En Corse



The day started humbly – on a flat cycle path between a lagoon and the sea, with Bastia-Poretta airport as the backdrop. There was no sense then of the grandeur and the glory that awaited us. There was not even a hint of the beauty of Corsica – a level of pulchritude that I have seldom experienced in a single day on a bicycle. Nor, in the cool air of the young day was there any suggestion of the cauldron of heat we would encounter in the canyons ahead.

Corsica is a mighty lump of rock in the Mediterranean. It’s a mountain in the sea, or at least a chain of mountains with twenty peaks over 2,000m. There are, I had read, 150 cols. We were pedalling across the island via the highest col covered with tarmac – Col de Vergio (1468m).

By Rob Penn

Rob Penn has ridden a bicycle most days of his adult life. In his late 20s, he gave up a career as a solicitor and cycled around the world. He is the author of It’s All about the Bike: the Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels (Penguin), a Sunday Times best-seller which has been translated into 11 languages.

I don’t set off to ride 150km and climb 2,750m in a day lightly. I like to be ready, particularly when I’m guiding a group. We had all trained, fitted new tyres and brake blocks, hydrated and eaten well before departing. When the cycling is this good, though, when it all comes together in a day of spellbinding pedalling, I can’t help but feel that every time I’ve ever been on a bike has been preparation, that all my roads have lead me here – the thousands of miles, hundreds of days of riding through Welsh winters and the tens of bikes have all served to channel my experiences and efforts to be on this road, on the right steed, on the right day.

Crossing the main Bastia to Ajaccio road at a busy roundabout, there was still no sign of what was ahead. We started to climb to the town of Borgo. As our legs warmed, the traffic diminished and the roads narrowed.

‘Allez, garcons!’ two old men shouted, over their early morning brandies in the first village.

At the first col, we passed through a notch in the rocks and turned our backs on the shining sea. We headed inland on a beautiful balcony road that contoured the mountains, like a mark left by retreating glaciers. There was some gentle climbing and descending but generally we kept the height. The villages – Vignale, Scolca, Campitello, Lento, Canavaggia – rolled off the tongue like an Italian football team sheet, reminding us of the island’s history. These villages were dominated by imposing granite churches and from a distance they seemed to hang off the mountainsides.

Down on the valley floor, following the main road to Corte, the heat intensified. It was above 35˚C at 1pm and we were suffering. We had ice creams and espressos in Ponte Leccia before turning south west for the main 60km climb. The first section is through a deep gorge carved into granite cliffs by the dashing waters of the Golo River. It was like a furnace in the doggo hours of early afternoon.

After a picnic and forty winks in Calacuccia beside the lake, we were climbing again in the cooler air of a pine forest. In the deep shade of the 40m high Laricio pines there was real respite from the beating sun and by the time we reached the top of the col and the mighty, granite statue of Christ, the heat was finally backing off.

Time stood still on the flowing, serpentine descent through three climatic zones. It was stunning. We sped through the pine forest, spun lazily on the big ring though a rock gorge and drifted down the final, few kilometres amidst the sweet smelling maquis. The whole way down, there were glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea and the path of gold the setting sun created.

By the time we reached Porto, the day was done. We ate and drank and smiled beside the sea. The moon rose and we all knew days like this on a bike are rare – and all the better for it.

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