I know plenty of people will suck their teeth, shake their heads and disapprove, but I’ve just been to France. To see if safe touring is possible with the Covid restrictions in place.
I understand those who think I shouldn’t have gone, but this was not something I did lightly. However, over the past few weeks I have spoken with several friends who live there, including one who recently organised a media event in the Alps, and all of them said the same thing: it’s safe; there’s nobody here; the businesses want to see you.
I still spent weeks mulling it over but, pessimistically, I wanted to find out whether European touring would be possible if similar restrictions are still in place next summer. My conclusion is that, yes, it will be possible if you take care to keep yourself safe – and I have to say that most of the time I felt safer (from a Covid point of view) in France than on any trip to a town centre in the UK recently.
I began with the standard run down to the Eurotunnel: on the road at 5:45am to get an early train. There’s only one an hour, now, so I didn’t want to risk missing it. The huge queue of lorries leading into the terminal from the M20 wasn’t exactly encouraging, but in fact the trip was smooth, simple, with only a handful of bikes – all spaced out – within the last carriage. Face coverings on at all times. I have hand-sanitizer in my tankbag and use it before putting my gloves on as we all prepare to disembark.
I have limited time so, after years of working out interesting ways to cross France, I’m just sitting on the motorway today: I want to get to the mountains tonight, so I’ll sacrifice a day (and €30) to the Peage to get south fast. This also means buying expensive motorway fuel and food, but staff are behind screens, punters wear masks and there are good outdoor picnic areas to stay away from everyone (apart from the pleasant British GS owner who stops for a chat).
I overnight in the foothills of the Jura, in a hotel I’ve used before. I had considered camping, to stay even more away from other people, but I like a shower at the end of a hot day and decided I have more faith in hotels sanitizing things properly than what might be going on at a communal shower block at a municipal campground. Staff are all masked and other guests wear masks all the time; it’s not like going to a pub in the UK.
Next morning I set out in search of higher things. It’s bright, hazy, the roads are quiet… Sorry, the roads here are always quiet. Today they’re deserted. Once I’m clear of town, I don’t see another vehicle for half an hour. I wind my way through the lower edge of the Jura, across the rolling hills of the Ain and over Col du Chat, with its spectacular views across Lake Bourget to Aix le Bains. There are a few more people here, but everyone keeps their distance.
I hop on main N201, which becomes the (toll-free) A43 to bypass Chambrey, striking out across the Chartreuse mountains. I’d bought lunch in a supermarket (shopping experience: again, more masks and social distance than in the Tesco in Newmarket) so find a quiet, shady layby to eat in, away from other people. So far, so anti-social…
I jink away from Grenoble – I ordered the Crit’Air sticker for the bike, but it didn’t arrive – and head through Voiron and into the Vercors. The plan for this afternoon is to do a bit of filming on the balcony roads. Things don’t go quite according to plan, though. I film the first (more impressive) bit of the Gorge du Nan, take a quick snap on the phone, then realise it’s low on charge. No bother: my brand-new Honda CrossTourer has a 12v socket; I can just charge the phone from there.
Seven miles later, as I roll off for a turn, the bike dies. What? Key off, key on… fires up again. But when I blip the throttle, the engine-management light shines balefully orange, going off again at idle. This isn’t good. It’s mostly downhill, so I set off nervously, coasting as much as possible – and not filming the marvellous Presles road. The bike cuts out twice more before I reach Pont en Royans, where I park up and panic a bit.
Essentially, rather than riding / filming Col de la Machine in glorious isolation, I spend three and a half hours in a café while the AA (on behalf of the Honda breakdown that comes with a new bike) arrange complicated recovery strategies. Eventually, I get to my overnight stop at the Hotel de Col de la Machine – in a taxi. Next day, I go back to the garage that collected the bike, which is transferred to a different recovery van, and we go to Valence – where the excellent Chave Moto team replace the battery and reassure me. By 11am, I’m ready to ride again (though I don’t use the 12v socket again).
This was where my plan of avoiding people fell apart: so it’s clear that, whatever your intentions, problems on a trip will make it harder to isolate yourself from locals. Still, everyone I met was good about social distance, they all wore masks, and I was sanitising my hands after touching everything.
Back in Valence, I decide to make up time with motorways. I jump on the A7 towards Orange, peeling off to Carpentras and Malaucene – to ride Mont Ventoux. The only trouble is, it’s shut at the top. Well, not the only problem: I go up anyway (maybe I can sneak through, I think) but the weather turns as I get to the Mont Serin ski centre, just below the summit, and it starts chucking it down.
I beat a hasty, inelegant retreat – dodging the many cyclists still flogging themselves up and down the famous climb. The surface is patched, worn and has all the feel of a wet ice cube. Provençe is much nicer when it’s dry, hot and grippy… and that’s how it is as I dash cross-country past fields of recently harvested lavender like giant rolls of grey-green corduroy. If I’d been a few weeks earlier, they would have been a sea of purple…
The sun comes out as I get to Lake St Croix, but there are people milling about in crowds so I don’t stop. I pause in Aiguines to set up the camera (accidentally setting it to time-lapse) and film the next leg of the ride: the Gorges du Verdon. I’m doing only the southern side, which for me is the most rewarding and most impressive. It’s fantastic but much quieter than I’ve ever seen it before. I finish filming by the café at the Balcon de Mescla, but it’s shut so I just hurry on to my overnight stop in Castellane.
