Arrivée written in pavement at the top of the Col de la Madone

The Fabled Col de la Madone

8 Minute Read

My Experience with the Col de la Madone

First of all, this post is part of a greater series of posts that I’ve written about that documents my trip to the area in the summer of 2022. If you’re looking for more on that trip and where else I went, definitely check out the post!

Because of an extra day that I had in the region due to a mix up on my part, I had the chance to drag my weary body up this famous climb. I was tired after three big days of riding leading up to this day! Climbing the Madone wasn’t something I originally was going to do, but it was worth it, as the pedigree behind this climb is one every cyclist fascinated by these climbs should experience.

What is this Climb Known For?

Well, for starters, some people view this climb as hallowed ground, as it’s been a famous training climb for professionals for years. It’s funny, as Trek even has one of their most popular frames named after this climb, yet it’s never been featured in a professional level race!

Lance Armstrong famously used this climb when he lived in Nice to test himself two weeks prior to a big race to know if he was ready. Apparently his best time up it was 30:45, which is way faster than anything I could pull off!

A great link to read more on this particular climb can be found on Cafe du Cycliste's La Gazette page. It’s a lovely tribute to the climb itself, and has more information on some of the historical military significance of the region.

The Route

There were a few other sections of the region that I had missed out on the previous few days, but were quite near. So with this “extra” day, I found a clever way to see them, which included an incredible descent into Cap d'Ail from La Turbie as well as another famous, but smaller climb called the Col d’Eze!

Side note, on the descent down into Cap d’Ail, I passed a small turn in the road that was actually the spot where Princess Grace of Monaco went over in her accident that ultimately lead to her demise. It was a small aside that was a bit more humbling to me than I expected it to be.

The Climb

On this particular day, I knew I wouldn’t exactly be setting any records or personal bests, so I made sure to stop and enjoy the scenery as it came and went. It’s amazing just how fast you go up and out of the city of Menton!

Cyclist riding the Col de la Madone with the Mediterranean Sea in the background

Not to mention that the road up this way is incredibly quiet and isolated. It was quite nice!

GoPro Footage, You Don’t Say

Despite not using my GoPro for any of the previous days of my trip, I decided to give it a go on this particular day. So there’s actually some footage I have here for you to reference.

Climb Profile

There are technically two start points to this climb, depending on your school of thought. If you’re the “purist”, so to speak, you’ll want to start from the coast. This means coming up from Menton, up the D22, staying left at the roundabout that takes you to Les Castagnins.

However, Lance Armstrong would regularly consider the “official” start of the climb at the Les Bastides bus stop in the nearby town of Les Castagnins, which is close to that the main roundabout just on the outskirts of the town of Menton.

The main Strava segment that I found starts from the nearby town of Les Castagnins and shows the overall distance being 8 miles / 13 km and 2867 feet / 874 meters. Definitely a big climb, and believe it or not, it’s one of the taller climbs in the direct, coastal region.

Getting Out of Town

While there’s less traffic just beyond Les Castagnins, it’s significantly less, as it’s only local traffic for those who live nearby. You actually go up a few small switchbacks, occasionally getting views in people’s houses above you and below you. Additionally, you get to go under the main freeway, which I helped me reflect on how I was experiencing this region very differently than most others do.

Sainte Agnès

What I didn’t realize, two days prior to riding the Madone, that on my way back from climbing both the Col de Braus and the Col de Turini, I actually came back through this section of road, part of the Madone. Going downhill, it was fast, smooth, and skirted just outside the actual town proper of Sainte Agnès, which is quite the hidden gem of the region. It’s actually earned the title of Plus Beaux Villages de France, meaning one of the most beautiful villages of France.

It’s definitely worth enjoying as you travel through here. On this particular day, I was met with a few construction vehicles, so I was worried at first that my travel to the top of the Madone would be compromised, but I proceeded onward anyway without issue! Just don’t miss that sign at the main intersection!

Tunnels and Feeling Far Away

Beyond Sainte Agnès, as you’re effectively traversing over the ridge to Peille, the road narrows quite a bit. The terrain actually changes a bit, too, as I noticed a few more trees and the coastline became less prominent, as you begin to get further into the mountain range. You start to feel further and further away, but it’s a beautiful “further away”.

Eventually you will come across a few small tunnels, each carved into the mountainside, something that just feels so foreign to me as someone from the US. We don’t have nearly the same amount of tunnels compared to what I’ve seen in my travels in Europe!

I remember at some point after this, things starting to feel easier. Although, according to the climb profile, that shouldn’t be the case. The whole climb averages 6.7%, and it’s generally quite a consistent grade. I think at this point I was ready to get to the top, and I was done stopping for all the pictures and videos!

Through here, however, you will notice the road snaking through some dry trees, and it’s not as obvious as to where it heads up ahead of you. It’s a very visually interesting blend of small road, speckled rocks through trees, and following your way around and up what looks like a canyon that’s connected to the larger view you saw earlier.

The Top

Bravo! You’ve made it!

The top isn’t anything particularly spectacular on its own, but it does mark the top of a very tough climb and the beginning of your descent on the back side of this particular mountain range.

Food Awaits!

This was an unexpected surprise, there’s food at the top of the Madone! It’s a small cart called Le Truck du Col, run by a lady who had recently fed Chris Froome while he was out on a training ride. So cool!

She recommended me her burrito, which was lovely, as she said it would be. I also enjoyed a locally made lemon soda, made with lemons from the Menton region, since it's known for them. I’m always down to try something that is unique to the local region in which I am traveling.

Locally produced lemon soda drink called Limounada Bio from Menton at the top of the Col de la Madone

What I Liked About the Col de la Madone

Besides the food at the top?

I think what makes the Madone so interesting and unique to me is its story. It’s a world-class climb, but one that is consistently overlooked in professional level events. Possibly due to its tight, narrow turns and those small tunnels. I’m sure there are reasons for it.

But the fact that it has held its place in the hearts of so many professional riders over the years definitely stands up to the test of time. Somehow, the story just simply continues. And in a similar way with each retelling. I only hope this retelling of the same story serves it justice.

The road itself, though, winds around and around, the views are incredible, and you can see the topology and flora change as you get higher and higher up. It’s just an amazingly beautiful climb, particularly when you get close to Sainte Agnès, which really is something special on its own. Despite me not actually going into town. I’m not even sure how to put my finger on it, but you can definitely sense that it’s a unique spot in the world.

It’s a huge difference from the bustling city of Menton just below, too. Such a stark contrast, and one that you experience first hand very quickly. It’s always amazing to me when there are places like this in the world where such a dichotomy exists in such a short physical distance.

The (Backside) Descent

After speaking with a British couple about Girona and my love for that region, I proceeded on my journey. My ride that day took me down the backside of the Madone, back into the Peille region, which is also just incredible with its wide open vistas and historic, beautiful villages perched on the mountainside.

Coming back down this way takes you through some more narrow, twisty roads until you reach the Route de Saint Martin de Peille.

This eventually takes you back down to the town of La Turbie, a strangely well-connected town in terms of bike routes. I then opted to continue down down to Cap d'Ail before heading back to Nice for another coffee at Cafe du Cycliste. And maybe to do some more shopping.

At that point, why not take the more interesting route back to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin via the Col d’Eze? I did!

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