The first light of day peeks through the gap of the curtains in my hotel room. I shuffle over from the bed to catch an initial glimpse of what lies below. From my seventh floor perspective, it could’ve been any vast body of water and any beach in any city. But it wasn’t. It was the French Riviera and this was one of its crown jewels — Nice.
Following a quick breakfast, I walked outside to get a closer look. With its freshly paved waterfront boulevard, lined with a single row of swaying palm trees driven by the Mediterranean winds, the images seem to have been lifted directly from a tourism video. Making it even better was the world famous Promenade des Anglais (Wallkway of the English) and its bike path, which I would find out later extended for miles along the shoreline.
Nice has a rich and beautiful cycling history. The Paris to Nice stage race has been held annually since 1933, and the Tour de France governing body selected Nice as its departure point in 1981. Nice will again return to global cycling prominence when the city serves as host for stages 1 and 2 of the 2020 Tour de France next summer.
So, here I was, hardly an elite cyclist, but someone who had traveled several thousand miles to explore the region. I had a single day to soak in what this segment of the French coast had to offer with an out-and-back bike ride from Nice to Cannes, a distance of approximately 40 miles (64 km).
My first step for the Nice to Cannes ride was locating a shop from which I could rent a road bike. I researched options on the internet and discovered a small shop, Top Bikes. I decided a mid-grade aluminum version (cost: US$28 or 26 euros/day) would meet my needs, and I was set to go.
It was a warm early fall day with sunshine burning away the thin cloud cover by mid morning when I set out on my adventure. I locked in my course west to Cannes, counting on Google Maps for Cyclists to show me the way.
The first few miles of the Promenade followed the main coastal boulevard in Nice, then skirted around the city’s international airport. After a little more than an hour, I entered the city limits of Antibes. I intentionally left the protected bike path here and instead chose to go on one of city’s main thoroughfares. The streets of Antibes were lined with neatly kept small shops with several locals casually standing under the shade of trees. It appeared to be such a relaxed setting, unlike what we often see in the United States.
After years of cycling, I’ve discovered that some of my most extraordinary rides have been when I have limited knowledge of where I am. And that’s what happened on this day. Part of the whole equation of what makes riding fun has always been observing the people who live in the small cities I ride through. Antibes was a perfect example.
This region’s first human inhabitants date back to the iron age. The area was once a Greek colony and became a Roman stronghold in the 4th century BC. Its primary purpose was to protect the trade routes along the coast, and signs of ancient aqueducts are visible to this day.
On the western edge of Antibes, I again picked up the coastal bike path. I noticed a sign indicating the way to Cannes. I was back on course. Once in the city, I pedaled through a neighborhood with manicured lawns partially hidden behind gates providing security for the residents of stately multistory homes. It was beautiful, but almost too pristine to be inviting or enjoyed by anyone other than the owners. Then again, I’m sure that was the plan’s purpose.
Two miles later, I turned a corner and saw what I had assumed Cannes would be — a canyon-like downtown street with sidewalk cafes, stores showcasing diamond and gold jewelry and one parking space after another hosting Lamborghinis, Porsches, Bentleys and other cars we mere mortals will never drive. It was easy to see why the Cannes Film Festival attracts worldwide media coverage during the spring when the city hosts the film industry’s royalty.
I ate lunch at one of those cafes, enjoyed talking to the owner and a few others sitting nearby and soon after began my ride back to Nice. It would be easier this time because the cycling gods blessed me with a strong coastal tailwind.
As I found the connector to the Promenade as I entered Nice, I slowed so I could soak in the sights and sounds of the final two miles of my journey. It had been one of those days, and a ride, I will never forget.
On To Italy
To my surprise, the best experience my wife and I had on this trip to the Mediterranean region wasn’t Nice or Cannes. Instead, it was the small village of Dolceacqua (pop. 2,000), approximately 30 miles (50 km) east of Nice in the foothills of the Italian Alps. In the major tourism centers located along the French Riviera, the majority of people in the shops and restaurants speak English, so it’s relatively easy to communicate. But not in this go-back-in-time community. Here, it was real. People moved slower, seemed more relaxed and genuinely welcomed us with open arms. It was interesting how much we could communicate with hand gestures and a few words of broken Italian we were able to pull out of our hat.
Olive orchards dominated the landscape as we drove our van on the two-lane road entering the community, and we learned from a waiter in the restaurant located in the town square that the red wine from the regional vineyards produced outstanding red wines. He was absolutely correct.
My original plan was to have biked to this part of Italy on the day following my ride to Cannes, but the hip injury I suffered preparing for our tour of France (see post below: CRASHING AND THE AFTERMATH) meant we were relegated to exploring the northwestern part of Italy on this day by van. We were happy we did because it allowed us to cover a large section of northwestern Italy and explore several Renaissance period villages.
Dolceacqua is located a few miles inland from the Mediterranean coast. The hills dominate the surroundings of this small community, a medieval area nestled in a valley along the the Nervia River. The first thing we noticed was the Doria Castle, a hilltop ruin dating to 1177 AD. Its arched bridge was equally impressive, and has been painted by famous artists multiple times through the centuries.
Another interesting point was the number of cyclists riding through the village. They were everywhere — old, young, having a wide range of skills, and on cheap hybrids all the way to $10,000+ carbon S-WORKS bikes usually reserved for the very skilled or incredibly rich. I hope to return to this part of Europe one day so I can become part of the fabric of these small towns and experience all they offer from behind the handlebars of a bicycle.
I’ll have to add this part of the world to my bucket list.