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Classic climbs and WorldTour pros: Nice Big Ride

In-depth
2 Sep 2020
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To celebrate the 2020 Tour de France Grand Départ in the south of France, we turn the clock back to 2013 to a ride around Nice featuring nearly as many WorldTour pros as classic climbs

Words: Matt Barbet Photography: Paul Calver

There’s Paris, then there’s Nice – the second most popular tourist city in France. Squashed onto only a few kilometres of Côte d’Azur coastline, it nestles between the celebrity hangouts of Cannes to the west and Monaco to the east.

In summer, the wealthy come to relax in their Nice mansions, which lie empty for much of the rest of year. The relaxed pace of the city means it’s also a haven for pro cyclists who gather to sip coffees in the local cafes before taking to the nearby hills to train.

I’m aware that I’m heading into the pros’ back yard as our plane lands at Nice airport. Riding in this region is like having a kick-about at the Bernabéu – my abilities on a bike will be put firmly into perspective if I find myself sharing road space with the world’s best, but I’m sure it won’t be a problem. We probably won’t even see any pros on our planned route. 

Roll out the red carpet

The morning is bright and clear. I’m with my regular riding buddy Julian and we make our way gently by bike to the cafe in the city’s bustling market quarter where we’ve agreed to meet our host and guide for today’s ride, Anton Blackie.

Anton is a British cyclist based in Nice who runs Cycle Côte d’Azur with his wife, Claire. Being in the saddle daily in a climate where knee-warmers are the exception rather than the rule means Anton sports enviable year-round tan lines and has the kind of sculpted legs usually seen setting a zesty pace at the front of the pro peloton. Over breakfast we discuss the planned ride, a loop out of Nice of roughly 100km that will take in the best known climbs nearby.

Then, when I look up from the map, I drop my croissant. Three individuals in full Team Sky kit are approaching the table. A quick check of the names printed on their jerseys confirms that it really is Ben Swift, Luke Rowe and American neo-pro Ian Boswell.

I give them a casual nod, fully expecting them to pass by, but they come and join us at the table. Of course, it turns out that Anton knows all the Nice-based pros, which is how I come to find myself sharing a breakfast table with Team Sky.

Looking at the svelte silhouettes they cut in their black team kits means I decide to leave my calorie-laden pastry on the plate. I’ve just about regained my composure when ex-pro Bobby Julich sidles up. He greets Anton and the Sky boys and pulls up a chair.

 

Julich has several decent wins on his palmarès, including Paris-Nice in 2005, although his wins have been tainted by his recent admission of doping, which led to him losing his job as a race coach for Team Sky. Affable and open, he reminisces about moving to Nice in the 1990s while riding for Motorola, and how he quickly learned that the place has everything a rider could want.

Unprompted, he also seems genuinely rueful about the fact he’d fallen under the spell of its not-so-legitimate temptations, and how his past had recently come back to haunt him, forcing him to leave Sky due to their zero-tolerance policy on performance-enhancing drugs. 

Out on the road

We drain the last of our coffees, pay up, and head out of Nice on the road up the Col d’Eze, which starts in the town and winds its way upwards at an average 6% for around 10km. The pros are alongside, happy to tap along with us day-trippers for a while. Julian and I are knuckling down to a reasonable pace to try to avoid looking like the pair of amateurs we are.

As we build up a sweat, Julich is chatting away merrily about, of all things, Guinness World Records and reciting pi to thousands of decimal places. His easy banter helps to take my mind off the foreboding fact we’re heading up a ramp of 9% with three sinewy young professionals who could drop us in a racing heartbeat.

The Col d’Eze has been used as a defining final stage time-trial in the Paris-Nice for the past couple of years, with Bradley Wiggins and then fellow Sky rider Richie Porte motoring up it in just over 19 minutes to seal respective victories in the general classification in 2012 and 2013.

I’m certain their teammates could get fairly close to that time if they wanted but, because they are on a rest day, and probably being merciful, they give us a very gentle lead-out. As the incline relaxes, the pace increases but is still relatively manageable.

While some roads can be an anaerobic uphill slog from start to finish, Col d’Eze has what could be described as a more ‘soulful’ profile, affording space to stretch the legs and take in some beautiful views of the city of Nice and the coastline.

 

If you have to start a ride with a big climb, then there can’t be many that are better. The novelty of riding out of a big city up a col with such race pedigree is exhilarating. Living in London, as I do, it can take an hour of riding just to get out of the metropolis and find any hills of interest to attack. But here, very quickly it’s quiet, and all we have to listen to is the hum of rubber on tarmac, and Julich’s continuous chat.

