We met in Nice, after an interesting mix up of terminals at the airport, then spent the night at a friends along the coast, we then made plans to get to Briançon via public transport (this gives an indication of how relaxed we were about the whole organisation of the trip) the day before we were due to set off. We figured that there was a train the next afternoon that would get us into Briaçon at about 9pm. I had doubts about getting into Briançon and finding a wild camping spot in the dark in a place we didn’t know but eventually Jan persuaded me it would all be fine and we had a plan.
Since it was a late afternoon train we decided we would use the morning to cycle along to Cannes on a couple of trails to test out our gear and make sure everything worked, again top organisation doing this for the first time the day before we were due to set off, but we were lucky I guess or maybe we had actually unintentionally planned quite well as everything seemed to work very well.
We got to Cannes in plenty of time after a chilled cycle along the beaches, feeling a little out of place cycling through the glitzy streets of this hangout of the rich and famous we hopped on the train and sat down for a 5hr train ride.
We arrived to the silhouette of Briançon in the late evening light and could see various old of fortresses perched up on the mountains around the town and immediately decided it would be awesome to spend out first night camped out up there somewhere. We set off up a somewhat guessed route to a fortress thinking we would be well out of the way only to be greeted with a huge car park full of cars! We were told there was a late night theatre performance going on inside the old ruins… of course! There was another fortress higher up again above this one which we decided to head for and after another half an hour of climbing following our very dim camping torches up the hill we found a great flat spot with a view of the city lights and settled down to watch the end of the theatre performance from afar before some midnight fireworks and drifting off into our first night under the stars…
We first rode to Cannes from our overnight stop
Then took the train to Briançon
Distance - 38.2km Elevation - 1839m Highest Point - 2603m, Col de la Ponsonnière
''The next morning
we were awoken
by f**king gunshots!!!''
The next morning we were awoken by f**king gunshots!!! We were a bit nervous about how wild camping would go in a fairly populated area but to be awoken by shotgun pellets flying over your head on our first morning is another level! How both of us survived the near heart attack inducing experience I do not know but it was definitely a rude awakening! After we calmed down and realised the shots had stopped (and also that we were not being fired at and were in fact behind cover) we realised we were on the edge of a clay pigeon shooting range, thankfully on the right side of the boundary wall/mound. We let go of each others hands (ok joking we didn’t grab each others hands!) and understood that the large flat area we had cycled across up the hill in the pitch black the evening before was in fact the shooting range and our perfect flat spot with the panoramic view was in fact the little bit between the boundary of the shooting range and the steep slope back down to the city. We packed our things up and decided our best method of leaving was to scramble down the steep slope to a path below and ride down into the city.
Down in Briançon we got some breakfast at the boulangerie, a coffee to wake up and decided it would probably be a good idea to buy some maps. We chose the GR5 mainly because it was a well way marked route we could follow without buying 100s of detailed maps but in the end we decided it would a good idea to buy some large scale maps at least to have an overview of our route, which we were later very grateful of considering the amount we used them on the trip. Even though the route was especially well marked there were a couple of times we were unsure and we were able to see where to stop for food. This was probably the main talking point on the trip, where to stop for food and figuring out the latest points we could so as to carry as little weight as possible for as little distance as possible.
Anyway… we didn’t buy much food in Briançon as we were riding on the road through several villages up the Serre Chevalier valley for about 20km so thought we would buy food in the last village possible before heading up into the hills.
Well we had originally decided to do the GR5 and gave ourselves 10 days to do it without planning a day-by-day itinerary, just that we knew we had enough time to do it at a leisurely pace, well the day before we were leaving we discovered that it would take us about 5/6 days to do what we had planned. Once we were in Briançon and had some maps to hand we decided we should do a loop north and come back to the town before heading south, the main driver for this being some photos I had recently seen of a certain Mt. Thabour which looked epic and Lord of The Rings-ish. I had also remembered a class mate of mine from uni saying he was working at a refuge somewhere near Briançon and a vaguely remembered the location on the map so we thought we would go see if we could surprise him!
''We chilled for a while at the top of 2600m Col de la Ponsonnière
before being treated to our first piece of alpine trail and what it was
all about - riding big mountain singletrack in some epic scenery
with all our kit in tow. ''
Our ride up the valley on the road gave us a bit of a realisation, we realised how hard this was gonna be. We were obviously expecting the riding to be a bit harder with the extra weight but we didn’t realise how much slower we would be going, the pedals turned very slowly indeed and we accepted the riding, uphill at least, would be more of a slow and steady style than a race to the top of each col.
We turned off the road after a water stop at Le Lauzet and finally hit some trail, time to hit some real alpine cols! A quick look at the map told us we had to climb from 1700m up to 2600m and back down the other side again before reaching the refuge where I thought my mate my be found. We quickly got into a suitable pace that we could maintain all the way to the top along with plenty of breaks from riding… only to put the bikes on our backs to hike the steeper sections! We did stop for plenty of breaks for drinks and food and also to take in the majestic views we were being presented with! One of my favourite photos from the whole trip was from this very first col, the photos below looking back at Les Arêts de la Bruyère really shows the scale of the hills we were riding in and set the tone for the rest of the trip.
We chilled for a while at the top of 2600m Col de la Ponsonnière before being treated to our first piece of alpine trail and what it was all about - riding big mountain singletrack in some epic scenery with all our kit in tow.
Before reaching our camp spot for the night we were treated to two really cool open descents, both of which seemed well used trails meaning there were heaps of line choices and plenty of options to make your way down the hill. Passing by le Lac des Cerces we discovered a lot of other people had the same idea as us and were camping up high on some idyllic meadows for the night, one guy even had his donkey (mulet in french which is kind of like a donkey crossed with a horse) with him! Good idea for carrying all his gear. We rode on and eventually decided it would be good to stop and camp beside the Lac Rond as we thought it felt more ‘wild’ and out int the middle of nowhere-ish than if we had set up camp beside the refuge… plus the views over the lake were sweet…and jan fancied a swim… and there were some cool clouds.
By the time Jan had finished with his swim (far too cold for me!) and we had found a decent water source we could use for the evening we broke out the camping gear and went about setting up camp for the first time. It worked and was damn sweet! We set it up with it opening up towards the view and the back side protecting us from the wind. What could be better than an evening spent cooking some dinner in front of our tent looking out over the lake with the sun slowly disappearing over the mountains happy in the knowledge we were on our way, the trails were awesome and all our uncertainties about the trip has been pushed out of our minds and if the first afternoon was anything to go by the trip was gonna be awesome.