The Col de la Madone is probably the best known of the local climbs, made famous by Lance Armstrong as the climb he would do regularly to test his form, and after which Trek named their line of top-end road bikes.
Looking down on a section of the Col de la Madone climb as you make your way up towards Sainte Agnes
There are a number of different start points for the climb, as you can start from either of two valleys before the roads converge, and whilst some people treat the start as the sea-front in Menton, others negotiate the traffic-lights and roundabouts in Menton before starting. There is no right or wrong route…we take as the start a little bridge just outside of Menton as by that point we are clear of all the traffic.
The climb snakes up and out of the town, under then over the enormous motorway viaduct, offering great views back down over Menton and the Med. For the first half of the climb, you have the village of Sainte Agnes in your sights (at 600m the highest coastal village in France and well worth a detour), but shortly after you have turned at the crossroads at the bottom of the village, it turns decisively away from the sea, heading inland on a long gentler section, before it kicks up again for the final 200m of height gain, the road narrowing and where you have to look out equally for goats and rocks on the road!
Given the narrow road, there is very little vehicular traffic on this road, particularly once you are past the turn to Sainte Agnes.
At the top, you cannot take the col sign photo…because there is no col sign; it was stolen years ago! Instead, you have to make do with a smaller footpath sign, but look out for an unusual war memorial made from artillery shells and the inscription: Combats de l’homme; Eclats d’orbus; Désormais ne soyez plus que la Madone de la paix (Battles of man, fragments of shells; from now on you will be no more than the Madonna of peace).
Village of Peille viewed from the descent of the Col de la Madone
There is a lovely descent on the other side; you fall only 300m or so but the road winds through the rock in a couple of places and affords great views across a gorge to the amazing mediaeval “village perchée” of Peille. At the bottom you have the choice of turning left to La Turbie and back towards the coast, or right to Peille from where you plunge down into one of the valleys north of Nice.