December 27, 2023
“Hey, we like what you do. We’ll book you in the Airbnb of your choice and all you’ll have to do is to ride your bike and share your experience. Deal?”
This was the message I received as autumn was settling in at home.
“Heck yeah” I replied. “Just let me think about it for a moment and I’ll tell you where I’d like to go.” Faced with this unexpected prospect, ideas were racing through my head as there are so many places just waiting for a good excuse for me to explore them.
However, I soon realised that this opportunity was actually a challenge. The season was coming to an end and the major passes were already closed, which ruled out a good number of destinations on the endless bucket list I kept in the back of my mind. And my motivation to ride was diminishing as fast as the daylight hours at this time of year.
Where to go and what to do? That’s when I remembered a magic formula I discovered a good ten years ago with my friend Dan. We were both burnt out at the end of the summer. He’d spent months riding and running in the Alps for his job as a mountain photographer. As for me, I was still in the corporate world and needed a break for a very different reason: I’d just come back from China where I’d been overseeing the organisation of a WorldTour race in the heart of Beijing (if you think such a thing never existed, the internet still has some traces of this madness).
I was in dire need of a break to rest my overloaded senses, away from clenbuterol tainted meat, boycott threats and crazy air pollution – and sea cucumber on my plate.
So with Dan and his wife Janine, we set off to Tuscany in the middle of November. For a week, we rode, ate and just caught up in a beautiful place – for fun, before going into cycling hibernation. We called it our ‘training for nothing camp’.
I came back rested and ready to face the winter. The recipe worked so well that I’ve repeated it several times since, with the same success. So it was decided: I was going to go on a training for nothing camp, somewhere down south. But where?
After a few hours daydreaming over the maps, I remembered that my friend Mike Cotty, the man behind The Col Collective, lives in the Nice area. We’d got together over the summer to do some bikepacking in the Valais and prepare for future adventures.
It became obvious: I would go and train for nothing with Mike, taking advantage of the mild temperatures on the Côte d’Azur. It was early November by then and winter had already set in where I lived in Switzerland, which made the idea even more attractive.
I decided to look for an Airbnb in the village of Vence, after receiving this advice from Mike: “It’s in the country so riding from the door is much better than Nice but you still have a proper town with restaurants and places to shop. Plus the centre is an old medieval town so it has character.”
In just a few clicks, I found a one bedroom apartment in a quiet residential area, with a parking space: bingo. All I had to do was pack my bags and hit the road. I went via Italy, to avoid the traffic in the Rhône valley – and to stop at Autogrills to drink good espressi. To do this, I had to go through the Gran San Bernardo tunnel, where the snow had already settled. Once on the descent to Aosta, the temperature started to rise: I was heading south!
A few hours later, I arrived in Vence and settled into my Airbnb, which turned out to be just as on the photos. A cozy little apartment freshly renovated in a quiet neighborhood, with everything I needed for a perfect training for nothing camp.
I went shopping in the local grocery store before preparing myself a lavish meal: spaghetti with anchovies, tomato and mozzarella salad and a nice glass (or two?) of Côtes du Rhône… the dinner of champions!
The next morning, in the center of Vence, I met up with Mike and his girlfriend Diana, who organizes custom bike tours on the French Riviera with her company Azur Vélo.
It was a chilly morning but I was wearing bib shorts – what a luxury at this time of year! We set off, and after a few kilometers we were almost alone in the hinterland of Nice. We rode for over 60km through hills dotted with peaceful, typical Provence villages: Bouyon, Roquestéron, Gillette…
After a beautiful descent and a few kilometers on the bike path along the Var river, we headed back up towards Vence. The clock was ticking and we’d been in the shade for a while, but Mike assured me that we still had just enough time to make a out and back to the Col de Vence before sunset.
It didn’t take much to convince my head, but I had to negotiate hard with my legs to get them to drop the watts needed for this commando operation. Which almost failed: as we climbed, shadow gradually replaced light on the slopes above us (a cruel but implacable logic when the sun goes down).
