It’s still there. Mont Faron used to be a fixture on the cycling calendar, and often the first summit finish of the year, but the demise of several races mean it’s no longer used in racing and now belongs on a list of forgotten climbs… more of which below.
The racing has gone but this mountain remains as an attractive climb and a good test, plus it’s revealed a few names in recent years, including Chris Froome’s first noticeable result.
The Route: the Chemin du Fort Rouge starts in Toulon, the naval port city in the Var department of France. It is 4.1km long and averages 9.3%. The profile above shows a slightly longer version which starts earlier in the city.
The Feel: Toulon’s famous as a port, the home for much of the French naval fleet but what strikes the cyclist is the way the town is surrounded by cliffs with Mont Faron a fixture on the horizon. Stroll around town and every time there’s a view down a street, the Faron’s white limestone shines back. You can’t miss it once you start riding towards but to help there are signposts for the mountain. The road starts climbing before you hit the mountain proper as you pass houses with identikit architecture in regulatory light beige or salmon pink tones. Then comes a right-hand bend and the road narrows and the gradient kicks up, you’ll see the clues as the fences running alongside the road rise at an angle.
There is a narrow road but it’s one way which sounds good but seems to make local drivers more expectant that they can overtake the cyclist and many are in a hurry to get to the top. There are wide hairpins, presumably to let larger vehicles through but ideal to attack by riding through the apex as you stand on the pedals. The gradient bites but it’s regular, something which cannot be said for the road itself. It pays to pick your line across the rough road, the granular surface has its cracks and patchwork quilt repairs and it’s reminiscent of how they used to build roads. All around you the limestone geology seems to afford little soil and the stunted pine trees allow views of the port as you climb and the higher you go the more exposed it gets.
The climb is repetitive with long zig and zag sections each broken by hairpins and lined by the bonzai pines and it’s only the way you gain altitude that lets you know the top can’t be far away. Don’t be fooled by the short distance, it may only be just over four kilometres but it takes time, many a pro would struggle for 15 minutes, a climbing rate (VAM) in excess of 1500m/h. This makes ideal for training although only on the right days as the wind can howl in these parts. Ride in the area and you might notice the local buses called “Mistral”, named after the local wind. If it’s your first time up then the visual cue that you’re near the top is when you climb high enough to glimpse over the shoulder of the mountain and can see inland for the first time, from here there’s not much more to go and soon the final bend arrives and cable car station marks the top.
The Verdict: people will go out of their way to climb Alpe d’Huez, the Tourmalet and Mont Ventoux. This is a much smaller climb and not celebrated in the same way but worth the detour if you’re passing. It’s a solid effort in a scenic and almost forgotten part of France when it comes to the cyclist’s psychogeography. The rough surface spoils what would otherwise be a perfect climb with its steep pitch and rewarding views.
Ride more: the Faron is a natural boundary to Toulon and once you’ve climbed up there’s only one road back down meaning the climb is good for a short effort rather than a component of a longer ride. That view of the hills inland you saw when you were near the top? You probably saw Mont Caume and that’s a good 10km climb at 6% with some very scenic sections. There’s more to do in the area with Mont Coudon a short spin away up the D446 road, 6km at 7%. Both of these are good efforts and a lot quieter.
If you want a longer ride then it pays to be ambitious and really plan a long day out as the hills inland are great place to lose yourself for hours, the wilderness of Pagnol novels where still you expect to come across shepherds. To the north-west is the Col de l’Espigoulier often used by riders from Marseille and to the north-east the Massif des Maures where Collobrières makes a good destination.
History: the first appearance in a major race seems to be the 1957 Tour de France when Jean Stablinksi went over the top first on the way to Marseilles. It’s been famous of late because of the now defunct Tour Méditerranéen but was used before in another extinct race called the Tour du Sud-Est and also used regularly in the past in Paris-Nice. The likes of Tom Simpson, Eddy Merckx, Federico Bahamontes and Raymond Poulidor all won on the summit.
The 1968 Paris-Nice tried an innovation with the Meilleur Descendeur prize for the fastest rider down, appropriately sponsored by a ski manufacturer. Thankfully for rider safety this downhill innovation didn’t survive.
It’s long been a place to spot emerging riders given there’s no way to hide on a steep climb. In 2009 an unknown rider called Chris Froome placed third behind Juan-Mauricio Soler and David Moncoutié with the Frenchman taking one of his four wins on this mountain, in the Tour méditerranéen, the record. The last winner was Jean-Christophe Péraud who took the summit finish in his dream season which included his Tour de France podium finish.
Forgotten climbs: the Mont du Chat, the Col du Granon, the Luitel, Mont Cenis and Col de Braus are examples of names that have featured in the Tour de France and other races only to vanish from the collective memory. The Mont du Chat probably terrified half the peloton while the Col de Braus was a regular in many races with 29 appearances in the Tour de France alone until it stopped in 1961. Other names like Guzet-Neige, Orcières-Merlette and the Puy de Dôme haven’t been used for decades but live on in memories as they’ve been associated with legendary tales. They can still play a role today, much like Pra-Loup where the Tour de France returned last summer and dined out on nostalgia of Thévenet and Merckx.
Travel and access: Toulon has road and rail connections but sits in between Marseille and the Côte d’Azur which have better connections. The area used to be popular for pre-season training camps with pro teams but like some races this has been displaced elsewhere. The weather is often sunny but the Mistral wind can be savage.
- Photo credits: top photo and halfway up the climb photo by Flickr’s Muneaki
More roads to ride at inrng.com/roads