High Five

When first presented with this challenge, I must confess that whilst I thought it was totally crazy, I was a little intrigued. Climbing five local cols in one ride would require a total distance of more than 200km and over 5000m of elevation…even reading it made me tired. But who doesn’t love a challenge?

Start time: 7am. I depart from the Café and ride along the peaceful beaches adjacent to Nice harbour, joined only by some of the early morning swimmers dotting the Mediterranean. The first climb on the list is something of a formality for any Nice cyclist; Col d’Eze. It rises to 507m of elevation and means a short, quite intense workout which is probably why it’s a favourite for a lunchtime hour ride. It is also famous as the time-trial stage of the Paris-Nice race and offers breathtaking panoramic views from the sea in the south to the Alps in the north. Not bad for 45 minutes of riding, and one badge already claimed!

Next up is col de la Madone so I descend to la Turbie and into Menton. The Madone starts on the Route des Serres, a hidden road allowing you to get some altitude quickly, each turn giving you a better view of the town above the sea. This climb was made infamous by Lance Armstrong who chose it as his testing ground before the start of each Tour de France. The Trek brand even went as far as to name its premier bike model after the climb and every other model name forms an anagram of Madone.

The climb is a highlight of any ride on the French Riviera, not because of its altitude, its gradient, its views or even its switchbacks, but because of the special feeling that comes from riding through the little village of Sainte Agnès as you climb, which cannot be replicated by any of its neighbours. It’s 9.15am by the time I reach the top and I’ve already climbed 1500m in only 45km.

My attention turns to col de Braus and I ride into the little town of l’Escarène before taking a right turn. The climb may only be 11km but with some sections where the gradient is over 12% it’s no picnic. It is famous for its switchbacks that start a few kilometres from the top and I allow myself a second to look behind and enjoy the view, the road meandering down below me; a classic. My bike computer reads 70km and over 2300m of climbing but I know that the serious matters are about to start.

Col de Turini. 1300m of elevation to reach the top. My route takes me via Sospel where I allow myself a pit stop and a bite to eat. It’s just after 11am and a Pan Bagna provides the perfect combination of energy and comfort food before heading out on the Route de Moulinet, the intermediate stage of the longest climb of the day. I’m very lucky, the weather is mild for June and the few clouds hovering above the foothills do not look threatening.

As I ride past the Notre Dame de la Menour the setting really is like something from a fairy tale as this little 15th Century church perches atop the steep mountainside 780m above the Bévéra valley. As I near the top, fatigue kicks in and I feel the lactic start to build but I press on, the larch trees provide comforting freshness and the silence only punctuated by the chirping of birds. A few more pedal strokes and I’m at the top of Turini, 105km and 3600m of elevation covered; it’s 1pm.

The route to the last climb goes through the Vésubie valley and the landscape is an ever-present reminder of the catastrophic flooding in November 2020. The valleys are slowly recovering but this is a process that will take years rather than months and my eyes widen as I ride past house after house ripped open in the riverbed.

The Col de la Madone d’Utelle is my final climb of the day, the beautiful denouement before my solitary adventure comes to an end. It’s too often discounted from local rides as it is on an out and back ride on the same road, but the scenery deserves more than two viewings. I climb steadily and, as I emerge from a chestnut forest, suddenly land on a deserted limestone plateau with an incredible panoramic view all the way over the sea. The tiny chapel standing atop appears as a reward and I can finally feel my legs again after a total of 4600m of climbing. I give myself a short moment before turning for home.

As I arrive back at the Café my computer reads 5033m of climbing and 202km covered, not bad for a little over nine hours on the bike. The barista hands me a welcome glass of water and five small, brightly coloured badges. I grab both with a warm smile although perhaps next time I will stick to earning one at a time.

Download the GPX file from Strava here.