Sometimes it even snows in Nice: riding through the Beast from the East on the Cote d'Azur
Even the French Riviera can't escape Europe's big freeze, as RCUK's George finds out
It's snowing on the seafront in Nice and the locals are not impressed. "This is the first snow we've had down here in six years," says Remi Clermont, co-founder of Café du Cycliste, as he prepares a coffee behind the counter of the clothing brand's shop, cafe and headquarters on the French Riviera.
Along with Girona in Spain, Nice and nearby Monaco are home to most of the pro peloton. With the Alpes-Maritimes to the north and Mediterranean to the south, the Cote d'Azur provides an idyllic combination of perfect training roads and year-round sunshine. Except today. Nice is shivering through the same late-February cold snap that has brought the UK to a standstill.
I've been in town for a bike launch (more details will be revealed on March 15...) and, with the rest of the cycling press heading home, have decided to stay for another day. I want to see what attracts so many professional road riders to the area.
Mother Nature has other ideas. Having initially planned a loop to tackle two of Nice's iconic climbs, the Col d'Eze and Col de Madone, the snow flurries beginning to fall on the boats moored in the port suggest I need to re-think that. "I'd avoid the Col d'Eze," says Julie Bienvenu, who I've also met to collect one of Café du Cycliste's hire bikes. The climb served as the final time trial of the Paris-Nice pro race from 1969 to 1995, before returning between 2012 and 2015, and while it will give me a chance to immediately warm-up, the subsequent descent will be ice-cold, Julie warns.
Instead, she suggests staying close to the coast and riding the world-famous Corniche road, through Monaco and on to Menton, tracing her finger on a 3D map of the region in the middle of the shop. "You can decide whether to climb the Madone from there," adds Remi. The 925m climb, made famous as Lance Armstrong's pre-Tour test ascent and still favoured by local pros (Richie Porte holds the current record), is usually free of snow through winter, with the south-facing road drinking in the Cote d'Azur's warm sunshine. "If it's too bad, you can turn around," says Remi.
With only one day to ride, I want to get as far as I can, so I leave the cafe and pedal away from Nice. I quickly warm up, with the road climbing steeply onto the Corniche. The snow has briefly stopped and the clouds are just about high enough to enjoy the spectacular views down the coastline. The cliffs drop dramatically into the sea which, even under leaden skies and with the mercury barely above freezing, shimmers a turquoise blue. The temperature may be familiar to me after a long winter in the UK, but the setting is not. Sprawling villas cling precariously onto every vantage point, luxury yachts bob lazily in the water, and fashion boutiques and casinos line the road through a succession of hibernating seaside resorts. Villefranche-sur-Mer, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Èze-sur-Mer, Cap d’Ail.
It's easy to understand why so many cyclists call this part of the French coastline home. The hills above me may be dusted in snow before disappearing into the clouds but I can still pick out a couple of roads which on any other day would be beckoning me above. The Corniche itself is cut onto a ledge, dipping in and out of rock-blasted tunnels. This is one of the favoured training loops of local riders through winter, before the coast road becomes clogged up with traffic and cyclists head for the quiet of the hills.
"It’s easy to understand why so many cyclists call this part of France home. The hills above me may be dusted in snow before disappearing into the clouds but I can still pick out a couple of roads which on any other day would be beckoning me above"
I pass a rider decked head to toe in Astana kit as I enter Monaco. While Nice itself is home to a handful of pros, most make for the tax haven of Monaco - but it's an uninspiring place today, with high-rise apartment blocks seemingly stacked one on top of another. Still, with snow now falling increasingly heavily, I stop for a photo. A local policeman joins me and does the same, so rare is the sight of Monaco's palm trees effectively freezing.
I press on to Menton, visibility reducing as the cloud cover drops and wet snow thickens, accumulating on every crease in my jacket, within the holes in my helmet and above my sunglasses. Ice-cold water is running into my overshoes and my gloves are beginning to soak through; snow is quickly settling on the roads and cars. The descent into Menton is short but bitterly cold, the reading on my Garmin dropping below freezing. First minus one, then minus two; 15 degrees the usual high at this time of year.
Do it yourself (without the snow, hopefully)
- Café du Cycliste's Nice HQ offers high-end bike hire and excellent coffee , as well as stocking the French brand's range of clothing. Group rides leave the shop every Sunday, with social 'Cappuccino' and fast 'Espresso' rides, while the Café du Cycliste website is an excellent resource for local routes and climbs
- Nice Côte d'Azur Airport is only 15 minutes from the city centre and is served by year-round flights from London, as well as seasonal flights to a number of regional UK airports
The coffee stop I'd planned in Menton can't come soon enough but the first few I pass are closed, including, ironically, the Madone cafe. There's no chance I'll be climbing into the mountains today and briefly it feels like all of Menton's cafes are closed - the high-season of July and August a meteorological lifetime away - but I eventually find one and unsurprisingly its full to the brim with locals escaping the blizzard. Menton is the last town before the border and the cafe staff are all speaking Italian, not French. I'm not far from San Remo, where in just a few weeks the first Monument race of the season will finish.
I ask the waitress if the cafe has a radiator to dry my gloves but she smiles, apologetically. Weather conditions like this may be normal in the Alps to the north, but are almost unheard of this close to the coast. As I wrap my hands around a hot chocolate, my phone buzzes with a text message from Julie, checking everything is ok. The snow has worsened in Nice, too.
I don't stop for long and emerge back out into the elements, the snow now at its heaviest. I pull on my gloves and make a quick detour to the beach, which is disappearing under a white blanket just as three Team Sky riders pass by. They're not hanging around - eager to get back to Monaco, no doubt - but I later learn one of them is Michal Kwiatkowski, winner of the 2017 Milan-San Remo. Kwiatkowski is back in France fresh from winning the early-season Volta ao Algarve race and has been out to recon the finale of this year's La Primavera, which will take place in less than three weeks. A series of Instagram videos show his ride hasn't been short of snow, either.
I begin to pedal out of town, tentatively approaching every junction and roundabout. It's getting sketchy, with a combination of snow, slush and ice forming under my tyres. With nearly 20 miles of rolling, winding coast road between here and Nice, and the prospect of the weather conditions not improving, I decide to play it safe, spotting a sign for the station and sheltering on the platform before the next train arrives 15 minutes later. Sometimes it's just not worth the risk of crashing, with an evening flight to catch and a full season of riding to come.
As I peer out of the train window the weather begins to improve once I get past Monaco and, while it's still snowing, the roads are clear, so I jump off early and ride the final five miles back to Nice.
"We can normally ride the road to Menton in bib shorts and a jersey on our lunch ride at this time of year," says Remi, as I arrive back at Café du Cycliste. It's a sun trap, he says, sandwiched between the cliff and the ocean. Not today, but while my ride may not have unfolded as I'd planned, now I've just got a reason to come back.