The French Riviera, a place I first visited over 20 years ago during an Inter-railing holiday with John. After spending most of our 3 weeks in a 2 man tent in camp-sites on the edge of major cities we hit some accommodation good fortune. Luckily for us, but perhaps not for the family, Carol (John’s girlfriend now wife) was working as an au-pair in Eze, a hilltop town just along the road from Nice. The family kindly let John and I stay for a couple of days and we experienced a different side of life. Real food, not just rottisseire chicken that we have been surviving on up until that point and having a private swimming pool at our disposal. That was the life. The downside to this was of course, me becoming a goosberry. I had met Stephanie (my girfriend and future wife) earlier that year and we hadn’t spend much time apart. Before, we left for interailing Stephanie had been in Egypt for 3 weeks and apart from a brief passing moment in London as our holidays overlapped we were going to be apart for 6 weeks. So, at night I would retreat with my Sony Walkman and the mix tape Stephanie had given me but I could never get passed track 3 Spandau Ballet’s ‘Through the Barricades’…..
You might ask, what has this got to do with cycling? Well, I am back in Nice this week on a holiday and with most plans these days, there has got to be some sort of cycling interest in there. With my optimism around Lejog varying from day to day, a week of eating pizza and baguettes was never going to increase that significantly so a cycle was put into the mix to keep the fitness up. The Nice area is quite popular with professional cyclists due to the favourable climate and the access to some great mountains as Nice is at the end of the Maritime-Alpes. This was where Lance Armstrong made his winter base for a number of years and specifically tested himself on a mountain by the name of the ‘Col de Madone’. He felt this mountain gave him a good test and he was always knew where he stood in terms of fitness by how he performed there. 32 minutes was his record. This mountain also became the name of TREK manufactures who sponsor Lance Armstrong range of road bikes.
With this is mind I organised a trip and bike hire with a local company specializing in tours of the area, all booked through the internet and e-mail. http://www.cyclecotedazur.com/ The company is run by a former Commonwealth games cyclist and since I didn’t know the area it would keep me from getting lost. This would also keep Stephanie happy as my last cycle trip abroad I decided to go up a different mountain at the last minute and didnt tell anyone!
With my big ride not due until the Wednesday I thought it might be wise to get the legs moving before tempting out to the mountains. This however, proved to be probably the most brutal ride I have undertaken this year. With a bike duly rented from the local beach front store and extra seat duly attached I set out along the Promenade D’Anglais, the famous sea side walkway.
What I had not reckoned on was the gale force winds that were buffeting the coast which was making a struggle to move in my 7 speed dream machine.In the easiest gear, I was barely moving and was glad my Garmin was not attached, reporting a 5 mph average would not have done my street cred much good. A couple of miles up the coast and enough was enough, not sure the wee man was really enjoying it and I certainly wasnt and decision to turn round was taken. What a difference, without barely a turn of the pedal I was getting blown back along at a fair old pace.
On the way back we decided to hire a car a do a further recce but only ended in getting more lost in Nice’s one way system and going round in circles.
With my ride day quickly approaching, it was time to pick up my hire bike. It was a 10 minute walk from the apartment further into Nice, a new area for me, I am guessing where the professional people stay, judging by the Marks and Spencer’s express style MONOP shop and fancy coffee shops that abounded. I reached my pick up point and met who was going to be my guide for the trip, Mike. Mike who is Australian, currently over for the wedding of the owner of the tour company and spending some covering while the owner was on honeymoon. With the pleasantries out the way, my bike for the day was wheeled. A custom built ‘ Harry Hall’ carbon bike with top of the range Shimano ‘Dura Ace’ groupset, things are looking good. I hadn’t heard of this particular make but research later showed this to be a make of great repute. I then enquired about the gears on the bike, and was told it was a double set up. For those without knowledge (me included), the double means having 2 chain rings(the part where the pedals attach) with sizes of 53 and 39 (the number refers to the number of teeth) respectively, the bigger the number the harder it is to push but potentially faster. Given this was to be a hilly ride this was not the best news. What about at the back I ask? That’s a 25/12 I am told, the bigger number on the back makes it easier, 25 was not that big a number. At home I have a 50/34 on the front and a newly installed 28/12 on the back, giving me about 4 easier gears than I was getting on this ride and given I am famous for always keeping my easiest gear in reserve ‘just in case’ this was a worry. However, I smile manfully and say ‘sounds great’ and continued with the bike set up. Mike did a great job of setting me up after I advised him of some calf problems I was having and off I rode home into night. The bike felt great on the 5 minute journey and what was the point of worrying, it wouldnt do the legs any harm to work a bit harder. Although, John’s text after I told him about the bike set up was not exactly encouraging ‘ Enjoy the walk’ he said!
