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Classic climbs: Cime de la Bonette

In-depth
8 Mar 2021
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Is it Europe’s highest pass or isn’t it? You’ll have plenty of time to decide as you ascend the mighty Bonette  
This article was originally published in issue 91 of Cyclist magazine

Words: Henry Catchpole Photography: Alex Duffill

Sometimes a start is hard to find. Particularly that sneaky start to a Strava segment. But climb the Route de la Bonette from the north and the start is simply the point at which you turn off the D900 and cross the wide Ubaye river in the small town of Jausiers.

From here you have around 22km of riding to the top of Europe’s highest pass… according to the signs.

Except you don’t, because Europe’s highest pass is the 2,770m high Col de l’Iseran, about 200km away. It’s all a bit complicated, but to reach the start of the Bonette’s descent to Nice you only have to climb to 2,715m.

But if you want to, you can climb on up round an extra loop to 2,802m, which is then the highest piece of tarmac in France (the highest in Europe being the Veleta in southern Spain at 3,398m). What’s more, the signs can’t decide whether this is the Route de la Bonette or the Route de la Bonette-Restefond.

 

To be honest, none of it matters. All you really need to know is that this is a climb that should be on your ‘to do’ list because it’s absolutely stunning.

You go from valley to valley, or perhaps from bowl to bowl, and feel like you’re on a journey through the mountains. You seem to climb in and out of four or five separate sections, each with its own flurry of hairpins, each slightly different in character.

The road is narrow, with no white lines down the middle and no graffiti on the tarmac. This gives the climb a feeling of intimacy despite the grand scale of the scenery.

The gradient averages a relatively friendly 6.6%, and although the incline spikes up to double figures it only does so in brief, manageable chunks. It’s not easy, but it doesn’t feel impossible either.

The Bahamontes climb

Considering that the Tour de France organisers love headline-grabbing altitudes and a nice drop of scenery to splash on the telly, it seems crazy that the Bonette has only appeared in the race four times.

It was first included in 1962, then in 1964, but then nearly three decades elapsed until the maillot jaune was forced to scale it again in 1993. The Tour’s most recent ascent was in 2008, although the climb did appear in the Giro in 2016.

The Souvenir Henri Desgrange (the prize for the first rider up the Tour’s highest climb) is obviously awarded on the Bonette whenever it features, but it can’t claim a summit finish as there’s barely room to swing a Mikel Nieve up the top (Nieve was first over the summit in the 2016 Giro), let alone park the Tour circus.

But despite its rarity in races, the Bonette’s stature as a climb is cemented, in my opinion, by the man who crested it first in both 1962 and 1964.

Federico Bahamontes, The Eagle of Toledo, won the King of the Mountains classification in all three Grand Tours. In fact he won it no fewer than six times on the Tour as well as taking the overall victory in 1959.

 

In 2013, during the 100th edition of the Tour, Bahamontes was declared the best climber in the history of the race. The fact that the French awarded him the title ahead of their own son, Richard Virenque, probably tells you all you need to know about how good he was.

And the fact that he rose above the peloton on the two available occasions to soar over the summit of the Bonette makes me instantly want to categorise it as a true climber’s climb.

Of course every good mountain also needs a bit of drama as well as examples of pure sporting excellence, and the Bonette’s sharp-intake-of-breath moment occurred in 2008. John-Lee Augustyn (a teammate of Chris Froome at the time) had been first to the top of the Bonette (climbing from the south) but then came a-cropper on the way down.

On a sharp right-hand bend he overshot, hit a berm and fell quite some way down the side of the mountain. Thankfully he was relatively unscathed, but this meant there was then the pantomime of Augustyn trying to scrabble back up the scree in cycling shoes.

The fact he was being pushed (somewhat indelicately) by a spectator only added to the effect, which was topped off by there being no bike for him to ride when he did regain the road.

The Barloworld rider was forced to stand around waiting for a team car while his Bianchi lay within sight but out of reach below. He did eventually finish the stage, but the infamy of that fall has arguably never left him.

 

To the col and beyond

Such is the length of the climb (as you travel in the other direction to Augustyn) and so well hidden is the eventual summit that you may well begin to wonder if it will ever end. However, as you pass the pretty little Lac du Eissaupres (it would be called a tarn if it were in England) you can delight or despair in the knowledge that you have about 7km to go.

Half that distance again you’ll be at a fairly large, quite dilapidated flat-roofed stone building. This is an old barracks from the Little Maginot Line, the huge defences built by the French in the 1930s and named after Minister of War André Maginot.

I’d always thought it was based entirely north of the Alps, but it turns out there was also a smaller Alpine Line designed to deter the Italians.

As you climb higher to the top you’ll see other concrete constructions that form part of the Maginot Line known as the Ouvrage Restefond. What you can’t see are the 668m of underground galleries that run through the mountain. Perhaps unsurprisingly these are the highest of all the Maginot defences.

Generally speaking, hairpins tend to come thick and fast as you approach the highest point of a mountain climb. As the air thins so a final scramble up to a summit often sees a ladder-like concentration of switchbacks helping you up the final few metres.

Which is why it feels odd to have France’s highest road within sight and yet be on a relatively straight piece of tarmac. Odder still is that the road tilts back towards flat so, after 20km of constant climbing, you suddenly find yourself gaining speed and possibly even shifting up into the big ring.

 

The only way is up. Or down

As you punch through 2,700m you can conceivably be travelling quite quickly, but sadly this feeling doesn’t carry you all the way to the top. If you wish to merely cycle the Col de la Bonette you can stay in the big ring, turn left at 2,715m and cut through the scree to descend towards Nice.

However, if you want the full 2,802m Cime de la Bonette experience you’ll need to reacquaint yourself with your recently rejected little ring and keep going for a further kilometre that averages close to 10% and spikes to over 15%.

This last section looks almost volcanic, such is the monochromatic nature of the barren landscape. But, if you can, lift your eyes from your immediate surroundings and you’ll see that you have the most wonderful view of the mountains of the Mercantour National Park and beyond.

It’s the sort of view that is very much befitting of the highest pass in Europe. Even though the Bonette isn’t.