The Southern Alps & Riviera

WORDS & PHOTOS: *Max Leonard*

“Don’t tell anyone,” says John, as we stand halfway up the Col de Turini, 25km and a world away from Nice on the chi-chi Cote d’Azur. He is reluctant to publicise the gloriously empty mountain roads, for fear of a glut of cyclists spoiling the solitude.

We’re cycling the cols in the Alpes Maritimes, where the mountains meet the Med and you can, as on Lance’s favourite training col, the Madone, climb from the beach to 927 metres in 14 km. But, I point out, he’s helping spoil the secret: as a guide for Cycle Cote d’Azur, a company run by a former Rapha/La Fuga Randonnée leader, he’s charged with taking groups out into these mountains.

There’s also Graeme Fife. I’ve never met Graeme, but I’ve ridden with him before. His Rapha-published tomes – on the Pyrenees, and more recently on the Southern Alps – are marvellously personal guides, Graeme an avuncular authority behind the text. Without him, I would never have dived off the Soulor to climb the Col de Spandelles, nor then taken a rough logging track up to the Coraduque – highlights of that trip to the Pyrenees.

The Great Road Climbs of the Southern Alps has no pretension to being encyclopaedic, and when Graeme glosses over a col it almost seems a challenge to find out more. As is the case with the beautiful Col de Braus, and its tidily stacked switchbacks. At its summit there is a memorial to René Vietto, winner of the polka dot jersey in 1934 and a legendary hardman. René lost a toe to sepsis rather than pull out of the 1947 Tour and reportedly ordered his domestique, Apo Lazarides, to amputate one of his own, the better to understand the pain and suffering necessary to excel.

But today doesn’t seem like suffering. The sun is out, the pine forests scent the climbs, and the stress of a week of 11-hour days in a windowless office in Cannes drains from the legs with each pedal stroke. We cycle through tiny villages perchés, see cows out to pasture, and pass under a bridge that leads only to a chapel high on a ridge, presiding over the deep gorge we’ve just climbed. Glimpsing white-capped peaks, we climb up to the Col de Turini, where at 1,607m patches of snow still sit by the road, melting in the heat.

Cycling from the seaside has a certain neatness, and certain compensations – here, a 47km downhill from the top of Turini, back to the Promenade des Anglais, where we must negotiate cars, scooters and crowds. After the emptiness above even the street furniture seems intrusive. Graeme mentions in his Southern Alps volume meeting a local rider who says something similar: “Down there, on the coast, you’re braking the whole time because of the traffic, but up here it’s quiet, the roads are empty, the birds are singing.”

We say goodbye and John peels off towards his apartment, leaving me with 35 congested kilometres along the coast back to Cannes. “Don’t tell anyone,” he repeats, as he leaves.

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Graeme Fife’s Great Road climbs of the Southern Alps is available here »