There's a horse ranch at the bottom, wide open stretches with views to the coast, switchbacks, forests, rocky cut-throughs, shepherds and their flocks, a chapel and a lookout station at the peak. Added to this is the fact that there are three sides to climb. It's why Kong Fùfù refers to it as our gravel Mont Ventoux and chooses to do his winter training there.
Mont Férion offers a magical off-road escape within riding distance from Nice.
The DFCI forest roads have been laid over the mountain to connect the western town of Levens with its eastern counterpart, Coaraze, and at the Baisse de la Minière it connects to Duranus in the north.
The 10.46km long western side really is like climbing a classic col but on gravel. The start from Levens could not be better - it's beside a boulangerie. So you can fuel up or pack your pastries before you climb. The route begins across the road on the lane that serves the town's outer limits before forking left on the DFCI forest track just before the equestrian centre.
The double-tracks point north and through the fir trees you briefly glimpse the peak of La Madone d’Utelle before turning east to begin tackling the real meat of this mountain.
For this region the gravel is relatively well compacted and smooth to roll on. The forest road points straight up the side of the mountain for a few kilometres, offering views back down to the town you left some 15 minutes ago, showing the typical patchwork of adobe tiles that form the rooftops of the villages all around this region. On a clear day you can see the sea and the Baie des Anges. These are the gifts of Riviera Gravel.
Ask the discerning rough stuff cyclist what is better than the switchbacks of the classic cols and they'll give you one simple answer : gravel switchbacks. Same road-engineering, same objective, different surface. And different feeling. It is hugely satisfying to traverse a set of hairpins on a loose surface and get the different views that the 180 degree turns offer. It also, of course, makes progress less steep which is important when you hit the first slightly sandy section of Mont Férion that saps your energy.
Climbing the western side there is a hairpin left that cuts through the mountain. After this, you enter the forest for a bit of false-flat relief whilst briefly going around the northern side of the massif, before traversing the Col du Dragon. The pass of the dragon..... This is not a Playstation game, it's adventure cycling.
If you are new to Mont Férion you'd be forgiven for thinking that the Col du Dragon is the end of your effort. A short but fast descent into a basin means you have to climb back out of it. Through more sand and, ironically at this stage, heading south towards the Med. The big open switchback left is the last turn before the final stretch to the summit. Stop on this corner and climb on the helicopter-pad-cum-water-reserve for the panoramic view over the peaks and down to the sea. If you've ridden the region on road before, see if you can pick out Col St Roch, Col de Braus, Col de la Madone, Col d’Eze, to name a few.
After that brief pause, one kilometre remains to the Chapelle Saint Michel des Cédres. It's literally 20 metres before the junction where you can choose to keep climbing to the absolute peak of the mountain or descend towards Coaraze. But you MUST turn off the road and visit the Chapel which nestles amongst centuries-old cedar and pine trees. With your back to the front of the building, look down what appears to be a man-made boulevard of majestic trees that lead to this religious place and try not to be impressed. There's a yearly pilgrimage here. Each summer, we try to make it at least a montly one.
If the religious experience is not what you are looking for you can choose to climb another 200m of elevation to the lookout tower at the top of the mountain. It is used as a weather station and to monitor for forest fires during the hot summer months, ergo it has nearly 360 degree views of the area.
After that remains the descent of the western side with its views over the mountains that lead to the Italian border.
You will reach the Baisse de la Minière where you will find the confluence of Mont Férion's three pistes. Go down left and you will probably find the shepherds or their cows and sheep, not far above the ancient mine. Towering over the switchback at Col St-Michel that are the ruins of the ancient village of Roca Sparviera which over the centuries played host to a bloody family feud , an invasion of locusts, a series of plague epidemics and a few shattering earthquakes. So maybe only go there if you are feeling lucky.
The safer option is to descend to the perched village of Coaraze. The road descent from here is called the 'Route de Soleil'. After climbing Mont Férion it's a welcome respite of smooth tarmac and sweeping bends back to the valley for the return to Nice.