Gorges and gasps at the Mercan’tour granfondo

Gorges, snaking roads and more gorgeous gorges. Tall triangles corrugate the horizon, a wall of snow-capped mountains as far as the eye can see. Welcome to a stunning tour of the Mercantour national park, just north of Nice, France. A ride to remember.

The Mercan’tour Granfondo is 118 miles long and climbs three mountains to a cumulative height of 4,500 metres. Yup, a long day in the saddle. But oh so worth it, perhaps split into two days. I’ve never really been tempted by monster sportives. I don’t like crowds and I’m usually more of a leisurely touring man. Yet the Mercan’tour is beautiful with a landscape more impressive than the famous Alps climbs of the Tour de France. The scenery breaks legs and hearts. A small-scale event, with just a few hundred riders, giving the ride more of a local club feel as opposed to the mega-rides of L’etape and Marmotte where folk amass in the thousands.

Day 1 – A shake out

Legs fresh, jaw dropped. Back in the mountains baby. A short ride with views that tease of the treasures to come. The climb home a reminder why people think you’re crazy when they hear you enjoy cycling up mountains.

Day 2 – A beautiful adventure

Lush green valleys await. The day begins with a twisty, technical descent. Cliff edge cornering at heart in mouth speeds, smiling with joy through gritted teeth. And clenched everything. This is not the time to forget you’re wearing Lycra. Tunnel ahoy. Brace yourself. The jolt of cool tunnel air welcome, the darkness less so. Eyes wide in the darkness, they may as well be closed. Aim for the distant white dot, think not of potholes, of gravel, of killer spiders. A drip of ice-cold water from above. You hope it is water. Goosebumps. The white dot widens whilst your pupils dilate until, pop, a flash of daylight disorientates. Refocus. Oh twisty temptress. Riding roads scouted for car commercials. The knee-high fence all that separates you from the gazillion meter drop to the valley below. Yet you see not the fence nor the drop, your eyes in a tug of war battle between heart and mind, the former trying to enjoy the majestic scenery, the latter reminding you to stay alive. What goes down must come up. Warm now, the mercury already bubbling over 30 degrees. Best settle in. Summit. A short climb. In the Alps a 30 minute climb is a mere bump, a warm up. Behind an ancient fort, ahead the valley with views upon all who approach. So quiet. Inner peace unlocked. The return. Same road you climbed, the view as different as your speed. Who doesn’t like a round number? The village of Rimplas, 1,000 metres high, a handful of houses, a church and from somewhere the smell of a divine lunch. Good job you’re not hungry right? Your jersey is filled with energy packed goo. No, you’re not envious. Oh no. Eau potable. A mountain water spring. Ice cold, fresh water straight from nature’s reserves. Trace: 0.001% goat urine. Revitalising. Back to the valley below on fantasy roads to die live for. Rolling as fast as you dare, seduced by curves and the frisson of danger. Great walls of clay red rock line the road, exotic, memories of Australia’s outback or Morocco’s Atlas mountains. A mini straight. Drop into a tight aero tuck because yes, I’m obviously not travelling fast enough. The final climb home for the day. Slow motion pedalling for an hour back up the road, tarmac laced into the mountain as if holding it together. Legs and lungs pay the price for such a grand day out, the air thinning as you rise. ‘Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain,’ Bob Dylan croaks into my ear.

Day 3 – The Mercan’tour Gran Fondo

Big ride time and the impossible wardrobe choice. Dress for the cold early morning start, the snow-covered peaks and the freezing descents? Or the 2 hour climb in 30 degree heat? Every layering strategy you know cannot defeat such extremes. The Lycra zombies loiter, fresh-faced and bleary-eyed. You’re not crazy in such great numbers, you’re normalised, like-minded souls sharing an experience. We’ve been up an hour and in a moment or two some of us will be sprinting at full gas in an attempt to lead out the pack in a very long race. Some of us. After a blistering start, I watch as most ride ahead, conscious of a technical descent to come. The road levels. A group forms, we roll slowly and silently, energy-saving mode for the trials ahead. We hit climb one, the mighty Col de la Bonnette, the summit 2,800 metres tall with claims to be one of the highest paved roads in Europe. None of this matters. I am blown away by the climb’s beauty. Forget the famous climbs of a certain race, this is where it’s at. Up we go. The challenge of taking a decent photograph when winching up the mountainside one hairpin at a time. A slightly surreal abandoned village lines the road near the top of the climb. I think of living here, the beauty, the isolation. I think of the poor postman. Col de la Bonnette, a proper pyramid of a summit, the mountain every five-year-old draws. Snow. Searing hot yet riding beside huge walls of snow. Surreal. I’ve been mildly obsessed about such scenes so am thrilled to ride beside the white walls, so much so I resort to an ill-advised selfie. Looking good! When the wind blows the snow acts as a natural air conditioning unit. Brrrr. The view over my shoulder at the summit. Always look back when climbing mountains. Mesmerising. A long descent and long food stop later I approach climb number 2, the 2,300 metre Col de la Cayolle. Another amazing climb, ever-changing views aplenty. I feel fresh after my slow start but still ride with caution. All alone, I tap out a moderate pace as I digest my cheese and ham sandwich from the food stop. Oh and the blocks of dark chocolate. And the dried fruit. And the banana. I’m no doubt heavier than when I began the race. The ride is five hours old and I need a change of pace to keep me interested. I begin riding a little harder. The phone and camera stay in my jersey pocket. I reel in rider after rider. Nobody overtakes me. I am the hero rider making a dramatic comeback after a mechanical, yellow jersey on my shoulders where it shall stay. A small group forms briefly and we yo-yo back and forth. The penultimate food stop is fleeting. Inhaling squares of chocolate as black as the night before the road, the long long road, calls once again. Climb done, I realise I’m oh so close to making this an 8-hour ride. An older guy waits for me on the descent dressed head to toe in the sky blue Astana kit. Riding downhill at 30+ mph we hand signal a union. In broken English he tells me friends in his category are behind us and chasing hard. Say no more. Boom. We’re off. I forget myself and ride harder than I would all day, super domestique keeping the chasing pack at bay. We make it to the 170km check-in, where my team-mate celebrates his victory by slumping in a chair for he has opted not to climb the last 20km up to the finish at 1,600 metres. I smash down two cups of coke and head off, a tired wave to my team-mate who looks ready for sleep but manages to return a weary wave. So long. So begins a brutal hour-long climb in stifling heat. I ride as hard as I can. Every pedal stroke is pain. By the finish line I have nothing left. Perfect. Beer and a hamburger baguette stuffed with fries at the finish line. A grand way to finish a grand day out.

Day 4 – Squeezing in a few more KMs

Out we go, weary legs whirring slowly into action. We follow our noses, blindly riding into dead ends, denial and despair when the road disappears and we crunch over gravel. A fence blocks the way, so too the field, but we spy what looks like a gravel road beyond. Climbing time. Bikes on shoulders, hearts in mouth. We can only hope the big snarling dogs are asleep and well fed. And relax. Back to the smooth stuff. More stunning views. We leave soon. We linger and wonder how many more KMs we can eek out. The return drive to Nice airport is breathtaking through the Gorge du Cians. What a road. If this was in the UK we’d be hysterical about its beauty and there would be queues of coaches chuntering up and down all day, tacky tourist shops at either end. In France there’s a subtle signpost and not much more. A great ride. Go. Go now! Mercan’tour Gran Fondo website Route and GPX on Strava for some DIY action!

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