Distance: 135 kilometers
Time: Around 6-7 hours depending on your pace
Difficulty: Very Difficult (quite long with a fair amount of climbing)
Sainte-Agnès is another of the official Most Beautiful Villages of France. It has the distinction of being the “highest” coastal perched village in Europe. It’s a small village, about 1,200 people, situated high above Menton, not far from the Italian border. I first visited it on bike with my friend Les many, many years ago when we were staying in Nice for a cycling trip and I’ve been back over a dozen times since then. There are a variety of ways to get to Sainte-Agnès via bike from the Côte d’Azur. This particular ride begins in Vence, so it’s a considerable distance. If it is too long or too difficult for you it’s easy to start somewhere else along the route: for example in Nice or La Turbie. You can also start from Menton and ride straight up to Sainte-Agnès (though that route is very different from what I describe here).
[more info after the photo gallery]
Leaving from Vence head down the M36 (Route de Cagnes), the main road heading south out of town. You’ll come to a large roundabout. If you continue on straight ahead the road turns into the M336, but if you turn to the left it remains the M36, now called the “Route de Vence.” Go left and follow the M36 all the way into Cagnes-sur-Mer, pass under the A8 and take the Boulevard Marcéhal Juin (turns into Boulevard JF Kennedy) straight down to the bike path that runs along the Promenade de la Plage along the coast. Turn east (left) on the bike path. You now have a clear shot all the way into, all the way through and out of Nice. This wonderful bike path runs for almost fifteen kilometers from Cagnes-sur-Mer, through St-Laurent-du-Var, past the Nice airport and all along the famous Promenade des Anglais in Nice. It’s a beautiful ride and on a warm, sunny day it’s spectacular. Be careful though, because although the bike path itself is very well maintained, a lot of pedestrians don’t pay attention and they will sometimes walk right in front of you not looking to see who might be coming along the path.
When you are about 22 kilometers into the ride you’ll arrive in front of the Hotel Negresco, one of my favorites landmarks in Nice. It’s a good place to take a short break if you need one and do a little siteseeing and people watching along the Promenande. Continue along the Promenande for a few more kilometers and you’ll come to Pointe de Rauba-Capeu where there is a small “place” and a big “I Love Nice” sign. You’ll have a spectacular view of the Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels) and the Nice shoreline. Circle part way around the Nice Port and turn left onto Boulevard Lech Walesa which then turns into Boulevard de Riquier. Shortly you will reach the M2564 (known here as Boulevard Bischoffsheim), the base of the Col d’Èze. You’ll see signs on the right for “Grande Corniche” and the Nice Observatory. There are three roads that run from Nice to Italy: the “basse cornice” (the low road that runs mostly along the coast), the “moyenne corniche” (the middle road that runs along the mountainside) and the “grande corniche” (the high road that runs up along the top of the mountain). Today we’ll be taking the high road which runs up to and over the Col d’Èze and on into the village of La Turbie.
It’s about 10KM to the top of the Col d’Èze, but to be honest, it’s not a very hard climb. The first few kilometers are the steepest, but it levels off a bit in several places after that. The climb is always part of the final stage of the famous Paris-Nice cycling race. It’s a very nice climb, with a wonderful view of Nice from the “backside.” Once you get to the top you also have really great views of the sea and the coast. If you look carefully you can also see the village of Èze below you on the right as you pass over the col. We’ll be on the M2564 all the way to La Turbie where it then turns into the D2564.
As you pull into La Turbie keep an eye out for the large Roman monument, the Trophy of Augustus, built over 2,000 years ago. You’ll have a marvelous view of it straight ahead as you come into the village. La Turbie is a great place to stop for a snack and to replenish your water bottles. There’s a fountain right along the left side the road as you are getting into town and a very nice boulangerie, Saines Saveurs. If you have a few extra minutes head over to the entrance for the Trophy of Augustus where you’ll find a small little belvédère with and awesome view of Monte Carlo. From La Turbie there is a road that leads further up into the mountains to Peille, the D53. About one or two kilometers before you get to Peille you turn right on the D22 to climb the Col de la Madone and head over to Sainte-Agnès (you’ll see signs).
Col de la Madone
The Col de la Madone is a famous climb among cyclists, many of whom train on it, taking the approach out of Menton. Lance Armstrong still holds the record for the ascent (I think). Today we are going up the western side from La Turbie, which is opposite from which most folks climb, the eastern side from Menton. It’s a nice road and again, not too hard. Make sure to stop at the top for a photo of your bike next to the summit marker and then it will be all downhill for about 6 kilometers into Sainte-Agnès. It’s a typical little perched village, very beautiful, though it does get a fair amount of tourists coming up from Menton. There’s a very steep little road up to the village, but it doesn’t last too long. You can usually find food and water (there are several fountains) in town. At this point I’m usually about three hours into my ride.
