Max Leonard is a long-time friend of Pannier and the creative director of Isola Press, behind Rough Stuff Cycling in the Alps and the Rough-Stuff Fellowship Archive. He is also the author of Bunker Research and other books on cycling. This extract is taken from the first chapter of HIGHER CALLING (Yellow Jersey, UK, 2017 / Pegasus, US, 2018) — an exploration of road cycling in the mountains, and what pushes us to ride very slowly uphill.
Settle in for the ride…
I am drinking a coffee made for me in a Ricard glass by a man called Didier, and we are higher than the sun. I would go so far as to say nobody drinking coffee in Europe is higher than us right now. It is just past eight o’clock in the morning and we are in a blue portacabin – HQ, lunchroom, sanctuary when the 100 km/h winds blow and the unpredictable blizzards come – placed slap bang in the middle of a road near a mountain peak north of Nice. To the south the road slopes downhill all the way to the Mediterranean Sea 115 kilometres away, and below us the surface is already warm in the morning light, but the asphalt here is covered by sheet ice. Behind us is a wall of snow some two or three metres high that — temporarily at least — forces a dead end, and to our left a narrow gap in the rocky ridge, where the road passes over the Col de la Bonette and down towards the Ubaye valley to the north.
On the picnic table in front of Didier are more Ricard glasses, Nestlé powdered instant coffee presented for our delectation in sugar-style sachets, and some actual sugar. He is leaning on a worktop with a small kitchen sink, and a gas bottle underneath it; to one side, a 25-litre plastic jerrycan half full with water, from which Didier earlier filled a saucepan to set on the stove for coffee.
It had taken a long time to heat. We’re at 2,715 metres and although that means water will boil at lower temperatures (around 90°C at these heights), the altitude means the gas pressure is low and the stove’s flame weak. There is barely any air up here, and Didier’s colleague, Éric, is currently making sure there is less: he is slouched against the doorway watching, through sports sunglasses, the sheet ice melt at the bottom of the portacabin steps while he rolls a cigarette, one of many high-altitude gaspers he will smoke today. Aurelien, a young man with a deep tan and an air of perpetual surprise thanks to the white circles around his eyes, the negative image of the sports sunglasses he habitually wears, is outside taking his work boots and an avalanche transceiver from the back of a Citroën Berlingo 4 x 4, which is decked out in the jaunty white and yellow livery of the local authority’s roads department. It is Wednesday 20 April and they have already been working for almost three weeks.
We drink our coffees, chat; then, once Éric finishes his cigarette, we walk out into the glare without bothering to lock the cabin (there’s nobody around for miles) and drive off to clear snow from the roof of Europe…
“…many of the roads that are central to cycling’s mystique – Galibier, Croix de Fer, Tourmalet, Aubisque, Stelvio, Gavia – exist on the very margins of reality … out of sight, but not out of mind”
It is an obvious and yet rarely considered fact that many of the roads that are central to cycling’s mystique exist on the very margins of reality. They are places that can be said only properly to be there for four or five months of the year. In Europe’s high mountains, if a climb doesn’t lead somewhere important, like a ski resort, then most of the time, typically between early October and late May, it is shut. It is often covered with snow: at best, a lazy blue run; at worst, buried without a trace. Galibier, Croix de Fer, Tourmalet, Aubisque, Stelvio, Gavia: out of sight, but not out of mind — their names live on in our memories of the races we have watched and the rides we have done, or in our daydreams of sunny days to come.
