Europe Bikepacking Part II 5/26 – 5/30

The magical day biking and swimming along the Mediterranean had us seriously questioning our planned route through the Alps and we toyed with the idea of a last minute pivot to a trip along the coast. But the allure of high mountain passes and quiet villages was too strong and we opted to stick with our original plan of heading north towards Lyon.

Looming over our heads was a deadline to get Lyon. A close family friend of Taryn’s who lives in Lyon and works in medicine had just received her schedule for the upcoming month and her only free day near the start of the month was May 31st. This worked with our ambitious schedule I had whipped together just before leaving, but did not leave much room for any rest days or other delays. So we woke up the morning of the 26th, gorged ourselves on the hostel’s buffet breakfast, and then loaded our bikes up for the adventure ahead.

We retraced our steps back along the coast, passing the Nice airport and continuing to Cagnes-sur-Mer. Eventually we identified a cross-street that looked to be the right one to take us inland. We couldn’t say goodbye to the Mediterranean without a final swim, however, so we changed into our suits and sunk into the refreshing water.

Dragging ourselves back into the hot and humid summer air, we did our best to dry off and then climbed back onto our bikes knowing we had a long day ahead. The ridging through Cagnes-sur-Mer was hectic, full of touristic chaos, but the riding settled down nicely once we made it north of the city.

We promptly got off route in the outskirts of Cagnes-sur-Mer and ended up pushing our bikes up an extremely steep, extremely narrow back road. Struggling to push our bikes up the tiny neighborhood road, it was hard not to feel some doubt at our grand ambitions the next few days.

Luckily we soon rejoined our intended route, a twisting road that wound through the beautiful terraced limestone foothills overlooking the sea.

It was near midday at this point and the baking sun had us chugging through water. Our near empty bottles called attention to a major difference between American and French towns: the relative lack of gas stations. Riding through village after village we looked for places to fill up, but were continually disappointed.

Eventually we made it to the junction with Le Var, the river we would follow into the foothills of the Alps. Coming up to the junction with the main highway headed up valley, we were relieved to see a gas station. Having learned our lesson we stocked up on water before locating a perfect bike path that ran next to the river.

As we continued north the valley began to narrow and the road grew steeper. As we passed through the small village of Le Plan du Var we saw a sign for “artisian boulanger” and knew we had to stop. Entering the small shop it felt like we had died and gone to heaven. Our food experience in Nice had been pretty lackluster with pretty much all of our meals feeling touristy and overpriced (definitely our own fault for being lazy about selection). Seeing large slices of pizza and fresh chocolate croissants for only a euro or two a piece almost overwhelmed our hungry brains. We left the store with our bike pockets overflowing with snacks.

Refueled, we continued up river. The road narrowed to a deep canyon at this point, the steep limestone walls providing a bit of shade and the winding river making for some beautiful scenery.

The afternoon’s ride went mostly smoothly aside from a 30 minute detour up a steep mountain road due some incorrect route planning on my part. The oppressive humidity did force an emergency stop in Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée when both Taryn and I started feeling a bit woozy, but ice cream and lemonade from a small store fixed us right up.

The humidity turned the rain as the afternoon grew later, but luckily it never rained hard enough to soak us through, and instead just helped cool things off. After seven hours of riding we reached Isola, our general destination for the evening. We found a little store and stopped in to get out of the rain. Their wine was too cheap to pass up so we channeled our best inner-Frenchman and sipped some recovery wine while we charged our phones inside.

With the afternoon growing late and just a few hours of daylight remaining we were now facing, for the first time, the realities of our decision to try to “wild camp” at night rather than stay in hotels and hostels. Back in Salt Lake, France’s laws against camping outside of campgrounds had seemed wonderfully abstract. “We’ll just tuck into some woods” we had reasoned. But now looking at the steep mountainous terrain all around the village, and our heavy, cumbersome bikes, we realized we had been horribly naive.

We looked up nearby campgrounds and found one just outside Isola, but it didn’t appear to be open for the season, and even if it had its prices seemed far too steep for our American sensibilities. So we did what any responsible adults would do and decided to ignore the problem for a little bit longer while we went and got some dinner. We biked through the quiet town until we stumbled upon a little bar/pizza restaurant and headed in.

