What's Cool In Road Cycling

Top Rides: The Col De La Madone!

Ok, I admit it, I’ve read both of Lance Armstrong’s books (twice), and back when I wasn’t even riding a bike, the name Col de la Madone sounded cool to me. I’ve always remembered the name and always wondered about the climb…and now Lance is back, and it’s even more relevant. So on a Fall weekend sojourn down to Nice, I had to check it out.

After an eventful, long-ish ride the day before along the final 100km of Milano-Sanremo to our hostel in Nice, I retraced my steps, er, pedalstrokes backwards along the coast back towards Italy…but not quite that far.

My goal for the day was to climb the famous Col de la Madone – used regularly by the great Tony Rominger, made famous by the even greater Lance Armstrong, and ridden the fastest by the slight shouldered climbing enigma, Tom Danielson (30:24).

I somehow managed to get up very early (for me) and was on the road by 7.30, enjoying the morning light on the Promenade d’Anglais with quite a few morning riders. I didn’t know so many people rode so early.

The cool thing about riding so damn early? It’s gorgeous. This was truly a rare find for me. I’ve always been of the mindset that the sun must be very high in the sky for me to get on my bike, but that’s just the mindset of a late riser. Don’t call me worthless.

Lots of boats.

I don’t think it takes much for the ride from Nice to Menton to be jaw-dropping (I bet it’s awesome in pouring rain), but this particular morning was…inspiring.

The ride to Menton (where the climb of the Madone starts) goes by really quickly (mentally at least, it’s definitely not a flat 30k) – each town you pass along the 30 or so kilometers vies to outdo the last: Villefrance-Sur-Mer, Eze-Bord-De-Mer, Cap D’Ail (more on this gem later), Monaco, Cap Martin, and then Menton.

Ho hum, just riding through Monaco at 8 in the morning.

I thought the best view of Monaco was the next day when we reluctantly turned homeward to cold, snowy Austria.

Ta da! Menton.

Once I got to Menton the fun started. I figured out that the climb to the Madone started in Menton and assumed it wouldn’t be hard to find there. You know what they say about assuming…not a good idea when you’re me. So of course I started meandering around trying to find the climb.

I think it’s left…no, no I think it’s right.

I was feeling froggy, so I started asking questions and fingers started pointing in many directions, the direction askees asked other direction finding hopefuls and by the time the torrent of direction ideas was completed, I just turned left (up) and gave it a go. I assumed (hmmm) that up was the appropriate direction since the Madone was up – far, far above me.

You get the idea, right? Up.

I’m not kidding, it’s a big’n – it starts at sea level and tops out at 925 meters. It’s never terribly steep, but it’s rarely terribly easy, a lot of the Tour de France hopefuls seem to have a penchant for its slopes, so I’m guessing (even though I’ve never ridden a single Tour de France climb) that’s it’s very Tour de France-esque. Except that it’s tiny…and the Tour de France has never used this climb (as far as I know), which thus makes it decidedly un-Tour de France-esque. Miserable comparison complete.

With much joy in my heart I began pedaling in the upward direction. I was very lost at this point, but did not know it.

On the map, you can see the initial part of my climb – that’s the wrong road. I was one road over. Close enough, right? Or maybe I’m still wrong. I don’t know.

Cycle2Max says the following about the beginning of the climb: From The seafront in Menton follow the D22 inland signed for St Agnes. The road climbs gently through the town untill you reach the ‘Intermarche’ supermarket and petrol station. 300 meters past the supermarket you will come to the tiny village of ‘Le Castagnins.’ Start the stopwatch from the hairpin over the small bridge. Back to my words: or don’t start your stopwatch and enjoy the ride…that’s what I did.

My trip for the first few kilometers on the wrong road was decidedly pleasant…no cars, lots of switchbacks, ever warming temperatures. Who cares if the shadows of Tour de France greats past (well, at that point past…now present) raged just a stone’s throw from me – I would make non-Tour de France contender history with the wrong road climb.

