Our ride up the Col de l’Iseran promised to be a big day in our motorcycle tour of France.
And a big day it was – in more ways than expected!
Starting our day in the beautiful (but busy) Aix-les-Bains, we would summit five major Cols before we even reached the Col de l’Iseran.
Among others, some of the highlights we would climb included the Col de Bluffy, the Col de la Croix Fry, and the Col du Pré – all of which were spectacular.
Reaching The Col
We reached the Col de l’Iseran in the late afternoon. To be honest, it was bordering on too late.
The day was losing light, and the weather (as always) was beginning to set in.
As we approached Bourg-Saint-Maurice, ominous and foreboding clouds rolled in fast whilst thunder and lightning crackled away in the distance.
Black clouds formed an omnipotent canopy above us, and bikers coming down the Col from the opposite direction looked thoroughly wet and miserable.
We weren’t greeted with the usual waves from our fellow bikers on that day – just defeated faces in cold, wet helmets.
Stopping at the roadside, we had a choice to make. Do we turn around? Or do we go for it?
Gazing up, we looked at this incredible mountain that towered above us.
I don’t know why, but a few select mountains in the Alps have an almost menacing feeling about them. They intimidate you, and they dare you.
The Col de l’Iseran is one such mountain.
As the rain came down in biblical proportions, the temperature plummeted. We looked at one another, concerned.
“F*ck it. Let’s do this thing.”
The Col de l’Iseran By Motorcycle: Part 1
We didn’t realise it at the time, but the climb up the Col de l’Iseran is split into two parts when approaching it from the town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice.
The first part is quite underwhelming if truth be told.
You get the feeling you’re approaching something special as you leave Bourg-Saint-Maurice.
But the roads are nondescript and dwindle into the forgettable as you fight your way through the tourist traffic.
Sporadic roadworks remind you that you’re in the Alps – as do the slow-moving lorries and the impossible number of construction vehicles.
The scenery is lovely. But thrilling, it is not.
For us, the weather continued to warn us to turn around and head back. Darker. Wetter. Colder.
Stopping once again, we changed into winter gear. The summer gloves and jackets we needed to summit the Col du Pré were rendered useless. So we swapped out for thermal-lined winter jackets and thick, luxurious gloves.
The tunnels are unlit and are dangerous for anybody who is in them.
Unable to see the surface, our tyres slipped and slid from the residual water carried into the tunnels from the cars.
Headlights came towards us at 50kph, distorted as they bounced off the water droplets on our rain-soaked visors.
Momentary blindness released a flood of adrenalin as I rode blind into the tunnels – and I laughed.
This was an adventure. The weather was against us, and the conditions were making things difficult.
It wasn’t going to be an easy experience. But then again, the best ones never are.
As the mountain raged against us, we fought back. Fueled by a dogged drive and stubborn determination, we were going to finish this epic ride up the King of the Alps.
The Col de l’Iseran By Motorcycle: Part 2
Reaching the town of Val-d’Isère, I was expecting a fanfare of triumphant jubilation that we’d made it. But alas, there was nothing but a tourist town going about its usual touristy business.
Lining both sides of the road were hotels, supermarkets, and high street shops. We even saw a Co-Op and a McDonalds- both of which disappointed me greatly.
But continuing through the tourist hotspot, we finally reached the foot of the Col de l’Iseran. The traffic died down – as did the noise.
We were welcomed to the mountain by a deafening crack of thunder. And as we forged ahead, the heavy rain formed raging rivers across the surface of the road.
Ants In A Matchbox
Making our way up the ascent, the traffic, the roadworks, and the tourist towns were left behind us as the spectacular views of the Alps opened up.
The road was epic. The views were outstanding. The feeling was emotive.
Once again, I laughed in my helmet as I climbed higher into the clouds.
Switchback after switchback, I caught glimpses of Val-d’Isère below us – tiny people milling around in a tiny town like busy ants in a trendy matchbox.
The roads became narrow. And as the wind blew in, I became increasingly aware that there were no barriers at the side of the road.
In horrific conditions, we were unprotected and at the mercy of the mountain.
And just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, things became dangerous.
The Col de l’Iseran By Motorcycle: Here Comes The Hail
Fighting our way to the summit, I began to feel the sharpness of hail on my helmet. As it got worse, I could feel it bounce off my hands.
Within a few minutes, it was physically hurting as marble-sized hailstones pelted our bodies and our bikes.
