The bells of the church in Jausiers work me early, oh the joys of a Catholic Country as the priest called the faithful to early morning worship! Back home in the UK we have a fine tradition for Church bell ringing, we do it melodically, ringing the bells in order and to predetermined patterns, but in most places on Continental Europe the bells are just rung haphazardly, frequently clashing in a cacophony of tonal mismatch and timing; you’ve got to love the difference!
I sat on the windowsill as the sun rose above the mountains; today was going to get a bit warm if the early rays were anything to go by. Time to grab breakfast and hit the road, we had a lot of Cols to climb again.
Today we were back on the classic Route des Grandes Alpes, right down to the Mediterranean Sea. First up was our biggest climb of the day, Col de la Cayolle 2326m/7631ft.
I’d ridden Cayolle before. From the North, where we were coming from, it’s a really pleasant if quite long climb of just over 29km. Leaving Barcelonette we turned onto our old friend the D902 road and slipped into the Gorges du Bachelard. This is quite a road, as it negotiates the narrow, rocky gorge, which is full of roaring waterfalls, tight tricky bridges and towering cliffs. The steepness and height of the cliffs often cut out direct sunlight, the place is cold, even on sunny mornings like we were enjoying and the narrow road makes it difficult to safely stop and take it all in. The road frequently swaps back and forth across the tumbling waters before gaining altitude and passing into delightful high woodland before emerging on the open high alp. The climb isn’t particularly demanding, but satisfying nonetheless and at the summit has a delightful stone marker, plus some wonderful scenery giving a glimpse of the way ahead.
After pausing for the obligatory photographs I eased Harls onto the downhill slope and set off South. The road here is much more technical with sweeping hairpins, tunnels, tight squeezes and just more fantastic scenery. In the small village of Guillaumes we turned left and immediately got into “Ski-Station Land” for our next four Cols…actually, that’s I bit unfair of me; it’s just that after the wonderful isolation of the really high passes having to share the mountains with civilisation gets a bit hard!
The road was fun with enough variation to keep things interesting, passing through the Tinée valley we paused at Ouvrage Frassinéa, one of the remaining forts of the Maginot Line Alpine extension. The Maginot line was an attempt by France to fortify its eastern border immediately after the First World War; the project saw the construction of hundreds of miles of defences, gun emplacements and bunkers. It never really got finished and for the most part was rendered useless when in 1939 the German army invaded and simply drove around the defences; nice try though! Many parts of the old defences can still be seen today and some, like Fressinéa, have been preserved as museums. Sadly, it was shut when we called in!
Col de Valberg 1672m/5475ft, Col de Sainte Anne 1550m/5085ft, Col de la Couillole 1678m/5505ft and Col de Saint Martin1500m/4921ft, are all respectable passes, they certainly have their place in the history of the Tour de France and RDGA, but after the big ones that Harls and I had grown used to, they were…well, just a little tame!
What wasn’t tame was the temperature. I stopped in Roqueillière, which lies in the delightful Vesubie valley, to buy some lunch and noticed that the thermometer was spot on 100ºF!
We were definitely into Mediterranean France now, even the scenery screamed that at us.
We had been travelling for a few hours now and together with the heat, I thought it wise to take a break on the climb to our next Col, the legendary Col de Turini 1604m/5262ft.
Just for once, here is a Col that isn’t legendary in Le Tour de France; it’s only featured three times. No, Turini gained it’s fame from motor sport and specifically the wonderful “Monte Carlo Rally” which is usually held in mid-January each year. More specifically, it really rose to wider notice in 1964, when a young driver from Belfast, Northern Ireland, named Paddy Hopkirk together with co-driver Henry Liddon, won the rally driving a BMC Mini Cooper S and a legend was born.
Paddy Hopkirk winning the 1964 Monte Carlo rally, photo Auto Express.
The Minis were back to win in 1965 and again in 1967, to cement their place in motor sport history.
I’ve never owned a Mini, but back in the day one of my Aunts did, it was a red Cooper S, just like Paddy’s, I thought it was so cool!
The famous red 1964 Mini Cooper S, photo DeFacto, used with thanks.
These days the Turini is crossed in daylight, but back then it was also infamous for being a night stage and amongst enthusiasts was known as “The Night of the Long Knives,” on account of the high intensity headlight beams cutting through the darkness; it must have been some sight!
In places Turini is best described as “artificial,” but it’s probably more impressive because of that, because the engineering effort that has gone into building this pass is beyond impressive. The road formation is supported by solid, beautifully formed stone block walls, the bends are generously wide, but the short gradients are savage…it’s just great fun to ride!
As we topped Turini, low cloud hugged the high trees and it looked like our scorching weather was over for the day, but no, it was just a temporary reprieve from the heat. Passing through Sospel we started to final climb, to Col de Castillon, which at a mere 706m/2316ft barely registers as a pimple against it’s higher sisters on La Route des Grandes Alpes. That’s a little unfair, because where Castillon fails in the altitude stakes it hits back by being the first/last climb of the RDGA, the only one in the Côte d’Azur and if you are starting in Menton, it’s 706 metres straight up!
We paused at the Col, no fancy stone monument here, just a rather tatty metal sign and then a steady roll downhill in the warm Mediterranean breeze.
Menton is often called the pearl of the Côte d’Azur and in it’s own way it’s an OK place; just not my sort of place. In fact, not much of the French Riviera is my sort of place; it’s just too busy, to built up and to pretentious for my liking.
We rode through the bustling town and at a suitable spot on the sea front I pulled over, kicked down Harls side stand and took the obligatory photograph; we’d done it!
Years of plotting and dreaming, then a few months of planning had brought us here.
Well, apart from finding our hotel, having a swim in the warm Mediterranean, grabbing a shower and a beer…I honestly couldn’t think of much else to do!
There was finally a monkey off my back.
From finding that leaflet about La RDGA all those years ago, to executing the dream, it was over.
I felt a little empty.
Later, after a nice meal and a night-time stroll around the marina, I reflected more on our journey. It was a job well done, no dramas, no mishaps, just a solid team effort; man, machine and the road in perfect harmony.
Did I ever tell you that I love that bike?
…. and tomorrow?
Well, we’d better start to go back home and find some more hills to climb.
“There ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough…”
Catch you later.