Road Cycling On The Côte d’Azur (The Bit Near Cannes…)
This year’s mid-season training camp took place in the south of France, specifically on the Côte d’Azur ‘behind’ (back from the coast of) Cannes.
It was a pretty intense affair. Lots of focused lounging on sun terraces and structured bombing into the swimming pool. But I did find some time to get out on the bike.
In this post I’ll share my thoughts on cycling in the area, where I rode, where I hired my bike and all that fandango.
What This Post Isn’t
Well it isn’t a comprehensive guide to cycling in the area.
The Côte D’Azur, and the mountains behind them (the Alpes-Maritimes) cover a sizeable area. I rode in only a tiny part of it.
Many professional riders live in Nice and Monaco and train in the hills that form the beautiful sea and peaks images you see of the area. I wasn’t anywhere near that.
So this post is more about giving you a flavour of the area and letting you know what riding might be feasible if you too have to combine continental riding with family summer holiday duties (poor you).
Where We Stayed
We had the good fortune of being able to stay in a villa belonging to friends of my parents. It’s in Mougins, a small town centred around a beautiful old town perched atop a hill.
Mougins is about 25 minutes from Nice Airport, using the A8 toll road for most of the journey. It’s set back some 7 kilometres from the coast, directly north of Cannes.
Aside from the old town, which is full of small artists studios (it’s noted for this) and nice restaurants, Mougins (like a lot of this area) is sort of spread out with a number of pockets of shops, cafes, bakeries, supermarkets and the like. It has all you need, particularly if ‘all’ is the most expensive greengrocers this side of Brexit.
We stayed Sunday to Sunday, in the final week of July/start of August.
Following an unfortunate (for the protagonist) bird meets jet engine incident at Manchester airport, EasyJet had to find us a new plane. This meant landing at Nice at about 7pm. Which was actually no bad thing.
The hire car centre at Nice, which I understand is an accurate representation of hell on any given summer Saturday, was mercifully quiet. We picked up our Fiat Tipo, which despite being new, gave off a reassuring fug of Galoises, and we were on our way.
(Serious tip alert: if you are hiring a car at Nice, and you can contrive to make your stay run Sunday to Sunday, then I heartily recommend it. Both pickup and drop off were very relaxed. And given that there’s enough potential stress involved in international travel with kids, every little reduction helps…).
Where To Hire A Road Bike
I found Le Bike Butler thanks to the magic of Google. Owned by Chris, an Englishman (explaining the Franglais company name), Le Bike Butler runs a small fleet of Bianchi road bikes.
The bike I hired was a Bianchi Intenso, a carbon endurance bike, with Ultegra mechanical groupset and rim brakes, which I absolutely loved riding.
I’m no bike reviewer (as we know) but it felt great to ride up hill (insofar as anything can feel great when you’re blowing out of your wotsit). It felt extremely stable on the descents, giving me confidence. If I had the available funds, I’d seriously consider buying the bike from Chris when he has his annual fleet sell off in October.
Anyway, Le Bike Butler delivers within an x mile radius from Grasse, where Chris is based. Mougins fell in the dropzone and I found myself a proud guardian of a capable road bike early doors on the Monday morning.
Riding In The Area – General Thoughts
It’s always difficult to warm immediately to a place when the roads are busier than where you live.
But this was quite stark. I know it was the height of summer, and the French in particular descend on their south coast but it was BUSY!
The swathe of flat-to-somewhat-hilly land all along the coast is built up, cross-crossed with roads and full of cars (most of them on the move).
So, unless you’re very lucky with where you’re staying, or you deliberately choose to stay somewhere further back from the coast*, you’ll have to contend with busy roads and plenty of roundabouts.
(* Grasse or Chateauneuf-Grasse, say, on our segment of coast)
It’s not all bad though. If you avoid the motorways (you probably should), most roads are perfectly cycleable. We found drivers to be pretty respectful. And a bit of suburban cruising (which, as I write it, sounds wrong) is a small price to pay for some glorious hill climbs.
A Tale Of Two Cities (Traffic Situations)
When Chris at Le Bike Butler dropped off my hire bike, he said that we needed to get up to the hills behind Grasse and Chateauneuf where the roads were quiet.
