Archive for November, 2013

Sleet and snow

Posted in Cycling, Nice at 19:37

Snow on the Riviera foothills - PrealpesSnow on the Riviera foothills – Préalpes looking west

I always check the weather forecast before committing to a ride. With all of our hills, mountains, rivers, valleys, and the Mediterranean, there are several microclimates in the area. It’s common for Nice to get downpours while places a few miles away stay entirely dry, and vice versa. The most reliable forecasts tend to be those from Météo France, but again, given Nice’s microclimate, there’s nothing barring the warmer Mediterranean from deciding to throw an impromptu party with cold snaps rolling down from the mountains. The best indicator – a tip shared by a dive instructor many years ago – is to look at what the winds are doing. If they start to get above 25kmh, something is afoot. I can’t overstate the importance of winds here. Again, the mountains and valleys come into play: while you’ll be relatively protected inside cities, once you’re crossing any sort of valley – for instance, the Var between Nice and Saint Laurent du Var – you will be getting strong crosswinds, often as unpredictable gusts. These are winds that blow cars a few feet sideways on the autoroute; they can do worse for lighter cyclists.

Yesterday evening, I checked my weather app and saw 5°C forecast for the morning, chance of light showers, and then the sun coming out for a 14°C afternoon. Winds at a kind-of-iffy 20kmh, but no gusts. Since Saturday we had been having thunderstorms and constant rain showers with moderate winds (30kmh), which had finally let up on Wednesday. As such long-term rains are out of the norm here, I felt reassured by Wednesday’s calm, the forecast, and 13 years of living here that all spoke towards a sense that “Thursday should be fine.”

I started out at sunrise. It was cold, but not freezing. As I rode to the Prom, a few drops began to fall. “Ah! Light rains, just as they said!” I thought. Once on the Prom, I enjoyed the fresh sea air, and flew along with a huge flock of swallows dancing a few dozen metres above. It was a lovely sensation watching their farandole du ciel as I rode along, nearly as free as they.

Then the sky got darker, rather than lighter. As I neared the bridge over the Var and took a drink from my bottle, I thought, “wow, this tastes like it just came out of the refrigerator! …uh-oh…” I keep my refrigerator quite cold. The rain got heavier, and felt icy on my legs – I don’t have knee warmers. I thought it was due to being out of the habit of riding in the cold. But when I reached Cagnes, the water in my bottle was even icier.

There’s a 75-metre elevation gain over just 450 metres as I near our offices: a 17% climb. For the first time I can remember in 30-odd years of riding bikes, I had difficulty controlling my front wheel. It didn’t seem to want to go straight. My handlebars kept trying to squirm out from under my hands. I was grateful to have put on my full-length gloves, which are really grippy. It was only after I had reached the warmth of our offices that I learned what I’d just ridden through: a freak sleet storm that had sent cars spinning on our hills. Only another hundred metres above our hill’s elevation, snow had fallen, and stayed put all day.

Snow on the Riviera foothills - Prealpes looking northSnow on the Riviera foothills – Préalpes looking north

So it was that my 300th road kilometre was baptised by ice. It’s not an experience I want to repeat! While it’s disappointing, I do think it would be safest if I hold back from commuting, which has to happen during the weather-sensitive sunrises and sunsets here until February has passed, and keep road riding for weekends. Going out after the sun has been shining for an hour or two is much more reliable here.

Cycling the Basse Corniche

Posted in Cycling, La France, Nice at 15:12

Panorama, Port of Nice

Last week I mentioned that many bike touring places here take you along the Basse Corniche, a relatively easy and picturesque ride. Still getting my legs into shape, I decided to take it rather than the more difficult Moyenne Corniche today, for a quick ride to Villefranche-sur-mer. I’ve done the Basse Corniche by car and bus (line 100 takes you from Nice to Monaco along that very route), and always thought the Moyenne and Grande Corniches were much nicer for views. I wasn’t counting on a bicycle making a large difference. I was very happily mistaken!

Above is a panorama I put together from three photos on my camera; that is the sort of thing you can see with a quick look over your shoulder by bike. No car frame or roof to block your view. When I turned the cap de Nice and came upon Villefranche, I nearly fell off my bike from astonishment at the unexpectedly incredible view. As it was, some tourists on foot heard a surprised cyclist exclaim, “wow mais c’est trop beau !!!” There was no way I could have captured it with my camera. To your left you have the Mont Boron rising up nearly 200 metres from sea level; in front of you the nearby hills and Préalpes form the backdrop to charming Villefranche; to your right, the blue Baie de Villefranche dotted with sailboats and the occasional cruise ship, more rocky hills plunging into the Mediterranean, and Cap Ferrat jutting into the sea. All of it visible without effort. “Breathtaking” is correct.

Baie de Villefranche

Church, Villefranche old town

Here is a closer view of the Port de Nice, which had a French flag draped over our WWI-WWII memorial for the WWI Armistice commemorations today.

