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Col of the wild: Col du Noyer Big Ride

In-depth
22 Mar 2021
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The Tour de France peloton last climbed the mighty Col du Noyer back in 2010. So we decided it was long overdue a visit

Words: Trevor Ward Photography: Geoff Waugh

Our ride in the heart of the Dévoluy Massif is neatly bookended by two electronic signs laden with significance. The first is on an overhead motorway gantry as we make the two-hour transfer from Marseille airport. It reads: Vous n’etes pas une machine – faites une break (‘You are not a machine – take a break’).

The second greets us as we finish our 118km ride over six cols, just as it starts raining. It’s outside a bakery, and the flashing neon sign says simply: Pain.

Give peace a chance

The day starts and finishes in Veynes on the bank of the Le Petit-Beuch river in the department of Hautes-Alpes. After following the course of the river for a short distance, the road shakes off the last vestiges of civilisation and motorised traffic and starts rising gently through a wooded gorge.

Within just a few kilometres the silence is deafening. Or rather it would be if it wasn’t for the constant chatter of my ebullient ride companion for the day.

Kate Maddison is an extremely strong and genial cyclist and runner. She’s lived and mountain-biked all over the world, and now runs a road cyclists’ ‘retreat’ called Serre des Ormes in the picturesque Gorges des Méouge with her husband Paul. And she loves to talk.

 

No detail of our ride is considered too insignificant to merit comment. Whether it’s a sudden gust of wind or another kilometre marker, Kate will confirm its existence by commenting on it.

If Kate doesn’t mention it, it probably doesn’t exist or didn’t happen.

While we are riding along the flat with the wind on our backs, nothing could be more convivial than Kate pointing out interesting specimens of flora and fauna, or describing a famous incident from the Tour de France.

And during the first part of today’s ride, she will have plenty of source material to draw from. When the road ramps up sharply for the umpteenth time, however, some riders prefer the conversation and bonhomie to cease, to be allowed to find their own rhythm and wallow in their personal suffering with just the sounds of the birds, bees and their laboured breathing to keep them company.

I am one of those riders. I love riding in places like the south of France because it’s a chance to discover true remoteness among the mountains.

Solitude and silence are increasingly rare commodities in our modern, connected world so should be savoured at every opportunity.

Plus, I’m a grumpy bugger who believes silence is a virtue.

 

So, as diplomatically as possible, I offer Kate a compromise as we approach the biggest climb of the day, where I anticipate at least an hour’s worth of unrelenting suffering: if she stays quiet during every second kilometre, I’ll happily engage in conversation about any trees, telegraph poles or clouds she might wish to discuss during the kilometres in between.

She looks at me with an air of barely concealed contempt and tells me I’m typical of male cyclists she’s ridden with.

‘You’re all too focused on your average speed or power to talk,’ she says. ‘When I’m riding with girls all you hear is chatting and laughter.’

I want to point out that speed and power are the last things on my mind. Rather, it’s simply a question of survival – confining the use of my respiratory passages to inhaling as much oxygen as possible rather than making conversation.

But if I try to explain, I’ll sound like a tiny animal with its neck caught in venetian blinds.

I fear I may have caused offence, because suddenly Kate drops back and tucks in behind me. ‘It’s more aero for us both to ride like this,’ she says.

 

‘I heard [time-trialist and author] Michael Hutchinson on a BBC documentary saying that wind resistance increases by eight per cent if you ride side by side.’

Now I know I’ve hurt her feelings – she’s actually talking about the scientific marginal gains of not talking.

But this is all much later. For now, as we summit the first col of the day after an easy 12km climb – the Col d’Espréaux at 1,160m – we remain the best of friends, totally unaware of how the rest of the parcours will take its toll on our relationship.

Beware of the dog

The descent to the village of Barcillonnette is steep and technical, with only a wooden barrier delineating the fine line between terra firma and oblivion.

We pass an elderly gentlemanon a steel bike with down tube shifters and toe clips, the first traffic (if you can call it that) we’ve seen since leaving Veynes.

A short stretch on the valley floor is enlivened by the presence of one of the region’s huge white patou dogs, which are used to protect flocks of sheep. Fortunately it pays us little attention, but Kate warns me they can be extremely aggressive.

‘They are raised as part of the flock, and live with them,’ she says. ‘There are usually signs warning walkers and cyclists to keep their distance.’

 

The next climb is slightly more demanding than the previous one, and not just because of where it’s taking us. ‘We call it the Furry Arse,’ says Kate, before pronouncing the col’s proper name with full Gallic gusto: Foureyssasse.

At the top, we arrive on a wide plateau called the Balcon de Rousine that offers views of the mountain range we are heading for, and the peak we will effectively be circumnavigating – the 2,709m Pic de Bure.

