'It felt like I’d been caught planning a dirty weekend, rather than a bike ride'

An impromptu business trip to Nice has Brett Lewis sneaking his cycling kit into his overnight bag in search of this first Alpine summit

"Something to aim at!” So said Tom Simpson when he placed a deposit on a new Mercedes without the fiscal ability to buy it. But if he could win that year’s Tour de France, he could easily afford that new car.

While my target wasn’t as cool as Simpson’s Merc, it was probably just as big a leap of faith against reality. I wanted to climb my first col.

I’d reached the point where I just didn’t feel like a proper cyclist until I’d ridden a mountain or navigated a few switchbacks and gazed up at a climb that went up into the heavens. It seemed a crazy pipe dream as I had no plans to go to France and I was still struggling on my local hills!

The climb from Bédoin to Mont Ventoux was an obvious choice or the shorter Alpe d’Huez might be preferable, but it was all conjecture until a sudden opportunity arose and I grabbed it without a thought.

A two-day work trip to Nice gave me the opportunity. A Strava search confirmed that I could ride from Nice and up the Col de la Madone and loop back to Nice in around three hours.

Madone view

The climb winds its way to the summit. Photo: Chris Catchpole
(Image credit: chris catchpole)

Minutes later I’d googled Café du Cycliste in Nice, hired a bike and my plan was hatched — my first col ride was going to happen.

The whole thing nearly fell apart when my wife caught me packing my cycling kit: “What’s this then? You said you were on a business trip!” I hadn’t mentioned my plans and suddenly I felt like I’d been caught planning a dirty weeknd, rather than a gruelling bike ride.

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Having got past that obstacle, doubts started to mingle in with the excitement. Did I have the mental focus to climb this in one go? Would my Garmin let me down the way a Garmin does?

Would I forget which side of the road to ride? Of course, my biggest worry was would I nail this 42-mile ride in three hours and still catch my flight home?

A week later I’m in out-of-season Menton at the foot of the climb. I’m also feeling a bit out-of-season as I’d ridden from Nice through Monaco where a group of Astana and Movistar riders breezed past me. I’m reminded that this is also home to the out-of-season professional peloton.

La Madone: Tour contenders' favourite testing ground

There are a few ways up this col but I’ve chosen the direct one, which starts from the sea. Within a kilometre I’m regretting it as it’s a very steep kick and I’m already digging in hard. Inexplicably, I can’t get Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ out of my mind and as I climb it becomes the rhythm of my cadence — slow and steady.

It’s the perfect pace for my ride — there’s something magical and foreboding about a road that’s been carved out of the solid rock. Switchback bends zigzag upwards, peaks disappear into the clouds and an amazing view of the valley opens up way down below.

There is a sweet lemon and pine smell from the trees that hangs in the air and the only sound is the ‘zzt, zzt’ from the rented Di2 Colnago, as I finally relent and hit that last cog I’d saved for the steepest sections.

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I climb past the pretty Sainte Agnès and for the first time the road ahead appears as a straight line… but straight up! It’s time to dig deeper. The road narrows and I enter one of the three tunnels.

To fight the jarring temperature change I start singing out loud that Floyd song between gasps for air: “So you think… so you think you can tell… heaven from hell.” It’s an apt song for this beautiful place. My legs are gone and the gradient is steep, it’s cycling heaven and I can see the summit — I’ve made it.

Get to the summit of any col

The descent was the reward for my toil: fast, furious and sometimes defying the speed limit. It seemed like minutes later I was back in Nice, handing the bike back and heading for the flight home.

It was all over. I’d done it and I hadn’t let myself or my ego down. I was pretty chuffed. How was my Strava time for the climb compared to that Texan-who-shall-not-be-named? Let’s just say I’m not going to win anything this year, I’ve just proved it.

You just never know when a great riding opportunity may occur, and just as Tom once said, it’s “something to aim at”.

You never know when you’ll achieve it and then it’s time to set another. If you get the chance, take it, but remember to tell your partner — they might think you’re up to something else entirely…

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