Up To The Col

An inhospitable ascent. Taking the scenic route to Italy by motorcycle, reader, Dave Fisher discovers some uncomfortable truths.

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Still raining.

I stood in the gathering dark looking down at the bike, rain and sleet pinging off my ancient XJ 900’s hot exhaust. 700 miles from London through the rain and it wasn’t happy; like me, it was waterlogged, refusing to start and feeling cursed. All this way for a birthday party in an Italian villa, via the Alps, but it’ll be a great ride said some envious friends, it’s summertime and only a day or two to get there. So much for the wisdom of friends.

The cafe near the top of the Col du petit St. Bernard looked an uninviting place, but at least it wouldn’t be raining inside. I left the bike by the road and scurried in like a pilgrim on the road to Santiago, desperate for succour. Apparently built in the last century when this area supported silver mining, the cafe’s rear wall was formed from the overhanging cliff, making a cold damp cave of a room. The log fire had died some years ago and there was nowhere to sit. Nor anything to eat.

The two men at the bar stared at my greeting from narrow eyes, their dogs watchful, then resumed their whispered discussion. I probably stank. They were of the same era as the cafe, faces carved out of rock like the wall behind them, both smoking evil-smelling Gitanes and pastis on the bar in front of them. Great legs though – grey breeches with white wool socks and black nailed boots, they should’ve been wearing berets.  I wondered where on earth they’d come from, there were no vehicles outside, no buildings for miles, no sheep even. And they were dry. The patron nodded at me and didn’t smile. Why would he?

Bringing me coffee and brandy he glanced at my hands, stained purple from the dye that had been leached out of my gloves by the rain. I saw him wondering “What kind of woad-smeared Briton is this?” But he said nothing. As the coffee warmed me I dripped steadily onto the flag-stones and began to feel absurdly grateful for this mean little place.  The two montagnards fell silent and we all stared out of the window at the rain being flung at the glass.

I stood in the doorway looking out at the rain, praying to it, loving it and accepting it fully. It didn’t stop. Walking to the bike with rain drumming on my helmet, I lowered the visor, only to find water trickling down the inside of it. I realised these weren’t rain drops exactly, more like tiny columns of water, a form of waterfall in fact. Miraculously, the bike started first time…

Negotiating hairpins on a powerful bike is usually a delightful task. Surrounded by the spectacular Alpine scenery of, say, the Col de petit St Bernard on a bright day, the concentration required comes easily. The balancing of gear selection and throttle, entry speed into the corner and degree of lean, judging the variable camber, braking and choosing your route across the hairpin, all the while looking out for other traffic, patches of gravel and the awesome drop over the edge. It all makes for an intricate and subtle dance that makes the relatively low speeds seem irrelevant, the balancing act like freedom.

This however, was different. There was no love in this. As I gained height towards the col the temperature fell and the rain turned to sleet, the mist that had filled the valley floor thickened and visibility dropped. The overloaded bike had turned into a mean-spirited animal that refused to take directions. The road surface had acquired a sinister polish in places, hundreds of miniature landslides had spread mud and gravel and stones across the road, a turn out of a hairpin could lead you onto a road surface covered in two inches of water. The cold penetrated my saturated leathers and I became more and more chilled. It drove the last cafe’s warmth from out of my wet gloves and soon my hands became stiff unwieldy things that refused to operate the bikes levers. I was forced to concentrate on operating my hands as well as everything else. The numberless hairpins became a treadmill that was filling me with hatred; hatred for the villainous weather, for this vile and twisted road.

The village of La Thuile came and went, a signpost for Porassey pointed off to the right. I speculated that was where the two strangers in the cafe, now just a memory, had come from. The road continued to climb as horizontal sleet congealed on my visor forcing me to constantly wipe it clear. Usually just when I needed both hands on the bars. The wind strengthened into a howl that seemed to be searching for my soul.

I was seeing more and larger drifts of snow as I gained height and the cold became intense. I realized that  I was feeling quite scared; I told myself that I had plenty of petrol, some water and food in the tank bag, a stove in with the soaked camping gear. I reminded myself that this was Europe, France in fact, a developed country with tarmac roads and passing cars and the like. I told myself to relax, stop praying for deliverance and enjoy the ride. Instead I started singing a hymn. It suited the conditions.

