By Kris Zentek
After the previous day’s lazy sight seeing (and river swimming) rest day, it was time to hit the road for the final leg of this epic journey. It was the home stretch that would take us from Castellane, our base for the last two nights, to Nice. We were heading south, heading for the sun.
Although not as harsh in terms of terrain as the rest of the trip, it was still a tough ride. Nearly 110 miles in much higher temperatures across undulating terrain, with a nice ‘surprise’ climb at the midpoint.
Below is a summary of the route (albeit not the planned route, which I will explain later) and the profile summary.
After breakfast, we bid farewell to Castellane and headed onto the first climb of the day with cold legs – resplendent in our BLGC kit. We began the ride as a unit, riding steady with our ailing comrade John Bamford, still suffering from the after-effects of a chest infection. The climb, the Col Saint Barnabe, wound its way up the valley of the Verdon reservoir.
Over the top, we were met with a shallow descent into the valley of the river Esteron, and after we passed through Saint-Auban, we were met with the next climb at Brianconnet – the Col Du Buis. This was much steeper than the climb before, kicking off with 12-15% gradients along an unkept road – almost a gravel track at times. At the top, the valley canopy consumed us, which was a welcome break from the searing sun. Descending was technical, with tight turns and loose gravel.
After another short climb, we were on the long descent into Entrevaux, which was very fast with great switchbacks! At the bottom we met the Var river, which we followed for several kilometers with great tempo riding, through and off until we arrived at the scheduled lunch stop in Puget Theniers.
We arrived so early that none of the cafes or restaurants were serving food yet so we piled into the local Patisserie and literally cleaned them out! A couple of rounds of coffee later, a quick resupply from the support van, and we were off once again. Our next obstacle was the D28 climb through a redstone gorge to Beuil.
This was a very tough and unforgiving climb, with long straights traversing a river gorge. An arena of red sandstone resulted in searing heat and very little breeze and water became a premium, the only respite coming from several tunnels along the way that met us with a rush of cool air.
Eventually, we got to the tight switchbacks that led into town and after a brief stop at the town fountain for a top up with cool glacial water we got to the cafe stop to regroup.
At this point we found our first problem of the day. A local car rally had resulted in a road closure up ahead with no alternative route. The only way was back the way we came, to continue along the main valley road south to Nice. After an extended break (as we waited to tell others of the route change) we set off back down the valley.
And so we come to the moment I wish I could take change…
I don’t know if it was last day giddiness or just a desire to get to the finish and hit the town to celebrate, but we hit the descent at a very fast pace. Flying through the tunnels and round the twisting bends. About a third of the way down, with the gorge on our left, we came to a tight left hander. It was hard to see the apex because of the barriers, but it was a corner that got progressively tighter as you went through it. Too tight for me, and as I tried to get round my back wheel lost grip and I went careering into the sandstone wall.
It hurt – a lot! I don’t remember hitting the floor but once I realised where I was, I quickly shuffled to the side of the road and checked myself over. No broken bones but a few cuts and a really sore right arm and leg.
The rest of the guys were 30 seconds behind (apart from Craig, Si and Ste who were flying down well ahead – ed) and immediately came to the rescue – triaging my bike (only a broken seat and a scuffed pedal amazingly!) and then seeing if I was OK (to carry on 🙂 ).
It took me a few more minutes, but I eventually got back on. We were still 60 Km from Nice and I still had to get down the descent, which I managed in a lot of pain.
Once we got back to the main road, I was very keen to keep moving as I was stiffening up a lot and I knew if I stopped, I wouldn’t be able to carry on. For the next 35 km I was shepherded by the rest of the group who were enjoying great through/off in the sun.
As we reached the outskirts of Nice we had a scheduled left turn into the hills. But once we got there we found that that same car rally that caused the detour earlier, had also caused road closures in the Nice hills. Our only choice now was to stay on the main road, or try to find another way over.
A few Km further down the road we saw a promising road. But as we followed it upwards, it very quickly turned into a stepp, barren gravel track. While some more brave riders elected to crack on, myself, Karl and Neil turned back to stick to the main road. The group was split.
The main road was gradually becoming more and more busy, with faster traffic, and we noticed the speed limit increasing all the time – 60…70…90…110. It was when we saw the limit of 130 Km that we decided this was not a good idea any more, and luckily saw a cycle track to the right. We traversed the dividing wall, and carried on into Nice.
The path brought us to a village near Nice Airport where we picked up the main coast road and another cycle lane. At this point we had no idea where the hotel was, but continued in the hope that we would spot the BLGC flashes further on.
Eventually, we met back up with the rest of the guys who had abandoned their attempt at the gravel road, and were just a kilometre or two behind us, following the same route.
We ambled around for a while, getting more and more frustrated at not being able to find the hotel. I was in a lot of pain and everyone was tired from the hard week we had faced. Although we were in Nice it still felt like we were a million miles away from the sanctity of a shower and some fresh food. I don’t know if it was to alleviate the frustration, to demonstrate bike handling prowess, or to try and out-door me in the wobbly wheel award, but Craig decided he was going to bunnyhop off the curb, and promptly faceplanted in front of a bunch of sightseers. Eventually we gave in with our attempts to self-navigate, and sought help. We found some Gendarme Cyclisme who luckily spoke English well.
They did not know where the hotel was but they happily called in to their control room who found it, and we were given directions. Unfortunately for us they were given to Neil Higgins, a man who could get lost in his own house, and about 4 seconds after we parted ways with the police he had forgotten the directions!
We had a general direction to head it and luckily, just round the corner, we saw some BLGC colours – not from a fellow rider, but from some of the WAGS who had arranged to meet up with the challenge riders in Nice! They told us where the hotel was, and within 5 minutes we were there!
Home! Arrive! We had made it!!!
As you can see from the picture above, there is no way in a million years we would have found this place on our own. It was tucked away on a side street, with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it facade. But looks can be deceiving – the hotel was fantastic – plush inside and adorned with marble. Some of the challenge riders were already here and had arranged to meet up for a dirty burger at Nice’s equivillent of McD’s. After 110 miles, that sounded absolutely perfect!
We checked in and I had my first chance to assess the damage to my leg. It was not a pretty sight. But I was very, very lucky to walk away with only bruising and rashes. Had it been a left hander, I might have ended up at the bottom of the gorge.
None of this mattered to the others though. All they were concerned with was whether my Garmin Virb was on at the time. It was. And so the laptop joined us at the burger joint once we had showered and changed.
I have to admit it was an impressive bail 🙂