Day 7: LGKS, Take #1

You’ll have to excuse the radio silence for the past few days. No, not blog fatigue, it’s been rather … interesting; I’ve wandered through abandoned Napoleonic forts, nearly come a cropper while riding in snow, and slept in a river bed. All this started back at The Chocolate Tree, where following my first ‘orientation’ day on the trails I planned a small section of the LGKS for day one, and the full shebang for day two.

Day one (or Day 7, in blog money) was going to be another ‘suck it and see’ affair. Starting in Tende, I’d planned a bit of riding on one of the many unpaved roads that lead into the hills, and picked one which would intersect the LGKS just below the Col della Boaire. The plan was to head north and then west, passing Fort Central and coming down the Col de Tende before riding the 80km back to base.

I stop just south of Tende for fuel, and try dropping the tyre pressures a bit too. I normally run Tourances at 2.4 and 2.6 bar (front & rear) when riding solo, and I’m sure the tyre fitter’s recommendation of running the Heidenaus at 2.5 and 3.0 was overdoing it a bit, even for carrying touring kit. I drop the Heidis to 2.3 and 2.5, and the difference is incredible – it’s hard to describe, but the tyres now feel like they’re working as a unit, rather than a collection of elasticated knobbles that ‘walk’ around bends when leant over and bounce across everything the rest of the time. The difference in ride quality to my try-out day yesterday was extreme, and I could have dropped them even further but didn’t want to risk dinging one of my wheels on the rocks – cast ally tends to be rather unforgiving in that respect.

Before picking up my intended route in the centre of town I stopped at a bar to grab a sandwich and some water for lunch. Having topped up the Camelbak I was feeling cheeky and asked if I could have some ice too – what’s the worst that could happen? After emptying the ice bucket into the back of my jacket the barmaid asked if I wanted some water from the tap to finish it off – nice one gal, can’t see that happening back in the Cotswolds!

The ‘unpaved road’ from town wasn’t too bad until it turned into somebody’s farmyard and continued as a single track affair that would have given a goat second thoughts, so I sheepishly turned back and sought out the Col de Tende instead. The Tunnel de Tende lies a couple of kays above town and is currently a one-way street, with a traffic light controlling the direction for 15 minutes at a time. As waiting traffic backs up it hits the first of several serpentine bends which lead to the tunnel, and at this bend is also the beginning of the pre-tunnel road, snaking its way up to the heavens in more bends than you can count while riding. Obligatory photos taken, gloves on. Beam be up Scotty!

Bike about to ascend the Col de Tende

The road doesn’t disappoint. Plenty of tight first and second gear hairpins joined by degrading tarmac straights, until the pretence at blacktop gives out altogether and you’re left with just dirt. Still it climbs, and just as you’re ready to sell your soul for a nice bit of dual carriageway you get glimpses of Fort Central, peering down at you with unblinking eyes that have seen it all.

Fort Central seen from the Col de Tende

I spent a happy half hour wandering around the garrison and then the fort, snapping away from various angles. Time was ticking on however, and I really wanted to make it to the famous bend – Col de la Boaire, a couple of km east of Fort Central.

Bike in front of Fort Central amid gathering storm clouds

The trail was fairly easy going from Fort Central, no sign posts to speak of but certainly nothing to block your way. Surface was twin track dirt with plenty of sump-line grass and gravel to discourage riders from swapping tracks too often, swapping out for gravel and rock at regular intervals. Reminders came regularly that you were on a military road; bends and other depressions prone to collecting water were ‘paved’ out with slate and other hard rocks, often stacked on end to make for a very hard-wearing but bumpy surface. All in all not too taxing, even on a large bike like the GS, though if there was one thought regularly at the front of my mind it’s how much of a bastard this would be in the wet, especially where the larger slabs of rock formed small steps.

The expected anti-vehicle barriers turned up before too long, and were just some simple checkpoint-style horizontal beams led in place between two uprights. While this would stop a law-abiding 4×4 driver it offered little resistance to the two-wheeled criminal fraternity, a member of which was now riding straight past said barrier via the small ditch that had been formed through repetition of countless other hooligans doing the same. Piece of cake.

Having ridden many trails back home, even legal ones, with every right to be there, you eventually grow to await the misinformed wrath of the bobble hat brigade to a point where you expect it from everybody you meet. But here, high in the Ligurian Sea Alps, the few cyclists and walkers I did meet were friendly and supportive, giving a wave and a smile and sometimes tales of their own riding experience, despite everyone knowing that powered vehicles aren’t supposed to be here. How very refreshing!

Col de la Boaire was everything I had expected it to be. A single lane of mountain road, paved in white quartz, clings to the ridge of an apex of a shard of a hill, eventually reaching the end of the mountain where it turns sharply in on itself, but not before spanning a 15 foot chasm between the fell proper and a spire of rock, where the track rests both sides on man-made supporting stone. The famous hairpin is steep, rocky, and on its outside edge plummets several hundred feet into the hillside on the other side of a small, ornamental wall. Once straightened out, the surface changes from uneven, corrugated rock to fist-size balls of the same material, resting in an uneven bed of gravel. Try riding a BMX through a ball pit after two bottles of Chablis and you’re about there.

About to ride the jewel of the LGKS, Col de la Boaire
Bike midway around the Col de la Boaire
Standing in the corner, looking back through the Col de la Boaire

I spend a good hour at the Col, taking pictures from various angles and shooting the odd bit of video. Being August I was expecting the place to be crawling with bikes and 4×4 vehicles, but the only people I saw in that time were two mountain bikers (German, he’s ridden it on a motorbike but that was years ago) and a solo walker; a girl of perhaps mid-twenties carrying everything on her back, including tent and a weeks worth of provisions.

Why is it that just when you’re feeling smug for ‘getting out there’, somebody turns up and then shows you up? No, not the girl, the German couple on the KTM Adventure. Two up. With enough luggage to make you think they were moving house. She dismounts and walks on through the Boaire, he fights the beast up over the rocks to where I’m standing, kills the engine, and offers me a gloved hand. Apparently the worst bit of the whole LGKS, which they’ve ridden in 4 hours, is just past the Boaire, and involves large granite steps mixed in with gravel. This section makes the Boaire seem like luxury according to their accounts, so I decide to call it a day and head back to The Chocolate Tree, vowing to ride the whole section tomorrow.

Total distance: 111.77 mi
Max elevation: 2162 m
Min elevation: 44 m
Total time: 08:23:45