I thought he was talking in relative terms: going from very busy to mildly busy. Turns out he was talking in absolutes.
When we did our big ride up the Col De L’Ecre we went from a junction with almost total gridlock to a (main) road up the climb with essentially zero cars on it. All in the space of about 20 yards.
We barely saw another car for the next few hours as we went up and over the climb, across a high plateau and down the other side. And then, once again, cars.
All of which leads me to believe that there is loads of quiet riding up in them thar hills (the Alpes-Maritimes).
Recommendations For Route Planning
If you find yourself staying in a built up area, the key is to find your ‘rat run to fun’ as early as possible in the holiday.
When time is of the essence (there’s only so much time my wife will put up with my absence from a family holiday), you want to minimise your time getting to the nice bits.
Ideally the rat run will be short and somewhat rural (or at least quiet) with a playground of potential roads beyond, where it really doesn’t matter which one you take. They’ll all be quiet, smooth and climby.
Is The Area Set Up For Cyclists?
Yes, but without going overboard.
Unlike places that are littered with hire shops and cycling cafes, ‘our’ part of the Cote D’Azur clearly isn’t a cycling honeypot, certainly in July.
It’s got all the natural ingredients (the hills and the weather). It just took a tiny bit more effort to sort ourselves out with bikes (okay, a few more Google searches – the effort required in having a bike delivered to our villa was… minimal) and work out where we should be riding.
It also has amazing bakeries. Which is pretty key in a cycling location, as far as I’m concerned.
I didn’t see hoards of other riders. In fact, whisper it, we saw as many serous triathletes on the climbs as roadies.
Maybe everyone is over by Nice, riding with the professionals that live there.
We were very fortunate. We arrived just after a heat wave had hit. The temperatures were back in the ‘hot but bearable’ range. Warm enough for lazing around the pool. Not so high that I overheated on the climbs.
(Obviously it didn’t rain.)
You can’t extrapolate from a single week’s holiday but (if I did) my sense is that the coastal climate generally provides a little bit of breeze to cool the sweating cyclist.
In short, a very clement environment in which to do some summer cycling.
The Rides I Rode (Other Routes Are Available…)
#1. Exploration ride to Grasse (and back)
Having established that the real cycling starts when you get to the hills, the objective of this ride was to work out how to get there as well as make use of the 1hr ride window I had that evening.
Only worth looking at if you want a direct and rideable route from Mougins to Grasse.
#2. The road to Mandelieu
This ride revealed the closest we got to a decent rat run. It seems that if you embark from Mougins towards a small town called Pegomas, you quickly get onto quieter, non-built up roads.
You also get to visit a town named after one of the elves that didn’t make it into the final cut of Lord of the Rings.
From Pegomas you can tackle some of the hills behind the south-western end of the Bay of Cannes.
On our ride we went for one with a suitably grand name: the Grand Duc de Pegomas. As well as being a testing 9.24km at 5% average gradient, with some glorious views over the mountains to the north, the road features the following extremely pleasing (to me) road sign:
With ‘Nelly the Elephant’ firmly implanted as that day’s earworm, we descended to Cannes.
Then, in an attempt to avoid busy suburban roads on the way back to Mougins, we took an accidental detour up a small (but nasty – 1.2km at 9%) hill to La Croix des Gardes.
This did not achieve our objective. It wasn’t on the way back to the villa, so we still had to grind through mid-morning traffic to get home.
Link to the route on Strava: Leg loosener- back through Cannes
#3. Col de L’Ecre loop – bagging a Cat 1 climb
My favourite ride of the trip.
The objective was to make full use of the quiet roads we’d heard about and to tackle a long climb – the sort that is simply not available in the UK.
I wasn’t disappointed. The route delivered awesome scenery and, because the gradients on the climb were not severe, only a modest amount of suffering (you’ve got to have some suffering).
You can (and should!) read more in this detailed post about the climb.
#4. Evening hill climb
This ride was very much a bonus one.
I was handing back the hire bike the following morning. I had a short evening window to burn off some of those holiday calories (whilst my brother-in-law-cyclist-in-crime slaved away over a hot stove to supply some more).
