Alps 2013, 6/06, Col d'Allos Day

Today's plan was improvised last night since most of the higher passes Peter had planned to take (like Col de Champs) were still closed. We picked a new pass that would take us north, then had a few options for a return depending on time and, if we were extremely lucky, a pass opening during the day. Our campsite-provided breakfast was delicious, hot fresh croissants and crusty bread along with tea and coffee.

We headed north out of Castellane toward Lac de Castillon on D955 - another artificial lake and another dam. Pretty scenery and moderately interesting roads got the day off to an easy start. Not far out of Castellane we encountered a large group of hang-gliders coming off a mountain to the left. I'm sure Dave would have liked to stop and see if he could have gotten a chance to try it. Our first stop was in the town of Colmars where we spotted a fort on the hill. We wandered around the fort for a while and also checked out the medieval walled town at it's base.

Fort de Savoie in Colmars

Peter walking up to the fort

Fort de Savoie

Walled town of Colmars-les-Alpes (I think)

From Colmars we continued north towards our goal for the morning, Col d'Allos. There were a lot of ski lifts at the base of the path - cables going seemingly in every direction. The southern ramp up the pass was in very poor repair, with the road literally falling away in sections. The best parts of the road up were still bumpy, narrow and potholed. The view was pretty impressive though, with typical alpine snow-capped peaks and green valleys. Almost no place on the ascent to really work the bike, just enjoy the view. Fortunately it was just a few miles to the top.

Danger Danger

Dave heads on up Col d'Allos

The view wasn't bad

Looking down to the base of the pass

iPhone pano going up the pass.

Snow starting to creep onto road

Crosstourer on Col d'Allos

Near the top

Me arriving at the summit of Col d'Allos

There was a lot of snow at the summit, and a few other motorcycles and bicyclists. We ran into our neighbors from the campground, the gang of GS riders. Talked to one of them, turns out they are all cops from Dusseldorf and this is their 28th annual Alps vacation. Incredible. We hung around the top for a while, walking around the snow, taking in the views and watching other 2-wheelers come and go.

Some other bikers at the summit

Pretty high snowpack


Col d'Allos, 2250 meters

Lots of snow


Hiking trails from the summit

Looking back the way we came

Looking north - full-res pano available here

Me at the top of Col d'Allos

I started the descent down the north ramp but pulled into a parking area after only one turn. This is what caught my eye:

Oh my

Nice setting

Dino 246GT (or GTS?)

Older 911

Aston Martin Volante

Austin Healey 100

Maybe they are a nice bunch of "regular Joes" - but I bet they aren't. Nearby table set up with champagne and cheeses.


Heading down the north side of Col d'Allos was very different than heading up. While the pavement was still pretty crappy, and the roadway very narrow, the views were amazing and the dropoffs pretty intense. At times the road hugged the mountainside overlooking the chasm across to a view of the road on the mountainside opposite. The north side was also a lot longer than the south, and we all had plenty of opportunities to stop and take photos and enjoy the view. Couple more vintage cars passed by us going up the pass, maybe to join the "Executive Racing Club" at the top.

Starting down Col d'Allos

Looking over to where we'd be in a few minutes

Peter on Col d'Allos

Pano of Col d'Allos. Big u-shaped canyon, you can see the road in and out on both sides. Full-res version here

Getting close to the bottom

Dave near the bottom of Col d'Allos

We stopped for lunch in Barcelonette at a cafe in the apparant center of town. Ordered an "American" sandwich, which was chopped steak, french fries and ketchup on a baguette. This being France they took the baguette seriously - our waitress rode her bicycle to the bakery after she took our order to get fresh rolls. Nice.

A nice suprise was seeing a decent beer selection. They had about a dozen quality Belgian beers available - I ordered a La Trappe Witte since it had the lowest alcohol content (still 5.5%, but for a Belgian beer that is practically non-alcoholic). Peter had a La Chouffe on my recommendation, and Dave enjoyed his traditional Diet Coke. Just one beer at lunch - drinking and riding is a very bad idea. One beer over the course of an hour-long lunch I'm comfortable with.

Great lunch cafe in Barcelonette

Delicious American sandwich, on very fresh bread

Not my favorite La Trappe (that honor goes to their Triple), but still very good

At lunch we discuss our options for the ride back south. Since no passes suddenly opened we were basically left with returning over Col D'Allos - no thanks, it was not worthy of a second visit - or hit several minor passes more southwest from Barcelonette. So, we headed west then south. Didn't take too long for the skies to open up on us. A real hard heavy rain that threatened to soak through our gear. Well, Dave's and my gear, as Peter decided not to pack his today. His ride had to be truly miserable.

