cycling utah April 1999
Island of Corsica represents a top ten ride for this tourer
By Richard Steiner
Clockwise or counterclockwise was the topic of discussion as we sipped espresso before our ride around Cap Corsa, or "the thumb" as we had come to call the northernmost peninsula of Corsica.
This was my third European biking tour with Rik, a friend I had met in Utah, who was now working in Zurich, and Patrizzio, a Swiss national who worked in the same chemistry laboratory as Rik. The previous two years we had toured in the Alps (following the Tour de France one year) but since this year's ride was in early spring rather than summer, we had taken the train from Zurich south into Italy and then hiked along the Mediterranean Sea to Nice. We caught a ferry to the west coast of Corsica and had ridden across the island to Bastia on the east side of the Island.
In order to get the hardest climb out of the way early instead of at the end of the approximately 80-mile loop, I lobbied for clockwise. Patrizzio countered with the argument that counterclockwise would ensure that we were riding in sunshine the entire time-an important consideration in March when it got COLD if the sun wasn't shining. The deciding factor was the realization that by going counterclockwise we would always have the coast on our right, making stops to take in the views easier.
The ride along the east side of the "thumb" had just enough up and down, small towns and serpentine curves to make it fun. The coastline offered nice vistas, but no "must take" photos. The great joy was definitely the ride. We traded pulls, raced up the hills, took the curves at high speed and chased down a few local riders who had passed us during a tourist moment (Rik just had to stop to explore a castle-like tower that guarded the coast). It was a magnificent ride made even sweeter by the fact that the wind did not oppose our efforts.
We arrived at Macinaggio, the last town before going over the mountains to the west side of the peninsula, long before we tired of the fun we were having. However, our arrival was fortunate in that it was only 12:30 so we could still get something for lunch before everything closed from 1-4. We were a week before the official start of the tourist season and even the little coffee shops were closed in the afternoons. Poor Patrizzio missed his late afternoon espresso this day.
Like everything else on this "Goldilocks ride" (everything was just right!) the climb over the mountains to the west side went exceedingly well. The climb was not too steep and a pleasant change of pace from the coast. We had a chance to use different muscles, enjoy some beautiful vistas and pedal through some quaint villages. We were intrigued by an old castle a few kilometers below us but opted to forego dropping down for a visit. The high point of our climb was actually on the west side and when we crested we were left breathless; not so much because of the climb, but because the view was utterly spectacular. The west coast is much more rugged than the east, with steep cliffs down to the sea. The rugged shoreline, prominent mountains and idyllic villages made for a truly magnificent vista.
The ride took on a whole new character as well. With so many mountainous arms coming down to the sea the coast had many more twists and turns and lots of climbs and descents. We started by rocketing down from the pass. I had some advantage in that I was the only one with aero bars and, holding as tight a tuck as I could, I flew down the mountain. As happened very often on this west coast portion of the ride I was constantly torn between maximizing speed and looking up at the beautiful views. Usually the looking waited for the uphill sections.
However, since we were constantly racing each other to the next rise even on the uphills, being a tourist played second fiddle to being a cyclist. It seemed one of us was always experiencing a surge when the others would tire and since we were all playfully competitive we powered through the whole ride.
Once, as I was leading a charge up one of the many hills, Rik and Patrizzio powered past me in the draft of a truck. Just as I jumped to join in the truck let go a blast of diesel exhaust and I decided I'd rather breathe than draft. I guess riding regularly in Zurich made Rik and Patrizzio more tolerant to the fumes as they stayed with the truck all the way to the top of the hill.
There was one tourist break in a small town with a beautiful castle overlooking the sea. The stop was more to look for coffee than walk to the castle but since the coffee places were closed the castle received a visit. The path followed a narrow alley between homes of the villagers and passed some wonderfully photogenic scenes.
Finally we were ready for the final ascent that I had dreaded since we started. It proved to be all I feared. Only memories of having successfully ridden L'Alpe d'Huez; and Col de Madeleine the year before got me up it. Those other two rides were steeper and longer so I'm not sure why I found this one so difficult, but struggle I did.
There had been a race up this climb so there were words of encouragement painted on the road as well as the distance to the top. Counting off the half kilometers helped a great deal psychologically. Of course the joy of a tough uphill lies in the descent on the other side and this was no exception. We once again reveled in a long winding downhill and were reminded one more time as to why we found the physical and mental strength to endure long climbs.
One more adventure awaited us as we entered Bastia. A wrong turn got us on a "no retreat" road through a tunnel. Even though there was a sidewalk the darkness, debris, narrowness of the path, smell of exhaust and amplified sound of the cars whizzing past us had our hearts pumping more than did that last climb. Unless you have experienced a tunnel ride of several kilometers it is impossible to imagine how frightening it really is!
Three bigger smiles were not to be found anywhere on earth when at last we emerged from that nightmare. But even though the last few kilometers were less than satisfying our overall mood was ecstatic. The ride had been exhilarating and beautiful. Definitely one of my Top Ten Rides of all time.