When I lived on the Island of Bali, we used to regularly witness a phenomenon locally known as ‘Bali Magic’; the unsuspecting tourist would arrive on the Island, and its irresistible lure would make such an impression on them, that life-changing decisions would be made, houses sold, savings plundered, all to chase the tropical dream. Provence has had a similar effect on me. I’m not going to sell-up or plunder, but I will definitely be back for more!
I love tracing the randomness of why I end up going somewhere or doing something. The inconsequential start of it all. On this occasion, I was looking for cheap flights to Sri Lanka, but I forgot to fill in the destination box, so the search came up with a £10 return flight to somewhere obscure in France. I didn’t go there, but it led me to expand the search for cheap flights to France, and Nice had a couple of flights out of Gatwick at reasonable times of the day. I then did a quick search on Airbnb, and found exactly what I was looking for; a quirky self-contained hut, in an olive terrace at the edge of town, going for a song! Suddenly, me and my bike were off to explore the Maritime Alpes, staying just outside Nice, close to a small town called Vence.
My recent solo cycling trips have all involved a lot of pre-holiday research regarding bike routes because, for me, that is a big part of the enjoyment. The discovery aspect is the thing that sets the stomach butterflies whirring. My initial search highlighted the Gorge de Verdon as a possible place to explore, but it wasn’t a realistic day trip, and would have been a tough two dayer (150 km days ain’t my thing!), so I concentrated on the hills just to the north of Vence. It turned out to be some of my best ever days out on a bike.
It was more than the rides though. On the evening of my arrival, I sat down outside my little wooden hut, on the edge of a pine and olive filled valley, inhaling the dry herby smells, feeling a total stillness that I haven’t felt for too long. I was hooked before my host even opened the door!
For me, the summer months could have been better, both physically and emotionally, and I was slightly anxious that I had taken on too much, but there is one thing about cycling I totally get, and it is this; regardless of how fit I am (and baring illness or injury) I can always ride 50 miles, it doesn’t matter whether it takes me 5 hours or 3. I enjoy riding at 10 m/h as much as I do at 15 m/h. The latter just takes more practise. So I took it easy. The healthy food, minimal alcohol, restricted access to wifi, absence of telly and days of long slow rides in beautiful scenery, proved a perfect balm to my slightly weary soul.
My rides on this trip made me more aware of what, for me, defines a great day out. My first two rides started by climbing the Col de Vence, (which is a 600 ms ascent from Vence at around 7% gradient), and then spent the rest of the day gradually losing height, so all the hard work is done in the first hour, and the rest of the day is a breeze. In the Alps proper, ascents up to cols are usually followed immediately by a descent of equal gradient, so you are either grafting or holding on for dear life, or going along a flat valley bottom! What characterises the rides around here is a combination of beautiful mountain scenery combined with balcony roads that keep high for 20 + kms.
The roads were extremely quiet, so much so that my normal penchant for seeking small roads and tracks fell by the wayside, although I was tempted by a couple of options. More reasons to go back and explore! I found that a more challenging aspect of creating a route was making it the right length and amount of ascent. My ideal is 70 to 100 km with 1500 to 2000 ms of ascent (for those not familiar with alpine ascending, the low gradients make large ascents easier. I wouldn’t enjoy ascending 1500 ms in the Kent lanes). The sparsity of the road network limited the number of routes that fell within these criteria. I would say I was a bit on the cautious side, partly because the RidewithGPS ascent numbers were incorrect (Something I am looking into).
Although all my pre-holiday planning was based on web-based maps via RidewithGPS, when I arrived I purchased a Michelin Map that proved very useful, mainly because it highlighted the picturesque roads, by putting a green line next to them. The map number is 115 of a series called Zoom France by Michelin (1;100,000, 1cm = 1km).
19th Sept Evening
I am sitting alone in a little hut at the end of a parched rocky terrace, filled with olive, oak and yukka plants, The light is starting to fade and I have a long evening in-front of me. My hut contains all I need in a physical sense, a little basic kitchen, a shower, a loo and a bed. I’ve got enough food to last a few days and my bike is put back together and ready to roll. No telly, no internet and no friends in the vicinity. For all my love of riding my bike in exotic locations, I certainly don’t relish the evenings alone. I look at it as one of the downsides that is, thankfully, more than compensated for in other ways.
When I arrived yesterday evening, I sat outside my new bijou residence and felt like I’d been transported from another planet. The stillness was almost tangible, like I could cut a slice of it. Just a couple of squawking birds in the valley and the occasional lonely drone of a distant plane. I loved it, and knew that if I had been with someone else, I wouldn’t have felt it so intensely, but you can’t make a moment last forever and by 9 o’clock I was struggling to keep my eyes open, knowing full well that it was way too early to sleep.
