Distance: 63 kilometers (39 miles) for the entire ride, 20 kilometers for just the Col
Time: About 3 hours depending on your pace
Difficulty: Moderate (big climb to start, then mostly downhill)
Elevation Gain: 1,093 meters (3,586 feet)
If you’ve read even a few of the articles on this website you probably know by now how much I love cycling, especially here in the south of France where it seems that nothing is flat. It doesn’t matter in which direction you ride, once you leave Vence you’re going to encounter a fair amount of climbing. I’m lucky to live in a town where a Category 1 climb, the Col de Vence, is less than one kilometer from my doorstep. In the cycling world mountain climbs are divided into five categories and Category 1 is the next to most difficult (the “hors catégoire” climbs are the most difficult). I also love riding at night, though I don’t do it very often. For obvious reasons it can be a bit more dangerous than riding during the daylight hours and I usually ride alone which makes it even riskier.
What you may not know is that I’m a very early riser. I love the morning. It’s so full of promise, the very definition of a new beginning. I love to watch the sun rise and slowly brighten the world around me. I have more energy in the early morning than at any other part of the day. For quite some time I’ve been wanting to climb the Col de Vence before sunrise and watch the sun come up over the Côte d’Azur. It made the most sense to do a ride like this in the summer when the pre-dawn hours weren’t very cold. So, a few weeks ago I set my alarm for 03h30 with the goal to be out on the road by 04h30 on my way up the Col de Vence. It was a spectacular ride with one very welcome surprise!
Note that this ride is identical to what I call the “Vence Seven Village Loop” which I have written about elsewhere on the website. The only difference here is that I’m starting in the dark, well before dawn, and spending some time at the summit of the Col de Vence to watch the sun come up.
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About the Col de Vence
The town of Vence sits on a small plateau about 9 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea. Immediately to the north are the famous local “baous,” rocky escarpments with flat tops that jut out from the sides of the hills. There are officially six such baous in the Alpes-Maritimes department and four of them are visible from Vence. The western most is the Baou des Blancs (Baou of the Whites) named after a religious brotherhood called the White Penitents. The road to the Col de Vence runs just beneath the Baou des Blancs, slightly to its west, winding and twisting its way up the hillside to its summit of 963 meters (3,159 feet) about 10 kilometers from Vence.
Located in the Alpes-Maritimes department between Vence and the medieval village of Coursegoules the Col de Vence is part of the Préalpes d’Azur Regional Natural Park. This park covers an impressive area of mostly rural territory (almost 1,000 square kilometers) that is known for its rich landscapes, diverse outdoor activities and natural history. A vast park with trails, forests and villages that stretches from Vence in the southeast to Saint-Aubun in the northwest, it’s a very popular destination for cycling, walking, hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. Nature and botanical lovers will find much to explore and admire throughout the area. The Lubiane River, which passes near the center of Vence, originates near the top of the southern slopes of the col.
The col is also well known as a major historical site. In addition to the remnants of prehistoric tribes that date back for thousands of years, bones of ancient rhinoceroses, lions, wolves, foxes and more have been discovered nearby. For many years the col has also had a reputation for being a hotspot for UFOs and other strange events and anomalies, including unexplained lights and unusual occurrences. These events are said to have been frequently reported by visitors to the Col and the plateaus around it and entire books have been written about this subject.
The road up to the col from the southern side, beginning in Vence, passes through mostly scrub-brush terrain. There are trees here and there, especially at the beginning, but the farther up you get the more scarce they become. The ground is very rocky and in many places the vegetation is sparse. Most of the road lies under open skies which means that in the summer if you are climbing on your bike it can get very, very hot. On the other hand it makes this col one of the most accessible climbs during the winter for you have the warmth of the sun almost the entire way up (and/or down).
The northern side of the col is much different than the southern side. The village of Coursegoules lies about 7 kilometers from the summit and it is actually higher than the col itself. If you are expecting an exciting, steep plunge once you pass over the col you will be sadly disappointed. There is a very short, fairly steep descent for the first two kilometers, but after that the road pretty much levels out and then it’s a short climb into Coursegoules.
The Col de Vence is used almost every year as part of the famous Paris-Nice cycling race which is held in March (the first major race of the season) and makes its way from Paris to Nice. The Nice Ironman race uses a portion of the northern slope for its cycling route. A local foot race called “L’Ascension du Col de Vence” has been held each year (usually in May) since 2003, though it was cancelled in 2020 and 2021.
Whether you drive, hike or cycle to the summit, the Col provides remarkable views of Vence and the Côte d’Azur. On a clear day it’s possible to see as far as Italy to the east and well past Cannes to the west. It’s one of the best views of the coast that you will find in this part of the French Riviera.
I left Vence right around 04h30 when the streets were empty and the lights of the city glowed bright in the dark air of a late June night. I had two bright red lights flashing on the back of my bike and one strong light on the front. Additionally, I wore a reflective vest just to be extra safe and make sure I was visible to any cars I might encounter on the climb. At this point there was no traffic anywhere and not a soul to be seen wandering the quiet streets. It seemed as if I had the entire town to myself. In just a few minutes I was at the beginning of the climb, a small intersection on the edge of town where five roads come together.
