The Route des Cols has been a badly kept secret amongst the other sporting disciplines that practice their follies in the Estérel national park. With a name like that, surely it's a road cyclist's heaven?
Col de Théoule, Col des Trayas, Col de la Cadière, Col des Trois Termes, Col des Suvières, Col de l'Aire de l'Olivier, Col de l'Essuyadou, Col du Mistral, Col du Baldou, Col du Perthus.
It's quite a mouthful. And it's all on gravel.
Green forests, red gravel, blue skies. The Estérel Massif is a car-free playground sandwiched between the Mediterranean and the limestone rock of Provence. It was once part of Africa, hence why you can find the 'Notre-Dame Afrique' statue in these hills - a memorial to fallen African comrades. When you arrive in the middle folds of the park it for sure feels 'other-worldly' - a stark contrast to the coast and the more alpine mountains to the east and north of Nice.
The start of the ride is in Théoule-sur-Mer, some 42km from Nice. The loop is nearly 65km so it might be better to take a train to get there. It's worth it.
From Théoule there is a quick hop over to the Port de la Rague, before turning right off the bord de mer and on to the gravel Piste de la Cadière, where the initial slopes have some steep ramps. As the name and list of cols suggests, the loop is one roller coaster of ups and downs and criss-crosses of the carrefours of the forest double tracks. For visitors, it is definitely best to download and follow a GPS file.
As part of the national operation of the Esterel forest, there are two maisons forestiere where the officers responsible for maintenance of the surrounding beauty are based. In the summer months the Maison Forestiere Trois Termes has a bath full of water to supply hikers and bike riders with much needed hydration given the absence of fountains. There is also a sign warning visitors to 'Beware Of Alligators'. At the time of writing no alligators have been encountered in the area surrounding the maison.
The forest service tends to Mediterranean pine, chestnut, hornbeam, fig and olive trees. Mixed in with the traditional mimosa, contrasted against imported tropical friends like the eucalyptus from Australia it's a real escape into nature.
That plant life needs protected from what can be extreme heat in the middle of summer. Combined with the mistral, the risk is such that fires are prohibited all year round. In July and August you must check the notifications published by the emergency services before entering the park.
Descending past the lakes to the southern part of the loop, glimpses of the sparkling Med may tempt you back the coast and there are always options to exit the park's west side. Stay on the loop and the aptly-named Piste Castelli leads east back towards Théoule. A rare flat and fast section takes you back east towards the Col du Mistral, which leads to the Col de Baladou, which leads to the Col des Suvières back to the Maison Forestiere. The route really does live up to its name.
Once you've climbed back past the Maison Forestiere Trois Termes all that is left is a ridgeline ride past the Rocher des Monges and a descent back to the sea for a a dip, maybe an apéro, and the train back to Nice. Unless, of course, you have enough left in the tank to ride.
Read more about the unbeaten tracks that surround Nice in our Riviera Gravel series.