I'd never ridden the Col de la Croix de Fer, but I've always wanted to do so. I had heard that it is a lovely scenic ride from Romanche valley to the Maurienne (moving from the Isère departement to the Savoie) but it was also the name - the Pass of the Iron Cross. It has echoes of a war movie, of derring-do and I half expected to see Robert Mitchum or Steve McQueen at the summit planning a daring raid on the dams that we'd passed on the ascent.
It's a tough old slog, 30 km up to over 2,000m but the weather cleared as we reached the summit and the views were spectacular. Any pretence at Spring training had come to an abrupt halt in mid-May, derailed by the Yapp lunch at Le Gavorche and the Natural Wine Fair when I'd managed to rack up six restaurant outings in as many days, but clearly the quality of that food and wine paid off as we made it up without too much fuss, along with quite a few other riders who crammed into the café at the top for café au lait – see pic.
The next day (having been joined by a few late arrivals from the UK) we tackled the Col de Galibier (‘Giant of the Alps’), one of the Tour de France’s highest peaks at 2,700m, an 18km ascent averaging 7% gradient. Despite setting off from Valloire in hazy sunshine, drizzle set in by half way and the last 6km to the top were cold and miserable. Freezing fog and banks of snow on either side of the road ‘welcomed’ us to the top and the café was closed due to a lost water supply. Needless to say, the 20 minute descent in soaked gear was unpleasantly bone chilling, but after thawing out ‘sardined’ in to the hire car with the heater on, there was a sense of accomplishment.
Our last day couldn’t have been more different. We had spied a lesser known climb to the Chamrousse ski station that perches above Grenoble. As we’d hoped, there was barely another rider or car on this beautiful 18km climb that wended its way through a pine forest via the Col de Luitel to the top. The Col de Luitel has real significance in the history of ‘Le Tour’ as it is where, in 1958, the Luxembourg rider Charly Gaul broke clear to win a rain-deluged stage by 12 minutes, all but securing the yellow jersey (which he took two days later in a time trial) and which he held to Paris. Following this one Tour win, this former butcher retired from racing in 1962 and bizarrely lived as a recluse in the Ardennes forest for the next twenty years.
The sun shone on our last day in the Alps and as we swooped down the other side of the climb we rounded a corner to see the inviting terrace of the ‘Auberge des Seigneurs’. A rapid discussion between la patronne and the kitchen established that we weren’t too late for lunch, provided we were content with ‘une torte de poulet et ceps’ and simple salad. We gladly accepted and (after a refreshing ale) elected to wash down this delicious rustic cuisine with a bottle of Savoie Mondeuse. A fitting memory for a great trip in which, despite cycling 4 hours in the mountains every day, I’ve so enjoyed the local hospitality that I’ve managed to put on weight!