In the summer, they are alive, busy with cyclists, hikers, motorbikes and even coach parties. Then, towards the end of each year, they revert from being a cyclist’s torture chamber or paradise (delete as applicable) back to the harsh, untamed wilderness they otherwise are. And then, at the start of each following year, they need to be dug out so that we can enjoy them again. The responsibility for that lies with municipal authorities and so, propelled by an obscure conviction that significant things must happen there when cyclists were not around, I sought permission to go up the Bonette with the road-clearing crew. That meant arranging a meeting with Aurélien, Didier, Bernard (we’ll come to Bernard later) and Éric’s boss. His office was at the municipal depot in Saint Étienne de Tinée, the pretty village at the southern foot of Bonette. There, above the garages housing the salting lorries and the snowploughs, subdivision head Jean-Marie-André Fabron (soft pinstriped red shirt with the sleeves rolled up, three buttons loose, gold necklace not quite big enough to be termed a medallion nestling in a bed of grey chest hair), who talked me through the work and explained the schedule: that the département administration was obliged to secure the Bonette road as far as the little hamlet of Bousiéyas by 20 April, so people could get back into their houses and check what damage had occurred over the winter, and that was when they would begin the snow-clearing work in earnest; given good weather they should be hitting the top of the col around 20 days after that; and, since the local authority on the other side didn’t have much money, the annual agreement was for the southern crew to then head down the northern road and clear that, even though it wasn’t really in their jurisdiction. If the other side was not, strictly speaking, their responsibility, it was definitely in their interest: once the road opens, Jean-Marie said, the cyclists, motorcyclists and hikers come — 100 to 120,000 motor vehicles in the four peak months of summer — and the economy in both valleys is boosted by 25 per cent. On top of that, I thought, it must get boring living at the end of a col-de-sac, mustn’t it? For seven months a year only to have one route to the outside world. To be able to turn left as well as right, and go to Jausiers for your shopping instead of Nice; that must be nice for locals too.
Jean-Marie’s office was finished in light varnished slatted wood, in a ski chalet style, though the cheap lino floors and ringing telephones were a reminder of the council business at hand. On the walls were maps of the region and a few small photos of himself and others at the top of the mountain, dwarfed between white walls of snow, with huge road-clearing machinery behind them. He showed me more photos on his computer: guys in sports sunglasses and big coats with thermos cups in hand, posing smiling year after year behind the diggers, as if the magic of the thing, of the journey through the wardrobe to Narnia, never quite wore off. It looked like quite a party. And the mountain man in him bristled when I cautiously inquired whether it was — although clearly good fun — risky in any way, shape or form. ‘Not dangerous!’ he scoffed, took stock a second, and finished up: ‘Bon. There is still that sheer weight of snow . . .’
Jean-Marie was the boss of the whole of the Tinée valley, named after the tiny river that wells up just under the summit of the mountain and which runs 75 kilometres down to join the Var river not far from Nice. His beat included five ski stations, 14 villages and at least one other high mountain pass. But it all paled in front of the Bonette: ‘Bonette is a special mission,’ he said. ‘For me, for my teams of guys . . . it’s a source of pride for us to do it.’ Even in summer he sent a road-sweeping lorry up there almost every day. From Saint Étienne’s position of relative shelter at 1,100 metres you could never quite know what the weather was doing up there, and the friable rocks at the top were prone to rockfalls or even landslides in freak summer storms. ‘We don’t want cyclists hitting stones,’ he said.
Once I explained what I wanted to do, Jean-Marie was almost extravagantly unconcerned about letting me loose in the pristine wildernesses above, with the avalanches and the ice sheets and all that heavy machinery. But this was October. I wouldn’t be able to hitch a lift on a snowplough until April or May next. Jean-Marie said he’d drop me a line when the work was in progress, and I left. The Col de la Bonette closed just a couple of days after my visit, on 13 October.
“Bonette is a special mission … For me, for my teams of guys . . . it’s a source of pride for us to clear and look after it”
“It’s great that people can come to these mythical high cols to watch the riders pass. If not, what’s the use? All the interest is lost.”
The journey to the blue portacabin started the following 20 April at sparrow’s-fart o’clock in Saint Étienne. The previous Friday, the road-clearing crew had reached and passed the col in their machines, and they were already engaged on the descent. We had travelled from Nice in the dead of night to catch them before their drive up the mountain and I was keen to know why they were so far along so early in the year. The first of the crew to arrive, Bernard, was no help. He was unsure of who we were, how the work was progressing, what would be happening for the rest of the day, or, equally possibly it seemed, how he had arrived at that place, at that time, why he was not in his bed. He seemed cheerful about it all, however, and in that moment, fresh from a late flight from the UK, a 4 a.m. alarm bell and two shots of bad black coffee, I envied him his eternal present and the equanimity — nay, dry humour — with which he was able to confront all things that crossed his path.
