Day 8: Les Rauffles to Barcelonette (58km, 1615m)

We woke up to an overcast day and a hearty breakfast. When I asked for the bill for the dinner, breakfast, and room, it came to 65 Euros. I was very impressed by the entire deal. I asked Thierry why the restaurant had closed when the food was so great. He told me, "When the restaurant was going, the business was very good. But now I am tired and want to enjoy life. I don't want to work so much." He had owned the place for well over 20 years and deserved his rest.

The climb up from Les Rauffles to Crevoux was paved, beautiful, but not very steep. There was very little sun, which meant that it was perfect for climbing. We passed Crevoux which had a fountain and refilled our water bottles. Past Crevoux, we had a choice of two routes, one said Parpaillon, 9km, and the other Parpaillon 8km. Looking at the map, I identified the paved route as the longer one, so I picked the longer one. The scenery got dramatically better and the road got much steeper as well. The wild flowers along the roadside were gorgeous, and I began to have really good feelings about the impending "rough stuff."

Soon, the pavement gave way to dirt. The OCD guide called the Col du Parpaillon "an easy and dramatic route." Well, the road was dramatic, but the rough part was not easy, at least, not on 25mm tires. The stones along the road were about a quarter the size of a golf ball. Most of the time, we could just ride, but every so often there would be a drainage gully lined with metal which we would stop and push over. The road wasn't particularly steep, but we found ourselves in the lowest gear as we rose above the treeline. In my head, the Cowboy Junkies' Anniversary Song played itself in my mind:

"Have you ever satisfied a gut feeling 
 To follow a dry dirt road that's beckoning you 
 To the heart of a shimmering summer's day? 

Well I have known all these things And the joys that they can bring And I'll share them all for a cup of coffee..."

The sun started peeking through the clouds, giving the area around us a beautiful soft light, with the occasional spotlights. We stopped frequently for pictures (and the ocasionally drainage gully), ate bananas, Gu, and finally came across a stream that required portage. I pushed my bike across the stream, but Mike was strong enough to carry it. Two motorcyclists passed us, the only traffic we saw on this dirt road so far. Eventually we got to the summit tunnel (2645m). Looking through, I could see the other side, so it didn't seem so long a tunnel. So after taking care of a few bodily needs, I turned on my lights and started riding. It didn't take 40 meters before I had to stop, however, since my generator didn't work without any forward motion and the mud really bogged me down. Soon, I had to stop and wait for Mike with his cateye light to show the way. The ends of the tunnel on both ends were bright enough to cause a loss of night vision, but also too dim to provide anything except minor reflections on the pools of water around us. When Mike came up to me, he took the lead this time, finding the dryest route towards which to push our bike. We went on for 10 minutes like this, sometimes switching which side of the bikes we were on.

Then Mike slipped and said, "Woah. Icy." OK, I thought. I can brace myself for this. Of course, you can't brace yourself for ice, and I slipped too. Fortunately, the bike held me up, so both of us kept our shorts dry. We eventually emerged onto the other side , where the motorcyclists were waiting. They smiles at us and disappeared down the hill. "Do you feel like a bad-ass yet?" I asked Mike. "Ask me again when we get down the hill. We have to get down in one piece." The scenery was just as isolated and even more desoate on the other side, but it wasn't nearly as green or pretty. To top it off, we heard some thunder, so we knew a storm was coming. It was cold, so we put on arm warmers, leg warmers, and jacket. It didn't look like the sun was coming up any time soon. Then, after photographs and bracing ourselves as best as we could, we started the descent.

If I thought the climb was hard, the descent was even harder. We stopped multiple times to let our arms and hands rest from braking so hard. Stones twisted our rear wheels around. At one point, a group of a half-dozen SUVs drove up on the road. "What are you guys doing, driving your SUVs off-road!" I cried in frustration, "Aren't you supposed to be going to the mall?" Fortunately, they drove slowly and did not kick up any dust. After an indeterminate amount of time, we came to a mountain cafe. We contemplated eating there, but I thought, "unpaved descent, food in stomach, bad idea." Mike agreed, so we kept going. The descent got steeper but no faster, and this was where I discovered that if I braked hard enough, I would actually twist the spokes in use, which would cause my sigma computer magnet to twist out of alignment which would lose me kilometers on the reading. Since adjusting the magnet constantly was a futile task, I just let the bike roll, depending on Mike to give me distance information.

By the time we got to the tarmac again at the St. Anne church, I was ready to kiss the pavement . The motorcyclists were there, apparently waiting to see how we'd do. One of them squeezed my front tire, and asked, "OK?" "OK." We did a quick check of all 4 wheels, and none of them were any worse off than when they had started the day with. In fact, Mike's wheel was still perfectly straight. Mine wobbled, but it was wobbling the same in the morning. I checked the clock on my bike computer: the traverse had taken 5 hours!

Down the hill we went, and the rain started, giving our muddy bike shoes a good wash. We looked for a restaurant to eat and wait out the storm, but did not find one immediately, so elected to descend all the way to the main road. The road was wet even when the rain stopped, so I guessed that it had been raining here off and on all morning. At the bottom of the hill, at La Condamine Chatelat we found a resturant with an external dining area with pavillions we could unroll with handcranks, so we parked our bikes outside and went in for their fixed menu lunch.

By the time lunch was over, it looked like the rain had stopped, so after checking to make sure we were going in the correct direction, we started the descent along the river towards Jausiers. Of course, not more than 3km later we pulled to the side of the road to pull on rain gear, since it suddenly started opening up on us. With rain gear on, the rain inevitably diminished and we were left riding through Jausiers and heading for Barcelonette.

Barcelonette, it turned out, was a touristy little town with several expensive hotels listed by the town's tourist information center. After checking a couple of hotels that were full, however, I came across "Touring Hotel" which wasn't listed, and found them to be completely empty. The lady offered us a room for 39 Euros (no breakfast), and let us park our bikes in her laundry rooms, so we took it. We had arrived at 4:00pm, with very little mileage, but we needed a break after the pounding our bodies had taken, and I was happy that we'd get a chance to buy bread, bananas, and other supplies before Sunday when everything would be closed.

After showers and washing, we even found an internet cafe where the European keyboards drove us crazy, but was nevertheless a welcome chance to catch up with friends. Dinner was a restaurant chosen by walking around and looking for what seemed to be the best menu. The service was uncommonly fast, which probably reflected the touristy nature of the town.

That night, Mike asked, "So, do you feel like a badass yet?" "Hell yeah, there aren't a lot of folks who would have done that pass with 25mm tires!" So we were now skilled bicycle tourists, and could sleep like one of them.

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