La Route des Grandes Alpes

2 posts in one day? Bloody hell. Well, this one is a little different than normal. I will be periodically posting segments of a story that my friend Roberto wrote about a bike tour he did this past summer in the Alps. Roberto is one of my PBP friends. I met him shortly after leaving Brest, riding up one of the big climbs towards Carhaix. We did not speak much other than exchanging names. We split off and then I happen to run into him again in Loudéac and we rode together to Tinteniac. Roberto is a bit older than I am, and Italian, so at first I did not think we had that much in common. It was great meeting so many people during PBP, and just being out on the rode together was usually  as much as you needed to have a connection. When the conversati0n turned to our designated professions Roberto told me he owned a record store.  Being older than myself, and being Italian I did not expect him to have similar tastes in music. But the first thing I asked him was if he liked Jonathan Richman, and he responded “I love Jonathan Richman! I saw him in Torino.” I knew I had just made a really good friend, as I usually base most friendships on whether or not people like Jonathan Richman. We then proceeded to talk about other musicians, films, art, etc. We split off in Tinteniac, but met up again at the last control before Paris and had some food together. We have since stayed in contact, always updating each other on what bands we are listening to and talk about bikes.

Roberto wrote this story, in Italian. I have always been fascinated by Italy, even before bikes were a big part of my life. Fellini, Vespas, Design, and the Food. Bella Cultura. I studied a little Italian in high school and at UT. I wouldn’t say I was ever very good. I periodically make an attempt to start practicing again, and now knowing Roberto I have a little more incentive. I listen to Italian language cd’s in the workshop. Yes, it is very “Breaking Away.” So, what will follow is my translation of Roberto’s story. Before y’all think I am fluent in Italian, I certainly am not. I look up each word in the dictionary, figure what I think it means, and then double check with google translator. I then send what I got to Roberto to triple check. It takes me a long time to get very far, and with a busy schedule I literally  tackle a few sentences or a paragraph at a time. Also posted is the original Italian version, if there are any Italians reading this.

I hope y’all enjoy these segments. If anything it is nice for me to read and now share someone else’s bike stories. The first segment is more of an introduction, the subsequent parts will detail each day of his trip.

“La Route de Grandes Alpes”
“By Bicycle.”

By Roberto Caligaris

La Route de Grandes Alpes is a 684 km road trip across the French Alps from North to South
over 16 Alpine passes, of which 6 are more than 2000m in elevation. The route leaves from
Thonon-les-Bains and goes to Mentone after passing 15,713 m of climbing.

Sure, it is a fabulous trip, but to travel by bike, no, something for pure masochists. And with
panniers, Not for me.

Me, who is a tooth pick. Me, who removes any superfolous grams from the bike. Me, who
always so picky; only eating fruit from my garden, only using honey from the mountains, only
using extra virgin olive oil from Michele, and so on. No, a week of bad food, I would be reduced
to shreds. Definitely not, not for me. End of discussion.

But then, on a beautiful day I cross the Cormet de Roseland and the Col de Saisies, 2 small
passes. A road sign indicates “La Route de Grandes Alpes.” A fine electric shock makes
my heart beat faster. Not even having Charlize Theron as my dinner guest would make me feel
like this.

“What thing prevents you, really?”
“A sort of reverential fear towards the mountains, that is not my element,” I shyly respond.
“Come on, that’s not a reasonable excuse. You have been up Bonnette 3 times, you have gone up
Chaberton by bike, solo. You took on the thunderstorms of Fauniera, the snow on Giau, and not
even a cold. You can decide not to do this, but you will not forgive yourself so easily.” In the
end, I always lose these discussions.

And then, I can see myself, it is the middle of January 2013, a cold day. I am loading the fire
place to escape the chill that grips my hands and I think about all of the missed oppurtunities of
the summer; the 1001 miles(though in the end I was never really attracted to this) and the
Grandes Alpes. No, missing them both would be too much.

Back at home, having lunch with Lucy. Between mouthfuls, I throw out “You know, I would not
mind doing a tour for a few days in the mountains.” She knows me well, and almost encourages me. She
knows that I was disappointed not doing the 1001 miles, 1600km in 5 days in the full mugginess
of August. Better, no, much better doing La Route de Grandes Alpes, moderate and healthy in
comparison. It’s decided, I would take a few days of vacation, as soon as the weather becomes

Ahead of schedule, Meteo-France says “sun, sun, sun” for the next 4 days. I prepare the bike in a
hurry: 2 panniers, one in the front and one in the rear. I put on a more comfortable saddle. For the
rest, the bare essentials: a change of bike clothes, a light rain coat, a pair of pants for the evening,
a shirt, a sweater, a book, various tools, non-perishable food, toiletries, reserve sunglasses, in
short the list became quite long. I end up buying 2 more bags. Also at the last minute I change the
rear cassette. I will need a small gear ratio for the long climbs. I try to lift the bike. I can hardly
do so, it has become so heavy.

