French Alps

French Alps Transalp Richard Georgiou

Day 1: (290 miles) – Dieppe, Rouen, Evreux, Dreux, Chartres, Châteaudun, Blois, Chateauroux.

Day 2: (166 miles) – Chateauroux, Montlucon, Clermont-Ferrand, Issoire, Champaganac-Le-Vieux.

Day 3: (195 miles) – Champaganac-Le-Vieux, Le Puy-En-Velay, Chirols, Vallon-Pont-D’arc, St-Martin-d’Ardeche, Seguret, Castellane.

Day 4: (123 miles) – Castellane, Colmars, Jausiers, Vars.

Day 5: (124 miles) – Vars, Briançon, Vizille, Belley, Les Mûres.

Day 6: (143 miles) – Les Mûres, Chalamont, Chauffailles, Digoin, Cronat.

Day 7: (163 miles) – Cronat, Anlezy, Bona, Donzy.

Day 8: (193 miles) – Donzy, Maltaverne, Cerdon, Isdes, Beaugency, Châteaudun, Langey, Luigny, Brou.

Day 9: (193 miles) – Brou, Dieppe.

In June of 2016 I was asked by a friend of mine if I’d like to join him and his brother-in-law on a nine day trip to the French Alps. The answer was, of course, bloody right I would. Now, at this point I should say that I tend to travel alone; I’m reasonably selfish, totally inconsiderate, I enjoy my own company more than anyone else’s (with the exception of my dog) and I don’t wash much. Call me stupid if you like but I thought the combined force of all those points would be ample to put off even the most ardent of adventure bikers but nope, not my mate Chris. I was invited and I had accepted.

Our plan was for Chris and I to meet at the port in Newhaven, we’d then catch the ferry to Dieppe, head south for as long as we could where, at which point, we’d find somewhere to stay. The following day we’d head down to the south of France to a place called Champaganac-le-Vieux where we’d meet up with Chris’s brother-in-law, Phin. From there we’d meander around the French Alps and generally enjoy ourselves, and then we’d all head back to Old Blighty and home. With a plan as simple as that what could possibly go wrong?

Before I knew it the big day had arrived. With my bike fully loaded with camping equipment, and weighing in at about the same as a medium sized neutron star, I carefully piloted my trusty steed to Newhaven. This was where I made my first mistake, instead of trusting my instincts and turning into the port using the obvious road, I decided to read the signs. This completely threw me and before I knew it I was lost.

“You complete wanker” I muttered under my breath. I laughed as I imagined myself telling Chris that I had got lost on the way to Newhaven.

After a quick U-turn I made my way back to Newhaven carefully reading the signs as I went. When I got back to the turning right next to the port I stopped and read the sign ‘Newhaven Port, Freight and Coaches’. Not being freight or a coach I decided this was not my turning. I rode passed and before I knew it I was back out of Newhaven.

“Fuck!” I shouted in frustration.

Time was ticking on and I knew Chris would be sitting in the port wondering where I was. How incredibly embarrassing. I did another U-turn and made my way back to the port. This time the sign got my finger and I rode into the ‘freight and coaches’ road where I found Chris sitting patiently next to his bike looking about as cool as it’s possible for someone riding a BMW to look.

We quickly said our hello’s, waved our tickets at cubicle lady and made our way onto the ferry. Once on board I told Chris about getting lost on the way to Newhaven and not being able to find the turning. He looked at me with a slightly weird smile and said nothing; I got the distinct feeling that he didn’t believe me which was probably a good thing.

We found some seats, bought some food and then got some much needed sleep whilst the ferry made its way to Dieppe. Before the ferry docked we spent some time with the map discussing a rough route. It was interesting, even though our methods of navigating are different, they are compatible. I use a map to pick a string of small villages along my route then ask the GPS to take me to them one by one, I let the GPS decide on the exact route. Chris’s method is very similar but has more of an emphasis on the exact roads to take. Before we set off we shared a list of small villages that we would be passing through so if we got separated we’d just meet at the next village.