After finishing a delicious dinner we could no longer delay the inevitable need to find a place to sleep. We eased our sore butts back onto our bikes and made our way out of Isola and out of town. Earlier in the afternoon our route had joined with the Tinée River and the road outside Isola continued along its banks. About a mile outside of Isola, right as we were starting to get really nervous, the floor of the valley widened to be several hundred yards wider than the Tinée River itself. Realizing this was definitely the best we were going to find, we pulled over to the side of the road and carried our heavy bikes down the embankment to the sandy floor of the valley. In the dying light we found a reasonably flat bit of sand, mostly hidden from view from the road, and began unpacking out bags to set up camp. Fearing more rain showers we took the energy to jerry-rig a bit of shelter with our tarp tent, but otherwise kept things as minimal as possible to remain inconspicuous.

Exhausted from a very full and very novel first day of bikepacking, we crawled under our tarp and did our best to get comfortable.

I had hoped that after all the exercise and travel, and having already had a few nights in Europe, sleep would be easy to find. But it was not. Taryn and I tossed and turned all night trying to get comfy amongst the bushes. We both felt terribly itchy and bemoaned the fact that we had not had a chance to rinse off after the ocean swim and day of sweating on a bike. We each managed one or two hours of sleep before the first sign of daylight signaled that it was time to get up and pack up our camp.

As I was changing into my bibs Taryn noticed that my back was covered in little red dots. I checked her back and saw the same thing. To our dismay we realized that the itching through the night had not been from a lack of showering but instead because we had spent the night being attacked by some sort of sand flea. Feeling a bit beat down by the whole wild camping experience, we did our best to laugh it off as we forced down some cold leftovers. Glad to be done with the terrible campsite we pushed our heavy bikes back up onto the road.

Getting back on the bike felt absolutely brutal with my bruised and raw butt, but luckily the soreness faded away after ten or fifteen minutes of biking. As we continued up the road the terrain began to transform from coastal foothills to a shadow of real mountains, from brushy jungle to deeply pine forests. After an hour of riding we crested a small hill and saw the beautiful little village of Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée tucked in the valley below us.

Riding towards it we noticed a crowd of cars and people in the city square. To our delight we realized it was a morning market. Stopping in, we picked up some delicious local cheese and sausage as well some fresh bread and hot coffee.

The chance encounter with a cozy local market proved to be exactly what we needed for moral. Micro exploration on a macro scale would prove to be one of my favorite aspects of bikepacking, and this first taste of it, wandering around ancient streets eating delicious food in a town we would have never specifically thought to visit, had me so excited for more.

The boost in moral came at just the right time because ahead of us lay the first real climb of the route, the climb up to Col de la Bonette. This 15 mile, 5,000 foot ascent would take us to our very first mountain pass in the Alps, and the 7th highest in the range.

As we left town and started the long climb out of the valley we noticed a sign that said “Route des Grandes Alpes”. Spoiler alert, it wouldn’t be the last time we saw such a sign and it would turn out we got pretty lucky with our last minute trip planning. But in the moment we just figured it was a good sign that we had a beautiful section of road ahead.

The views got better and better as we emerged from the valley and into the alpine. For the first time all trip it really felt like we were in the mountains. Ruins of old WWII forts dotted the grassy hillsides and From our new vantage point we could see countless peaks all around us.

The climbing felt relentless, but switchbacks kept the grade reasonable. As long as I ignored the seemingly endless road ahead and just focused on keeping the cranks spinning it all felt manageable. An hour and a half into the climb we stopped for a quick rest on the side of the road, battling some sleepiness from the the prior night’s sleep (or lack thereof).

Finally, after almost three hours of steep climbing, the road started to level off and we traversed the final few hundred yards to reach the Col de la Bonette. Looking back at the ground we had covered was truly mind blowing. The road we had just climbed snaked back down the valley, each individual switchback already feeling like a distant memory.

