En Corse for superb cycling
Why has the world's greatest bicycle race taken so long to get here? The island of Corsica is a delight to explore on two wheels, says Adam Ruck
Saturday 29 June 2013
If St Tropez were a question, Porto Vecchio and Calvi would be Corsica's answers to it: rival poles of marina chic and beach tourism at opposite ends of the island, with shining white yachts on the water and Harley Davidsons on the quay, growling "m'as-tu vu" at passing strollers.
Today, all eyes are on Porto Vecchio where 198 cyclists are assembling in a car park behind the Café de la Marine for the start of the 100th Tour de France. Porto Vecchio is a small town en fête: the bunting of yellow, green, white and polka-dot mini-maillots was already up a fortnight ago when my peloton of two holiday cyclists arrived in Corsica for a 300km preview of the hairpin climbs and helter-skelter descents in store for the riders on the Tour's first visit to Napoleon Bonaparte's native island.
Mountainous Corsica, Ile de Beauté: such an obvious showcase for French history, scenery and sporting challenge. How has it been overlooked by the Tour until now?
"Twenty years ago it wouldn't have been possible because of the road surface," says Rob Ashton Kane, a keen cyclist who moved to Corsica to manage the programme of specialist tour operator Corsican Places. "Now the main roads are as good as A-roads in the UK." After La Patrouille de France paints the Corsican sky red, white and blue, the caravan of sponsors' floats sets off, the cyclists following slowly at first, because this is only a false start, "le départ fictif". The streets of Porto Vecchio are too narrow and tortuous for a cycle race.
At a roundabout on the edge of town the procession regroups to start again, seriously this time, for le grand départ itself. At last, after a long countdown, the game's afoot. Cry God for France, Saint Joan and Mark Cavendish, who has his chance to win the flat first stage and wear the famous yellow jersey when the Tour heads for the hills on Sunday morning.
From Bastia's enormous Place St-Nicolas, where Napoleon in Roman Imperial dress will send the riders on their way to Ajaccio: 154km via the Col de Vizzavona (1,163m). This is a short stage for the Tour: about four hours. For us, two days, with an overnight break beside a roaring torrent near Corte, the Corsican patriot's spiritual home and the only town of substance away from the sea. The fortress city sits beneath a theatre of snowy peaks, but the ascent to Vizzavona is a steady rather than a steep challenge, and does not even qualify as a mountain stage of the Tour.
We were reassured by this and also liked the look of the railway which follows the road over the mountain. We had half a mind to use it for a few stops on the way up.
Unfortunately, Chemins de Fer Corse has thought of this ploy and refuses to accept bikes on board its smart new trains. For a fee they are prepared to accept bags, however. We loaded our panniers on to the 8.03am from Corte to Ajaccio before tackling the 35km climb to Vizzavona. Four-and-a-half hours later, we reached the pass and congratulated ourselves: €10 were never better spent. The climbs – of which there are several, totalling more than 1,000 vertical metres of ascent – had been quite hard enough.
Today's well-equipped touring cyclist travels with Satnav and many apps. I make do with pages torn from a 10-year-old Michelin road atlas, because I like Michelin's old system of underlining any town or village with an entry in the annual red guide to hotels and restaurants. These red lines can be a useful pointer to lunch or a stopover.
My map failed to show a terrifying new schuss – with tunnel – on the Ajaccio side of the Col de Vizzavona, where Ashton Kane says the Tour cyclists may hit speeds up to 100km/h on Sunday afternoon. I hope their brakes are in good working order, or they may find themselves heading for an unscheduled stop in the pizzeria on the Bocognano roundabout. Its calzone is recommended.
Stage three, Ajaccio to Calvi, has no passes comparable to Vizzavona but promises to be tougher than stage two. "Not a single metre of flat," warns the Tour's website. No cooling mountain breeze, no forest to offer shade, and no railway to carry bags.
