It’s a dramatic start to arrive in Menton and climb immediately from sea level.
Menton, also known as La Perle de France, is famous for its gardens and its lemons – the latter such a growth industry in the warm micro-climate of the bay and foothills behind that the taxes levied by the former ruling Monagasque government were one of the main reasons why the town to separated itself from its Riviera neighbour in 1848.
Famed as a training hill, exactly where the pros commence their battle with the clock on the ‘classic’ start is a constant cause of debate but those without the pressure of power meter and heart rate statistics usually prefer the ‘beach’ start.
It mounts the hill with the sharp gradients of Corniche des serres de la Madone which immediately plunges you into a series of hairpins through vine trees that help make the town famous for its gardens and greenery.
And it links you to the road from Gorbio, which is appropriate given that the real name of the climb, unbeknownst to many, is the Col de la Madone de Gorbio.
The route from Gorbio links the two starts together, and from the junction where they meet the autoroute comes into view. Those who began on the classic route will have already wound their way around the giant stilts of the motorway – a stark concrete statement of modernisim and an undeniable feat of engineering that traverses the five different valleys between Gorbio on the western side and the eastern Garavan side of Menton.
Once past the autoroute, the village of Saint-Agnes eventually appears between the craggy outcrops. One of the ‘plus beux villages’ of France, it’s named after the Italian princess who took shelter from a coastal storm whilst praying to the patron saint that shared her name. Once the storm had blown itself out she followed through on her promise to build a sanctuary in her saviour’s honour – much like the Spanish sailors did on Madone d’Utelle.
Madonna has to be thanked for these sanctuaries with great cycling roads leading to them.
Tucked away at the front of the butte on which Saint-Agnès is perched is the 80m ‘Gros Ouverage de Saint-Agnès’ that forms part of the Alpine or ‘Little Maginot Line’ – the lesser-known southern Alps defence structures which were initiated in the 1920s by the French government in response to Mussolini’s threats to reclaim Nice (parallel to their northern counterparts built to protect against German invasion).
If you want a break from climbing the bunker’s strategic position affords you a view of the entire bay below and of the border and Italian coastline to the left and east.
Locals still tell of 9 French soldiers resisting no less than 5,000 Italian opponents over a 10 day onslaught in the Battle of La Pont Saint-Louis. When they finally had to accede to the Italians, the door of the outpost was locked and the key given to the French soldiers as a mark of respect. Rumour has it that the barrier has never been repainted due to the amount of Italian blood that was spilt on it.
These days, thankfully, the only gunshots come from the sanglier hunters that often take to the hills behind and above Saint-Agnès.
It is in the wildness of the last 5kms where you’ll find herds of goats blocking the road, usually just after the three tunnels chiselled through the hard rock. On the final approach to the summit the antennae on the western peak gives a perspective of the last 200m elevation to be gained and the small deserted hut after a sharp left hander indicates the start of the final kilometer.
Against the clock, Froome and Porte have taken on the mantle from Armstrong and Rominger and Porte finally admitted last year to breaking the 30minute barrier prior to the 2013 Tour. Us mere mortals should be happy to duck under almost twice that time for an ascent from the beach start.
Whatever the number, a successful summit is rewarded with a view towards Peille and the higher mountains with Madone being a gateway Col that unlocks the door to a whole host of other climbs and routes in the Alpes Maritimes.
It also allows for a moments contemplation at the monument made out of old artillery shells and shrapnel and inscribed “Combat de l’homme, éclats d’obus, désormais ne soyez plus que Madone de la paix” - “Battles of men, shards of shells, from now on you are no more than a Madonna of peace”