Ahead of us lay our first real descent of the trip and it looked like a good one. The road led down into a massive alpine valley, winding through rock outcroppings and meadows, before disappearing out of view, leaving us guessing at what came after.

We put on our jackets and took off down the perfect pavement. Handling the fully loaded bikes took a bit of getting used to, but after the first few switchbacks my confidence began to grow. It was thrilling to look down at my GPS watch strapped to my handlebar and see the miles flying by after the snail-paced climb up to the pass.

We took a brief stop at a picturesque alpine pond to soak up the views and then continued down valley out of the mountains. The trees began to grow thicker and we started to see farmhouses perched on the steep slopes.

After 45 minutes of blissful descending (and 15 miles covered) we reached the valley floor and the cute little village of Jausiers. It was now 1pm and we had been on the go for nearly six hours so we decided to stop in at a restaurant for a little lunch. Properly fueled it was time to start on our second big climb of the day, Col De Vars. Heading north out of Jausiers we followed another nice road that tracked along the Ubaye River. After about ten miles of this we reached the point where the road up to Col De Vars split from the main road.

The climb to Col De Vars was brutally steep, at times requiring us to zig-zag across the road because our tired legs couldn’t handle the grade straight up. Luckily the views were beyond scenic, with fields of wildflowers overlooking ancient churches and towering mountains.

We reached the Col de Vars at 3:30pm. We had been biking for over eight hours and had climbed over 9000 feet. My butt and legs felt beyond wrecked. Luckily we only had a 3500 foot descent between us and Guillestre, our destination for the night so we climbed back onto our bikes and started down the mountain pass.

After less than ten minutes of descending I heard a hiss and to my dismay felt my tire go flat. I put in a spare tube but after only a minute or two of riding that went flat as well. We limped along a bit further until we hit the Vars ski resort where by some miracle (given it was the off-season) we managed to find a bike/ski shop. The shop did not have any replacement tires (our bikes were set off tubeless), but we were able to borrow their floor pump and stock up on tubes which we hoped would see us through the rest of our journey to Lyon.

Experiencing the first mechanical of the trip definitely made me acutely aware of our reliance on working bikes. Just as our bikes seemed to provide unlimited freedom, a non-working bike infinitely restricted it. The 15 mile descent to Guillestre seemed trivial on a bike but would be a full day of walking with all of our stuff. And, unlike American cars, pretty much every single car we had seen drive by was too small to easily fit a bike in the back.

We set off from the bike shop, praying I wouldn’t get another flat. Our luck held out and we were able to make it to Guillestre with no further mechanicals.

We were pretty exhausted by the time we reached Guillestre, but our day wasn’t done quite yet. We had brought a small camp stove but had so far been unable to locate a place to buy fuel. The idea of a warm meal was enough motivation to get us biking around Guillestre in hunt of a gear shop. We got a quick lesson in the unreliability of Google Maps in small French villages as every result we checked out appeared to be either a person’s home, or closed for the season. After descending and then reascending a steep hill for what turned out to be a closed shop we decided to call it quits and accept that we would just be eating cold dinners until we got to Lyon. We swung by a local grocery store and picked up fresh bread, pesto, cheese and sausage which helped us feel better about the cold dinner thing.

With all of our errands out of the way it was time to face the inevitable question of where we were going to sleep for the night. After the horrendous previous night we felt pretty desperate for a good night’s sleep, but once again it was difficult to identify a suitable spot. We biked slowly around the outskirts of Guillestre peering off the road for something that would work. But every bit of land seemed either populated or too sleep to lay on.

We grew more and more worried and eventually I decided we were going to have to get outside the town to find anything reasonable. Taryn was dubious but I talked her into heading north along the N902 and back into the mountains, our planned route for the next day. Heading deeper and deeper into the Gorges du Guil in early evening with no real plan and a near mutinous partner felt pretty desperate but we forged ahead. Then, just was we passed through a tunnel carved through the cliff side and were about to enter another tunnel we noticed an overgrown gravel access road to the side.

