Col de la Bonette - The Highest Road in Europe – 2802m – by bike

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Tuesday 5 August 2014

Col de la Bonette - The Highest Road in Europe – 2802m – by bike

Setting off on our bikes on Tuesday morning we knew that our planned ride to the top of the highest inter-valley road in Europe was going to be a challenge, especially as it was the third consecutive day on the bike. The Col de la Bonette road, rising up to 2802m, is the shortest route connecting the Cote d'Azur to the Southern Alps, but we weren't going quite that far – just making it to the top would be enough for us. With more than 1600m of climbing from our motorhome in Jausiers to be completed over just 24km was a daunting prospect.

Setting off a little later than normal at 10am, with the sun already warming the valley floor, the climb started almost as soon as we had passed through the little village of Jausiers, straight into a series of switchbacks varying between 6 and 7%, pretty much setting the tone for the 3 hours of the relentless climbing ahead of us. There was going to be no let up until we got to the top.

However, the astounding scenery was ample reward for our efforts. As the road wound it's way around, over and through the valley we passed the scenery varied markedly, helping to break up the constant pushing of the pedals. To stop pedalling would be to roll backwards. In one section we'd be approaching a stunning waterfall cutting through the sheer rock face, in another circling a brilliant blue lake, or heading past a deep gorge falling away to the side of the road.

"Just keep pedalling!"
The sun continued to beat down on us as we sweated our way past each kilometre marker, warning us of the gradient ahead. As we past the 2 thirds mark, with 8km left to go the road started ramping up again as we saw our first 9.4% marker, then 9.6%! To be honest I was flagging a bit and repeating the mantra, “just keep pedalling” to myself. It was also at this point we started to recognise a few of the road cyclists who had passed us near the bottom already on their way back down riding their superlight carbon bikes! Esther, however, was feeling better and better as the road turned upwards and started powering towards the distant summit.

As we neared the top the landscape became more remote, rocky and desolate - underlining just how high we had ascended, until after 3 hours the end was in finally sight. Just one more obstacle to tackle now, a hellish final kilometre at more than 11% gradient. Grinding those final few metres felt like an age on the bike, but suddenly we were there. Elation immediately replaced the fatigue – we'd made it.

Time for photos and then a short walk another 80m or so higher to a viewpoint built right on top of the peak (which really underlined how tired my legs were, since 'waddle' would be a better word). The views from the top, revealing a 360 degree panorama of the high alps with peaks ranging from 3000-4000m in all directions was majestic. It just felt impossible to take it all in and for the third time in as many days we just marveled at where it is possible to reach through pedal power alone. Possibly the best dining room we've ever eaten our lunch in. Plus, after the previous 3 hours our oats and berry mix tasted unbelievably good.

We were joined at the summit by all manner of other visitors, most of whom had driven their motorbikes, cars, vans, porsches, and even a massive motorhome up for the view, but also by dozens more hardy riders who had tackled the climb plus one electric bike! One pair in particular, Jan and Hermann, from Holland (who organise cycling holidays in Majorca) had also cycled up on their road bikes took a particular interest in our hybrids, amazed that we'd bought such heavy machines all this way. Jan even insisted on borrowing my bike so he could try the final part of the climb on it himself!

After an hour trying to take in our stunning surroundings it was time to start the much easier ride home. All thoughts of our earlier struggle upwards faded as we cruised back into the valley enjoying the waterfalls and gorges one final time. Tired legs this evening mean we will probably be taking a day off the bike tomorrow and slipping our hiking boots back on, and besides, after the Col de La Bonette our next bike ride will have a lot to live up to.

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