Banjo Brothers How-to Bike Tour in France

Credit Card Bike Touring Part II

This is the second installment in a series describing two credit card bike tours through France by Banjo Brothers Co-Founder Eric Leugers. To read part one, click here. This is also a rolling journal. We are adding content every few days with fresh photos and commentary from Eric. Enjoy.

Banjo Brothers at the Summit of Croix de Fer

Trip Highlights Day One and Two.

We didn't sleep more than 2 hours in over 24hrs and then slept 13 straight. We got a late start out of Grenoble which was problematic with forecast of 90F. The ride to Bourg d'Oisans (at the base of Alpe d'Huez) is just as awful as I recalled - heavy traffic and often no shoulder. Fortunately it should be the worst that we'll experience. We checked into our cabin which was positioned exactly at the start of the climb to Alpe d'Huez. It was now 4pm and hot as hell. I stayed with Banjo daughter and Banjo Linda set her own pace behind. It's steep at the start, shadeless and I was soon really uncomfortable. By the 2/3 mark we saw a lot of cyclists standing in the little available shade taking a break. I began to feel "not-right" and had to be dragged to the finish by my trusty 14 year old domestique. In a complete role- reversal she assured me I could make it - I did. It was beautiful but I was mostly just happy to be done. The biggest difference in the 20 years since I rode it? In 1996 we saw a handful of cyclists compared to the hundreds this time. I began to feel "not-right" and had to be dragged to the finish by my trusty 14 year old domestique

I began to feel "not-right" and had to be dragged to the finish by my trusty 14 year old domestique

We got an early start the next day after visiting market day in town. Cheese truck was amazing. We headed to Col de La Croix du Fer - it was mercifully cooler. It's a long and steep climb for the most part with a couple flat spots in between. I felt great - the gals not so much. The scenery is spectacular and our rest stops were plentiful. We turned around to cross the lower Col du Glandon - a screaming descent to the Maurienne valley with very little traffic. We're all tired but enjoying the ride and la Vie Francaise. Tomorrow is our hardest day over the Galibier to Briancon and a rest day.
Cheese Truck in France

Col du Galibier

We started early to avoid the heat as best we could - it was 15 gradual miles up a deep valley until we reached the Col du Telegraph (an amuse-bouche 12km climb that is essentially the lower part of the Galibier). It was already hot and shadeless and full of motorcycles. Apparently a major Harley rally was happening in Valloire - they even dress the part here. Who knew?

We tried to keep our powder dry until after the 5km descent to the start of the Galibier. Traffic was lighter by then and we were pushed along by a slight tailwind. The road mostly climbs straight up the valley toward peaks with patches of snow. The grade occasionally kicked up but stayed below 8% until the last 6k. We stopped for some water and Coke at a bar there (middle of nowhere! - one of the best things about France are the cafe/bars situated near passes).

The last 6km is a thumb-in-the-eye physically but spectacular visually. Over 8% with constant switchbacks, an opportunity to by fromage Belfort right from the dairy, snowpack along the road and finally the finish. We took some photos, drank some water, and then ripped down the descent to Col de Lauteret for some frites and Coke and then another fast descent into Briancon and a much needed rest day.
France has been easy to tour unsupported - even in the mountains we were seldom more than 10 miles between villages large enough for a cafe. Many also have outdoor faucets or fountains with potable water. They have been needed with all the heat. Today we are walking around Briancon and tackling the Col d'Izoard tomorrow (Google Col d'Izoard / Fausto Coppi for some great vintage photos)

Banjo Brothers Lightweight Credit Card Bike Touring in France

Col d'Izoard and an "Easy" Day

We had a full rest day in Briancon to get ready for the last really big climb. After the first three, I think we all agreed we had the easiest time on the Izoard for a couple reasons: we got an early start to avoid the worst of the continued heat wave and the start for the north side is already high up. It was 19k but the first half wasn't as steep and so we were fresh enough for the last 5k or so that were over 8%.

We were surprised by a couple of Astana team riders and a team car scouting the climb (it's in this year's Tour). They happily took a photo with Banjo daughter at the summit. We took more photos and launched down the screaming south slope through the badlands that comprise the upper half. It is the more famous side and is the backdrop for the classic photos of Coppi and other Tour greats. After the full descent we turned west down a beautiful gorge (and a couple scary tunnels) to the Durance Valley. There we turned off the busy autoroute (fast trucks + no shoulder) and onto a scenic side road. I lazily assumed we would find water but was sadly mistaken as the road climbed ever higher on the east slope of the valley. By the time we reached our destination of Embrun our bottles were long empty, and it was hot as Hades. The troops were nearing mutiny despite the scenery and lack of traffic. We downed many bottles of water from a fountain and checked in to a hotel right in the old centre ville walking district. I had never even heard of Embrun, but we ended up loving the town and the super friendly people we met there.