Port of Nice, 11 November

Route from Nice city center
Overview: 20km/12mi round trip, 90 metres/295 feet elevation gain over the 2 kilometres/just over 1 mile between the port of Nice and the Cap de Nice, as well as between Villefranche and the Cap on the way back. That’s a 4.5% grade.

Map: my favorite is the IGN Nice-Menton “Carte de randonnée” n°3742, at 1:25,000, or 1cm=250m.

I went the easy way from Nice, namely, the Promenade des Anglais, and rode up the port. Do be aware that the bike lane along the port ends before reaching its north, so you’ll need to safely rejoin the road. Turn right to follow the north end of the port, and go straight through the lights to Boulevard Carnot, which is a steady, moderately easy climb. It does climb for two kilometres, so you’ll need to be in decent shape for it. I wouldn’t do it on a Vélo Bleu, they only have three gears and are quite heavy.

The bike lanes are a bit odd from the Cap de Nice onwards, but drivers are careful as it’s a heavily-cycled route. Remember to look over your shoulder before merging or turning, and you should be fine. While riding to Villefranche, also keep your eye out for cyclists riding the wrong direction – I crossed several. Understandable, since the climb isn’t easy, and they were clearly not from the area, but still awkward.

Once in Villefranche, you can follow signs that indicate Vieille Ville, which will take you to the old town. Keep in mind you’ll have to climb the narrow, winding roads back up to get out of the village. Roads back to Nice are well-indicated, and the Basse Corniche is the most easily accessible.

On your way back from Villefranche to Nice, you can ride on the road, near the rock face of Mont Boron. Cars are well-behaved here, and as paradoxical as it may feel, it is in fact safer than riding the wrong way up the shared cycle-footpath. Predictable behavior is always safer than something unpredictable, such as coming across runners or other cyclists while riding the wrong direction. On that note, wherever you ride, always signal your movements, even if it’s only to move to the left a few feet to avoid car doors. I straighten my arm and point down and slightly left for that. In France, scooters and motorcycles have the right to pass vehicles on the left, and they usually drive fast, so you don’t always hear them or see them. If you do a quick check behind you, then signal, and keep signalling until you’ve finished moving, you’ll be much appreciated by all. I’ve now ridden 250km on my road bike, a good half of it on narrow, winding roads, and have never yet been honked at or buzzed dangerously. (A few “?!?!” incidents, yes, but all of them predictable from a defensive cycling viewpoint. There has been one scary incident, but it was so off-the-wall that it could happen anywhere. In short, use your eyes and hand signals, ride predictably and defensively, and you should be fine.)

For a bit of a change on the ride back into Nice, you can go straight on Boulevard Carnot, and continue going straight on the wide street that takes you to Place Garibaldi. In other words, don’t turn left to follow the west side of the port; just go straight through that intersection. Place Garibaldi has older cobblestones, you’ll cross the tram line as well, then ride under the MAMAC, our modern art museum. Position yourself in the left lane: after the MAMAC, turn left onto the protected bike lanes that follow our new Promenade du Paillon, and watch the lights! They’re designed for cyclists, so if you have a red, stop: it will save you from left hooks. Enjoy – it’s a beautiful ride, our city has come a long way for cycling these past few years.

Un peu de détente

Posted in Cycling, La France at 21:21

Cagnes in the morning sun

Another long weekend ahead of us here, this time for commemorations of the 1918 Armistice on Monday the 11th.

As I continue commuting to work by bike, a distinct pattern of experiences has emerged, one I never expected, and yet that is a wonderful balm for the soul. Children. I’ve always loved kids, and apparently have a face that shows it, since babies spontaneously coo at me even when I haven’t looked at them. It makes for fun surprises at parks and in public transportation: there’s nothing like getting on a crowded tramway, hearing “wheee! gaaa! heee!” then looking in the voice’s direction to find a giggly-eyed, happily-squirming infant meeting your gaze, who punctuates your eye contact with that pleased flop-the-arms-and-legs motion and a bubbly “daaaa!”

My commutes usually have some overlap with school opening and closing hours; I cross toddlers with their parents, grandparents, or friends’ parents. Without fail, little girls are delighted to see my bike. Boys love bikes too, many will make eye contact and share a smile. I nod and return the smile, and they turn back to their playing. Little girls, though… I’m a woman, I remember being a little girl and noticing early on that you don’t see many women on bikes. Even the cycling competitions that get broadcasted are overwhelmingly those with men. I remember being excited at Jeannie Longo‘s feats: here was a woman being awesome on a bicycle, something I too loved. And so, today, when little girls look at me, stop in their tracks, and stare, I get it. The little girl in me who grew up riding around her valley hills also smiles. I nod at them, as I do with all the kids.

