Another day, another col. The Col Mont Cenis is not such a big one, but none of these cols can be treated like a walk in the park.
These hills are different from the hilly roads at home. There you have gradients that follow the landscape, and change all the time. Even the steepest hills have little points of rest where the slope eases off and you can catch your breath.
Not here. The road is engineered to a more or less constant 7%. So once you start climbing, it’s the same constant effort all the way to the top – in this case 2300ft higher up.
The road zigzags under an imposing ski lift, which is stationary and mocking. Half the time I’m riding into the early sun, which is already hot. Half the time the sun is behind me.
The mountains slowly reveal themselves. The forest smells like heaven. Near the top a fog starts rolling in.
I was planning a little music at the top. Mt. Cenis is nearly the border with Italy – not that it’s a border any more, of course, but something will change. The Second Movement of this work should have a proper ending, before Italy, the Third Movement.
But the top is undramatic. The road just flattens out. There’s a cafe, and a model train, and a cold wind. Oddly there’s a little procession of elephants (not real ones). Did Hannibal perhaps come this way?
The cafe is staffed by a lady wearing “traditional Savoie dress”. She wants to show me pictures of her, and the husband who is shuffling in the background, in racier days posing raffishly by a blue racing car.
What is this language she’s speaking? It’s not exactly French, nor exactly Italian. Is it also perhaps “traditional Savoie”?
Something, anyway, is being lost in the translation, I feel. The train – the station used to be just 9km down the hill – was built by an Englishman. It used to run from London to New Delhi. And Queen Victoria used it.
So Libre stayed in her case.
Italy is a few miles further on, past the beautiful lake, where the water is many meters below where it looks as though it should be. The descent has already started by then, and there’s nothing to see. Just a little blue and yellow EU road sign.
And what a descent. It’s totally crazy. There are now thousands of motorbikes racing up the hill, overtaking slower vehicles regardless of a bicycle hurtling towards them.
I’m very glad I put new brake blocks on the bike last night. By the end of the day the GPS says I’ve come down 7000ft today.
I planned to catch up the day I took for rest in Albertville, and go straight to Turin, instead of stopping in Susa. I believe there’s a particularly fine cathedral there. And the city has a fine ring to it – Torino.
But then I found I was intimidated by the idea of a big city. In the end I wasn’t brave enough to venture there. I skirted round the edge, through many miles of disspiriting industrial and commercial squalor.
To get properly beyond reach of Turin I had to go further than I really had energy for. I collapsed just before the small town of Poirino, at an anachronistically large and splendid hotel. Only the restaurant is closed on Sunday. And the town is half a mile away. I ate the last of my cheese, and just went to bed.