Christian Prudhomme, Director of Le Tour, has certainly upped the ante in this milestone event for the Tour de France. There is so much spectacular alpine scenery to be had throughout the course of Le Tour that, dare I say, the snow-capped mountains might have become passé! How better to launch this momentous 100th event than somewhere overtly French, staggeringly beautiful, but astonishingly different. The magnificent, picturesque coastline and craggy inland spires of Corsica await!I have been to France to follow the Tour quite a few times. Naturally, each year it takes you on a journey, different to the previous year, a more exciting one with new places and new experiences. Each October brings renewed enthusiasm for the Tour when they announce the route for the next edition. It’s not necessarily about who wins and who fails, though that all adds to the drama, but it’s about travelling to all parts of the country to find the best riding.
It is a year-round job to plan a Tour de France route and they work on an 18-month lead time. Long before our heroes ride over the pavement, organisers are scouting out new places to spice up the 110-year-old race. That’s what I love about the Tour.
A lot of hype was made about the Tour ascending Alpe d’Huez twice this year. That’s hopefully where the fireworks will be unleashed, late in the three-week-long race. But the build-up of anticipation and excitement begins right from the word go at the Grand Depart. This year Corsica will set the scene for another epic Tour de France.
With my ideals about cycling in mind, Corsica is where I am headed.
Corsica just sounds exotic. It sounds like a place where you would find crystal clear waters, expensive yachts and a relaxed alfresco culture. Basically, a place where very little happens to stress the body or mind. Some say the perfect holiday destination. I say the perfect holiday destination for your average coffee drinking recreational cyclist!
My initial notions of Corsica weren’t too far off the mark as I sat there sipping away at my coffee, looking out over the Mediterranean, relaxed and reflective – that’s how you feel before you turn to face the imposing snow-capped peaks looming over the magnificent coastline.
With bated breath and bike beneath, I began my journey inland from Corsica’s capital, Ajaccio. Founded in 1492, Ajaccio is a city of about 65,000 people on the west coast of the island of Corsica, famous amongst other things as the birthplace of Napoleon.
Corsica is a relatively small island of only 8,680 square kilometres but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in diversity. Within a matter of minutes, you traverse from the great coastal roads through to open fields, onwards and upwards to forested pastures and eventually onto rocky peaks.
Being the most mountainous of the Mediterranean islands, it would make sense for it to be teaming with two-wheeled warriors. Not so! I was on the island only a handful of days and in that time the number of cyclists I saw would still be counted on that same hand! Europe’s best kept secret perhaps?
Travelling in April, it was the low season as far tourism goes but I didn’t think the roads would be so quiet. Come this European summer however, it should all change; expect the island to be littered with lycra clad, shaved legged, Strava-comparing roadies. The island is the Grand Depart for the greatly anticipated 100th edition of Le Tour de France.
It is the first visit for the world’s biggest bike race and Corsicans are preparing to put on a top show. Quietly working away, the locals are resurfacing the blacktop which will lead the Tour to all corners of the Island over the three-day opening.
Right now, I travel the road between Ajaccio and Bastia albeit in the other direction to the Tour route but still the same tarmac. The scenery is spectacular and will definitely provoke some sleep deprived nights! Employers throughout the southern hemisphere should expect to have some bleary eyed employees this June and July!
Quaint little villages are overlooked by ruins of ancient castles, mountain peaks and astonishing railway bridges. One of the first things you notice on the road to Bastia is that you appear to be following the railway line. It is not just any railway though. It is a Ferroequinologist’s delight!
The line from Ajaccio to Bastia is one of only two in operation in Corsica and connects the west to the east around, through and over the mountain range which divides the island.
Comprising of two thirds of the island, the mountain range is a single chain of peaks, 20 of which are greater than 2,000 metres. At 2,706 metres, Monte Cinto is the island’s highest point. Unfortunately there are no passes at that high altitude and even if there were, being April there would be no chance of passing!
Rising more than 1,100 metres from sea level, the Ajaccio-Bastia road passes over the Col de Vizzavona and with about 40km of climbing it’s certainly enough to sting the legs.
Not many places in the world can offer towering mountains within cooee of magical beaches, but much to my delight, Corsica has as good as you’ll ever see.
Another must-see of the island is the 153km stretch of coastline between Ajaccio and Calvi. I know a lot of people who stay up to watch the Tour de France purely for the breathtaking scenery (and Phil Liggett’s commentary). Ajaccio to Calvi will be the location for stage 3 of the Tour this year and I have to say, you will not be disappointed. It includes 100km of the world’s windiest roads through rocky outcrops, edging its way along cliff tops, hair-raisingly suspended over the crashing waves below. It is just staggering and I don’t think I blinked for the whole 153km stage for fear of missing something!
Corsica is one of those places that take you away to a different world, a place where you feel content and a sense of perspective. You are left in awe of the natural landscape. You feel like you are in the most remote part of the world, yet you are not. You are never far from civilisation at all.
Generously spaced along the coast are sleepy little towns with ritzy restaurants, hotels and cafes overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. If it sounds like an idyllic setting, it is! There are just not enough daylight hours when you find a place like this. Kilometre after kilometre you are continuously gobsmacked by the natural beauty of the place and find yourself eagerly pushing onward to see what’s around the next bend. How many kilometres you have done or how far you have to go just doesn’t even register; you feel like you could ride on forever!
It can make you feel like an early explorer who has just come across a new wonder, something that no one has ever seen. Ironic then, that my destination on day two is Calvi, said to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. There is definitely something in the water of these regions!
Highlighted by the afternoon sun, Les Calanches between Piana and Porto is so spectacular that it feels like you have ridden around the corner and into the set of the latest Hollywood fantasy film. The rich colour of the rocky terrain really takes your breath away. It was here that I ran into half a dozen Belgian journalists doing exactly what I was doing. Belgians are jolly folk and seemingly always pleasant. After a bit of a discussion about the island and the path of the Tour, we all come to the conclusion that right at that point in time, in the middle of Les Calanches, all we needed was a cyclist to create the postcard perfect photograph. With a bit of help both ways, we managed to set the scene perfectly. With a wave goodbye I was on my way.
My only aim for the day was to be home before dark. Almost immediately I knew that the odds of that happening were pretty slim. The odds shortened as the day progressed and truth be known, you could ride these roads every day for a year and still not be bored.
The island of ‘Corse’ once belonged to the Republic of Genoa but bought by the French in 1764 after short period of independence. Despite more recent attempts for greater autonomy and protection of Corsican culture, it is currently one of the 27 regions of France. It is actually closer to Italy than it is France, 90km and 170km respectively, but is the perfect mixture of each country. It has an Amalfi coast drama but also has the passion and style of the French.
What could be better than a cycling holiday to France and Italy, both in the same place!