Cycling the Cime de la Bonette from Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée (2802m)

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Monday 25 September 2017

Cycling the Cime de la Bonette from Saint-Étienne-de-Tinée (2802m)

The reportedly highest road pass in Europe, the Cime de Bonette at 2802m, may owe its claim to "highest" status to the otherwise unnecessary loop of road that has been added alongside the already high altitude Col de Restefond, but that in no way diminishes the physical challenge of cycling up it from either side. Having already sampled the northern approach from Jausiers twice, once in 2014 and once just the previous afternoon, it was now time to try the southern approach...and what a stunning climb it turned out to be.

From our overnight base in St Etienne-de-Tinee the apex of that lofty loop of road was an offputting 1652m above our heads and 26km of cycling away, an average gradient of 6.4%. Statistically, compared to the northern approach, there is little to distinguish the two sides of the climb. They are both about the same length and altitude gain and so it follows that they are an almost identical average gradient. In hindsight, however, I have to say I found this southern approach the harder of the two (and not only because it was my second time riding to the Cime de la Bonette in as many days).

Starting out on gentle gradients of just a few percent for several kilometres the road soon forked, with the right hand option towards the Bonette heading upwards slightly more steeply now at around 6%. Steep and often vertical valley sides rose up to the left and right and, with autumn setting it now that late September has arrived, the numerous trees that clung onto the rock were already starting to turn yellow and orange which made the going especially colourful and uplifting.

With just a quarter of the climb done the road steepened a little more, but it was the halfway mark that really marked the division between the lower 'easy' bit and the struggle to the top. With around 13km to go the still very distant and offputtingly high cone of the Cime de la Bonette emerged into view across the largely exposed expanse of the valley head. From here on out it was definitely tougher going psychologically as well as physically. Gradients of 7 and 8% were now the norm, with the push to the marker on the 'added' portion of road well in excess of 10%. Plus, during my ascent at least, a chilling wind was blowing down the valley and blasting through my thin lycra layers and freezing the sweat that had pooled around my sensitive areas. Fun, fun, fun!

To be honest I wanted to turn back, but it wasn't just my ego that said "go on". Visually it was wonderful. The switchbacks from 12 to 7km to go, then the winding traverse around the rocky cliffs up to 3km to go and even the final balcony approach to the very top, by which point the view was stretching for tens of miles all around, were all stunningly beautiful. In the previous few weeks we've sample something like 16 or 17 Alpine cols and this approach to the Bonette, along with the Galibier (either side) and probably the Croix du Fer as well, is definitely one of the most enjoyable in terms of scenery. Not that the northern side from Jausiers is a scenic slouch either I should add, but if I had to choose just one side to repeat (which I don't) it would be this southern approach.

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