Aurélien arrived on a mountain bike, then Didier, and then Éric, and the situation became clearer: it was because of the Giro d’Italia. By lucky coincidence (both for my snowblowing visit and, it would turn out, my whole book), it had been announced only a week before my visit to Jean-Marie that the 2016 Giro would be passing over the Col de la Bonette. It was the first time the Giro was to cross the Bonette, and it was to take place on 28 May, the penultimate stage before the grand finale in Turin. The race would enter France the day before, and having overnighted in Risoul to the north, would climb the 2,111-metre Col de Vars before attacking the 24-kilometre climb of the Bonette from Jausiers. Then it would head down the other side and take a left turn at Isola, where the riders would face another 20 kilometres or so of uphill — through Isola 2000, a ski resort, and over the 2,350-metre Col de la Lombarde. There, it would re-enter its homeland and continue via a short, technical descent and a steep uphill to the finish line at the holy shrine of Sant’Anna di Vinadio.
That opened up some interesting prospects.
Most excitingly, it might very well happen that these French climbs — the Vars, the Bonette and the Lombarde — would prove decisive in the battle for the overall leader’s pink jersey (the maglia rosa) or the mountains classification jersey (currently a very Italian shade of blue). Equally, they might very well not. It was also totally possible that the Italian favourite, Vincenzo ‘The Shark’ Nibali, or another contender could have built an unassailable lead in the nineteen stages before then. However, given that the Giro’s last day is traditionally just a celebratory procession (and in this particular edition’s case, almost all downhill), the Bonette stage would be the last chance for any real racing. This would be the last place any of the climbers would be able to show themselves or make their mark on the race. I could already imagine hordes of thin-limbed cyclists hurling themselves in a sort of reverse-lemming manoeuvre at the flanks of these formidable mountains in a kamikaze final lunge for glory, victory or self-immolation on the bonfire of best-laid plans and dashed hopes. Either way, it was certain that my favourite corner of the Alps, one that seemed often criminally overlooked by the big races, would be the scene of a right rip-roaring Grand Tour battle.
Or was it?
The thing about the Giro is that the weather can be, well, interesting. Italy is a long, thin place, and while the south can be sweltering, even in May, the north can offer an entirely different climate. One of the reasons sometimes proffered for why the Tour de France is a bigger and more prestigious race than the Giro (aside from its seniority and that branding thing the French do) is that the Tour de France occupies a prime position in July. There is a logic to this: people are on holiday, the sun is reliably shining almost everywhere in France, and consequently the race has a laissez-passerto go anywhere: the highest, most picturesque climbs and the most breathtaking roads in France. The whole thing screams summer and good times. The Giro’s position in May makes all that less certain, and the race has often famously run into difficulties in the high mountains. Think, for example, of the celebrated pictures of Andy Hampsten climbing the Passo di Gavia in a blizzard in 1988. That year, in preparation for the stage, the 7-Eleven team riders covered themselves from head to foot in lanolin and team soigneursraided the local ski shops to keep their riders warm. Or, more recently, the Passo dello Stelvio, the Giro’s iconic climb close to the Gavia in the Ortler Alps: in 2014 it was the scene of some confusion when, in a freezing, dank, near-whiteout, the racing on Stelvio’s long, looped-spaghetti descent was neutralised, on safety grounds. And then it wasn’t. Or maybe it was. Whatever the race orders (it is still not 100 per cent clear what actually happened), the Colombian Nairo Quintana raced down the hill regardless, winning the stage and putting himself in the maglia rosa– which he would eventually win.
You’ve spotted the flaw in this line of thinking, haven’t you. The Bonette is clearly not in Italy. It is very near Italy, yes, but it’s also pretty near the Côte d’Azur and should be more blessed by sun than the Italian Alps to the east, where the climate is much more Mitteleuropean. Nevertheless, the basic point remains. Any high European climb can be hit by bad weather in any season and there is always an element of playing chicken with the forecasts. But the bottom line is, taking a race over 2,000 metres in May is definitely a more risky business than in July, and the 2016 Giro wasn’t planning to do it just once, but 10 times. (By contrast, the always more conservative Tour was programming four 2,000-metre-plus highs in 2016.)
The decision to include these two climbs — the Bonette and the Lombarde — on Jean-Marie Fabron’s turf was surely the result of a detailed feasibility study, risk assessment, long consultation with stakeholders and serious high-level debate. Non?
‘I’ve no idea whose initiative it was . . . so far I’ve only heard about it in the newspaper,’ Jean-Marie told me that day we met.
Bonette can suffer serious snowfall and is not reliably open until May, so the decision not to consult the man in charge seemed, from the vantage point of his office at least, slightly flawed. The previous winter there hadn’t been much snow, so the road had opened on 11 May. The year before that, however, had been a snowy one, and it hadn’t happened until 31 May.
