I have received an email from Ian Johnston. It has provoked me to do a bit of digging in the Cycling Europe archive and as a result I am writing this longer-than-normal post. Enjoy.
The Tende Pass is perhaps one of the lesser-known Alpine passes but it is the one that I took back in 2013 as I crossed from Italy into France. As that famous avian traveller the crow would fly, it’s only 40 km from the Mediterranean coast, but it reaches an altitude of some 1,871 m such is the proximity of the mountains in Provence to the sea. I crossed the pass in August 2013 on the long, hot cycle from southern Greece to southern Portugal which I subsequently wrote about in the book Along The Med on a Bike Called Reggie. It was a tough climb and an even tougher descent. Here’s what I wrote in the book (with added images and video):
Sunday 4th August
Cycling Day 29: Limone-Piemonte to Nice, 121km
When I emerged from the tent, a couple of French mountain bikers were in the process of preparing breakfast next to their car which they had parked just on the other side of the campsite path to where Reggie and I were. I introduced myself and they offered me coffee. Bingo! We started chatting and they explained how they had cycled up the Tende Pass from the French side and down to Limone-Piemonte on the previous afternoon. There was a complicated explanation as to how they had managed to get their car to the campsite, but I was much more interested in their experiences of cycling up and over the pass, albeit in the opposite direction to me. The man explained that the road down from the top was a good quality road and it wouldn’t cause me too many problems. He didn’t mention the road up to the pass on the French side, but did I really need to ask such a question? If the road on the Italian side was good, it was difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that the French road down the other side was anything other than excellent. Were there to be a road equivalent of the Eurovision Song Contest, France would win hands down every year and the Italians would be left scrabbling for the ‘nul points’ alongside Greece and the Albanians. The French woman explained that they were from Fréjus on the south coast and I asked her what she did for a living:
“C’est le week-end et on ne parle pas de ça!” she snapped and I took her refusal to answer my innocuous question as clear admission that she worked for the French secret services. It was perhaps the moment to bid them ‘au revoir’ and head back into the town centre before she had the chance to silently break my neck and bury my body in the woods.
The main square on a Sunday morning was a much more sedate place than it had been the night before… [with people] munching through continental breakfasts, admiring the pretty buildings around the square and gazing towards the mountains that I would soon be climbing. My Michelin map showed very little detail of the route over the pass and it seemed likely that 3G mobile phone coverage for most of the morning’s cycling would be thin on the ground, if not non-existent. So, in order to minimise my chances of taking a wrong turn, I carefully studied the online Google map of the area and took a few screenshots to consult later should I need to. After about 7km, I could see that the tunnel plunged into the mountainside and it was after this point that the serious switchbacks started. On the Italian side, there were about a dozen turns in the road but I was a little alarmed by just how frenzied the switchback action became when I examined the French side of the pass. The road flicked backwards and forwards as if it were recording the last gasps of a man in full cardiac arrest. It wasn’t an appropriate thought to be having immediately prior to a cycle up a mountain, so I placed my phone in its holder, switched on the tracking app and set off, slowly.
The pass (for those of you who have only scant recollection of your school geography lessons) is the bit of the mountains that sits between the peaks and allows access to the next valley. I had already travelled through several passes since leaving the southern tip of Greece, most notably the one in the Peloponnese that I wasn’t expecting (well to be honest, I wasn’t expecting the Peloponnese mountains at all) which was at 1,220m and the Llogoroja Pass in Albania at 1,030m. But the Tende Pass at 1,871m was the daddy of them all. It surprised me when I first realised just how high it was; the Gotthard Pass in Switzerland, which I had climbed in 2010, was ‘only’ 2,091m but it was much further north. The Tende Pass was 40km from the Mediterranean coast and was a clear example of just how far south the grandeur of the alpine range spreads. But before I could enjoy the nearly 2km of vertical descent to the seaside, I had to complete the 900m climb that remained to be pedalled in the other direction.
It would be a journey of around 15km to the pass divided into two roughly equal parts: firstly the cycle to the entrance of the tunnel and then on a smaller road to the pass itself. The switchbacks started well before the tunnel entrance but were significantly fewer in number than during the second part of the climb. There was a long queue of cars at the entrance to the tunnel and I was hopeful that for the remainder of the journey to the pass, it would be just me, perhaps a few other cyclists and the odd fly to swat out of the way.
