The mountain range known as the Alps is very spectacular end to end; the Swiss and Austrian Alps are known for their alpine beauty, the northern French Alps are well known for their famous Tour de France venues, but the southern French Alps, or Maritime Alps, have gone relatively unknown.
This is probably due to their location; they sit almost entirely in the region of Provence. These mountains dominate almost all of Provence and are a large influence on the life in this wonderful region, but it is the lifestyle of the people, the charm of the villages, and the beauty of the coast that give Provence its well deserved reputation. Although these mountains sit merely as a backdrop to the fabric of Provence, they are most certainly deserving of our awe and respect. Tall, rugged, remote, beautiful, and most important, laced with small winding roads climbing and descending the cliffs, valleys, and gorges of these wild and wonderful mountains.
Actually, one does not ‘visit’ Provence; one is seduced, taken in, and absorbed by her warm luxurious light-bathed towns and landscapes. Hillsides pulsing with the scent of wild thyme and rosemary; fields of purple lavender juxtaposed with seas of graceful sunflowers undulating with the uninhibited caress of the wind; or vast barren rock outcroppings of the most amazing shades of rose and terra-cotta; these are just some of the natural visual riches of the countryside behind France’s Côte d’Azur. Of course, reveries of Provence inevitably turn to food and wine; bikes tucked away for the evening, we’ll spend a good portion of time at the table delighting in dishes made from local produce prepared in age-old country ways.
The Tour de France often challenges these roads and their cols. The climb up Mont Ventoux is considered one of the hardest and most revered of the Tour. The Col de la Bonette is the highest paved pass in Europe. The Col d’Allos, Col de la Cayolle, Col de Vars, and the Col d’Izoard, are major climbs in many of the hardest stages of the Tour de France. Impressive climbs, yes, but still it is the myriad of small roads with little or no traffic that make this one of the greatest cycling areas in Europe.
It is no wonder that the abundant palette of Provence’s wild and natural beauty has attracted and inspired the great artists of past and present. It is nearly impossible to escape a transformation of heart.
July 21 - Nice (Vence)
Arrive at Nice airport (NCE). Van transportation provided to our start hotel in the village of Vence
Downloadable links to GPS routes with altitude profile will be available by May to clients confirmed on tour.
July 22 - Castellane 46mi, 3700ft or 58mi, 4300ft altitude gain
Most of this trip will be on small country roads and we will seldom be in dense tourist areas. Many of the following days show a fair amount of elevation gain, though there are very few hard climbs, most being gradual or rolling. We leave Vence and wind our way up to Gourdon for our first pastry stop and our last view of the Mediterranean. After a climb to the Plateau de Caussols, we traverse a series of ridges and high valleys. Amazingly, after just leaving the hustle and bustle of the Côte d’Azur, we are on small roads in a fairly remote and rugged area of Provence and the Maritime Alps. Since there few villages and almost no restaurants, we will have a group picnic, a typical Provencal feast. We continue our traverse on the Route Napoleon and finally descend to the mountain village of Castellane. We will meet at the local bar for drinks and recount the events of the day.
July 23 - Forcalquier 65mi, 4800ft or 82mi, 6000ft
One of the inspirations for these tours are the many steep mountains and deep gorges. From the moment we step out the hotel door we are exposed to the onslaught of amazing cliff walls and winding gorges. One or the most spectacular gorges in all of France is the Grand Canyon du Verdon. Because it was so remote and inaccessable, it was not on any maps until 1906. The worst thing about the Grand Canyon is that you have to leave. However, leaving the gorge brings us immediately to huge fields of lavender. The harvest should be in full swing with the heady smell of ripe lavender. Looking back across the lavender fields with the cliffs of the Verdon in the distance, remind us that this is a special area indeed.
