Summit Symphony

Ending winter with a bang is a bit like indulging ourselves one more time after a good meal, or experiencing the grandiose finale of a brilliant symphony. There’s also an element of snobbery in it as well, which comes from living somewhere where we can pass the same day going from the azure sea to the white-topped mountains by combining cycling and skiing. Let’s face it— living here is a privilege that deserves a little healthy boasting.

The skiing season lately has been particularly intense— on the one hand because it snowed particularly heavily on the summits of the Southern Alps, and on the other because the pandemic has led to the closure of a number of resorts, leaving access to only to the most advanced skiers.

This season, the mountains belong to us— the privileged few. Combining cycling and skiing together on the same day is celebrated annually in the famous Prom-Gélas Race, which traditionally starts from Nice’s Promenade des Anglais to reach Gélas, the highest peak in the Alpes-Maritimes. The Gélas, sadly, is no longer accessible due to the violent floods which inundated the hinterland last November. The road to the peak has been damaged extensively and will remain inaccessible for a while.

Our skiing choice falls on the ridges that dominate the Isola 2000 station on the Italian border. Due to the rise in temperature to 25°C in recent days, the snow has melted rapidly in higher altitudes, leaving only the northernmost peaks with snow. It’s here where we’ll most likely find opportunities to hit the slopes.

We meet at 6:30 a.m. to set off on our bicycles from the Promenade des Anglais. We left our skis with a friend who lives in the heart of the Isola resort, so the transition there will take place at 2 p.m. at the latest, giving us time to cycle the 90 km and then the 2,300 m of vertical drop to the snow, where we’ll put on our skis.

The temperature by the sea is cool this morning. Along the Promenade, the cleaning teams have left behind wet ground, the first joggers have appeared, and this seaside road which allows one to cross Nice from east to west comes alive with morning lovers looking for fresh air. It’s exciting to be here.

The 40 km we have to cover in the valley to bring us to the foot of the mountains will entail a long warmup. It’s 4°C, and we don our gloves and the clothes we’ve wisely chosen to see us through an adventuresome day. It doesn’t take long for the sun to warm up the road, but the higher we enter the gorges of the Tinée, the temperature will drop briskly. At 40 km, things start to get serious, so we take a break to swallow two honey waffles and some gulps of water, and to contemplate the rays of sunshine which set the coast ablaze.

Once we reach Saint-Sauveur-sur-Tinée, it’s clear our universe has changed. Here, with the little houses clustered around the church enjoying the morning sun, the flowing Tinée below offers the only perceptible noise. We feel an overwhelming sense of joy because it’s precisely these sensations that remind us why we like to spend so much time in the bike saddle.

We’ve just entered these famous red-cliffed gorges which herald the entrance to the Mercantour Park. The grade is a little steeper now as it’s the last section before Isola, the starting point of the real ascent of 20 km that will mark the highlight of this course.

The principal passes will be officially cleared of snow in a few days, but for now we leave La Bonette on our left toward the Col de la Lombarde, our ascent of the day. We already know we’ll be unable able to reach it by ski due to lack of snow, so our choice falls on the north slope— but not for now; for the time being, we’ve just got to keep the pedals moving and put the kilometres behind us. The herds of chamois that have come down from the slopes take advantage of the general calm to lick the asphalt from the still-salty roads. But they don’t give us a second to pull out our cameras— they disappear in a few leaps.

At almost 2000 m altitude, the little snow remaining on the roadside confirms that snowfall has been scant this year. In fact, the sun is shining with such intensity that you can almost hear the snow melting before streaming in rivulets down from the roofs of the chalets.

At long last, we put the bikes down. Our skis are waiting for us. We’re aiming for the top of the Mercière, and this part of the race ends with the sun-exposed north face. We fear there will be too little snow.

But the mountain is ours. Only our panting and the squeaking of our skis on the snow fill the silence. Crossing the torrents of melting snow breaks the rhythm of our ascent, and we think, greedily, of the smooth descent that awaits us on this spring snow. Alas, we’ll be unable to reach the Tête Mercière today; once we arrive at the pass, we discover the southern slope is nothing but grass.

No problem— we contemplate the immensity of the landscape, satisfied that we’ve won the bet of combining cycling and skiing before putting the latter in the backs of our minds.

Yet… the weather forecast announces snowfall for next week, so we may not have said our last word…