Once again it is all downhill to Menton, just stay on the D22. Follow the road, the numbers will change to the D223 and then the D23, but it’s all really the same road and it will lead you right to the beach in Menton. Menton is the last French city before you reach the Italian border. It’s a really beautiful town, one I could easily live in. Nowhere near as big and busy as Nice, much more manageable. It’s known for growing lemons and limes because of the great year round climate. Once you hit the city it is only a few kilometers to the Italian border, so I usually head east and snap a few photos, one of the border crossing sign and another of the city marker for Menton. Wouldn’t seem right to come all this way and not see the Italian border!
The coast road from Menton back to Nice is absolutely beautiful, one of the most scenic stretches of coastal road you will ever find. However, I have something of a love/hate relationship with it when it comes to cycling. On the one had it is devastatingly magnificent and I never get tired of the sites along the way. On the other hand there is no denying it can sometimes be a slightly dangerous road to cycle on. Lots and lots of traffic. Narrow, twisting roads. Cars and people crossing from every direction, not really paying attention to you. You have to be very aware, keep very alert at all times and be prepared for surprises. Early Sunday morning is a great time to ride this road because there isn’t much traffic. Late in the afternoon on a weekday is one of the worst times to find yourself there.
Head west through Menton on the D6007, the “basse corniche,” through Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and into Monte Carlo. Monte Carlo has always been a very exasperating place to ride through. It is very hard to figure out the streets. Too many one way streets make it very hard to navigate. Coming from the west to the east is not too difficult, but coming from the east to the west often gets me quite confused and mixed up. I’ll do my best to help you get through it, but you should be prepared to use Google Maps on your phone as well. The D6007 will split shortly before you get to Monte Carlo. To your right it remains the D6007 but heads uphill and becomes the “moyene corniche.” If you keep to the left it becomes the D6098 and remains the “basse corniche.” Just as you get into town you’ll come to a large roundabout. You want to follow this almost all the way around and follow the signs that say “Nice” and “Monte-Carol-Country Club.” You’ll go downhill on Avenue Princesse Grace, winding around several times until you come to another, smaller roundabout where you’ll make a 180 degree turn and follow the signs that say “Monte-Carlo/Monaco” and “Grimaldi Forum.” This is now Boulevard du Larvotto.
Continue along until you come to another roundabout where you can go slightly uphill to the right or slightly downhill to the left. Take the left road, which remains Boulevard du Larvotto and you’ll eventually come to a tunnel. Take the tunnel until the first roundabout where you will exit the tunnel and find yourself on rue Grimaldi. Follow this until you come to a large roundabout where you can no longer go straight. Turn right on Avenue Prince Piere where you see the sign for the A8, “Jardin Exotique” and “Cap d’Ail.” Go up one block and turn left on Rue de la Colle, again following the signs for the A8 and Cap d’Ail. Rue de la Colle turns into Boulevard Charles III which connects with M6098.
Back To Vence
You’re now safely out of Monte Carlo and it’s mostly clear sailing on the M6098 through Cap d’Ail, Eze-sur-Mer and Beaulieu-sur-Mer. It’s a little tricky when you pass by Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, but just stay on the M6098 and you’ll be good. Take your time along this road, take in all the sites and enjoy yourself. There’s so much to see. But, like I said earlier, be careful and alert. You’ll soon come back through Villefranche-sur-Mer and Nice. Once in Nice simply follow the same route back along the Promenade des Anglais, past the airport, through St-Laurent-du-Var and Cagnes-sur-Mer to Vence that you took at the start of the ride. Unfortunately, the last five kilometers are uphill into Vence, so hopefully you’ll still have some energy left.
As I said, this is a long ride. But, if you’re up for it, it’s really amazing. You cover so much of the Côte d’Azur from the seaside to the mountains. You pass through many wonderful towns and villages. It’s one of my very favorite rides in the area.
Important Notes: This is a long bike ride with a fair amount of climbing. If there is any sign of rain I would suggest leaving the ride for another day as you don’t want to be caught in the rain with a long way back. I’ve tried to provide the most accurate directions that I can, but some of these roads are a bit tricky, so please make sure you have a phone with Google Maps in case something is wrong or isn’t clear. As always you’ll want to make sure you have a good bike and plenty of water. You should have numerous opportunities to refill your water and buy food along the way, but make sure you have a fair amount with you just in case. The best time to make this ride in the summer is early in the morning when it’s the coolest, the best time in the winter is early in the afternoon when things have warmed up a bit. You’ll want a helmet and sunscreen no matter what time of the year you go. If you are riding alone make sure someone knows where you are going and what time you should be back. I always wear an identification bracelet that I got from Road ID.