Lucy offers to give me a lift to Cuneo, saving me 80 boring kilometers of flat plains. Seeing that
it is impossible to take the train (with a bike) from Domodossola in the direction of
Switzerland(TrenItalia has suspended the service for this route) my trip will happen in reverse,
from south to north. I leave from Sospel, a delightful town 18km from Menton.

Ah, I forgot, before starting, a warning. I am usually so annoyed by those who come back from a
trip and dwell on every detail of their dining experiences. Describing in detail what they had to
eat, from first course, second, and desert. I find it banal and boring. “Tell me something of more
interest, please,” I would want to say, but generally stay quiet. I am, however, much more lenient
with myself. The food is an essential part of my travels. So the reader is warned, there is more
talk about food than about bikes in this story.

For example, this one dinner, almost at the end of the trip. I am comfortably lounging on a deck
chair on the terrace of the Hotel of Val Joli, delighted by the breeze and sun setting behind the
peaks right in front of me. The Mezzo Toscano cigar that I am smoking adds dizziness to my
buzz. Only an hour ago I was exhausted, drained, with an empty pit instead of a stomach. Now it
is full, satisfied. Sitting a little further away are a coupld of Italian bikers(motorcycles). One of
them is calling home, to his Mama. “Listen, I have to tell you about this. Yes, the evenings
dinner. For the first course we had melon with green salad. Yes, but without prosciutto. Exactly!
Instead of the prosciutto there was a dark sauce that was sour, salty and sweet. Oh well, I ate it.
No pasta, no, here they don’t have any. But listen to this, for the main course we had a plate that
was 15 centimeters in diameter, yes, fifteen centimeters I said! It was stacked 4 fingers high! And
you know of what? Of raw meat! What type of meat? I don’t know, beef, horse, or some other
animal, I don’t know. And on top of the meat a raw egg! Yes, I tell you, raw! And as a side dish,
3 piles of stuff, vegetables perhaps, onions, cucumbers, peppers. Raw. And a basket of French
Fries. Ah, tonight I really had my fill of protein. What do you think? Typical me!” This is more
or less what I told Lucy when I returned home. To my justification(I am vegetarian in spirit, but
in fact a carnivore with a sense of guilt) I would say the menu was unique, without alternative,
probably the last thing that I would have chosen. But just what I needed to make me come back
to life.

La Route des Grandes Alpes è un itinerario stradale lungo 684 km che attraversa le Alpi francesi da nord a sud passando per 16 valichi alpini di cui 6 a più di 2.000 mt di altezza. La route parte da Thonon-les-Bains ed arriva a Mentone dopo aver superato 15.713 metri di dislivello.

«La Route des Grandes Alpes?

In bicicletta?

Da solo?”


Certo, è un itinerario favoloso, ma percorrerlo tutto in bici, no, roba da masochisti puri.Non me la sento proprio. Con le borse poi. Io che sono uno stuzzicadente, io che tolgo ogni grammo superfluo dalla bicicletta, io che faccio il difficile su tutto – solo frutta del mio orto, solo miele di alta montagna, solo l’olio extravergine di Michele, e via di seguito -, no, una settimana di cibo mediocre, mi ridurrei uno straccio. Decisamente no, non fa per me. Il discorso è chiuso.

Poi, un bel giorno, attraverso in bici il Cormet de Roseland e il Col de Saisies, due passi minori.Un segnale stradale indica: La Route des Grandes Alpes. La Route des Grandes Alpes? Una sottile scossa elettrica mi fa salire la frequenza cardiaca. Manco Charlize Theron mi avesse invitato a cena.

Cosa te lo impedisce, davvero?”

“Una sorta di timore reverenziale verso le montagne, che non sono il mio elemento”  mi rispondo timidamente. “Non è ragione sufficiente, dai, sei stato tre volte sulla Bonnette, sei andato sullo Chaberton in bici da solo, hai preso i temporali sul Fauniera, la neve sul Giau, nemmeno un raffreddore. Puoi decidere di non farlo, ma non te lo perdonerai tanto facilmente.”

Nelle discussioni alla fine perdo sempre.

