by Julie Krasniak
This is the second of a 3 part story. A stories about life and friends and cheese mostly. Check out part one here » L'Etape: Galibier and shop the Tricolor Izoard Collection.
Low light and easiest wake up call, today I had a master plan to head in direction of Italie direction Bardonecchia but we agreed that maybe we should hold off on another day trip and limit ourselves to a half. We decided to explore the vallée de la clarée — a deep valley hidden at the border of Italy and France with two passes on the side, one going to France, a dirt road and le col de l’Echelle a narrow, steep road connecting to Italy.
I’m always amazed by the power of memories. Despite only dropping my wheels in this valley couple times years back, I can remember the directions, the geography of the massif, the North and the South, it's length and the turns. The power of riding alone since childhood and the fear of not find my way back, or maybe pre-riding races one after the other, observing the grain of the pavement and the decisive corner to attack — might have something to do with it.
From Briançon there is only a short section on a busy road before turning left to the Valle de la Claré. We can see down below the Citadelle and villages connected by smaller roads, we take note to keep observing the road we are supposed to take to ride back the same way. As we approaching L’Etape, the roads around those valleys are full of cyclists riding in packs. Of course, we cross path with friends, actually better than that: Someone start to talk to me… about me. I started to realize a long time ago, that your public persona, the image people make of you in their mind shaped by cycling advertising and race reports are often far from reality. I break the news right away, yes, I know Julie, It’s me. I guess I'm also trying to know myself.
Our brains bounce back from those people, the cycling club kits from all Europe, the carbon frames and middle aged men at their best weight to power ration of the year. They share their worries about completing l’Etape, eventually asking lightly if we prepared for it, giving me big eyes when I said "no, I didn’t, and no I’m not worried." I’m here, I made it, every stroke from this point on is a win. For finally shrugging their shoulder and tell me that I’m a champ, I have the métier and will be fine. Will I?
The villages and places we cross are so beautiful that we stop few times, looking at the carved details of a fountain stone. Abby has a lot of questions, It’s Bastille day. What the French do on Bastille day? What kind of people live in this remote place? Could we camp here? I answer them, so happy to share the knowledge and my love for the culture of my country.
Like in most valleys, there is a river accompanying us, we follow, crossing tiny bridges and eventually finding the short cut to Col de L’Echelle which bring us to the Border with Italy. At the summit a boys summer camp has stopped all around the sign to snack in the shade of the pine trees. As we are going down we notice a small refuge and we stop to explore. I don’t know the specific name to describe this tiny construction: A chapel of maybe 100 square feet inside with notes pinned to the wall, some 25 years old.
There is a memorial outside facing the mountain, this valley was a key of French resistance during the second world war, there are dates and names. A reminder that Europe, at every villages, that peace had the price of the life of loved one and that it is supreme to maintain this peace – some of the dates go thru an entire winter, which left us to wonder, how human life could have survive here, fighting the nazi army months after months under 10 feet of snow, before having their life taken at the spring, when the snow and the hope melted away. I guess it’s why French are French, our national hero's are not patriotic or nationalist – they fought for freedom and peace. In this corner of paradise, what else would you ask for?
My favorite details is a painted sign of the road — it clashes with the landscape and the heavy moment of history we just experienced. UP. The only way.
We head down the valley for food at a small village called Nevache, wandering between the twisted streets and looking at the old and well maintained mountain farms. Finally, we find the perfect spot — because there is a line outside — a small bakery which seems to be open only a couple hours a day. We order the most delicious snacks I have had in a long time: a small wild berry pie and a ham, cheese and olive cake under a broken umbrella that we give up to open despite the beating sun. There are dogs and kids playing in a yard and we let ourselves absorb the peace of the moment. We head down, leaving Nevache as we close a book, wondering when we will be back?
There is little pedaling going down and before we left the valley we want to look for a good spot to soaks our legs in the frozen water. We finally roll down on the flat rocks and walk inside the river, the cold is terrific and I can barely let my calves for a couple of minutes but Abby more courageous and amateur of after run ice bath, stays until "I feel numb now, so I’m good.’’ I soak myself in the sun instead knowing I will probably lust for that fresh water in 24h when I will be on the South side of Izoard.
We find the alternative road to ride back to Briançon and land straight into the pinnacle of sport culture in the south of alps: Bacci ball official stadium. We notice the abundance of sponsors in the central court, nobody jokes with Bacci ball around here. The Athletic life is everywhere, for everyone. Passion is all.
Later in the night we wander in the Citadelle of Briancon and stuff ourselves with cheese fondue in a basement restaurant that we generously wash down with local red wine. We are hoping to walk few steps to see fireworks for Bastille day and realize that we are at the wrong location which explains the quiet of the stone wall. We meet some street cats who looks like they have been watching the fort for 1000 years, it seems like they are making fun of us. I don’t blame them, we are sunburn, slightly "alcholized" and at the edge of a melted cheese overdose. We agree that we are too tired to chase a firework and hang out in another crowd. Later in the night I will hear its echo in the valley from the window open next to my bed. That sound and that day alone were plenty to celebrate. Happy Bastille Day.