If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Mid-Range Touring, Part 4

From regular commenter Endemoniada_88. Parts One, Two and Three posted previously. If this is new to you, work back; it's a good read.

8: Day 6, Genova to Frejus

It doesn't start brilliantly: as a handy travel tip, always avoid places beginning with "Gen". As in Geneva, Genova is a massive gridlock: this time with the added hazard of kamikaze scooterists all over the place. We fight through it in 30+ degree temperatures, then gratefully pull over at Arenzano to sit on the beach for a while. Paul partially baptises himself in the Ligurian Sea while the rest of us stay in the shade and buy cold drinks.

The Italian Riviera is undeniably beautiful, but it is slow going. There are more towns and speed limits than I remember – there again, last time I went through it was one February, years back, in a camper van. We're unlucky enough to pick up a cop car, too and, like police everywhere they're up for playing the game. Bang on the speed limit and sticking to the centre line for mile after mile, just waiting for someone to try an overtake. He looks set to go all the way to France, but we manage to get past him in a queue of stationary traffic in one of the towns and pull away sharpish as soon as his view of us is obscured.

Today's main tourist destination is Monaco, where Mike B wants to ride around the F1 track hairpin. To make some time up, we get off the coast road and on to the A8 péage around Imperia, then drop into the principality. It doesn't look all that wealthy on the outskirts, and the road in has some fearsomely tight downhill turns that eventually drop us into a traffic jam composed almost entirely of really expensive cars. We immediately get lost and separated, Steve and Paul ending up at one side of the harbour and the rest of us at the other, separated by the famous Tunnel.

It takes a while to regroup and get back to the top, by which time the air temperature is steady at an oppressive 37C. We ride as much of the track as we can, from the hairpin to the harbour, before pulling up to get a drink and admire the boats. At 6 euros per orange juice, though, we don't stay all that long.

Getting out of Monaco is easier than getting in: there's some sort of underground one-way interchange thing that leads directly to the main roads. Steve follows the green sign, as per the Italian autostradas we've been using: it then takes us a while to correct that and pick up the blue-posted French péage. It's an easy run, though and that stretch of the A8 down to Frejus is a beautiful piece of road, all wide, sweeping and superfast curves. If only all motorways were built the same.

It's a fair hike to find some food that evening, walking somewhat nervously alongside the A8 towards an industrial centre. There's a picture-perfect sunset to enjoy, however and – for the petrolheads – Frejus seems to be lined with every car dealership imaginable. The walk back, after a fairly average steak at a Buffalo franchise, is punctuated by our disbelief at the local scooter riders who seem to think lights should be optional on a motorway at night. It's almost too hot to sleep when we get back, but we manage.

9: Day 7, Frejus to Montpellier

It might be a spoiler, but this, without doubt, is the best biking day I have ever enjoyed ... amongst a pretty wide spread of possible candidates. The straight road is a diminutive 160-mile autoroute, but we put in a loop around to visit the Millau Viaduc via some cross-country twisties.

The first section, as far as Nimes, is péage all the way. Pretty, fast, but nothing to really write home about. We turn north-west towards Alès and just beyond there find a roadside place to stop for lunch. The barman shrugs in very Gallic fashion over food, hands us some baguettes, ham and cheese and leaves us to make our own sandwiches. Steve and Mike B do a sterling job with the raw materials but inexplicably balk at any idea they should take up catering for the rest of us full-time.

Heading on into the Cevennes National Parc, there's a long, swooping climb through some smooth and fast roads that we make the most of, before we find ourselves in the area of the Gorges du Tarn and some of the most truly sublime roads ever built. It's a sequence of river valleys, bounded by rock walls, with the road looping and twisting along the course, occasionally passing through small tunnels bored into the larger outcrops. The view is incredible, the traffic scarce and the villages widely scattered.

Early on, a local making implausibly-fast progress in a Transit pulling a large trailer pulls over to let us past and we seize the opportunity with gusto. The next 30 miles or so are a blur of astonishingly rideable switchbacks and open hairpins where even the bumps and grassy, gravelled edges of the road seem to give grip and drive. It's just one long adrenaline rush. One brief pause for a small town. Then the same again for another 20 miles or so. The VFR stayed in second and third almost the entire way, V-TEC open and howling with me clambering about on it like someone who has forgotten they're in full touring kit with hard luggage onboard (... largely because I had forgotten ... !). When we finally stop and take stock, we're all grinning like pumpkins and wanting another go. Awesome beyond words, the Route de Florac and Route de Gorges du Tarn.

From there, it's a fairly short, steep drop into the town of Millau. It's not as dominated by the Viaduc as one might expect – that's further up the Tarn valley – nor a particularly obvious tourist trap. We stop for drinks and to unwind after the recent fast miles before going in search of photo opportunities. There's a spot at the far end of town where you can look up at the Viaduc, so we go there first and get some pictures. Then, following the directions given us in the Visitor Information Centre, we head for Montpellier. That quickly turns out to be the wrong way: to go across the Viaduc itself, we need to head back towards Clermont-Ferrand and drop south on to the A75. In doing so, we get our first real idea of the true scale of it - it doesn't look that massive from below, but overlooking it from the top of the hills, it is absolutely enormous. And beautiful with it, both as an exercise in engineering and in design.

I ride over slowly, marvelling at the sheer size of the cables and pillars rising above the roadway. Paul hammers across so he can legitimately claim to have crossed it at over a ton. It's that kind of a place: it simply demands some kind of a response out of the ordinary.

To finish the day off in style, the A75 turns out to be a proper road. It plunges dramatically down the mountains, through a fast, fast tunnel and into a sweeping set of downhill hairpins that wouldn't look out of place back in the river valleys. It is a two-lane motorway, though, so they can be taken at easily twice that pace. It's a breathless, exciting run that ends when we sweep on the A750 and some semblance of sedateness takes over for the last gentle push into Montpellier.

Now, that was a day.

Next: getting in the way of a funeral, a small but harmless crash, and a crossing of the infamous Col du Tourmalet.

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