We slammed on our brakes and pulled over to investigate. We followed the access road 50 feet until it wrapped back along the cliffside. Rounding the corner we couldn’t believe our eyes. The road ended in a perfect flat spot, lightly overgrown with soft looking grass, and, most importantly, almost entirely hidden from view from passing cars. In our exhausted state it felt almost surreal how perfect of a camp spot we had stumbled into.

We changed out of our sweaty bike clothes and laid out our delicious feast. The evening light grew longer and longer and we basked in the post-ride endorphins, marveling at our view. Perched on the edge of the ravine it felt like the world was entirely ours, the only sign of other humans was the occasional low rumble of a passing car.

Our stomachs satiated, we crawled into bed feeling so relieved and so content.

We woke up to sunrise and the increasing frequency of passing cars. We took advantage of our sheltered spot to enjoy a bit of breakfast and then it was time to convince our weary bodies onto the bikes for another big day of riding.

We rejoined the main road and continued up the stunning gorge, actually able to enjoy it with nighttime no longer imminent. As the gorge neared its deepest point, the Guil River momentarily widened from a series of steep rapids to almost a placid little lake. A bridge took us across the lake and we soaked up the vibrant blue waters.

After an hour or so of riding the road branched away from the main valley floor and we started the climb up to Col D’Izoard. The Col D’Izoard is a historic Tour De France climb and as we made our way up valley we began to see Tour de France signs marking our progress to the mountain pass.

We passed through the little village of Arvieux, one of the most picturesque towns we had biked through yet. The road was almost entirely devoid of traffic, bright golden flowers rose out of the fields on either side of the road and all around us mountains loomed, leaving us guessing where the road would take us.

As we passed the last of the houses, the climb began in earnest, a series of sharp switchbacks climbing up out of the forest. A clearing in the trees offered us a view back at the morning’s route.

As we climbed higher the landscape grew more arid and barren. Without any shade the heat was quite intense so we took our time up the final few switchbacks to the col. The views from atop were sweeping. To the north we could see some massive peaks in the distance, a sign we would soon be entering the true heart of the French Alps.

The descent off Col D’Izoard was another fun one. Over the last two and a half days I had come to love the rhythm of long climbs into long descents. With the wide gearing of our gravel bikes it was easy to slip into a steady pace and lose track of time. Then, on the descents, it felt like getting the miles for free leading to an overall sensation of covering a ton of ground efficiently. We stopped at a beautiful alpine town to dip our feet in the stream and soak up the ambiance and then continued on down to the city of Briançon.

It was only 11:30am at this point so we decided to take a bit of time to explore the city and headed up to the old city, a beautiful fortified section of the city built in the 17th century. The steep bike up to the fortress walls had us second guessing our decision but this doubt was immediately removed as we crossed through the ancient stone walls. Although definitely more touristy than a lot of the towns we had been biking through, the old city with its narrow cobble streets, beautiful colored houses, and commanding views of the surrounding valley made for an amazing detour. We decided to do lunch in the old city and we got some amazing savory crepes which left us refilled for a big afternoon of riding.

From Briançon we headed northwest towards another set of famous mountain passes, the Col du Lautaret and the Col du Galibier. The riding started out mellow for the first 15 miles or so as we followed a gentle climb up a massive valley. Eventually we reached the end of the valley and the climbing started in earnest. The towering glacial flanks of the magnificent La Meije mountain dominated the skyline and the road passed through avalanche sheds, giving the ride a distinctly alpine feel. As had been the case the last two and a half days, the weather was absolutely perfect with barely a cloud in the sky and almost no wind. We really could not have been more lucky.

2,700 feet of climbing later and we reached the Col du Lautaret. There was a shop at the pass so we stopped for some ice cream to soak up the amazing views and refuel before the remaining climb.

The section of road from Col du Lautaret to Col du Galibier was one of the more stunning we had ridden. In just over five miles the road climbed almost 2,000 feet, all of that while cut into a steep mountainside.

As we rounded each switchback more and more mountains came into view. There was hardly any traffic which allowed us to savor the scenery all that much more. Taryn hit a pretty solid bonk climbing up the final few switchbacks but managed to grit it out and keep the pedals turning.

