| Enduro, ski lifts and mountain ridges.
From a snowy mountain hut at 1700 meters altitude I look back on a wonderful journey between skilifts and mountain ridges in France and Italy. The idea for the trip came last year when we looked down from a ski lift and did see everywhere beautiful gravel paths. These paths are used for the maintenance of lifts and should remain open summer and winter in case of any emergencies.
After some puzzling in Google Maps and Garmin Mapsource we made a beautiful route. In the route we combine two ski areas, with three high mountain ridges with old military border roads. This time no mountain passes, but mountain ridges. Mountain ridges are best described as a consecutive series of highest points of a mountain range with the intermediate height as small as possible. For the military the paths were important to quickly move troops and equipment. For us it is especially beautiful because of the stunning views over the beautiful valleys. Driving down these ridges is somewhat similar to surfing, where you try to stay on the tops of the waves as much as possible.
The beauty of our route is that the more than 350 km of unpaved roads also are fine with the heavier allroads as our BMW R1200GS. Occasionally some scarry moments, but that makes the trip a challenge. According to the Densel Almanac of enduro, the hardest part of the route will be category 4, but most parts are category 3. With the beautiful weather what is expected this should not be a no problem.
With Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Queen and the rest of the Dutch radio top 2000 on my SD card, I drive to the south over the best paved mountain passes of the Western Alps. With three different BMW GS'en (Adventure LC, LC-R1200 and the air cooled R1200GS) we drive over the Col l'Iseran to Briancon. From there it goes on the Col de l'Izoard and Col de Vars to the Italian Piedmont. After two days of delicious tarmac, we start the real work and begin with our unpaved route.
We reduce the tire pressure and put the suspension as limp as possible. The new LC machine has the luxury of ESA electronic suspension with enduro, making it as easy as a push of a button. The first 60 km we ride over the Assietta mountain ridge, which -like many other unpaved roads here- is closed on weekends for motorized traffic. The climb from the Susa valley is a nice gravel path and the Beamers are riding in loose gravel and sand without any problems. The highest point of the Assietta route is 2472 meters with beautiful views of the Grand Alps. From here you can also see the famous Col de Sommeiller (3350 m), which is known by many motorcyclists for the Stella Alpina Rally. Thanks to this rally, which is actually not a rally but an international motorcycle meeting, I discovered enduro riding in the Alps. This year was already the 50th Stella Alpina, placing it in the books as one of the longest running motorcycle events in Europe. At the end of the Assietta ridge we pass the ruins of the old military fort Gran Serin. At this fortress stands a obelisk to the fallen soldiers of the Austrian Succession War in 1747. At least 5,000 military died within just five hours, during the storming of the fortress. Historical moments that we must never forget, so a good moment of reflection. After the fort and the obelisk we make a short descent through the Grand Bosco Salbertrand park, and are heading to our first ski resort Risoul.
Risoul is a relatively small ski resort just below Guillestre, but it is connected to the tops of the huge Foret Blanche ski area. We find no less than 180 km of slopes, which are accessible by 55 lifts. Each has its own lift maintanance road and a number of these roads are accessible to the public. Because the roads are all dirt-roads there is hardly any traffic, but for all-road and off-road motorcycles it is a true paradise. We drive from lift to lift, at altitudes ranging from 1650 to 2250 meters and drive at the same time two beautiful unpaved mountain passes: the Col Valbelle and Col de Coche. At the east side of Risoul we see the artificial lake "Lac de Serre-Ponçon" during the entire route. The lake has an area of 28 square kilometers and is one of the largest lakes in Europe. For us the lake is a nice reference point when the Garmin sometimes get lost.