E poi, già mi vedo: metà gennaio 2013, un freddo cane, sto caricando la stufa, per sfuggire al gelo che mi attanaglia le mani, e ripenso alle occasioni mancate dell’estate:  la 1001 miglia (che però in fondo non mi ha mai attirato davvero), e la La Route des Grandes Alpes. No, mancarle entrambe sarebbe troppo. Una delle due s’ha da fare. Tornato a casa, a pranzo con Lucy, tra un boccone e l’altro, butto lì, molto casual: “Sai, non mi dispiacerebbe farmi un giretto di qualche giorno in montagna”. Lei, che mi conosce, quasi mi incoraggia. Sa che tornerei spappolato dalla 1001 miglia, 1600 km in 5 giorni, nel pieno dell’afa di agosto. Meglio, molto meglio La Route des Grandes Alpes, in confronto moderata e salutare. E’ deciso, mi prenderò qualche giorno di vacanza, appena il meteo sarà favorevole.

Prima del previsto, Meteo-France dice: sole sole sole. Per 4 giorni. Preparo in fretta la bici: due borse, una davanti, una dietro. Una sella più confortevole. Per il resto, il minimo indispensabile: un cambio di abbigliamento da bici, una mantellina antipioggia, un paio di pantaloni per la sera, una camicia, una maglia, un libro, attrezzi vari, cibo non deperibile, oggetti per l’igiene, occhiali di riserva, insomma, la lista diventa lunga. Per cui compro due borse supplementari, posteriori, capaci. E all’ultimo minuto cambio la cassetta pignoni: mi serviranno rapporti cortissimi per salite lunghissime. Provo a sollevare la bici: quasi non ci riesco, tanto è diventata pesante.

Lucy si offre di darmi un passaggio fino a Cuneo, evitandomi 80 noiosi km di pianura. Vista l’impossibilità di prendere il treno (con bici) da Domodossola in direzione Svizzera (trenitalia ha sospeso il servizio su questa tratta)  il mio viaggio si svolgerà al contrario, da sud a nord. Partirò da Sospel, deliziosa cittadina a 18 km da Menton.

Ah. Dimenticavo, prima di cominciare, un’avvertenza. Mi infastidiscono quelli che,  di ritorno  da un viaggio, si dilungano sui dettagli delle proprie esperienze gastronomiche, descrivendo in dettaglio cos’hanno mangiato, primo, secondo e dessert. Lo trovo banale e noioso. “Raccontatemi qualcosa di più interessante, per favore”, mi viene da dire. Però generalmente sto zitto. Naturalmente con me stesso sono molto più indulgente. Il cibo è parte essenziale del mio viaggiare. Per cui il lettore è avvertito, si parla più di cibo che di bici, in questo racconto.

Ad esempio questa cena, quasi alla fine del viaggio. Sono comodamente installato su di una sdraio nella terrazza dell’Auberge du Val Joli, satollo, deliziato dalla brezza e dal tramonto del sole dietro i picchi, proprio di fronte a me. Il mezzo toscano che sto fumando aggiunge stordimento alla mia ebbrezza. Solo un’ora fa ero stremato, prosciugato, con una voragine al posto dello stomaco. Che adesso è pieno, appagato. Seduti poco distante, una coppia di motociclisti italiani. Lui sta telefonando a casa, alla mamma.

Ascolta, questa devo proprio raccontartela. Sì, la cena di questa sera! Come primo, ci hanno portato del melone con insalata verde . Sì, ma senza prosciutto. Proprio così! Invece del prosciutto c’era una salsina scura, acida, salata e dolce. Vabbè, l’ho mangiato. Niente pasta. No, qui non si usa! Ma ascolta questa: come secondo ci portano un piatto con su un cilindro di 15 cm di diametro – quindici centimetri ho detto! – Alto quattro dita! e sai di cosa? Di carne cruda. Che tipo di carne? Non so, manzo, cavallo o che altro animale, non so. Sopra alla carne, un uovo crudo! Sì, ti dico, crudo! E come contorno,  tre mucchietti di roba, verdure forse, cipolle, cetrioli, peperoni.Crudi. E un cesto di patate fritte. Uè, stassera ho proprio fatto il pieno di proteine! Pensa te! Proprio io!”

Più o meno quello che racconterò a Lucy, quando tornerò a casa. A mia giustificazione (sono vegetariano di spirito, carnivoro di fatto, con sensi di colpa) dico che il menù era unico, senza alternative. Probabilmente l’ultima cosa che avrei scelto. Ma proprio quello che ci voleva per farmi rivivere.

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