But then I stumbled on the correct road and met up with the ghost of Lance Armstrong past. This road seemed a little more appropriate – it was more than 10 feet wide, nicely graded, and oh my was there a long way to go.

The views weren’t terribly spectacular, but you can’t blame the climb for that. Every big climb has a few so-so moments where you cross from the bottom enthusiasm to the upper gorgeousness afforded by ever increasing altitude. It’s true, think about it. Don’t get me wrong though, the so-so views were better than most of my good views on a normal day.

I was trying to play off the fact that there was an ample tide of sweat running into my eyes. Oh the drama.

Like any good climb with lots of switchbacks, you get the distinct pleasure of looking back down upon your handiwork. Yeah, I did that.

I eased up for the picture! Don’t make fun of the power. Please, I’m sensitive.

The view to St. Agnes. If you ride the climb – look for the signs for St. Agnes – that’s the first and only town you’ll encounter on the climb.

Peille? La Turbie? Ah hell, I don’t know. I think I want to go to Peille. Is this the right road?


It was around this time where the climb really started to assume its identity as awesome. The road lost some weight and slimmed down significantly at the waist – it couldn’t have been too much wider than I am tall.

The road surface started to deteriorate a little bit over the final kilometers, but that just adds to the mystique. It would have been even better if it was dirt.

The signs kept me company and helped me with my counting down of meters of elevation to go and kilometers too. Thank you road signs, you kept me doing simple arithmetic and delayed complete brain meltdown for at least a little while (I get bored riding by myself – not because of where I’m riding, but just because other people are so much more interesting).

My trusty Seigler ALR carried me ably upward.

Oooh, a tunnel!

Towards the top, the road got even slimmer, and the rocks seemed to find their way onto the road with greater frequency. What cars there had been (maybe two?), ceased appearing altogether, and a truly benign experience began.

Almost there.

There’s not much better than climbing a big ol mountain on teeniny little roads on a warm day with nary a soul for miles. It’s the kind of feeling I get hiking sometimes…it’s a lot harder to get on the road though, what with the propensity for cars to use roads and all.

At the top of the climb there was a small parking area for people to, gasp, park and go hiking/walking, a statue (see above), and a sign, and really big views. I could of course see the Mediterranean behind me and to the north? The Alps. Lovely.

What else was I supposed to do? Take a picture of my shoe (It’s broken, TIME would you please send me a new one please)?

I really did ride my bike up there. This isn’t the product of Photoshopping. I’m not nearly good enough for that.

The only thing about riding your bike up really narrow roads? Riding down is a little nerve rattling. Not so much because I’m afraid of going careening down some long, rocky slope to my demise, but because I’m deathly afraid of coming around a blind corner and meeting my end courtesy of the front grill of an oncoming automobile. Sound good? Not so much.

So I picked my way down carefully and took some pictures. I didn’t take any good ones though…I still haven’t mastered the fine art of descending a mountain and taking quality pictures. The above picture was from the return trip later that evening. The evening?

The Madone was so pretty during the day, I figured it would be even better in the evening, so I brought my girl, Ashley up to get a look at the view. She liked it. See, cool bike routes are good for more than just your own selfish ends – share the wealth, show your girl (or guy)!

After a nice morning ride, I came back to Ashley waking up. We spent the early afternoon walking around Nice, then hopped in the rental and drove over to Cap d’Ail for lunch, swimming, and jellyfish hunting (seriously – there were lots of jellyfish). If you’re in the area – do check out Cap d’Ail. It’s an awesome little nook along the coast.

That’s all.

If you know of a cool place to ride and want to write up a few words for PEZ – do it! Send me the words and pictures: [email protected]

If you’re in Europe and have a cool place to ride and want to show me around – shoot me an email and I’ll probably figure out a way to get over there. I like to be guided.

If you’ve got some awesome pictures from your riding – send em my way for PeloPics!

For more fun, head to JeredGruber.com

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