Alas the thin road that branched off the main road to the pass seem to attract the kind of drivers who use their cars as a source of excitement in their lives and there was a steady (and often loud) stream of 4×4 vehicles passing me as I gradually made my way to the top. Then there were the motor bikers, the scramble riders and the people driving quad bikes. In fact, there were no other cyclists and I don’t remember having to swat any flies. It seemed highly likely that they had succumbed to the fumes from all the vehicles (the flies, that is, rather than the cyclists, although that wouldn’t have surprised me either). I could see no pleasure whatsoever in what they were doing. It required no effort apart from a foot on a pedal and occasionally some braking and I felt pity that they weren’t able to experience the sheer joy of achieving a climb to 1,871m as a result of their own human efforts. They, no doubt, had the reverse thought about me as they zoomed their way to the top. When there was a break in the traffic, I paused, dismounted and took in the view. This was classic alpine territory, with a carpet of green vegetation smothering the land save for the high outcrops of rock. The wide meadows near to the road were scattered with specks of yellow, white, blue and purple, where the wild flowers were popping their heads above the less vibrant, green grass. And then another vehicle roared past behind my shoulder.
I am one of life’s counters – I do it when climbing stairs and swimming lengths at the pool – and as soon as I had totted up the number of turns in the road when consulting the maps back in Limone-Piemonte, it was inevitable that I would be counting them all the way to the top. So, after I had counted my tenth turn, I knew I was approaching the pass. Or was I? Another couple of turns brought me to a long ridge and in the distance I could see that many of the cars that had passed me were parked up. As I approached them I could see that the road ballooned out into a wider area of land, which again was rapidly filling with cars. On the right was a wooden chalet in front of which were five flagpoles: the French, Italian, Swiss, European Union and British flags were all being held up by the stiff breeze. Nice of them to know that I was coming… But was this the pass? There was no iconic sign covered in stickers from motorbiking groups worldwide to confirm that I had reached the top but I couldn’t risk it, so I placed Reggie in front of the flags with a spectacular mountain vista in the distance and took his photo.
At the far end of the car park there were two tracks; the one to the left appeared to lead to a ruined fort of some kind – quite a substantial construction albeit a bit draughty. To the right was a rough track and this looked more promising as it headed further along and up the edge of the mountain, to a point where more cars had been parked. It was difficult to ride upon the rocky, loose gravel so I got off and pushed. After a hundred metres or so, there was a sign warning that people should only continue in 4×4 vehicles. No mention of 2×1 bicycles. I persevered (as did several cars which were more ‘hatchback’ than ‘4×4’) and after perhaps half a kilometre, I found what I had been looking for: a weather-beaten, wooden sign stating that I had reached the ‘Colle di Tenda’. A few metres away was an equally wooden but much smarter sign, stating that I had also reached the ‘Col de Tende’. This double certification of my achievement also confirmed that I had, of course, now arrived in France. Country number eight in my list of ten. Arrivederci Italia. Bonjour la France!
A shiver of excitement quivered across my body at the thought of finally arriving in my linguistic comfort zone. Or was it that stiff breeze? A few people (and their hatchbacks) were milling around, so after having taken another set of pictures of Reggie next to the sign with another stunning alpine view in the background, I moved to a quiet spot on top of a small mound a short distance away. I peered down the valley into France and my eyes swept backwards and forwards as I attempted to trace the path of the mountain track heading south. I couldn’t see any traffic on the road. Was this a good or bad sign? The quality of the road that I could see to my left wasn’t brilliant, but as for what it was like further down the valley I could only speculate. What happened to those Eurovision-winning French roads? It was impossible not to cast my mind back to 2010 when, having climbed to the Gotthard Pass in Switzerland, a spoke had broken only a short distance into my descent along the Ticino valley and I was left pushing poor Reggie for many kilometres to the nearest town. Not again, please.
I refocused my eyes upon the activity around the pass. Many people were heading off to wander higher into the mountains. An elderly couple further along the road were sunbathing as if they were sitting on the beach. And one German motorbike rider was taking a piss. Nice touch. It was time for me to head off and down into France.
I made a tentative start to my descent. Well, it was also a tentative middle and a tentative end as well, as I edged my way down from the pass, along the track of loose rocks and gravel. Two mountain bikers informed me it would be like that for about 3km. For them it was perfect but for me, well, I would have much preferred something significantly more stable. There was, however, one saving grace in that I was travelling downhill rather than up. After around half a kilometre, I paused to record a video and was passed by another touring cyclist. I think he was English but it’s difficult to say for sure when the only word a person says is ‘Hello’. I asked him where he was going (stupid question, I know, but I meant in the longer term rather than the shorter one) but he ignored me and continued to push his bike up the hill. It only really started to dawn upon me as I continued to edge my way down the mountain, kilometre after kilometre, why he might have been in such a disgruntled mood. It would have been impossible to ride up the road without regularly falling off the bike and perhaps he had arrived at the tunnel entrance in France expecting to be able to cycle straight through, only to be pointed in the direction of the rough track. It was a very, very long way down for me; in the opposite direction the distance must have felt eternal. My own cycle continued, gingerly, and I took several time-outs to gaze admiringly at the scenery and gaze worryingly at Reggie’s spokes. By the time I had reached the tunnel entrance, I had re-evaluated the initial impression I had formed of my fellow touring cyclist. For him to have even managed a civil ‘Hello’ probably put him in the category of cyclists that I would normally consider to be deliriously happy.