‘In May, we’re not certain of having made the link. I . . . listen. If the Giro comes through, that’s great. Great for the valley and for everyone. But nevertheless, there’s two cols to open, the Lombarde and the Bonette. When that’s done, it could very well come through. But so far, nobody’s asked my advice, whatever that is, on any of it.’
Jean-Marie was a little miffed. The mention of the Giro was the only time in our conversation that he seemed discomfited, not king of his castle. Miffed, but was he worried? No: ‘Let’s be clear: we’ve got what we need, we know what we’re doing. It’ll be a great experience for the valley, for the col. It’s a great advert. I’m very happy, proud even.’
The Giro has never been over the Bonette before, but the Tour de France has taken it on four times, in 1962, 1964, 1993 and, most recently, 2008. Jean-Marie had been in charge for that one — a memorable Tour stage where the race passed over the Cime and the first man over, South African Barloworld rider John-Lee Augustyn, overshot a corner on the descent and tumbled down the mountain. Remarkably, Augustyn was OK, and even managed to finish the stage in 35th place, but for Jean-Marie there was more to regret that day: ‘For me that was a bit of a missed opportunity. The Tour de France is magnificent, but when you see it elsewhere it’s always so crowded, and here . . . I shouldn’t go on about it, and we’re in the middle of the Park, for sure, but I think that not everything was done to make people come, you know, and that’s a shame.’
His phone begins to play a cha-cha-cha, which he ignores.
‘It’s clear that when people come there’s always cleaning up afterwards, but we could have organised that and shown off this mythical col to cycling fans. I hope that for the Giro there can be an agreement to accommodate people at the side of the road. We can sort out patrols . . . there will be cleaning to be done for sure.’
The unspoken context of all of this is that the Bonette is in the middle of a national park, the Parc National du Mercantour. It’s one of the wildest and most deserted parts of Western Europe, complete with roaming packs of wolves, Bronze Age remains and vultures wheeling overhead. It had been implied to me more than once (when speaking to other people in the area and not, I should stress, Jean-Marie) that the park rangers would prefer nothing else happening in the park at all. No cars, no roads, no bicycles, no people, nothing — and that they were militant about getting their way.
So this was Jean-Marie’s situation: he was a man. A man who loved a mountain. A man who loved a mountain and wanted to share it. A man who loved a mountain, with a big job to do. ‘It’s great that people can come to these mythical high cols to watch the riders pass. If not, what’s the use? All the interest is lost.’
“We get in our machines and we move snow. We cut and we blow and we dig and we tip. Our progress is measured in metres advanced every day … Up to a kilometre on good days … On other days, progress into this pristine backcountry of chamois, marmots and wolves slows to a crawl”
This is the backstory, then, to the accelerated schedule that Aurélien and gang are following — the pressure of the prospect of the passage of Italy’s greatest race — and we are driving in convoy behind their jaunty Citroën as the sky lightens above the black cliffs on either side of us. It’s a hell of a commute, up a road traversed by rivulets of meltwater that have refrozen overnight. A breakneck drive made safer by the more-or-less certain knowledge that no vehicles will be coming down — though there may be newly fallen rocks, or large chamois or curly-horned ibexes around any corner, still sure that the mountain is theirs. We barrel past the tumbledown buildings of Le Pra with their rusty corrugated iron roofs, steam through Bousiéyas, and finally see banks of snow just below the Camp des Fourches, the roofless, abandoned collection of 19th-century huts that had once housed hundreds of soldiers defending the valleys against Italy. Two weeks ago, Didier explains, the drifts in this particularly gusty corner were up to six metres deep. ‘The wind takes it from some places and dumps it somewhere else,’ he says. Now, where it was six metres it is three, and where it was three it is only one. Once the snow’s mantle is broken and the road dug out, the newly uncovered blacktop absorbs the sun’s heat and accelerates the melting. This radiator effect is another good reason to get clearing early — the extra days would melt more snow, make it safer and easier when race day arrived for the hoped-for multitudes of roadside spectators.
Above us, now, all is white, and you can trace a line of disruption, like animal tracks, high on the mountainside kilometres ahead, a rumple and a ripple and a ruff of tumbledown snow boulders that show where the mechanical shovelling has taken place. It must be a very satisfying job, I think, mixing as it does public service and breathtaking surroundings, and something childlike with high doses of risk and testosterone. It is not abstract and modern, like human resources or social media, say, or management consultancy (all fine choices in themselves). Or much like writing, save for the fact that most days the only thing a writer can do is dig down into the white page on screen to find the black words below that will offer him or her a way forward.
