water. But they were tomorrow’s problems!