In this post I am going to give you all the ‘must have’ information you need in order to ride (and enjoy) the Col de l’Ecre, a particularly beautiful (and long) climb in the south of France.
This summer I had the particular pleasure of being bestowed with a week of free accommodation in a villa on the Côte d’Azur.
Shadly this was not because I’d hit the veloblogging big leagues and been invited to a high profile bike launch. Instead it was because my parents’ wealthy friends gave us a lend of their gaff. So you don’t have to feel sorry for me.
Anyhoo, me and my brother-in-law both hired bikes (as is our wont on these multi-Monty-generational holidays) and, in amongst a bunch of shorter rides, decided to tackle a ‘Cat 1’ climb in the area. And the Col de l’Ecre was that climb.
So, having thoroughly enjoyed the ride, and the climb (yes!), I decided to share the love. Or rather my experience. You can use it (maybe be inspired by it) if you’re ever in the area.
Where Is It?
Col de l’Ecre is a climb in the Alpes-Maritimes region (actually, ‘department’) of France.
Essentially, if you think of the coastline from Monaco in the north east, down to Cannes in the south west, with Nice in the middle. Well, it’s there, plus the bit behind it (the area inland that stretches northwards to the foothills of the Alpes).
The strip along the coastline, where the wealthy live and, in July, the French take their holibobs, is flat-to-a-little-bit-hilly (i.e. perfect for the nabobs that live further from the coast to still get a sea view).
Then suddenly, north of all that, and still in view of the sea, you have a ridge of mountains. Right, well the Col de l’Ecre is one of the climbs up that ridge of mountains.
Actually I’ve just discovered (magic of Google Maps) that the Col de l’Ecre climb, plus in fact most of our ride that day, is in a ‘regional park’, the Parc naturel regional des Prealpes d’Azur.
Which perhaps explains why all of it was so beautiful.
Routes To Climb
The Col de l’Ecre (the pass itself) is on the D12 (or Route Departmentale 12) so can theoretically be approached from a number of directions.
But let’s assume you’re coming from the coast and you want to #RideLikeMont.
Fiddling around on Strava, Climbbybike plus other interwebsites, suggests that the Col de l’Ecre climb is generally recognised as being the D3 from Châteauneuf-Grasse up to the mountain village of Gourdon. At Gourdon you take a left onto the D12 and ride until you hit (expire at) the top.
Which is a relief, because that’s the way I climbed it.
Le Loup of The Loop
We tackled the Col de l’Ecre as part of a loop, with the meat of the ride starting at Châteauneuf-Grasse and ending at Grasse (which I can confirm is a different place).
Essentially it was a climb up to the col, followed by 5km along a flattish (but actually quite beautiful) plateau, and then a nice long descent down the other side.
You could absolutely do this ride in the other direction and strictly you would be riding up to the Col de l’Ecre, but I think the main body of the climb, up out of Grasse, would more accurately be described as climbs to the Col du Pilon and the Col du Ferrier (plus some other little bit at the top).
(This all probably makes more sense if you just spend a bit of time investi-googling my Strava route from the ride in question).
How To Get There
By bike. Arf. Arf…
We were staying in Mougins, which is just north of Cannes. I’m in the process of writing another more general post about cycling in the area (I’m sure I’ll let you know when it’s published). Headline message: whilst not exactly urban, there are a lot or buildings, roads and traffic.
We spent most of our holiday trying to find quieter routes to the mountains. We were mainly entirely successfully. Still the route we took, pretty much direct from Mougins via Valbonnes (recommended for dinner options by the way) and on to Châteauneuf-Grasse, wasn’t too bad.
(Looking at the map, this direct route is in fact the D3, which I guess makes replicating our approach more straightforward).
If you need more ‘big picture’ directions: fly into Nice, hire a car, then hire a bike. Or just hire a bike.
The ‘Old Bitch of Opio’: A Quick Interlude
If you are approaching Chateaneuf from the south, then you will have to contend with an extra bit of ascent before you hit the Col de l’Ecre climb proper.
The climb, which bears an evocative, if slightly questionable, name, takes you from Opio to Châteauneuf.
It’s short, mercifully, with the Strava segment giving it 1.55km at an average gradient of 9%. But that average gradient hides some pretty sustained sections in the mid-to-high teens.
Also it’s an absolute git.
Now maybe we were riding it at morning rush hour (in the school holidays in a somewhat rural area) but the road was absolutely rammed with cars. I wasn’t prepared, physically or mentally, to go straight from more-or-less flat cruising along to a 15% straight ramp.
Unfortunately you just have to suck it up, which Strava tells me I did for 8ish minutes.
The Strava KOM is held by the Cycling Podcast’s favourite literary pun-fressional rider, David (Waiting For) Gaudu.
Stop Going On, Tell Me About The Col de L’Ecre
For the sake of argument, I’m going to use the ‘Col de l’Ecre de Pre du Lac’ segment on Strava as my golden source.
It is 14km in length, with an average gradient of 5%. With 700m of total ascent, the climb tops out (at the col) at 1,057m.
Strava rates it as a category 1 climb. As we know, the Strava classification system is simply a function of distance and metres climbed, rather than a particular measure of difficulty.
Climbbybike(.com) gives it 2 stars out of five based on their ‘difficulty score’ formula and I’d say that’s about right.
