Col de la Bonette by Philippa York – Essay from Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs

I like climbing but 24 kilometers uphill and 2860m of altitude is daunting even when you are motivated and have a plan – first to the top.

It’s rare to get the chance to challenge yourself with all that the Col de la Bonette has to offer – the top is closed most of the year and it’s not a regular occurrence in any race. The Tour de France has been up here just twice before and, enticingly, on each of those days Fredrico Bahamontes has been first to the summit. The rarity of the occasion appeals, as much as the honour of being added to a rather selective list.

As we come out of Jausiers and head towards the Bonette the plan has vaguely followed the expected scenario, a mixture of hiding, waiting, suffering on the previous climbs of l’Izoard and Col de Vars whilst enduring the dictated pace. So far I’ve been through the whole range of available emotions from comfortable to worried. Confident was a fleeting companion somewhere in the middle.

Col de la Bonette

The brief flat before the trouble really starts is dispatched at warp speed. The bigger guys in the group pull us along as if the finish is waiting round the corner. That all changes when we pass the board signalling the beginning of the climb and as they come tumbling backwards it’s time to go.

One minute later I have a 20 second lead, with only Pedro Delgado able to follow. The plan might just be on; I’ll ride 10km hard and see what happens. On a normal Col that would put me close to the top but here it won’t even be halfway. Strangely, it seems a reasonable thing to do.

Pedro is huffing and puffing to stay with me. I must be going fast if, despite the heat and almost two weeks of racing in my legs, he’s hurting. Then suddenly he lets go and I’m on my own. Now what?

I’ll ride 10 km flat out and see what that gives. It’s already high here, over 2000m, so anything down in the valley, like team cars and riders, are just specks. Thankfully now there are bends to break up the monotony and increase the sense of climbing. The gradient isn’t as steady as it was before but it’s almost a relief to get out the saddle to deal and I think I can see a summit. Probably not the actual summit but it’ll do as a focal point

With 4km remaining the old Casernes de Restefond swings into view. I’m reassured that barring complete a meltdown I’m going to be summiting first. But I remember the roadbook says the worst bit is waiting. I calm myself and change down a gear for the steepest bends. It was a wise tactic, for as I swing onto the final section, the Cime, the gradient, the altitude and the accumulated fatigue of the last 23km all combine into a red-faced fight to the line. This hurts but the plan has worked. Bahamontes and now me. Cool. I like the sound of that. The view’s not bad either.