Sunday 10 July 2022

Rides on the Côte d'Azur: Col de Turini (nearly twice!)

Descending Col de Turini towards Bollène-Vésubie

Col de Turini, which starts 20 miles North of Nice is known among some petrol heads as "the drive of your life". With its dozens of switchbacks over roughly 25km (15 miles), rising up through the Alpes-Maritimes, towering 1,604m over the French Riviera it's not surprising that the climb has this label. It is also pretty popular among cyclists too, and has featured in the Tour de France and Paris-Nice cycle races. 

In all the cycling trips I have done to Nice I have never got round to riding up this climb. Sometimes it was due to a lack of time - you really need a full day to do it and enjoy the landscape. Sometimes it was due to a lack of form and fitness. It's one thing to ride up Col d'Èze, which starts in the heart of Nice, or ride up La Grande Corniche towards Monaco and pick up the Col de Madone de la Gorbio. These would be classed as local rides. But Turini, while still in the region, and easily within the capabilities of a professional cycle racer, is a significant effort for we ordinary folks. It can make for a full-on excursion and you definitely need to have the legs to ride uphill for the best part of three hours.

Turini Take One

Route on Strava

So on my trip to Nice in June, when the weather was getting to its hottest, I decided on the Saturday morning that this would be the day to go.

I had hired a BMC road bike with low enough gears from Bike Trip, packed my bag with energy bars, bananas, biscuits and a few sandwiches and shoved in a Camelback for extra hydration. The sustenance was there, as well as the motivation. The legs just needed to follow.

Setting off from my lodgings near the Saint-Roch part of Nice was straightforward, as I headed towards L'Èscarène from where I would hit an appetiser of a climb - the Col de Braus - which was more like a hearty entrée! My ride up this spectacular col is described in a previous post.

Once I had conquered Braus, I took the left-hand turn at the bottom of the descent to immediately start the climb up the mighty Turini. No rest for the wicked. 

Well, I am not that mean, so I did stop for 20 minutes or so in the shade of a large tree to enjoy a banana and a ham sandwich. I would've loved a chocolate bar too, but it wouldn't have survived the blazing heat. 

The long road up

Col de Turini from Sospel

By this time it was after 2pm and the sun was at its hottest. There I stood, in front of the sign which spelled out what lay ahead - Col de Turini, 24km, average gradient 5%. That would mean around 3 hours of climbing way up high. It was a slightly daunting thought; turning in the opposite direction and riding downhill to Sospel seemed much more appealing. But I was here now, and I reminded myself of all those times I had wished I could attempt the climb.

I calculated that the gradient would be no worse, in fact slightly easier than what I had tackled over the 10km climb up the Col de Braus. A marginally easier gradient over more than double the distance. I was sure I could handle that. I had all afternoon to ride, and once up there it would just be a couple of hours' constant descending back to the coast. Simples! Maybe.....

Starting out on the opening kilometres was quite exciting. Initially the route was under tree cover, which was a blessing at this time of day. There were quite a few other cyclists on this stretch of road - some were going up, though most were flying down. We greeted each other with a certain joviality and glee, like we all had a collective appreciation of this stunning part of the world.

Cyclists weren't the only road users making the most of these famous hairpins. There were various groups of motorcyclists, plus countless cars, often classic cars - convertible old sports cars, minis. There were old Ford Escorts, Ford Capris, BMWs, Porches, vintage Renaults, Mercedes, and other makes. Some cars had race numbers on them. I don't know if this was an organised event taking place, or if it was just proper bucket list stuff. I must admit I too, dream of having the chance to drive a car or ride a motorbike on this road too.

But today, I contented myself with going up at a leisurely pace - the only pace I had in me - and stopping to take photos. Such scenery was well worth a few photos. Within a few switchbacks I had already climbed almost 500m and looking back on the road that I had travelled up made me marvel at the sight of the tarmac snaking up and twisting around through the vegetation and between the hills.

