Sum­mits And Switch­backs

Near the French city of Nice is a play­ground of soar­ing cols, sweep­ing de­scents and count­less hair­pins that has be­come a favourite train­ing arena for the pros. Cy­clist pays it a visit

Cyclist - - Contents - Words TREVOR WARD Pho­tog­ra­phy PATRIK LUNDIN

Cy­clist heads to south­ern France to take in a clus­ter of cols around Nice that are fast be­com­ing a haven for pro cy­clists

Em­bro­ca­tion. Su­per­sti­tion. Nav­i­ga­tion. Sun­screen and chamois cream. My cheap, plas­tic ‘climber’s cru­ci­fix’. A map ooz­ing con­tours and suf­fer­ing – the sym­bols of my silent, soli­tary rit­ual be­fore a Big Ride. A com­bi­na­tion of the sci­en­tific, tal­is­manic and car­to­graphic that will be topped off by the calorific, a big bowl of muesli with the con­tents of two car­tons of nat­u­ral yo­ghurt squeezed over it. My rid­ing part­ner, Gav, is cal­i­brat­ing his sock length. Th­ese are the mar­ginal gains that will de­fine our day in the moun­tains of south­ern France. They say cycling is ‘the beau­ti­ful sport’, though they have ob­vi­ously never seen Gav in full flight. He may be fast, but looks like a chim­panzee try­ing to es­cape from the zoo. Or me, hunched like a bear stuck in econ­omy class.

Maybe ‘they’ meant the ma­chines we ride, but there is no way our bikes are more beau­ti­ful than our sleek, freshly shaved legs, glis­ten­ing in the morn­ing sun on this beau­ti­ful June morn­ing. (Although I will con­cede my bike does have a gor­geous fin­ish – see The Rider’s Ride.)

No, the beauty of cycling lies in the places and feel­ings it trans­ports us to. To­day, th­ese places will in­clude some of the roads and climbs reg­u­larly used by the pros who live in or near Monaco, about 90 min­utes’ drive away. Chris Froome says this area is ‘a hid­den gem’ (sorry, Chris, not any more), while Lizzie Deignan’s favourite climb, the Col de Braus and its ‘lovely long switch­backs’, is also on our itin­er­ary.

Ah, those switch­backs – we got to 56 be­fore los­ing count of the hair­pins on the map. I check for the fac­tor 50 in my rear pocket and won­der if I should have packed some sea­sick­ness tablets too.

The pros at­tack th­ese moun­tains, the Mar­itime Alps, from the coast, but we have based our­selves in the lit­tle vil­lage of Ro­que­bil­lière, nestling in their west­ern flanks. We leave across a hand­some stone bridge be­fore an anony­mous-look­ing left turn sig­nals the start of the climb to the first of half a dozen cols we will pass over to­day, the Col de la Porte.

The quiet life

Af­ter the hum of traf­fic on the main road to­wards Nice, it’s sud­denly silent and still, though we are soon fill­ing the void with our laboured breath­ing as the gra­di­ent kicks in. If a rider climbs a 7% slope through dense for­est but there is no one to see him, did he re­ally do it? Of course he did, as long as he re­mem­bers to up­load it to Strava later.

There are oc­ca­sional clear­ings and a suc­ces­sion of bridges across an un­seen river as the road goes up. When we fi­nally break free from the fo­liage at a cross­roads, a sign an­nounces Col Saint-roch. We ob­vi­ously rode straight past the Col de la Porte with­out fan­fare fur­ther down in the for­est. Look­ing ahead now, we see our first set of hair­pins de­scend­ing en­tic­ingly to the medieval vil­lage of Lucéram.

As we en­ter its nar­row streets, it would be easy to be

A lo­cal points up the hill and tells us the next res­tau­rant isn’t for an­other 20km

lulled by our down­hill mo­men­tum into rolling straight through, but I de­cide such an at­trac­tive jum­ble of pas­tel fa­cades and del­i­cate church tow­ers de­mands more re­spect – or at least a few pho­to­graphs – so slam on my brakes.

