It has taken me a year (to the day) to publish this, the last ride of my 3-week Chase The Sun tour in Southern France. The UK winter of 2019/20 had been the most miserable, wettest, dullest, windiest winter I can remember, with named storms hitting the British Isles seemingly every weekend, culminating in the wettest February on record and the fifth wettest calendar month ever recorded – which is pretty good going for the shortest month of the year!
By mid February I’d had enough. I hastily packed my new gravel bike and my Colnago into my van, booked the Eurotunnel and sped down to Puget-Théniers, just North of Nice. I did the drive virtually non-stop, with just a couple of short snoozes on the way. I arrived late at night and the next morning was greeted with wall-to-wall deep blue sunshine and 26°C (it was unseasonably warm there). I was straight up into the hills on my GT Grade, revelling in the weather conditions. What a tonic!
I spent the three weeks driving to, and cycling around, different places, the whole time spent ‘off-grid’. Sure, I had some cold nights, and saw plenty of snow but the sky was blue. I just went where the weather, or my fancy, took me.
Of course, that miserable winter was eclipsed by the global pandemic which was to shut down much of normal life across the globe for the rest of the year, and beyond. While in France, I had seen lots of TV time taken up with talk of the pandemic, but few people, at that stage, could imagine what was to come. I got back to the UK days before the first lockdown.
So those weeks spent riding around the glorious South of France , completely free, seem a long way away now. I hope they will one day return.
Distance: 53.4 miles. Elevation: 5987 ft
[Note: most of the notes were dictated into my phone during the ride. Some text has been added later. So the tense is all over the place, and it’s rather haphazard in places. ]
For this ride I donned arm warmers and a snood before setting off around 10:30. It was cooler this early on a March morning, but there was wall-to-wall sunshine.
The first 2.5 miles were a quite steep climb. Then came a slight descent. I put my coat on for that bit. Then a bit more climbing so I took it off again. Then a long descent but I didn’t need my coat. The landscape is rather barren so far, as the route climbs over the hills to the gorge. Not a single car has passed. When I stop for a photo it is extremely quiet.
I came round a bend and saw a lay-by and a sign to a balcony look-out point. The first indication that I was somewhere near the gorge.
I walked my bike down a bit then left the bike and took off my shoes and walked the rest to the first view. It was easier walking across the rocks without my cleated shoes on.
Apart from the birds and the odd thunderous boom of tanks firing in the distance, all I can hear is the far away rush of the Verdon, way below, deep in the gorge.
When I looked from the lookout point, I couldn’t grasp the scale of the gorge. I just couldn’t tell which rocks were further away than others. I took my goggles off to see if that would help. It did slightly.
Luckily the sun was on the gorge so at least that was giving some sense of perspective by casting shadows in the shaded bits.
Further along there was another look-out point
I’ve seen quite a few lizards today, and bees.
Sitting here in the warm sun. Must crack on. No signal so I had to type the report.
A couple of miles later the road crossed l’Artuby, a tributary of the Verdon, by way of the Pont de l’Artuby
Then it was more climbing to le Tunnel du Fayet, which afforded more views down into the gorge
From this point I can see the road ahead as it winds its way over the hills to the left of the gorge.
Away from the tunnel there was 2 miles of downhill, from where I could look back up to see the tunnel ‘windows’ in the side of the rock
Shortly after that, I started the first of the long climbs of the day. This one was 1200ft over 3.5 miles at an average of nearly 7%. For this ride I’d made a mental note of where the two main climbs are: one at 14 miles and one at 38.
This report from 17 miles. One more mile to the summit. . After the last report there have been some glimpses of the Verdon.
In a way, this gorge is too big for its own good. Even when you’re looking at it you can’t get a handle on how massive it is. At the moment I’m way above it and only have a general sense of where it is but can still hear the distant rush of water. The summit of the climb, and the highest point of the whole ride, was at the 18-mile mark. 4,000ft. The road which would be my return route on the other side of the gorge was visible for much of the time.
There followed a massive descent. A drop of 2,300ft over 8 miles. Various glimpses of the Verdon river below interrupted my descent and I kept stopping to get photos.
Then into view came the lake and that was also very photogenic.
Down through the commune of Aiguines
The road finally levels out at the Pont du Galetas, a bridge which crosses the mouth of the gorge, where the Verdon flows into Lac de Sainte-Croix
Surely an excellent way to see at least the first part of the gorge would be by boat, as in the photo above.
On that bridge I was at the 26-mile mark, about halfway through the ride. Time to start the return leg along the northern side of the gorge.
The road climbed up into the hills giving spectacular views of the lake
The road climbed gradually and then in fits and spurts. I was very warm on this section so I took my rain jacket off and rolled my arm warmers down.
The road reached the mouth of the gorge again
I was already into my second bidon of juice and didn’t think I would have enough. Just as I was thinking that there doesn’t appear to be as many sources of water here as there are in the Vercors, suddenly there was a waterfall by the side of the road and then slightly further up a fountain which I assumed would be drinkable, so I topped my bidon up with it and it tasted fantastic – nice and cool.
Then I found myself climbing for ages and yet I hadn’t reached the 38-mile mark yet where the last main climb should have begun. I started wondering whether 38 was the end of the climb, and not the start. Anyway all this was going through my mind as usual because I was on my last legs, so I really wanted to get a handle on how much climbing there was still to do.
High up on the rocks on the other side of the gorge I could see the road I’d been on a few hours before
As the 38 mile mark approached I had already been climbing for about 40 minutes, but the terrain ahead looked like it wasn’t going to go any higher so I assumed I’d got it the wrong way round. And I had: 38 was the end of the climb. Good – so it was mainly downhill from here.
With the sun going lower, there was a danger of it disappearing behind the other side of the gorge, but as the road climbed it sort of rose out of the shadows and negated that effect, so I had the sun on me nearly the whole way. As the road decended after that col, it got nearer to the level of the river, and reminded me more of some of the other gorge roads I’d been on.
I crossed the Verdon river for the last time and rode the last 4 miles back to my van. Another great day’s cycling in France.
When I said this gorge is too big for its own good, I meant that you can’t get very close to it because it’s so deep and the road is often a long way above it. In fact for much of this ride you can’t see the river, just the other side of the ravine. Compare with say Gorge de la Bourne where you can have a more intimate experience because you and the road are right down in the gorge, at almost river level, feeling the might of the sheer rock faces bearing down on you. The Verdon Gorge is obviously spectacular but I would think that the best way to experience it would be from a boat.
It’s worth mentioning that there was very little traffic, and I saw only one other cyclist! So if you want the Verdon Gorge to yourself, go there in March!
Click to enlarge / see slideshow