The world had reduced to a gold-fish bowl of 10 yards of road, mist and sleet in a moaning wind, accompanied by the engines regular beat. No traffic had passed in either direction for a long time when I stopped by the roadside and warmed my hands on the engine. The sense of isolation was overwhelming. There really were no people in the world and I felt some relief to be standing on something man-made. The tarmac. It meant that people had once been up here, when they had made this thing. I squelched around for a bit to warm up then stood and listened to the wind, small puddles forming around each boot. I thought I must be near the col by now, there’s snow everywhere.

I was just about to start the engine when above me in the mist, I heard an odd sound like a lawn-mower or large sewing machine. Slightly spooked, I waited by the bike as the strange engine sound came and went, but gradually grew louder. Just as I placed the sound as a scooter, down the hill came an ancient Vespa, its feeble yellow headlight failing completely to penetrate the murk. I remembered that across the other side of the pass, in another world, lay Italy.

A young man, unshaven, wearing sunglasses and open-face helmet, Jeans and a thin stylish leather jacket. His only concession to the weather was a black bin-liner with holes cut out for his arms. He buzzed past with a huge toothy grin and a wave. I stood and stared after him until he was swallowed up by the mist. Then another nine scooters of varying ages and states of health, their riders all plastered in freezing sleet and snow, rode slowly and magnificently by. There I stood waving, in heavy, sodden leathers and elaborate but useless waterproofs, next to my large and powerful motorcycle, but somehow feeling completely undone.

I started the engine and eventually arrived at the col, but finding only a small car park and further on an abandoned monastery, I didn’t stop to take pictures of the non-existent view nor drink coffee at the non-existent cafe. I hurried on and down towards the sun, the dry, and Italy.

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Down down and down. Still further down and now more down. The road fell further and further and with each kilometer the temperature rose, the wind lessened and the mist cleared. The sun came out and I found myself giving thanks for the return of the light, like a pagan. Trees appeared by the roadside, then buildings, then people. I left the bike in neutral and rolled along just for the hell of it, the surface bone dry and nearly perfect. Tight hairpins gave way to long sweeping curves designed just for me and the bike to enjoy. Pretty children in pretty villages yelled and waved me through, why is everyone smiling? Why is there no traffic? Why has the bike decided to sing? And still the road fell in easy gradients towards the valley floor.

I stopped at a viewpoint where some benevolent authority had provided picnic tables, to take a picture. The heat boiled up from the tarmac and the engine like a bath of warm treacle, and I felt myself sinking – into the warm glow, into the moment of pure physical pleasure, and then into a question around suffering and endurance.

So I climbed out of my still saturated leathers, hung my gloves on the bikes mirrors and balanced my boots on the seat, then my jacket on the fairing and my trousers over the top-box. I lay down on the road in my boxers and sunglasses because enough already, enough with the pain and the cold and the wet and the struggle. The dry and the heat radiated up and through me, penetrating skin and bones, the scent of pines my nostrils and the sound of crickets my ears. There on the road to Aosta, even though I was only half way there, I knew that the journey understood me once again.

4 thoughts on “Up To The Col”

  1. This motorbike trip compounds the two of the most common ways people have of inflicting misery on themselves: mountain walking and cycling. I’ve tried both and the peculiar mix of suffering and delight is familiar to me. The mountain setting offers cold and damp while the motorbike probably is not as arduous to use as a bike, there may be a shared element of physical discomfort. You don’t easily get that in a car, do you? You get tired in a way like being awake for a long time rather than tired from exertion. The sensory experience is also muted: vibrations, music or radio, coffee in the cupholder and number nine of twenty Rothman’s perhaps.

  2. What a fantastically written, enjoyable (for me sitting in the surprising warmth of late autumn) piece!

    It sounds very much like the last time we drove that road (early April), except we were in a nice warm car.

  3. A great piece Dave, giving me the chance to vicariously experience a trip I’ve promised myself from time to time but never made. My own rainy nightmare of lasting memory is a more mundane trip from Sheffield to London which left me soaked to the skin, but the adrenaline pumping so hard that I wolfed down a Greek meal as soon as I arrived, then took to my bed for a week. However, I did visit the col last Summer in the comfort of a motorhome and it seems it hasn’t changed a bit since you were there.


    Generally I find that a nice lightweight scooter is great for putting a heavy bike in its place as soon as the weather turns. I know which I’d have felt happier doing your journey on.

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