With my kit and food all duly laid out, I retire to bed but instead of going to sleep watch 3 episodes of ‘Sons of Anarchy’ with Stephanie, the adventures of an outlaw biker gang in California, top rated holiday entertainment. I am excited about the ride tomorrow and struggle to sleep but eventually dropped off.
With trip day finally here I was up and atom early and had my porridge and berries and was ready to go. It was 08:15 as I rolled out the door into the streets of Nice and my meeting point on the Promenade d’Anglais. Mike was there to meet me and also there was Daniel, a Columbian student studying in Nice who was going to be doing some guiding during his summer recess. A couple of photographs later and we were off.
The route today was going to be 2 major climbs. The Col de Eze (0 to 600m) back down to the sea and then the aforementioned Col de Madone (0 to 950m). We started slowly on the cycle path avoiding the traffic lights on the road proper, firstly round to the port where we join the road , less than a mile from the start and then we start climbing. I am already in the easiest gear , maybe it’s the good bike or the warm weather but it doesn’t feel too bad. The route planned takes in a road called the Grand Corniche and climbs up and along the coast. There are fantastic views as we climb and then look down on the sparkling blue water.
Mike was doing a good job on keeping a good but not blistering pace. I am known for knocking myself out early and leaving nothing for the end plus I am holiday and it’s nice to sometimes smell the roses along the way. We reach Eze and I look down on the village to try and recall where the house was I stayed but nothing is coming to mind and then we turn a corner and we can see the snow capped mountains of the Alps in the distance. Then it’s time to come down, a super long descent to the town of Menton, it’s a beautiful sweeping road and any car drivers are being patient as we speed along. Soon enough, we are in Menton and the real fun is about to begin.
We take a left turn off the main road, and immediately we begin climbing. It’s a bit different from the alpine (ski type) climbs I have done as the scenery at this point is a bit more industrial/residential. Fences abound at the side of the road and the grasses and ground are dried and rutted rather than rich from the snow run off.
The road however is definitely a different beast from the Col De Eze, I am standing more often as the turns are sharper. The distance to the summit is 10km. The town of St Agnes sits half way up hidden behind a rock and that is the immediate target. My heart rate isn’t too high, about 160 when some climbs have brought it as high as 180. The views back to sea are still fantastic though and also some of the houses that we pass. Infinity pools seem to be popular, cant see them taking off in Burnside though. We pass our first group of cyclists, only 1 road bike in there but an overtakes is an overtake so I am happy. As the we come into St Agnes we hear the sound of play time at the local school.
A brief (less than a minute) stop ensues and a quick photograph ens. The road then starts to change at this point, it gets a lot thinner and the surface is markedly poorer, also there is a lot of rock fall from the side of the road to watch for.
But the other side of the coin is that it is also slightly easier and at points I have moved out of the easiest gear. We go through a few tunnels and any car coming down give a few toots to warn you of their arrival, not that this is a busy road, it’s mainly cyclists. We reach the top and it;s definitely not the horror show I thought it might be, did I do it in 30 minutes like Lance Armstrong? Not quite, but that’s not the point. We pause for a few minutes at the top and take in the views, the sea one side, the snow capped mountains the other way. The sign denoting the top of the mountain has been stolen but you can see the posts where it stood.
Then we are off again, swooping down the hillside. The road is better this side of the mountain but you still have to be careful. It would not be wise to go off the side, there is also a few hairpin turns to undertake which takes the speed down. We soon get onto a bigger road and I indicate to Mike that my legs are feeling reasonably fresh and he can put the boot down if he wants. The next bit although downhill is not greatly so and wind is starting to freshen. We are haring along and I tend to lose a bit of momentum on the corners and need to learn to keep pedalling but it’s still a fair old pace. We have a quick coffee stop in La Turbie and then we are off again, a slight incline to get us started and then the coastal road again for a bit. The wind is definetely up and it;s feeling a wee bit like hard work but it doesnt last and then we are on some steep stuff again. We go a different route back into Nice, round the back way and I manage to hit 42 mph on a clear bit of road, then quickly we are back into civilizaion. The pace slows as we dodge through trams, one way streets and traffic lights which takes us back to the sea where we started. I thank Mike and Daniel, they have been good company and clearly good cyclists although not sure they would last the pace in Scotland. Mike still had his winter gear on and Daniel has shaved his legs!! Back at the apartment I downloaded the Garmin and looked at what I had done. Nice!
As these things go, once you have done something once, you want to do it again. So utilising the course feature of the Garmin I headed out again at 0630 the next day for a near non stop trip. This time there was no stopping on the way up the Col de Madone. Couple of hairy moments on the way back down as I locked the brakes to avoiding hitting cars slowing down in front of me but apart from that just the same great views but not the same great conversations. The Garmin output seemed a bit strange though but I had a slightly faster moving average which was good.