Banjo Brothers Bikepacking Rig in France

Our next day was supposed to be an easy transition day with much climbing. However, the direct route along the valley was another autoroute (more trucks and no shoulder). I had cleverly mapped a route back in the US that paralleled the highway through small towns on tiny roads. It all looked so gentle and bucolic on the Michelin map...
My first indication that this would not be easy was a local cyclist's reaction when I showed him plan. Something about "20% grade for 100m but can be ridden by going fast beforehand". We had already climbed for about 9km in the first 12km. It was hot again and the next two detours added another 5k climb each. I can't tell you how awesome these roads were - farm towns every few km and no traffic, but if there was a single flat km in the entire day I missed it. We arrived in the quaint (albeit slightly ridden-hard-put-away-wet) town of Veynes. Super friendly hotel owners greeted us and helped us store our bikes. We listened to a jazz trio (Django/Grapelli style) on the square below, and then watched a thunderstorm roll into town from the bar patio that mercifully cooled the air into the 60s. We fell asleep early with the promise of an actual easy day ahead.


An Easy Day and a Moderate Day

We had our first easy day, though it should be said by Minnesota topographical standards, it would be "hors categorie". We left Veynes as early as possible with an immediate 4k climb followed by a long ride northward up a river valley on a somewhat busy road. Another sunny day with the promise of a hot afternoon. At about 29k in we had our last climb of the day - a fantastic little road to the Col de Grimone (French for "Col of Grimone"). We did not know it at the time, but we had an almost unbroken descent the rest of the day. It started fast and winding and entered a gorge with narrow lanes, tunnels and some bridges over the river far below. Eventually the grade settled into a moderate 2% descent and we pedaled into Chatillon en Dios, a hillside village with a large intact medieval neighborhood (the buildings, not people).

Banjo Brothers Eric Bike Touring in France

SIDEBAR HERE: If you have not traveled in rural France, they take afternoon down time seriously. From around 12:30 to 2:30 all stores including groceries and bakeries are closed. Restaurants are most definitely open. Each day we decided as noon approached whether we wanted to picnic or eat at a cafe.
On this particular day we were ahead of schedule and did both: picnic in a shaded square followed by a long spell on a cafe terrace with coffee and ice cream. It was a marathon of leisure for us. Back on the bikes we timed our arrival in Die (pronounced "dee" but we had more fun talking about going to "dye"). Die was a nice surprise - Roman ruins, intact medieval buildings, and the Drome river to swim in with a nearly the perfect combo of clear water and moderate temperature - quite popular with the locals. Die was a sneaky surprise town where we would have spent another day exploring and swimming if our scheduled allowed.

Alas, we moved on the next morning toward the Vercors - a high limestone (dolomite?) plateau incised by deep canyons. I had spent 2 days there in 1996 and loved the area. It has a small population reliant on farms and tourism - the entire plateau is a national park embedded with towns and farms with skiing, hiking and mountain biking all throughout. The southern entrance is via the Col de Rousset. It appears to be a modern road with a long series of switchbacks at a moderate 5-6%. There would normally be a great view from the climb but it was a hazy. I had dreaded the long tunnel at the top (they are often narrow and unlit in the mountains), but this was wide and partially lit. We exited into a high green valley and made our way toward the tragically historic village of Vassieux-en-Vercors. The Vercors were rugged enough for local resistance fighters ("Maquis") to hide in during WW2. In July of 1944 the entire village population was slaughtered by the German army in retribution for Maquis attacks on the occupation. There are many monuments throughout the Vercors to both Maquis and townspeople. The massacre in Vassieux was just particularly large and awful.

If you have not traveled in rural France, they take afternoon down time seriously. From around 12:30 to 2:30 all stores including groceries and bakeries are closed. Restaurants are most definitely open. Each day we decided as noon approached whether we wanted to picnic or eat at a cafe.

If you have not traveled in rural France, they take afternoon down time seriously. From around 12:30 to 2:30 all stores including groceries and bakeries are closed. Restaurants are most definitely open. Each day we decided as noon approached whether we wanted to picnic or eat at a cafe.

Another climb followed Vassieux over a limestone ridge into a more remote valley and toward the highlight of the day's ride: Combe de Laval (worth Google image search for photos better than ours). From a forested road the earth opened in front of us in a deep canyon. The road impossibly clings to the south side of the canyon - in some spots the road had collapsed into the canyon to be replaced by a newer tunnel. From here we descended off of the plateau on switchbacks to the plains on the east side. With the loss of elevation came rising temperature. It was mid-afternoon and 95F. Did i mention how little we enjoy hot weather? We very slowly rolled the last 10k into Pont-en-Royans: another entrance back onto the plateau. We would climb back tomorrow. For now we made our way to the river with another swimming hole to cool off. For a day with a lot of climbing it was by now fairly easy.

Banjo Brothers Eric on a road ride in France


To be continued......

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