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Is this the greatest cycling loop in the French Alps?

In-depth
17 Feb 2021
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With three Alpine passes over 2,000m, the Trois Cols loop in the French Alps is breathtaking, challenging and rewarding in equal measure

Words: Joe Robinson Photography: Juan Trujillo Andrades

Mother Nature must be a cycling fan. I’m convinced of this because today’s course is too flawless to be coincidence. It’s a perfect loop of 113km that by the time I end up back where I started will have taken me up and over three high Alpine passes, each breaking the mythical 2,000m barrier.

There’s not a single kilometre of flat road on the whole ride. All of the climbs are a challenge, but with average gradients between 6% and 7% none are too intimidating either.

Perfect multi-peak cycling loops like this are hard to find, but of course they do exist elsewhere. Prime examples include the loop encompassing the imperious Furka, Grimsel and Sustenpass in Switzerland, which takes in three glaciers, four lakes and 58 hairpins, as well as numerous examples of masterful Swiss engineering.

Then there’s the Sella Ronda in Italy, which squeezes the ascents of the Gardena, Sella, Pordoi and Campolongo passes into just 52km of winding tarmac and towering limestone peaks.

Yet while both those rides are firmly printed into amateur cyclo-tourist lore, today’s outing is relatively unheard of. Known by locals as Les Trois Cols, it includes the Col de la Cayolle, Col d’Allos and Col des Champs – three Alpine passes that are seldom discussed or lauded yet deserve more plaudits than they get thanks to breathtaking views and uncrowded roads.

And to top it all off, it was on this hallowed ground that cycling’s greatest son, Eddy Merckx, saw his dominance of the Tour de France come to an end.

Mad dogs and Englishmen

My phone pings. It’s an email from Cyclist editor Pete that reads, ‘Hi Joe. Just checking it’s all looking OK for your ride. I’m just watching news of France hitting its highest temperatures ever. Obviously I wouldn’t want to lose the ride, but I’d also quite like no one to die of heat exhaustion. Let me know how it goes, P.’

Western Europe is in the middle of one of the biggest heatwaves in its history and France is facing record temperatures of 45°C. It’s the kind of heat in which news reporters broadcast live from a local lido with their shirt sleeves rolled up and the BBC’s Tomasz Schafernaker points to copious amounts of red on the weather map while advising against any prolonged exertion.

In the small hamlet of Saint-Martin-d’Entraunes I’m just checking the pressure in my tyres as the clock ticks past 9am with the temperature already at 32°C. With me is Justin, who runs Azur Cycle Tours and who will be my guide for the day.

It has been quite a few years since Justin left behind his life in the leafy London suburb of Marlow for the warmer climes of southern France, but even for him this scorching weather is out of the ordinary.

Still, very little has stopped Cyclist from rolling with the meteorological punches in capturing hundreds of rides across the globe over the past decade so with a slathering of factor 50 and the brimming of our water bottles we ready ourselves for the day ahead.

The circular nature of today’s ride means we could tackle it in either direction. Justin recommends we go anti-clockwise, which means we will be facing the steeper side of each of the cols but the ascents will consequently be shorter in distance.

Only time will tell whether short and sharp is better than long and shallow. Justin also suggests we start our ride with the Col de la Cayolle as that will allow us to get the longest ascent of the day and the highest altitude out of the way first.

The Cayolle is perhaps the least known of the trio, largely because it has only been used in the Tour de France three times, most recently in 1973.

This lack of reputation means it is seldom on the target list of amateur cyclists heading to the region, who typically head north to more popular climbs such as the Izoard or Galibier.

And because both sides of the climb have long, arrow-straight stretches of road and the surface is sometimes found wanting, the presence of tourist traffic is also a rarity.

In fact it’s not until Justin and I have dispatched seven of the 21km to the Cayolle’s summit that we are offered any company, in the form of two jolly German motorcyclists who slow down to pass us, their rosy faces happily squashed into their open-face helmets.

The Cayolle is a pretty climb in its own way, not drop-dead gorgeous like the Stelvio or the Nivolet, but with every corner we tick off, the mix of trees, grass and rocks that clings to the craggy mountainsides offers a reminder of just how charming the French Alps are.

The gradient isn’t too steep either, floating around the 7% mark and allowing me to set my legs to a rhythm that affords me the mental capacity to take in the surroundings.

The tranquil pace we set to the 2,326m summit also gives us a chance to acclimatise to the 35°C heat. We’re sweating like a pair of onions on Rick Stein’s nine-hob but we are comforted by the knowledge that with almost 25km of fast downhill to come our bodies will be treated to a cooling breeze. At least that’s the idea.