Where the rain had formed rivers at the foot of the Col, the hail had formed an ice rink near the summit of it.
Slowing down to a walking pace, we continued to ascend.
The roads were all but empty at this point. Sane people had turned around a long time ago and made their way to the safety of Val-d’Isère.
Only a few brave (or crazy) souls were left on that mountain. And as the remaining few bikers passed us in the opposite direction, we acknowledged each other earnestly, out of respect.
The friendly nods and waves were replaced with fists to symbolise honour.
And the respect between the bikers on that mountain was tangible – emotional, even.
This was hardcore. It was an experience to remember. It was hard, and each of us was having to work for our story.
The kilometres ticked by, and eventually, we reached the summit.
I’d taken my camera, my drone, and a tonne of batteries. I knew it was going to be a spectacular day, and I wanted to capture the magnificence of the mountain when I got there.
But I wasn’t expecting the conditions we got.
Amid the rain and the hail, we were shrouded in thick fog that rendered invisible views in every direction. At 2,764 m, I supposed you should expect a bit of fog!
By this point, we were cold, wet, and desperate to get off the mountain. It was getting visibly darker by the minute – like God was switching off the lights with a dimmer switch.
I had to forego the photographs and drone footage. Instead, we added layers underneath our jackets. We swapped cold, wet gloves for dry ones.
Unable to zip up our jackets through the shivering, we took turns in doing up each other’s kit.
And just as we were about to leave, an intrepid learner rider from Italy pulled up beside us. Visibly cold, shaken, and out of his depth, he looked so pleased to see us.
He took a snapshot on his phone without even getting off his bike and set off back down the mountain.
The Col de l’Iseran By Motorcycle: The Descent
A few minutes later, our kit was finally zipped up, and we could begin our descent.
In the distance, I could spot the bright yellow rain suit of the Italian rider we’d seen at the summit.
He was struggling.
By this point, it was getting dark. Visibility was poor through the rain, and it was dangerously cold.
Remnants of hail still coated the surface of the road.
Sensing his struggles, my dad and I overtook him to offer him protection from the elements. Offering our experience, we gave him much-needed company and the comfort of an alliance.
Winding our way down the treacherous roads, we all made the descent into civilisation and away from the wrath of the mighty Col de l’Iseran.
The Mountain Won In The End
As we rolled onto the foothills on the other side of the Col de l’Iseran, my confidence was rising.
I was soaking wet and freezing cold. I was shivering and shuddering, and I was beginning to bite the inside of my cheeks as my teeth chattered.
But I was victorious.
I’d taken on one of the highest paved roads in the Alps and survived.
Not only that, but I’d taken it on in the worst conditions a biker could imagine.
The deluge continued to soak southeastern France as we powered through it towards to warmth of our accommodation.
And then it happened.
The Col de l’Iseran Killed My Motorcycle!
Due to the heavy rainfall, the road surfaces were inches deep in water. And in an effort to remain safe, I was avoiding as many bike movements as I could.
Maintaining throttle, I glided through bends keeping as much ground clearance as I could and shaving off as little speed as I could get away with.
But as I applied throttle when exiting bends, my bike would judder.
I know my bike. And I knew that those judders weren’t right. Something was wrong.
Carrying on, I noticed a loss of power. The engine started getting hot, and a throaty burble became audible – different from the Africa Twin’s usual song.
Chugging and burbling, I limped the bike along the rain-sodden roads for 20 km towards our hotel.
And halfway up the final hill, the bike ran out of steam and died.
The Rest Of The Tour
I put both feet down, flicked into neutral and let the bike have a rest.
The rain bounced off my soaking body, dribbled down my jacket, and pooled uncomfortably in my crotch.
Out of desperation, I put the bike in gear. And with one last fist full of throttle, I got it to the top of the hill and coasted down the other side to the welcoming arms of my hotel.
Unable to get it fixed locally, the breakdown company advised I get the bike towed back home.
Which I did.
And I completed the rest of my tour by driving from the south of France to the UK in a Renault Clio hire car – which the birds subsequently shat on.
The Col de l’Iseran By Motorcycle: Conclusion
I’d like to think that I took on the Col de l’Iseran at its worst and survived. But the truth of the matter is that whilst I won the battle, I lost the war.
To this day, I don’t know if the mountain killed my bike or if it was a fault that was going to happen regardless.
But either way, would I do it again?
You bet I would – and I’d love every damn second of it!
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