For the road-clearing crew there must be a tangible sense of achievement. We get in our machines and we move snow. We cut and we blow and we dig and we tip. Our progress is measured in metres advanced every day, and at the end we all sleep well because we’ve worked hard and we’ve helped. How many metres? Up to a kilometre on good days where there isn’t too much snow banked up, says Aurelien. On other days, progress into this pristine backcountry of chamois, marmots and wolves slows to a crawl. The view, magnificent in macro, monotone in micro, barely changes, and only rock ’n’ roll at full volume, through earbuds jammed into ear holes in an attempt to cut out the infernal racket of the machines, can make the time pass at a satisfactory pace.
Around three kilometres from the top we reach a wooden barrier swung across the road. The cars stop. It is secured with a padlock and two large bolts, which Aurélien, who is weighed down with a large bunch of keys and a hefty socket wrench, undoes. He hefts it open, we pass through and he locks it again behind us, and even just doing this is ticking off a life goal, albeit a fairly minor one. Riding past a ‘Road Closed’ sign is a primal thrill. These barriers exist on almost all the climbs that shut annually, and they’re padlocked open in summer, but which cyclist hasn’t ridden past them and thought fleetingly about the secret playgrounds that must in the off-season exist above? The private stretch of blacktop all to yourself, with no cars and no people, and just the sun and the wind and the snow all around . . . I am quickly disabused of this romanticism by Aurélien, who says the barriers aren’t generally needed in winter: the avalanche risks are so great that the roads are closed much further down, usually by placing a few signs and dumping a large pile of the white stuff right in the middle. Instead, they are mainly used in springtime, when the thaw has advanced and the road-clearing crews are working up top — both to stop unwelcome drivers and, it turns out, diesel thieves. There is enough slow-moving, thirsty machinery up there to need a smaller snowplough to service them; one which has sufficient diesel in the big tank behind the cab, apparently, to tempt thieves to drive up a steep, narrow, icy dead-end road in the cold black night to siphon it off. Good luck to you, boys, I think, and shudder inwardly.
From here our path is increasingly covered with hard-packed, dirty ice and large rocks, which appear from under the moving Citroën without warning and force us to swerve. Sheer, high white walls rise up to three metres on either side, which in cross-section show the winter’s different snowfalls like geological ages or a millefeuille pastry. With blue above and white all elsewhere, the shadows are an icy aquamarine, like driving through a Fox’s Glacier mint.
Maybe a kilometre from the top our convoy stops by a dormant machine and Bernard gets out of the car, climbs into it and starts the engine. It is what any three-year-old might call a digger, with the tiny cab and oversized wheels and bucket of a child’s toy, but weighing multiple tons and on a gigantic scale. (Frankly, it’s what I would have called a digger too, though I have now learnt better and will call it a wheel loader.) Today, Bernard will be widening the channel and tidying the road we have just driven up, to make it perfectly passable. After the unnerving cannonball ascent, I find it reassuring that it will be in a better condition for our escape from the rapid chill of the high-altitude evening. We leave Bernard to it and then we’re there, at the top, at the portacabin, and the coffee’s on. And when that’s drunk and gaspers gasped we head out over the col to where the machines are waiting.
Jean-Marie had promised to give me fair warning of progress, so I could visit for the most interesting bit of the work, and he hadn’t disappointed. It would be difficult to overestimate the amount of snow up here and, even though I am told that clearing downhill is easier than up, it looks like the team is tackling the hardest bit. The north side of the mountain gets less sun and the road, after sloping gently for about a kilometre around the cirque of the Restefond valley, plunges sharply. I know from my summer visits that this is a steep scree slope, but now it is just a smooth white blanket punctuated here and there by the tops of the tall wooden poles that mark the edge of the road.
Somewhere under there is a road. They’d traced it successfully over the top and around the cirque. The question is, where is it now?
