CCC Corsica 2014 Recon Diary Part 2 (stages 6-10)

16/11. Stage 6. Porticcio to Porticcio, via Val d’Eze. 195km, 3900m of up.

Designing a CCC stage on paper is quite simple; riding (or driving) a stage for the first time is less straightforward. This is where the fine tuning is done. Wiggly lines on a map always look fun, but sometimes that is not enough. I need every stage to deliver an option for a day on the bike that as a one-day ride feels totally exhilarating, fulfilling and unforgettable. The early, mid-, and final parts of the stage need to be different, with the final part often being the most crucial to providing this sense of elation with which I want riders to arrive at the hotel.
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Stage 6, to my relief and delight, does this perfectly, from start to finish. It has now ‘dethroned’ stage 4 as my favourite.
> After a short stretch along the coast to loosen legs that might well have tightened after the rest day, we hit our steepest climb of the route so far, gaining superb coastal views. It is almost Cornish in its style…which means a bit steep!
An undulating plateau of more wooded lanes is the setting all the way up to the Col St Georges. More deep black tarmac for a swooping descent and we head north-east towards Bastelica. This is a lumpy stretch that helps us gain some elevation as we head towards the highest road point in Corsica.
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The Val d’Eze ski station is not a Col, but as a 14km climb into the very heart of Corsica, I had to include it. Or at least ride it to see whether it would be worth it, especially as it is a there-&-back climb. Moments like this are what makes a recon so rewarding : it is a place full of the magic that is the base ingredient of the Cent Cols Challenges! Threateningly steep to start with, it soon adopts the Corsican gradient (6-8%) and the landscape delivers the rest. 50km views down to the bay of Ajaccio offer unforgettable moments. Lunch will be at the top, 1600m high, and exactly half way through the stage.
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The descent will be just as good since the road surface is perfect, wide and safe. But once through the village of Bastelica, it’s straight into the next superb climb: Col de Scalella. Another treat, say no more.
The afternoon is a rolling “overall downhill” affair, which consists of following the high road due west, through village after village, up, down, up, but more down. Road surface vary from cobblesque to baby smooth Tour tarmac. It makes for a superbly entertaining afternoon!
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To arrive back at the coast after riding up to the Val d’Eze gives the impression of having been to the very heart of the island and back. Claire & I both loved this stage.
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17/11 Stage 7 : Porticcio to Porto : 188km, 4050m of up.
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As a follow-up to stage 6, stage 7 does more than ok. With 5 main climbs, successively peaking at 600m, 800m then 1100m, the stage saves the best for the end.
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After a rather choppy start, with some short, but acute uphill we take the coastal road (used by the Tour 2013) for a couple of cols until we are rewarded with a fast, smooth descent. After this passage on a road WITH cars, we head off again into the hills for our second main climb of the day. More sea views on a relaxing ridge section before the final push up to the Col de Sarzoggio. After another perfect-tarmac descent, and a very short flat-ish bit comes the 14km haul up to the Col de Tarttavello. ( A loose translation of this could be “Bicycle Tart”, & since the top comes at exactly 100km into the stage, this is where we will lunch, perhaps with some Tarte à Velo…) This is a climb I love : steep for its first four kms before it chills a little. Changing woodland, generous views and a road that once again has never heard of “straight”.
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An 11km down to get over lunch before climb #4, on the crazy D4, with rock, corniches, and a surprising waterfall to keep us entertained all the way to Vico, for tea.
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The Lettia loop that follows takes us through a couple of astonishing villages : how / why did they build these places? What on earth do people “do” here? Does anyone really live here all year round? Right now all the villages are tuned to the shooting season : guns are everywhere; not that comfy when riding on my own in the hills, hoping they find wildlife to kill before they get ideas for other kinds of fun.
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Once over the south side of Sevi, climb #5, begins the long, long descent via a tiny bit of almost-uphill, to Porto. The D24/D84 is a road that is probably the best downhill 20kms I have ever ridden. The scenery ain’t that bad ‘n all. I rode this in June, so in the car today (around 18°C all day, which was pleasant!), but even on 4 wheels it put a smile on our faces.
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18/11 : Stage 8 – Porto to Porto, via Sagone. 163km. 3,600m of up.
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The place we stay at in Porto could well get best-stay vote on the trip. So not a bad thing that this stage is shorter than a usual CCC stage. It will be hard for our little travelling cycle show to pull out of this haven. The stage itself is the most “Mari e Monti” of them all : a rich combination of mountain and sea that Corsica does so well.
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I cycled out of Porto at 7am, with drizzle threateningly looking as if it was going to veer to rain. Later it did, but it left me time to get up to the Col de Verghio, the main climb of the stage and the longest of the whole event. 35.8km from hotel to Col, with 1500m of climbing (= av 4.6% roughly). It takes a while, but the scenery changes all the way up. And it is not very ordinary scenery either!
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After this leg-warmer (!), a descent back to & up ‘n over the Col de Sevi (again, but it’s worth it) then more flying descent until we peel off for some more fun along a narrow ‘ridge’ road through the hills. Spoilt for views again; road surface perfectly acceptable; no cars; a few animals. After a couple of very tame Cols, we plunge all the way down to the sea for a 10km stretch of smooth coastal road. By this time I am soaked, but being wet and warm (or, at least, not cold) is a feeling I love and I pound the pedals with new-found boyish bounce.