In the town of Seyne, with the rain still pouring down, Peter takes a right turn off the main road onto a narrow, steep, downhill cobblestone alleyway. Dave follows, and I take one look down the ramp and stop. Peter and Dave stop after a few yards, obviously realizing that this is not the main way through town, but the alley is too steep and wet to attempt a turnaround. I ride ahead about 20 yards to a small parking lot and wait. Both the GPS's are now out of sight. After what seems like 10 minutes of sitting in the pouring rain Peter comes around and finds me, and informs me he found another way out of town - but we have to ride down the alley since Dave is waiting at the bottom. We get through that and then do some illegal wrong-way-down-a-one-way-street scooting until we finally emerge onto something resembling a main road. Whew.

Our route turns single-lane pretty quickly as we go through farmland and up and down some hilly areas (not mountains). The rain begins to taper off but fog lingers. We reach Col du Fanget, one of our goals for the return trip, but it's a complete non-event. After that the road heads down a narrow rocky valley, but the intermittent rain but a damper (groan) on things. After a little while the rain stops, and the road begins to go through a very scenic and twisty rocky canyon.

Col du Fanget. If there wasn't a sign you'd never know

More French canyons

Is this Peter? I don't remember anymore...


Crosstourer at photo stop

Peter on the bridge

Dave on the bridge

Fantastic canyon on the way to Digne

Very scenic

Young kids showing off. He was hauling through there on 2 wheels


Old bridge

After the canyon section we continued towards Digne, and as we get closer the traffic increases dramatically. Digne is no one-horse town and pretty soon we're trying to work our way through rush-hour commuting and short sections of divided highways. At the first main traffic circle Peter takes the wrong exit (trying to follow the GPS and not just read the signs) that gets us stuck on a highway for a few miles before we can turnaround at the next circle. This sort of thing would pop up a few times on this trip, and it had last trip as well - blindly following the GPS and ignoring the (correct) signage on the road. Not a huge complaint, mind you, the guys did a great job navigating through hundreds of different road changes. It was just frustrating once in a while for me to see the obvious sign pointing to our destination and watch the guys head a different way, heads pointed down at the GPS screen.

After Digne the road opened up and the traffic thinned out a little. While the road wasn't particularly scenic or overly twisty, it was wide and well-paved and that felt good after a whole day of crawling over narrow passes and through tight canyons. Kind of like if you did Smoke Hole Road in WV a few times back-to-back, then come out on 28 for the ride down to Seneca Rocks. It's just a different mindset of riding, you can dial back your game a bit.

Once we got south of Barrême and onto the N85 nearly all the traffic is left behind and the road starts following a valley wall. The N85 is also known as the Route Napolean, and was something that was very high on my list of things to do on this trip. I think it was actually my only request for the France section. I was happy to see that it was starting out nicely. Very scenic, then it starts to add some nice sweepers into the mix, then it makes a sharp left through a one-car wide hole in the rock and...holy crap! The valley opens up and the road (barely) clings to the mountainside, weaving left and right with a huge dropoff over the foot-high wall on the edge of the road. It reminds me a little of Hawk's Nest (NY97), but on steroids. Just stunningly beautiful, and completely unexpected. The narrow ledge section only lasts a mile or so and we pull over as soon as the road goes back to normal. We all walk back to the ledge section to get some photos. Absolutely no shoulder, we have to stand on the curb/wall when cars come by.

Looking back through the keyhole

Looking back at some of the ledge section

Full-res pano available here

Once you make that left turn the canyon section is pretty much over

Pano of N85 canyon section courtesy of Dave

Very cool rocks

Peter getting some pictures

Looking back to the exit of the ledge section

I figured that amazing little section of road would be the highlight of the day. I couldn't have been more wrong. Once the canyon was left behind the road headed through some forest with a couple nice turns here and there and pristine pavement.The forest led to a section that ran along a smaller ridge with great views of Castellane, and then the road started the descent to the town. And what a perfect descent it was. Sweepers, hairpins, chicanes, you name it. All with great sightlines, magnificent views and perfect pavement. Basically a racetrack. This was the first time on this trip I got the Alps "high". It was the best sections of the best roads in WV, but with mountain views and no LEOs to worry about.

When we got to the bottom and all caught up with each other (we'd been leapfrogging each other doing photo stops), Dave and I chose to make a run back up to the ledge section and back down. I was off like a flash and rode as hard as I dared, all the time with the biggest smile on my face. We did have a brief pause while a flock of sheep were herded across the road, but then it was Game On again. What an unbelievably great section of road. I didn't even mind the front end of the bike shaking like a paint mixer on the brakes, nothing was going to sour the moment.

La Chapelle du Roc, Castellane, France


Just one of the perfect turns on N85 heading down to Castellane. I'm cheating a bit here, as these next few photos are from our run up and back the next morning. Full-res pano available here.

What's not to love? Full-res pano available here.

Fun fun fun. Full-res pano available here.

Our home for 3 nights. My room is on the left, Dave and Peter had the room on the right. This panorama makes it look WAAAY bigger than it actually was.

Once back in Castellane we parked the bikes at our campsite and walked back into town. Our "usual" restaruant was closed so we ate next door. The food wasn't as good but still not bad. Tomorrow we will be leaving the canyons of southern France for a while as we make our way to Nice for a non-riding day on the shores of the Mediterranean sea.