Top Rides: Col de la Madone
Great scenery, a spectacular climb and a twice as long descent, the Col de la Madone climb along France’s cote d’Azur is must do for any fan of great rides. The capper was meeting up with a PEZ-Fan who lives nearby for a great day on the bike.
– I rode this climb in March 2010, on a trip to Milan-Sanremo. The entire French & Italian Riviera is filled with small roads and awesome climbs that reward with spectacular views and fast fun descents. Jered rode and documented this climb here on PEZ, but as with any Top Ride, no two experiences are ever the same. –
This one started innocently enough… an email from a PEZ-Fan Ron Combs at the Tour of the Med, sending a couple of photos that proved indeed worthy of Pelopics. Ron lives in the south of France, so when I planned my trip to see the 2010 Milan-San Remo, it seemed like a ride hook-up was worth checking into.
See my map at Strava here.
Sure enough, and as is so often the case here at PEZ, a few emails exchanged and bang – we’re on for a ride in an exotic locale – one of my favorite parts of this gig.
San Remo is less than a half hour by car from France, and Ron was living at the time only a short train ride away along the coast.
We agreed to meet in Menton, just over the border from Italy, to take in the Col de la Madone – a first for us both. The climb gains 927 meters from sea level over 13km, the average gradient is 6.7%, with a max at 10%. Not a super hard climb by any stretch, but certainly not easy. But it’s the setting and scenery that make Top Ride-worthy.
I really liked that at 13km, it’s long enough to be a good test for me, not too long to become boring, there’s a great coffee stop in an old French village on the way up, and the descent out the backside is about 25km all downhill back to the start point. What could be better for an early season ride?
The morning in San Remo was overcast, and I drove through some light rain on my way to meet Ron at the appointed time of 9:30ish. I wasn’t too concerned about the rain, since it had threatened all week but never turned into much, but I packed a rain jacket just in case. It was still March, and I expected it could be quite cool at elevation – even here on the Mediterranean.
The coast along here is pretty much built up as far as the eye can see, with Monaco and Nice being the main cities nearby to the west. Menton is a typical coastal city – a big promenade, lots of hotels, and that stoney beach – normal for this part of the world.
It was easy to find the center of town – pull off the highway, point it at the water and follow the signs to the train station. The water is just behind, and this being a Sunday, there was plenty of free parking on the street, and packs of cyclists rolling by as we kitted up.
The climb itself starts out pretty much right away – we looked around for the signs to the Madone and headed inland (getting sorted in the right direction took us only about 5 minutes). The grade kicks up within a few blocks, and not more than 10 minutes in you’re going up hill.
We were under no illusions of challenging Lance Armstrong’s record, so it was a “start out slow, then dial ‘er back” kind of pace.
Not knowing if or when I’d be back in these parts, I wanted to make the most of the ride by looking around, stopping for photos and generally taking in as much as my senses could handle. This was fine with Ron, which meant we were on “chatting” speed from the get go, and allowed us time to get acquainted – since we’d never actually met before.
Ron’s got an interesting job – the kind that often leads to ‘no fixed address’, but affords some access to great rides, and the time to enjoy them. Ron is the captain of a yacht. You read that right. Captain Ron (no relation to the 1992 movie with Kurt Russel as the film’s salty namesake) loves the water and has been sailing most of his life. He works for a wealthy Russian client to take care of, manage, and sail his 87 ft yacht around the Mediterranean. And seeing as the ship spends more time moored than not, Ron has plenty of time to sneak in the afternoon rides we should be so lucky to have access to – warm days, great climbs, palm trees and azure waters… you get the picture.
But I digress: The road is small, and since it rolls out past a residential area, at times it seemed more like a back alley. Just after 3 short km the road passes under the autostrade, which towers many stories above you. One thing I liked is that the autoroute remains in view as you climb ever higher, so you’ve always got this marker as too how far you’ve climbed.
Somewhere around km 7, you round a turn and off in the distance appears the village of St. Agnes. It’s only about 3km away, but seems a lot further. At first I signed it off as one of those distant towns you see on so many rides here, but never actually visit. But as the road carried us closer, it became clear that a coffee-finding expedition would soon be launched.