The girls almost always widen their smiles into elated grins and respond excitedly:
“Le vélo ! Le vélo, le vélo !”
“Coucou ! Tu fais du vélo !! Du vélo !!”
“Ouaaaaaa ! Le vélooo !”
“C’est… v’zêtes sur un… un vélo !!!”
“Mamie ! Le vélo ! Le vélo !” This little girl yesterday paused for several seconds, taking in everything about my bike, until adding, entranced: “il a un CLIGNOTANT !” which means, “it has a BLINKER!” I do indeed turn on my blinky lights as soon as twilight falls. I call them my blinky-blinks. “Faut penser à mettre en route les blinky-blinks,” I remind myself before starting out on dark rides.

Another little girl yesterday evening, riding on her father’s shoulders, made an already fun commute even more so. I had just turned onto the last street before reaching my place and slowed for a yellow light. Next to me was a souped-up Citroën Saxo with windows open, blaring Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky“. I started whistling along, bopping on my bike at the red light, happy for the evening ride. I heard a tiny whistle nearby. I whistled again, and heard another whistle response; definitely a kid. I looked towards the whistling’s source: there she was, a little girl cozy in her puffy white winter coat, who bounced her arms and giggled as our eyes met. “Vélooo !” she said. I grinned, whistled a bit more, and father and daughter both smiled. The light turned green, I nodded to them and rode home.

Cycling the Riviera

Posted in Cycling, La France, Travel at 21:13

Colline du château de Cagnes

This view from part of my commute, snapped with my phone yesterday at sunset, speaks a great deal about cycling conditions in this part of the world: to say “it is not flat” is an understatement. With just 200km on my still-new road bike, not quite in good enough shape yet for longer rides, I’ve been looking into weekend ideas for short trips into the countryside. I assumed, given the number of serious cyclists you see here, plus the 14 million tourists we get each year on the Riviera, and knowing pro cyclists train here, that there would be at least someone blogging about it at some point. I know of MapMyRide, but was hoping for stories, insight, descriptions, experiences. The sort of thing that GPS traces don’t provide.

Well, I didn’t find much at all after hours of fiddling with French and English search terms. Here are some in French that give good results for trips anywhere in France except here:
– balade vélo (essentially a short bike ride)
– cyclotourisme (French for “bike touring”)
– cyclisme (cycling, generic)
– région à vélo (switch out “région” for whichever region you want to visit on bike)

If you do put in Nice, PACA (our region’s official French abbreviation), or the Côte d’Azur, in French or in English, you’ll come across lonely questions with no responses, or forum posts with “be aware that it is NOT FLAT!” replies, or a couple links to bike rental/tour gigs in the area, who generally take visitors along the flat Promenade and Basse Corniche. Those are nice rides, beautiful ideas for first-time visitors, but I’ve lived here for a while now and am the type of cyclist who enjoys a good climb or three.

“Crickets”, respond the intarwebs, apart from the obvious, yet rarely-described, Moyenne and Grande corniches to the east. The Moyenne Corniche is a bit steep and has gorgeous views. You can ride all the way to Italy (which isn’t that far, 30km from Nice) on both it and the Grande Corniche. The “Grande” corniche lives up to its name, and is a road many pros train on for its challenges. Those take you east, and flat coastal roads take you west, but what about the north? There lie the Alps, and equally stunning vistas… but no recommendations, aside from one French blogger not from the area, who talked about the crête de Craus a few kilometers north of Nice, as well as Roquebrune, La Turbie (along the Moyenne Corniche), and a few other mountain villages. However, he entirely avoided Nice. Rather impractical for advice when Nice is my home base.

I’ll likely return to my favorite bike shop and ask them for recommendations. They would definitely know some great cycling routes in the area. In the meanwhile, my personality is also of the “neat, I can figure this out on my own and learn from mistakes” type, so I’ll be checking out topo maps and whipping up some outings that I’ll try, then post about here.

IGN, France’s National Geographic Institute, has some very nice maps available for free download, in addition to the excellent ones they sell. They also publish a free Android and iPhone app. Below is a crop of their large physical map of France, showing our southeast corner of it, as well as neighboring Corsica, another place I look forward to visiting on bike.


Posted in Cycling, La France, Nice, Photography at 17:32

After falling to the flu that’s been going around these parts, I finally recovered enough this week that I had the energy to get back into the saddle today. It’s a holiday here, Toussaint (All Saints Day), and we have a brand new park, inaugurated just last Saturday. I took the opportunity to ride to the Promenade des Anglais, take in some autumn sea air, then pedal to the new Promenade du Paillon. It goes from the Promenade des Anglais, to the Acropolis, our events pavilion, following a portion of the Paillon riverbed. To build the park, our decrepit central bus station was demolished, and the park just above Place Masséna was redone. This created over a kilometer of greenery! The city has been publicizing it as new lungs bringing much-needed fresh air to that part of the city, and after visiting today, I agree with their characterization – it’s open, welcoming, and a beautiful connection of the more modern city to the north, and medieval Vieux Nice to the south. The city now feels much less divided along that axis, and much cleaner.

Promenade du Paillon

Fountains - Promenade du Paillon

Mist sprayers - Promenade du Paillon

Vieux Nice behind the mist

Acropolis entrance - Promenade du Paillon