UP THE ITALIAN ALPS
The screeching sound of endless train wheels passing by woke me from my tired slumber. I lazily opened my eyes to find my self engulfed by the almost perfect darkness inside my nylon tent. I got out of my sleeping bag, put on my glasses and a thicker jersey, opened the zipper and stepped out to see what all the ruckus was about. My bicycle, impassive to the train's good morning call, was still blissfully asleep. Not ten meters away from my improvised camping site, an impossibly long freight train was lazily making its way down the steep and contorting Susa Valley. A hundred wagons resonantly sliding down the Alps towards city of Turin at near dawn… if ever there was a perfect alarm clock. I erratically packed up the camp, my limbs still not fully awake. I latched everything on my bicycle, and as the last of the wagons bid me farewell with one last metal shriek, I set off in the opposite direction to complete the climb of the valley.
Looking down the Susa Valley
I had left Turin rather late the afternoon before, pedalling for a few hours till darkness fell near the town of Bussoleno. I had decided to make for the pass of Montgenevre to cross into France, and this meant I still had to pedal a good 50Km in an ever steeper mountain road. A little while after starting this morning climb, and as the sun was creeping its way up the east, warming my still lethargic legs, I reached the town of Oulx. I sat down in a terrace and ordered a big cup of coffee and a freshly made croissant… early bird special! A soothing and overwhelming sense of inner peace came to me all of a sudden. It was not just the reassuring and comforting effect of a warm breakfast, but the fact that everywhere I looked, I was surrounded by mountains. Once again, and like it had happened crossing from Austria to Italy a week before, I was smack in the middle of the Alps. Such vast and relentless beauty! The route I had chosen would take me due south-west for another 20Km till reaching the French border. I looked up in that direction and felt the menacing presence of the steep climb. „I am going to need another croissant“, I thought to myself.
It was not an elegant climb, I must admit. A combination of factors made me step down and push the bike up the mountain for about 17 of those 20Km, which was a grueling endeavor. I want to say that my bicycle weighed too much, or that I didn't have enough gears, or that the road was simply too steep… But perhaps I was just having an off-day, and my legs were simply not responding. Nevertheless, and after what seemed like an eternity, I did make it to the top crossing into France!
Crossing into France at the end of the climb
PROFESSIONAL IMAGINARY CYCLING
When I was just a kid, a young Spaniard by the name of Miguel Indurain took the cycling world by surprise. He was an atypical cyclist, and an unlikely champion. Indurain was an introvert and shy competitor with a big heart (quite literally) that dominated the road cycling world during the early 90's. Spain revered him, and as a young Spanish kid, so did I. Nowhere was his dominance of the sport more evident than at the biggest stage of all: the Tour de France. Until today, he is the only person to have ever won this fierce competition five years in a row, taking the yellow jersey home between 1991-1995.
Miguel Indurain during a stage at the Tour de France
The region of France that I had just entered brought back some childhood memories associated with cycling. Not only was I actually in those breathtaking valleys that I had seen as a kid on the television while watching the Tour, I was actually riding a bicycle. I must admit, while I was passing through landmarks like the Col du Lautaret or the Alpe d'Huez, and like I had so often done during my infancy, I wasn't just inspired by Miguel Indurain, I actually imagined I WAS Miguel Indurain. Of course, the mountain passes were not full of fervent, cheering fans, and there was no TV-motorcycle following my ascent, but a vivid imagination does the trick. This made-up „Tour de France Solo Adventure“ took me through 130Km of constant alpine up and down until I reached the finish line at the city of Grenoble.
Grenoble, the "Capital of the Alps"
FOLLOWING THE RHONE TO THE SEA
Known as the „Capital of the Alps“, Grenoble is, surprisingly, quite flat. It was built on a small Y-shaped plateau between three mountain ranges. Although the city cannot compete with other architectural jewels like Paris or Montpelier, the towering mountains that watch over it give this city an imposing aura. After the physically demanding alpine crossing, I rested two days and sipped in the beautiful scenery.
My chosen route would take me from here to the Mediterranean Sea, following the Rhone river southwards for a little over 320Km. I repacked my bicycle, put on my freshly washed clothes and set off. For the next two days, it seemed the stars had aligned and all the elements were in my favour. I don't know whether it was my eagerness to see open waters, or the down sloping Rhone Valley, or a very favourable strong tailwind, or having restocked my energy supplies with copious amounts of bread and cheese… but, for two days, I flew. I felt that with very little effort I was clocking in over 160Km every day. The bicycle felt like a well oiled machine that ran on cruise control, while transporting me across southern France at incredible speeds.
As the altitude decreased, the alpine landscape slowly disappeared behind me, letting new and exciting ecosystems flourish. The coniferous woods gave way to a variety of deciduous forests. Nut-trees of all sorts sprung up for kilometers on end, and with them, little commercial stands on the side of the road blossomed. Local agriculturers tempted my palate with an irresistible variety of walnut delicacies, and I was only too weak (or too hungry) to resist. The air warmed and the humidity rose, but that wonderful tail wind thrust me forward like a trade wind propels a sailboat. Valence, Montelimar, Orange, Avignon, Arles, Montpellier… In my cycling frenzy I left them all behind without spending too much thought on them. I made very brief stops here and there to take a quick photograph, but the bicycle's peculiar allure during these days quickly summoned me back to pedal on.
It had taken over 2000Km since leaving Berlin, but I could finally see the Mediterranean Sea. I arrived at the town of Sete just in time for sunset. I found a hiding place for my tent between the dunes outside the town, and went for a swim. I didn't have much time to enjoy the beach, as I would again venture inland towards the city of Toulouse first thing in the morning.
Arriving at the Mediterranean Sea.
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