August 20th, 2014
In Search of a Tunnel in the Sky
Photography: Antton Miettinen
Some rides that you take on are safe and predictable: you count the lamp-posts, switch off your brain and think about what you’ll have for lunch… but that isn’t the Gran Fondo way. Sometimes, you just have to strike out for the unknown and, if you bite off more than you can chew, just roll with it.
We went searching for a mythical tunnel up a mud-and-gravel track in the Alps after a snowstorm… and maybe bit off more than we could chew. But we learned a few Gran Fondo dos and don’ts in the process…
DO something out of the ordinary: set a goal and think big!
We wanted to see the tunnel, that beautiful, painstaking brick construction marooned in nothing at 2,637m (8,700ft) at the top of the Col du Parpaillon. It was constructed by the French military in 1891 to facilitate the movement of troops guarding the border with Italy. But the invasion never came, and the Col de Vars, 500m lower, was a more convenient pass between the same two valleys and the Parpaillon fell into disuse.
We only had road bikes, but old French ‘cyclotouristes’ had told us that it was passable. So we planned a route that would take us over the Parpaillon, through the iron doors of the tunnel into the icy darkness then down the to the foot of the Col de Vars and back again.
DO check the weather… and your legs
The day before the Parpaillon we decided to climb the other side of the valley, just to test our legs. That way lay the ‘Cime’ de la Bonette, a ‘Peak’ loop at the top of a col that, at 2,802m, is claimed to be the highest paved road in the Alps.
The weather forecast for the week predicted rain in the afternoons, and when we set off mid morning, clouds were already massing. With around 8km to go of the 24km climb it began to rain fitfully and soon we were climbing into the clouds, past huge white walls of snow to our left and swirling mist to our right. At the top, a taster of things to come: though the pass had been cleared the loop was still snowbound, and in freezing cloud so we had to turn back. The storm broke as we descended and we arrived shivering wet into the village where we ate pizza and drank hot chocolate. Conclusion: our legs were working, but would the weather smile on us?
DO be optimistic, and keep going against the odds.
The next day dawned cloudy, and thanks to the storms the mountains had a fresh covering of snow, but as we headed up the valley towards the Parpaillon a weak sun began to shine. As we turned off, a sign warned that the tunnel was closed, but we were committed to the adventure and ignored it. The Tarmac became a dirt track in the woods, steep and stony through the pines; after a few kilometres of tightly pinned switchbacks it unexpectedly opened out into a stunning, green glacial valley guarded by a hiker’s refuge and a small stream. Ahead, the path narrowed and climbed steadily up, as the brightness of the Alpine meadows shaded into white.
At about 2,300m the fresh snow began to impinge on the track, which had become a muddy meltwater stream tacking up the valley side. Mud stuck to the tyres, fork and brakes, making every turn of the pedals a huge effort whose reward was only a few centimetres progress, dizziness and a darkening of vision from the exertion at altitude. At about 2,400m there were wolf tracks in the snow that now covered the path, and were forced to dismount definitively, pushing our bikes towards the top of the col like the racers in the earliest days of the Tour.
DON’T worry if things don’t turn out as planned
With only the final switchback before the broad upper valley and the tunnel, the clouds rolled in around us and it began to snow gently. We had known the iron tunnel doors were probably shut, but for an hour or two we had believed we would see its mouth. Now we realised we would, for the second time in two days, be descending the same road we climbed.
The next day, we went out in blazing sunshine for one final ride. First up the 17.3km-long Col d’Allos for some some stunning views of the Ubaye, and then the shorter climb to Pra Loup, where in the 1975 Tour Eddy “The Cannibal” Merckx famously cracked and his 6-year reign of total domination over his rivals ended for good.
Did it matter to us that we didn’t make it all the way round? Not really. Because, in the spirit of Gran Fondo adventuring, it really was all about the journey, not about the destination. And sometimes it’s only when things are all going wrong that you know they’re going right.
Tell us about your adventures – we’ll post the best stories and picture on our Gran Fondo Testimonies page. Go Fondo!