Daily Commute - Grenoble, France (2 parts)
Whilst in the armpit of mid-winter, I was looking for a file in my archives and came upon this item. I wrote it while I was living in Grenoble, France. I'd had my '96 F650 for a couple of months by then. Now, years later, I sometimes think that living in Grenoble was a dream. Enjoy...
Carol & David's Excellent Adventures
PART XII - Flocculance
- David A. Braun = Flash412
Copyright - October 1998
The rubric of rime for Isere is flocculating nascent wisps of cloud on verdant peaks and naked spires. I came up with that sentence on my way to work, going the "long way." Isere is the river after which the department (approximately equivalent to a state) is named, in whose valley the city of Grenoble, France sits. If you see a picture of Grenoble's Telepherique, a ski-lift-like string of bubble cars hanging from a wire rope, they are likely to be directly above the Isere.
We live on what you call the second floor (first floor in Europe, as in first floor UP from the ground floor). We can look almost directly across the street to the door of the court where the bike lives (but can not see the bike). It takes me about two minutes from the time I walk out the door of our apartment to clear the entrance of my building, cross the street, enter the building in whose interior courtyard the bike is parked (assuming the portal is not locked), and go down the entry-hall to the bike.
?ëclair Blanche ("White Lightning," my F650 BMW) starts easily. If the weather is cold, some or all of the choke is required. She runs unfalteringly within a few seconds. Although sometimes I leave the choke on a bit until we are either traveling freely or I notice that the temp gage is up off the pin, because sometimes she'll stall at a stoplight or sign within the first few minutes.
There are several long ways to get to work from our apartment in Centre Ville de Grenoble. None of them are actually ON the way. One of my favorites goes like this... we leave the where the bike sleeps. This is sometimes tricky in that I do not possess a key. And I occasionally find my bike inaccessible on holidays or some Sundays. (Note: there are hundreds of holidays in France. The trick is to know in advance which are the important ones and park on the street the night before, u-locked to a pole.)
We go up my block, cross one street, go up the next block, and then it gets a little tricky. At the corner is a Yamaha shop and right turn only. We need to turn left. But there is a little parking strip to the left that we can take. The little strip exits onto Gambetta, a left-only one way street. But we need to go right. To the right is a HUGE intersection, Place Hubert Dubedout, which looks from far away to be a seven-point intersection. Due to the layout, with the little parking strips and extra side streets and stuff, there are actually more like eleven ways to enter and/or exit the intersection. Judging from the layout of the curbstones, and judging from the fact that there is a traffic light facing us from the right, the little parking strip we are exiting used to funnel traffic to the right, before they made Boulevard Gambetta one-way south. I THINK I could argue my way out of a ticket should we get pulled over for what we are about to do. ("Vraiment, Messeur Gendarme, si n'est pas dans le loi por je fait une tourne a droit ici, donc porquoi curve le rue a droit et porquoi il y a un feu du traffic en face d'ici?") When that light turns green, I punch it and we clear the intersection before the traffic coming the other way cuts across our bow. Punching it is not at all a butt-puckering experience. It is just that if I wait a five count after the light turns green, the intersection is packed with cross-traffic from too many directions to comprehend. And, depending on the volume, we may or may not have an opportunity to make our play before the light turns red again. Once across the intersection, we traverse the bridge over the Isere and go straight (instead of curving left onto the beginning of the autoroute, "Direction Lyon"). One block later, we turn right, and the Ride begins.
At the instant we turn right, the road starts to go up. And I mean UP. This is one of those twisty, in city, uphill roads you see in movies, first-gear stuff. Rising the first two hundred meters vertically takes a half dozen or so switches between the concrete and stone walls of the houses and businesses. Then, it begins to open up a bit. Only snatches of the View are available, because at every place where it is architecturally possible someone has built a house. After all, this region has had folks trading real estate since well before there were Christians. In fact, the Romans claimed some of the best real estate above Grenoble a long LONG time ago. (But a couple millennia without significant preventative maintenance will cause even the highest quality structures to get sorta run down.)