I headed up Avenue Henri Giraud towards the col. It usually takes me about 50 to 60 minutes to make the climb depending on how hard I am working. I planned to take it easy that morning and not push myself very much. Sunrise was listed as 05h51 so I had an hour and twenty minutes to get to the top, which was plenty of time. The road is marked with large blue and white signs showing the distance to the col and the average grade of the upcoming kilometer. This first section of the route is actually one of the steepest but in quick time things settle down a bit as the road makes a couple of sharp turns and passes by the Château Saint-Martin, a fancy hotel and spa that now occupies the ruins of an old Templar castle.
I was already beginning to see the faintest glow of a dark blue on the edges of the horizon and I turned off my lights. It was easy to see the road and I loved riding in the dark. Shortly I passed the sign that let me know I was entering the Parc Naturel Régional des Préalpes d’Azur. I stopped occasionally to take some photos as the sky gradually changed from black to dark blue and then to a lighter blue with a dark orange sliver of light on the horizon.
There was very little traffic on the road. I passed just a handful of cars coming in the opposite direction and each time I could see one approaching I turned on my front light, just in case. Only two cars passed me from behind the entire ride up the mountain.
About one kilometer from the summit the road runs along the edge of the mountain looking south and there is a magnificent view of the coast, including Cannes, Antibes, Nice and more. It then makes a sharp 180° turn and heads inward. From the actual col the coast is no longer visible. I decided to wait at this turn for the sun to come up as I really wanted to see the light on the water. From this vantage point the sun doesn’t really rise up out of the water, it comes up over the hills in the distance, but still, this seemed like the best place to watch.
I got off my bike, leaned it against a small stone wall and waited. I had my phone with me, of course, and was looking at some of the photos I had taken earlier when I looked up to see a small fox walking slowly on the road in front of me! Now, I can’t really tell you how surprised I was by this. Wildlife in France is very scarce. Over the last 20 years of so I’ve only seen a handful of squirrels and a couple of deer during my everyday outings. Considering all the bike riding and hiking I do it is remarkable that I’ve encounter such little wildlife. A couple of times when I’ve been in the high Alpes I’ve seen marmottes and Chamois, but this has only been at really high elevations. You would think the areas around Vence would be full of rabbits, squirrels, deer, wild pigs and more. Maybe they are and I just haven’t seen them. Regardless, when this little fox appeared before me on the street I was floored.
The fox didn’t seem scared of me in the least. It meandered slowly down the road, looking at me the entire time. It then turned around and walked back the way it had come. I quickly took a few photos and then a short video. After a few minutes he hopped over the small stone fence and was gone. The sun hadn’t quite risen above the mountain tops to the west yet but the sky was clear and by now an almost normal blue. I decided to ride on up to the col, just under another kilometer and see what things looked like from there.
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I leaned my bike up against the sign that officially marks the summit of the col and walked up a bit off the road where I got a fantastic view of the sun just cresting the distant hills. After taking a few photos I was back on the bike and ready to head down the other side. One of my favorite rides in this area is what I call the “Vence Seven Village Loop” and I had already decided that instead of just heading back down the way I came I would continue to follow this route back to Vence.
Just after you crest the summit of the col, right as you begin the descent down the other side, you see a small horse ranch called Ranch El Bronco. It’s a short ride from this point to Coursegoules. As I mentioned earlier the road is mostly flat. At one point the sun was rising on my right and my shadow was being thrown against a small hill on the left side of the road. I took a few photos as I was riding and got some nice shots.
The rest of the ride was very nice, though uneventful. By now the sun was fully up and the road and countryside was bathed in light. I passed quickly through Coursegoules, stopped on the road outside Bézaudun-les-Alpes to take a photo of the village perched on the hill with the sun illuminating it and then stopped for a water refill at the fountain in Bouyon. On through Le Broc, Carros, Gattières, Saint-Jeannet and back home to Vence.
All in all an absolutely wonderful ride. The climb up the Col de Vence in the dark was spectacular, the sunrise was fabulous and the fox was a super treat. I’ll gladly make this ride at least once a year. Now I’m thinking about other “sunrise rides” I can do. I think maybe the climb up to Gourdon might be next. It’s a bit longer and the road will probably have a few more cars, but I think if I leave early enough it should be safe. The view of the coast from Gourdon is absolutely amazing and it would be really sweet to see the sunrise from the village.
Most cyclists start the climb to the Col de Vence at the little five street intersection on the north side of town where Avenue Henri Matisse, Avenue Henri Giraud, Avenue Victor Tuby, Avenue des Poilus and Avenue Rhin et Danube all come together. The closest parking lots are Parking Marc Chagall, just a block away or Parking de la Rousse (which is a bit cheaper) about two blocks away. There’s a fountain at the intersection where you can fill water bottles if you need to.
Important Notes: Riding in the dark is always challenging. Do not attempt to make this ride unless you have really good front and back lights on your bike. You should also wear some kind of reflective vest or jacket. There is a lot climbing on this route but most of it is right at the beginning on the Col de Vence. There won’t be much traffic if you do this ride at the same time of the day I did, that is starting over an hour before dawn. By the time you reach the last portion, from Gattières to Vence, there may be more traffic. If there is any sign of rain I would suggest leaving the ride for another time. As always you’ll want to make sure you have a good bike, plenty of water and a helmet. You can usually get water and/or food in almost all of the villages you pass through (though in the early morning hours the small grocery stores will not be open). 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.