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, Bike Trip, 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 suggests, 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 where they could cool off in the sea given the oppressive heat. However, up here in the hills was really the place to be in my opinion. In fact, the many rocks and archways to ride through 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 hilltop village of L'Escarène. 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, an 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 that two random strangers would do on a road in France!

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 centre of the village, the business end of my ride began. By that, I didn't mean Turini, but the appetiser - col de Braus.


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 time in the col de Vence area. 

At L'Escarène I stopped at a local shop to buy a few snacks, and chatted to the folks inside 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 6 o'clock on a Saturday early evening. After around three miles I stopped to look back down 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 Agnès. It is true that there is a road - just an unsurfaced one, known as Col des Banquettes. I hadn't factored in riding on gravelly roads, particularly as I was on a road bike. Thinking that this gravel would just be a momentary thing, I ploughed on up the road slowly, hoping that on turning the next hairpin tarmac would return. It didn't. 

So my ride became a long slog to the summit of Col de Braus, where finally my bike rolled over the welcome tarmac surface. It had only taken two hours to find it. Thank God I didn't get any punctures.  

Fast forward more than 10 years, where 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 did my maiden visit to Col de Braus, I found this climb slightly more challenging than anticipated. Since the last time I rode along these roads I noted that the local authority had made efforts to make the area more tourist-friendly, so there were signs giving information about the area, as well as more important for me, information every km about 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%, this can give you a false sense of security. 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's quite an irregular climb, which made it hard work. 

The saving grace was that a few (though not many) sections were 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 I even spotted some walkers who had 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, make the most of the sights, and take lots of photos. 

View of the Redebraus Waterfall down below

On reaching the summit I was welcomed with the sight of a restaurant with a terrace. 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 getting my gender wrong, 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 see 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, I dealt with the equivalent on the way down. So the various tight steep bends required caution and concentration as I took quick glimpses of the surrounding landscape. This 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, around the village of Saint Philippe, there were a few signs of life and more houses came into view. This road had also now become the Col Saint-Jean, which threw me down 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 took the left-hand turn ready to face 24km up to the next summit at 1607m. One thing about this ride is you very quickly learn to like hairpins. You need to, for there would be a lot more to come!

Related posts

Rides on the Cote d'Azur: Col de Turini

Gorgeous gorges du Verdon

Primavera travels: Menton to Ventimiglia

Travel notes: Sea at last

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