The Clutch!

Day 325, Torino, 19.406 km

There were many highlights during these last days, which would have deserved a title as well: the sea, the creeks, the family reunion, the Alps, the passes, the border guards, Italy… there was no lack of candidates. But the one that won the prize (and hands down, it must be said) is none other than a part of my bike that I affectionately named The Clutch. The Clutch, but what a funny name!? I can see from here the virtual tomatoes thrown in my direction and the disillusioned comments of my dear readers “If it wasn’t enough that he names his bike and his horn, now he’s going to baptize one by one the parts of his bike… it seems that loneliness is really weighing on him”. So first of all, no, I don’t feel too lonely, and secondly, The Clutch deserves its name in the big book of memories of this trip… For the car fans, I don’t introduce The Clutch, for the others, it’s… the left pedal (to be pronounced with the emphasis of Mr Loyal introducing the show at the Zapata circus). And not to have you wait any longer, I’m dropping the bomb: The Clutch has abandoned me. Saturday around 3pm to be precise. I crossed the Alps on one pedal… I had to wait until Briançon to replace The Clutch 1st, called “The Traitor”, by Clutch II, called “The Welcomed”…

Clutch I
Clutch II

But you should know that before these mechanical problems, I started lucky: a great sun at the departure of Marseille, I start the Gineste pass as if it was my first ascent. I have the impression that my luggage weighs nothing, and I even take the time to turn back and wave goodbye to Marseille on the way up. Moreover there are not too many cars, what more could I ask for? After the pass, I admire the view on Cassis in the descent and I decide to take the road of the crests to join La Ciotat. It goes up. Hard. I hear a “And he’s loaded” when I pass by people… As if I didn’t realize it myself… But the view is worth the effort and the detour…

Definitely worth a few liters of sweat, right?

Then I cut a little inland to reach Toulon: I spotted a bike path that runs along the coast, I feel that I will like it. I indeed find the “Parcours cyclable du Littoral”, a nice road that will take me to Sainte Maxime, but unfortunately it is often along a departmental road, far from the sea… Notable exception: I leave the track to go to Saint Tropez, and I follow a nice winding road in the pine forest, surrounded by luxurious villas and overtaken by many Porsches and other Maseratis. Once I arrive in Saint Tropez, I think I’ll have a better view from Sainte Maxime, so I continue. It’s getting late and I haven’t seen a single place that is not habited for tens of kilometers. I decide to ignore the “No camping” sign and to pitch my tent in a small park on the beach for the night…

The “view” on Saint Tropez
The night falls on Sainte Maxime

The only people I meet are municipal employees who come to collect the garbage and who say a nice hello to me the next morning… I continue along the coast, with still as many houses, concrete and cars. I refuse to follow the GPS which tells me to cut short, and I’m right: the road goes through the Esterel creeks, it’s very hilly but also very wild, and the red stone of the mountains and the rocks which drop into the transparent sea is of the most beautiful effect…

The creeks
Houses, lots of houses…

I then continue to Cannes, with a little lunch break on the Croisette, then Nice, with a drink break on the Promenade des Anglais. To increase my statistics (and not to arrive too early at my great aunt’s house), I decide to make a small tour by Monaco. That will be one more country to add to the list! And to do things right, I make a small climb to admire the view. Indeed the view is beautiful, but the legs are heavy and the wind does not help. Going back down to Monaco, I find myself on a rocky road (thanks to the GPS), so I stop taking risks and I follow the main road to continue. It’s like directly breathing through an exhaust pipe and there are a bit too many cars passing me for my taste. I don’t linger but at least I’m sure to go back to Nice without going through the gravel…

Villefranche sur Mer
Monaco

Then I still have a small hill to climb to Roquefort les Pins to find my great Aunt, Bibiche, whom I haven’t seen for years, and who is waiting for me with some cold beers and a quiche for dinner. Perfect! The next day, I start with the Alps. There is a small pass that is tempting me: the Bonnette pass, at the top of “The highest road in Europe”. 2.802 m. But when I look at the road to get there, my GPS announces me more than 4.500 m of difference in height on the day… Hard. I’ll go there and see on the spot. Clutch 1st (which had not been baptized yet at the time), started to squeak at the end of the day before, a drop of oil and it turns like a top again. At least that’s what I think at the time. I go back down to the sea and ride along the Var. An industrial valley, but a bike path and the wind at my back. Nothing to complain about. And moreover I see the snowy summits of the Mercantour in the distance, I am salivating in advance… I turn in the gorges of the Tinée. I follow it for a while. It’s magnificent, colors that go from grey, to blue, to green, to red, under the sun, then a big shower, then the sun again, I’m enjoying myself… Moreover I realize that my GPS doesn’t know this incredible invention that is the tunnel, and that it has overestimated the difference in level to climb. It’s decided, I will go through the Bonnette pass.