Didier scrambles up into the driving seat of another wheel loader, and Aurélien gets into the snowblower — a Mercedes Unimog truck with a metre-high roller mounted across the front, and above that two curved, swivelling chimneys that lend it something of the look of a giant beetle with protruding antennae. The rotating drum is powered by an 11-litre turbo diesel engine that sits on the flatbed behind the cab. As it spins, the grooved surface chews into the snow, which is inhaled and then spat out in a plume in whichever direction the chimneys are pointing. Aurélien invites me to sit in the passenger seat, a dirty, metal-framed contraption surrounded by oily levers and gauges. He starts engine number one, then engine number two, and the snowblower belches out smoke from its snorkel exhausts — even engines lack oxygen up here and spit black fumes because of the half-combusted diesel. Then he engages first gear and we roll towards the snow bank where the road ends. The MO is that Aurélien’s fraise (as the French call the machine, which for some reason is the same word as ‘strawberry’) cuts a first passage through the snow, exactly the rolling drum’s width, and then Didier in the loader comes along behind to dig down to the asphalt, and clean it up and widen it until there is something you could, more or less, cycle along. It’s not very scientific, and questions present themselves to me almost immediately
One: even with the snow poles, how do you know where to go? The markers we can see poking upwards are positioned on the downhill edge of the road, and the idea seems to be that you aim just above the poles and hope for the best. The rest of it is down to memory (of the landscape and roadway in summer) and, well, luck. ‘Better to be too high than too low,’ Aurélien tells me, and his understatement is not lost. The second is Newtonian: how do you stop the Unimog from just tumbling sideways? Gravitationally speaking, that seems far and away the most likely outcome of all this hoo-ha. In other parts of France the fraises have caterpillar tracks, which are more sure-footed and stable in deep snow. Indeed, they did here too until quite recently, but there are relatively few roads this far south that benefit from it, and wheeled vehicles can be used elsewhere in better conditions, so a €300,000 investment is difficult to justify. Very quickly our Unimog, sallying forth on a bed of snow of unknown depth and constitution, seems right on the edge of tipping over to the left and into the depths of the valley below. I find myself bracing against the seat frame and leaning hard right, like a bubble in a spirit level bobbing upwards, as the horizontal underneath me see-saws left. Although he seems to be controlling the juddering, jolting machine with little more than gritted teeth and determination, Aurélien does not appear worried. He steers into the cool snow wall on the uphill side, and hopes the snow chains will bite. There are controls to keep the rolling drum level, thus creating a horizontal track for us to follow, and that’s really all we can do: cut a level path and stay above the road.
Another problem quickly becomes apparent. The snowblower can only deal with about 1.5 metres of drift, so if the snow is deeper, the snowblower must be lifted from the roadway where it is parked up to a height where the snow will not simply overwhelm the drum, fall into the blowers and get backed up. When this happens, Aurélien stops the engine, gets out and stands on the bonnet to dig both chimneys clear with a shovel. We attempt to begin again, but the wall is just too high and we are stuck, unable to move forward or backwards, staring through the Unimog’s windows at a blank wall of snow on two sides. Aurélien gets out — this time through a roof hatch, as we are boxed in by snow and his door will not open — and unhooks one end of the tow chain from the back, walks over to Didier’s loader, attaches it, gets back in. The gigantic digger takes up the slack and, barely straining, jerks us out. I reach out of the window and grab some snow from the vertical wall sliding past, and eat it.
The difficulty, Aurélien explains, was that the slope up to cutting position was too steep. We couldn’t get high enough to get going, and we chat as we wait for Didier to landscape us a new ramp up. It’s Aurélien’s first full year as a member of the snow-clearing crew, but he’s a mountain man through and through, having moved from his native Pyrenees to this valley of the southern Alps to be with his wife, whose family have a restaurant in one of the ski resorts. In the summer he works as a builder, and part time with the roads department, maintaining bridges and retaining walls, and mowing. ‘Lots of mowing,’ he says wearily. In the Pyrenees he’d also done what he calls acrobatic building work — abseiling down dams and cliffs, laying irrigation pipes for shepherds, that sort of thing — and I can see that trimming brambles is an anticlimax after any of that. He explains the controls and the gear differentials, and the different types of snow (icy is better for snowblowers, slushy for loaders, powder for nobody at all, and there’s never a Goldilocks — ‘just right’ — situation); where to find the best mountain bike trails in the area and how the départementis training up younger guys to clear snow on the mountains as a lot of the older guys are retiring.
