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Col de la Bonette

Ellis Bacon
15 Mar 2016

La Bonette claims to be Europe's highest road and has been the scene of some epic Tour de France moments.

The Cime de la Bonette is home to Europe’s highest paved road, and is… what’s that you say? It’s not Europe’s highest paved road? Then why does it have a sign at the top saying it is?

It’s one of life’s little mysteries. Officially the Pico del Veleta in Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountains is the highest ‘proper’ road, reaching just over 3,300m. Still, the Cime de la Bonette is at least France’s highest paved road, which isn’t to be sniffed at.

However, if you’re talking about Europe’s highest cols things get even more confusing, because the Cime de la Bonette is not quite the same as the Col de la Bonette. A ‘col’ is a pass – a road that passes over the top of a climb en route to a descent down the other side – whereas the road around the Cime de la Bonette (‘the peak of the Bonette’) is just an extra loop for sightseeing, which bumps the altitude up to 2,802m, versus the 2,715m of the Col de la Bonette. Three other European cols beat that: the Col Agnel, which straddles the French/Italian border, at 2,744m; the Stelvio Pass at 2,758m in the Italian Alps; and, beating them all, the Col de l’Iseran at 2,764m in the French Alps.

Col de la Bonette

But let’s not get bogged down in details – the Cime de la Bonette is a very high road, and holds the record for the highest point the Tour de France has ever reached. When the Tour last visited it in 2008 on the 16th stage from Cuneo to Jausiers, the first man over the top was Barloworld rider John-Lee Augustyn, who received the Henri Desgrange trophy – named after the founder of the Tour, and awarded each year to whoever reaches the race’s highest point first. He also received a very-tidy-thank-you-very-much prize purse of €5,000 (£3,800), which probably went a small way to making up for what happened next. Augustyn – who would go on to ride for Team Sky later in his career – crashed rather dramatically on the descent shortly after his moment of glory and wasn’t able to contend for the stage win.

‘Yes, people will remember me being first over the Bonette, but I think they will remember me falling off it more,’ the South African told journalists at the end of the stage.

Anatomy of a crash

Almost eight years later, when Cyclist catches up with the now-retired rider to ask him more about the Bonette, and about that fateful day in particular, he says his prediction was accurate.

‘A lot of people still recognise my name and say, “Hey, aren’t you the guy who fell down the mountain?” so they immediately associate me with the crash,’ Augustyn laughs. He had been part of a nine-man breakaway, but pushed on alone inside the last two kilometres of the 26km climb.

Col de la Bonette

‘I went for it with about one-and-a-half kilometres to go, but as I attacked it got so steep and I remember thinking, “I can’t stop now – the whole world’s watching!”’

From the southern side, climbing up from the town of Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée as the Tour did in 2008, riders face an average gradient of 6.5%, but with a leg-crunching 15% maximum on the Cime de la Bonette loop, as Augustyn was to discover. But it’s really the length of the climb that makes the Bonette so challenging.

‘I remember how extremely long it was, but during those long climbs you just have to try to block it out as best you can, and I actually remember feeling better and better as we went along,’ he says.

After cresting the summit, Augustyn decided to sit up and allow the remainder of the breakaway to close the gap. ‘I was never really that great a descender, so I waited for the rest of the guys to catch me.’

What came next, however, shocked viewers the world over. On an almost 90° right-hand bend, Augustyn went straight on – and plunged down a stony embankment.

‘I think I must have been so tired, and just lost my concentration,’ he says. ‘At first I thought it might be a sheer cliff, but then I realised that it was a nice slope and I sort of skied down on my hands and knees. Then I started thinking, “How am I going to get back up?” In cycling shoes it wasn’t going to be easy, but a spectator slipped down to help me and he sort of pushed me back up.’

Augustyn’s bike had bounced some way further down the slope and so he was left standing at the side of the road until his team car could provide him with a replacement. ‘I eventually got a spare bike, and took my time going the rest of the way down.’

He finished more than five minutes behind winner Cyril Dessel and, happily uninjured, went on to finish a very respectable 48th overall in Paris. Most importantly, though, what became of Augustyn’s unfortunate Bianchi bike? ‘The mechanic actually went down to get it later, and all it had wrong with it was a little scrape on the saddle!’ he says.

Return to the scene

In 2015 Augustyn returned to the Bonette while working with a bike-tour company, this time climbing it from Jausiers in the north. On this occasion he could enjoy the experience a little more. ‘It’s just an amazing climb – steeper again from this side and almost as long [6.8% and 23.4km],’ he says. ‘As you climb higher, it becomes more and more like the surface of the moon. It’s so green at the bottom, and then there’s just nothing at the top at that altitude, apart from this fresh, crisp air. When I got to the top last year I thought, “I’m so in love with this mountain.” It really is a very special climb.’

Col de la Bonette

So special, in fact, that he decided to create a cycling clothing line named La Bonette in its honour. It’s a place, then, with both good and bad memories for Augustyn, who has worked as a coach since retiring in 2014.

‘I don’t feel too bad about what happened on the Bonette,’ he says, having been left thanking his lucky stars that he was still alive rather than being bitter about what might have been in terms of a Tour stage win. ‘I was very blessed to have been able to walk away from it with no injuries, and it was also nice to get the Henri Desgrange trophy.’

The Bonette has only been used by the Tour on three other occasions. In 1962 (from the south) and 1964 (from the north) Spanish climber Federico Bahamontes was first across it. Then in 1993, Robert Millar took the honours, more than a minute ahead of a chasing group led by Tony Rominger, who went on to win the stage, with Millar seventh.

Col de la Bonette

So although it’s high time (pun very much intended) that the Bonette featured on the Tour route again, look out for it during this year’s Giro d’Italia. On 28th May during the penultimate (20th) stage between Guillestre and Sant’Anna di Vinadio, the Bonette will be climbed from the northern Jausiers side, with the Giro peloton passing over the col at 2,715m, rather than the Cime. The riders will then descend to Saint-Etienne-de-Tinée and then climb back into Italy from France via the Colle della Lombarda.

Here’s to a safe descent for everyone.

Read more in our 'Famous Climbs' selection.

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