Tomorrow I will get up when I like, set off when I like & do a route I have chosen. I won’t have to wait for anybody, or have anybody wait for me and I won’t have to discuss any change of route or plan. The flip-side of this indulgence being, of course, that I miss out on the joys of sharing the experience. The memory is only mine, it won’t exist in any bodies else’s head, to be re-counted, exaggerated, marvelled at, commiserated over ……..
So what has led me to this solo-cycling-state? I could just say, early retirement and lack of fellow cyclists with sufficient funds or free time, but that would not be the whole story. My cycling legacy seems to have set me down a road which at times feels a little deserted! Part of my problems lies with my style of riding; my preference to include un-surfaced roads which harks back to my mountain biking days, and partly because when I started riding, mass cycling events, Sportifs and club training rides (for women) didn’t exist. I didn’t start riding my bike to keep fit or compete, I rode to explore what was beyond the end of the street, and I learned to love where it took me, whether it was to the shops, touring around Scotland or discovering the hidden roads behind Nice. My enjoyment of it stems from a different era and try as I might, my kind of cycling means too much to me, to want to change it.
On a brighter note, maybe there is a change on the horizon ……..adventure bikes, bike packing. Now you’re talking! Just need to grow a beard and buy a hand-stitched duck-quill saddlebag!
It’s 10 pm which means I’ve lasted an hour longer than last night, and I haven’t even read my book yet. And then there’s tomorrow, with whatever that will bring. I’ve got a feeling it’s going to start with the Col de Vence …..,…………..Night Folks!
20th Sept 2017 Col de Vence lefty loop
Every day should start with a col! This particular one is around 8 kms of 7% and with fresh legs I soon got into a good rhythm. It’s a tad on the barren side to be picturesque but very popular with roadies and mtb’ers alike. At 10 am it was already hot and I was getting through my water, being sheltered from the wind until I got over the brow of the hill.
My last km’s of the climb were spent in front of a wheezy French man who eventually past me, and told me that I had a good climbing style and that I was very lucky because today you could see Corsica across our ever-expanding view of the med, and so you could. Apparently, it only reveals itself 4 or 5 times a year.
As I climbed I checked the trails to the right and left for their adventure road riding possibilities. My impression was that the terrain was far to rocky and dry to be enjoyable on thin tyres so I changed the route slightly and kept on the road, which was, in any case very quiet.
After a rocket-fuelled coffee from a Ranch just passed the top of the Col, I started what was to turn into a massive descent, initially along the top of a deep ravine that kept me concentrating on the road, and then into a giant valley with limestone cliffs, beautiful conifer forests and medieval towns and villages clinging precariously to the hillsides. It was spectacular. I had lunch in a perched village called Cipieres, continuing on down the Gorges de Loup, which was equally breath-taking.
By the bottom of the Gorge, and after what seemed like hours of down-hill, I was actually at a lower altitude than the start, something that I had not realised when putting the ride together, which meant an unanticipated 200 metre ascent to the town of Tourettes Sur Loup. Okay, the fun had to stop somewhere.
To console myself, and replace a few lost calories I stopped for a butter and apple gallette and a boulle de cidre, before rolling back to Vence.
It was a short confidence-boosting loop, full of beautiful views and empty roads. Tomorrows ride may well be meatier!
21st Sept Roquesteron Loop
I had a short and a long loop in mind, but I left my decision until the routes divided, about 40 km into the ride. The long route was 97 km with 1700 m of ascent, so it was something I had to feel in the mood for before committing myself.
I started up the Col de Vence for the second day in a row, and it was remarkably similar second time around(!), except that Corsica was now in a bank of hazy cloud. I managed to pass the Ranch without stopping for coffee and carried on until Coursegoules, one of the many hillside villages, for my morning shot. I continued east, and after about 6 km of quiet, beautifully paved rolling descent, I started to catch breath-taking glimpses of the mountains across the River Var, to the higher Alps. By 11.20 I was at the route split and it was a no brainer, the long loop won the day. It was a decision I didn’t regret. It was 22 kms to Roquesteron, along what I can only describe as the most amazing ‘balcony’ road that I have ever ridden. It was perched about 600 meters above the valley floor, and kept at around that height for most of the way, until eventually dropping down into the town. The views were ……well, I’m running out of superlatives, but I’ll be riding it again before I leave, and I’ll try to think of some.
Roquesteron, has a church perched on top of a massive lump of rock, which I inadvertently climbed trying to find the town square. After carrying my bike up numerous steps and along narrow passages, I left the bike and continued on foot, only to realise that the town itself was across the river. Ho hum, it was a nice place to eat my sandwiches!
The route back was along the same valley, but on the other side of the river and at a lower altitude. The road was empty, with plenty of fine views, but nothing could beat the morning ride.
