We arrive into Faucon-de-Barcelonnette in the evening of the 2nd day of the Pra Loup Thévenet cyclosportive, a harbinger of things to come.
Our visit to the home of the 7 Cols of the Ubaye comes jammed between the aforementioned Thenevet ride, and we leave just before the Etape du Tour.
I was really hoping to do the etape, but it falls on the day of our return to the US. If we had changed our trip to be around the Etape, that next week would become a difficult and stressful logistical labyrinth, since all sorts of chaos is set to occur as the tour comes through the Ubaye and then monopolizes Marseille with a stage finish AND THEN an individual time trial before kicking the city to the curb and jetting to Paris for the finish.
But since this trip wasn’t to watch the tour, but to do really stupid things on bikes and sightseeing in the Vaucluse and Ubaye, it solves both, while avoiding unnecessary obstacles that might make a vacation suck.
Plus, other than not doing the Col d’Izoard (one of my bucket list climbs – Thanks Andy Schleck), I get to do far more interesting riding than what is involved in the Etape.
A bit of a geography lesson first:
France has State-like Regions, which comprise various departments. Each department has a Canton (capital) and can have several sub-capitals as well. America has States, and each state has counties and each county has a county seat, though the county seat may not be the biggest town in the county. The problem that we’ll run into is that France just changed the Regions in the last 5 years.
If we continue this analogy, pre-2011 there were 22 regions or “States”. As of 2016 there are now 12. This has caused a great deal of hand-wringing in France, as each Region was previously well defined and the people were loyal to their region. The number of Departments, or “Counties” did not change, however. There are 95 total “Counties” or Departments on mainland France. Each of these is numbered 1 thru 95.
So while we were in the same “State” in Malaucene – the Provence-Alpes-Cote-d’Azur, we were technically in the “County” of Vaucluse (numbered 84), while Barcelonnette is in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (numbered 04).
But then each “county/department” is then subdivided into Arrondissements, or sub-counties, of which Barcelonnette is the seat of the reagion that includes the Ubaye valley.
And yes, Barcelonnette is awfully similar in name to Barcelona, but it’s root is from two earlier words signifying a mountain (*bar and *cin – note that Mont Cenis uses the cin stem).
However, the town can trace its recent history to the Spanish, but not those in Spain, but those in Mexico.
According to Michelin:
It all started in Jausiers in 1805, when two brothers, Jacques and Marc-Antoine Arnaud, decided to leave the family business and try their luck in America. In Mexico, Marc-Antoine opened a fabric store known as “El cajon de ropas de las Siete Puertas” (a craft centre in Barcelonnette now bears the same name). The success of the business was such that by 1893 there were more than 100 fabric stores in Mexico owned by natives of the Ubaye redion. Some tried their hand at other businesses… Most of the emigrants were country folk who, except for the Arnaud brothers, eventually returned to their native country, and built sumptuous villas to mark their success in the New World. These opulent houses built between 1880 and 1930 have various architectural styles: Italian, Tyrolean, Baroque, but not Mexican.
Having missed the Thévenet, I’m also going to miss Zucchero (on the 29th of July, though 2 weeks is more than a miss, so I’m not going to feel so bad about that.), the Bike for Hope, and an amateur road race up to Le Sauze. (My world is shattered… just kidding.), however I’ll quickly start what is known as the Brevet of the 7 Cols of the Ubaye.
The 7 mythical cols that ring the Ubaye valley are pretty impressive. As much as the Tour de France loves the cols of the Rhone-Alpes and Haute Savoie, the TdF primarily visits there because the ski villages pay an amazing amount of money to have the Tour host stages there. Since there are only a handful of ski villages in this region, and most of them are along the side of the route, only Pra-Loup and Super-Sauze would qualify as a stage finish.
But a couple of the 7 Cols are still legendary in the annals of the Tour.
In 1975, the great Eddy Merckx was in in the yellow jersey, and after the rest day in Nice, was riding strong. Over the Col des Champs, Bernard Thévenet attacked several times, but Merckx was able to keep up. Fed up with the attacks, Merckx launched his own attack on the Col d’Allos, and Thévenet was dropped. But it was on the ascent to Pra-Loup in 1975 that Eddy Merckx cracked and was passed by Thévenet, who eventually ended Merckx’s reign at the Tour de France; hence the reason for the Cyclosportive above carries his name. (It also didn’t help that Eddy got decked by a fan a couple days before and had a fractured cheekbone.)
The 7 cols themselves are:
- Col de Larche (1991m): Never
Oops, is that 8? It seems that the road to the Col de Larche (Colle della Maddalena to the Italians) is closed to cyclists due to a risk of rock slides. However, this has been ongoing since 2008, so rather than break the law and risk getting crushed by a rock slide, the 7th col is indeed the Montee de Sainte-Anne, which is a ski station up the road from La Condamine-Châtelard. Supposedly there’s a punch card you can get and there are these punch card stations at the top of each of the Cols for you to certify that you did indeed reach the summit of each Col.
I’m not planning on doing all these in the same day, since I’m not Mike Cotty or Chris Shue or anyone like that. However, there are four big days to highlight, though given the mountains that ring the Ubaye Valley, all the days are big.
