The UK has some great cycling for sure, but there's one thing we lack, and that's mountains. Proper mountains. There comes a time in every cyclist's life where it is time to get on an Easyjet to Mallorca, Italy, or in this case, the Alps, in search of some big climbs.
A friend's wedding in Menton, near Nice, provided the necessary justification for this trip. We stayed at Giovanna's apartment, about 1km from the Italian border. The precious bikes survived their ordeal with the French baggage handlers*, were stuffed into the back of the Smallest Hire Car Ever, one supermarket stop later and we had all we needed: bikes, beer, and a rooftop pool.
A recce on the Col de la Madone
Seeing as this was my (Claire) first time riding actual mountains, we started with a short evening trip up the nearest one. The Col de la Madone starts in Menton, and is a famous climb reputed to have been a favourite training route for Lance Armstrong. The route heads out of town and starts switching back as the houses become more sparse and the road narrows. The gradient is manageable and consistent, the views are beautiful, and the top slightly underwhelming. Col number one: done. Time for a hand numbing twisty decent and a celebratory dinner of camembert and wine.
If you want to follow the Col de la Madone out of Menton, here's a strava route to follow:
(stop following it when you get back into Menton, we rode around a bit looking for a beer...)
It's a fun short ride by itself or you can of course go down the other side and continue exploring.
Breakfast in Italy
Menton is just 1km away from the Italian border (no, you don't need passports... we did wonder...), so on the second day we headed along the coast in the busy morning traffic (lots of scooters) to have an espresso in San Remo before heading up into the beautiful Italian hills. It was a scorching hot day, but as we started climbing we soon went into the clouds that had been gathering overhead and by the time we reached the the highest point of San Romolo, it was starting to rain. (tip number two: always bring a gilet or waterproof! Even on a super hot day) We were getting a big wet, so we carried on past our planned lunch stop in the town of Perinaldo to find a bit of sunshine in the valley. As we were heading back down out of the clouds, we went through the stunning little town of Apricale, and decided to make that our pit stop instead. The beautiful Apricus Osteria was practically empty, but it had an outdoor terrace where we stored our bikes and proceeded to experience one of the most wonderful, simple meals ever. Fresh peaches and barrata, followed by fresh ravioli with a classic Italian tomato sauce, and a coffee of course. Eaten looking out over the farmlands and tiny buildings perched precariously on the edge of the steep hills, and for a price that was a fraction of the cost of the touristy restaurants back in Menton. By the time we had finished the sun was well and truly out and it was time to roll (literally) the rest of the way into the valley... and then start climbing again.
If you follow this route, it won't take you to any particular peak (most are not accessible by road) but you will pass around the edges Monte Bignone, Monte Mera, Monte Belgestro, Monte Armetta, Cima d'Aurin, Monte Barracone, and Monte Carbonne, along roads that can be quite small in places (take care to stay on the right side of the road as scooter and motorbikes sometimes come around quite fast) but with beautiful views, stillness and wilderness as much as you could expect to find being only 20km or so from a big town. You sweep back down into Ventimiglia and home along the coast.
Our third ride was much more chilled, as we wanted to explore the area a bit more. We headed out along the coast in a westerly direction this time and started with breakfast at this excellent place. We then just followed the coast, to check out Monaco. It is a funny place and worth passing through to spot some super cars. Out of Monaco follow signs to Cap d'Ail to stay on the coast, and I recommend following our route for a little detour down towards the lighthouse in Saint-John-Cap-Ferrat to spy on some of the biggest mansions I have ever seen in my life, complete with huge phallic topiary lining their lush front gardens. We stopped for another coffee in East Nice, just by the port. Caffeinated, it was time to tackle the Col d'Eze. This iconic climb is the decisive final stage of the Paris-Nice stage race and has been included in The Tour on a couple of occasions. It's a 10k climb and a good test as a time trial, if that's your thing (me: no, Jonathan: yes)
The sweeping decent back through the village of La Turbie offered amazing views over Monaco, and our final stop was for some fresh seafood on the beach here.
The Big One
Rest/party/hangover days over, and it was time for our big day out. This 140km route is certainly a full day out as it takes in 3000 metres of climbing, it demands a fairly restrained pace.
The first Col is Castillon. Warming us up with 15km of gentle climbing (around 4%) and leaving the towns behind. On the decent that becomes quite gravelly as you get into the gorgeous little town of Sospel we were passed by a couple of pro riders in Astana kit, the first of many we saw throughout the day. Quick coffee in Sospel and then we started the ascent of the Col de Turini. Made famous by the Monte Carlo Rally, the Col de Turini has also featured 3 times in the Tour de France. 24km long, and reaching a height of 1,260m with an average gradient of 5.1%.
The road is cut into the side of the mountain and as it winds it's way up through a series of hairpins, the valley views open out below you and you can see your path snaking behind you through the trees. Every now and then you see an old crumbling building, part of a disused railway line or some sign of life, but generally it's very quiet and still, just the sound of your breath and your wheels turning as you go up, and up, and up. Towards the top there are steeper sections, and it starts to feel hard. You start to forget a time when you weren't climbing this mountain, it feel like forever. And then, painted on the road, "2KM" and soon, "500M". And then, that's it! The top is a crossroads that feels like a very small ski town... in summer. There are quite a few choices for food, although all we really wanted was a pizza or a big plate of pasta and ended up with some slices of melon and ham... After the sweaty climb, we were actually quite cold once we stopped. The altitude really makes a difference, and I was grateful for my jacket, especially once we started to descend. This climb felt like a real achievement. But we were only halfway through the ride...
The decent down Turini is beautiful and takes you round hair-raising hairpins and through tunnels cut into the rock. The views across the Alps are spectacular, watch the road but don't forget to look up too! As you come into the valley you can see a gorgeous deep blue river snaking around below you. The village of Duranus is very quiet but beautiful, a good place to take five. The next part of the ride feels reasonably undulating but much less epic after the Turini. There are two more climbs of significance, the Col de Chateauneuf (5km, up to 620m high) and the climb into the town of La Turbie. La Turbie is another one worth a late stop if you need a break, it's a very pretty, lively village. Then it's all downhill from there! Back into Menton and straight into the pool.
What we wore
Spektrum jerseys by Angeles Creative
Lightweight fabrics and mesh panelling make these jerseys ideal for hot weather. The sweat gets wicked away through the fine fabric extremely quickly, so when you stop you don't feel cold and clammy.
Queen of the Mountains Race shorts and jersey
The shorts have an extremely high quality pad designed for 4+ hours of riding, and the jersey provides SPF 30 protection in the sun, and generous pockets for storing a jacket and lots of food.
Hills and Yonder Which way jersey
Also provides SPF 30 and is made from Coolblack fabric, which doesn't heat up in the sun.
*For some great tips on flying with your bike, we can recommend this great article by Queen of the Mile