Descending on a hot day is usually a relief, but not today. The lower we get, the higher the temperature rises. It’s like riding through a bowl of boiling treacle as the thick, dense air cooks my skin and dries my lips to a crisp.

It’s so hot that a couple of brave souls we pass working their way up have taken to riding topless, Mario Cipollini-style. I laugh at the sight of their tan lines, then wince at the thought of the sunburn to come.

The pounding sound of a waterfall halfway down teases our thirsty mouths and has us debating a quick break. It’s so hot that even a freewheeling descent is fatiguing so it isn’t a long debate and we take shelter in some welcome shade for five minutes after filling up our bottles from a nearby tap.

Eventually the road levels off and a sharp left turn takes us past the start of the infamous Pra-Loup climb. There’s no respite, though, and we are immediately heading skywards again, this time up the Col d’Allos.

‘Merckx is beaten. The Bastille has fallen’

I consider Eddy Merckx’s reign over the Tour de France as a dictatorship. From 1969 to 1974 Le Tour was Eddy’s race and he did what he wanted with it. He romped to five yellow jersey victories in six years, the exception being 1973 when he chose to race the Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia instead. He won them both.

He took 32 Tour stage victories in that time too, from bunch sprints to time-trials to mountain-top finishes, scooping up three points classifications and two mountains classifications along the way for good measure.

So when the 1975 edition rolled around, a sixth win at the Tour seemed a formality for The Cannibal. And with Merckx leading the race into Stage 15 to Pra-Loup by 58 seconds it felt like the inevitable was going to happen again.

That was until the combination of a punch and a French farmer’s son by the name of Bernard Thévenet conspired to do the unthinkable.

On 13th July 1975, Stage 15 of the Tour travelled 217km from Nice to Pra-Loup, a mountain-top ski town. It would roll over two smaller climbs, the Col de St Martin and the Col de la Couilloule, before finishing with ascents of the Tour-debuting Col des Champs, Col d’Allos and Pra-Loup.

Merckx had an overall lead of almost a minute and was looking strong but was secretly struggling with the fact he had been punched by a spectator two days previously on the Puy de Dôme. And despite Thévenet testing the Belgian’s legs with multiple attacks it seemed there was no dropping the champion.

In fact just the opposite: by the summit of the Allos Merckx was on the attack, building a slim gap to the suffering Thévenet that he managed to extend on the death-defying descent from the Col d’Allos.

When the race hit Pra-Loup however, Merckx’s legs simply switched off. He was caught and dropped by Thévenet, eventually reaching the finish one minute 56 seconds adrift, a beaten and bruised man who was forced to hand over his maillot jaune to the gentle Frenchman, who wore it into Paris a week later.

The Col d’Allos was the final mountain to witness Merckx lead the race. From that point on the Belgian’s iron grip on the Tour only ever loosened and by the end of that day, on Pra-Loup, it had slipped from his grasp forever. After that stage Merckx never wore cycling’s most iconic jersey again.

Riding the roads that ended Merckx’s yellow jersey dynasty humbles any fan of the sport, myself and Justin included. We climb the road that was descended by Merckx and Thévenet in a hushed quiet, partly out of respect, partly due to the fact that the 17km ascent’s constantly changing gradient is beginning to bite my legs.

Merckx’s presence is still felt on the climb, not least for the graffiti that bears his name, still visible on the roadside. I wasn’t around to witness the Merckx era so my own memories of the Col d’Allos are mainly of Romain Bardet descending its northern flank like a stone at the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2015. He had made sure to recon this stage in the lead up to that race and targeted this technical descent as a point to attack en route to Stage 5 victory atop Pra-Loup.

Watching back, Bardet looks like a man possessed plummeting down the Allos. Flopping his slight body from side to side in the tight corners like Carl Fogerty, he straddles the thin line between perfection and disaster the entire way down.

At points on the Allos the road is so narrow that Justin and I can barely ride two abreast without one of us skirting close to the climb’s low wooden barriers, turning the stomach with how sheer the drop below is. How Bardet managed to hold his nerve is testament to the superhuman abilities of professional cyclists, I guess.

The final climb

France has always been a culinary enigma for me. Some of the best food I have eaten in my life has been here but, on many occasions, so has some of the worst. Our lunch in Colmars involves half baguettes transformed into ‘pizzas’ by being drenched in passata, covered in a non-descript cheese and chucked under a grill for five minutes.

I’m not saying it is inedible but I’m certain we would get very different fare if we nipped across the border to Italy.

Regardless, there are enough calories within the demi-baguette pizzas and enough sugar in the three utterly moreish Schweppes Agrum drinks I sink to refuel my depleted body. By now we have battled to the summits of two cols over 2,000m and we have one more to go.

