This year’s mid-season training camp took place in the south of France, specifically on the Côte d’Azur ‘behind’ (back from the coast of) Cannes.
It was a pretty intense affair. Lots of focused lounging on sun terraces and structured bombing into the swimming pool. But I did find some time to get out on the bike.
In this post I’ll share my thoughts on cycling in the area, where I rode, where I hired my bike and all that fandango.
What This Post Isn’t
Well it isn’t a comprehensive guide to cycling in the area.
The Côte D’Azur, and the mountains behind them (the Alpes-Maritimes) cover a sizeable area. I rode in only a tiny part of it.
Many professional riders live in Nice and Monaco and train in the hills that form the beautiful sea and peaks images you see of the area. I wasn’t anywhere near that.
So this post is more about giving you a flavour of the area and letting you know what riding might be feasible if you too have to combine continental riding with family summer holiday duties (poor you).
Where We Stayed
We had the good fortune of being able to stay in a villa belonging to friends of my parents. It’s in Mougins, a small town centred around a beautiful old town perched atop a hill.
Mougins is about 25 minutes from Nice Airport, using the A8 toll road for most of the journey. It’s set back some 7 kilometres from the coast, directly north of Cannes.
Aside from the old town, which is full of small artists studios (it’s noted for this) and nice restaurants, Mougins (like a lot of this area) is sort of spread out with a number of pockets of shops, cafes, bakeries, supermarkets and the like. It has all you need, particularly if ‘all’ is the most expensive greengrocers this side of Brexit.
We stayed Sunday to Sunday, in the final week of July/start of August.
Following an unfortunate (for the protagonist) bird meets jet engine incident at Manchester airport, EasyJet had to find us a new plane. This meant landing at Nice at about 7pm. Which was actually no bad thing.
The hire car centre at Nice, which I understand is an accurate representation of hell on any given summer Saturday, was mercifully quiet. We picked up our Fiat Tipo, which despite being new, gave off a reassuring fug of Galoises, and we were on our way.
(Serious tip alert: if you are hiring a car at Nice, and you can contrive to make your stay run Sunday to Sunday, then I heartily recommend it. Both pickup and drop off were very relaxed. And given that there’s enough potential stress involved in international travel with kids, every little reduction helps…).
Where To Hire A Road Bike
I found Le Bike Butler thanks to the magic of Google. Owned by Chris, an Englishman (explaining the Franglais company name), Le Bike Butler runs a small fleet of Bianchi road bikes.
The bike I hired was a Bianchi Intenso, a carbon endurance bike, with Ultegra mechanical groupset and rim brakes, which I absolutely loved riding.
I’m no bike reviewer (as we know) but it felt great to ride up hill (insofar as anything can feel great when you’re blowing out of your wotsit). It felt extremely stable on the descents, giving me confidence. If I had the available funds, I’d seriously consider buying the bike from Chris when he has his annual fleet sell off in October.
Anyway, Le Bike Butler delivers within an x mile radius from Grasse, where Chris is based. Mougins fell in the dropzone and I found myself a proud guardian of a capable road bike early doors on the Monday morning.
Riding In The Area – General Thoughts
It’s always difficult to warm immediately to a place when the roads are busier than where you live.
But this was quite stark. I know it was the height of summer, and the French in particular descend on their south coast but it was BUSY!
The swathe of flat-to-somewhat-hilly land all along the coast is built up, cross-crossed with roads and full of cars (most of them on the move).
So, unless you’re very lucky with where you’re staying, or you deliberately choose to stay somewhere further back from the coast*, you’ll have to contend with busy roads and plenty of roundabouts.
(* Grasse or Chateauneuf-Grasse, say, on our segment of coast)
It’s not all bad though. If you avoid the motorways (you probably should), most roads are perfectly cycleable. We found drivers to be pretty respectful. And a bit of suburban cruising (which, as I write it, sounds wrong) is a small price to pay for some glorious hill climbs.
A Tale Of Two Cities (Traffic Situations)
When Chris at Le Bike Butler dropped off my hire bike, he said that we needed to get up to the hills behind Grasse and Chateauneuf where the roads were quiet.
I thought he was talking in relative terms: going from very busy to mildly busy. Turns out he was talking in absolutes.
When we did our big ride up the Col De L’Ecre we went from a junction with almost total gridlock to a (main) road up the climb with essentially zero cars on it. All in the space of about 20 yards.
We barely saw another car for the next few hours as we went up and over the climb, across a high plateau and down the other side. And then, once again, cars.
All of which leads me to believe that there is loads of quiet riding up in them thar hills (the Alpes-Maritimes).
Recommendations For Route Planning
If you find yourself staying in a built up area, the key is to find your ‘rat run to fun’ as early as possible in the holiday.
When time is of the essence (there’s only so much time my wife will put up with my absence from a family holiday), you want to minimise your time getting to the nice bits.