Fortunately, just over a kilometer from the summit of this classic climb of the Nice region, a left turn suddenly brought us back into full daylight. It was about time, as the sun was very close to the horizon. Quick, a few photos!
No sooner had we reached the pass at 963m than we had to descend as it was getting dark. Mission accomplished…
For our second ride together, I asked Mike and Diana if it would be possible to do another big climb in the area. Bonette and Turini were too far away – and too high at this time of year. We would have had to brave the traffic to reach the foot of the famous Col de la Madone. In the end, they came with its cousin: the Madone d’Utelle. “The road will be empty this time of year and the views are magnificent” they assured me. Deal!
So off I went with Mike (Diana would join us along the way) and the first 30 kilometers flew by. The air was cool, but the sun was shining and another beautiful day was ahead.
At Plan-du-Var, we turned right into the Gorges de la Vésubie. “It’s a beautiful road in summer, it’s in the shade and it’s never hot thanks to the river,” Mike told me. In early November, you’d think you were riding into the polar night. Those 10 kilometers in the shadow of vertiginous cliffs seemed endless, and I couldn’t feel my hands when we – finally – arrived at Saint-Jean-la-Rivière, at the foot of the day’s climb.
Fortunately, we didn’t undergo this cryotherapy for nothing. The 15km climb is stunning. The first section leads through olive groves to the village of Utelle, two-thirds of the way up. The last few kilometers, on a narrow road, provide views of the Mercantour massif in the distance, with its snow-capped peaks.
The panoramic view from the summit at 1174m is breathtaking. Legend has it that, around the year 850, Spanish sailors caught in a violent storm began to implore the Virgin Mary. Shortly after that, they saw light on a mountain, which guided them to the coast. An oratory was built on the mountain to honour the miracle.
Closer to us, stage 6 of Paris-Nice 2016 ended at the Madone d’Utelle. With or without the help of the Virgin Mary, the unpredictable Russian Ilnur Zakarine won ahead of a small group including Alberto Contador, Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas.
On the way back, we headed up the other side of the Gorges de la Vésubie, to avoid going back into the freezer. A magnificent route that took us through several villages before a winding descent in the sunset light towards the lower Var valley. One last short climb and we were back in Vence.
123km and 2100m of climbing: a nice big day with my November legs. I was cooked and a burger washed down with a local beer in the bistro down my street made a perfect contribution to my recovery.
The sky was dark when I got up the next morning, and the weather forecast wasn’t great: rain was on the way. Never mind, I’d be riding alone for the last day, and it would be an opportunity to explore another aspect of the region: Mike had planned a shorter loop for me towards the seaside.
I had expected to encounter heavier traffic in this more urbanized area, but this was not the case. A beautiful descent along a river led me to Cagnes-sur-Mer, a seaside resort overwhelmed by mass tourism in summer but deserted at this time of year.
Just enough time to take a few photos of my bike by the sea, and I was back on the road in the intensifying rain. In these conditions, the way back was perfect: a few short climbs to warm up, quiet roads through residential areas… Back at the apartment under what had become a downpour, I was happy – and proud – to have ridden that day.
A lovely loop that can be ridden even in the dead of winter in Nice:
The afternoon was devoted to a bit of time on my screen to pretend I was on a workation and some exercise to maintain my fifty-something carcass. After a tête-à-tête meal with myself at the apartment and a last night on the Côte d’Azur, I was on my way home – and into winter.
All in all, it was an excellent training for nothing camp in a beautiful region for cycling. There are great routes over varied terrain around Vence, a pretty village ideally situated at the foot of the mountains. And the Airbnb formula proved ideal: I was able to choose exactly where I wanted to stay, and the apartment had all the comfort I needed, with a pleasant feeling of being at home.
Thanks to Farner and Airbnb for giving me this opportunity. Don’t hesitate to contact me again 😉 And a big thank you also to Julie, who hosted me in her apartment which I can only recommend. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to use the pool, as it was off-season.
The Tour de France will finish in Nice in 2024. Diana and Mike have created a “ride & watch” trip to take advantage of this unique occasion. Take a look at their website, it is going to be an unforgettable experience.
Here’s the komoot collection with my 3 rides: