Col/Cîme de la Bonette: finishing on a high
In my earlier work, Theophilus, I described the Col Agnel as a "Cinderella" among alpine passes - disregarded alongside its more glamorous siblings; the Route de la Bonette, on the other hand, is the charlatan, the imposter, the braggart, the purveyor of fake news. It claims to be the "highest road in Europe"; it isn't; and it's well short of being the highest pass, too.
Even when the exaggerated claims are stripped away, though (see the debunking appendix at the bottom), the Col de la Bonette (2715m) comes a still-formidable fourth in the list of Europe's highest passes - right behind the above-mentioned Col Agnel, in fact - and that's why I was there. I had set myself a goal to cycle over all the top 10 highest passes in Europe during 2018, and Bonette was the only one still missing from my collector card. Not any more, it isn't!
Of course, I had to go and make things difficult for myself by choosing a gravel route for the ascent (because that's what I do!) and that meant I was going to struggle to complete my planned route in daylight. That in turn meant a 6am alarm, an emergency breakfast of muesli bar, water and two caffeine tablets - my lovely but chaotic Warmshowers host having failed to stock up with breakfast ingredients - and on the road at 7. The boulangerie in Valberg didn't open until 7.30, and I didn't want to wait, so couldn't supplement my breakfast just yet.
Unusually, my route began with a long descent, which meant layering up, as there was a distinct morning chill in the mountains. I had a choice of two routes to the valley and my host recommended the option via Péone as being more scenic. It was, indeed, spectacular.
Péone itself, though achingly pretty, lacked a bakery; and the tunnels along the road exposed a more serious problem - my rear light, which had been working perfectly the day before and which I had charged overnight, refused to switch on. Besides the hazard in the tunnels, this was mission critical to me potentially having to finish my ride in the dark.
Guillaumes, the small town at valley level, did have an open supermarket selling fresh bakery products, so I was able to stock up - also with cheese and fruit for my picnic lunch later. I finally realised what the strange tall elasticated pocket is for on the back of my new Altura Morph pannier! ["Morph" because it's convertible between a pannier and a backpack, very practical for off the bike.]
A bit further on, I stopped at a small roadside hotel where the proprietor kindly filled my flask with coffee for a very reasonable €3, and then I sat in the sunshine enjoying my second breakfast. This was also a good opportunity to change to shorts and fingerless gloves, as the day was definitely warming up. Just look at that brilliant blue sky!
I had to pace myself carefully up the morning's ascent of Col de la Cayolle (2326m), which, with 1600m of ascent from Guillaumes (~700m) would be plenty for a day's ride on its own - today, though, relegated to the status of a warm-up act! Too fast and I'd have nothing in the tank for later; too slow and I'd run out of daylight. In fact, I was already starting to consider diversion/truncation options in case of the latter (without a working rear light) and was also hoping to find a bike shop en route, where I could get a replacement.
I was sorry not to have my geologist daughter with me to explain all the rocks, which ran the gamut of textures and colours from flaky black through sandy yellow to great big brown blocks the size of houses which looked as if they would drop at any moment, and amazing twisted strata in other places.
There was even a special road sign for marmots, something I've never seen before! Although in fact the marmots weren't as evident as on some of the other passes I've ridden.
The cyclists congregated at the top were a friendly bunch, including a French+Dutch couple who helped me with my "summit selfies". When I said I was going to Col de la Bonette next, one of them reckoned I would have to go all the way down to Barcelonnette (where they live) - but the other knew the gravel track I was intending to take from Bayasse (part way down) and confirmed that I'd find it passable. Good to have some local advice!
The descent was great fun, and included a vertiginous bridge where I stopped to photograph my own waving shadow in the gorge far below.
Soon I reached the hamlet of Bayasse, where I stopped to let a bit of air out of the tyres to give better grip on the uphill gravel section of the route. Without a pressure gauge it's hard to be certain, but I was aiming for around 45PSI rear and 40 front. Whatever it was, it worked pretty well!
If you like gravel, you'll LOVE this:
In the above photo, Col de la Moutière is the saddle in the middle of the shot: the gravel track over the Col continues down the other side to the Tinée valley, where I'd come from the previous day (if I'd known this when planning the route, I might well have come up that way in the first place). The Cîme de la Bonette is the peak on the left; from Moutière, I took another gravel track which branches off to the left, traversing/ascending the flank of the Cîme to meet the motor road a short way below the *Col* de la Bonette.
All the way along the track from Bayasse to Moutière I didn't meet any other people; I had the place entirely to myself in perfect solitude, with just the chirping of crickets and the babbling of the surrounding streams as the soundtrack. No traffic noise, only a very occasional aeroplane high overhead. This, of course, is the main reason why I seek out such routes! My lunch part 2 stop was in the shade of the trees beside the hairpin bend visible in the picture below.
The track itself was mostly rideable on my 700x35 gravel/road tyres (Hutchinson Overide) - except for a section of about 1km just below Col de la Moutière, where the surface of large, loose stones defeated me and I had to walk (slowly!!). More seriously, I ran out of water - having been unable to get a refill in Bayasse - and I resorted to refilling the bottles straight from a mountain stream; something which I haven't done since I was a child on mountain hikes in Austria with my mother! As it was high up on the flank of Bonette and I could see there weren't any grazing animals above me, nor any human habitation, I reckoned the water should be pretty safe. [Edit 3 days later: still haven't got sick, so it looks as though I got away with it!]