About two-thirds of the way up, the Sky boys peel off with Julich and disappear out of sight. We’re pressing on, and with the sea steadily dropping further away to our right, more and more opulent – and probably empty – homes start to appear. Grand summer palaces, I suspect, are vastly under-appreciated by their globetrotting owners.

There is a distinct absence of traffic, while the seaside air is fresh and mixes with the faint herbal scent emanating from the sun-baked roadside. There’s another faint smell in the air, which becomes more acute as we approach the outskirts of Monaco – it’s the whiff of money.

Wealth and fame

From the road above, the tax haven looks quite ridiculous. Crammed into just two square kilometres, Monaco may be spotlessly clean and awash with billionaires, but the architecture is bland and functional. Nondescript high-rises crowd the hilly coastline in what is the world’s most densely populated country.

A number of the better-paid pro cyclists call it home, as well as many other sportsmen, and as we speed along the empty roads high above the principality, we spot a ten-man train of riders being powered by British Formula 1 drivers Jensen Button, Paul di Resta and David Coulthard, as well as their pro cycling mate, Nicolas Roche of Saxo-Tinkoff.

 

Button stays on the front, evidently in triathlon training mode, laying down a decent pace of around 40kmh, while everyone else sits behind and chats. We say a quick hello before the group of superstars peels off and heads back towards Monaco.

We make a point of skirting past the maze-like mayhem of casinos and gin palaces and instead head straight for Menton, a much more genteel spot further down the coast.

We briefly stop and fortify ourselves at the somewhat out-of-place English Tea House on the sea front, and as we do, there is a blur of white and rainbow stripes as World Champion Philippe Gilbert glides past with teammate (and former World Champion) Thor Hushovd.

It seems like we can’t go a mile in this place without bumping into a top pro.

I don’t know if it’s the coffee or the quality of the company we’re keeping on the roads, but I can’t wait to get pedalling again for the day’s main event: the Col de la Madone.

There can’t be many who sit on a road bike and have never heard of the Madone, which is odd, because it has never featured in the Tourde France. The climb gave its name to the Trek bike that was ridden by seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong (for obvious reasons I use the word ‘winner’ loosely), and the Col de la Madone was his favourite training climb. It’s here that the Texan would test his legs, and perhaps the enhancements flowing through them, ahead of the Tour to see how well he’d prepared – or ‘prepared’.

Chemically-aided or not, it’s easy to see why the Madone is an almost perfect training ground. At 13km long and averaging a gradient of about 7%, it begins almost at sea level before rearing up to an altitude of 925m.

 

The initial stretches out of Menton look quite scruffy, but the scenery quickly gets a lot prettier, and the strong aroma of pine soon fills my nostrils. My climbing legs are coming back as well, after quite a while away from these kind of long, constant tests, and our group of three taps out a synchronized rhythm in satisfied silence, the steady pace only broken by the occasional hairpin.

The road weaves under the viaduct that carries the main Franco-Italian autoroute, and as we pass the giant pillars for the second time, it feels like we’re really back in the sticks and scaling a proper Alpine ascent. The houses look more normal, too. There’s a sense of life being lived up here, rather than the little-used splendour of the holiday district nearby.

As we wind our way up to Sainte-Agnès, the view towards where we started is magnificent, and encourages me to push on higher to get a better look. Beyond the village, the road cuts sharply back on itself and becomes markedly narrower and rougher.

Not only that, as we round one blind bend we are suddenly sharing it with a herd of goats. We gingerly pick our way through, avoiding their copious droppings, the bells on the goats’ necks chiming their disapproval at having to share a road they’ve very clearly marked as their own.

The incline stays steady, and a couple of short unlit tunnels means we’re not too far from the top. I’m riding casually a bike length or two ahead of the others. Suddenly, Anton blasts past, sprinting at full tilt. My instinct kicks in. I leap out of the saddle and try to latch onto his wheel. I can’t, and he rapidly cruises off, out of sight.

It turns out that Julian has sneakily convinced our guide that I was going to attack him at some point. I wasn’t, but Anton was determined that this interloper wasn’t going to get the better of him on a climb that he rides most weeks. Firmly put in my place, I sink back onto my seat and grind out the last few hundred metres to the summit on my own (albeit ahead of wind-up merchant Julian).

