Tucked away near Nice on the French Riviera, this was the favourite test-piece of a certain Texan who didn’t win the Tour seven times
Words Henry Catchpole Photography Alex Duffill
It might be a universally recognised distance, like three kilometres or ten miles. Or it might be something more personal or arbitrary – to the end of the road and back, or the 19.5km to your parents’ house that you always tell yourself is 20km away.
Whatever it is, after a while anyone who rides a bike usually starts testing themselves against a benchmark. We just seem to have this in-built desire to see how we measure up to some sort of set criterion. It’s why Strava is such a success.
The Col de la Madone de Gorbio (generally known just as the Madone) is perhaps the ultimate climbing benchmark in cycling. A few people will be furrowing their brows at that and muttering something like ‘Alpe d’Huez’ or ‘Ventoux’, but the Madone is special.
For a start, unlike other classic climbs you could name, the Madone has never been used in a Grand Tour. That means there is no particular section where a rider once famously put in an attack to break away for victory, there are no grainy photos of Coppi or Bartali, no videos on YouTube with Sherwen and Liggett’s voices extolling riders’ efforts. It’s simply famous as a benchmark.
It’s also not like a time-trial course, as it doesn’t have a precisely defined length. There’s a clear finish at the top, obviously, but where the climb actually starts is a matter of considerable debate.
There are numerous competing Strava segments that start at different points, but its use as a test pre-dates the social-competitive network and no one is quite sure which current GPS-defined start point was used in the past.
Did Armstrong start at that particular sign? Did Rominger begin at that bus stop? To some that might be frustrating, yet the uncertainty adds to the alluring mystique.
Upwards from the coast
Perhaps the best place to get going is the beach in the town of Menton, about 25km along the coast from Nice. Starting at sea level somehow just feels appropriate, plus you can admire the mahogany tans and the Med over an espresso (it’s right on the border with Italy, so the coffee is acceptable) before stretching your legs.
You may well spot the odd pro spinning along the seafront too – in my case I saw Philippe Gilbert, who lives just down the road in Monaco, inevitably making riding a bike look effortless.
The climb follows the D22 and as you pedal through town, tackling traffic and roundabouts, you can see why the timed efforts tend to begin further on.
Many of the potential starting points (including for our map on the previous page) are around the supermarket in Castagnins as it’s just after here that the road narrows and loses its white line down the middle.
Climb through a couple of hairpins and you’ll see the huge concrete stilts of the A8 motorway towering over you, making you feel like an Ewok gazing up through the legs of an AT-AT Walker.
You loop round and go back under the motorway again, this time slightly closer to its grey underbelly, before turning back and heading over it as it tunnels unseen through the hillside beneath you. From here more traditional views start to emerge of the mountains ahead and the sea behind.
The houses on either side of the road begin to decrease in number too, although there remain intriguing residential gateways at random intervals and you still feel relatively close to civilisation at this point.
Traffic is typically thinner up here, although in my case that’s broken when a procession of classic and sports cars goes past, obviously on some sort of four-wheeled grand tour of their own. The sound from a Ferrari 355 brings an instinctive smile to my face (the V8s were so much nicer pre-flat-plane crank).
Of course when Lance Armstrong was testing himself on these roads before the Tour de France he would often have a different Ferrari (Dr Michele) waiting for him at the top to test his values.
Armstrong is perhaps the reason this climb has such wide recognition, as he writes about it in It’s Not About The Bike. He was also the one who suggested Trek name a bike after the climb.
Leaving civilisation behind
The Madone’s gradient is pretty steady, and although there’s the odd brief spike it never strays too far from its 6.7% average. You can understand why it’s such a popular test, because you don’t have that fear of needing to leave something in reserve for a particularly hard pitch. You can just concentrate on steadily emptying the tank over the 13km.
With a little over 5km to go to the top the road opens out into a slightly confusing expanse of tarmac with three roads spurring off it. This is Sainte-Agnès, and the road you want is the small one (still the D22) that hairpins back immediately on your left. From here the character of the climb changes almost instantly, feeling much more remote and wild.
The rock face remains on your right pretty much all the way to the summit and it has the ossified grey-white pallor of years bleaching in the sun. The road surface is rougher too, with patches of loose gravel. But with no barriers you’re initially treated to a wonderful, unfettered view of the sea far below.
It’s nice to see how much altitude you’ve gained (your computer will tell you it’s over 600m) but if you’re testing yourself you won’t have the energy for more than a glance.
There’s some brief respite in the form of a flat half-kilometre that heads through the cool of two short tunnels, where you can gather your thoughts before the final push to the summit.
If you haven’t ridden the climb before, it’s hard to judge quite how near the top you are as there’s no obvious peak to aim for. The key is that when you go round a right-hander and find trees have returned you can give it everything because you’re nearly there.
Several plaques and the abandoned shells of various buildings mark both the top of the climb and the battles that took place here in the Second World War.
And, as you collapse over the handlebars feeling as empty as the buildings, you’ll inevitably compare your own effort to the benchmark times of others. The numbers are likely to be sobering. How on earth do Porte and Froome make it up here in just half an hour?