Climbing The Col d’Eze, Hiking Down Ancient Footpaths

Located just outside of Nice, the Col d’Eze is a misnomer; there is very little easy about this climb.

Even some professional riders have trouble with the climb, the showcase peak of the famous early season Paris-Nice race and a favorite training ground for professional riders living in the area. The 500-meter mountain averages about a 7 percent grade at its beginning, levels out a bit for couple of kilometers, then shifts upward to an 8 or 9 percent grade at the 5.5 kilometer mark. The next two kilometers alternate between grades of 4 and 7 percent, before evening out at the end. It’s 10 kilometers of torture.

When I tackled the Col d/Eze, it was the first ride with my new Sports Tours International teammates for the week, and it immediately reminded me of a fact that I was reluctant to acknowledge: I’m not remotely fit enough for this trip a the moment.

Serious cyclists tend to watch their figures closer than the most OCD supermodel. After dropping more than 40 pounds two years ago to begin my amateur racing campaign, I’ve been pretty good about monitoring my calories … until this year. I’ve found myself racing less and drinking more beer, an equation that spells disaster for any rider. Every pound I’ve gained means yet another pound I’m carrying up with me on the bike. I’m carrying the equivalent of twins – or twin kegs, at least – around my waist.

I’m from Indiana. We have hills there. Steep, occasionally. Long, rarely. I’ve climbed mountains on either American coast before, but nothing like this one. I’ve never been afraid when the road turns upward, but as I stared at the nine-percent grade stretching out into the unknown and tried clicking to a gear I didn’t have left, I felt my stomach knot up slightly.As the road continued upward, I felt as if I were propelled backwards as several riders scampered past. Back home, I’m known as a pretty decent hill climber; I’m not used to getting dropped. The only thing I could do is mentally shove the pain in my legs aside and keep churning my way to the top.

As we regrouped at the top, we began making a bit of small talk, getting to know the other riders we’d be spending much of the next week riding next to. A big Brit named Keith reminisced about an early trip he had taken in the area, warning us of even more difficult roads ahead.

“This is nothing compared to Ventoux,” he said, causing many of the assembled sphincters to instantly pucker. “Imagine the steepest part of the climb and multiply it by four, and that’s Ventoux. You’re in for two hours or more of pain on that one.”

Rather than dwell on Keith’s warning, we pedaled on. The trip up the mountain was pure work, so we were all looking forward to a fun, quick descent as our reward. But a navigation error led us down a steep, narrow pathway that corkscrewed down several meters before coming to an abrupt end well short of road. (The European cycling maps on Garmin’s Edge GPS units are rumored to be somewhat unreliable, we would learn afterward.)

Luckily we came across a village resident out for a stroll, who directed us to a crumpled old Roman footpath that would lead us down to where we needed to go. So the group, now swelled to more than a dozen, began to nimbly hike down, the smooth cleats of our cycling shoes making the descent nearly as treacherous as anything we’ve faced on the bike.

As I traverse the path, I don’t think of the history behind it — the ancient residents who built it, the long-dead family members who used it — instead my only concern is not slipping and cracking my head open.

Luckily, I managed to escape the path with my life. Within moments of hitting the road, we’re at the Monaco border, looking down upon the buildings and yachts glistening in their Mediterranean splendor. The rich and famous can have their casinos and mansions; I’ll take the wind and open road any time.

A quick coffee in Monaco, and we’re on the road yet again. A fast, mostly descending route through some tunnels and along the Mediterranean Sea, and we’re back in Nice. Despite my struggles up the Col d’Eze and our hike-a-bike misadventure, I was already looking forward to the next day’s ride.