"Yes, you will have a tough day," said Jean-Baptiste Pieri. He is speaking over a glass of muscat at Les Mouettes, his stylish boutique hotel on the coast at Ajaccio, between a small beach and the Route des Sanguinaires where stage two contenders will sprint to the finish. "But when you reach Piana this time tomorrow your reward will be one of the most beautiful places in the Mediterranean," he added.
"This time tomorrow," we were still toiling upwards: the tough day had begun with a puncture and many wrong turnings in the near-vertical outskirts of Ajaccio. It was gone 7pm before we crested our last pass of the day and stopped for an expensive beer at Piana, balcony village and beauty spot at the top of Les Calanques, the ne plus ultra of Corsican landscape appreciation.
At Les Calanques – between Piana and Porto – the Mediterranean meets the Grand Canyon. Protected by an unconvincing knee-high wall, a narrow road cuts through cliffs of tennis-court-red granite. On one side, spires, towers and other forms of extreme Gothic natural sculpture; on the other, don't look down.
We were glad to be there at sunset, and even gladder to be going down this road, not up it. Taking the descent at speed would be another matter. Bon courage, Tour riders, as you hurtle through Les Calanques on Monday.
The last of the four days we devoted to stages two and three of the Tour took us up Corsica's west coast from Porto to Calvi. Halfway there, we hesitated at a parting of the ways: Calvi signed to left and right, with more bullet holes to the left.
The coastal option is 5km longer but stays lower: 146m for the D81bis, vs 443m for the D81. The Tour will be taking the high road, needless to say. We preferred the low road. Less climbing was one powerful reason. Lunch was another: I had noticed a red line under the word Ferayola, about 8km ahead of us along the coast road.
"Lunch in Ferayola!" I declared with a Napoleonic flourish, and off we set. The surface was terrible and as we jolted along, doubt grew with every pothole.
This road is not only uncomfortable, but seriously remote: dense, prickly maquis shrubland uninterrupted by habitation of any kind. Terrific views of one blue cove after another, white-striped by the occasional yacht. If Ferayola failed to deliver, the road to Calvi would be a gruelling 25km slog with disaffection in the ranks and only water and a bag of peanuts for fuel. Suddenly, unannounced, it came upon us: a staircase to a covered terrace with tables and chairs, all empty, overlooking a bend in the road and a fine stand of eucalyptus. Any chance of something to eat? "Of course, why not?" said Fabrice Abelin, the Auberge Ferayola's new incumbent.
Madame Abelin put down her pruning shears to make us some lunch, and their dog settled down to intercept any stray morsels of charcuterie corse that might come his way. None did. It was a memorable stop, made all the better for the surprise factor, and was clearly a triumphant vindication for ancien régime Michelin mapping.
After le grand départ, la grande continuation. When the Tour de France reaches Calvi on Monday afternoon, every available boat and plane will be needed to transport teams, support crews and media across the water to Nice for Tuesday's time trial. "Complete chaos, I expect," says Ashton Kane. "Like the retreat from Dunkirk."
The Tour will only just have started, but we had finished. After rinsing our blisters in the sea, there was time for a short sleep on the soft sand of Calvi's lovely beach before joining the throng on the waterfront. Where to eat? Try U Callelu, the last restaurant on the strip, beneath the walls of the citadel.
U Callelu is an outpost of Calvi's stand-out luxury bolthole, La Villa, which commands a magnificent view of the bay from the lofty seclusion of its perch in the steep hinterland. As an informal alternative to the hotel's Michelin-starred dining room, U Callelu works well, and it worked for us as a place to celebrate the end of our Corsican tour.
"The crab and the turbot are good today," said the waiter, timelessly understated in jeans and crisp white shirt. Good? They were much better than that. The Clos Culombu vermentino was good too. Corsican wine deserves to be better known, but that is another cycling holiday.
The writer travelled with Corsican Places (0845 330 2113; corsica.co.uk), which charters flights from Heathrow, Stansted, Manchester and Bristol to Corsica and offers a choice of villas, apartments and hotels on the island. Corsican Places also offers a selection of guided and self-guided cycling itineraries with local company Europe Active. You can also fly with easyJet from Gatwick.
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