Thursday, 7 July 2022

Rides on the Cote d'Azur: Col de Braus


Route on Strava

When I visited Nice earlier this year I made a deal with myself to ride the col de Turini, one of the most famous climbs in the Alpes-Maritimes region. On many previous occasions I had visited the Côte d'Azur I was supposed to ride up this giant of the Mercantour National Park, but a lack of time and/or fitness prevented me from tackling the ~25km climb that literally takes you into the clouds. 

So on this occasion in mid-June, with my legs primed with a few thousand miles of climbing I felt ready to give it a go.

Very helpfully, a bike hire shop in the centre of Nice had decent road bikes available, so I bagged one for the long weekend. After settling into my lodgings I hit the road, starting with a warm-up loop over the col d'Eze, dropping down to Menton and scooting across the border to Ventimiglia, then returning to Nice along the coast. 

Le Calendre

Being on the coast it would have been rude not to stop off for at a beach. So I broke up my ride with a stopover at the secluded Le Calandre beach, in Ventimiglia - a highly recommended place for a swim and drink.  

The next morning, I set off from central Nice, breezed through places like Saint-Roch, La Trinité and Drap in the suburbs and followed the route to L'Escarène. 

While the Côte d'Azur - is associated with beautiful crystal blue sea, as its name suggest, don't forget about the abundance of gorges in this part of the world. 

These natural features cut into the rocks beside the local rivers are as spectacular as they are ubiquitous. 

Near L'Escarène was a gorge along the River Paillon, which wound in and out of the rock as the road twisted and turned. Considering it was the height of summer there was hardly any traffic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, folks had opted for the coastal areas given the oppressive heat. However, this was really the place to be. Given how many rocks and archways there were to ride through, this gave an automatic cooling effect. It was bliss to have these roads practically to myself. 

Gorge de Paillon

After around four miles my route took me to the village of L'Escarène, set on hill. Although there weren't many motorists, there were still a fair few club cyclists. Many of them seemed local, but a few were not. One guy, and Italian, actually stopped and asked me in Italian directions to the col de Braus. I replied in Italian and pointed him in the right direction - as if I were a local, and speaking in Italian was the most natural thing to do!

Later, while riding through L'Escarène, a woman overtook me and waved as she passed. She was in CAMS-Basso kit. I hadn't seen any of their riders back home at all this year. So the South of France is where I needed to be to find the UK-based team!

After a brief toilet stop and refilling of water at the fountain in the L'Escarene the business end of my ride began. By that, I didn't mean Turini, but the appetiser - col de Braus.

L'Escarène

Col de Braus has different memories for me. The first time I cycled up it, was towards the end of a longish day after I had spent the time in the col de Vence area. 

At L'Escarene I stopped at a local shop and bought a few snacks and chatted to the folks in shop who gave the usual "I'm so impressed you're riding out here on your own". One woman was very fearful for me and said, "Are you really sure you want to go up the col de Braus? It's a very tough climb." Being young and cocky I replied, "Of course - I've got the right gearing and the legs - I'll be fine" Famous last words. 

This road that wiggled around interminably with 8-10% ramps was not the ideal climb to be doing at 6pm on a Saturday evening. After around three miles I stopped to look back down the road and see how far I'd come. That was one of the most impressive views I'd ever seen of a road. The wiggles were distinctly of Sa Calobra proportions [for those familiar with roads in Mallorca] and then some. Feeling impressed, but tired, I decided that it would be prudent to return to Nice via the way I had come up as the sun was still out, and I didn't feel confident in taking the descent potentially in the shade and arriving in Sospel, miles out from my base in Nice. Needless to say, the descent was a beautiful merry-go-round all the way back to sea level.

On another occasion when riding up to the col de Braus, I misread the IGN (French Ordnance Survey) map, thinking I could get there on a road directly from Gorbio and Saint Agnes. This is true, however what wasn't factored in was the fact that col des Banquettes was mainly a gravelly unmade road, and we we were on road bikes. 

So it was a two-hour slog to the summit of col de Braus. I was so relieved to finally reach tarmac and to have not had a puncture.

Hopefully, today's ride would be just a straightforward formality before arriving at the main event - the col de Turini.

Maybe because I am almost 20 years older than the time when I rode up the col de Braus for the first time, I felt like this climb was actually fairly challenging. Since the last time I rode along these roads I noted that the local authority had taken to giving information every km on the gradient, and the distance from the summit.

The long desolate road up in the midday sun

Although the average gradient is advertised at 6%, the overall difficulty is a little misleading. The initial section was quite shallow, with sections of around 3 or 4%. But this would be immediately followed by sections of 8%, 10, even 12%. It was quite an irregular climb, which made it hard work. 

The saving grace was that there a few (though not many) sections under tree cover, so I was protected from the worst of the midday sun in the 30 degC heat. 

I saw many riders coming down the hill, and they gave me a wave though gave a knowing look that I was not from those parts, since no local in their right mind would go up this climb at this time of the day. Mad dog and Englishmen......!

I didn't care. I was looking forward to getting my share of these hills - even in this heat. It was too beautiful to miss out. I was overawed by this landscape that I had not seen for many years. As well as the rocky landscape there were hillside vineyards in the distance, and down below there were even some walkers who seemed to have stopped to bathe in the waterfall and pool. 

Every few hairpins I would stop and marvel at the convoluted roads that wound their way along the 10km, average slope of 6% and dozens of hairpins. It was definitely a day to take your time and take lots of photos. Given the hot weather, most folks were down at the beach so the roads were almost empty - even better for me.

View of the Redebraus Waterfall down below

On reaching the summit was the welcoming sight of a mountain-top restaurant with a view. Maybe I should have stopped for a meal but I didn't. I did take more photos though. Some al fresco diners at the restaurant offered to take a photo of me. "Would you like me to take your picture, Monsieur?" The woman asked. I obliged, and as soon as I spoke the woman realised her error in thinking that I was a guy, and apologised profusely. I didn't mind. It's something that often happens when out riding on my own. She said she was mighty impressed - that I had come all the way from London where there aren't roads like this, that I was riding on a blazing hot day, and that I was a woman riding alone. 

These are things that I don't really think about, but I guess it's not surprising that people assume I am a man. I rarely see foreign women riding alone when I'm abroad either, and get surprised when I feel them!

Onwards, and I was faced with a 10km descent towards Sospel. Just as there were various steep ramps on the way up to the summit, my ride took in the same on the descent. So there were a few tight steep bends to negotiate. The other side of the mountain was less leafy than on my upward route, and had areas that were quite deserted. It wasn't the place to get into difficulty as there really wasn't a soul around - not even a cyclist or a car driving up or down. Near the bottom, signs of life did come into view as there were more houses as I passed the village of Saint Philippe. This road had also now become the Col Saint Jean, which threw me down brought the ride to an abrupt stop at a T-junction onto the main road to Sospel. Rather than turn right into this Alpine town I chose to continue with my plan to ride up Col de Turini, so I took the left-hand turn ready to face 24km up to a summit of 1607m. It's a good job I had acquired a taste for hairpins, for there would be a lot more to come!


Related posts

Gorgeous gorges du Verdon

Primavera travels: Menton to Ventimiglia

Travel notes: Sea at last

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