Friday, July 8, 2016

Cycling Corsica Day 1: Calvi Round Trip to Piana (110 miles, 10k(?) ft climbing)




Amy had been trying for a couple of years to convince me to vacation in Corsica, and she finally prevailed.  We were there for 10 days or so along with 4 friends, which meant that while the gang was sleeping in and then heading to the beach, I could sneak out early every couple of days, explore the island by bike, and then meet up with everyone in the afternoon.  I managed 5 days of riding spanning about 450 miles and more than 40,000 feet of climbing, and it was easily the most spectacular thing I've ever experienced on two wheels.

On Day 1, I rode south from Calvi along the coast to the Gulf of Porto and then up to Piana, a World UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) site.  I then retraced my steps northward, but branched inland to get in a tough mountain climb on the way home.

Heading south from Calvi, the road immediately began to snake upward with increasingly spectacular views of the bay in the morning sun, with scattered sailboats lightly bobbing in the cove before a distant lighthouse.





Pulling away from town and continuing to climb, the coast grew notably rockier, with every bit of the views that one might find on the Pacific Coast Highway.









Surely this couldn't last, could it?  Unfortunately, no, at least not entirely.  Circumnavigating some massive coastal hills required meandering inland for 10 miles or so, where the pavement degenerated into a sort of "best efforts" situation that was almost comically poor.  This wasn't chip seal, but rather the sort of thing that breaks car axles if you're not careful.  If there were cars, which there weren't, which is probably why no one has bothered to patch the roads since World War II.

But, I soldiered on in the hope of gaining the coast once again.



I didn't have to wait long, and the wait was worth it.





Note the town of Galeria nestled into the distant hillside.  


Panorama of Galeria.

At this point, even the brief detours inland were some of the more spectacular I've seen, as 8k-foot peaks soared above distant valleys.







Finally, after a miles-long climb, I emerged into some of the most amazing scenery I've ever seen, and it would continue for hours.


The rocks to the distant right glowed a bright red in the morning light.


From the top of a coastal mountain, the road snakes into the distance.




One thing about Corsica: there is nothing straight along the coasts.  In the course of 110 miles, I don't think I went 100 yards without turning, and that is no exaggeration.  Some of the roads looked like a planner accidentally dropped a wet noodle on a map and just decided to go with it.  To the right, cliffs; to the left, solid rock.



As I approached the Gulf of Porto, the water turned an even deeper blue, rocks on distant shores grew more jagged, and the roads were so much fun that I had a stupid grin on my face for an hour.


Looking south across the Gulf of Porto toward Piana.
Looking southwest across the Gulf.

Roads like this don't exist in the United States, but they really should.



I rolled through the town of Porto knowing that I was almost to Piana, my turnaround point.  Just five miles or so away -- no big deal, right?


Surveying the beach in Porto.
Well, wrong.  It turns out that Piana is on the top of a mountain, and every foot between Porto and Piana takes you higher into the sky.  But the Calanche of Piana -- well, what can you say?  They're rocky outcroppings that simply defy adjectives.



If you zoom in, you'll see a black speck on the road silhouetted against the rock.  That's a car.














What would you pay to ride this road?  Make sure you have good brake pads.


It's hard not to love the place.





Goodness grief.  And it turns out that Piana itself is a lovely little town, complete with several restaurants, fruit stands, small hotels, and all of the ice cream one can eat.  Which is a lot, in my case.

The only thing better than climbing up through the Calanche of Piana is descending back through it the other way, and then it was back up the coast.

One thing about these coastal roads: you just can't go quickly.  I can't remember the last time I went so slowly over a distance of 100 miles.  There were monstrous climbs, but the bigger issue is that the descents must be navigated with the greatest of care.  It's sometimes difficult even to look at the scenery because, if you do so for more than about 5 seconds, you'll miss a turn in the road.

At one point with a couple of hours left, I plugged Calvi (the start and finish town) into my GPS, and was surprised to find it was only 17 miles away -- much closer than I'd thought.  But, as I found to my detriment, it was 17 miles "as the crow flies," which meant more than 40 miles in Corsica.

The final miles were pretty, but brutal.  Rather than taking the coastal road, I swung inland to take on a minor Col.  By this time the temperatures were up around 90 degrees, and the inland passage lacked the coastal breeze that had been keeping me cool.  I got right cooked, and that climb was tougher than it looked on paper.


Looking back south from the top of the Col.
In all, the ride was 110 miles and it took me about 7.5 hours -- and I wasn't slacking.  Part of it is the curvy roads, but it's also insidiously and constantly hilly.  My GPS calculated the climbing at about 8,000 feet, but that's a damned lie, if you'll pardon my French (which the French speakers generally were kind enough to do).  RWGPS calculates it at 19,000 feet.  That's also a lie; the truth is somewhere in between, and who knows where.  But it was a solid morning and afternoon for certain.

In all, my first ride on Corsica turned out to be, mile-for-mile, the most spectacular I'd ever done.  The passage through Denali at sunset on the Big Wild Ride 1200k might have edged it out, but it wasn't nearly as long.   It was riding through a postcard, and I couldn't wait for more.