11 – 22 June 2017
From a geographical point of view, it would have been logical to start writing the Western European section at the Swiss/French border, but because of my 4-week break, it’s easier to start from Biel. So this section covers the 760k ride from Biel to Monaco. It could have been a fairly easy straight ride, but I wanted to do the French and Italian Alps which meant a detour east and a lot of climbing. Couchsurfing in Roquebrune Cap-Martin, France – a few kilometres short of Monaco – meant several layover days because I was progressing much faster than expected.
Itinerary and weather
From Biel, it was a beautiful ride south along the western shores of Lake Biel and Lake Neuchatel and from Lausanne at Lake Geneva, I rode the northern shore west to Geneva – considering the distance and rolling hills, I had surprisingly few lake views. Around the cities and bigger towns, it was built up but otherwise I mostly navigated countryside with countless vineyards and many cosy small towns and villages. From Geneva, I could have headed south to Annecy and Albertville and then up into the Alps. However, after a 4-week break I needed as many easy days as possible to get back in shape, so after entering France I took a more southwestern route to Grenoble – rolling hills along Rhone River through several valleys comprising more countryside and past lovely Lake Bourget. It was an incredibly hot ride to Grenoble – early mornings the temperature already exceeded 30C and at noon it was around 40C. The real problem however, was the combination of limited wind and a Southeast Asia-like high humidity making me sweat profusely especially on the countless hills and when taking rest stops at the few shady areas I passed. It didn’t help that I had to wear long sleeves because I got slightly sunburned the first day. The warm evenings were also challenging as I had to cover up for mosquitoes, but fortunately the temperature dropped to around 20-22C after sunset making sleeping - if not easy at least - possible.
I had heard a rumour that the main road east from Grenoble over the mountains to Briancon, was closed due to a collapsed tunnel. A tourist information confirmed this, but they were fairly certain that a small alternative road was open, so I took the chance and headed up the mountains. My planning paid off as the climb to Col de Lautaret at 2,058m was a fairly “easy” 5-8% average incline with few double-digit sections and several flattish sections. It was a lovely ride up along the river with stunning views of lakes and rugged snow-capped mountains. On the way up, I passed roads to famous Alpe d’Huez and Galabier – it would have been easy climbing them, but it had no purpose being out of my way. From Col de Lauteret, it was a 28k downhill roll to touristic Briancon where I turned south towards Embrun. Going to Borgo San Dalmazzo (BSD) in Italy, it would have been shorter riding southeast over the mountains, but a southwest detour along Lake Serre-Poncon looked more appealing – a good decision as the gorgeous landscape offered spectacular views and became the best day of this final leg of my trip. From the lake at 750m, it was a long climb along the river past Barcelonette to Col de Larche at 2,000m on the border to Italy – a small incline in the beginning and gradually steeper as I approached the top, but being back in shape it was fairly easy. It was nice riding but the views were less spectacular and this continued until I reached the Mediterranean coast – first 60k mostly downhill roll to BSD at 600m and then south up to Colle di Tenda – the last peak before Monaco. After climbing 10k, I realised my research had been insufficient not knowing that an upcoming tunnel was closed to bicyclists. A detour would be hundreds of kilometres, so I continued hoping to get a ride through the tunnel. 6k further up, people told me the tunnel was closed for 4 days due to repair, so I ended up taking the train one stop to the other side. From there it was a long downhill roll to the coast – a lovely gorge and some cosy mountain villages but otherwise it wasn’t very interesting. Heading up the mountains, I had some rainy nights and the first afternoon hours of torrential rain, but mostly it was sunny from a blue sky with semi-strong winds from ever changing directions. Temperatures dropped to 30-35C but more importantly the humidity fell significantly. Night temperatures were pleasantly 15-20C depending on the elevation.
The final 25k along the Mediterranean from Ventimiglia to my host in Rochebrune San-Martin (5k east of Monaco where I didn’t find a host) offered lovely coastal views not least because of the countless rolling hills. Back at low altitude, it was again very hot and incredibly humid making me sweat copiously.
