Ten years ago this past June I entered the Ubaye Valley with a group of friends on a tour of Provence and the Maritime Alps. We dropped out of the mountains to the west and into a tiny town called Barcelonette. Though the town was founded in the 13th century, it features an unusual cultural quirk—the inhabitants have a fondness for Mexico.
It started with a pair of brothers who moved from the nearby town of Jausiers to Mexico in the 1800s where they proceeded to make a fortune. Back home, news of their success spread and others emigrated and began businesses. Unfortunately, not everyone was so successful and many returned to France.
When they returned home to Barcelonette they brought a taste of their (briefly) adopted home with them. Mexican flavors were blended into dishes and Mexican influences infiltrated the architecture and art.
Barcelonette sports another unusual feature: The valley it sits in is surrounded by a number of high cols. A cursory list would include the Col d’Allos, the Col de la Cayolle, the Col de la Bonette, the Col de Vars as well as Pra Loup.
A spur road off of the Col de la Bonette, called the Cime de la Bonette, loops out at the pass, rising to 2860 meters (9383 feet), making it the highest paved through-road (not dead end) in Europe, according to Michelin and local signage. As claims go, it’s true enough, but it’s a weak achievement, relatively speaking, as the cime is a road to nowhere. Still, climbing up the steep loop is well worth it as the views from the top are to spectacular what the Ferrari California is to sports cars.
When my group reached the Col de la Bonette in 2000, high walls of snow drove down the balmy air temperature, giving the breeze a walk-in freezer vibe. The pass itself had just been plowed through but the road to the cime was impassible. We really couldn’t even tell where the road went.
Today, I got to amend that ride and climb to the top of the Cime de la Bonette. The 24km climb averages a bit more than six percent, but when you reach the cime, the road kicks up to more than eight percent, making the final 400 meters surprisingly difficult.
By the time you reach the top you’ve been above the treeline for at least 7km, so views of the surrounding valleys are completely open.
The Cime de la Bonette is the high point of our tour and the third time we’ve ascended above 9000 feet. Our second occasion to climb past 9000 was just yesterday when we did a simple out and back climb to the top of the Col Agnel which rises to 2744 meters (9003 feet). It’s the highest international pass in the Alps, and the road leads to Cuneo, in Piedmont, Italy.
Both the Agnel and the Bonette were used in the 2008 Tour de France. Both were given the rank of hors categorie.
Knowing that we had two big days ahead of us, most of us chose simply to turn around after reaching the top. It was difficult to resist dropping down the other side. The views, even for the Alps, were stunning, but the descent was steep and we heard that the restaurants in the nearest town were booked solid with lunch reservations.
Our hotel was in the town of St. Veyran, half way up the climb from Chateau Queyras, making the climb roughly 10km, not the 20 it is from Chateau Queyras.
And while I have previously wished that we were sleeping at sea level, or something close to it, the fact that I didn’t have any nausea on yesterday or today’s climbs, and experienced a minimal loss in wattage on either the Col de Vars or the Cime de la Bonette today leads me to think that maybe I’m beginning to acclimate to the altitude.
I seem to be managing the fatigue to some degree. I’m not crushed by it, but it’s hard to ride even at a tempo pace on these incredibly long climbs. I’ve found myself thinking, “Okay, 12km to go; that’s the length of Latigo Canyon in Malibu. Okay, 8km to go; that’s the length of Piuma in Malibu.” The lengths of these climbs are just surreal.
The memory from today that lingers with me is of descending the Cime de la Bonette. The portion of the descent above the treeline offered extraordinary views of the road ahead and I could see whether or not cars were coming sometimes up to 500 meters ahead, which gave me the chance to take the whole of the road as I dropped down the shoulder of the mountain. Even below the treeline, the sightline was good and I only had to hit my brakes for the switchbacks.
The weather is, finally, spectacular.