The Southern French Alps – Barcelonnette

We started our Tour de France with a holiday at the Côte d’Azur. The weather couldn’t have been any better, the colour of the sea made the name of this coastline proud.

Riding along the Mediterranean is as versatile as you could wish. If you feel like an easy day than just stay parallel to the coastline and enjoy the view. Or head inland and find proper climbs. No wonder we spotted so many Pros along the roads between San Remo in Italy, Monaco and Nice in France.

And I opted for the easiest option of them all – the beach – while Alberto tested his legs on a few climbs, like for example the Madonne climb just outside Menton, Armstrong’s climb apparently!

So after a few days of smoothing out cycling tan lines and resting legs, we were ready for the highest pass in Europe – the Col de Restefond – La Bonette. We based ourselves in Barcelonnette in the Southern French Alps, which also has a very pretty and convenient Aire de Service Camping Car, free Motorhome parking on a grassy area amongst trees and in walking distance to town. It’s unbeatable to sit under your awning until late in the summer evenings, chatting with other campers who happen to be mainly cyclists also, and enjoy a glass of red or white after a day of amazing cycling on scenic roads.

The first morning we headed for La Bonette, only to find the road because of road works! It was going to be a couple of hours before it would have re-opened and the hike along the side of the mountain, bike shouldered, didn’t sound appealing. Thankfully, this region has more than just one Col to offer. In fact, Barcelonnette is the base for a yearly Fondo which includes as many as seven Cols in one day. The Crazy of L’Ubaye!

Coincidently, this Fondo happened the very next day we were there, which also explained the number of cyclists in town.

During the short ten kilometres back to Barcelonnette, we discussed our options and agreed on Col d’Allos, just out of Barcelonette in the other direction. It was a very pretty 18km climb and Alberto didn’t feel like turning around.

We had read and heard about this loop, about 125km long, over two more climbs, the Col des Champs and the Col de la Cayolle. The reverse direction is apparently the more popular route but when we spoke with an English cyclist at the top of d’Allos, he assured us that this way was just as tough but in his opinion the better and more scenic way around. He lived in the area for some time and runs a bed and breakfast and cycling tours so we trusted his judgement and descended the other side of d’Allos for Col des Champs. 
The fortress in Colmars was a good hint from him because otherwise I would have surely missed the sharp left turn into the Col des Champs. But first we rolled into the heavily fortified medieval village of Colmars (well worth a visit) for a snack. It was past lunch time and we hadn’t catered for this length of ride. 
Col des Champs is a shorter 12 km climb through forest initially and the later part through bare rocks. It was as stunning as people had told us. 

We didn’t linger much at the top and descended the other side, but not without stopping for photos several times because the views during the downhill were just as scenic as the climb had been.

Last but not least, now at the 100km mark and with a few meters of climbing in the legs, we tackled Col de Cayolle. There was a village at the bottom and grabbing another bite to eat would have been wise, but it was going to be another 14.5km up and 30km down – easy! Or so I thought!

The last 4km from the top I struggled. There was a point were I seriously thought, I might not make it and lack of fuel was the reason. Thankfully, there was a chalet and I didn’t care that they charged us three Euros for a little can of Coke because this Coke got me going again and I learnt the lesson. 

The descend again was fast and stunning views opened up. Climbing the Cayolle from the Barcelonnette side must be beautiful and Alberto got to do this climb with a few cyclists we met at the camp ground but in view of L’Etape (it was nine days away at the time), I restricted myself to the Col de la Bonette the next day instead doing another 100km ride over two very long Cols.

Leon

We headed out early (8 am) because it was going to be a hot day. Leon, a Belgian cyclist and at 70 years of age a great inspiration, joined us (or maybe we joined Leon?). The already familiar 10km to the base of La Bonette flew pass. The “boys” pushed the pace and I cruised in their draft, conscious not to burn my matches too early.

The first two kilometres up the climb I stuck to their wheels, well aware that I was climbing above threshold, a pace and effort I wouldn’t be able to sustain. There were lots of cyclosportif cyclists on the climb, all with at least two other Cols in their legs already. They had started at five that morning.

No, these were not the Fondo riders!

Early slopes
When Leon jumped on the wheel of a young and competitive sportif rider who came flying pass, the band snapped and I was free to start enjoying the ride. Alberto showed up briefly, making sure that I was OK before taking off again. I would only see him again an hour later at the top.

Lots of flies!

Switchbacks higher up

Inspirational

The huge amphitheatre of rocks that opens up once you get to 2000m. It’s stunning!
I had enjoyed pushing a higher pace for a bit because all our riding had been rather slow and steady. Maybe a little late, but in preparation of L’Etape I figured a bit of training wouldn’t do harm! Once I was on my own and my heart rate had settled to a more sustainable rate, I really started appreciating this climb. And what a stunner of a Col this one is: beautiful wide green pastures that open to a rocky amphitheater higher up. Switchbacks and a road that loops around the bald bare rock at the summit!
It’s one of my favourite climbs so far and a must if you are in the area!

French rider from Nice who said: “Amazing what we do in order to die in good shape!”

The last kilometre around the Bonette is tough but the views are very rewarding!
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2 Responses to The Southern French Alps – Barcelonnette

  1. AMR says:

    Great memories!!!

  2. Vincent says:

    Three months ago I went to Col des Champs to train—I was about to join a biking competition and my trainer challenged me to try it out. With my Polygon Cozmic that I got from here ( http://www.bicyclesonline.com.au/mountain-bikes/ ), I went up the hill. It was really challenging. I salute you that you were able to endure the last 4 kilometers to the top of the hill. I had given up when I went there. I was too tired and it was definitely a disappointment. My legs killed me. However, I really enjoyed the whole bike trail—the scenery is breathtaking; the trail is challenging.

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