About two kilometres from the top of the Col de Braus there is a section of 15% gradient. As this passes, the road takes a little turn to the right and, if you’ve been concentrating solely on what’s ahead, the climb now invites you to look back over the valley.
There is a nice low wall to sit on and you can tell yourself, no, it’s not because you’re out of breath, you need to stop to take a picture of the road panorama below.
We do at Café du Cycliste without fail, and we label it #everytimeipass.
We like to think that this is where René Vietto, one of cycling’s greatest ever climbers, broke away to win his first professional race.
René was born in Cannes, and as a boy worked at the Casinos while his mother picked jasmine flowers for the perfume makers in Grasse. René bought a bike with his tips and trained, and in 1931 won the Boucle de Sospel, launching an attack on Braus that would not get brought back.
He did the same thing three years later, except that time it was during the Tour de France (which has passed over Braus 27 times, the last time being in 1961). He soloed from Braus to win on the Croisette in Cannes, where the crowd went wild, and where one of his supporters, spying someone trying to interfere with the hometown hero, punched the suspicious guy and knocked him out. That man was Jacques Goddet, the Tour’s assistant director.
People have been stopping to marvel at this view forever; or, at least, since the col’s famous switchbacks were constructed in the early 20th century. It speaks to something in everyone – drivers and cyclists – who has ever laboured up a road to enjoy a view.
However, this is not somewhere to pause if you’re a rally driver – the Monte Carlo Rally sometimes passes through, leaving black rubber marks on the hairpins which never quite fully fade away.
Usually, though, the road is quiet, and the weather in this valley seems always to be gentler and sunnier than others inland.
Locals come here to hunt in the valleys, and there is a secret swimming spot below, and if you’re here in the winter on a clear day you might even see all the way to the sea.
Take your time up the ascent and you will admire the olive groves, and maybe spy the remnants of the old Route Royale, the salt road that linked Nice and the coast to Piedmont and the Dukes of Savoy in Turin.
There has long been a hostelry at the top, as well as soldiers’ encampments during France’s revolutionary wars in the eighteenth century, when the border with Italy was much closer and the area under threat.
In the Second World War it was peaceful on the top, the site of a hospital looking after injured men.
In October 1988 a crowd of around 400 people waited at the top of the col for Jean Vietto, a young man riding a Vietto-branded bike. He was carrying his father’s ashes, which were to be dispersed in a small flower-strewn meadow close to the road.
He arrived and took the bidon from the bottle cage on his frame; some words were spoken and he unscrewed the lid. The contents streamed out into the wind, coating a photographer who had chosen the wrong place to stand.
Aside from that small mishap, the last remains of René Vietto had been disposed of according to his wishes.