I alluded to it above but I actually enjoyed this climb, which points to the fact that, for the most part, the modest gradient allowed me to ride at my own pace, take photos and videos, and savour the views.
Right, well traffic on the Côte d’Azur is schizophrenic.
One minute the roads are crammed with cars, the next totally vehicle free.
Nowhere is this more stark than at the start of the Col de l’Ecre climb. The ride starts from a combo roundabout-junction type thing at the north end of Châteauneuf.
As we turned right at the junction, we weren’t well positioned to turn left across incoming traffic, plus I needed to stop and fill up a water bottle. So we stopped on the pavement.
The volume of cars, coming from maybe five different directions, meant it was virtually impossible to get back on the bikes to navigate the junction. We ended up walking the bikes over two pedestrian crossings, traversing multiple roads, to find our way onto the D3.
We started again on the D3 and began to climb. Then…. zero cars.
What Is The Climb Like To Ride?
If I had to pick a single word to describe the Col de l’Ecre, it would be ‘kind’ (as in, it’s kind to you as a rider).
There are four somewhat distinct sections, none of which are stinkers.
The first section is pretty much straight north, and straight up, from Châteauneuf. At 2.7km, it’s not too long, and at 6–8%, it’s not too steep. And whilst this is probably the hardest section of the climb, I found I could still spin (sort of) in the bottom two gears.
At the first hairpin, the road flattens out for the second section of the climb. This segment, which was approximately 3.3km at 1–3%, achieved a very high nice-views-to-effort ratio. Whilst I wasn’t compelled by the gradient to stop, it was difficult to resist the urge to grind to a halt and take photos.
There is nothing more annoying than a long climb which has a bit of downhill thrown in halfway. All those hard fought metres of ascent given back for a bit of dirty descent. But that is how section 3 of the Col de l’Ecre starts.
I will forgive it though (insofar as a human can forgive a geographical feature). The short (~700m) descent, as the road turns into a fold in the mountainside and over a narrow bridge, followed by the sharp kick up to Gourdon, takes the beautiful scenery factor up even higher.
The climb to Gourdon is made all the more bearable by the knowledge that there is a cafe there waiting to provide you with a coffee and a refill of your bidon. I didn’t know that there was a cafe as I tackled those final metres so it must have been the distraction of the Côte d’Azur vistas drowning out the chatter from my thighs.
The final section of the climb is from Gourdon to the Col itself, on the D12 .
At this point you’ll be well-fueled by the hot (or cold) drink of your choice, so it will be a breeze (har, har…). At just over 6km, it’s the longest of the sections (which I’ve just invented). Whilst there is the odd bend as the road winds its way up the slope, with one proper switchback, the gradient stays pretty constant in the mid single digits. Which is nice.
There is a treat at the top of the Col de l’Ecre climb that I wasn’t really expecting (to be fair, my research was limited, so I wasn’t really expecting anything, other than I’d have to descend at some point).
The reward for your 45–60 mins of effort (and maybe a coffee stop) is 6km almost straight dash along a beautiful (Alpine?) plateau (the Plateau de Caussols to be exact).
The photo only does it partial justice. It was an amazingly peaceful place to ride a bike.
I suppose you could ride back down the Col de l’Ecre after you’ve climbed it, but where’s the joy in that.
Otherwise there’s no ‘right’ answer on the route to take down from the plateau. We needed to get back to Grasse, and then Mougins beyond, so we bore south, dropping down onto the D5 towards Saint-Vallier-de-Thiey (“worth a visit”).
Following the signs to Grasse, it appears we took the pleasingly-titled Route Napoleon, which passed through the even-more-pleasingly-titled Super-Grasse (where I was neither caught by the fuzz, nor ‘still on my buzz’).
How Long Should It Take (And Other Miscellany)
Romain Bardet holds the KOM with an ascent in 32 minutes 38 seconds.
Monty is closer to Court Fool Of The Mountain, with a Strave segment time of 1hr 22mins. In my defence, that included the cafe stop, which the official timekeeper tells me took 22 minutes and 2 seconds. So make an estimate based on which end of the professional-rider-to-Monty scale you occupy.
General road conditions were good throughout the climb. The road surface was standard continental smooth, other than for a couple of kilometres after Gourdon, where it was a bit more gritty and rough. The road was nice and wide, with more than enough space for cars to pass one another.
I am used to going on a family holiday at the height of the Mediterranean summer, hiring a road bike and then suffering up climbs significantly longer than the ones found at home.
It was therefore a (more than) pleasant surprise that I enjoyed this ride, I didn’t finish in a blubbering mess and I didn’t spend the whole climb wishing I was somewhere else.
(Perhaps I wasn’t trying hard enough)
The Col de l’Ecre is an excellent introduction to long continental climbs or a nice ‘tester’ for riders who are trying to juggle other family commitments on their holidays. And for not too much of a leg-powered sacrifice to the cycling gods, you get the pay-off of some pretty spectacular scenery, both on the ascent and at the top. You can’t say fairer than that.
Over To You
Have you ridden this climb or in the Côte d’Azur? Or do you have another favourite continental climb?
Let me know in the comments below.
1 thought on “Cycling The Col De L’Ecre: Length, Gradient and Difficulty (All The Usual Fandango)”
Looks like fun! What was the temp during your ride? I’ve been doing a bunch of climbs this summer in/around Taipei and the heat and humidity make the ascents really painful.