My main gripe (I normally seem to have one, don’t I?) as I cycled between the small rocks on the path, was to do with my hands. They were constantly applying the brakes so as to prevent Reggie and me from taking the quick route down to the valley bottom via the steep incline at the edge of the road. On arrival at the queue of cars waiting to head into the darkness of the tunnel in the direction of Italy, I had to stop riding for a good 10 minutes to help them recover. But I was in France! A land where all the signs made sense and so did the people, most of the time. I had a broad smile on my face as I cycled at speed along and down through the deep and dramatic valley that had been carved into the land by thousands of years of alpine river erosion. The first place I came to where I could stop and pause for something to eat and drink, was the town of Tende itself and I sat on the terrace of a busy café, ordered and then demolished a minor feast whilst uploading the video that I had taken earlier to the Internet. The journey after Tende continued in a similarly steep fashion and I occasionally checked the cycling app on my phone to find out how many of the 1,871m I had so far descended. I knew the distance to the coast was around 50km by road and was slightly concerned that I seemed to be using up lots of the vertical metres before many of the horizontal ones had been cycled. It was, however, a nice concern to dwell upon, compared to those of earlier in the afternoon.
I could see on my map that the road split into two near the town of Saorge. If I were to turn right and cycle through Sospel, it would mean a second climb to another, less significant pass but then the route would be a direct one to Nice. If I were to turn left, the road would continue downhill (but for how long?), take me back into Italy before arriving on the coast at Ventimiglia. This was a much shorter route to the Mediterranean but it would then mean that I would have to cycle a good 30km along the coast through Menton and Monte-Carlo, before arriving in Nice itself. In my mind I had images of Cary Grant, Grace Kelly and the French Riviera. I turned left.
Mercifully, there was very little uphill cycling between that point and my final destination in Nice. Numerous, long tunnels did make me question whether (yet again) I was infringing the local traffic regulations, especially in Italy where you can never be quite certain when a road is a road or indeed a motorway signposted like a normal road. When I entered France for the second time at Menton – the once symbolic border post between the two countries having been turned into a rather shabby parking area for motor homes – I smiled again upon realising that I was once more in a country I knew well and in which, for the following week or so at least, I would be fraternising happily with old friends and hopefully a few new ones too.
I tried to stick as close to the Mediterranean as I possibly could as I cycled from the border to Nice and this strategy worked well as not only did it keep me away from the ups and downs of the main road above the towns, but it was just a very interesting ride, especially the cycle through the familiar landmarks of Monte Carlo. I had driven through the town on a couple of occasions previously, but this journey allowed me to inspect the sun-drenched hangout of the rich and famous a little more closely. Away from the main roads, I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be an immaculately tended and decidedly intimate warren of narrow roads. Everyone I could see oozed money and they didn’t look the types to ever stick their profile on the Warm Showers website. I did, however, keep an eye out for one man who might have given me space on his lawn to pitch the tent. Earlier in the year, I had seen a picture that had been posted to Twitter by Alan Sugar. It showed the noble lord in full cycling gear on the corniche road somewhere near Monte Carlo. I assumed at the time that he must have a property in the principality but, alas, I never spotted him and I don’t have an interesting tale to tell.
The Promenade des Anglais in Nice welcomed me with a throng of late Sunday afternoon promenaders. The pebbly beach was still packed but as I had already sorted out my accommodation on the previous day – a nice(!) hotel in the centre – I was in no rush. I sat outside a bar and toasted my arrival. I was now just over halfway to Cape St. Vincent in Portugal. I had been cycling for exactly five weeks and there were another four remaining before I would be forced into abandoning the trip due to lack of time. So, yes, I was a little behind schedule (to the extent that a person without a schedule in the first place can be) but as long as I was willing to put in some serious cycling effort, it might still be possible. One way in which I could make up time would be to reduce the number of rest days. However, ever the man to put off until tomorrow what could be done today (or rather, in this case put off until the day after tomorrow what could have been done the following day), I decided that my day off in Nice was not one that I was willing to sacrifice. So much for will power…
So that was my story of climbing to the Tende Pass from Italy into France in 2013. Back to Ian Johnston. He asks:
“My question is, would you attempt the Tende pass from France to Italy with a loaded bike? – e.g. 4 x panniers and rack pack containing tent and cooking equipment?”
The honest answer is yes, I would have do the cycle in the other direction. It would have been a long, hard and exasperating ride… but as there would be no other choice if I needed to head in the direction of Limone-Piemonte. Ignorance is bliss, however, and not knowing that the terrain would be so difficult would have helped the decision-making process. That said, great joy can be found in adversity, as anyone who has ever cycled to the top of any big hill or mountain will know…
Read the original post written for CyclingEurope.org in 2013 by following this link.