July 24 - Vaugines 32mi, 2000ft or 53mi, 2800ft
We start the day shopping for a Provencal picnic to be shared this afternoon. Today’s ride has no special villages, but the countryside is typically Provence and beautiful. How can a place be so perfect for cycling?! Wonderful scenery, small winding roads with very little traffic, fragrant scents from wild herbs growing along the roadside, excellent weather, friendly people, delicious food - what more can we ask for? This morning’s ride is mostly rolling hills covered with scrub oak, from one small village to the next. After our picnic lunch, it is an easy ride to our hotel, as the hills of the Luberon rise in the distance. We pass through a number of small villages including the beautiful Cucuron with its grand fountain surrounded by small shops and cafes in the town center. A short ride past vineyards brings us to our beautiful Provencal hotel. The stone buildings and gardens surrounding the pool help create a wonderfully relaxing atmosphere infused with that famous Provençal mystique. If you feel you are not yet in heaven, just wait for the quintessential Provençal dinner tonight,
July 25 - Vaugines Rest day or loop ride of 43 miles, 3800 feet
Today is definitely a good day for a rest. There are a number of small villages in the area, one being Cucuron. The center of town sports a huge fountain, surrounded by a few cafes shops and restaurants adorning the periphery - a great place to have lunch, followed by a relaxing afternoon by the pool. As always, when there is a good rest day there is also a good bike ride, and today is no different. A short climb over the cliffs of the Luberon mountains immediately brings us two gems of the region. The overhanging limestone cliffs are famous for the excellent rock climbing. At the top of one of these cliffs is the ancient Fort de Buoux. It is well worth exploring before you find a totally relaxing restaurant.
July 26 - Mazan 38 miles, 2650 feet or 53 miles, 3500 feet
Provence is not defined geographically or legally, it is defined by its simple way of life, slow paced, yet hard working. People gather and relax in the village squares, playing boules, chatting and sipping drinks at the outside bars; they tend their beautiful gardens, growing flowers and vegetables, and they enjoy their simple yet well-prepared bounty. The initial inspiration for our business of bike tours was the many small, beautiful hilltop villages of Provence that for centuries have given safe haven to the inhabitants of this wondrous region of France. Today we pass through some more of these small village gems, including Lourmarin, Bonnieux, Lacoste, Roussillon, Gorde, and Venasque. One of our favorite villages is Roussillon, which teeters on an ochre-colored hilltop, from which magnificent views of the surrounding lowlands may be enjoyed. But we save the best for last, our four-star hotel is a château built in 1720, it retains the beauty and grandeur of its’ past with luxurious rooms, a pool, a great restaurant and a wonderful setting in the heart of a wonderful village.
July 27 - Vaison-La-Romaine 40 miles, 6000 feet (Mont Ventoux ascent) or 27 miles, 800 feet
The chateau and the beautiful gardens where we are enjoying a relaxed breakfast, distract us from the looming presence of Mont Ventoux. Soon we are on our way and the memories of the château fade as we approach the base of Mont Ventoux from the south; perhaps the hardest climb in the Alps. After a short ride we stop in Bedoin for coffee and pastries to fuel us for the upcoming climb. The constant 8 to 11% climbing with no relief is very difficult and will make the battles of the Tour de France even more impressive. The fast descent to Malaucene is a welcome relief, and visions of our wonderful hotel in old town Vaison push us to greater speeds. For an easy and very beautiful ride take the Famous “Route du Vin”. Be sure to explore some of the villages, especially Caromb, Gigondas and Seguret. Another option is to take the beautiful route up the Gorges de la Nesque to Sault. From here we can climb Ventoux up the gradual eastern slope (59mi, 6300ft).
July 28 - Orpierre 42 miles, 4100 feet or 65 miles, 9000 feet (Mont Ventoux ascent)
Today’s route has no big-name cols, though lots of climbing, It has no tourist attractions, but still incredible scenery, There are no big cities, only small villages, All in all one of the best days of cycling in a tour of great days of cycling. Our route goes through one of the more remote areas of Provence, if not all of France. There are almost no restaurants, so we have planned a nice picnic (long route only). There are even fewer hotels, so our wonderful little country hotel is quite a surprise. After a swim in the pool, be sure to try the excellent beer and if we are lucky the owner will prepare homemade potato chips.