The day’s riding was simple and enjoyable. From Dieppe we made our way through Rouen, Evreux, Dreux, Chartres, Chateaudun and Blois finally settling for Chateauroux. For the most part, I just followed Chris. Interestingly, I noticed that my Garmin GPS wanted to take me on a very different route to Chris’s girly TomTom. After a full day’s riding we decided to set up camp in an Ibis Budget Hotel. After a few drinks at the local trucker’s bar we turned in for the night.

The following morning brought low, grey skies and fair dose of anticipated misery. We set off from Chateauroux nice and early and, with not too much in the way of mileage to cover, we made good time as we passed through Montlucon, Clermont-Ferrand and Issoire. We reached Phin’s place by early afternoon. Ideally placed in the small village of Champaganac-Le-Vieux in the Auvergne region, it was surrounded by luscious greenery and superb roads.

Chris opened the door to Phin’s place and disappeared inside whilst I patted my motorcycle and told her what a good girl she’d been. After a few minutes Chris and Phin joined me outside. Phin was a reasonably big chap with an incredibly relaxed demeanour which made him extremely easy to get along with. Looks wise, he was the image of Phil Mitchel from EastEnders. Hands were shaken and smiles exchanged. With introductions done, we chatted easily for some time over some much needed coffee and sustenance.

The rest of the day was spent swapping stories, getting to know each other and planning the trip. Phin knocked up some food on the BBQ which was washed down with a beer or two which all made for a very pleasant evening. When I mentioned that my Garmin GPS wanted to take me a very different route to Chris’s TomTom, Phin disappeared and came back smiling with his GPS. It was an old mobile phone with some prehistoric mapping software that hadn’t been updated for over a thousand years and no mobile connection. Rock and roll! This brought the topic nicely round to navigation. Sitting firmly at one end of the spectrum was me. I’d set a destination into the GPS and allow the GPS to guide me completely, at the other end of the spectrum was Phin; Phin chose the actual roads he travelled on and liked to retain control over both his route and his electronic gadgetry. Chris was somewhere in between.

Phin’s mount for the trip was an old Honda Africa Twin, a wonderful bike though it had seen better days. Instead of telling Phin how wonderful his bike was though, both Chris and I instantly jumped in with

“Is that a top box?”

Now, top-boxes are handy things but as far as street-cred goes, they’re a one-step solution to turning a bike from Kylie Minogue to Susan Boyle.

Whilst Chris and I stood there ripping the shit out of poor Phin he opened up his cavernous monstrosity and removed a crash helmet, a tool roll and a large lunchbox. It was massive! Neither Chris nor I admitted to even the slightest bit of envy, instead we continued with our tirade of abuse.

After an excellent night’s sleep, in what must be the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in, I felt not only ready for the day ahead, but excited by the anticipation. As I made my way down the stairs from my third floor room I passed an open window and noticed that the God of weather had shined on us once more. The sky was blue, the temperature was pleasant and, with a complete lack of wind, the beauty of Champaganac-Le-Vieux shouted through the still silence.

When I reached the second floor room I found Chris sleeping like a little baby girl. Being a devious little git I found it all but impossible to continue without commenting.

“You lazy bastard.” I said with a grin.

One eye opened, then closed, then

“Morning ugly.” Came his reply. It was alive!

When I arrived downstairs I found it deserted. I put the kettle on, went outside and looked over the bikes as it boiled. At that moment I heard Chris arrive in the living room.

“My bike’s fine but yours has been nicked.” I said.

Chris looked at me and smiled.

“Yeah, the thieving little bastards round here have taste, they wouldn’t be seen dead on a Honda.”

We spent the first part of the morning getting our bikes ready and discussing the plan. We all wrote down the day’s list of small villages, then spent the next twenty minutes swearing at our inability to plumb them into our GPS’s. The first day’s list was Le Puy, Chirols, Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, Saint-Martin-d’Ardéche, Séguret, Verdon Gorge and finally Castellane.

