RideReport - La Maglia
Mary Moncorgé On
24 June 2020
Mary Moncorgé heads out to tackle La Maglia – the biggest off-road climb in France’s Southern Alps and faces the double challenge of “cow eating’ mountains and a late Spring storm gathering overhead.
We live under the shadow of Mangiabo. At 1,800m high it’s one of the highest, most southerly peaks in the Maritime Alps. From here in the village we can only see the nice side, the southern face. Hidden from view are the treacherous northerly couloirs and cliffs that its name derives from - the literal translation is “cow eater”. It comes from one of the many local derivations somewhere between French, Italian and older ways of speech that wind their way back before the written word. Here in Sospel, the language is Sospellois, but each village and valley have their own dialect. Italian speakers might recognise the roots in the word “mangiare”, to eat. On those high, wild faces it was not uncommon to lose livestock to the mountain. Gone without trace, as if eaten by the mountain.
Lockdown here in France gave us plenty of time to meditate on such things. For almost two months we could only sit and gaze longingly at Mangiabo, so close, but so far from being a reality. Stuck spinning circles within the 1km radius around our house, a grudge started growing. It may sound daft, but a resolve formed - I had to beat that mountain. What better way to beat a mountain than riding over it?
One of our neighbours had long talked of a real beast living on the Eastern face - La Maglia. A dirt road that starts in the village of Breil-sur-Roya at 300m above sea level, winding its way all the way up to the head of the chain of peaks that leads to Mangiabo on the Authion circuit some 2000m up. While the Col de la Bonnette is the pearl of the local road cycling world, with 1,598m of climbing, this lesser-known gravel monster has it beaten for the title of the biggest climb of the Cote D’Azur backcountry.
Once my legs felt strong enough after lockdown I assembled a small group and we set out to slay the beast. Starting from Sospel you need to pass into the Roya valley to pick up the climb. There are a few options, but most of them keep you on the asphalt too long. We struck out south towards the Italian border on the road, but once we reached the Col de Vescavo we headed inland towards the tiny crestline village of Piene Haute. From there a piste road takes you up to the Col de Brouis with stunning views out to the valleys on both sides and a chance to make sure your bike and body are ready. The fountain at the col is the last chance to take on water before you reach the Col de Turini as the descent towards Breil marks the point of no return - from there on in you’re committed to climbing, one way or another.
If you’re feeling OCD, you really ought to descend all the way to Breil then climb back up the piste to tick off the full segment as the climb begins some 200m above the village. As we’d already crested the 500m up to Col de Brouis, we decided that we’d paid our dues and joined La Maglia from the descent. The lower slopes are still residential, flanked by olive groves, but as you get further into the valley you pass the altitude limit for growing olives and the gardens and driveways are replaced by cliffs on either side - past the site where a storm washed away the road into the ravine below last year.
Once you emerge from the cliffs the tarmac is replaced by fireroad and the early gradients melt away into a comfortable 5% that stays with you for the rest of the ascent. One of most stunning things about this climb is the variety of terrain you pass through. Here the route is lined with deciduous woodland, giving way to Mediterranean scrub, then pine forest and finally high, open alpine meadows pock-marked with marmot burrows. With the changing terrain comes changing weather. We started climbing in gorgeous end-of-spring sunshine with a nice breeze that kept you fresh. As we reached the Cime de Colla Bassa at 1,000m the clouds were beginning to roll in from the high mountains. Making the most of the warmth, we paused to eat and found a stream to refill our bottles, steeling ourselves for climbing into the rapidly-gathering mass of clouds above.
As we pressed on into the higher, alpine terrain the groups’ head went down with the temperature and a real feeling of push on and get through settled over us. As one we wordlessly agreed that we needed to get off the slopes before the storm really came in. Even in mid-summer an afternoon storm can be accompanied by hail and snow and none of us fancied a storm like that hitting us on the most exposed part of the ride.
Somehow reaching the Authion circuit on top of the mountain felt like an anti-climax. Rather than climbing to reach the high, wild places, you climb through them only to arrive on a tarmac circuit full of tourists popping out for an afternoon drive through the forts and summits. As we re-joined the main road to the Col de Turini, the storm finally caught us, but we got lucky - it was just a small rain shower and soon washed over us.
From the col it is decision time. You could choose the easy way, down the mountain taking the fast, serpentine curves that will see the Tour de France this Autumn. But you would miss the jaw-dropping views on the Bevera from the Cimes de la Calmette and de Pourcel. As you climb up from the road onto the gravel that runs parallel to the road towards Peria Cava you need to be steady on your bike. If you know the woods, you can link the gravel together with fast, alpine singletrack weaving between the pines. There are plenty of roots and rocks in this section, so it’s not ideal for less confident riders, but for those who feel up to it the reward is flying through the forest amongst the trees.
The singletrack brings you to the Beccas fireroad that takes you back down into the Mediterranean scrub below and allows you a glimpse of Nice, sprawling far below on the coast. From the Col de L’Orme we follow the road towards the Col de Braus, nipping in and out of the fireroads and singletrack that run in tandem around the mountain.
As we approach the Col de Braus our group splits. My friends who live down on the coast in Menton keep on to the Col de Braus, picking up the piste to take them over the mountain to the perched village of St Agnes and home. I peel left onto the Piste de Parais - a gravel descent that dives down through the forests and back home to Sospel, one last chance to fly through the trees and food, drink and a chance to once more sit and stare at Mangiabo.
The only difference is that now I know I have won in my own little way.
If you would like to try Mary’s route for yourselves, she has posted it here
Images courtesy of Matt Wragg