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A Mountain Pass Safari in the Western Alps

3. through the Jura Mountains, onwards to Stuttgart


The Bureau de Tourism knows almost everything
Gite withdrawal symptoms
More Words, Fewer Miles

Favorite Summits

The Bureau de Tourism knows almost everything

The Jura Mountains are shaped like three big baquettes, crowded together like they would be in a shopping bag. Roads follow long forested valleys or traverse ridge lines. The villages along the roads do not have the narrow medieval corners and chapels in the middle of traffic, like in the Maritime Alps. Instead many have a more spacious look with many modern building additions. These towns are spaced at 10 to 20km distance, a long ways without civilization for Europe, just nature and wild forest. There are a few passes in these mountains, but I didn't ride any of them. But I did reach what you could call a summit.

My first intention was to follow the middle road along the Crete du Neige. But then a flat on an evil shoulder of D1084 made be go back into Bellegarde and look for a new tube. I couldn't believe my good luck inside the bad luck, when I found a bike shop that was open around lunchtime at 12:40. Right next to it was a mural, giving a good idea of the scenery ahead. I should have take a better look at it, because soon it started raining and I lost my sense of direction. I took the wrong road out of Bellegard sur Valserine. Clouds covered the Crete du Neige, and so it didn't seem like such a good idea any more to climb so high. Instead I followed D991 on a lower elevation into the Vale Mijoux. This road climbed slowly but steadily, loosing elevation again, but then gaining a little more than lost. Gradually it worked itself up between the two baguettes, which squeezed together ever more tightly.

In the laid back ski town of Lelex I asked about Gites. I was lucky, there was a Gite Communal 8km ahead. The always friendly woman at the Burea de Tourism gave me a few French language pointers. Then she called ahead to Mijou, and she had good news: the grocery stores would be open too. It's so nice when somebody knows you are coming. I suppose that's the reason why so many people go on prearranged tours. In Mijoux I got the code for the security lock at the gite, then all I had to do was find the mural or "design de something or other ..ier", go down that road, and there would be the Gite. I nodded knowingly. But actually, that was a mistake. But how many "designs" could there be ? 15 minutes later: Well no - I had to go back and ask about this again. I couldn't find the Gite.

There was another problem, the only food store in Mijoux was closed on Tuesday afternoons. You might ask why ? Well to make up for being open on Saturdays of course - what a silly question. But - that Tuesday closing time was used to substitute for Saturday open time, was even news to the toursim department in Lelex. Only Mijoux and its residents knew. Three of them confirmed that the store was closed. I was seriously considering a 32km grocery shopping ride into St Claude. But then I saw something that made me look twice. A woman was carrying several pounds of potatoes in a shopping bag. If you were somewhere else, you might guess she was just at a grocery store. Of course I asked where she got the potatoes. - Why at the food store, just down there on the right.

As it turns out, the  market was open - even on Tuesday afternoons and evenings, starting today - the start of the tourist season - till September, the proprietor told me. I advised him to contact the usually omnipotent local tourism department. He phoned them even before I could pay for my purchases.

But back to the "design of the something..ier". - Now the tourism office was closed. Actually the ever helpful pretty girl closed it just for me. The reason was, that she could walk me down to the gite and show me around. Of course the -ier turned out to be a pompier - a butter and cheese maker. Various murals in Mijoux celebrate old crafts with murals. I have to add that one to my vocabulary list. But I did wonder why she thought I would know that particular vocabulary. - It was another dark rainy but otherwise quiet night.

The next day the sun was shining, and the air was so clear, as it is only gets immediately after at least one day of heavy cleansing rain. A janitor asked me if I had slept well while I had breakfast. "Oui Merci", then I had a box of muesli croustilland with a liter of milk and and I started climbing switchbacks above Mijoux. The highest point turned out to be D436 just before Lajoux. Near the summit the needle forest gives way to large treeless areas and more ski areas appear.

Gite Withdrawal Symptoms

This was beginning to feel like a real bicycle tour, where you keep on moving every day. In order to get to the German border I ended up needing 5 days of between 50 and 95 miles a day, starting from Queige. My route from here was direction Stuttgart to visit Gerhard, but without crossing into Switzerland for an overnight stop, because I still wanted to keep some of my euros for later, even if they are getting to be worth less and less. This meant following the low hills north west of the Jura Mountains. Actually they are not really that low. Valley after valley climbed up to just below a 1000m only to drop down again to about 500m in long gradual ramps that go with the grain of the land. The tops were large noisy meadows, with cows wearing bells that were getting ever larger. I think Switzerland has the noisiest cows in the world. I was pretty much following the tiniest roads I could find, closest to the Swiss border. Pretty soon the cow bells were so loud, you couldn't hear the bell in the nearby town church. Along the way small, spaced out villages houses congregated loosely around churches with large rusty metal roofs. Statues in villages were of two varieties, without exception. First there was the WW1 soldier memorial, often with accompanying grieving woman. Second, a statue of mother mary of god holding baby jesus, often painted brightly blue, like a plastic toy.

