Much of this region has changed hands between Italy and France over the years. Recent evidence comes in the form of inexpertly corrected roadsigns, where graffiti under the names of towns proclaims them to belong to Conte de Nissa, or County of Nice. Older signs are the small forts and bunkers located at strategic points along mountain passes, usually bulbous concrete structures covered with traditional dry walls to make them look like regular cottages, albeit regular cottages with dirty great big guns sticking out of the windows. One of these cottages-cum-bunkers guards the road up to Colle Melosa, the start of today’s LGKS adventure.
For the first time in days I’d be following in other people’s footsteps, my GPS guiding me along other trail riders’ tracks for the next 80km, so at least I should be able to get the bike through this time. The tarmac continued in typical sinuous fashion all the way up to the Col, and the temperature dropped gradually as I passed a few lone cyclists struggling up the hill. At the top I parked between a police 4×4 and a sign stating that the Col de la Boaire was closed to traffic. I guess they must get a lot of similar traffic through this way, though the gun-carrying cop didn’t seem to be too bothered. Maybe it’s because I was still in Italy, and the warning signs carried the official stamps of a French administrative region. For once diplomatic apathy was to my advantage.
I’d broken the 80km ride up into two sections in case the going got tough, with the halfway point being the only feasible exit from the mountain as far as I could see. There were other ‘unpaved roads’ leading down at various points, but past days’ experience has taught me that these aren’t always passable on a bike, and while it’s one thing trying to get up a hill on a goat track it’s quite another to get a 250kg bike down one, only to suddenly find a cliff in your way with no means to turn back. Hence the careful marking of a known good intersection.
The first section after Colle Melosa was pretty straight-forward, some dirt, some loose rock, but mostly hard packed slate bed characteristic of these old military roads. Most of the track took on a steady climb, with the scenery becoming ever more spectacular at each turn. This region really does have it all; big wide gorges, jagged peaks, grassy glades and sweeping pine scented forests, subjecting the rider to a kind of sensory overload. Clouds raced across the landscape only to drift majestically up and over the track around the bike, wild marmots scattered to unseen holes as I rumbled past, drinking in the experience through every available pore. Here and there abandoned homesteads marked places where shepherds gave it a go for a few decades before calling it a day and moving on, a few remained to eek out a basic living in run-down caravans and stone sheds.
Before long I’d completed the first section without incident, averaging around 35mpg mostly in second and third gear. Normally I wouldn’t bother too much about fuel consumption, but I’d started the day with just half a tank and while this should give me a good 120 miles on road I was unsure how I’d fare on the dirt. Since the fuel gauge hadn’t moved at all after leaving Colle Melosa I decided to plough on instead of dropping down to civilisation and seeking a probably far-off petrol station.
The second stage began much as the first, with the same kind of track taking me through ever more spectacular scenery. The only difference were the clouds on the horizon, where a far-off thunderstorm was giving the landscape a proper beating. I was heading in that direction and before long it became obvious that the weather and I were to have a rather wet confrontation. This worried me; not because I was unprepared in terms of clothing, but because the track would become dangerously slippery when wet, taking away my much needed margin for error. I’d just passed what looked like a mountain refuge when the first drops came, and although there remained only about 20km before safety it was the same 20km that yesterday’s KTM rider had described as the most treacherous section of the LGKS. I had to make a decision; carry on and get it done or turn back to the refuge and wait it out.
At the risk of being called a wuss I turned around and made for the refuge, parking up as the first forks of lightning got to work on the nearby hillside. Inside the refuge stood a couple of rows of tables and benches with room for maybe 45 people. There was a bar and a kitchen, and a very welcome log fire. At one end sat a group of maybe 15 people taking their lunch, and I later found out that it had taken them 2 hours to get there in the 4×4 vehicles parked outside. I took a seat next to two German mountain bikers and we spoke for 2 or 3 hours while the landscape outside received copious amounts of rain and then hailstones the size of grapes. In hindsight it was a good call to stop, but unlike the cyclists I couldn’t stay the night. Welcoming though it was, the Rifugio Don Barbera didn’t have a spare set of contact lenses for me, and besides, Giovanna back at The Chocolate Tree would be getting worried if I didn’t clock in.
The hail turned back to heavy rain, which became light rain but didn’t show any signs of stopping. Dark clouds remained all around and as it was already gone three I didn’t have as much daylight as I would have liked, given my plans to carry on.