When I’d finished putting on all my motorcycling clobber I stepped outside to see Chris and Phin standing over the map looking very serious, they were discussing the exact route to Le Puy. I had set my GPS to avoid large roads and tolls so was happy to allow the GPS to guide me; however, if the chaps had a better route then I was game. After a few grunts and a nod of agreeance Chris turned round, looked over at me and said

“You going to be able to keep up on your little girl’s bike?” I sniggered in my helmet and waved my thumb in the air indicating my readiness, and with that we were off.

It was wonderful feeling the warm air gently brushing past us as we meandered through the tiny French country lanes. Phin was out front and doing a fine job of navigating and his speed was just about perfect. Almost every bend revealed a beautiful vista and before I knew it I was grinning like a Cheshire cat.

There was a lot of grinning over the following days; however, we also experienced our fair share of frustration, confusion and disbelief. The most memorable times; however, were the occasions when it seemed that heaven had fallen on the Earth and joined us for a night’s camping. We were very good at revelling in heaven, just not so good at finding it.

The biggest challenge of the trip by far was finding our way around. The combination of three different GPS types and three idiots resulted in some frustrating, though quite funny in hindsight, moments that we all look back on fondly.

One such instance involved a large roundabout somewhere in France. We’d been lost for most of the morning, we’d lost each other, we’d found each other and we were more determined than ever to get it right for once. We stopped on a giant roundabout, got our maps out and deliberated. We chose a destination, defined a route, agreed on a plan, double checked everything, mounted our steeds and set off. Chris was leading, I was in the middle and Phin took the rear. The first entry in our plan was to exit the roundabout using the 2nd exit. We successfully managed to pass the first, then to my shock and horror Chris continued past the second!

“Oh you fucking retard!” I hollered as I shook my head laughing. I took the second exit as agreed and followed my GPS, Phin followed me. The destination was only about an hour away and I had a wonderful time simply following the magenta line and enjoying the beautiful French scenery. When we arrived at the destination Phin and I found a café/bar on the main strip and took up residence. To this day I have no idea where Chris went but he didn’t arrive for about another half an hour. Obviously Phin and I ripped the shit out of him when he did eventually turn up but apparently it was all our fault. <grin>

Even with our meagre navigation skills we had no problem finding mountains to ride over. I’d been looking forward to our first mountain since getting invited on this trip and when the first one came into view I looked on in awe. I’d seen mountains before, in fact, I’d seen these mountains before in 2009 and 2012 but that didn’t detract from the sheer excitement I felt as we rode towards them. The closer we got the bigger they became; their growing size seemed to be directly linked to the intensity of the excitement I felt. As we started to climb the excitement was joined by a feeling of insignificance. My life was but a tiny spec of nothing when compared to the might of geology. The higher we went the more humble I felt until I was startled back to reality by a god almighty back fire from the bike.

“Bloody hell!” I exclaimed as I leant forward in the seat making sure I hadn’t crapped myself.

I took stock of my situation and soon realised that the bike wasn’t happy. I was in second gear with the throttle wide open and the bike was barely able to hold 20 mph. Accelerating out of each hair pin seemed to exert an inordinate amount of energy from my poor bike. The problem became more evident with every foot that my bike and I climbed. With my mind conjuring up images of my poor spark plugs drowning in the fuel heavy mixture, I thought it wouldn’t be long before I had to dismount and push. To my relief a lay-by appeared and the chaps rode in.

By the time I’d caught up with Chris and Phin they’d dismounted and were performing snow angels like little children in the not so appealing, grey snow.

“Why’s that bit of snow yellow?” I said pointing close to Chris’s head. He laughed and continued his girly flapping. He had a huge grin and looked completely contented.

Knowing Chris like I did, and seeing the devious glint in Phin’s eye, I knew what was coming next. I quickly looked around and found a good spot for the inevitable snowball fight but before I could reach the safety of my fort I was hit full on in the back of the head.

“Come on chaps, that wasn’t very sporting!” I shouted as I reached down for a good scoop of snow. I spun around just in time to see a large ball of snow heading my way, I just managed to duck in time and launched my half pounder in Chris’s direction narrowly missing him. We buggered around like children for about twenty minutes until we were all completely knackered.