A cof­fee would be nice, but nowhere ap­pears to be open. In­stead I click-clack over a cob­bled square to see

what I can glean from the posters in the tourism of­fice win­dow: not a lot, it’s all in French. But as I re­turn to my bike I catch sight of what was pre­vi­ously hid­den from view – the road we were rid­ing on is sup­ported by a suc­ces­sion of 10-me­tre high stone arches, from whose black­ness tum­ble tor­rents of ivy. It re­sem­bles a spec­tac­u­lar art in­stal­la­tion, and is prob­a­bly missed by the hun­dreds of tourists who choose to pass through here each day by car.

A few kilo­me­tres fur­ther on, we ar­rive at the out­skirts of L’es­carène. We turn left at a sign say­ing ‘Col de Braus 12km’. The sign also an­nounces a vil­lage in 3km. Will it have a res­tau­rant or do we stop for lunch here? We gam­ble, and start the climb. The vil­lage does in­deed have a res­tau­rant. It even has an invit­ing out­door ter­race with ta­bles and chairs over­look­ing the val­ley. But it’s closed.

A lo­cal points up the hill and tells us the next res­tau­rant in that di­rec­tion isn’t for an­other 20km. Re­luc­tantly, we turn around and free­wheel back down into the town of L’es­carène, where our frus­tra­tion is partly tem­pered by piz­zas the size of bi­cy­cle wheels.

Sat­is­fac­tion, trep­i­da­tion, cal­cu­la­tion

Pizza and beer im­me­di­ately fol­lowed by a 12km climb at an av­er­age gra­di­ent close to 7% re­quires some quick men­tal cal­cu­la­tion. It’s less chal­leng­ing than split­ting the bill for lunch had been – ‘plant-pow­ered’ Gav in­sisted on hav­ing his chicken pizza with­out the chicken – and we agree we’re still on sched­ule to make it back to the ho­tel pool be­fore dark.

There are at least a dozen hair­pins up ahead of us on Lizzie Deignan’s favourite climb. That’s 10km di­vided by 12 mul­ti­plied by 180° times 7%. Th­ese are the frac­tions that haunt us over and over again as we climb up the Col de Braus, with the view back down the val­ley con­stantly switch­ing from one side to the other.

But we don’t get to fully ap­pre­ci­ate the aes­thet­ics and engi­neer­ing of th­ese hair­pins un­til we have fi­nally slipped their curly bonds and the road has straight­ened out for the last cou­ple of kilo­me­tres to the sum­mit. Only then, look­ing to our right, do we see the com­plete stack of bends, look­ing like some oth­er­worldly con­coc­tion left be­hind with ge­o­met­ri­cal pre­ci­sion by a mas­ter race of ex­tra-ter­res­trial en­gi­neers. Ex­cept that it was ac­tu­ally built by the lo­cal coun­cil’s high­ways depart­ment.

A nar­row road sign­posted Col de Turini leads off to our left. We shall re­turn to this im­mi­nently, but first I want to pay my re­spects to a cy­clist whose story makes the mod­ern-day pelo­ton look about as ex­cit­ing as a Sun­day night in Crewe (Peter Sa­gan ex­cepted, ob­vi­ously).

There are at least a dozen hair­pins up ahead of us. That’s 10km di­vided by 12 mul­ti­plied by 180° times 7%

The res­tau­rant that once stood here at the sum­mit of the Col de Braus is now an aban­doned ruin, so we clip in and ride back to the turn-off for the Col de Turini

The tale of René Vi­etto’s toe cap­tured my imag­i­na­tion as I thumbed through a bar­gain bin his­tory of the Tour in a book­shop many years ago. On a rest day dur­ing the 1947 Tour, he told his team doc­tor to am­pu­tate one of his toes af­ter it had turned sep­tic (the re­sult of a long-stand­ing in­jury). ‘It will make me lighter in the moun­tains,’ he said, pre­sum­ably while bit­ing on a branch and knock­ing back a large Pernod.