While we wait, I climb up and out and take a wander around. In the UK, health and safety would be having kittens, but nobody here worries about sharing their ‘workplace’ with a city dweller who, though having frequently passed through on two wheels, proves himself embarrassingly inept at walking on the crusty snow above the road, and several times almost slips down the slope. It’s warm and sunny, and though the journey up was hairy, now we’re here, under a big sky and an almost 360° view of peaks, there is a meditative tranquillity, only broken by the tinkling of snow chains as Didier trundles back and forth. Surrounded by the sea of white, the possibility of a bicycle race passing here in five weeks — five weeks– seems very remote. Finally, the snow slope that Didier has fashioned is ready. Aurélien advances and we ride up, tip backwards, backwards, and there is a precarious moment of teetering, like a rollercoaster at the zenith of its climb, with the entire windscreen full of blank blue sky sliding up and away. Then we tip forward, the cutting motor engages, the drum bites and fountains of white crystals stream from the two chimneys and we are biting, chewing, spitting, motoring on our way again.
It’s not fast. One engine pushes us forward into the wall, the other scoops the wall away so we can advance. The whole shebang vibrates and shivers, the wheels slip, snow chains grip, and centimetre by centimetre we carve a channel. Behind us is Didier. He is a metre or more below us, just about uncovering the road on which they will be racing in five weeks’ time, and he is demolishing the false floor we have created, scooping it up and tipping it over the side, then reversing and starting anew, advancing in a two-steps-forward-one-step-backwards Y formation. If Didier strays too far from the median he starts scraping at the dirt verge, pushing streaks of brown mud through the white, and he has to be vigilant: as the loader pushes snow sideways and off the edge, he is in danger of creating a snow platform, a false impression of flat ground where there isn’t any. Even at this stage it’s guesswork as to where the tarmac actually is, but with a bit of trial and error, the black emerges from underneath its white coat. With each tip of the loader’s bucket, snow chunks the size of white goods — kitchen appliances, I mean — roll down the mountain and, contrary to popular belief, do not snowball and gather more weight, but instead eventually break up and explode into a million tiny snowflakes. Or they slow and sit in large, dirty chunks as a reminder of the heavy lifting that has cleared this road for cyclists.
We chug along for a hundred metres, maybe more, and then Aurélien shuts the engine off. It is a truism that at one o’clock each day half of France stops working and is served food by the other half, but it’s also a valid insight into the national character. And the only difference that working since 7 a.m., being 25 kilometres up a mountain and surrounded by avalanches makes is that this great national pause happens a bit earlier. We get back in the car and drive up to the portacabin. Before eating, Didier puts the water on the stove to start its slow transformation into coffee for afters, and everyone compares notes on the morning. Not quite everyone. Bernard is not there. Why not, I ask. We can see his machine from afar, engine still running, but not moving or engaged in much work. In the distance, down the road, a solitary figure moves towards us, lean and rangy on a bike, navigating between the rocks and the ice patches on deep carbon rims. Decidedly, it is not Bernard. The man arrives at the portacabin and shakes Aurélien’s hand. He’s a local, a physiotherapist from Saint Étienne de Tinée at the foot of the mountain, and he clearly knows his way around it. In fact, he says, it’s his fourth ride up this year. Last year he made it up 59 times — but he’s in competition with a friend who beat him, with 60, so a few reps before the road is officially open is standing him in good stead. He hopes. Why do it, I ask, why this one? ‘It’s the most beautiful road in the Alps,’ he says.
The physio also brings news of Bernard. Bernard was, as he rode past, sleeping in the cab of his loader. No lunch for Bernard. Just sweet oblivion in front of one of the best office views in the world. As for me, I have done no work whatsoever, but I am starving. I savour that irony keenly as I savour the taste of my airport Pret A Manger avocado sandwich…
“Opening this col, it’s magic, you know…”
The afternoon’s work passes quickly. Now we are in position we chug forward steadily and meet no more problems. The drop becomes less steep and the transverse cut of the road across the gradient less deep, and so less snow blocks our path. As the snowblower and the loader perform their synchronised dance the newly cut tarmac behind them becomes a slushy trickle and then a rushing stream. All too quickly, it seems, the noise and the shuddering stop, and Aurélien is hitching the snowblower to the loader and we are being pulled back down to earth. It’s barely a quarter to three, but the machines have to be brushed down and refilled with diesel, and then it’s almost an hour back down to the depot. It’s not just the French functionaries’ love of a short working day that’s taking us down now: the afternoon heat brings softening snow, and with that come avalanches. Nobody here has ever been killed in one, and they employ geologists to survey the work when the risks are highest, but it’s important to get out when the going is good.