The ‘balcony’ extends for 17 glorious kilometres, passing through a couple of villages and around a lake where people are sunbathing or swimming. We stop at the lakeside cafe for a coffee.

Kate warns me that the last time she was here they didn’t have any milk, so we might have to take our coffees black. In fact, it’s even worse than that – this time they don’t even have any electricity, so we end up taking our soft drinks warm.

From there it’s a fast descent into the town of Gap, where we suddenly have to get used to dealing with busy roads again. We skirt the town centre before leaving the main road and commencing the climb to our third col of the day, the Col de Manse.

So much drama has happened on the descent from this 1,270m pass that I’m expecting to see the route dotted with blue plaques or other memorials as we tackle it in the opposite, uphill direction.

The most famous incident of all is Joseba Beloki’s crash in 2003 when he was leading Lance Armstrong to the finish of Stage 9 in Gap.

 

The Basque rider lost control on a patch of melting tarmac, forcing Armstrong into an impromptu shortcut across a field to the other side of the hairpin.

It was a brilliant piece of bike handling by Armstrong, but proved to be a tragedy for Beloki – runner-up in the previous year’s Tour – who suffered a broken leg, elbow and wrist and would never regain his form.

In 2013 Alberto Contador crashed on the same descent, almost taking out eventual GC winner Chris Froome in the process.

And in 2015 Geraint Thomas went flying into a telegraph pole before disappearing down the side of an embankment. Remarkably, he suffered nothing more serious than the loss of his favourite sunglasses.

In search of G’s shades

As we climb out of Gap I’m on the lookout for the scenes of all these dramas. However, the gradient makes it a bruising affair, an inexorable drag never dipping below 7%.

It’s also the hottest time of the day and soon I’m more interested in finding somewhere for a nice sit down in the shade and something to eat rather than Geraint Thomas’s sunglasses.

The climb drags on without mercy for 9km, regularly touching double-digit gradients, and Kate’s constant words of encouragement – ‘Not far now’ – are in direct contradiction to the evidence on my Garmin screen.

 

By the time we are near the top we’ve passed enough hairpins and telegraph poles for me to be satisfied we’ve passed by all those historic sites. But then we reach a T-junction a few hundred metres short of the col, and I see a signpost for Gap pointing right.

It appears there is an alternative descent, and all these spectacular moments may have occurred in a parallel universe from the one we’ve just traversed.

I think back to that sign on the motorway: ‘You are not a machine – take a break.’ We agree it’s time for lunch and descend to the first restaurant we find in the town of Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur.

Over huge thin-crust pizzas we check the map. There is indeed an alternative descent to Gap. The route we took appeared the most obvious, sticking to narrow, quiet lanes.

Going up the other way would have meant more time spent on busy roads. We console ourselves with the thought that even if we didn’t follow the exact route, we definitely came over the right mountain.

 

The main event

The longest, toughest climb of the day starts immediately outside the restaurant. This is the 15km climb to the Col du Noyer, last used in the Tour in 2010.

For the first 8km the road merely caresses the lower slopes of the dark mass towering over us. Things get serious at the village of Le Noyer, where the road doubles back on itself and ramps up steeply.

Roadside markers every kilometre reveal the average gradient of the next kilometre.

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The length of time spent between signs correlates exactly with the steepness indicated on them. When I see each marker looming ahead of me I’m desperately hoping it will offer me some relief, a percentage below seven, but it seems this stretch of road is destined to get steeper and steeper.

The last thing I remember Kate saying before her words become just white noise is about a village we can see in the folds of the mountain on the other side of the valley.

‘That’s Valgaudemar, which is in shadow for most of the winter. They celebrate the return of the sun by cooking a giant, communal omelette.’

It’s shortly afterwards that the gradient hits 12% and stays resolutely pitched at that for what feels like an eternity. Kate is at my side, and in between the spots in front of my eyes I can make out her lips moving, but I can’t hear anything above the pounding of my heart.

Although I can imagine what it is she’s trying to tell me – that these last two kilometres are the hardest.

They’re also the most spectacular, with a pair of hairpins offering views back down to the valley floor.

The gradient actually slackens sufficiently in the last 500m for me to attempt a sprint finish and it’s a heady cocktail of pure adrenaline and euphoria that drives me over the line.

As I climb off, Kate spots a slight wobble in my gait and, pointing to the panoramic display on a viewing platform, says, ‘If you’re feeling dizzy, there’s a table d’orientation over there.’ Even I have to smile at that.

 

The summit restaurant celebrates the achievements of famous pelotons that have passed this way: Napoleon’s army and the Tour de France.

Inside are photographs from the four occasions the Tour came over. Of the riders who summited first each time, the most notable name is that of Luis Ocaña.

