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Nice : Big Ride

Matt Barbet
9 Mar 2016

While snow stops play at Paris-Nice, we reminisce over one of our favourite sunny rides from 2013.

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. 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. 

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. 

Out on the road

We drain the last of our coffees 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. The 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.

About two-thirds of the way up, the Sky boys peel off 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. 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

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.

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.

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).

Seeing stars

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.

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