As I stopped to look back, a guy with a Dutch accent rode by and greeted me. "It's amazing isn't it?" I agreed with him. I'm glad he still had the energy to appreciate the landscape, given that he was pouring with sweat and his fair complexion made him a strong candidate for a sunburn or even sunstroke somewhere along the climb.

Soon after this little interaction I began to feel the effects of the heat, as well as a little fatigue. The road surface at the section was slightly rough and made turning the pedals feel like hard work. I stopped again further along the road for more snacks and energy drink. 

Viaduct at Notre Dame de Menour

Knowing that I still had 16km (10 miles) to go made things feel a little demoralising. So my mission was to focus on the beautiful landscape and how dramatic the mountains looked in the distance. Over the next 7km (4 miles) my target was a chapel on a hill. It seemed a random place for a monument to be situated, but it looked like a place that could form a haven and a place for respite, at the half-way mark.

On reaching the chapel, known as Notre Dame de Menour, the building wasn't as pretty as it looked from afar, which was a little disappointing. What I did like though was the nearby viaduct, which gave way to another spot to have a rest, and also see other cyclists. A couple of bikepacking Italian cyclists stopped and asked me if I could film them riding under the viaduct, and then we got chatting. They were on their way to Nice after having set off from Turin a few days earlier. I guess they were doing a variant on the Route des Grandes Alpes. They were planning on getting to Nice, though would be sstaying in Menton that evening. When I suggested that they were near enough to Nice to go directly there that same day they laughed and said "We want to enjoy our ride, and not suffer!" I guess they had a point. Maybe I should have taken a leaf out of their book. After all, I was due to return to Nice that evening. Time was marching on, and I was still only half-way to the summit of Col de Turini! Maybe it was better to just enjoy the sights along the way rather than wreaking myself in a race against the clock to get to the top. 

It was coming up to 4pm and I still had around 10km (6 miles to get to the summit). I passed through a little village called Moulinet and considered stopping there for a drink. It was one of those places that is very small but yet it was still possible to get lost because the main centre consisted of various little alleyways and steps. A friendly villager pointed me in the direction of the shop when I asked. It was less a shop and more a bar with other odds and sods for sale. I had half hoped I could maybe get a Coca Cola to give me a bit of pep to complete the final part of the climb, but I didn't want to feel lured into hanging out in a bar making polite conversation with the locals when time was not on my side. In the end I gave up on that idea of a Coke and put my head down, rejoined the road and pressed on as far as I could. I reassured myself that my own provisions and a bit of adrenaline would give me the wings I needed. 


Thinking of an Uber under a threatening sky

Unfortunately, the sun had decided to go in - at least on this section of the climb. The village looked a bit grim and in fact the sky began to display a matching shade. It looked like a storm was coming in, which began to make me feel apprehensive about continuing to gain altitude. At this point I was over 3km (2 miles) north of Moulinet and it looked like I wouldn't see any more sign of life until the summit. 

That would put me on the back foot if I were caught in a thundery shower. I'm not sure I would have the phone coverage to call an Uber, or if anyone would want to come all the way out here. Suddenly all the classic cars and motorbikers, even cyclists had vanished. Did they all know something I didn't know? This was all looking rather ominous and I decided that given that we were approaching late afternoon, it wasn't the time to be taking risks up in the mountains. An Uber would've been ideal

So with that, I decided to turn back and take the quickest route back to Sospel. An Uber would've been great, but I was happy to get on a train back to Nice. This was my second big climb of the day (after Col de Braus) and my old legs were feeling the kilometres. 


As I retraced my wheeltracks back through Moulinet I made a quick stop to consult that map and see if there was a quicker way than just going down the Col de Turini. While sitting on a wall in the village centre car park, a local man stopped. "Can I help you, Sir?" he said. I told him I was fine and was just deciding on my route. On hearing my reply not only did he recognise my accent as that of an anglophone, he also realised I wasn't a man. To which point he was quite apologetic. "Oh I'm sorry, it's not that you look like a guy or anything .....I just saw you there in your cycling kit alone and imagined that you were a don't often see women out cycling.....well not French women.....are you American?" I felt a bit sorry for the guy who was trying to find the right words without potentially causing offence.