This is the moment that Clutch 1st chooses to let me down. Literally: it blocks and unscrews from the crankset. Interesting. I unblock it, start again, and 500 m further, it happens again. I’m a bit lost, I put some grease in the morning and I don’t really know what else to do. A passing cyclist explains me that maybe the bearing balls are broken and that I should try to disassemble the pedal and at worst pedal on the stem until I get somewhere to change it. Fun. After at least half an hour of trial and error, I manage to open the bearing, and indeed all the balls are broken. Worrisome. I decide to try to be smart, to remove the bearing balls and ride with the pedal anyway. It doesn’t work. “The Traitor”. I decide to leave only the stem. I have 24 kilometers of climbing left, a little more than 1,600 meters of ascent. And only one pedal. Great. And the metal cleat of my shoe slides on the pedal stem. I put on a sneaker instead of my bike shoe. After an hour, I have a hole in the sole. I put the bike shoe back on, wrapped in tape to try to hold it on a little better. After 20 minutes, the tape is gone. The advantage with all this is that my mind is so busy with this pedal story that I forget to think about how hard the climb is and I enjoy the magic landscapes offered to my eyes…

With all this adventure, I lost a lot of time, and I arrive at the top of the pass (which turns out to be only 2.715 m high, what a disappointment) at 9.08 pm, just in time for the sunset. Just in time to tell myself that I should find a place to sleep, otherwise I might freeze on the way down or miss a turn in the dark… Fortunately, there are on the road, a few kilometers below, remains of a military base and what must be a café for tourists during the summer, which will make a perfect shelter for this cold night that is coming.

The summit
Beginning of the descent before night falls…

Cold night indeed. I have the impression to wake up every ten minutes, to suffocate and to have frozen feet at the same time. And time doesn’t pass. But the rising sun, the rather mild temperature in the morning (no wind, that helps) and the views on the way down to Jausiers compensate largely. And the marmots I see crossing the road too. Even if they don’t let themselves be photographed…

I hope to find a bike store open in Jausiers, or at worst in Barcelonnette to take care of Clutch, but I can’t. It’s Sunday, and there are not enough tourists yet for the managers to decide to give up their weekends. It will wait until tomorrow. And the Vars pass. And the Izoard pass. Or I sit on the side of the road and cry while waiting for a pedal to fall from the sky. Tempting choice. But finally no, I get back on the saddle. And I feel I’m getting better and better at pedaling without a pedal. Ha Ha Ha… I start the climb of the Vars pass and I catch up with a grandpa who goes “as far as he can”. He tells me that in the past, he used to go to a bike store in Guillestre, just at the bottom of the descent after Vars. Hope is growing! In the meantime, the views on the way up, at the top of the pass and on the descent are amazing…

The ascent
The summit
The descent

It seems that hope makes you live, but it doesn’t make pedals fall from the sky… Not more success than in Jausiers, so we will have to reach Briançon, wait for Monday morning, and climb the Izoard like that. Anyway, it’s not like it’ll be the first pass… The ascent starts with a rather easy passage, in the gorges of the Guil, very nice too. The sky is getting cloudy and I fear the rain. Down one pedal and with my slippery shoe I’ll have a hard time… Once out of the gorges, the road rises. Some twists and turns, then a long straight line, and more twists and turns in the forest. It is beautiful, but it is hard. Very hard. Then I arrive at the “Casse déserte”. Magnificent landscape. Breathtaking. But I have hardly the time to be ecstatic that the rain begins to fall. And not a shelter in sight. Too bad, I’ll climb, there will surely be a roof at the top of the pass. After the flat of the “Casse déserte”, we go up very hard on the last two kilometers. I count the pedal strokes, the lines on the road, I try everything not to think about my calves which burn and my left foot which starts to feel sore. The last kilometer is endless. With the wind and the rain too. Nice pass!

Les Gorges du Gil, still good…
The “Casse déserte” and the first raindrops
Now it rains…
Last kilometer of ascent!

The summit. A shelter. I take a souvenir picture, I run to take refuge under a roof, put on dry clothes, pants, gloves, eat a bit and drink the end of my hot tea. And no more pedaling until Briançon. That’s good news… And what a descent to get there!

I find a small isolated place for the night, have the good idea to set up the tent when it starts raining again and go to bed early to recover from the past night… 9 hours of sleep, that helps. I’m at 8:55 am in front of the bike store that opens at 9:00 am, and at 9:30 am, I meet Clutch II and her twin sister. And I have to admit that pedaling without having my foot trying to go in the spokes of the rear wheel is quite enjoyable… And the Montgenèvre pass is only a formality, I turn my back on France and head for Italy! The border guards are once again absent, and I have almost 90 kilometers of descent to reach Turin. Easy.

Goodbye France…
… and Ciao Italia!

The storm bursts while I’m under the shower, and I manage to get through the drops to taste some Piedmontese specialities and to have a little tour of the city, the sky was with me today…

Jay is in Italy

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