One mountain, multiple choices. Riding the Col de Braus in December.
Sometimes when faced with a black and white choice between two options, the best solution is to ignore the binary restraints of the question and take both.
Spring or Autumn? Both. Single ring or double-crankset? Both. Day ride or night ride? Both.
Col de Braus by gravel or road? Both.
This is perhaps the mindset of the evergreen cyclist. There are 365 days in the year so things would quickly become monotonous if the same roads were ridden on the same bike day in day out. Variation and all that...
As deep autumn becomes early winter, the weather changes its opinion every hour (at least in the back-country) and the days get shorter, having a certain adaptability plays to your advantage. Keeping your options open means you can keep riding and keep fit and keep on keeping on.
Gravel is good when conditions are wet and / or windy. Routes forestières offer their canopies for shelter. And of course, in autumn those canopies are looking their multi-coloured best. The mountains are seemingly even more peaceful, with the crunch of knobbly tyres rolling over the stones below being the only audible noise.
This is when the summer exploration and route finding pays off - you already know the loop from Sospel, up the Chemin de Paraïs to the Col de Braus and can focus on the job at hand rather than worrying about getting lost or being late for that daube de sanglier that's waiting on the stove.
The loose switchbacks offer a fresh perspective, a sense of mini-adventure and at this time of year it's as if the only other life here is whatever wildlife is seeking heat and shelter in the undergrowth. The chemins also require not insignificant effort - just ask anyone who has climbed a col on the rough stuff. It has been argued that one hour on gravel equals three on the road.
That is not to say the road is the easy option, of course. It's a question of how much coal you put on the fire. In late November that may depend on personal objectives. Are you thinking of L’Étape du Tour 2020? Intervals on the 10km climb of Braus from L’Escarène will form a good base.
What is for sure is that, at this time of year, there is solitude to be found on the surfaced roads. The groups of touring motos, classic car rallies, and camping cars are gone, leaving the year-round cyclist almost completely alone. The 1,002m summit of the Col de Braus is the unofficial ceiling of cold season riding on the Côte d'Azur, but you can go higher if mother nature is on your side on the day you choose to take the smoother option.
If legs and skies allow, the local secret is to take a left before the summit of Col de Braus. It's a 'link road' to the western side of the Col de Turini that ticks off another two cols - Ablé and Orme - for those who are counting the notches on their seatposts...The question when you get to the other side is whether a full Turini is possible. At 1,607m things can get icy up top at this time of year.
Whatever your choice, what is sure is that the current season tends to be a time when most cyclists mix up their routine and their cycling disciplines, especially those who cannot or will not stay indoors on a home trainer.
Despite its sunny reputation, autumn and winter riding in the Alpes-Maritimes is some of the most rewarding me-time you can get, on smooth roads or loose tracks. There is a reason it's referred to as a playground.