Right at this moment Jean-Marie arrives, slaloming with insouciance down the stream in a two-wheel-drive hatchback. He is wearing a polo shirt, open at the collar, and cowboy boots and Ray-Ban Aviators, not sports sunglasses. He surveys the work done, approves, gazes out over the unbroken white below. ‘We’ll be at the barracks by Friday,’ he says, gesturing expansively towards the top of a long stone wall a few hundred metres distant, the remains of the large, squat Caserne de Restefond, the barracks that guarded the pass in the 19th century. Even though it’s in plain view, the road serpents gently around the contours of the mountain so it’s still a fair way off, but Jean-Marie can see far past it, down the hill to where the air is warm and the snow peters out, to where his crews will make the junction with the tarmac of the northern side; at which point they will take their machines back up and drive down in the Citroën to Jausiers, where the mayor will buy them all dinner. ‘Opening this col, it’s magic, you know,’ he says.
There may well be more snowfall. But once the channel is cut the battle is won, and teams will just keep on going. ‘We had 40 centimetres of fresh snow two days ago, and look at it now,’ he says jubilantly, gesturing at the streams of meltwater glistening in the sun, wearing away at the snow walls by the side of the road. The only potential problem would be a big storm on the day of the stage itself, which would leave no time for clearing the road anew. And so, for Jean-Marie, the stage is set. Even the Lombarde (the Giro’s other major climb in his jurisdiction, which is narrow and tricky in its upper reaches) will be ready. ‘Our side will be OK,’ says Serge, Jean-Marie’s deputy, indicating that their snowblowers and ploughs will only attend to the road this side of the French–Italian border. ‘The other side is their business.’
And, with that, we shake hands and they’re gone, securing the barrier behind them so that we can enjoy the end of the afternoon alone. For my friends who came along for the ride (and who brought their bikes), it is time to realise that dream of cycling along an empty route barrée , the road winding between banks of snow like newly discovered buried treasure. I, without a bike, am left with some time to think. Let’s say we advanced 250 metres today and cut a 3-metre wide channel with an average depth of 2.5 metres. Light powdery snow weighs (so Google now tells me) around 5–7 pounds per cubic foot. Let’s take six as a good figure, which makes it around 210 pounds or around 95 kilos per cubic metre. The loader’s bucket has a volume of four cubic metres, which means that each of those overflowing loads tipped down the side of the mountain weighed approximately 400 kilos. So, at a rough guess, that means 1,875 cubic metres of snow in total, weighing around 178 tons, was cleared today alone. Can that really be right? The mind boggles at the effort put in so that we cyclists, walkers, mountain lovers, can indulge our passion and share these wild, remote places, these roads on which cycling legends were built and now exist almost solely for us.
I walk back up to the top and surprise two walkers in the loader’s bucket, which is nicely bathed in the setting sun and affords a marvellous view . . . and privacy. They have laid out a camping mat within and appear to be preparing to have sex, and there is a good chance that this is — would have been — the highest sex in Europe; but clearly, with my arrival, the moment passes and they corral their two dogs and clear off.
So I sit, instead, alone, and watch the light soften, turning the snow on the distant mountains a delicate buttery gold. I think back to Aurelien: he was a mountain lover too, just like us. Why did he keep coming back, I asked. Exploring, he said — and though the answer was not surprising I was somehow surprised that someone so at home in the bright thin air was motivated by the same impulses as the rest of us, or that he found anything here left to explore. He was a skier and a mountain biker and a climber (and had a fat bike to ride in the snow), but he did a bit of road riding as well. Every year, he said, he would set off with a couple of friends on their road bikes over the Bonette down to Jausiers, then over the Col de Larche into Italy and back to the start via the Col de la Lombarde — a loop of three 2,000-metre-plus cols that would make a formidable Grand Tour stage and a grand day out for anyone else.
I asked him if, when he passed over the Bonette on a road bike in the summer, he felt proud of the work he’d done, and proud that he was responsible for giving us this experience. ‘Yes, when there’s still snow around,’ he said. ‘But when it’s all gone people don’t understand.’ He continued: ‘It’s like the snow was never there. And then you have to start all over again the next year.’
It’s a funny kind of work, then.
Hard and physical and with a certain pleasure, but ultimately intangible, ephemeral, a bit like cycling up a mountain itself.
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