With all the fun I’d completely forgotten to tell Chris and Phin about my bike’s altitude sickness. We managed to turn our steeds around in the muddy snow without falling off and set off again up the last part of the mountain. Luckily for me Chris seemed to be riding incredibly slowly and almost stopped every time a car came the other way. I just about managed to keep pace and when we rode into a lay-by at the top I breathed a sigh of relief, we’d made it, woohoo!

As I stood there at the top looking at the clouds, which seemed to be far lower and heavier than earlier in the day, Chris came over to me and revealed that he was petrified of heights and that he would be riding very slowly on the way down the mountain.

Poor Chris was obviously finding it difficult so I refrained from asking the obvious question “Why the bloody hell did we come to the Alps?”

On the way down we stuck to a slow speed and the inside track. Some parts of the trip down really were quite hair-raising; Chris gave those parts a very wide berth indeed. By the time we reached the bottom the sky had turned a very nasty shade of grey so we stopped and debated the merits of putting on our waterproofs.

Even under the heavy clouds it was actually quite warm and humid. The moment we stopped we started to sweat profusely and the thought of putting on yet another layer (especially one made of plastic) filled me with dread. I looked up ahead in our rough direction of travel and found the sky looking a little lighter, not much but just enough for me to decide against putting on my sexy, plastic all-in-one rain suit. Chris and Phin decided to put theirs on so I waited patiently listening to their grunting and the rustling of their plastic suits for the next ten minutes. Looking like complete knobs, they both turned around and gave me the thumbs up, we departed.

Inside of a minute I was regretting not putting my rain suit on as the clouds descended and joined us at just above sea level. It wasn’t really raining, more like pure, concentrated misery with a dash of despair for good measure. Just as I thought I was about to get proper wet the clouds lifted and the sun broke through to lift my mood. When we stopped to allow Chris and Phin to remove their plastics, I obviously looked down my nose at them from the dizzy heights of superiority and all was well with the world.

We continued on for another hour, had a nice lunch, then jumped back on the bikes and headed off towards whatever was to come next. As we left I noticed that the sky was getting darker and within twenty minutes it was looking incredibly threatening so we all stopped again and chatted about the chances of a downpour. Having made the right decision the last time I acted all superior and decided not to bother with girly waterproofs. Both Chris and Phin sheepishly put on their waterproofs as I laughed at them.

It wasn’t long before the heavens opened. The incredible force of the water falling from the sky drowned out the sarcasm that was inevitably coming from the chaps; however, I could sense the I told you so’s through my completely sodden, and now slightly pruney, nether region. As uncomfortable as I was, I refused to stop and instead pushed on feeling completely miserable and humiliated, not to mention saturated.

When we did eventually stop I avoided eye contact and offered both Chris and Phin a Snickers bar as a gesture of reconciliation. It wasn’t much but everything else I had was swollen with the huge amounts of water that had been absorbed.

For the rest of the day the sun shone and the temperature remained in the high twenties which was perfect for my sodden clothing and damp soul. By the time we found a camp site for the night I was completely dry and feeling better.

Our first mechanical challenge came in the form of a puncture. We’d all been contentedly meandering around some beautiful French roads when Chris and I noticed that Phin was not with us. We pulled into the first lay-by and waited. When, after about ten minutes, he still hadn’t turned up we decided that he’d either come off or blown up. Either way we had to go back and find him. When we found him he was at the side of the road examining his front tyre which was looking decidedly flat.

He wheeled his bike down a little dirt track away from the road and got to work. First was the removal of the wheel, then one bead of the tyre, then the inner tube. With the inner tube removed the problem became apparent; the inner tube had been pinched and had a small hole in it. This shouldn’t have been a problem; however, not one of us had a spare inner tube or a puncture repair kit, as such, we were up shit creek without a paddle. Bearing in mind that we had all done some serious motorcycle adventures in our time this complete lack of preparedness was jolly poor show and we reprimanded ourselves accordingly. It was decided that Phin would jump on the back of Chris’s bike and they would take the wheel to the nearest town which was luckily only about ten miles away. This sounded like a stupid idea when my bike was available so I gave my bike to Phin and Phin and Chris rode to town with the front wheel. I stayed and looked after Phin’s bike.