Roads and drivers
The Swiss and French road quality was unpredictable – about half the time good to great but the other half (surprisingly) quite poor quality. As always, it was worst in the cities/towns, but the mountains and countryside also comprised countless bad stretches. It constantly changed seemingly without a system so there was no reason trying to navigate based on e.g. road size or type. To no surprise, Italy offered the worst roads so fortunately this part was limited to about 100k - especially the steep downhills caused problems, as constant braking on the horrible road, entailed countless rim cooling breaks.
About half the time, I had a shoulder or bike path though many times they were of so poor quality I had to ride the road. Driving fast, this made many Swiss drivers frustrated (some angry) while most French drivers were more relaxed about it braking and waiting until there was room to overtake me. Except for a few stretches both countryside and mountain roads were somewhat straight, so drivers could see me from afar and time their overtaking (though surprisingly many lacked this ability). The only real danger was the crazy Italian motorcyclists (and a few French) going 120-180 k/h and cutting corners without any overview – no wonder there are many bad accidents.
Camping and people
The first night, I stayed with my friend Romain and his lovely family in Cugy just north of Lausanne by Lake Geneva. And one day Marjorie pulled over and kindly invited me to stay with her family in a small mountains village – I first declined because it was early in the day, but I quickly regretted and was lucky to find her in the small village despite only having her name. She was of course surprised to see me, but nevertheless she welcomed me and we had a nice afternoon and evening together.
The rest of the time, I camped which was more difficult than usual. The valleys were completely cultivated and even the small forests marked on my map turned out to be either private or replaced by fields. The mountains were also complicated as the road ore often was squeezed between a steep cliffside and a river. Many camp spot searches were unsuccessful being too rocky/stony, too steep or overgrown with thorn bushes, so most times I ended carrying all my stuff 50-100 elevation metres up a steep cliff side or pulling the bike hundreds of metres over fields to a small forest.
People in this region were generally friendly – many (especially bicyclists) greeted me while riding and several people came over to talk to me when I was having breaks. The language barrier was a challenge but it worked out anyway as the locals did their best to speak a little English and I to speak and understand some French. I passed many bicyclists with luggage the first days to Grenoble but heading up the mountains only a South Korean guy. However, there were endless (particularly French) holiday bicyclists on fancy lightweight bikes without luggage – they drive from place to place and bike the famous stages known from The Tour de France. Some passed me at a decent speed, most slowly and some never passed me, so I could tell, was back in good shape.
Having fixed the bike in Biel including two new wheels, I had hoped for few problems the rest of the way to Denmark but that was not to be. After only 265k, a rear wheel spoke broke - I've had several bad wheels but this was by far the worst. Fixing it was the least of my problems - the question was if I once again had to ride with the constant uncertainty of breaking spokes and the likely following flat tires? Though representative for large parts of my trip, it was not the way I hoped to finish this adventure. I could only hope that decent roads, less luggage and my experience adjusting spokes would minimise the problem. 400k later – after 30 downhill kilometres on a horrible road into Italy - another rear wheel spoke broke. Having biked a week with a growing bulge on the rear tire, I decided to switch the tires around now that I had to fix a spoke anyway. An exploding front tire is potentially more damaging but the risk is smaller as the weight and therefore tire pressure is much less than the rear.
Another problem was my Anker external battery charged by bike dynamo. As I only managed to charge my old phone 3-4 times with it, I brought it back to Denmark from Istanbul but never found the time taking it to a recycle station. Back in Denmark, I managed to charge my new phone with it, so I brought it back to Biel just to find out that it didn’t work anyway – very annoying.
Finally, my big plastic mug broke when the bike fell over and crushed it (while I was in a café to check my email). Not a disaster but annoying as I use it for everything from morning coffee to finding holes in flat tires). I never managed to find a replacement, so I had to use my small aluminium pot instead.