The views from the top were something special. My watch showed that we had climbed over 9,100 feet, our biggest day ever on bikes. The weather was still crystal clear, allowing to see for miles in all directions.

Most importantly, we had another amazing looking descent ahead of us to get down to the town of Valloire, our planned destination for the night.

The views on the descent were almost reminiscent of the Dolomites. Jagged limestone peaks towered above shockingly green alpine meadows. We briefly considered trying to spend the night in one of these meadows, but the combination of a need for groceries, no real cover from passing cars, and concerns about cold alpine nights influenced us to keep descending.

After an hour of descending we reached the town of Valloire. It was 6pm and we were ready for dinner so we decided to swing by a grocery store and then eat in the public park. At the store we stocked up on more bread and cheese and decided to treat ourselves to a bottle of wine to celebrate what had been a truly perfect day of bike riding. We sat at a picnic table in the little park watching a group of kids playing soccer in the early evening light. We basked in the glow of wine and artisanal cheese, doing our best to savor every moment of the wonderful world we had dropped into for the night.

After dinner it was once again time to stress about the evening’s sleeping arrangement. The town of Valloire is home to a major ski resort. Even though it was the off season it still didn’t feel super chill to try to sleep anywhere in town so we climbed back onto our bikes and descended out of town. The buzz from the wine helped temper the anxiety, but we still began to grow worried as it started to grow darker and darker and we we still hadn’t identified a plausible looking spot.

About half a mile outside of town we saw an official looking road with two raised gates branch off from the main road. We decided to check it out. We followed the drive down a steep hill and came across a group of windowless buildings that appeared to house some electrical substation. We saw a camera mounted to one of the buildings but we were growing desperate so decided to poke around and see if we could find anyplace decent.

As we rounded the back of one of the buildings we were amazed to see a near perfect spot. Massive wooden spools that must have housed electrical wires were arranged in just such a way to provide shelter around a perfectly flat piece of grass. We had some debate about the odds of the camera (or any other hidden sensor) being on and monitored late on a Sunday evening and weighed the possibility of being arrested as terrorists for trespassing on government infrastructure. In the end we decided the spot was too secluded and perfect to pass up and laid out our camp gear for the night. The gentle electrical hum emanating from the building next to us somehow proved to be both soothing white noise and an anxiety-inducing reminder of our illicit camp spot. Taryn somehow managed to fall right asleep and I eventually joined her for a night of unsettled dreams.

We woke up at first light the following morning and immediately packed up our stuff so we could be gone before anyone might show up for the day. We were on our bikes and moving by 6:30am.

Unlike on previous days, our day started out with a descent as we continued the 2,500 feet down from Valloire to Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne. The tight winding switchbacks would have normally made for a very fun descent but the north facing hillside was still deep in early morning shade and we quickly found ourselves shivering in the crisp wind. Frozen fingers made controlling the brakes challenging, but eventually we made it to Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne in one piece.

Riding through town we noticed a boulangerie and immediately pulled over to go grab some breakfast. We wolfed down some fresh treats, including still-warm Nutella filled croissants. By the end of breakfast we were feeling much more prepared for the day ahead.

Unlike the last few days which had revolved around a mountain pass in the morning, lunch in a low-lying town, and then a second mountain pass in the afternoon, the itinerary for the day was one massive climb up the Col d’Iseran, the highest paved pass in the Alps. Reaching the col would involve a 45 mile gradually steepening climb. Once over the pass we intended to drop down to the resort town of Val d’Isere and spend the night after which we could leave the mountains and make our way to Lyon.

The riding immediately east out of Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne was less scenic and more industrial feeling than most of our trip so far. Luckily some descent bike paths helped us along. Ten miles after leaving town our bike path merged with the main road. As we were merging onto the main road we saw a sign that diplayed Col d’Iseran with a red LED X next to it. Our hearts sank. We knew we were early season, but we had never expected that one of the paved mountain passes might not yet be open. We pulled out our phones and were able to confirm online that the road was still closed for the season.