The early slopes of the Col des Champs are shrouded in Alpine trees that plunge us into shaded darkness. It’s a pleasant respite from the constant heat, especially on this steep section of the climb.

By halfway up the Champs my bike computer tells me we’ve amassed more than 3,000m of vertical ascent for the day so far, and the mixture of exhaustion, temperature and gradient means the final push to the top is done at a crawl.

When we arrive at the summit of the Col des Champs it’s pushing 5pm and a light dusting of cloud has rolled in to temper the beating sun. Looking north across the ragged peaks of the Alps the lower light softens the picture, lending it a serenity that suits the silence of our surroundings.

We finish the ride by slipping down the 16km descent of the Champs to the same point in Saint-Martin-d’Entraunes where we started eight hours before. It’s the perfect way to end what is possibly the most perfect cycling loop you have probably never heard of before.

Allos, Allos!

Try our triple helping of French fancies

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/107france. This loop can be tackled in either direction with plenty of options for starting points. We chose to start in Saint-Martin-d’Entraunes and go anti-clockwise. Head north on the D2202 and go over the Col de la Cayolle.

Descend on the D902 until you come to a junction, where you turn left onto the D908 signposted to Pra-Loup. Stay on the D908 over the Col d’Allos and descend to Colmars.

Look out for a sign pointing left to Col des Champs on the D2 and follow that road all the way back to Saint-Martin-d’Entraunes.

Merckx slayers

Test yourself on two climbs that did the unthinkable: defeat Eddy Merckx

Pra-Loup, 1,630m, 9.4km at 5.3%

Our route passes the junction at the bottom of the climb to Pra-Loup, so you could add it in or come back another day. In truth it wouldn’t be worth its salt as a climb if not for the history that was made on its slopes.

It’s not the most challenging, far from the prettiest and the ski town at the top is forgettable, but because this is the battleground where Merckx finally gave up his crown to French rider Bernard Thévenet in 1975, Pra-Loup is a worthy pilgrim site for every fan of the sport.

Orcières-Merlette, 1,825m, 7.1km at 6.7%

This climb sits just to the north of our Trois Cols route and in 1971 this innocuous Alpine ascent provided the great Merckx with arguably his biggest ever defeat at the Tour de France when Spanish climbing sensation Luis Ocaña rode into yellow, a full 8 minutes and 42 seconds ahead of The Cannibal.

Sure, Merckx would eventually win that year’s Tour but it was on this climb, 100km west of Barcelonnette, where he was taught his biggest lesson.

The rider’s ride

Cycles Leon Genus, €1,700 (£1,500) frameset, cycles-leon.com

By now you are no doubt well used to seeing bikes from the world’s biggest and best known manufacturers grace the pages of these Big Ride features. Not this time. Based in the Vosges department of eastern France, Cycles Leon specialises in custom titanium bikes. The Genus is its road option and after spending 113km planted on its saddle I can confirm it is an indulgent ride.

Built with precision, the Genus is smooth and assured like a luxury car, offering a stiff platform from which to climb with ease despite the weight it concedes to its carbon counterparts. Plus with a reasonably high stack and long wheelbase creating a solid feel on the descents and the added weight of titanium helping me take the many sweeping downhill corners with confidence, I couldn’t help but smile while descending on this bike.

The Genus was also fitted with the thinking rider’s favourite groupset, Shimano Ultegra Di2, which never missed a beat as its 52/36T chainset married to 11-32t cassette provided the ideal range of gears for the copious kilometres of ascent and descent on the day’s course.

How we did it

Travel

Flights to Nice are frequent through numerous airlines from almost all major UK airports. If booked in advance they are also quite cheap, even in the middle of summer. Cyclist flew return with British Airways from London Gatwick for £120. If you book through Azur Cycle Tours (azurcycletours.com) the two-hour transfer to Saint-Martin-d’Entraunes can be arranged. If not you will need a car as public transport to Les Trois Cols is nearly nonexistent.

Accommodation

Cyclist stayed with Azur Cycle Tours in the charming Beaulieu-sur-Mer, five minutes east of Nice, in which up to four guests can stay at a time. Alternatively, you can find plenty of cheap hotels and Airbnbs in and around Nice or closer to Les Trois Cols in Barcelonnette.

Thanks

Many thanks to our host Justin for, well, everything. He helped us finalise the route, provided us with accommodation and proved the perfect guide on the day’s ride. Justin runs Azur Cycle Tours, which can be found online at azurcycletours.com. Thanks also to the Café du Cycliste shop in Nice for providing us with the Cycles Leon Genus bike for the day’s ride.