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

Men's Fitness - - Features | Epic Cycling Routes -

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.

Flat out

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.

Nat­u­ral won­der

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.

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