Waterproofs donned I fired up the bike and gingerly set off into the rain. Time to find out what these tyres are made of. So far so good, it was slippery as hell but I stood on the pegs and took it easy, allowing the bike to slip around on the uneven surface. The dirt and the gravel were OK in this respect, but there simply aren’t any tyres which work well on big lumps of shiny, uneven rock. All you can do is try to gauge the angle of the stone and anticipate which way the bike will slip when it goes, making sure you don’t strike the rock in such a way as to let the tyres slide too far before they find purchase again. A certain amount of experience are needed to do this, and key to it all is having enough forward vision to pick a path and maintain momentum, because once stopped it’s very hard to get going again.
The landscape changed again and took on a distinctly lunar appearance; large white rocks of varying sizes made up everything as far as the eye could see, from the track itself to the boundaries which separated it from everything else. The rain was coming down harder again, and one or two drops seemed to be taking longer than the rest to make the journey. It couldn’t be – what was the temperature? I couldn’t believe my eyes when I clocked the bike’s instruments – just two degrees! With no small amount of sphincter-tightening fear I realised that all around me it was snowing, and still the track snaked up the hill.
Suddenly the ride was a different proposition altogether. I was alone, with a very big bike, and the unknown track which was difficult enough in the dry but treacherous in the wet now had snow settling on it. The GPS reckoned there were maybe 15km to go, and it was going to take some very careful riding to get down from here in one piece. Any enjoyment in the landscape I’d had left up to that point evaporated – the mountain was doing it’s best to kill me. The forward vision what had been so important to me up until now was taken away most cruelly – my visor steamed up from the inside and frosted over from the outside, so I had no choice but to open it and try to stare into the blizzard that was sending flurries of snow horizontally into my face. Every few seconds the snowflakes found an eye, and I had to blink furiously while keeping the other eye on the trail, praying that I could clear the slush before the remaining orb took a hit.
Sheep and cows had huddled behind rocks, and when I passed a natural cave of sorts I stopped briefly to try and take a few photos. Even in this natural refuge my jacket started to fill with snow as soon as I unzipped the waterproofs to fish out the camera, and I was disappointed to note that if I made it out alive I wouldn’t even have much proof of the ordeal. After about 90 minutes of struggling with the elements I arrived at the bottom of Col de la Boaire, recognising the single track dirt dip which circumvents the barrier and allows bikes to pass where 4x4s can not. This was a turning point for me, from here on in the track was known – I’d ridden it yesterday – but still treacherous in the extreme. The prospect of riding the high, exposed bend around Boaire in the snow was not to be sniffed at, but at least I knew what was to come. I’d ridden the worst of the LGKS, alone, in the snow.
Punching the air in joy, I gunned the bike down into the dip next to the barrier, knowing that I’d have to gather some speed in order to make it up the other side. My tyres sure as hell weren’t going to provide enough traction at a slow pace, so there’d only be one chance at this; if I rolled back into the dip I’d be stuck there, and it was now precisely zero degrees with visibility down to maybe 8 or 10 meters.
Needless to say I made it, and without so much as a slip from the tyres too. Col de la Boaire was negotiated gingerly, and before long I was passing the second barrier which stops vehicles coming to the Col from the Tende pass. Parked near the barrier was a white car, with an elderly gent in ski gear frantically trying to clear his windscreen. I took him to be an employee of the ski resort who had been caught in weather while performing maintenance on the nearby ski lift, and after making sure he was OK I carried on to Fort Central. I was elated now, the end of this nightmare was in sight, and I was going to make it. Risking a jacket full of snow I dug out the camera and made a quick video with which to commemorate the occasion. I wasn’t going to post this electronic note-to-self, but when I saw the amount of snow I’d accumulated I decided to share it. The sound’s a little quiet so maybe I’ll add subtitles when I get back to base, but I think you can probably get the gist of it, even if the arrival of a car midway through takes away some of the macho biker-against-the elements flavour.
I accidentally took the northerly descent from Col de Tende and ended up on the Italian side, and as the altitude decreased the snow turned to rain and zero degrees turned to six. It was only my hands which were wet, and maybe this was the reason for me not heading straight back to my B&B. Instead I continued south, riding out of the storm and into the sunny Mediterranean seaside town of Ventimiglia. As I sat in the 25 degree sunshine enjoying a beer and a kebab I couldn’t believe what I’d just endured in the hills behind me, which were still being battered by dark clouds. I took out the camera to capture the moment, and as I undid the lens cap a dollop of snow fell out and quickly melted in front of my boots.