We’d ridden pretty much to the clouds by now, as they hung pretty low above us and a slight mist dampened the air, and the streets.
A quick clockwise circumnavigation around the town led us to a piazza that also offered a small gateway into the town through the old walls built centuries ago.
The town dates from c. 1185, is the highest coastal village on the Mediterranean (about 726m above sea level), and there’s a ruined castle above the town (that we never saw due to the clouds).
This place is so small that the streets are really just sidewalks – far too small for any car, and stepped in many places. They’re cobbled in the small stones of the region, and darn slippery when wet, and especially tricky to navigate in cycling shoes.
Regardless, we stumbled/ shuffled through what we guessed was the main street/ sidewalk, and soon found ourselves in the first cafe we spotted.
Ron’s French again worked a charm, and I realized how far I was from Italy (where I can at least speak enough of the language to get myself in trouble). Even though we’re just a few kms from the border, Italian is indeed a foreign language here, as is English, so packing along your own bilingual guide is recommended.
The hospitality, however, was anything but foreign, as we were welcomed in and presented with cups of piping hot freshly pulled espresso, and a basket of pastries like you can only get in France.
We were pretty much the only patrons, and since we’d arrived just before lunch, it was also time for the owner’s family (I counted about 3 generations of them) to sit for lunch at a large table next to us. Whatever they were having smelled pretty darn good, and it was all we could do to get back to our original plan before humbly asking for the lunch menu.
We exited at the top end of the village, from which we could see a lookout back towards the coast. In fact it was left over gun batteries from the fortified Maginot Line, built in 1932 to defend France from invaders – who subsequently avoided it by going around. Apparently they never fired a shot from here.
But the views back to the coast are spectacular, even on this cloudy day.
From here, the second part feels like a different climb altogether. The vegetation is sparse and has turned to higher alpine scrub, dotted by wind worn trees, and craggy sandstone ledges and edges.
The road is narrow – pretty much single lane, with no guard rail to speak of, and certain death over the sheer drops just meters away. The road surface is that deep stucko – rough but smooth. It almost seems to grab at my wheels in certain places.
My early season form (or lack thereof) began to reveal itself as we continued upwards. But the fatigue in my legs was easily forgotten by the views, new terrain, and camaraderie of Ron suffering with me.
The top of the climb arrives almost by surprise – maybe it’s because I’ve been lulled into a sort of trance, but you pretty much round a corner and you’re there. It took us a few minutes to confirm we were actually at the top, since the signpost had disappeared. I’d done the research and knew there was a sign, but simply could not find it.
After some humming & hawing, we agreed we must be in the right place, and set off for the return loop down the back and to the coast.
I hadn’t paid much attention to this section of the ride, but was very pleased when it turned out to be a full 25km – ALL downhill – back to the start point. What a way to sign off a great ride.
The top part features some tight switchbacks and a few tunnels – all best taken with caution – as the road drops off the side of the mountain. There are some great views of the village of Peille across the valley – and it looked like a good spot for a pizza, but we chose to carry on our way.
The next section of road descends much more gently as you head south and back to the coast. The geography back here is pretty rugged, and at times feels quite remote, even though the coast and millions of people are just a few kms away.
Some kms later the road passes more residential abodes, but watch for free roaming dogs – we encountered one pesky pooch who decided that taking a chunk out of Ron’s tire was worth risking teeth for.
The road carries you into the town of Turbie, which sits within view of, and above Monaco. It’s got a great Mediterranean village feel, but is pretty touristy, thanks to the well preserved Roman ruins of the Trophe des Alpes – built in 6 BC by Emperor Augustus to celebrate his victory over the Ligurian tribes. This is a great spot for a coffee, but when the whole ride is only 38km, how many coffee stops do you need… really?
From here you’re back into civilization, but the road continues to drop back to Menton, and the views of the coast are stunning.
This is one ride that’s worth doing, and worth doing again. There are small roads with low traffic all over the area, so looping it in as part of a bigger ride would be easy, or just enjoy it by itself.
And then there’s the celebratory beer & pizza at ride’s end – the perfect capper to a perfect day. All that was left for Ron & I to bid each other adieu, and hope we’d meet again for another great ride.