Stupid Day #1: Pontis – Embrun – Saint Jean Loop – 138km / 2371m climbing
This is actually a derivative of a route provided by the tourist office in Barcelonnette. Instead of bypassing the super steep Col de Pontis, I take it on, ride across the Pont de Savines, a 924m long bridge across the Lac de Serre-Poncon, and ride thru Chorges, which was the finish line at the end of the hilly individual time trial I watched in Alpe d’Huez:
Stupid Day #2: Col de Vars via Montee de Sainte-Anne 69km / 1738m climbing
Here comes the first big Alpine climb (not that Mont Ventoux 3-ways isn’t daunting in itself). First a run up to the ski station at Sainte-Anne la Condamine, and then a quick side visit to the end of the paved road and the small chapel to Saint Anne (Jesus’ maternal grandmother). Descending back into La Condamine-Chatilard, the ride is uphill until the top of the Col de Vars from there, almost 18km away, though the official start to the climb is at the fork in the road where you go towards the Col de Larche, or to Saint-Paul-sur-Ubaye. On this day, it may actually be shorter in that my wife might pick me up at the top of the col and we go look at the villages of Vars and Guillestre, and maybe even Briancon. Or I could make it even longer by instead of descending back to Barcelonnette, I descend into Guillestre, and ride back around thru Embrun back round the Lac de Serre-Poncon again. That way is 142km/2800m, but given 3 & 4 below, I’ think the 69km route is a bit more of a needed leg saver.
Supid Day #3: Cime de la Bonette & Super Sauze: 80km / 2316m climbing
Billed as the highest paved road in Europe (it’s not – it’s 7th, and the col is also not the highest paved pass in the Alpes either, but it is the highest paved road in France), the Cime de la Bonette fights with the nearby Colle dell’Agnello for height supremacy. In 2016 the Giro d’Italia did some major climbing over two stages — Stage 19 climbed up the Colle dell’Agnello and then finished up to the ski village of Risoul. The descent off the Colle sunk poor Steven Kruijswijk’s chances of winning after a crash into an snow drift. On the next day they then climbed the Col de Vars (from the northern side), then over the Col de la Bonette (not the cime). However, I’m just going to step out of the hotel, get on my bike and start from there. After riding up to the top (27km) it’s turn around and descend, because a full loop would then be over 150km just to do a loop. So back down the Bonette and, not being done for the day, a nice ride up to Le Super-Sauze ski station.
Week 2 Supreme Stupid Day: Col d’Allos Loop: 131km / 3600m climbing
This one goes up there with the Cingles climb as to the biggest bit of stupid I’m doing on a bike in France. It’s a simple route though. The three climbs make a really nice loop and it’s quite easy to start, make a couple of left turns, and come back. The challenge is all three cols summit above 2000m, and the weather can easily change. Though, like Mont Ventoux, there seems to be a town at the bottom of each climb, though unlike the northern Alpine climbs (and that of the Col de Vars), there isn’t a nice souvenir stand or snack shop waiting for you at the top. The Col d’Allos is above the ski station of the Val d’Allos, which has a bustling summer rental season due to its embracing of downhill mountain bikes, the Lac d’Allos, and numerous scenic mountain hiking trails. At the bottom of the col lies Colmars, which sits in the valley to start the ascent up the Col des Champs. Over the Champs it’s a long lonely descent into Saint Martin-d’Entraunes. Turning towards the Col de la Cayolle, the road runs along the side of the Var river, before just flat out running out of river past 6km to go. Like the Champs, there’s no snack shop at the top of the Cayolle:
but because it’s a long descent back down to Barcelonnette, I’m hoping to have some water left. If I have anything left in the legs, I may want to finish it off by having lunch at Milliways, er rather I might turn left in Uvernet-Fours and ride up to the top of Pra Loup.
Other than the stupid cycling, there’s some great sightseeing in the Ubaye valley. As stated there’s the Lac d’Allos and the easy hike to get there, there’s all sorts of ski lift rides to take, and the Durance river from Barcelonnette to the Lac de Serre-Poncon are highly regarded sporting areas for rafting, kayaking, and sailing and swimming. There’s also a Ropes course, a bowling alley, “Luge” roller coaster, and just shopping in the pedestrian town center in Barcelonnette.
Barcelonnette has a vibrant history, coupled with Jausiers. Saint-Paul-sur-Ubaye and the Pont du Chatelet are must sees. And there’s even the possibility of a side trip to Italy down into Cuneo if we want.
Since we’ve planned to avoid the major things that happen here during July and August, I’ll just list some of the events that happen in the Ubaye during the Summer Months:
- The Ubaye Street Festival: Trial’s BMX and other acrobatic things.
- Course de cote du Sauze – Amatuer race car climb
- Pra Loup Bernard Thevenet – Cyclosportive
- Passage of the Tour de France & The Etape du Tour
- Barcelonnette Jazz Festival – World Renowned Jazz Festival
- Festival of Saint-Laurent
- Festival of Mexico: Celebration of Barcelonnette’s unique Mexican heritage.
- And of Course, Bastille day.
Unlike Provence, there’s less (i.e. None) vinyards to visit, just mountains to climb and amazing scenery. I think we will have what will feel like two different vacations because basically there are two things that unify the Ubaye valley and Provence: The French Language, and Cycling.