As ships navigate across the sea according to certain fixed points in heaven, or on a faraway shore, so do cyclists when riding through familiar or unfamiliar territory.
A hill on the horizon, a particular house that denotes a turning, or the sea shining down below. Ride in the back country around Nice, and one of those reference points is the chapel of the Madone d’Utelle. It sits next to an aerial on a bluff that dominates the Var valley at the confluence of the Esteron and the Tinée, and is, next to the antenna atop Mont Vial close by, a constant presence.
We owe this guidance to Spanish sailors.
Over a thousand years ago – or so the story goes – the seamen were caught in a terrible tempest one night on the Mediterranean Sea. Close to death, they promised to build a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary if their lives were spared. At once their prayers were answered: the mother of God appeared in the landward sky, and a blinding holy light illuminated a mountain for them. The sky and the sea quietened and the Spaniards were saved.
The marker they erected on the mountain the Virgin had chosen was the origin of the first sanctuary above Utelle, a settlement that had existed since before Roman times, and had become the important first stop on the salt road into what is now Italy from the coast.
Locals will tell you that if you look closely you will find star-shaped fossils in the stones around the Sanctuary.
This is evidence, for some, of the divine presence on the mountain. But scientists will of course point out that this landscape was once, some 140 million years ago, below the surface of the ocean, before the folding of the earth’s crust formed the mountains that pushed these marine creatures up towards their heavenly counterparts.
At 1,140m, the plateau on which the Sanctuary sits caps the Var valley, and offers a 360º panorama from the coast to the peaks and valleys of the Alpes-Maritimes, on the north and west sides, and across to Vence and Grasse to the east. It’s a regular climb of 14.4km from Saint-Jean-la-Rivière down on the Vésubie river below , although the road below the village of Utelle is steeper.
In 1800, amid fighting in the region between the local Niçois (who had at that point sworn their allegiance to the House of Savoy and Italy, not France, for more than 400 years) and French and Spanish forces, the French took control of Utelle. The sanctuary was reduced to ruins. The Utellois started a petition to rebuild the holy site, and by 1806 the Madone had been restored – with all the building materials and labour coming up the slope from the river at the bottom. Above the village the road splits and a tunnel heads towards the Tinée valley; but the path to the Sanctuary, now narrowed to a ribbon, keeps climbing through cool woodland that must have afforded the labourers and their mules some respite. For the final few kilometres it opens out, giving tantalizing glimpses of the mountains around, before a final couple of switchbacks take riders to the plateau..
This has long been a place of pilgrimage and healing, but one that for cyclists has remained a well-kept secret – beloved of local riders including Joe Dombrowski … until now. In March 2016, the penultimate stage of Paris-Nice finishes on the summit, bringing the views from this holy site to a wider audience.
Like many of our favourite climbs in our backyard, we’d almost rather keep it secret, but given the whole world is soon going to know, we thought we’d give you a preview.