Climbing the Col de la Madone

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The Col de la Madone climb isn’t featured in this year’s Tour de France – in fact, it’s never been part of the Tour, probably because the road is too narrow – but it’s still a climb that’s inextricably embedded in cycling folklore, for better or for worse. During our stay on France’s Cote d’Azur we climbed “The Madone” a couple of times to see (and feel) what it’s all about.

If you’ve ever read Lance Armstrong’s book “It’s Not About the Bike” (he was right) you’ll know that the Col de la Madone is one of the climbs that the Texan used to frequent in his preparation for the Tour de France. If he was able to set a good time up the Madone (read on to see what “a good time” was) he “knew” he was going to win Le Tour.

Dr Michele Ferrari would often be waiting at the top of the climb to take blood lactate samples and power meter readings to plot along his graphs. If Armstrong could hold the magic number of 6.8 watts/kg, then he was on track to win the Tour.

But as Armstrong himself says in the video below, he wasn’t the first one to use the Madone as a test climb. Local legend has it that the first rider to seriously use the Col de la Madone as a test climb was former Swiss pro Tony Rominger. Here’s a photo of Rominger climbing the Madone in 1995. This interview with Michele Ferrari, Rominger’s then-coach, provides some detail about Rominger’s relationship with the Madone.

But it was undoubtedly Armstrong that elevated the climb into the realms of the near-mythic. He’s spoken publicly many times about the role the Madone played in his training, and didn’t divulge the rest.

But while it was Armstrong (and Trek) that gave the Madone the prominence it has today, the Madone certainly hasn’t dipped in popularity as a test climb now that Armstrong isn’t racing. We’ve spoken to a number of riders who use the climb regularly and over the past few days we’ve seen a few pros pushing themselves up there, testing their form for the Tour.

So, what’s the climb like? First of all, you need to decide which way you’re going to head up. If you look at Strava you’ll see there are a number of popular options, particularly for the early part of the climb. Some prefer to start the climb at sea level in Menton (right near the French-Italian border), some prefer to start the climb at the supermarket a few kilometres up the road, others prefer to start even higher up.

We’ve done a bit of asking around and it would seem that the local pros start their watches in the tiny village of Le Castagnins on the D22. There are a couple of bus stops there that the pros apparently use as a landmark with the climbing starting at a bridge before the first switchback a few hundred metres later.


We’re not exactly sure where Armstrong started his watch at the bottom of the climb, but in the video above he quoted the climb length as being about 12km which is roughly the distance from the first switchback up to the summit. If we had to guess we’d say that that’s where Armstrong started his efforts too.

The climb itself is quite consistent with a couple of flat spots here and there and an average gradient of a little less than 7%. But it’s pretty easy to find a comfortable rhythm and tap away as you enjoy the views. And boy, are there some views! If you’re the sort of rider that likes to stop and take photos with your smartphone, you’ll be stopping plenty of times.

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As mentioned, the climb starts off in a small village just north of Menton and the traffic gets lighter and lighter as you go up. One of the most striking features of this climb is the huge raised freeway that dominates the view as you start climbing. It’s such an imposing sight as you begin the journey upwards, but before too long you pass under the freeway twice, then you head over it, and before you know it you’re perched high above the road, looking down on the cars and trucks as if they were ants.

The road gets very narrow towards the top and cars have to get pretty close as they pass you by, in either direction. But as mentioned, the traffic is light and besides, the narrow road only adds to the beauty of the climb, particularly when you’re winding along the cliffs with views out to sea, and when the road snakes through a couple of tunnels on the upper slopes.

If you are going to ride this climb and descend the same way, we’d recommend you take it easy on the way down. The road surface is quite loose in places, there are some very tight and unannounced corners, and with long drops beside the road for most of the climb, one mistake could be catastrophic.

The fastest announced time up the Col de la Madone climb is held by Tom Danielson of Team Garmin-Sharp with 30m24s. Before Danielson Lance Armstrong held the record with 30m45 and before him it was Tony Rominger who had the bragging rights, with a time somewhere in the mid-31-minute range.

Of course we didn’t get anywhere near any of those times but then we were stopping frequently to take photos of the amazing scenery. Check out some of the photos below. And if you’ve climbed the Col de la Madone in the past, we’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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