Col de la Bonette
At 2715 meters above sea level, the Col de la Bonette is one of the highest mountain passes in Europe, but despite the many claims, including the plaque at its base, it is not the highest. Not far from the Italian border in the French Alps, the climb has been used in both the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia. With its starting point nine kilometres from Barcelonette, the challenge of the twenty-four kilometre climb doesn’t lie so much in its grade but rather its length. In late May 2016, snow was still forcing the closure of the pass, right up until the day before the Giro d’Italia was due to ascend it . . . and right up until the day before we rode to the summit to watch.
Making it to the top of the Col de Bonette was never in question. I’d shrugged off the unfounded fear that I couldn’t ride my bike to the top of a mountain the previous morning. The Col d’Izoard had shown me that with a steady pace and a solid mindset I could ride up almost anything, highest mountain pass in Europe or not. But the previous afternoon’s hustle on my ‘steady pace’ to catch the Giro d’Italia had reignited an old fear of letting my mates down. As much as the idea of being cuffed by a hot Gendarmerie on the already closed road had had its merits (not least a merciful end to my suffering), the idea of seeing my friends miss the race when they came to bail me out had not been so favourable. So, as we motored out to the base of the Bonette, with friends Kath and Chris, I couldn’t help but panic at the idea of another day pushing my limits to evade the authorities.
The blue flashing lights at the base of the climb saw my anxiety heighten, but as the uniformed spunks waved us through with a nod and a friendly “Bonjour,” relief washed over me. We had all the time in the world to make it to the top and I settled into a gentle rhythm. Colby spun along beside as Kath and Chris disappeared into the distance, promising to meet up half way. The road wound out of the valley, and to save time and weight, I pedalled past the first, and what I was soon to learn would be the last, water stop. By the time the road kicked up into a series of hairpins seven kilometres later, I was regretting my decision. I sucked on an empty bidon, scanning the banks for water. But the landscape revealed nothing except crumbling stone cottages and green hills, folding into mountains for as far as the eye could see.
The mountain hut which had appeared as a speck in the distance grew, hinting at a restaurant. The half way point. Our meeting point. Somewhere, I held out hope, I could fill my bottles. The fan club spilling onto the road as we drew closer eliminated all doubt. The Aussie flag flowed from Kath’s hands like a rag to a bull and she ran alongside. “Allez, Allez! Bravo! Bellisimo! Dai, dai, dai!” I unclipped and slumped into a heaving pile of laughter, a stern Mr Plod watching under raised eyebrows. The welcome was second to none, but with the restaurant closed, any hopes of quenching my growing thirst were lost. So with enough water to stop me shrivelling up completely, kindly donated by Chris, we set off again in search of the summit.
By kilometre fifteen the scenery had evolved from crumbling ruins to pockets of unmelted snow. The folding hills opened out into mountain lakes and tiny cascades of snowmelt finally quenched my thirst. Balanced precariously over a mountain stream, my fingers froze as I juggled bidons under the flow. With a long hot summer ahead, there was a lesson here to be learnt.
Pressing on, motorhomes lined the roadside and the scent of freshly laid asphalt filled the air. Authors of newly painted slogans stood proudly alongside as I rolled over their handiwork. Nibali! . . . Valverde! . . . and a red scrawl, impossible to read against the new blacktop. The writer looked on with pride, a spray can . . . and a strange bushy beard filled with tiny mountain flowers. Riding up mountains to catch races at (what I hoped would be) a pivotal point was cool, but driving up days before, standing in the freezing cold and waiting seemed to be sending the fans crazy.
I’d barely noticed the drop in temperature, but from the steam escaping my lips and the churn in my stomach it suddenly became clear we were at an altitude of 2400m. In a rare turning of tables, I’d felt good as Colby struggled on beside me . . . or at least I had until the altitude wrung every last piece of stamina from me. My head spun and my quads screamed. And while I should’ve been pumped by the the Swiss fan club, cheering as if I was as inspirational as the pros they’d come to see, I fought the urge to lash out. It was time for a break.
I pulled over, struggling to suck in a deep breath as I unclipped, the road coiling into an abyss below. Snow covered mountains stared majestically beyond, whispering with an endless strength and divine courage. Any sense I couldn’t go on dissolved as quickly as it had formed . . . and so did the burn in my legs.
My composure returned as I adjusted to the altitude and settled back to a steady pace. The air bit at my skin and the pockets of snow grew, and touched, and merged into a mountain of white. It was broken only by the tiny strip of road ahead and a tower of stone looming above. The abandoned military huts signified our second meeting point, our vantage point and a brief pause.
Experienced in the Alps, Chris had cautioned on the freezing temperatures. And wedged among a wall of fans, I could already see him and Kath shrugging into as much warm gear as they could by the time I reached them. But instead of pulling over, and plucking a jacket from the snail-like growth on my back, I pedalled past. While Chris was content to save a vantage point for us, I was keen to reach the summit, even if it was only another four kilometres of flat road.
“Flat my arse,” Colby snapped, still struggling on beside me. “It’s fucking twelve percent!” Shouldering a backpack of warm clothes, food and beer had made for an uncomfortable climb.
The grade did flatten, as Chris had promised, not far from the summit, but with a not so attractive group of ‘proper’ cops blocking the road, there was little chance of savouring it. Five-hundred meters short of the actual summit, I slipped on my own jacket, made do with a ‘summit’ selfie where we stood and braved the freezing descent.
The temperature at the old military barracks was no warmer. My teeth chattered as we bunkered down in anticipation of the race and I regretted donating the extra layers I’d jammed into my pockets to the others. The Giro d’Italia might be a pro bike race, but the pros rode nowhere near fast enough up the Col de Bonette . . . and once the peleton had passed, awaiting the grupetto was nothing short of agonising.
After freezing the tips of my fingers off during a cautious decent, a big screen closer to sea level was a much more comfortable way to witness an unfavourable race outcome. Beyond the Bonette our race favourite had lost the leaders jersey. But it had still been worth climbing one of the highest mountain passes in Europe to cheer him on . . . even if it was only one of the highest.