I rode back out to Pegomas with a view to seeing how far up the ‘Grand Duc’ I could get. The answer was, ‘not far’.
There’s something incredibly frustrating about riding halfway (if that) up a climb and then having to about-turn and roll back down. Or maybe its the relief / guilt at feeling relieved pretending to be frustration.
Still, even a half climb provided 545m of elevation in a 30km ride. And plenty of glorious evening views.
Would I Go Back?
In a word… no.
Actually, that’s not quite right. If I had all the time in the world to ride my bike (I’m working on it…), I’d love to do a multi-day cycle, east to west (or vice versa) along the ridge of mountains.
Unfortunately, such cyclo-freedom is a good way off. With time my most precious commodity, and only so many family holidays that I can nudge towards taking place in well-known velo-locations, future ‘training camps’ are likely to be elsewhere.
When I compare the Côte D’Azur to, say, Puerto Pollensa in Majorca (all Strava routes lead back to Majorca), I think there are other places (like PP) that are easier to blend family pool and beach demands with the training ‘needs’ of a delusional bike-fancying parent. They’re quieter and cheaper.
(Other training locations favoured by high-budget professional cycling teams are available).
Over To You?
You’re a well-travelled bunch. I know many of you have ridden a bike in France, particularly the Alps.
Have any readers made it down to the Côte D’Azur? Where did you stay and where did you ride? Do you have any hidden gem climbs or routes to recommend?
Let me know in the comments.
The post Road Cycling On The Côte d’Azur (The Bit Near Cannes…) appeared first on Sportive Cyclist.
Cycling The Col De L’Ecre: Length, Gradient and Difficulty (All The Usual Fandango)
In this post I am going to give you all the ‘must have’ information you need in order to ride (and enjoy) the Col de l’Ecre, a particularly beautiful (and long) climb in the south of France.
This summer I had the particular pleasure of being bestowed with a week of free accommodation in a villa on the Côte d’Azur.
Shadly this was not because I’d hit the veloblogging big leagues and been invited to a high profile bike launch. Instead it was because my parents’ wealthy friends gave us a lend of their gaff. So you don’t have to feel sorry for me.
Anyhoo, me and my brother-in-law both hired bikes (as is our wont on these multi-Monty-generational holidays) and, in amongst a bunch of shorter rides, decided to tackle a ‘Cat 1’ climb in the area. And the Col de l’Ecre was that climb.
So, having thoroughly enjoyed the ride, and the climb (yes!), I decided to share the love. Or rather my experience. You can use it (maybe be inspired by it) if you’re ever in the area.
Where Is It?
Col de l’Ecre is a climb in the Alpes-Maritimes region (actually, ‘department’) of France.
Essentially, if you think of the coastline from Monaco in the north east, down to Cannes in the south west, with Nice in the middle. Well, it’s there, plus the bit behind it (the area inland that stretches northwards to the foothills of the Alpes).
The strip along the coastline, where the wealthy live and, in July, the French take their holibobs, is flat-to-a-little-bit-hilly (i.e. perfect for the nabobs that live further from the coast to still get a sea view).
Then suddenly, north of all that, and still in view of the sea, you have a ridge of mountains. Right, well the Col de l’Ecre is one of the climbs up that ridge of mountains.
Actually I’ve just discovered (magic of Google Maps) that the Col de l’Ecre climb, plus in fact most of our ride that day, is in a ‘regional park’, the Parc naturel regional des Prealpes d’Azur.
Which perhaps explains why all of it was so beautiful.
Routes To Climb
The Col de l’Ecre (the pass itself) is on the D12 (or Route Departmentale 12) so can theoretically be approached from a number of directions.
But let’s assume you’re coming from the coast and you want to #RideLikeMont.
Fiddling around on Strava, Climbbybike plus other interwebsites, suggests that the Col de l’Ecre climb is generally recognised as being the D3 from Châteauneuf-Grasse up to the mountain village of Gourdon. At Gourdon you take a left onto the D12 and ride until you hit (expire at) the top.
Which is a relief, because that’s the way I climbed it.