Ideally the rat run will be short and somewhat rural (or at least quiet) with a playground of potential roads beyond, where it really doesn’t matter which one you take. They’ll all be quiet, smooth and climby.
Is The Area Set Up For Cyclists?
Yes, but without going overboard.
Unlike places that are littered with hire shops and cycling cafes, ‘our’ part of the Cote D’Azur clearly isn’t a cycling honeypot, certainly in July.
It’s got all the natural ingredients (the hills and the weather). It just took a tiny bit more effort to sort ourselves out with bikes (okay, a few more Google searches – the effort required in having a bike delivered to our villa was… minimal) and work out where we should be riding.
It also has amazing bakeries. Which is pretty key in a cycling location, as far as I’m concerned.
I didn’t see hoards of other riders. In fact, whisper it, we saw as many serous triathletes on the climbs as roadies.
Maybe everyone is over by Nice, riding with the professionals that live there.
We were very fortunate. We arrived just after a heat wave had hit. The temperatures were back in the ‘hot but bearable’ range. Warm enough for lazing around the pool. Not so high that I overheated on the climbs.
(Obviously it didn’t rain.)
You can’t extrapolate from a single week’s holiday but (if I did) my sense is that the coastal climate generally provides a little bit of breeze to cool the sweating cyclist.
In short, a very clement environment in which to do some summer cycling.
The Rides I Rode (Other Routes Are Available…)
#1. Exploration ride to Grasse (and back)
Having established that the real cycling starts when you get to the hills, the objective of this ride was to work out how to get there as well as make use of the 1hr ride window I had that evening.
Only worth looking at if you want a direct and rideable route from Mougins to Grasse.
#2. The road to Mandelieu
This ride revealed the closest we got to a decent rat run. It seems that if you embark from Mougins towards a small town called Pegomas, you quickly get onto quieter, non-built up roads.
You also get to visit a town named after one of the elves that didn’t make it into the final cut of Lord of the Rings.
From Pegomas you can tackle some of the hills behind the south-western end of the Bay of Cannes.
On our ride we went for one with a suitably grand name: the Grand Duc de Pegomas. As well as being a testing 9.24km at 5% average gradient, with some glorious views over the mountains to the north, the road features the following extremely pleasing (to me) road sign:
With ‘Nelly the Elephant’ firmly implanted as that day’s earworm, we descended to Cannes.
Then, in an attempt to avoid busy suburban roads on the way back to Mougins, we took an accidental detour up a small (but nasty – 1.2km at 9%) hill to La Croix des Gardes.
This did not achieve our objective. It wasn’t on the way back to the villa, so we still had to grind through mid-morning traffic to get home.
Link to the route on Strava: Leg loosener- back through Cannes
#3. Col de L’Ecre loop – bagging a Cat 1 climb
My favourite ride of the trip.
The objective was to make full use of the quiet roads we’d heard about and to tackle a long climb – the sort that is simply not available in the UK.
I wasn’t disappointed. The route delivered awesome scenery and, because the gradients on the climb were not severe, only a modest amount of suffering (you’ve got to have some suffering).
You can (and should!) read more in this detailed post about the climb.
#4. Evening hill climb
This ride was very much a bonus one.
I was handing back the hire bike the following morning. I had a short evening window to burn off some of those holiday calories (whilst my brother-in-law-cyclist-in-crime slaved away over a hot stove to supply some more).
I rode back out to Pegomas with a view to seeing how far up the ‘Grand Duc’ I could get. The answer was, ‘not far’.
There’s something incredibly frustrating about riding halfway (if that) up a climb and then having to about-turn and roll back down. Or maybe its the relief / guilt at feeling relieved pretending to be frustration.
Still, even a half climb provided 545m of elevation in a 30km ride. And plenty of glorious evening views.
Would I Go Back?
In a word… no.
Actually, that’s not quite right. If I had all the time in the world to ride my bike (I’m working on it…), I’d love to do a multi-day cycle, east to west (or vice versa) along the ridge of mountains.
Unfortunately, such cyclo-freedom is a good way off. With time my most precious commodity, and only so many family holidays that I can nudge towards taking place in well-known velo-locations, future ‘training camps’ are likely to be elsewhere.
When I compare the Côte D’Azur to, say, Puerto Pollensa in Majorca (all Strava routes lead back to Majorca), I think there are other places (like PP) that are easier to blend family pool and beach demands with the training ‘needs’ of a delusional bike-fancying parent. They’re quieter and cheaper.
(Other training locations favoured by high-budget professional cycling teams are available).
Over To You?
You’re a well-travelled bunch. I know many of you have ridden a bike in France, particularly the Alps.
Have any readers made it down to the Côte D’Azur? Where did you stay and where did you ride? Do you have any hidden gem climbs or routes to recommend?
Let me know in the comments.