> Lunch stop will be by the sea (I just carried on, thinking about the hot bath at the end) then up into the hills for a short loop, grabbing another low-level Col before heading back along the coast for the Grand Finale of the stage. First we take another perfect stretch of tarmac to the Col d ‘Osini, with plunging views down to the rocky coastline below us. We plan to ask riders to descend all the way down to the end of this road : the beach! A beach that even looked tempting in the rain! We’ll have our last stop here, complete with swim & ice cream, surely? Then we just have to go all the way back up (7km with 500m of climbing), but it is so so so worth it!
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Back into Piana. All that remains between here and 12km of downhill to the hotel is the most spectacular piece of road on the island. The Tour cameras caught it in July, of course. I had originally planned this stage to be ridden the opposite way round, but last night Claire & I realised that this bit had to be the at the end of the stage. Riders should stop, take photos until their fingers ache, and then coast home to the panoramic pool at the hotel! Tough life on a CCC, you see?
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19/11. Stage 9. Porto to Ile Rousse. 209km; 3,400m of up.
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In the back of my mind I had doubts on whether this stage had the potential to deliver as much of its promise as the others. I was hoping for one or two surprises, and thankfully we got them! It’s a long stage, with a little less overall climbing than most of the others, but, as it happens, it contains the hardest climb of the whole challenge, which was such perfect timing !
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The stage opens with almost 80 kms of coastal treat, 20kms of which are on rather ‘tired’ tarmac, but overall once again we are treated to much more smooth than rough. The road rolls a bit, but never painfully, and the sea views act as a perfect prelude for the coastal feast of stage 10.
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Once through the historic town of Calvi, we head inland and up to the Col de Salvi. This turns out to be a mere warm-up for the D663 that takes us through Speloncato and onwards and very upwards to the formidable Bocca di a Battaglia. A 10 km climb that ends up with an average of 7%, but much of it is in double figures and above the treeline, even though it tops at a little over 1000m. The views from the top (once we had come back out of the mountain cloud) were pretty good!
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A long descent follows, on fairly decent road, taking us back into a bit of chestnut woods (where we came across Old Mr Chestnut himself : the old ones are the best, n’est-ce pas?! See photo.), and then into a long section of the most barren landscape we have yet come across. A few very sleepy cows stroll around but gone are the acorn-& chestnut-scoffing pigs. Still gone are cars, but then they have never been part of this trip at all.
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After this 20km downhill section, we turn back eastwards for a (15km) long but gentle climb to the Col de san Colombano. This will be the final LONG climb of the event, and to be nice to us it saves its best tarmac for the descent side : a super-smooth section of 14km of fun.
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It would almost have been bland to have ended the stage with another “downhill-to-the-hotel” end. I was hoping that a little road I had spotted would add a typical Tour (or Phil?!) final ‘bump’, and guess what : I got one! A three km final push that gives us an equally good three km fun-run-in down to Ile Rousse below.
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This stage, with its long coastal section, its tough climb, its infinity views and the barren section of hill country, has more than enough to make it worthy of the event. Why did I ever doubt ? Because I ask for a lot, I suppose. “Merci Corsica” for your generosity.
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20/11 Stage Ten : Ile Rousse to Bastia via Luri. 162km ; 3100m of up.
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On the map this looked to be a straightforward Tour of the ‘Capi Corsu’ via its coastal route. In fact we ‘creatively tuned’ this stage more than any other so far, creating a final stage that I am totally happy with. Not too long (to allow more post-ride time than usual) and enough climbing to make it interesting, but without wiping the smile off riders’ faces.
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The first of several 5km-long climbs comes as we traverse the “Desert des Agriates”, a barren ‘maquis’ coastal region that seperates Ile Rousse from the very attractive little port of St Florent. This is where the route round the Cap Corse begins.We follow the D80 for 28kms of rolling coastal views and more smooth tarmac until the D33 proves too tempting to not explore, rising sharply to our right. We gain height for 4kms, which is more than enough to make the road seem as dramatic as anyone would want it to be, especially on a bike! 18km of amazing road follow : no more should be said.
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After a sharp descent to Pino, the good tarmac ran out, as we found out by initially carrying on up towards the Cap. We found also that after the D33 fun, the D80 did nothing for us. So we decide to cut across the Cap here, following perfect tarmac on the climb up to the Bocca di Lucia : a perfect final lunch stop, with views of both coasts from the top.
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A smooth, fast descent after lunch before our next reasonably harsh 4km up over the Col de la Serra and down to the Cap’s east coast. Compared to the wind-swept west coast, this coast is far more placid, so the 15km stretch we now take will be a fast, easy run to the foot of the (almost) final climb of the event. With the distance ‘lost’ earlier by not going right to the top of the Cap, I have kms to play with, so a long wiggly road had caught my (evil?) eye. As it turns out, the climb up to San Martino-di-Lota, although only 9km, is one gem of a climb. Not only that, but at the top lies the most perfectly placed shaded square, complete with ice-cream shop and views over miles of sea. Our final stop was there waiting for us to find it!
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It could have been all-downhill-to-the-end from here, but I managed to find a 1.5km bit of nice road that goes up for one final time. Then down.
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TO CLOSE : back here in Bastia after a ten-day mix of driving & riding, and my third cycle trip to Corsica, I can so honestly say that if you are over doing the “bucket-list” of climbs, or want to take a break from that, and are after a unique, totally exhilarating and often very challenging cycling experience, then Corsica could be your ticket. It is a strange island in many ways; there is something quite mystical about it, sometimes threatening, but the people we met have all been as friendly and helpful as could be wished for. I would love this event to be as successful as it deserves to be, not for financial reasons, but because I so hope that we can come back here to start the Cent Cols Challenge season here every year! Now it’s time for one more great meal and a special treat dessert of ice cream with a chestnut liqueur poured over it. Viva Corsica!