Michelin maps are widely available, and the green lines are a good indication of scenic interest. But the maps lack detail and give little indication of relief.
IGN topographic maps are available at a range of scales. We used the 1:100000 NiceBarcelonnette map for an overview and a selection of Top 25 1:25000 maps for detail. The Top 25 maps have a GPS grid and show tracks and footpaths.
Walking routes in France are waymarked with numbered posts (balises) which are shown on the Top 25 maps. These are useful for route-finding off road.
A drawback of the maps is their division into sheets, which follows administrative boundaries rather than topographic features. 3640 ET (Haute Tinée 2) covers little ground and shares most of it with adjoining sheets, while 3841 OT (Vallée de la Roya) is quite unwieldy.
IGN have a useful website allowing online orders. The maps are dispatched promptly.
The Austrian firm Kompass publish a 1:50000 topo map Nice/Nizza (number 640) which covers the border area reaching about as far north as Saorge; unfortunately there does not appear to be a northwards continuation. This map can be obtained from specialist suppliers.
The map on this site gives an overview of our route but has insufficient detail for practical use.
Sources of information
Roughstuff cycling in the Alps, compiled by Fred Wright under the auspices of the RSF, is a useful guide.
The French maintain a network of tourist information offices which provide useful information over the telephone (many of their staff speak English), and which support a number of useful websites.
Two of the sites we used in our planning were the Randoxygène site, which mentions some good mountain bike routes, and the site of the VTT organisation of the Haute Roya. The latter organisation is in fact an arm of the Tende tourist office. Its site has always been hard to navigate on our antiquated computer, and a recent reorganisation has hidden or deleted the useful map it used to provide of mountain bike routes in the area.
Fairly exhaustive information on accommodation is available on the Provence Web site.
Italy, by contrast, has more limited tourist information. There is a very useful website, including pages in English and some hints on mountain biking, devoted to the Alta Via dei Monti Liguri.
We used the Cadogan Guide and the Rough Guide for general information.
Rights of way
There are usually no limitations on mountain biking in France, but the National Parks are an exception. The Mercantour Park takes a particularly restrictive view, justified by the risk of disturbance to wildlife. Cycling is not permitted except on roads in the Mercantour Park. However dirt roads may be ridden even when they are closed to motor traffic. It is difficult to know where the distinction lies between rough roads and footpaths.
Signposts are no help at all. No entry signs (a red circle with a white bar) may simply indicate that motor traffic is forbidden. The park has a standard notice-board listing its regulations (including the banning of mountain bikes) and places it in strategic locations, including places where mountain bikes are in fact permitted. We found no useful information on the Park website.
All the routes we rode were legal. The Marguareis route is legal. There are no prohibitions on the Italian side of the border. The descent from lAuthion along the Tête de Secca is legal. The descent from Mollières to the D2205 is illegal. This prohibition is enforced, and has caused trouble to Steve Pells.
The ridges circling the Roya valley have been a frequent scene of warfare. Narrow military gravel roads have been built along their crests, and these are a covetable target for mountain bikers.
The roads descending from lAuthion to the south and east must surely be military, as must the hideous but well-engineered footpath climbing from Saorge to the Col de Muraton. But most exciting of all is the road which follows the frontier ridge from Castérino across the Col de Tende into the karst region known as the Marguareis and then curves round south as far as Mt. Grai, from which point a descent can be made to Pigna in Italy. We had intended to cover this route in a day. The ridge can be rejoined at the Col du Muraton above Pigna and followed to the sea.
We had had insufficient information about the conditions. Randoxygène counsels the period from June to October. Chassefières book which we hadnt seen may be more realistic, referring to significant snow-banks lasting until mid-July. We were there at the end of May.
On the other had if wed had Chassefières book we might have been more ambitious about our route. There is a footpath from Mt. Grai to the Col de Muraton which features as part of his Tour de la vallée de la Roya. This includes a few metres of obligatory carrying on a stretch equipped as a via ferrata, but there is no suggestion that it is exposed (and Chassefière takes his exposure seriously).
As it turned out a spell of bad weather, including some snow, coincided with the day we had marked out for the Marguareis route, forcing us to take an alternative. Whether the weather deprived us of the highlight of the trip, or rescued us from insane over-ambition, is a question we hope to resolve in a future visit.
The Col de Tende, incidentally, is crossed by an old dirt road (while the modern route tunnels far beneath). On the French side the climb offers 48 delectable zigzags.
We booked hotels in advance. This was probably not necessary even though Ascension Day, a holiday in France, fell during our visit.
Some of the Nice hinterland is depopulated and a little run down. Transit hotels have a hard time because motor traffic no longer needs to stop at them. In consequence we sometimes stayed at rather simple places.
Ski resorts on the other hand hold out the promise of accommodation without delivering it: they open in winter, and perhaps for a short summer, but seldom at other times. Isola 2000 was deserted; Valberg and Auron showed a few signs of life. Curiously ATMs are serviced at ski resorts out of season.
Food was a disappointment. Except in Nice and Isola we ate in our hotels (at Isola we were spared the obligatory demi-pension because the restaurant was closed for Ascension). Only the Grand Thermal Hotel at Pigna in Italy offered us a choice. This in itself might not matter. The Villa Morélia at Jausiers has a Michelin star, and serves a fixed menu to allow a small kitchen to deliver food at a high standard. But elsewhere much of the food was dull. Several of the hotels advertised a carte and gave excuses for not providing it. In one case the chef was too tired from his labours of the previous day.
Not only was the food often dull, it was too meaty. Colin was suffering indigestion within less than a week.
The French have no concept of breakfast. We wept at the thought of alu paratha.
Bernard Chassefière makes some telling observations:
On the matter of nourishment, remember that the ride prepares itself the night before (eat pasta) and at breakfast which should be a true meal; that after finishing your ride you should eat again to restore your forces (though it is pointless to stuff yourself with meat); and that during the day you should eat little but often to avoid hunger pangs (honey biscuits, cereal bars, savoury biscuits, fruit pastes and almonds) rather than having a single meal. A salami baguette wont give you legs but cut them off.
There were compensations. The food at Villa Morélia was imaginative and delicious. The Âne Rouge at Nice (also starred) was wonderful.