Le Loup of The Loop
We tackled the Col de l’Ecre as part of a loop, with the meat of the ride starting at Châteauneuf-Grasse and ending at Grasse (which I can confirm is a different place).
Essentially it was a climb up to the col, followed by 5km along a flattish (but actually quite beautiful) plateau, and then a nice long descent down the other side.
You could absolutely do this ride in the other direction and strictly you would be riding up to the Col de l’Ecre, but I think the main body of the climb, up out of Grasse, would more accurately be described as climbs to the Col du Pilon and the Col du Ferrier (plus some other little bit at the top).
(This all probably makes more sense if you just spend a bit of time investi-googling my Strava route from the ride in question).
How To Get There
By bike. Arf. Arf…
We were staying in Mougins, which is just north of Cannes. I’m in the process of writing another more general post about cycling in the area (I’m sure I’ll let you know when it’s published). Headline message: whilst not exactly urban, there are a lot or buildings, roads and traffic.
We spent most of our holiday trying to find quieter routes to the mountains. We were mainly entirely successfully. Still the route we took, pretty much direct from Mougins via Valbonnes (recommended for dinner options by the way) and on to Châteauneuf-Grasse, wasn’t too bad.
(Looking at the map, this direct route is in fact the D3, which I guess makes replicating our approach more straightforward).
If you need more ‘big picture’ directions: fly into Nice, hire a car, then hire a bike. Or just hire a bike.
The ‘Old Bitch of Opio’: A Quick Interlude
If you are approaching Chateaneuf from the south, then you will have to contend with an extra bit of ascent before you hit the Col de l’Ecre climb proper.
The climb, which bears an evocative, if slightly questionable, name, takes you from Opio to Châteauneuf.
It’s short, mercifully, with the Strava segment giving it 1.55km at an average gradient of 9%. But that average gradient hides some pretty sustained sections in the mid-to-high teens.
Also it’s an absolute git.
Now maybe we were riding it at morning rush hour (in the school holidays in a somewhat rural area) but the road was absolutely rammed with cars. I wasn’t prepared, physically or mentally, to go straight from more-or-less flat cruising along to a 15% straight ramp.
Unfortunately you just have to suck it up, which Strava tells me I did for 8ish minutes.
The Strava KOM is held by the Cycling Podcast’s favourite literary pun-fressional rider, David (Waiting For) Gaudu.
Stop Going On, Tell Me About The Col de L’Ecre
For the sake of argument, I’m going to use the ‘Col de l’Ecre de Pre du Lac’ segment on Strava as my golden source.
It is 14km in length, with an average gradient of 5%. With 700m of total ascent, the climb tops out (at the col) at 1,057m.
Strava rates it as a category 1 climb. As we know, the Strava classification system is simply a function of distance and metres climbed, rather than a particular measure of difficulty.
Climbbybike(.com) gives it 2 stars out of five based on their ‘difficulty score’ formula and I’d say that’s about right.
I alluded to it above but I actually enjoyed this climb, which points to the fact that, for the most part, the modest gradient allowed me to ride at my own pace, take photos and videos, and savour the views.
Right, well traffic on the Côte d’Azur is schizophrenic.
One minute the roads are crammed with cars, the next totally vehicle free.
Nowhere is this more stark than at the start of the Col de l’Ecre climb. The ride starts from a combo roundabout-junction type thing at the north end of Châteauneuf.
As we turned right at the junction, we weren’t well positioned to turn left across incoming traffic, plus I needed to stop and fill up a water bottle. So we stopped on the pavement.
The volume of cars, coming from maybe five different directions, meant it was virtually impossible to get back on the bikes to navigate the junction. We ended up walking the bikes over two pedestrian crossings, traversing multiple roads, to find our way onto the D3.
We started again on the D3 and began to climb. Then…. zero cars.
What Is The Climb Like To Ride?
If I had to pick a single word to describe the Col de l’Ecre, it would be ‘kind’ (as in, it’s kind to you as a rider).
There are four somewhat distinct sections, none of which are stinkers.