Forty minutes later they returned with the wheel all fixed and ready to be fitted back onto the bike. Lady luck had been on their side; they rode into the town and immediately stumbled across a motorcycle repair shop. When they were presented with Phin’s flat tyre they patched the inner tube and fitted it all back together. Perfic!

Phin rode very carefully for a while but was soon swooping around the mountain roads just like before. Later on that day we found ourselves on the most incredible road with no traffic but us. We got faster and faster and eventually found ourselves hurtling around the place pushing the limits of our abilities, bikes and tyres. I was out front with Chris behind and Phin at the rear. I had a pair of pretty new Metzler Tourance road tyres on my bike so was able to zip round the bends in complete confidence though I have to admit that I over cooked one of two of the bends causing my butt hole to do the ‘oh shit!’ dance more times than I care to admit.

Somehow both Chris and Phin, who were on well used knobblies, both managed to keep up although when we did eventually stop both said that they were really pushing the envelope. It takes a large pair of gonads to push a large and heavy bike round a bend at speed when both wheels are dressed in well used knobblies and I take my hat off to them both.

Food is a big part of a trip like this for all three of us so, as such, we stopped at a supermarket before our night of wild camping and stocked up. The lads bought sensible things like fruit, vegetables, tea bags, bread and that kind of stuff. I, on the other hand, bought three fillet steaks, a large pack of chocolate bars and a nice bottle of Merlot.

The plan was, once we reached our destination for the day, Cronat, we’d follow the Loire and try to find a nice concealed spot right next to the river to set up camp. After a few dead ends and a ride through some woods and a field or two we found exactly what we’d been looking for, and it was perfect. We managed to ride the bikes right up to the river’s edge where we found the Loire hugely swollen from the recent rains. Though silent, it ran fast, wide and deep and its sheer power made for a memorable sight.

Tents were duly unpacked and erected and before long Chris was eyeing up the river.

“What do you think would happen if I were to just jump in?” Chris said champing at the bit to cool off in the fast flowing water.

“You’d drown.” Phin said looking concerned.

I’m reasonably sure, like most people, that Chris has a sensible side; however, he also has a bonkers side and it gets bolder when presented with a large expanse of fast flowing water. Now, bonkers is good most of the time but when it could conclude with me having to perform mouth to mouth on a mate who foolishly drowned after hurling his body into a swollen river it’s not so good.

“To be honest mate, I really don’t think it’s a good idea.” I said being the voice of reason for once. “Seriously, I don’t want you to do that.”

Chris explained that he really needed to get in that water so we came up with a plan. We each had a reasonable amount of strapping to pack our stuff to our bikes and we decided that if we were to tie it all together that it would make a rope strong and long enough to allow Chris to have his swim. The straps were duly tied together and tested and with Chris tied to one end and me to the other (with Phin as backup) we slowly lowered an excited Chris into the torrent. With Chris half immersed, the current grabbed him and pulled hard but Phin and I managed to keep him from flowing downstream like a piece of worthless flotsam and watched on enviously as Chris enjoyed the swollen waters of the Loire.

After ten minutes or so we extracted Chris from the water and sat on the bank chatting easily about motorbikes, food and fire.

As the sun got lower in the sky, the mosquitoes made their presence felt. We made a fire just big enough to cook our dinner of fillet steak, fresh vegetables and a nice Merlot. Roughing it never tasted so good!

As we all sat there feeling contented after satisfying our gluttonous stomachs and moaning about the mosquitoes we noticed a strange noise. The noise got louder and louder until we found ourselves in the middle of a weird frog cacophony. It was one of those moments that will stick in my mind for many years to come. The sun was going down over the swollen but silent Loire, the camp fire was gently flickering away, the frogs were singing and the company was superb, as was the wine.