After about a kilometer, we come to the end-of-limits sign. This means that the speed limit is now 90 kph. But what it REALLY means is that the Laws of Physics now apply. One peg-scraping first-gear turn later, we are blasting up into the Chartreuse, gazing DOWN upon the synchrotron and singularly-designed suspension-bridge at the confluence of the Isere and Drac rivers near downtown Grenoble. Across the Isere Valley, sits the massif of the Vercors. (Most mornings, there are usually a bunch of nascent wisps flocculating up there, atop the spires.) Another turn, and I'm gazing UP at the massif of the Chartreuse (more of those lil flocculating buggers). All picture-postcard stuff. We dance to the song of the two-lane blacktop road, the bike and I together. There is a rhythm to the roads in the Alps that resonates in my soul. It changes tempo, like the Dragon in Tennessee. But unlike the Dragon, situated in hilly tree-cloistered woodlands approaching the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the roads in the Alps have a breathtaking vista around most every turn. Imagine riding over Trail Ridge Road (through the Rocky Mountain National Park, over the Divide) on your way to work in the morning. Now imagine that you are riding the Rhythm of the Dragon (in the vicinity of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) with the View from Trail Ridge... without any traffic and with a legal limit of 55 mph. Pinch me.
One nice thing about driving in the Alps is that there don't seem to be any revenuers. I have yet to see speed traps ala USA, set up by municipalities in order to extract "tax" dollars from passing motorists. Once in a while I see some police. But they generally seem to be performing useful work. I have only seen radar in use twice between last December and now (October), once at the foot of a viaduct downtown, and once on the autoroute.
Another nice thing about driving in the Alps is that folks seem to be paying attention. And yet another feature, related to the previous one, is that you can pass just about anywhere. This is not just a function of the lines stitched onto the road surface, but also of etiquette. In France, if you find yourself having erred in your instantaneous performance the differential calculus required to model three dimensional time-space locations of all the players on the road for a given pass, your fellow players will alter their trajectories so as to let you in. (The buffalo on that nickel is that you've got to be mentally prepared to deal with coming around a curve to find both lanes filled with cars coming at you.)
Road rage doesn't play here. This is clearly illustrated by the queues at traffic lights. Approaching a stoplight, it is natural here for the motorcycles and motor scooters to filter to the front. In fact, the cars will often pull aside a bit to make MORE room for a bike. Quite the opposite of the cager behavior bikers in the USA expect.
Our ride up the Chartreuse carries us into a national forest. We wind ever upward, around the curve of valleys, seeing little French towns >from nearly every possible angle, sitting nestled into their hillsides. There is a lot of territory here for us to explore, but not on my way to work. For me, the uphill path is more of a joy and a pleasure, as it requires a bit less concentration than the downhill ride. If you overcook an uphill turn a bit, gravity's claws help to scrape off some of your speed. But, if you overcook a downhill curve... the teeth of gravity pull you into her gaping maw. Put another way, I always feel more comfortable looking at my surroundings on the uphill sections than I do on the downhill sections, where I am compelled to concentrate virtually all of my attention on the road.
At the tee at the top, we turn right, and head back down. We climbed up one side of the massif; we'll descend another. There is plenty of territory in the Chartreuse to the north of here, all the way to Chambery, located on the flat at the bottom of the cliff (another stunning ride) past the north end of the massif. Dropping down the cliff into Chambray sits, as Carol put it, "God's own hairnet," a woven wire rope net to keep the rocks and boulders on the cliff and off the road (or your head). The road appears to have been constructed by Mole Men.
Part 2 of 2
Road numbers in the French hinterlands are just about worthless. When you come to an intersection, you need to know the name of the next town along your direction of travel. Compass directions are not included on any signage. The French have placed these little plinths along the way. Sometimes the grass is even cut down to where you might have been able to see the little numbers carved in them if they hadn't been whitewashed along with the rest of the plinth. But for now, I don't mind taking the occasional wrong turn. For how can you really be lost if you don't mind being where you are?
Anyway, we turn right and zip through a quick, curvy, downhill section before entering a little Alpine village. Unlike the ersatz Alpine villages in the Appalachians, Rockies, or Sierras, this one not only looks real, but IS real. The cafes and bakeries are not just for the tourists, though they certainly appreciate the business. In fact, this particular village, Le Sappey en Chartreuse, is where our son, Sam, went on a two-week succession of daily school trips to take nature walks and learn about life in general with visits to the baker, the mayor, the post office... It takes only two minutes at 50-kph (the national in-town speed limit) to clear the village. No stoplight. But the end of limits sign doesn't show up for another klick or so because of some intersections related to the "suburbs" of Le Sappey.
When the limit goes away, there is a snaking "straight" section that can be taken at a good clip. It is snaking, in that it is curvy. It is straight, in that even though the road is doing a dance, the visibility is as unobscured as that of a straight section. A good place to pass. The last good place to pass before things start getting complicated. The first hint of complication is when you have to exhale to make the road skinny enough to fit between the (stone) barn and (stone) house at the apex of a left hander just before a series of blind curves. (I prefer to take this curve heading down. Heading up, I always think of Joey Dunlop talking about banging his helmet on some of the houses on the Isle of Man. The marks are there, on the house.) In the middle of the last short section where you might be able to pass is a turn-off option. Sometimes we take this one and sometimes we don't. It drops down and reconnects with the road on which we came up.