The toe be­came re­garded by some as a holy relic, with its where­abouts and fi­nal rest­ing place the sub­ject of fever­ish de­bate, as if its DNA might some­how be used to fa­cil­i­tate a new gen­er­a­tion of French su­per-grimpeurs.

Au­thor Max Leonard even­tu­ally tracked it down to a jar in the kitchen of a friend of Vi­etto’s, and paid it the re­spect it de­served by not pub­lish­ing any of the pho­to­graphs he took of it. Like a re­li­gious relic, he felt it should ‘ex­ist in the imag­i­na­tion, not in sight’.

Hooked by the story of his toe, I learned about the rest of Vi­etto too – what a for­mi­da­ble climber he was and how the Col de Braus was his reg­u­lar train­ing ride, and where he

first made his name, launch­ing a race-win­ning at­tack in the Boucle de Sospel of 1931. So I feel a gen­uine fris­son of awe stand­ing at the top of the climb now and look­ing at the mon­u­ment ded­i­cated to him (even if it is just a car­bon copy of Tom Simp­son’s memo­rial on Ven­toux). Bal­anced on a ledge are two small urns con­tain­ing the ashes of Vi­etto and his wife. Fol­low­ing René’s death in 1988, his son had cy­cled up the moun­tain with the urn in his bot­tle cage, hon­our­ing his fa­ther’s fi­nal wish.

The cols keep com­ing

By now it’s start­ing to driz­zle and the res­tau­rant that once stood here at the sum­mit of the Col de Braus is now an aban­doned ruin, so we clip in and ride back to the turn-off for the Col de Turini.

The road climbs through mist and for­est to the Col de l’able be­fore a twist­ing de­scent de­liv­ers us to a T-junc­tion at the foot of the next climb. The sun has reap­peared, and

Gav is squint­ing at his Garmin. ‘There are 14 hair­pins just around the next bend,’ he says with barely sup­pressed glee.

Sure enough, here is an­other set of God’s gift to the grav­i­ta­tion­ally chal­lenged. Th­ese hair­pins have had to work harder to con­quer the con­tours of the moun­tain than those of the Col de Braus. The rugged land­scape here has forced th­ese hair­pins into a more ir­reg­u­lar pat­tern, where the coils aren’t quite as com­pact and the length of the ramps be­tween not quite so uni­form. But that’s just me be­ing picky – I’m now a switch­back snob, and noth­ing less than a per­fect, tightly arced 180° bend is go­ing to sat­isfy me.

By the time we reach the top of th­ese bends, how­ever – and we seem to be twist­ing and turn­ing for­ever – I have been won over once more. The sheer ac­ro­bat­ics of the road, com­bined with the com­plete lack of traf­fic, has made go­ing up­hill feel al­most as much fun as go­ing down­hill. Al­most.

The last bend spills out onto a ridge, which we fol­low for about 10km, pass­ing the vil­lage of Peira Cava, whose claim to fame was be­com­ing the re­gion’s first ski sta­tion in 1914

Even­tu­ally the road loops back on it­self, and the in­evitable con­se­quence of all that down­hill re­veals it­self in the shape of an ugly ramp point­ing up

(it’s now closed). We ar­rive at a cross­roads to find a clus­ter of Swiss chalet-style build­ings marked by a sign trum­pet­ing Col de Turini. As sum­mits go, I’ve had bet­ter. But thanks to Froome, we know the fun is a few kilo­me­tres up the road.

Some more climb­ing and an­other hand­ful of hair­pins brings us to the Cir­cuit de l’au­thion, of which Froome said, ‘I re­ally rec­om­mend the sum­mit loop. Just be aware that it might be un­der snow if you’re up there any time be­fore late spring. Richie Porte and I went up there in March 2014 and nearly had to call for a cou­ple of snow­boards to get down.’