Very soon after that - I'd done it! I was at the Col de la Bonette and had completed my top 10! Anticlimax set in immediately, as I wasted a few minutes hunting for a pass summit sign for my selfie - turns out there isn't one at the actual Col (where the road from Barcelonnette/Jausiers to Nice crosses the ridge); they only have normal road direction signage there, so I had to make do with that...
It took only a few more minutes to proceed up the loop road to the monument marking the highest point, 2802m (photo at the top), where I stopped to take photos, put on layers for the chilly descent, and celebrate with chocolate and a fizzy electrolyte drink. I should have brought a miniature of champagne!
By now it was almost 5pm - I had aimed to be at the top at the very latest by 4 - and whatever prospect there ever had been of continuing over the Col de Vars before nightfall (another not-insubstantial ascent of about 900m, on tired legs!) had definitely gone. I decided the best bet was to get down the hill to Jausiers ASAP and there to review my options. The perfect tarmac made the descent nice and quick - not a pothole in sight - though I couldn't resist stopping for a photo or two. In this view (below) you can see layer after layer after layer of road receding into the middle distance!
Jausiers has drinking water fountains, hooray! I sat down in the shade beside one and looked up travel options on my phone.
It didn't take long to reconfirm what I actually already knew (and the reason I had planned the route as I did): "you can't get there from here", as an Irishman once famously said to some tourists who had asked for directions. There's no railway line serving Jausiers or Barcelonnette, so getting to a station where I could catch a train with my bike would involve either crossing another pass, or a long unpleasant transit along busy main roads in the valleys. My options boiled down to getting a rear light and carrying on now, or getting a bed and carrying on in the morning. I preferred the first, because I already had a pre-booked room for the night in Guillestre, and also because it was the only way I would be back in Zurich in time for my Wednesday evening rehearsal.
Jausiers has a small sports shop with a cycling section, but the thing they had run out of was rear lights - they only had front ones - typical! They directed me to a bigger and better bike shop in Barcelonnette, which stayed open until 7, so off I sprinted down the valley - height I would have to regain later - grrr!
I think my legs had been fooled into thinking it was already tomorrow, because they felt very fresh at this point, and kept going ok all the way up the pass later.
Yes! I got to the bike shop before it closed! Yes! They had a suitable rear light! Yes! The mechanic had time & inclination to adapt the bracket to fit my pannier rack! What's more, the mechanic and the other customers were all incredibly encouraging about me heading up the Col de Vars at nightfall. "No hassle! You'll be at the top in a couple of hours! Easy peasy! Do it!" [It took me 2 and a half, but that did include a snack stop.]
All that remained was to telephone the hotel to warn them of my late arrival - they were incredibly helpful and not at all huffy - before heading back up the valley to Jausiers and another bottle refill at the same spring, then on up the pass road as the sunset began to gild the sky.
Before it got completely dark, I stopped for what one might call "lunch part 3" - luckily there was still enough baguette and cheese left after parts 1 & 2 - and to reorganise my kit so that everything I needed at the top (jacket, long fingered gloves etc etc) was readily to hand without me having to hunt for it in the dark.
Then it was onwards and upwards into the rapidly encroaching night. With time pressure removed - the hotel had texted me an entry code, so I could get in whatever time I arrived - all I had to do was keep the pedals turning, slowly and surely; and soon enough, there was the summit announcing itself in my headlight beam.
After layering up at the top, I had several minutes of "lights out" pause to look at the stars and the Milky Way - with a wonderfully wide field of vision, as I was so high up.
My phone with pre-planned Strava route guided me unerringly, and my Moon Meteor Storm Pro light lit the way brilliantly, all the way down to Montdauphin-Guillestre station and the adjacent hotel, for a few hours' much-needed rest before a 5.49 train departure next morning.
Appendix 1: debunking the fake news
The Cîme de la Bonette loop road reaches 2802m altitude at its highest point. This is some 500m lower than the real highest paved road in Europe, which is the Pico del Veleta (3300m) in Spain's Sierra Nevada.
So is it the highest road in the Alps? Nope. That accolade falls to the Ötztal Glacier road (2830m) in Austria.
It is, however, the highest road in *France*. Vive l'Europe - l'Europe, c'est la France!
And is it the highest *pass*? Nope, again. The Cîme road is a self-contained loop road, which doesn't count in the definition of a pass. The somewhat lower Col de la Bonette - where the loop road starts and finishes - is at altitude 2715m, which puts it 4th on the list of highest passes in Europe.
Appendix 2: The top 10 in full, with my 2018 ride descriptions
1: 2,770m Col de l'Iseran, France
2: 2,757m Stilfserjoch (aka Stelvio Pass), Italy (Südtirol)
3: 2,744m Col Agnel, France/Italy border
4: 2,715m Col de la Bonette, France
5: 2,645m Col du Galibier, France
6: 2,621m Gavia Pass, Italy
7: 2,504m Grossglockner High Alpine Road, Austria
8: 2,501m Umbrail Pass, Switzerland/Italy border
9: 2,481m Colle Fauniera, Italy
10: 2,478m Nufenen Pass, Switzerland