July 29 - Digne-Les-Bains 64 miles, 5900 feet
An early morning climb brings us to the start of a wonderfully long gradual descent to Sisteron. A hearty lunch is in order to fuel our afternoon challenge. From here we venture into a very remote area as we climb through a series of three high valleys, followed by two of the best rip-roaring descents of our tour, into Digne-les-Bains. Our hotel is quite elegant, but the beers should be enjoyed at one of the nearby outdoor bars.
July 30 - Barcelonnette 80 miles, 8600 feet or 52 miles, 4100 feet
It will be hard to leave such a beautiful city as downtown Digne, but today we start the challenge of the Maritime Alps. Our ride starts fairly easily: as a matter of fact the entire 40km of the first climb averages less than 2%. We cycle up a beautiful gorge before bursting out into a high, wide mountain valley. The shorter route over the Col du Fanget is beautiful and very steep. After lunch (Seyne) we climb the Col St Jean and descend to the Ubaye valley, where the final 21km climb to Barcelonnette is again less than 2%. Named after Spain’s Barcelona, Barcelonnette has since developed a relationship with Mexico. Many from this region have moved to Mexico for business opportunities, but return often to visit or retire. We are on our own for dinner all three nights.
July 31 - Barcelonnette Loop rides of 75mi, 10,700ft or 25mi, 3400ft
After the past three tough days of cycling, today might be a good day for a rest, but hold on to your handlebar tape, because we have an amazing ride in store. Three big passes await us, the Col d’Allos, the Col des Champs, and the Col de la Cayolle. One might recognize these names from past Tour de France stages, and these climbs are considered leg breakers even for the pros. This area is so beautiful, that any unused pixels in your camera will be long gone by the time we coast back to our hotel. Another option is to climb just the Col d’Allos, then coast back to Barcelonnette for lunch. We are on our own for dinner all three nights.
August 1 - Barcelonnette Loop rides of 75mi, 10,700ft or 25mi, 3400ft
Today is a true rest day, with no mandatory rides lined up. Barcelonnette is a very active mountain village with plenty of small shops, open air markets, cafes and restaurants, and pedestrian walkways. This village sits high in a mountain valley so there are plenty of great mountain views without leaving town. For those still wanting a challenging ride, a great option is to climb the highest paved pass in Europe, the Col de la Bonette and the Cime de la Bonette (42mi, 5600ft), or the easier Col de Vars (39mi, 3300ft). There are no cues for these out and back rides. Feel free to explore other options on your own. Dinner is on our own tonight.
August 2 - Castellane 60mi, 4500ft
One of the most beautiful climbs in the region is the Col d’Allos. Our route starts by climbing up out of the steep walled Gorges du Bachelard; soon the valley opens up and we enter pine forests, changing to meadows and alpine firs. Beautiful arched bridges span the many mountain streams and grazing sheep dot the hill sides as we approach the wild flower covered col. A long twisting descent, the longest of the tour at 32 miles, brings us right to or hotel. Beers will be a group effort at one of the local cafés
August 3 - Vence 70 miles, 4400 feet
Choose from two wonderful lunch stops, each with unique character and charm. The short route climbs three small cols and three alpine valleys before swooping down to the village of Gourdon, which is a must for lunch. Perched high on the cliffs of the Gorges du Loop, it has a most impressive view out to the Cote d’Azur and the Mediterranean beyond. The longer route climbs high out of Castellane to the Col de St Barnabe, and we spend most of the day descending tiny back roads to Vence. The uplifted limestone slabs create a beautiful mountainous route with immense views for the entire day. Lunch will be at a small restaurant with the tables in the street. The ride from here to Vence is one of the best of the trip, fitting for the final day. There is the option on both routes to finish the day descending the Col de Vence. With either route, however, one has the feeling of reluctantly leaving the mountains, but eagerly anticipating the warmth and brilliance of the Mediterranean. Farewell dinner will be at our hotel’s patio
August 4 - Departure
Van transportation provided to Nice Airport for your flight home