In 1971 he used the col as a launchpad for a daring solo breakaway that saw him take a nine-minute lead over Eddy Merckx. His glory would be short-lived however.

Just a few days later he crashed in the Pyrenees and was forced to abandon, allowing Merckx to take his third consecutive Tour victory).

Leading the blind

It’s over bowls of ice cream on the restaurant terrace that I finally learn the reason why Kate is so talkative – she used to pilot blind riders on tandems.

‘I obviously had to describe the road to them, so they knew when to stop pedalling or lean into bends,’ she says. ‘But they also liked to be told about the scenery.’

As we start our descent into the central basin that forms the heart of the Dévoluy mountains, I have a newfound respect for Kate.

Before us a natural barrier of peaks rises up like a wave about to come crashing down on shore, and it’s sobering to think a blind rider on the back of a tandem would be deprived of this view.

Kate’s descriptive powers, I’m sure, provided some consolation.

But this is also a highly technical descent, and I can feel only admiration for both Kate and her blind passengers as they swept down similar roads to a chorus of instructions and directions shouted out by Kate.

‘It was great fun. They never wanted me to use the brakes,’ she laughs now.

There are still two cols left, the first of which, the Col de Rioupes, is a 4km drag up through a landscape littered with random piles of rocks.

Although the final climb, the Col de Festre, is a more sedate affair, we still get a good aerobic workout from the presence of another huge patou guarding its flock of sheep.

The final descent is an exhilarating 17km on fast, wide and empty roads. The sky is darkening, and by the time we reach the valley floor and the turn off for the last couple of kilometres to Veynes, the rain has started.

As we arrive in the car park from where we started, the neon sign outside the bakery flickers into life: Pain. But it tells only half the story.

Mind the Gap

Follow Cyclist’s route over six cols, including the mighty Col du Noyer

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/89france. From the centre of Veynes, take Avenue Picasso to the river and turn left. At the T-junction, turn right and cross the river. Follow this road over the Col d’Espréaux to the village of Barcillonnette.

Take a left at the village square to the Col de Foureyssasse. Go through Sigoyer and Pelleautier until the road becomes the D994 to Gap. From Gap, take the D92 signposted to Romette and the Col de Manse.

At the T-junction, turn left in the direction of Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur where you turn left following the signs for Col du Noyer. Turn left at Le Noyer and keep climbing.

Once over the col, bear right to Le Dévoluy, then left up the climb to Rioupes. Keep on this road, which becomes the D937. At the T-junction with the D994, turn right back to Veynes.

The rider’s ride

Giant Defy Advanced 2, £1,699, giant-bicycles.com

The pricetag hints that Giant’s entry-level model isn’t the lightest nor most aero of machines, but it has just about everything else you need for a long day in the saddle over a challenging parcours.

Giant regulars will recognise the distinctive tube shapes, which may look ungainly but are designed to absorb every road imperfection: ‘Endurance Shaping Technology’ is what Giant calls it.

That basically means the conspicuously sloping top tube leaves an awful lot of exposed seatpost, which flexes under impact. It’s simple but it does the trick. I’ve ridden Giant Defys for several years now and can vouch for their comfort and compliance during long outings.

This 2018 model comes equipped with hydraulic disc brakes (albeit with the associated weight penalty) and a large 32t sprocket on the cassette.

All of this was appreciated – and utilised to maximum affect – during a day with a considerable amount of ups and downs.

Shop Giant Defy Advanced bikes from Rutland Cycling now

• Looking for inspiration for your own summer cycling adventure? Cyclist Tours has hundreds of trips for you to choose from

How we did it

Travel

The nearest airport is Marseille, which is served by direct flights from several UK airports. From there, it’s a three hour drive to the start of our ride (two hours to our accommodation). Car hire is the best option or Serre des Ormes can arrange airport transfers (see below).

Check flights to Marseille on Skyscanner now

Accommodation

We stayed at Serre des Ormes, a beautiful and spacious converted farmhouse with outdoor pool that has been turned into a cyclists’ retreat by British couple Kate Maddison and Paul West-Watson.

Situated just a few kilometres from the Gorge de la Méouge, it’s an hour’s drive from the start of our ride.

A week’s accommodation, including breakfast, afternoon tea, evening meal and wine, costs €570 per person (based on two sharing).

For airport transfers and one supported ride, add €120 per person. Full details at serredesormes.co.uk.

Bike hire

Our bike was supplied by Albion Cycles in Sault, which offers a range of aluminium and carbon frame road and e-bikes for hire from €34 (£29) a day. Collections can be arranged via Serre des Ormes. Details at albioncycles.com.

Thanks

Many thanks to Kate for joining me on the ride, and her husband Paul who drove our photographer. Thanks also to Nicholas at Albion Cycles for the loan of the bike.