The effort of trying to hang on has pushed me into the red, but as I crest I swiftly try to compose myself when I see that Anton is already chatting to – surprise, surprise – another professional cyclist. Swede Gustav Larsson is a veteran of all three Grand Tours, and a runner-up to Fabian Cancellara in both Olympic and World Championship time-trials, and today he is sporting the kit of his current employers, the new Swiss team IAM Cycling.

 

Interrupting his training regime for too long clearly isn’t on the agenda and after brief introductions and small-talk about our matching shoes, Larsson drops off the back of the col like a stone, with us following in his wake as best we can. He sweeps through several switchbacks with the effortlessness of a man who has done this many, many times.

Anton has persuaded Larsson to join us for lunch, something he says he doesn’t usually bother stopping his training for, and indeed his wiry physique bears that out. Funny then, that as we finally settle down to eat in the picturesque square of the old village of Peille, he wolfs down his meal like he hasn’t eaten for a week. Maybe he hasn’t? 

Seeing stars

It has been a day of famous names, of heroes, and yet everyone we’ve met has been very down to earth, happy to chat and happy to share their time with us. Would you get that with other sports?

Perhaps it’s the suffering that pro cyclists have to endure that makes them unpretentious; or maybe it’s the fact that most riders have to work tirelessly in the service of their team leaders that means they are naturally more humble than other sports professionals. Or perhaps it’s just that they have to share their training grounds with weekend warriors like myself, so they learn how to keep us sweet.

With lunch duly scoffed, Larsson continues with his serious training programme, Julian decides to call it a day and heads for the hotel, while Anton and I make for the back roads.

We follow a meandering, gravelly lane that hugs the contours of a large valley, and as we are down to just two riders for the first time all day, we idly chat about people we both know and rides we’ve done as we roll along.

Every now and again, a grate for run-off water crosses our path. I don’t really pay them much attention, and the easy conversation mixed with the slightly repetitive road leads to a feeling of nonchalance about what I’m doing. Schoolboy error.

Suddenly, I’m flat on my back, seeing stars of a different kind. My front wheel has lodged in one of the grates, and before I realise what’s happening, I am over the handlebars with the bike on top of me. Photographer Paul quickly jumps out of the following car to give me a hand up, which fortunately means he neglects his first duty to take a picture. More fortuitous is the fact that there are no more pros around to witness my moment of complete ineptitude.

 

After checking the bike is OK, then my kit, then myself, I clamber back on in a mild daze, but at least I’m following the first rule of coming off, by getting on again as soon as possible.

Eventually, we head back onto the quicker, wider highways and zip down towards Nice once more. For the final 20km I hardly have to turn the pedals the whole way. Anton descends like a demon on roads he knows so well, and we belt along tree-lined boulevards that couldn’t look more French if they were adorned with berets and strings of onions.

My confidence has taken a knock during the fall, but it returns swiftly and so does my smile as it dawns on me that a bit of road rash is all part of the game for the professionals and merely serves to heighten the whole experience.

Our hotel has a decent spa, so I could feasibly go the whole hog with a full-on leg massage, and they could probably rustle up an ice bath on request to complete the pro training routine. But there’s no need to go overboard.

Instead, I’m satisfied to just get a flavour of what it must be like to be a pro in some of the most beautiful surroundings you can enjoy on a bike. That night we raise several glasses of the crisp local rosé to the impressive individuals who’ve been accompanying us during the day, knowing full well, what with their strict training regimes and calorie-counting, it’s highly unlikely that they’re able to do the same.

Ride the pro roads

Taking in two classic cols, this is a favourite training route of the pros

Cyclist began in the centre of Nice, climbing up the Boulevard Bischoffsheim – the slightly incongruous name for the start of Col d’Eze. You stay on this road, above Eze village itself, all the way to the small town of La Turbie.

Passing through, with Monaco below you, descend on the Route de Menton towards the seaside town of the same name. It’s here where the Col de la Madone begins, up Cours René Coty on the D22. Winding under the viaduct carrying the A8 autoroute, you stay on this road up and over the col, towards picturesque Peille.

Here, you can either head back to Nice down the D53 or, as we did, head upwards again on the back roads to L’Escarène before a swift run home on the D2204.

 

By the numbers

97: distance ridden in kilometres  
1,919: metres climbed  
8: number of pros and ex-pros encountered during the day  
3: number of current Formula 1 drivers encountered  
2: times we saw Philippe Gilbert  
0: number of helmets Big Phil wears when training