I just smiled and told him not to worry. We then struck up a conversation about the local area and he spoke proudly about how great it is for cycling, and how impressed that a young woman from London was out riding up the hills. Well, he didn't kinow that I'm not that young and I didn't want to admit that I had given up my ride up the Col de Turini. I was happy to leave it at that! I asked him if he cycles in the local area, to which he replied, "Oh no, I'm too old to be doing that. I prefer to contemplate the landscape from my car!" [Plus ça change!]

Not finding any quicker alternatives, I zoomed back down to Sospel the way I came up. Although the day was now looking a little grey on this road, once in Sospel the sun reappeared. I must say Sospel is a pretty little town. Its cobbled streets lined with rustic buildings with salmon-coloured façades looked even more attractive in the evening sunshine, and many folks were doing their early evening passegiata along the River Bevera. Nearby, was a political rally going on, ahead of the legislative elections. It all seemed very cordial, though it's worth noting that this area and swathes of the Alpes-Maritimes region (though not Nice) is Marine Le Pen country...

Thank God for SNCF! A train pulled into the station 15 minutes after I arrived and I was effortlessly enjoying the lovely landscape until my stop at Nice-Saint Roch station, 10 minutes from my apartment. It had been long, pleasant day, but I felt that I had unfinished business vis à vis Col de Turini. 

Turini Take Two!

Col de Turini from Luceram

Route on Strava

My original plan had been to ride up Col de Braus and Col de Turini on the Saturday and then do a less epic, more local, but nevertheless beautiful ride around the Gorges du Loup. However, given my failure to reach the summit of the mighty Turini the previous day, I didn't feel right going anywhere else but up to that same peak, and properly getting to photograph myself at the signboard, even getting the T-shirt. 

So once again I left my abode and hit the familiar road to L'Èscarène. Once there, instead of taking the right-hand turn to the Col de Braus, my route took me up the left fork, tracing the 27km directly to the Col de Turini. This route initially led me to another pretty hill-top town, Luceram. While there I came across a few hikers and some runners. This seemed quite a sporty place. One couple who were finishing their run chatted to me and were quite impressed that I was riding all the way to the summit. "We usually go just as far as Peira Cava. But you're really tough going to Turini," they said. I was either tough, or just living in ignorant bliss! 

On the approach to lovely Luceram

Pushing on to Peira Cava

Hearing the locals saying this made me wonder if there was something I should be wary of. In any case I continued up the road through the lush vegetation. It was quite impressive to see how much altitude I gained over a short distance, as Luceram became a small sight in the distance within a short time. Also the landscape changed as I neared the treeline, which gradually gave way to mountains - proper Alpine giants. It was hard to imagine that these peaks were barely 25km (15 miles) from the sea.

This route seemed even more desolate than the way up from Sospel. There were no motorbikes or classic cars. I only saw a handful of cyclists coming down or going up.  Who knows, there were probably more marmots than people around here - all concealed in the undergrowth. 

It was a warm day, though not obscenely hot. I was also glad to be doing this in the morning, rather than worrying about having to battle the afternoon heat, or beat my self-imposed teatime deadline. I must say, as a general rule I try to end my big rides by 6pm. To me, there's something demoralising about still riding your bike when most people are enjoying an early evening snack or aperitif and you're still pedalling away, miles from home after having left the house first thing in the morning. On these trips I do like to have time in the day to do relaxing off-the-bike activities and take in other sights and sounds of a place I visit. 

So the prospect of finishing my bike ride before teatime made me feel comfortable about the challenge. 

Mercantour moutains seen from Peira Cava

After countless twists and turns on a gentle gradient I reached Peira Cava. This place seemed like the place to be. There were various outdoor activity centres and log cabin chalets, with nearby woodland and walking trails. This was the place to get the dramatic vistas of the Mercantour mountains, with the sea further into the distance. I can understand why the couple I'd met earlier on would see it sufficient to come as far as here and then turn back.

Turini, at last!