We sat by the side of the road and tried to figure out our next move. We could backtrack and follow the valley we were in out to the west and directly towards Lyon. It would be more direct but, based on the morning riding, probably not the most scenic riding. It also would mean giving up experiencing Col d’Iseran which we understood to be one of the crown jewels of passes in the Alps. While challenging, the last few days had been so magical and we both felt whiplash at the idea of suddenly having to say goodbye to the magical flow we had found ourselves in.

I had managed to find some webcams for the Val d’Isere resort while poking around online. They definitely still showed some snow, but also patches of bare ground. Unfortunately none of the cams showed the pass proper. I wanted to go for it, figuring worst case we could carry our bikes on our shoulders through the snow. The weather still looked solid and with our cumulative fitness I felt confident we could make it work. Taryn was less sure, and reasonably so. It would mean an almost 90 mile detour to bike out to the pass, not be able to make it over, and then have to retrace all of that ground. Doing so would almost certainly mean missing the off-days for Taryn’s friend in Lyon. We debated back and forth and eventually Taryn agreed to blindly trust my instincts and continue towards the pass. So we got back on our bikes and continued up valley.

A bit further along the main highway we had been riding next to split off into a tunnel through the mountains. Above that the riding just got more and more scenic. Our road hugged the side of the valley, overlooking the river and towns below. The valley was filled with old ruins and forts, including the massive Victor-Emmanuel Fort, which made for great viewing.

Continuing upwards the towns began to transform back into the quaint mountain villages we had come to love.

After 20 miles of riding we got far enough up valley that the we began to encounter occasional switchbacks on the once-straight road. The road got quieter and quieter and we started to get beautiful views of the expansive valley and high mountain peaks.

Eventually we had climbed above the last of the ski towns and enjoyed almost ten miles of perfect riding through beautiful meadows and fields.

At the top of the valley we arrived at the tiny village of Bonneval-sur-Arc. The ancient stone buildings fit perfectly with its remote mountain position. We stopped for a quick lunch break because we knew we had a steep 3,000+ feet of climbing ahead of us.

Refueled it was time to start climbing up to the pass. As we road out of town we road around a lowered gate, a physical reminder that all of the climbing ahead might be for nothing if the pass proved impassable.

As we climbed out of town we were rewarded with an amazing birds eye view down the the valley we had been following for the last 35 miles. The road closure meant that we had the road entirely to ourselves and it felt almost as if we were in the backcountry even though we were traveling along a paved road.

After one massive switchback and the 1,000ft under our belt we reached a beautiful hanging valley.

We followed the road up this valley, passing herds of goats and ancient-looking stone huts tucked next to little streams.

The road was not as steep as some of the passes in the days prior, but it was absolutely relentless. A few switchbacks offered some sense of progress, but the road seemed to stretch on ahead forever. We both struggled to turn the peddles over as an afternoon bonk overtook us. As we came to one of the switchbacks we saw a perfect sitting rock overlooking the valley below so we decided to stop for a rest.

As I was sitting looking at the mountains a wave of pre-nostalgia hit me. Moments ago all I had wanted to do was be off my bike and done for the day, but now with a moment to reflect I suddenly realized just how close we were to being done with this amazing chapter of our trip. The mountain passes had provided so much challenge, so much structure, and so much beauty to our days. And now we had just over an hour left on our last one.

For the next hour Taryn and I sat on the leeward side of the rock, basking in the afternoon sun, and reminisced about all the magical moments we had experienced in the last few days. We laughed (and cried) as we soaked in the moment, willing that perfect feeling to last forever.

Eventually it was time to move again so we climbed back onto our bikes, our legs and souls wonderfully rejuvenated, eager for the remaining climb.

As we crossed 8,000ft the patches of snow next to the road grew more and more continuous until the ground was completely covered. But luck (and maybe an early season plow) was on our side because the road remained snow free. Soon we were close enough that I was sure we could portage our stuff over even if the road became to snowy to ride. And then with a final steep switchback we were on top of the Col d’Iseran, our high point on bikes for the trip.

Unlike previous passes, we had this one to ourselves so we setup the self-timer for a quick photo.

