The inaugural Cote d'Azur sportive provides the perfect antidote to the end of the British winter
Rolling up to the start line of the Paris-Nice Challenge sportive on the Promenade des Anglais, in nearly the exact spot where you know the champion of the 2016 edition of the Race to the Sun will be crowned, is a stirring experience.
Unlike the Etape, where the sportive takes place a whole week or so before the pro race, simply knowing the pros are right on your tail, just one day behind, seems to add an extra aura as us mere mortals prepare to ride the inaugural event on the Cote d’Azur.
While Tour de France organisers, ASO, have long ran sportives attached to a number of key races in their portfolio, including the Tour, Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Paris-Nice, an important week-long stage race as the WorldTour campaign ramps up, has missed out, but now the Challenge provides sportive riders, including me, with an early season test of form in the south of France.
The parcours, and an escort
On the menu for the day? Plenty of climbing in the Nice hinterland, that’s for sure. For the full 123km route, a rollout to a steady category three climb up the Montee de Duranus, followed by a short descent and up to the town of Levens (another category three ascent). Then follows another compact descent, joining with the shorter 96km route that deviated earlier on, and up again to the 628m peak of the Col de Châteauneuf, rated as a category two climb.
Then, another drop and rise up to the Col de Calaïsson – the second category two climb of the day – with a final category one climb up the Côte de Peille, finishing with a fast and furious descent over the final 23km back into the finish on the promenade.
To the disappointment of some, the Col d’Eze, made famous by the 74-year-old pro race, is left off this inaugural edition of the Paris-Nice Challenge, owing to road works on the course rendering the road unusable for the sportive, but not the race. Twenty hour hours later, it was on the Cold d’Eze where Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) attacked Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) in an attempt to wrestle the race lead from the Welshman, but Thomas catapulted himself down the descent to save the title by just four seconds on the finish line.
However, because the Paris-Nice Challenge is run on open roads, the Col d’Eze is left for another day – but that doesn’t stop the organisers from protecting the 800-plus riders all along the route. As the group departs from Nice along the main boulevard, the Gendarmes provide an escort to rival the WorldTour event, stopping traffic at roundabouts to provide a safe route, and riding alongside wayward sportivistas, lending a gentle hand by guiding them into the right hand lane.
Making a mess, but who cares?
Once out of the city, the Gendarmes depar and the route wins its way through stunning gorges on the way up to Duranus, with volunteers standing at dangerous junctions and as the road narrows to ensure safe passage.
It’s here I make the day’s obligatory rookie mistake – in the shadow of the Montée de Duranus – tearing a gel awkwardly and covering myself in the contents. I am to remain sticky throughout the day, but soon begin to forget about the small things as wonderful vistas, complete with higher snow-covered alpine peaks stretching far in the distance, dominate the eye line. With roads like this, it’s easy to see why so many professional cyclists – including Thomas and Chris Froome – call this part of France home.
So beautiful is the ascent that I forget the climb is timed – one of two timed sections on the route, giving riders an opportunity to dig deep. Just as well – in the morning the Montée de Duranus climb is entirely shaded by the surrounding mountains, leading to temperatures registering on my Garmin as zero. Breath visible, and fingers numb thanks to my – latterly, wise – decision to go fingerless, the pace at the front clearly remains hot as the peloton, which charged out of Nice into a block headwind, begins to shell riders.
I pass these suffering souls one by one, smug that I’d been less gung-ho at the bottom of the climb, but now making up ground. In fact, with my climbing ability magnified by the popped riders around me, I enjoy the freedom and staggering beauty of mountains so much that I even forgot to stop at the first two feed stations, but remedy this on the third atop the Col de Châteauneuf.
Powerbar supply the feed stations with a range of energy bars, as well as water and carbohydrate mixes, and banana, dried fruit and salty treats are also readily available, alongisde a very helpful and smiley French mechanic to take care of any mishaps.
Who needs closed roads?
With the parcours on open roads, before the event I was half expecting traffic to be a real issue – but, joy of joys, it isn’t. Barring the initial stages as we left Nice and headed into the mountains, the roads are eerily quiet – a real plus as I begin to focus on the job at hand, ticking off the climbs skirting Nice.
I’m soon glad to have made the most of the fuel stop, because another, similarly beautiful rise up the Col de Calaïsson later, we drop down some beautiful switchbacks into the valley, before ascending for the final time up the deceptively tough Côte de Peille.
The climb may not be especially difficult in its own right compared to the true French giants, rising to 657m over the course of 6.5km, and with an average gradient of around seven per cent, but with four categorised climbs in the legs, and an event this early in the season, it’s clear most riders had overestimated their form at the start of the day come this second timed ascent.
While they flounder and splinter, I attack (as much as one can attack in a sportive…), ticking off local club and sportive riders one by one all the way up the steepest and longest incline of the day.
Breaking the timing beam at the top, there’s one more opportunity for a fuel stop. You may know it’s largely downhill for the remaining kilometres, but it’s 23km you need to cover on a descent that, ridden hard, encourages you to push the pedals the whole way.
So, stocking up on more treats and unashamedly posing for some photos amid the stunning Côte d’Azur scenery, I then keep my head down and tear down towards Nice, sweeping in and out of wide turns along the coast in the now warm sunshine and under blue skies – a full-on adrenaline rush to conclude a challenging, rewarding and beautiful early-season event which provides the perfect antidote to the end of the British winter.
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