Being a newbie to this part of the Alpes-Maritimes my curiosity made me carry on up to see what I could see over the mountain. The Col de Turini towers at 1,604m above sea level. However this ride topped out before the col, at around 1,615m. So from Peira Cava the ride sloped slightly downhill, as it twisted further north. 

Finally arrived at the summit

On reaching Col de Turini, I was rewarded with a somewhat less spectacular view of a car park, a cafe, a souvenir shop and a meeting point for cyclists, hikers, motorbikes, and a few motorists. What was lost in dramatic views was compensated for in lots of chit-chat among the various parties about how the route was on their way up. There are three ways up - my successful route up from Luceram, my abandoned route up from Sospel, and the route I'd be coming down, via Bollène-Vésubie. This was the way the Tour de France came up on stage 2 of the 2020 edition. 

Again, I received applause from different people who saw I'd come up by pedal power. One guy did ask if I was sure I didn't have an engine tucked away somewhere on my bike! Then there were various photo opportunities next to the different summit signboards and the chance for a snack. The motorbikers tucked into burger and chips, while I just had a small sandwich and an energy bar to give me a zip to get home. I always find it interesting that the motorbikers would require more sustenance than I for this sort of excursion. It's one of life's great mysteries. 

It would be about 60km (38 miles) before I reached Nice. Really? I was quite surprised to realise how many miles I had left. I was hoping the signboard was wrong. But, on enquiring to one of the motorbikers it was confirmed that the signboard was totally accurate. The good news was that the ride would be practically all downhill. 

View of La Bollène-Vésubie when descending Col de Turini

Heading down to Bollène-Vésubie was a fast, steep descent which required concentration. It wasn't as technical as a Lake District descent, but the beautiful scenery was a distraction on the way down so I took extra care. This village and the nearby Saint Martin de Vésubie looked wonderful from my viewpoint on the switchbacks up above. 

The gorgeous route home

Finally my route took me into the Vésubie valley, where I headed along a never-ending road that was constantly on a descending false flat. After Lantosque came the Gorges de la Vésubie, which was an amazing sight along this main road. 

The irregular erosion in the rock gave a really dramatic effect, especially in the afternoon sunshine. It was one of those roads that is so pleasant you don't want it to end. I thought I was getting a bout of Stendhal Syndrome looking at these wonderful features. The gorge was a work of art! There was the option to climb up a side road to reach the parallel Gorge de la Tinée which would get me back to Nice. But I stuck with what I had, especially as the riding was effortless. You can get too much gorgeous stuff in a day!

The main road back to the coast via the Gorges de la Vésubie

Finally, it all came to an abrupt end when I reached a T-junction and took a left-hand turn to go through a less scenic area that had road works and a deviation that took a round-the-houses hilly route to reach a spot that was right opposite my original  start point at the T-junction - some things never change!

Soon afterwards I was in "home" territory as my route was basically a very long straight segregated cycle path along the River Var down to Saint Laurent du Var. It was a lovely smooth, wide path, alongside the main road, with distance markers from Saint Laurent, and at the half-way point a water fountain, which was getting a lot of use on this warm day.

In the distance were local hills in the Nice area, as well as the regular passing of aeroplanes, indicating the proximity of the airport - a place where I would be in approximately 24 hours' time. It was hard to imagine myself back in London the following day.

For the time being I just wanted to keep the smile on my face and enjoy the moment. It had been a fun-packed day, going up into the higher reaches of the Alpes-Maritimes with its spectacular mountain-top views, then plunging through the most amazing gorges.

Now I was on my way to doing my off-the-bike activity, a dip in the sea at Cagnes-sur-Mer. My legs still felt good and I was very happy to have managed to (at last) ride up the Col de Turini. Great to have ticked it off my list of iconic cols to do, and especially in these lovely conditions. This was definitely not a day to complain about!

Relaxing before taking a swim at Cagnes-sur-Mer

Related posts

Rides on the Côte d'Azur: Col de Braus

Quick spin by Lake Geneva on a hire bike

Cycle route: Eastern suburbs of Paris

Gorgeous Gorges du Verdon

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