I was lucky enough to end another day in one more area, where there were possibly as many bicycles as cars on the road, and that was the Lac du Point area, south of Pontalier. Asking around for economical rooms, and following those referrals, I met a man teaching a mountain biking class for kids, who offered to let me stay in his cellar apartment. Unfortunately the language barrier kept us from exploring our common interests further. The mountain bike teacher and his wife just asked me regularly if I wanted something. For breakfast she stocked the refrigerator with orange juice, bread and jam. In the morning they both left for work without a word. I felt a little bit like an exchange student, who was given the full hospitality treatment, even if this student was well along in his "post post continuing education" stage, so to speak. Again I left 20 Euros on the table with a thank you note. As I packed my last bags onto my bike, the one remaining family member in the house said goodbye and asked me one last time if I needed anything.

The next evening was a very different.

Only two days after the cleansing rain, the air become hot and heavy with 35 degrees celsius in the afternoon, and not a cloud in site. I thought that I could cut off a little slice of Switzerland near Porrentruy in the afternoon, and then return to France before the end of the day. But the day was hotter than I thought, the day shorter and I more tired. So I started my room search near Glere in France. It became the longest, most tiring operation of its type. It involved a 1000ft climb up the wrong road, another detour to a "gite", except that now it meant "bed and breakfast" in the (also) american sense, meaning overpriced bedrooms with flowers and gardens, designed for couples who want a romantic weekend. There were no Gites in the sense of the word, that I had come to know and like so much. The search also involved a tourism department in St Hypotelyte, that was just closing while I was there - after I was given a hotel brochure, but without enough time to check if a particular "bed and breakfast Gite" was already booked. I rode the 5km to the adress at "Rue de petit Pont" and nobody answered the door. On the way back I got another hot tip about renting a caravan in the campground in St Hypotelyte. The campground owner wanted 25 Euros for a dirty noisy trailer, without gas, without light or electricity "seulement dormir" he said. I must have looked very tired indeed that he thought that I would pay 25 Euros for that. 25 Euros maybe does not sound like much, but considering that I had paid 10 Euros for a clean caravan with light, electricity and gas, and considering that 25 Euros once were 65 Mark, it sounded like the decimal place was in the wrong place. In the end I had no choice but to take the most expensive, and also noisiest, worst room of the journey in the hotel in the middle of St Hypotelyte. Curiousely, or maybe not so curiousely, I also saw almost no bicycles on the roads in this area, at least today.

Next morning - time to head north as fast as possible, even if I was pretty tired. It was another hot and cloudless day, and I was on the road early. There were a few more confusing climbs to get out of the last foothills, and I then rolled down to the first German sounding villages, still on the French side, names like St Ulrich, Altheim, Illfurt, Zillisheim. When a bike path appeared next to a canal I thought I had struck gold. Surely this canal, along with the bike path would be a direct route to the Rhein. A fisherman under a bridge assured me that this is so. -  It wasn't. After exiting Mulhouse the path disappeared without a sign and nobody knew where it went. I looked for it and found it again, but it was the same portion that I had found previously. What I am trying to say is that I rode in an hour long circle.

Then I rode in another circle looking for the way, but this time on roads that eventually ended at control access highways. I related my situation, accompanied by emotional descriptions to a German speaker in an Aldi supermarket, where I was shopping for dinner. His description of the route that I was looking for, involving 5 round abouts without clearly labeled exit points, failed to make me more confident about escaping from the greater Mulhouse area. He finally drove his car ahead of me while I drafted behind his little car, without as much as letting a car come between him and me. At the fifth rondell he pointed me in the right direction. I recognized the spot. I had been there 3 hours earlier. A long 10km straight away led to Charlampas and a bridge over the Rhein to Neuenburg. Charlampas had one closed hotel, Neuenburg had at least several private pensions. I took the first one.

More Words - Fewer Miles

Once I crossed into Germany I could communicate easily again, and I took advantage of it. More words instead of miles. For starters I had a wonderful conversation with the woman who rented me that first room with Broetchen for breakfast. She told me about her travels to the US. 4 times she had been in New York. She took an Amtrak train to New Orleans and Texas by herself.

Then on the first afternoon I got into a conversation with a group of 8 bicycle tourists from Stuttgart and joined up for the day. We still needed a grocery store to buy lunch supplies, and then we would head for the river and find a nice picknick spot. But where is the market ?

An older woman on a bicycle was enlisted. - If you want, you can just follow me" she said, offering a choice of supermarkets Aldi, Rewe or Edeka. "Rewe it is" spoke their leader, "and now you have a whole colony of cyclists behind you" he added. - " But I am not a real sporty (fast) cyclist" she said. "That's all right. At this point in time we don't want to win any races either". That's good, because it was 30 degrees celsius outside, without a hint of a cloud. We had a long lunch and talked about everything from in the world between the time when Bush was president to when Steeve Jobs died. This covered a good portion of the spectrum of emotions that people had for the US. Most of the participants in this group turned out to be computer professionals, like myself, not working any more - like myself.