When we go "straight," the wall is on the left, the precipice is on the right, and the tires are running on the sidewalls, flip-flopping back and forth and forth and back, left right left right, as we hurtle down the massif. Within an eyeblink, I'm looking on the opposite end of Grenoble down (and I do mean DOWN, with full views of the roofs of the tallest buildings in the city) than the one I saw on the way up. If I look far to the west, I can see the range called le Belle Donne, the border with Italy. If the day is clear, there is a spot from which I can see Mont Blanc in Switzerland. Pinch me.
Like CW McCall said, ~"Down, around, around, and down until we wound up in a feed store in downtown Pagosa Springs." Actually, we zip into la Tronche, which is to Grenoble what Camden is to Philadelphia, I suppose. La Tronche is across the Isere from Grenoble and a separate municipality. If we continue straight, we will go past the 35 pizza places and Italian restaurants along the river, which I can see from two blocks from home. (Now WHY there are 35 pizza joints in a row is a matter of conjecture. But... there they are.) If we continued straight, we'd come out at the third bridge, where this whole thing started. Be that all as it may, we usually take a left across the first bridge. (The second one, the oldest bridge with the most character, sporting chains with links as big as your arm, is now strictly limited to pedestrian traffic.) A right runs us along the river, and about three blocks from home, we can drop down to the one-way drive along the river. This miniature "expressway" carries us back under the seven-point intersection at Place Hubert Dubedout and zips past a bunch of other traffic-slowing obstacles and spits us out at the foot of a viaduct that runs over the railroad gulch. Two traffic lights later, we get on the autoroute and we're on our way to work, six kilometers away.
OK, sometimes instead of taking the scenic route, we just turn right at the Yamaha shop in the beginning and then hairpin left for the "river drive." The rest of the way to work is the same. But the scenic route only runs either 35 or 45-km longer and only takes an extra half-hour or so. In terms of Soul Food (as in Food for my Soul) it is heck of a lot better than a day off from work sitting around watching teevee in my underwear. I arrive at work energized, fully re-created, ready to face whatever challenges are in store, having had a few up close and personal thoughts (conversations with God?) along the way about things like tire traction, lean angle, the existential tenuousness of existence, and the shape and function of terrestrial planetary formations and their attendant coloration. Yeah, we could have done worse than to move from the Front Range of Colorado to Grenoble, France, the self proclaimed "Capital des Alpes," a LOT worse.
 "Honest, Officer, if it was not legal for me to make a right turn here, why does the pavement curve to the right and why is there a traffic light facing me?"
 Chartreuse is a massif, a big plateau, north of Grenoble, France. A good bit of it is Parc Nationale. Chartreuse is a healthy-tasting, strong, alcoholic beverage, akin to brandy, made by monks in the Chartreuse. It comes in yellow and green. The green is the stronger of the two. Chartreuse is also a color that is sort of a pastel green/yellow.
 "The Dragon" is a very curvy road in East Tennessee, (US129) terminating at "The Crossroads of Time" in North Carolina (Hwy. 28), legend to motorcyclists, "318 mountain curves in 11 miles."
 Trail Ridge Road (US34) in Colorado is the highest paved through-road in the continental USA, well over 12,000 feet. The view, as you might imagine, is rather pleasant. The weather up there is often not pleasant. The road is generally closed from October to May.
 Cager - one who drives an automobile (a cage)
 Ref: B-sci-fi flicks: Superman and The Mole Men (1958), Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules (1961). To me roads that "stitch" along the side of a cliff look like they were built by Mole Men in that I guess I think that a race of Mole Men would have no reservations about digging holes.
 Joey Dunlop narrates a lap around the 37-mile, public road, race circuit on the Isle of Man in the classic (to motorcyclists) film entitled "V-Four Victory." Some of what he says you can actually understand through his thick brogue, such as the bit about banging his helmet.
 More or less lifted from the song "Wolf Creek Pass" - C.W. McCall
 Hubert Dubedout was once mayor of Grenoble. But we prefer to remember him as the guy whose name inspired some Frank Sinatra lyrics... "oobie doobie doo."
A photo of l'?ëclair Blanche is here.
A photo of the road to Die is here.
And a photo of what the Mole Men built is here.
And, just for grins, a shot of Sam, standing in our apartment is here.
Other write-ups on Carol & David's Excellent Adventures (C&DEA) are here.
- David A. Braun = Flash = l'?ëclair - DoD #412
Sounds just like my ride to work inside the Baltimore Beltway.