Skittering on French Gravel

Along with headwinds, roundabouts, and poor quality coffee, gravel is the natural nemesis of us cyclists.

Is it just me, or is that gravel up ahead? (Photo: Ingvar Parnamae - Public Domain via Wikimedia)
Is it just me, or is that gravel up ahead?
(Photo: Ingvar Parnamae – Public Domain via Wikimedia)

To spot gravel on the apex of a downhill bend whilst travelling at 40 mph is akin to discovering the tea bag is still floating around in a half drunk cup of tea; not only is it surprising and unnerving, but in the back of your mind you can’t help thinking someone has left it there on purpose.

Admittedly the cup of tea analogy does omit one further detail which is key to the discovery of gravel on a downhill bend: you may be about to die!

With all this in mind, on a recent trip to the Vosges mountains in the Alsace-lorainne area France myself and professional camping expert @mattydeighton were alarmed, to say the least, to discover that whoever is responsible for maintaining the roads in this corner of one of the world’s most bike friendly countries, seems to have concluded that an inch or two of gravel is the perfect material to do it with.

It’s worth mentioning that many of the road surfaces in the Vosges feature the kind of pristine tarmac which I – I’m happy to admit – occasionally fall asleep at night dreaming of. But these little strips of perfection only serve to highlight the problem.

Imagine our surprise when we tackled the Col de Bramont, for example, to find several kilometres which featured patches of deep gravel and caused us to skate and skitter about even on the ascent; we weren’t even riding quickly – the 38 degree temperatures, lack of water, and less than diligent application of sun cream had made sure of that.

Col du Bramont - just look at all that gravel! (Imag: Ji-Elle via wikimedia cc)
Col du Bramont – just look at all that gravel!
(Imag: Ji-Elle via wikimedia cc)

A descent on that particular strip of French road was an exercise in blind faith, with the search for grip resembling a drunk fumbling for the keyhole in a front door after a night on the Belgian beer; not only ineffective but not pretty to watch, and bound to end angrily.

My gravel related misery was compounded the following day as I tackled the Col de la Schlucht.

For several kilometres all seemed well, with the climb featuring the ribbon smooth tarmac of a well-used Tour de France mountain stage. But without warning, the gravel returned. After the experience on the Bramont I felt better prepared, and decided to tackle the uneven surface in the manner of a Dutch rouleur riding the cobbles of northern Europe: all out aggression was the order of the day.

It was only after having conquered the col with this brute force approach that I noticed the damage caused by my all action style. The chips to the paintwork of my pride and joy – the bike which lives in the bedroom – is something I still haven’t quite come to terms with (sob!).

As soon as i can figure out who’s responsible for all this gravel i’ll invoice them for the damage; we English always feel better after sending a strongly worded letter.

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11 comments

  1. After 26 years living in France I can assure you that this is the norm. Most people round here have had a least one windscreen shattered by stone chips and I nearly did a Beloki yesterday – picking up some tarmac (it’s 30° here in the mountains at the moment) with stone chips adhering from the “repairs” to the edge of the road. Luckily no chips on the 09 …yet

    Liked by 1 person

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