02 The Stage Of 10,000 Corners
This winding coastal route takes in the rocky outcrops of Corsica’s World Heritage Site at Calanques de Piana before a finish at the citadel of Calvi
Route Ajaccio to Calvi, France Distance 145.5km
When the itinerary of the 2013 Tour de France was announced, the race’s then route director Jean-François Pescheux couldn’t disguise his glee as he discussed the third stage between Ajaccio and Calvi on the island of Corsica. “It’s the kind of stage we’ve been looking for for years,” Pescheux revealed. “There’s not a single metre of flat, which means the peloton will get very stretched out, presenting the real possibility of splits occurring – especially as, at 145km, this stage is very short.”
Pescheux and Tour director Christian Prudhomme had twin goals by starting the 2013 race on the French island. Most importantly, the three stages were the first ever to take place in Corsica, which had not previously been a viable venue as a result of long-standing concerns about possible terrorist attacks by local nationalists seeking independence from France. The fact that the Tour’s management picked the 100th edition of the Tour to end this exile, thereby ensuring that the Tour had visited every one of France’s domestic départements, only underlined its meaning.
Corsica’s rugged terrain also presented Pescheux and Prudhomme with an ideal opportunity to add some spice to the Tour’s opening trio of stages. Running up the east side of the island, stage one was essentially flat, allowing the peloton’s sprinters to lead a stampede into Bastia, ultimately headed by Germany’s Marcel Kittel. Stage two crossed the island, rising to more than 1,000m on the Col de Vizzavona, before a complicated finish in Ajaccio as Belgium’s Jan Bakelants crossed the line a second ahead of Slovakian Peter Sagan. The third stage, running up the northwest coast of Corsica, rolled and twisted incessantly, taking in some of the island’s most spectacular scenery before the finish in Calvi, where Australia’s Simon Gerrans edged out Sagan for victory.
This third stage started in Ajaccio, which with its airport, ferry terminal, good road connections and plentiful hotels is the ideal base for two-wheeled escapades. It’s rather beautiful, too.
There is almost no need to worry about getting lost on this route, either. After leaving the centre of Ajaccio on the main N194, the road passes a shopping centre on the city’s outskirts and then continues for another kilometre to a roundabout and swings left onto the D81, which it follows for the next 140km to Calvi.
Already rising as it moves away from Ajaccio, the road climbs a little more steeply into a rocky landscape, crossing the Col de Listincone. After a brief drop, the road soon ramps up again for the bigger Col de San Bastiano, which was rated a Category 4 ascent for the Tour’s stars. Over to the west, views across the sea become more impressive with each metre of altitude gained.
Beyond the little chapel at the top of the pass, the road drops back down to sea level to loop around the lovely bay at Tiuccia. Its beauty is enhanced by the relative lack of development, a feature the Corsican people have been fiercely determined to maintain. What buildings have been permitted are low-rise and as unobtrusive as possible.
This stretch is the easiest on the route. Passing Sagone and sweeping around the upper side of the huge bay that takes its name from that little town, the road is essentially flat. It bumps up a little to reach Cargèse, its little harbour and beach tucked in behind the protective arm of a breakwater below. North of Cargèse, the road, which has hitherto hardly been blessed with many straights, begins to wiggle even more frenetically, rising into rugged hills covered with scrubby vegetation to the San Martino pass and on into the small town of Piana.
Beyond this village lies one of the most dramatic sections of coastal road anywhere in Europe. Well above 400m, it looks down into the Calanques de Piana, narrow and steep-walled inlets cut by the sea from the pinkish limestone, which turns to bright hues of red as the sun begins to set. The first hint that something extraordinary lies ahead comes a few kilometres above Piana, when the road emerges from a tight left-hander onto a “balcony” section. A couple more turns further on, this balcony effect becomes much more pronounced when the road runs along a ledge hacked from the cliff face. If this balustrade-less stretch twisting around bend after bend doesn’t slow you down, the views will.
Round the bend
Weaving between crumbling pinnacles of rock, the road emerges into a much greener landscape, the hills now thickly wooded. By now it’s clear why this was dubbed “The Stage Of 10,000 Corners”. One curve leads almost instantly into the next, dropping into Porto, where a bakery on the far side of the viaduct over the end of the jaw-dropping Spelunca gorge provides a convenient refreshment point.
The section that follows is arguably more spectacular still, as the road climbs
on a ledge high above the Gulf of Porto, headlands rippling in the distance. Topping the Col de la Croix, which didn’t merit categorisation by the Tour, the route then edges inland. Although it leaves the sea behind for the time being, it zigs and zags no less furiously as it ascends another uncategorised climb, the Col de Palmarella, which marks the border between Corsica’s two départements.
Over the next 10km the road angles down gently to the scrubby Fango and Marsolino valleys, their courses mostly pebbles in the summer months after the mountain snows have melted. The route follows the Marsolino for half a dozen kilometres before starting up the pass of the same name. This col is quite different to the earlier ones, the road sweeping up in broad curves above the wide valley, then dropping down the far side in the same fashion.
The road to Calvi
As it takes you into Calvi, the road runs with hardly a deviation until it passes the tiny airport. Rather than continue into the port, it turns right onto the N197, then again onto the D151 to finish on the other side of the runway on a dusty and nondescript road. It is next to the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion’s 2nd Parachute Regiment, which was clearly chosen to accommodate the Tour’s immense convoy of vehicles and other paraphernalia.
However, without that massive logistical concern to worry about, a better alternative is to continue directly into Calvi, where the citadel jutting proudly into the sea offers a finale more appropriate to the spectacle laid on before.