The next day is very much a jaunt along memory lane: so many of my favourite roads, packed into a single day. I could easily wax lyrical enough to do a separate blog post just on this day as there’s so much amazing, memorable riding packed into it. Rather than take the D955 (good as it is) I head north on the most dramatic stretch of Route Napoleon, picking up the majestic N202 at Barreme to head into the mountains.
It feels unnaturally quiet. I am on the road early and there’s a chill, hazy mist in places, but I’ve never seen so little traffic on Route Napoleon – not even a handful of other vehicles – and I see just one car going the other direction on a roughly 30 miles run of the N202. My friend George had told me “The mountains are empty” and he wasn’t kidding.
From the N202 I head up to Guillaumes, through the incredible Gorge de Daluis. I pick up the Route des Grandes Alpes to Valberg and Beuil, but rather than the super-rough Col de la Couillole, I head down the Gorges du Cians and the amazing D6202 (the extension of the N202), before swinging left towards St Sauveur and Col de la Bonette.
This is an amazing road – one of my absolute favourites. I remember, the first time I rode it, wondering why nobody had ever told me roads could be this good. My ride up is amazing, with just a single car to overtake. I’ve never seen this pass so empty in 15 years of regular visits.
That's good, as it's been clear ever since I got to the Jura that my hairpin game is weak – must be lack of practice. I make a serious effort to get back into things: hold out late, turn the head, weight the outside peg, get a bead on that nice, late apex, then turn hard and drive... I am finding the gearing on the CrossTourer doesn't actually lend itself to the tighter hairpins: second is a bit chuggy, but first is too breathless. I know my Z1000SX would have devoured them, with its tall first gear... but the firmer suspension would probably have rattled my teeth out on some of the bumpier roads, while the CrossTourer floated comfortably across them.
The pass of Col de la Bonette is a lofty 2715m – but it’s not the highest pass in the Alps. There's a loop of tarmac around the peak – above pass – that's called Cime de la Bonette and that really is France’s highest road at 2802m. I swing up there to get a photo, but there are too many people and not enough masks: half-a-dozen motorcyclists, a cyclist and some people from UK-plated 4x4s. This is pretty much the quietest I’ve ever seen it, but I carry on and grab a pic by the small lake lower down. It’s only when I get to the bottom that I remember I was supposed to film the climb. Oh well.
I stick with the Route des Grandes Alpes for the rest of the day: the wonderful, flowing Col de Vars, the gorge beside the River Guil, the stunning Col d’Izoard (my favourite both visually and to ride), across Briançon and up Col de Lautaret to Col du Galibier, through Valloire and down over Col du Telegraphe, then along the D1006 that runs parallel to the A43, to my overnight stop in Modane.
Next morning I head over the actual highest pass in the Alps, the 2770m Col de l’Iseran. It’s bumpier than I remember, the top slightly stuck in the early morning cloud. I grab a picture by the famous sign – the first time I’ve ever been the only person there, so I have to do a selfie – and head down a few turns, out of the cloud, to video the descent to Val d’Isere (even though that means going through another cloud).
Again, I’m slightly spooked by just how deserted the roads are. I’ve never seen the mountains so empty. I stop at the rather swanky Spar in Val d’Isere and buy stuff for lunch, then head down to Bourg St Maurice – a great ride punctuated by terrible roadworks that at least create the illusion of traffic, but despite the five-minute wait for the lights there are less than a dozen bikes here. On one of the most famous, popular passes…
A lot of bikers head from Seez over Col du Petit St Bernard to Italy and from there over Col du Grand St Bernard to Switzerland… which I’d have liked to do, but I’m keeping things simple and visiting only one country. So instead I’m staying on the Route des Grandes Alpes over Cormet Roselend, with its stunning lake – and a huge detour to get to Belfort – and over the fabulous Col des Aravis.
From there I peel off towards Annecy, skirting the city and heading for Bellgarde – I route I’ve done a couple of times in the other direction. For the first time it feels like there’s traffic and what’s normally a good, relaxed ride feels like a bit of a slog – especially after a day and a half of empty roads. The run to Gex is particularly congested but the traffic melts away once I get out on Col de la Faucille, carrying on all the way to my overnight stop in the Doubs.
My final day is a long one – not just because I'm coming from a long way south but also because I'm not going to do the whole slog on the motorway. Instead I have a long but pleasant ride on a mix of D and N roads – some dual carriageways, but not too many. I cut past Reims through the heart of the champagne vineyards, stopping at the old GP buildings by the D27 at Gueux, before finally joining the motorway at Laon.
The tunnel trip back is quick and suitably socially distanced, but then the tough bit: the ride back from Folkestone. Why can nobody drive in the correct lane on British motorways? I get to the Dartford crossing to find the tunnels both closed… but fortunately it's just a 10 minute wait. I finally get home shortly after 9pm.
And now I’m here for 14 days of quarantine
So was it worth it? Yes – absolutely. Not because I got to ride the Alps on my new bike and not because the roads were so quiet it felt like getting a private viewing, but because I saw for myself what my friends in France and Switzerland had been telling me: it is possible to tour in a way that is every bit as Covid-safe as going to another part of the UK. Frankly, people seemed better at social distancing, everyone wore masks and I felt safer than I have in plenty of places in England.
It was worth it because it makes me believe touring will be possible next year, no matter what happens… even though a cynical part of me wondered if this would be the last chance to do it. Now I’m sure, it won’t be. Next year, maybe you can enjoy it too…