It was not just all the relaxing company and the easy communication. The route finding was easier too. All I had to do was follow the big river in the same direction it flowed, the Rhein downstream. It's a very different river up here, compared with its most famous section in the middle of Germany. There are few ships and the landscape is flat. But it's really the center piece of the entire transportation architecture here. The river itself has been straightened and built up like a canal, already starting with the Romans. In many spots there are actually two Rheins with a wide separating center strip. Next to the river an additional landscape has been created in recent years, approximating the original conditions. The socalled Rheinauen are artificially flooded wetlands on the German side. Riding along on the damn of the main portion of the Rhine (German side around Meissenheim) gives a low flying bird's eye view of these jungle like waterways. They give an idea what a large natural obstacle this river must have been before Roman times.

The Rheinauen exist intermittently at least between Rhinau up to around Ludwighaven. A partially unpaved bike path runs along the German side of the river. This signed bike route lead me over electricity generating damns twice, and then followed the green island strip separting the two "river lanes".   Then on the French side, there is the Rhone au Rhin Canal, an old waterway that has maybe the best biking conditions for a north south trip of all.

In Kappel I fell back into my old habbit of taking 3 days, when 1 was planned. The second day was a Sunday, and I had bought potatoes, herring, beer and milk to last well into Sunday, and my room also had a stove. So why carry it down the road ? A day ride into Strassbourg sounded very appealing. The following day it rained again, and the guest house owner and me were engaged in trying to figure out why the satellite receiver wouldn't work. When it stopped raining and we had finally figured out how to receive about 140 channels for free, it was really to late for a full day's ride. I didn't really see that much of Strassbourg on the first day ride, because it rained so hard, and didn't reach Freiburg in the opposite direction on the following day. But one thing I learned to appreciate in more detail was the Rhone au Rhine Canal, which I followed in both directions both days.

A sign along the trail advertises it as an 800km bike path. It runs straight as an arrow of impeccable pavement through a tunnel of green, next to the narrow canal. Arcades of trees line the canal. There is a rich variety of these arcades. Some tree trunks are old and thick and bury the canal in a tunnel of green. Others are bushy and resemble a rainforest. Long regular windows in the vegetation open the view to the west. Big roofs and church steeples appear to sit on top of fields of crops. In the distance the rounded hills of Allsace Lorraine dissolve into the haze, like the painted backdrop of a railroad display. 

A variety of small boats are moored along the canal. Many look like the haven't moved in a long time. Some are painted with ornamental murals. One has a high windmill installed on it for electrical power. Other small boats chug along, apparently running on beer and wine - or at least their owners do. Regularly spaced fisher men along the shore stare intently into the calm soup of organic decay, and look for signs of the fish feeding on it.

Another even more regular feature along the trail are docks, that drop the water to a new level. There is always an attended house on the side, next to a small bridge over the dock, all covered with flowers as if this was the most grandiose park in the world - maybe it is. The bike path swerves a little around the dock. You can coast around it, and then it's full throttle again through the green tunnel. - I think I would like 800km of this. This seems to be a favorite route with recumbent riders. I didn't see that many bicycles because of the rainy weather. But of the ones I did see, a good portion were recumbents.

This was not the end of the bike tour, not even the hills. But the named pass climbs were pretty much over. There was one more cycle climbing area between me and Stuttgart, the Black Forest area in Germany. Countless side roads thread through the green hills. Now - if this were France, and France is not far away from here - just on the other side of the Rhine, my tour would have gone over the Col de Geisberg, and I could say that I almost drowned in the rain on the Col de Freisersberg. But what's in a label anyway ?


It's pretty hard to call some of the passes and summits on this tour favorites, and others not. They all have something in their own way. But here's a try at selecting the 11 best from this tour

1. Colle Fauniera

a very small road reaching to over 2000 meters with incredible scenery

2. Tunnel de Parpaillon s(u)

This is an old military tunnel route, and one of the biggest road climbs in the alps, unpaved

3. Col du Tende

southernmost of the big, well known passes in the alps; medieval villages and WW2 forts are the main attraction

4. Col de Solude

This pass is the lowest in the group, except for the D32 Utelle summit. But after riding this, I finally know what exposure on a bicycle feels like; also: what true black looks like

5. Cormet d'Areches

this is another unpaved route; close to the more famous (and also very beautiful) Cormet de Roselend

6. Col de la Cayolle

the favorite of the very popular Cayolle - Champs - Allos loop

7. D32 Utelle s(u)

a premier lookout point onto the town Utelle, Nice is on one side, and if that's not enough - the mountains of the Mercantour Park on the other. The D32 La Tour summit(u) is also part of this route.

8. Col de la Croix de Fere

center of Tour de France racing culture in the summer; this road spends a very long time above treeline. Both approaches of Col du Glandon can be used to approach one side of this pass.

9. Via del Sale s(u)

this is an MTB route at the top of Col du Tende

10. Route des Cretes s(u)

this is the highest point on a ride around the Canyon du Verdun. But there are several other great high points on this loop, including the Col d'Illoire s(u)

11. Col du Noyer

I have to add just one more: one of the few passes that I know in the Devoluy area, this one is my favorite in that valley



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