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Riding the Alpes-Maritimes, Nice's quiet mountain passes

28 Aug 2020

The 2020 Tour de France is scheduled to start in Nice on Saturday 29th August. For anyone planning to visit, the area around Nice is perfect for a cycling holiday – as freelancer Tim Wiggins discovered

Away from the bustle of Nice is a mountain range of quiet roads waiting to be explored on two wheels

Last night's splendid seafood meal on the Promenade des Anglais seems like a distant memory now, as our wheels thrum and hearts race on the smooth tarmac of a deserted mountain road. We have left the bustle of the Nice seafront and the waves of the Mediterranean in our wake—riding out into the Alpes-Maritimes to experience another side of Nice's Côte d'Azur.

There is a light chill in the mountain air on this clear October morning, but the traffic of the summer months has long faded and the sun is fast warming up the glistening riverside road. This is the perfect time of year to explore these Mediterranean mountains.

Adventures in the mountains

Over two days we plan to seek out and ride some of the iconic cols that punctuate the horizon beyond. Aa weekend tour of summits, in this secret road cycling paradise.

Our first ascent is La Colmiane. The road starts laced to the side of the river gorge; twisting and turning in the shaded valley where the early morning sun has yet to touch. Before long, the gorge opens its walls and the sunlight floods in, the village of Roquebillère shines under golden rays.

After forty kilometres, we pause for refreshments in the charming village of Saint-Martin-Vésubie. A light meal of local delicacies such as Niçoise salad provides the power to ride the remaining kilometres to the pass's summit.


These climbs are distinctly different from those of the Rhone Alpes—the twisting single-track roads offer a secretive feel as they pass through rock tunnels and cling to the cliff. You gaze down on the valley below, with occasional glimpses of the blue Mediterranean beyond.

The main road turns back down towards the valley on the western side of the pass. We cannot resist exploring some of the smaller villages though; taking a diversion to the historic Rimplas Fort—a stone castle sat high atop the mountain—a relic from the turbulent times this border region has seen throughout its rich history.


The greatest magic of Nice's Côte d'Azur is yet to come though; unveiled on our final climb of our first day in the Alpes-Maritimes. After flying down the Vallée de la Tinée for some 30 kilometres we pull off the main road following signs for La Tour. Here the enchanted climb begins…

The fast setting sun still shines here, on the small single-track road that sweeps skyward from the now shaded valley. Each hairpin brings another breath-taking vista and reveals our passage upwards to the village of La Tour in the distance.

As we arrive in the cobbled streets of the ancient village, the sun finally dips below the horizon. We are welcomed by a smiling team of locals, ready to take our bikes from our hands and replace them with a glass of regional wine, before ushering us into the Hotel de Ville where the incredible aromas of the evening meal preparations heighten our appetites.


A challenging second day

Sunrise on the second morning of our Maritimes adventure dawns bright and beautiful—casting long shadows on the mountains viewed from our high alpine hotel. After another fantastic breakfast of local delights, we head out to explore.

The second day in Nice's Côte d'Azur promises to be quite different, and a more challenging ride as we head north to the highest road pass in Europe: the Col de la Bonette. This mountain road is a giant of the region, and takes you well above cloud level to an elevation of 2802 metres.

The road rises from the town of Saint Étienne de Tinnée, past waterfalls and round hairpins graffitied with Tour de France fan messages—this is the highest road pass the Tour has been on to date. But, before long we are alone on the climb, with only the sound of eagles and marmots punctuating the silence.


We ride up through the small homestead of Bousievas, where smoke wisps from the chimney of the gîte; pluming in the now single digit temperatures of the 1000+ metre altitude.

As we climb higher still, the road opens out above the treeline and the low cloud envelops us; creating an eerie yet magical feel. We ride on, pushing on the pedals to keep warmth in our toes. By the time we reach the summit the light rain has turned to snow, and we pause only briefly at the shrouded monument before descending fast into the valley to find chocolat chaud.


Warmth regained with a splendid lunch, we ride down into the valley to discover our final climb of the trip, the Col de Couillole. This beautiful single lane road is bathed in sunshine on the early October afternoon allowing us to ride in short sleeves once more. Pure elation.

We ride through rock tunnels and past open viewpoints that sight down on the long valley below. Reaching the tiny village of Roubion, you cannot help but stop and marvel at the mountain top settlement—perched on the cliff like a lookout sentry.

We summit this final climb in the fading light of a setting sun. Broad smiles show our great satisfaction with the late season col conquering.

As an evening cool creeps in over the mountains, it is time for us to jump back in the transport for a short return journey to the warmth of the Nice seafront. Another sumptuous meal of French delights awaits...


Two days in the Alpes-Maritimes

Day 1:  
Day 2:

The route begins in the town of Plan de Var—easy to access by car or train from Nice in less than an hour. From here you climb La Colmiane: cresting the summit to descend into the Vallée de la Tinée, before ascending to the overnight accommodation in La Tour.

The second day we began with the climb of La Bonette from Saint Étienne de Tinnée, but you could ride up the valley road from La Tour. After summiting La Bonnette we descended the valley to the final climb of Col de Couillole. We jumped in the car after descending back down Couillole—to make the quick transfer of less than 40 kilometres back to Nice.

Trip duration: two days  
Total distance: 180 kilometres  
Total elevation gain: 5000 metres

Bike hire

This is a road cycling route and can be easily completed on a racing bike with 25c tyres. There are various road bike hire options available in Nice.