I knew the hardest bit of the day would be the last 25 kms, and so it was; against the wind and 300 ms back up to Vence, from the River Var, but I’m never in a hurry, the max gradient for the entire ride was 7% on the Col de Vence, which is not tough, and it seemed like I had spent most of the day, going down-hill enjoying the views. I just kept my legs turning. At Gattieres, where I knew my battle was won, I had a celebratory beer……..cos it’s rude not to!
I am getting seriously hooked on this region!
Tomorrow’s ride takes me along another balcony road, higher and longer than the one I have just discovered, that leads to the little town of Puget-Theniers, where I’m spending a night away from my Vence hide-away. The only problem being that according to the weather forecast, the skies fall-in at 2 pm, so an early start me thinks.
Click here for video of Balcony road to Roquesteron.
23rd Sept Vence to Puget-Theniers
Well the skies have gone horribly grey and it’s 8am in the morning, so I have decided to switch my routes around. I had planned to do the ‘ultimate’ balcony road, higher and longer than the one I previously discovered. Is that possible? Anyway, I want to ride it on a blue-sky day, which could be tomorrow?
I set off from Vence, keeping high and going east through Carros and on up to Bouyon. It was a day to send your hunting dogs out! I passed a pair with GPS collars on and couple of minutes later passed some people standing in their drive following the dogs progress on mobile phones. Hunting without having to leave home. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it! My favourite balcony road was still a delight, even on a cloudy day. I continued to Roquesteron and decided to start the climb up to Sigale before having my lunch with a lofty view, next to an abandoned house with a lonely guard dog in it’s front garden. Dogs again. I carried on past Sigale, and, you guessed it, got attacked by a dog. It didn’t actually bite but chased me up the road and hastened my journey upwards. I shouted at it, when I thought it was far enough away, but it heard and renewed its chase with increased vigour. That taught me. By the time I got to the base of the Col de Raphael, I was hot and bothered so I changed into something short-sleeved and baggy, drank some water and felt a whole lot better. The Col do Rapheal from the south was pretty tame, but I was relieved to be swooping down into the town of Puget Theniers; my base for the night.
My last-minute hotel booking secured me a room on the wrong side of town, opposite the station and next to a Citroen garage. Having said that Puget Theniers is not known for its good looks. I know that because the map that I bought in Vence has a ‘star’ system, whereby it places up to 4 starts next to anything that is picturesque, and Puget didn’t even qualify for one.
I was looking forward to my meal out, (because, let’s face it, my hotel room was about as inspiring as a Premier Inn on the outskirts of Slough) but unfortunately, I got the timing all wrong, and as I left the Hotel the skies opened and rumbled, and I had to dive into the nearest place, which turned out to be a Pizza restaurant. I pined for my little hut in Vence, with a pork chop in the fridge!
24th Sept Puget-Theniers to Vence – The ‘Ultimate’ balcony ride
For all my moans about the Hotel, it did a pretty comprehensive Continental breakfast, and I set off to tackle the north face of the Col de Raphael with a full and content stomach, and found the climb less onerous than I had imagined. My glasses steamed up half way, and I took them off to take a photo, then promptly left them on the wall, so if anyone’s passing ….
At the top of the col, I turned left onto the D27; the road of my dreams, the eternal balcony! It didn’t disappoint. Every twist and turn, and there were many, revealed a different view. I think the saying feeling on top of the world is apt. I took it slow, cos it wasn’t a long ride and I had no-one waiting on, or for me. I had no time that I had to beat. My GPS was off. I stopped at Ascros for my morning coffee and got speaking to a local cyclist, who said I should stay there next time I came. Like many parts of the world, you don’t have to go far off the tourist trail to experience another world. Most of the villages I went through were not affluent and a coffee cost between 1.30 and 1.50 Euros (unlike close to Nice, where I paid 6 Euros!!).
I descended slowly and then at more pace to the River Var, sitting in its wide and industrial valley, and decided to take the Route des Iscles up to Le Broc, a much pleasanter alternative to the bike path along the river. With the end in sight, I cycled up to the touristy village of St Jeannet for my final beer and for some reason, possibly because it was the last cycling day, I ordered a large one, much to the amusement of the three women I was sharing a table with. The trouble was it was one those ‘continental ones’ that stray way above 5% alcohol, which I only realised when I got up to leave. I set off confidently into the main village, but couldn’t find a way out. The streets just got smaller and steeper. I ended up having to cycle back past the Bar and was for some reason on the wrong side of the road at that particular point. Oh dear, these English!
I did get back in one piece, but not before I had explored a section of disused railway and an old viaduct, which would have served to complete the ultimate balcony experience, if it hadn’t ended in a blocked off tunnel that had been converted into someone’s garage. Shame! I did think at this point, that if someone had been riding with me, they would have strangled me by now!
Note to self. Check the beer strength before ordering.