The views were unbelievable but the wind was howling so we hung out for a brief moment and then got on our bikes for the descent down into Val-d’Isère. The closed pass meant no motor traffic and we took full advantage of it, swinging wide around corners and trusting our descending skills after 5 days of practice.

Can you spot spot Taryn in the photo below?

The descent just kept going and going, a victory lap for all the hard-fought vert we had just gained.

All good things must come to an end and eventually the road leveled off and we reached the outskirts of Val-d’Isère. It was 3:30 and we had nothing to eat for dinner so we decided to head into the town to buy food before the stores closed. As we entered town, however, we saw only empty streets and closed shop fronts. We rode the length of town and back, checking out every corner, but found nothing open. Dismayed we realized that the combination of a Sunday on the off-season meant that all the stores were closed.

We slowly road back to the outskirts of town pondering our next move. The only real food we had was a bag of pasta that we had bought early on in the trip when we thought we would find camp fuel and had held left in one of my panniers because it felt wasteful to throw it out. Chatting it through we realized our best bet was to try to cold soak the pasta for the rest of the afternoon and hope it was edible before bedtime.

We filled up a pot from the stream and poured the bag in and then sat back to enjoy the views and laugh at the situation we had gotten ourselves into. We spent the next hour or two reading, talking, and occasionally prodding the still-very-firm pasta with a fork hoping it had softened. As we were talking Taryn noticed the garage open on a distant house. We took a moment to weigh our empty stomachs against our pride, but our stomachs quickly won out and Taryn ran over to chat with the man we saw in the garage. She disappeared for a brief bit and then came running back, smiling with a few items in her hands.

As she got back to me she threw an instant chili packet and a little brown bag onto the ground. Opening the bag she pulled out the tail end of a loaf of hearty looking bread. She explained that the man had not only kindly offered her this food but also allowed her to plug her phone and our nearly-empty battery pack into an outlet in his garage. He had also informed her that none of the neighbors would mind if we slept on the ground on one of the trails in the forest behind his house.

Feeling blessed we cut into the bread for some much needed food after the big day’s ride. The bread was pretty stale, but beggars can’t be choosers (in that saying’s most literal application) and we were just psyched to be eating something. We washed the bread down with some cold chili, and I even managed to get down most of the pasta, although the cold, half-crunchy-half-chewy noodles made it a bit of a battle.

My the time I had finished the pasta the sun had nearly set. It was a wonderful change from the previous nights to know exactly where we were going to sleep, so we took our time to enjoy the last of the sun’s rays and then pushed our bikes up the slope and into the nearby woods.

We found a flat spot and settled in for a night of much needed sleep.

We woke up early the next morning, our stomachs growling. We quickly packed up our stuff in preparation for another big day of riding. We knew we probably weren’t going to be able to make it to Lyon in one day, but we hoped to get within striking distance so we could finish up the journey the next morning and still get most of the day with Taryn’s friend.

We carried our bikes back to the road and then set off back down through town. As we were leaving town we were relieved to see a convenience store open early and we wolfed down a huge breakfast and filled our bikes with snacks.

The ride down valley out of Val-d’Isère was a bit of a tough start to the day. It was another brutally cold morning and we had to ride through a series of long tunnels and poorly-lit avalanche sheds that made for quite an intense first few miles. We were definitely both happy when we reached Sainte-Foy-Tarentaise, the first real town after leaving the heart of the mountains.

From there it was a beautiful long gradual descent for the next 15 miles as we left the Alps behind us and entered the foothills. It felt like it might be just a simple day of riding until we began to see signs for a tunnel. We had been following surface roads parallel to the highway, N90, but we saw that up head the highway disappeared into a kilometer and a half long tunnel. We knew we certainly couldn’t take the tunnel and, looking at the map, there were no other roads that passed through the valley.

Via a combination of Google Maps, Gaia, and Kamoot, we were able to come up with a route up into the hills that would allow us to bypass this section. Unfortunately it meant almost 2,000 feet of climbing. We had a couple dead ends as our directions tried to take us up hiking trails or driveways, but eventually we managed to get on the correct road and we switch backed our way up, grumbling about the unexpected climb.

The views were absolutely gorgeous though and the tightly winding road back down to Moûtiers made for excellent riding.