After the lifts at Risoul we take a gravel mountain ridge, direction Parpaillon, where an old military tunnel connects the Ubaye valley to Embrun. The 27 km long ridge is running with 2780 meters altitude far above the tree line and has an average increase of more than 6%. The tunnel Parpaillon with 2637 meters is the highest dirtroad tunnel in Europe and was build during the beginning of the 19th century by the French military. Until the construction of the tunnel, the border between Italy and France exchanged here almost every year. Depending on the snowfall in the east or west, it was either Italy or France who became the new ruler of this mountainridge. A snow-free slope in the spring gave so much advantage during the fights, that the other side did not stand a chance. After the construction of the tunnel Parpaillon, the French were each spring the first on the top present and the ridge remained permanently French territory. The tunnel is 500 meters long and is even midsummer often filled with snow and ice, giving it the nickname "the ice tunnel." Very slowly and with a lot of guts you can glide through the tunnel to the west, to Fort Tournoux. However, due to time constraints we choose the safe path and ride the beautiful 27 km back to Embrun.
Our next ski-lift route passes the ski resort Les Orres, between Embrun and Crévoux. According to skiers this area is much nicer than Risoul, but for us motorcyclists that is not the case. Most maintenance roads of the 23 lifts are simply not accessible in the summer. Because almost all the lift-roads are closed, we do not exceed 1,800 meters altitude and are allways in a forested area. The route through the woods however is stunning and occasionally we see a ski-lift. At the end, the gravel road down to Embrun is for us the nicest surprise. In Google maps and Garmin Mapsource this gravel road did not exist. However in satellite images from Google we have seen a dash gravel and we did place it as a reserve track in the Garmin navigation.
For the last part of our route we cross the border into Italy over the beautiful paved mountain Agnel pass. The Agnel pass is the 3rd highest pass of the Alps (2744 m), but also a pass with beautiful views at the top. It is also nice to know that the legendary soldier Hannibal did ride here with elephants on the same roads during the so-called 2nd Punic War. Now the mountain road is used mainly by tourists and with a beautiful blue sky and beautiful white low clouds, you can look far away over both France and Italy.
30 km after the Agnel pass the tire pressure goes down again. We start with two Europe's most famous mountain ranges: the Maira-Varaita and the Maira-Stura mountain ridge. First we drive the Maira Varaita-ridge from the Po Valley to Pelvo d'Elva. The road begins immediately with a steep climb to 2300 meters, were we remain almost 42 km at the same height. The road has been built by Italian soldiers in 1744 during the war with Austria, and after Napoleon reused this road it did become one of the most famous military border roads. The first part through the woods is quite simple, but halfway there is some new loose gravel, where the bikes literally are sliding in all directions. Our front wheels sink almost 20 cm in the gravel and only by moving our full body weight to the back of the bike, we can move forward a little bit. Fortunately, it is "only" 5km loose gravel! After the gravel we can relax again and are enjoying extra this beautiful adventure. These unexpected circumstances makes Enduro riding so much fun and the stories in the evening at the campfire extra attractive.
After a nice lunch at the top of the paved Col Sampeyre at 2284 meters altitude, we continue the route by 25 km of gravel road over the Maira Stura ridge. This route is tightly along steep rock walls, directly beside deep ravines. The road is perfectly to ride and the views are truly breathtaking. After every sharp turn we look in another deep valley: Wonderful! At the end of the route we arrive at a former military town, with dozens of collapse military barracks. There is no human beeing and all doors and windows are perished over the years, so it has become a real ghost town. If we ride through the completely deserted streets, we discover an old military cemetery with hundreds of graves. We stop again and realize that we must be grateful in these troubled times and thankfull that the European wars are historie.
Riding mountain ridges are already done for a long time by enduro riders, but the combination with the so-called ski roads is highly recommended. The best of both worlds.
Location: south east France
Distance: from Utrecht(Holland): 1150 km
Route length: 350 km unpaved, paved 200 km
Highest point: Coll l'Iseran 2770 m, unpaved Parpaillon 2780 m, 2300 m on average.
When: Once the snow on the roads disappears you can drive this route. July to late September.
Overnight: We chose as a basecamp camping in Guillestre.
Note: Lots of unpaved roads are closed on weekends in this area, so keep that in mind. The ridges in our route are all public roads, ski lifts roads are usually not realy public but freely accessible.
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