The weather is more hos­pitable to­day, and we can see where the road splits to form the loop, or ‘noose’ for the more pes­simistic. At the fork, one-way signs in­struct us to head right, which is down­hill. The road is nar­row but well sur­faced, and the views to the peaks of the south­ern­most Alps are end­less.

As the de­scent flat­tens out and be­gins arc­ing to the left, we pass the re­mains of a fort or bunker – such a van­tage point has not gone un­no­ticed by gen­er­a­tions of ar­mies, from Napoleonic to Nazi – and the rust­ing hulk of a World

The road pours down the nar­row gorge like a tor­rent of tar­mac, cas­cad­ing be­tween soar­ing rock es­carp­ments and through oc­ca­sional tun­nels

War Two tank. We stop for pho­tos but are dis­ap­pointed to find its en­trance hatch has been sealed shut.

One-way sys­tem

The cir­cuit now skirts a ver­dant crater. We haven’t seen an­other ve­hi­cle or hu­man since leav­ing the Col de Turini, and now we are on a moun­tain­top one-way sys­tem high above the clouds. Even­tu­ally the road loops back on it­self, and the in­evitable con­se­quence of all that down­hill re­veals it­self in the shape of an ugly ramp point­ing up. Buoyed by the knowl­edge this will be the fi­nal climb of the day, we dig in and toil up the 12% slope for what seems like an eter­nity, a soli­tary hawk cir­cling above us in the dark­en­ing sky.

Though this spec­tac­u­lar loop has never been used in the Tour de France (Turini it­self has fea­tured only three times, the last in 1973), it’s a reg­u­lar fix­ture on the Monte Carlo Rally. Cycling fans may be con­sid­ered reck­less for run­ning along­side rid­ers wear­ing Bo­rat-style mank­i­nis, but that’s

noth­ing com­pared with the an­tics of mo­tor­sport fans. Hun­dreds gather for the night-time stage to throw snow into the path of cars al­ready strain­ing for trac­tion.

To reach the high­est point of to­day’s ride we came the long way around, climb­ing 2,900 me­tres in al­most 100km. The re­turn jour­ney will be con­sid­er­ably shorter, with a corkscrew­ing 15km de­scent down to Ro­que­bil­lière. It also in­cludes the fi­nal 20 hair­pins of the day.

The road pours down the nar­row gorge like a tor­rent of tar­mac, cas­cad­ing be­tween soar­ing rock es­carp­ments and through oc­ca­sional tun­nels. Be­tween hair­pins many of the other curves are sweep­ing, al­low­ing us to lean in at speed.

At the bot­tom, Gav de­clares it one of the best de­scents he’s rid­den, and as a rider and guide with cycling tour op­er­a­tor Mar­mot Tours, he should know.

The fi­nal few kilo­me­tres along the val­ley floor to our ho­tel are flat and fast but miss­ing some­thing. A hair­pin or two would be a fit­ting end to a glo­ri­ously dizzy­ing ride. Trevor Ward is a free­lance writer who was driven around the bend by this as­sign­ment

Be­low: The as­cent to the 1,607m Col de Turini twists and turns its way ac­ro­bat­i­cally through some dra­matic land­scapes

Left: The hair­pins on the climb to the 1,002m Col de Braus are more uni­form than on the wild road to Turini

We did say the roads on the Col de Braus were uni­form

Be­low: Cy­clist fi­nally finds some straight(ish) road on the way to the foot of the Col de Turini

The spec­tac­u­lar, corkscrew­ing de­scent to Ro­que­bil­lière is worth the jour­ney to the south of France alone

Bot­tom left: The memo­rial to René Vi­etto at the top of Col de Braus in­cludes the cas­kets con­tain­ing his and his wife’s ashes

The rapid de­scent down to Ro­que­bil­lière fea­tures sweep­ing bends and wide tun­nels as well as… more hair­pins

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