Impressions of the Côte d’Azur
When I measure my years cycling in the mountains behind Nice, I do so not in terms of metres climbed nor of kilometres travelled (though these are perfectly possible) nor hours of training put in (less so). Mainly what I am left with is a series of sense impressions–warmth and cold, salt and sweet, elation and tiredness and release–fleeting and yet seared on my memory, like light glinting off the ocean or the setting sun glimpsed through the trees from a quickly travelling train. And so this is how I catalogue and store my years of freedom on those high and deserted roads.
Scene one, a café: drinking an Orangina in the sun after my first ever ascent of the 1,604m Col de Turini; leaning my bike against a pile of melting snow and ordering from a café counter dense with memorabilia from the Monte Carlo Rally. Then descending through the forest and pools of warm and cold air, and looking out to the snowbound mountains of the Mercantour far across the valley.
Scene two: sweating at a water fountain halfway up the Col de la Madone, unclipping in the heat just as a bright cohort of Astana riders led by Alexander Vinoukourov clip in and disappear down a back road.
Café number two: sitting in a row on metal chairs, backs against the wall with our legs out in the April sun, drinking numerous crap sugary pod-machine noisettes–the French equivalent of a macchiato–chatting and watching a group of Liquigas and BMC riders take the corner towards the Col de Braus.
Daube: descending a gravel track above the 1,002m Col de Braus one dank February Saturday, arriving at the auberge at the col so stiff and frozen and windburned that only a bowl of local stew and a glass of red wine in front of the woodburning stove could see us fit to tackle the descent back to civilisation.
Water fountain two, at Sospel, a village in a bowl-shaped valley back from the coast, through which, almost inevitably, any pro seriously riding the cols behind Nice and Monaco must pass. Standing at the fountain and watching, in the space of a minute, Nico Roche go one way and Philippe Gilbert another.
Storm: descending Turini, the moodiest of the local mountains, with a group of friends, soaked, rain pelting down, losing sight first of the slowest and then the fastest in the cloud, hoping everyone would find the right road back to the coast.
Pain au chocolat: flaky and melting, eaten in Menton, just metres from the border, watching a mixed group of riders including several male and female pros, as well as some F1 and Moto GP stars, chatting and heading easily into Italy.
Fountain three: an old communal laundry basin carved out of stone in a nameless village in the pitiless sun under Mont Vial. We’d climbed the dead-end service road to the aerial at the summit and been ambushed by a herd of goats desperate to lick the salt in the sweat off our legs. Freewheeling down, exhausted, refilling bidons and soaking our caps in the cool, cool, clear water.
The Tour de France does not visit this corner, where the Alps dip their toes into the Mediterranean, much these days. It has too many obligations in the northern Alps and the Pyrenees to come this far. But in 2020 Nice will host the Grand Départ and these for-your-eyes-only roads will be in the global spotlight.
But there is always more than meets the eye in the mountains; if I have learned anything, I have learned that. They are always full of friends and enemies and rivals. In the mountains there is always a conspiracy, and in these hills there is always a conspiracy of riders training hard for their moment under the lights, who, once the Tour moves on, will have these roads, the best in Europe, our best-kept secret, to themselves again.