Our Must Do Rides series features some of the best routes around the world. This ride comes from Nice, France. It was written and photographed by Matt Wragg.
"It's one of those rides where you come back heavier than when you started." In between mouthfuls of fine, French pastry, Kieran summed up the route. After all, what better excuse to sample some of the finest bakeries our region has to offer than a route taking in some of the most iconic cols anywhere in cycling?
Being in France we have to start in a café, but not just any café - the famous Café du Cycliste. Part-cafe, part-clothing brand, part-bike rental spot, it's a focal point for local riders offering everything from strong coffee and a quick loan of a tool, to borrowing a handmade bike for the day and tips on the best routes in the region. Nestling on the edge of the port in the old town it sits close to the cycleways that head out west towards Cannes and at the foot of the climb to the Col d'Eze for eastbound riders.
Our ride begins with a detour, swapping the Col des Quatre Chemins, which is the classic climb out of the city, for a quick run around the port and then straight onto the punishing ramps up to Mont Boron. You're going to want to have a good level of caffeine in you for this short, sharp shock so early in the ride, but it doesn't last for long and soon you are rewarded with the tree-lined road that encircles the mountain and its perfect view out over the bay.
From here we pick up the corniches - the three roads that link Nice, Monaco and Menton. The simple rule with these roads is the higher you go, the less traffic you will find. Emerging from Mont Boron onto the Moyenne (middle) Corniche we soon grab a connecting road taking us up to the Haute (high) Corniche and the final part of the climb to the Col d'Eze some 500m above the sea below. Those 500 metres offer an unparalleled view down towards Monaco, Villefranche and the deep blue bays that lie beyond.
The Col d'Eze itself is something of an anti-climax - it's a famous climbing segment, but you are better off carrying onto La Turbie for water, food and respite. The fountain in the centre is a godsend on hot summer days, but just beyond that is the first bakery stop of the day - Saines Saveurs. With the climb up to the Col de la Madone soon to come, it's a better idea to load your pockets rather than your belly here.
From La Turbie you turn away from the coast for the first time and onto the north slopes of the Col de la Madone. This is the less famous side - it's the southern side from Menton that is more famous as a testing ground for the pro peloton, but it's a steady climb with stunning views down to the perched medieval village of Peille. At the top you get a great view out over the sea once more - a perfect spot for enjoying those pastries from La Turbie.
The descent on the south side of the Col is fast with many blind corners, frequented by motoring enthusiasts, so a level of caution is needed as you drop to the village of Sainte-Agnès. The fountain outside the village is marked "Eau non potable" (water not drinkable), but Cedric, who lives below in Menton and rides up here a lot, insists it's fine, even if the flavour is a little off. As the next sector heads more into the backcountry it is the last water stop for quite a while.
Somehow I always forget how hard the next part of the climb is. Winding through the quiet mountain roads is peaceful, but every time the gradient is a little harsher than I remember, the climb keeps going a bit longer than I think it will. In total it's around a 600m climb with some tough gradients on the slopes of Mont Ours, but soon enough it begins to level out. A few kilometres after you pass the Col du Segra the road turns to gravel. It's not too hard, it is fairly well maintained through the summer, and a couple of riders in our group rode it on 25mm road tyres. The final crest as you pass Baisse du Pape and head to rejoin the road at Col de Braus is nothing short of breathtaking, offering a view of Nice that you will find on no tarmac road.
We got lucky at the Col du Braus. There is a restaurant there, but as far as I can tell the opening hours are related to the phases of the moon or the tides as it always seems to be closed when I fancy a cold drink at the top of the mountain - this is the first time I’ve ever managed to drink there. From here the climbing is mostly done and first up is the classic descent down through the iconic switchbacks of the Col de Braus to the final bakery stop in L'Escarene.
With around 1,700m climbing in your legs you can get into the pastries guilt-free, or if you need something more substantial they do an amazing pan bagnat - a local specialty sandwich with tuna and salad. The final question of the ride is: how to get back to the city? I prefer dropping onto the backroads towards La Grave de Peille before climbing back up towards Blausasc and dropping through the grey earth towards Contes. It's a small bonus climb that keeps you off the busy main roads that little bit longer before you rejoin the final spin back into Nice and a celebratory drink back at the Café du Cycliste.