On the descent we stopped by a beautiful lake surrounded by sculptures and other art installations.

Reaching Moûtiers we decided to treat ourselves to a sit down lunch. The warm pizza boosted our moral after the unexpectedly grueling morning, and we even let ourselves have a lunchtime beer. With a nice little buzz going we got back on the road and headed north towards the city of Albertville.

The travel from Moûtiers towards Albertville was almost entirely flat and the miles felt like they were flying by. Soon, however, my chain began to skip and click when I really applied force to the pedals. At first it was just a minor annoyance but it grew more and more frequent until it was near constant and I was constrained to just a few working gears.

We tried some road-side fixes but couldn’t figure out was wrong so I limped along until we found a bike shop on the outskirts of Albertville. They kindly agreed to take a look at my bike while we sat outside and ate leftover pizza.

Sitting outside we chatted about what to do next. The morning’s climb had taken a bit of wind out of our sails and my legs were feeling pretty wrecked after the afternoon of trying to make due with just a few gears. We were missing the peace and quiet of the mountains and it just wasn’t feeling that fun for some reason. I think we were just a little over it. The idea of riding into Lyon still seemed exciting, but the remaining 100 miles seemed really far and we knew the riding would only grow more and more urban and chaotic as we got closer. Luckily we were both on the same page and we realized we had gotten everything we wanted out of this leg of the bike trip and we decided to take a train the rest of the way from Albertville to Lyon. We felt at peace with the decision and lounged around waiting for news on my bike.

After 20 minutes of investigation the mechanic came out and reported that my derailleur was bent and he had done his best to straighten it. I was a bit confused by this because my derailleur hadn’t seen any impacts but the skipping seemed fixed so we got back onto our bikes and headed into Albertville.

We directed ourselves to the train station and soaked up the last few moments of bike adventure. Luckily the train schedule allowed us a bit of time to go hang in a nearby park and reflect a bit on everything we seen and done the last five days. Our bikes now felt a bit like an extension of ourselves, our entire lives packed neatly onboard. The contrast from just a few days earlier as we had first biked from the Nice airport was remarkable.

The train journey from Albertville to Lyon went pretty smoothly aside from accidentally getting onto the 1st class car thinking it was the bike car. By the time we realized our mistake the train was already moving. An exasperated conductor repeatedly tried to explain how to remedy the situation in French and we mainly just hung our heads in shame. Eventually the conductor cleared out a compartment and we wheeled our bikes out of the corridor, our tails between our legs.

Looking out the window we marveled as we flew by entire towns in the blink of an eye. As always seems to happen after more than a few consecutive days of human-powered travel, the feeling of speed and ease of travel was captivating.

We arrived in the Lyon train terminal in the early evening. We pushed our bikes down the corridor, heaved them down the steep stairs to the platform, and re-attached our bags. A few more flights of stairs stood in our way but soon we were standing outside the station, the entire city beyond us. We loaded up the address to a nearby hostel, climbed onto our bikes, and took off down the road.

We soaked up the buzz of the city as we rode, the streets practically overflowing compared to our quiet mountain roads. But the energy felt good, the city alive; a worthy destination to have motivated the last few days of adventure.

We paused on a bridge overlooking the Rhône and watched the water gently drift by, smiling, perfectly at home.

A postscript of sorts: growing up I was always taught “show don’t tell” when writing. But sometimes I don’t trust my showing and these few days were special enough I want to do a bit of telling too. Bikepacking was never really on my radar as something I really wanted to try. When we were planning our trip it simply seemed like a convenient way to cheaply get around Europe and provide some nice daily exercise and structure to our travels. The five days written about in this post completely changed my mind on this. The level of joy and fulfillment I experienced caught me completely off guard. The act of riding along the side of the road, no matter how scenic the views or how challenging the days, seemed fundamentally repetitive. But these magical days opened my eyes to just how wonderfully immersive it could be. The ability to stop at any time, explore any location on a whim, and yet travel such far and meaningful distances is freedom in its purest form. I’m thankful for five of the most free days I’ve ever known.





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