I slept well at the hotel and in the morning sunshine stocked up on my usual pre-pedal fayre of one-too-many-a-croissant. As much as I have enjoyed my French entrée to the day, I was starting to fantasise about non-pastry based options to break fast.
Today would be a very easy day but an exciting one too. The Gorge du Cians lay between me and the river Vars once more, having pedalled past its source when crossing the Cayolle.
The gorge didn’t present a cycling challenge… an exercise in freewheeling in actual fact. However, billed as one of France’s more famous balcony routes, I was keen to experience it. And it didn’t disappoint, save for the fact that it was too short.
The route starts from the pretty village of Beiul with a few switchbacks before entering the jaws of the gorge. The road descends for the next 15 km or so and each corner brings a new visual treat. The geology is markedly different here, red shale taking over from the limestone, and cliffs towered above, and indeed over, the twisting tarmac.
A number of tunnels dot the route but you are strongly advised to avoid them as a cyclist, opting instead for the unkempt side routes where shattered rockfall litters the single-track road which, in parts, is in very poor condition. Barriers now line the left hand side of the route but this was not always the case. Their addition is a shame in many respects as they somewhat deaden the excitement of the journey.
It was over all too soon sadly and I pulled in to a rather scrubby campsite at Touet Sur Var just before midday, much to the owner’s surprise. I pitched the tent one last time on this trip, showered and found lunch. This simple meal – skewered beef, dressed leaves and potatoes followed by fromage du jour – turned out to be the best food I’d have in France, and the cheapest. The house rose was the finest I tasted too.
I spent the afternoon clambering though the charming Mediaeval passageways of the old village before climbing to the breezy look out point where I whiled away an hour or more finishing my book and revelling in the notion of spending rather a lot of time doing very little indeed. This, in fact, was bliss… so much of our lives are spent rushing around with no time for each other. In a place like this, everything stops. The idea of time being an elastic rather than a fixed entity – a concept that resonates with me- meant something again.
I was mindful of the final day’s riding, though. Is some ways, the route looked fairly straightforward back to Nice but I needed to avoid the main road at least once due to a tunnel, and that meant climbing a couple of supposedly minor cols. I had options as to the route, but both involved over 1000m of ascent. An early start was essential therefore to avoid the heat of the midday sun. By then, I needed to be on the flat and jostling with the hustle and bustle the main drag to Nice and my hotel.
After the usual petit dejeurner, I was on the road by 8.30. The road to Nice was difficult to say the least as trucks thundered by seemingly oblivious to me. I was happy to turn off at the junction before the tunnels where cyclist are forbidden. This took me into the stunning Tinee gorge before climbing to La Tour, a lovely ascent of switchbacks with superb views unfolding as I pedalled. This was bliss, but I naively imagined that my climbing would be done for the day at La Tour. How wrong can you be?
I dropped down from the pretty village onto the seemingly innocuous looking M32 road, which appeared to level out and follow the valley as a balcony route. However, once I put tyres on tarmac, I realised I were climbing again and the road, now devoid of switchbacks, ramped up alarmingly.
The next hour or so was purgatory… without doubt the hardest riding of the trip. Perhaps on another day, I would have found it for more straightforward, but the road to Utelle was seemingly endless and each corner brought more grinding climbing. The views were superb, but I’m sorry to say they were lost on me as the sweat and sunscreen stung my eyes. I put my head down and kept turning the pedals… there really was nothing else to do.
I then reached a tunnel and he relief to be out of the sun was immeasurable. On this quiet road (I’d encountered no traffic since joining the M32) I stopped in the darkness and drained my remaining bidon. I eventually, rather gingerly, edged the bike out into daylight once more to find a road sign that made giggle inanely with relief. Half a kilometre to Utelle, 50 to Nice… the climbing was now definitely done.
I sped through Utelle and headed for St John La Riviere with its very pretty bridge and found a great cafe where a very cold Coke and a very fromagey Croque Monsieur was manna from heaven.
I now had to follow the Vesubie gorge back to the main Nice road, the tunnels now avoided by my tortuous diversion through the mountains. This should have been a steady descent but a determined headwind snaking up the valley meant freewheeling was not an option. It was a case of head down again and push the pedals, my hands clamped on the drops.
As I reached the Vars river for the last time, I followed the main road once more only to hop to the other side at the earliest opportunity where I found an excellent cycle path heading to the city. The head wind remained.
I then made a big mistake. I’d plotted a supposedly cycle-friendly route to my hotel using Google Maps in the hope it would provide speedy and efficienty passage to the city centre. However,the next hour or so was complete misery and I fear I may have used up some of my cycling nine lives. The traffic was hideous, the motorists impatient, the route baffling. Sure, the city streets being carved up for new metro lines did not help matters, but it was a ghastly experience. I eventually gave up and pushed my bike on the footway, weary after my morning’s labours. I arrived at my underwhelming digs and showered for about an hour before drowning in overpriced beer.