The first section is pretty much straight north, and straight up, from Châteauneuf. At 2.7km, it’s not too long, and at 6–8%, it’s not too steep. And whilst this is probably the hardest section of the climb, I found I could still spin (sort of) in the bottom two gears.
At the first hairpin, the road flattens out for the second section of the climb. This segment, which was approximately 3.3km at 1–3%, achieved a very high nice-views-to-effort ratio. Whilst I wasn’t compelled by the gradient to stop, it was difficult to resist the urge to grind to a halt and take photos.
There is nothing more annoying than a long climb which has a bit of downhill thrown in halfway. All those hard fought metres of ascent given back for a bit of dirty descent. But that is how section 3 of the Col de l’Ecre starts.
I will forgive it though (insofar as a human can forgive a geographical feature). The short (~700m) descent, as the road turns into a fold in the mountainside and over a narrow bridge, followed by the sharp kick up to Gourdon, takes the beautiful scenery factor up even higher.
The climb to Gourdon is made all the more bearable by the knowledge that there is a cafe there waiting to provide you with a coffee and a refill of your bidon. I didn’t know that there was a cafe as I tackled those final metres so it must have been the distraction of the Côte d’Azur vistas drowning out the chatter from my thighs.
The final section of the climb is from Gourdon to the Col itself, on the D12 .
At this point you’ll be well-fueled by the hot (or cold) drink of your choice, so it will be a breeze (har, har…). At just over 6km, it’s the longest of the sections (which I’ve just invented). Whilst there is the odd bend as the road winds its way up the slope, with one proper switchback, the gradient stays pretty constant in the mid single digits. Which is nice.
There is a treat at the top of the Col de l’Ecre climb that I wasn’t really expecting (to be fair, my research was limited, so I wasn’t really expecting anything, other than I’d have to descend at some point).
The reward for your 45–60 mins of effort (and maybe a coffee stop) is 6km almost straight dash along a beautiful (Alpine?) plateau (the Plateau de Caussols to be exact).
The photo only does it partial justice. It was an amazingly peaceful place to ride a bike.
I suppose you could ride back down the Col de l’Ecre after you’ve climbed it, but where’s the joy in that.
Otherwise there’s no ‘right’ answer on the route to take down from the plateau. We needed to get back to Grasse, and then Mougins beyond, so we bore south, dropping down onto the D5 towards Saint-Vallier-de-Thiey (“worth a visit”).
Following the signs to Grasse, it appears we took the pleasingly-titled Route Napoleon, which passed through the even-more-pleasingly-titled Super-Grasse (where I was neither caught by the fuzz, nor ‘still on my buzz’).
How Long Should It Take (And Other Miscellany)
Romain Bardet holds the KOM with an ascent in 32 minutes 38 seconds.
Monty is closer to Court Fool Of The Mountain, with a Strave segment time of 1hr 22mins. In my defence, that included the cafe stop, which the official timekeeper tells me took 22 minutes and 2 seconds. So make an estimate based on which end of the professional-rider-to-Monty scale you occupy.
General road conditions were good throughout the climb. The road surface was standard continental smooth, other than for a couple of kilometres after Gourdon, where it was a bit more gritty and rough. The road was nice and wide, with more than enough space for cars to pass one another.
I am used to going on a family holiday at the height of the Mediterranean summer, hiring a road bike and then suffering up climbs significantly longer than the ones found at home.
It was therefore a (more than) pleasant surprise that I enjoyed this ride, I didn’t finish in a blubbering mess and I didn’t spend the whole climb wishing I was somewhere else.
(Perhaps I wasn’t trying hard enough)
The Col de l’Ecre is an excellent introduction to long continental climbs or a nice ‘tester’ for riders who are trying to juggle other family commitments on their holidays. And for not too much of a leg-powered sacrifice to the cycling gods, you get the pay-off of some pretty spectacular scenery, both on the ascent and at the top. You can’t say fairer than that.
Over To You
Have you ridden this climb or in the Côte d’Azur? Or do you have another favourite continental climb?
Let me know in the comments below.
The post Cycling The Col De L’Ecre: Length, Gradient and Difficulty (All The Usual Fandango) appeared first on Sportive Cyclist.