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CYCLING IN FRANCE – Seb Greenwood

Many areas of France are an unknown quantity to the British cyclist. Instead, malady our cyclist will head to the main Alpine regions near Barçalonette, Gap or Grenoble and who’s to blame him for this decision! The opportunity to conquer the Col’s made famous by the Tour de France is too great a temptation for the cyclist to turn down for the unknown quantity. But the unknown quantity brings with it the excitement of celebrating discoveries and overcoming unexpected challenges. So, our British cyclist takes a chance and heads to a small village called Aups in Le parc naturel régional du Verdon in the Department of the Vars (83)…

Located 30mins from the Gare TGV of Les Arcs-Draguignan and 60mins from both Marseilles and Nice airport, Aups boasts an abundance of natural beauty, very well organised camp sites and holiday homes to rent, and, of course, sensational cycling at the foot of the main Alpine region.

To warm up on the first few days you can ride east on the D9 from Aups to Regusse which comprises some steady climbs of between 5% and 7% before heading toward Sillans-la-Cascade named due to the beautiful waterfall and plunge pools found near to it which can be visited. Place yourself under the falling water if you want to impress, jump off the top of the waterfall into the plunge pool below if you have no fear of heights. The road then heads to Salernes before taking in some more hills. Leave no later than 9am in the month of August and take plenty water to combat against the Provence sun! The following road to the small village of Villecroze (well known for it’s red wine and goat’s cheese) is a steady pull of about 5-6km with an average gradient of about 7%. Save some energy on this climb for what will follow – a 5km climb at an average of about 9% to the hill top medieval village of Tourtour. If you are tired, stop for a while. Explore the village and its stunning medieval architecture, stop at a Café and have a drink. If you are mad then immediately take the descent back to Aups and home for a dip in the campsite swimming pool.

Once you are used to the terrain you can try the Circuit of the Lac Saint Croix of about 75km. This artificial lake was created in the 1950s in order to provide a water supply for the surrounding areas and has become a real centre of activities for locals and tourists alike. On a fine day the waters of the lake will reflect the mountains of the Verdon and the sun will turn the lake a shimmering aquamarine which you can follow back to its source in the Gorges du Verdon. If you fancy a break then the lake’s cool waters will sooth your sore legs and you can sun yourself on the water’s edge. If you are not tired then a variety of centres will offer rental services for sailing, windsurfing, and canoe / kayaking etc…so that you can explore the lake. Tip – head to Les Salles to find the best lakeside spots. The major and minor roads around Le parc naturel régional du Verdon are usually quite calm and the motorists are, normally, very respectful cyclists out on a ride.

Beginning in Aups follow signs to Le Lac Saint Croix / Les Salles. There is no flat to warm up you are straight on the winding climb to the plateau of the Verdon range before ascending toward the Lake. It’s a beast to do without having spun your legs out beforehand so take your time to tackle the 7km climb at an 8% average gradient. Once you reach the top you have a chose to make – clockwise or counter clockwise. The Counter clockwise route is harder down to you having to climb a series of hairpins with the gradient reaching a calf popping 16% just after the village of Moustiers; however, going down it is just as tricky due to the uneven surface. For the counter clockwise route continue downhill to Les Salles and follow the D957 to Moustiers. The road climbs and descends as you follow the contours of the Lake so try to build up some steam downhill to give you a lift on the climbs.

The town of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie has an interesting history. Set into the limestone on the banks of the Domaine du Montdenier, it has been a centre for the fine tin-glazed faïence pottery for many centuries. Moustiers also boasts a small church Notre Dame de Beauvoir built high above the village in between two cliff faces. This is accessible via a steep set of stairs cut into the mountain side. The views from the Church are incredible and, whether you are a believer or not, the Church itself is a stunning example of the architecture of the Vars. Above the church, a star hangs on a 225m long chain suspended between two cliffs. According to legend, during the Crusades a knight of Blacas held prisoner by the Saracens vowed to hang a star over the village on his return. The original star remains there today and signpost’s Moustiers from miles away.

The climb out of Moustiers is incredibly tough so find the smallest gear and get out of the saddle because you won’t be thinking about anything else for the next 2km as the road zigzags through a series of hairpins at 16%. You are relieved that the trees offer you some shade but dismayed that the humidity will make you sweat like a stuck pig. At the top of the climb you are on the plateau surrounding the Lake. The next 10km are flat but hot but you are soothed by the fields of lavender on both sides of the road. Then, after a short punch climb you are three quarters of the way round and enjoying some of best views of the Lake and the Verdon mountain range. The road will take you past the Lake’s Dam before continuing on it’s rolling path back towards your initial decision point after the climb out of Aups. Once you reach this point all that is left for you to do is enjoy the 7km downhill back into Aups and a relaxing afternoon.

For those cyclists who fancy a tougher challenge follow signs to Aiguines after passing Les Salles. This road will lead you up past the town before climbing the Col d’Illoire at 967m. This road follows the mountain plateau before descending to Comps-sur-Artuby. You can then head towards Draguignan on the D955 before taking the road towards Ampus and then climbing to the village of Tourtour using the north eastern ascend before heading back to Aups.

With the Cote d’Azur an hour away a day trip is always on the cards whenever your partner / family want to drag you away for your bike. There are also some very interesting climbs around Marseilles, Nice and Monaco so you are never short of things to do if you do want to leave everyone at the beach. If you want something closer to your base Aups and the other villages in the area have a variety of very good quality restaurants that cater for all tastes without you having to break the bank! Definitely worth a try…