With the sun well and truly gone and the fire out we retreated into our tents. I slipped off whilst listening to the wonderful sound of the gently flowing water.

The noise of the water and the singing frogs had drowned out Phin’s snoring and the resulting night’s sleep left me feeling fresh and ready for whatever was coming next. I unzipped my tent and was presented with the wondrous site of the Loire in the morning mist. The mist hung low over the mighty river but the blue sky and sun gradually took over the higher you looked.

Once breakfast was over we set about lazily packing up our stuff. Tents were packed up, the fire was cleaned up and the area was scoured for rubbish. As we were about to get on our bikes I noticed a ‘none too happy chappy’ walking through the long grass towards us.

Being very aware that we were three scruffy looking bikers and that he was just one chap I did my best not to come across as intimidating. I smiled, held out my hand and said

“Bonjour Monsieur.”

He replied with a frown and said

“Blah blah blah blah blah, Gendarmerie. Blah blah blah. ”

Having exhausted my French with Bonjour Monsieur I found myself not knowing what else to say. I did; however, spot the inclusion of the word gendarmerie in his otherwise unintelligible sentence. Luckily at this point Chris came over and helped. It seemed we had left a gate open when we had ridden our bikes through the fields and he was, shall we say, most pissed off about it. Now, I say ‘we left the gate open’ but really I mean ‘I left the gate open’ as I was the last one to ride through. Having lived in the country for most of my life I’m fully aware of the importance of keeping gates closed; however, I’d committed the cardinal sin of wild camping and missed it.

“He wants us to leave now or he will call the police.” Chris said. That suited us perfectly so we jumped on our bikes and buggered off.

Once back on the road we stopped and had a bit of a laugh at my expense. I took it on the chin and made a mental note to try hard not to be such an idiot in the future.

All was well for a while as we headed north towards home. We were well within schedule for catching the ferry and zipping along nicely when Chris pulled off the road and stopped. He jumped off his bike and examined his rear tyre. After a few minutes of not finding anything we set off again but soon after we stopped again. When Chris checked his rear tyre he found it completely flat with a large piece of metal poking out of it. Chris concluded with

“Bloody hell”

Phin and I agreed wholeheartedly and watched as Chris removed his wheel. Once removed Chris stayed with his bike and Phin and I took the wheel to the local village in the hope that we’d stumble across a garage that could fix it. There were two garages in the village but none of them could help. The huge void between the amount of French we knew and the amount required to get a tyre fixed became apparent when we had to resort to pointing to the rather large hole in the tyre and saying “grande merde”.

After not having any luck in the first village we decided to ride to our closest large(ish) town. At first it looked like we were out of luck but one of the garages took responsibility for the problem and drove the wheel to a mate of his. Unfortunately after half an hour he returned without success. Phin did his level best to tell the chap that there was an inner tube in the tyre and if he could patch it all would be well. I’m not sure if he understood but he took the tyre into his garage and set about working on it. The first task was getting the piece of metal out of the tyre. He grabbed the end with some pliers and pulled, to my amazement he pulled out a four inch piece of metal that looked like some kind of large industrial key.

“Bloody hell” I said looking at Phin. Phin responded with “Bloody hell”.

The inner tube was removed and duly patched as per Phin’s request. The chap put a bit of hard plastic between the tube and the tyre to cover the exposed part of the tube as the hole in the tyre was quite a size. Soon enough it was all back together and pumped up. Luckily it seemed to hold perfectly.

When we finally got back to Chris two hours had passed. We gave him the piece of metal that had been removed from his tyre; needless to say he was astounded by its size and said

“Bloody hell”

With time ticking away and the ferry departure looming ever closer the wheel was quickly put back on and we continued our journey. With no further delays or incidents we just about made the ferry. We ate and slept our way back to Newhaven then, once docked, we rode our bikes out of the belly of the ferry and said our farewells. It was sad but we all got on well and enjoyed each other’s company and, as such, I’m sure we’ll be doing something again soon.

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