Three years ago, while streaming the Tour de France from my laptop computer at home, something caught my full attention. Sweeping aerial views took me by surprise, piquing my curiosity. What is this enchanting, mountainous island with charming villages and plenty of cycling? It was the island of Corsica.
How it all started:
After I had seen The Tour stages on this island in 2013, the images and thoughts of Corsica were impressed on my brain. I had never really forgotten how interesting and intriguing it looked, or the amazing cycling routes with lots and lots of hills.
Three years later, an opportunity arose to travel to Europe. I was going to a conference in Geneva for work. This would be a great time to try and make a cycling trip to Corsica happen, because I’d be in such close proximity. Leanne, my friend and roommate at the time, who is also fairly obsessed with cycling, loved the idea. She had wanted to do a bike trip, and was sold. Jesse, also a newly hooked cyclist, and friend loved the idea too. It’s hard to find friends who want to go on a trip to bike up hills all day, AND are loads of fun. I’m lucky to have them. ❤
Ride 1: Corsican foothills near L’Ile-Rousse
- DISTANCE: 32 miles
- ELEVATION: 2400 feet
- CLIMBING: 8 miles at the beginning, ~4% grade
- DIFFICULTY: Low
- FUN LEVEL: High
- SCENERY: Corsican foothills, houses, churches, landscapes
A spin out of L’Ile-Rousse. We chose to camp out for most of the trip to save on costs, as Corsica is speckled with campsites, or should I call them “glampsites,” fully equipped with showers and restaurants (serving delicious pizza and wine). I was skeptical, because I usually think of camping as a pure encounter with nature. In the end they worked out well, because we could shower after rides and charge our phones to take photos. Also, they made getting food (and importantly coffee) much easier before and after rides, and were reasonably priced, despite these amenities. Day one, we had planned a short route out of L’Ile-Rousse from our campsite, located by the beach. We woke up, had some espresso and croissants at the campsite (I know, that is why I called them glampsites), and we were off. The route took us a ways down the coast, with some stunning views of Calvi and the blue ocean.
Shortly afterwards, we cut inland, and headed up a long but gradual climb. This portion was shockingly beautiful, with views of the ocean, winding through the Corsican foothills and old architecture. Small houses with their red tiled roofs were scattered throughout the hills, and old gravesites with large tombs that stood tall and lined the road left us aghast. This was basically some of the nicest scenery I have experienced cycling, and we had just started, so I was a tad overwhelmed. I had never cycled in Europe before, so this was new, exciting, and I was taking it all in.
We then turned onto a bad section of extremely rough road. I had been warned that the roads in Corsica are awful, however, I wasn’t prepared for this. It was constant hand numbing, headache inducing roughness, for at least 15 km. The scenery was still excellent, but I would have to say it was not all fun throughout this section. We then decided to stop for lunch at a small restaurant perched in the hills, with views of the Corsican landscape (below), which made up for the bumpy section.
We were now further inland and away from the ocean, but the restaurant was tucked away, remote and charming. We were the only ones there, and the owners were extremely friendly. Here we refueled and shared some lunch, soaking in the surreal moment. The way back was mainly a downhill coast back towards the ocean and the town of L’Ile-Rousse to complete a loop of 32 miles.
Ride 2: Calvi , Galeria & Inland to the Mountains Loop
- DISTANCE: 50 miles
- ELEVATION: 3800 feet
- CLIMBING: Rolling hills + 8 mile Col de Marsolinu (~ average 4% grade)
- DIFFICULTY: High
- FUN LEVEL: High
- SCENERY: Oceanside, mountains, valleys, seclusion
The second day of riding we had planned a longer route of about 50 miles with more elevation gain. The night before we camped in Calvi, where we would start a route down the west coast of Corsica, and turn inland near Galeria to pass through a valley and over a mountain climb to complete the loop. I felt ecstatic and ready to go despite the heavy heat. After all, this place makes suffering easy. Or so I thought. They weren’t joking when they said Corsica was hilly. This island is truly a mountain, isolated in the ocean. It is actually an extension of the French Alps. We began coasting down the oceanside after passing through Calvi, glimpsing some sailboats in the distance.
After we turned inland, we headed through some remote regions, and saw literally no cars. We stopped for lunch at a pizza restaurant, this one pretty busy. Actually, an entire tour bus of mainly senior tourists stopped to have lunch while we were there. Throughout lunch I felt my energy fading a bit, however, but I was confident the food and water would kick in for the rest of the ride. Well unfortunately, it didn’t. The heat and leg fatigue from the day before were weighing on me as we rode through the scenic countryside. I forgot to bring my good water bottle, and wasn’t drinking enough. There were some roads being repaired along this section as well, and we had to endure some bumpy riding again. Luckily, it eventually passed, but exerting the extra energy to remain stable in the heat didn’t help. The stunning valley we entered bordered by craggy, mountainous peaks did help, however, and the tiredness faded away temporarily.
The low point:
After feeling elated for some time, we approached a large ominous climb, the Col de Marsolinu- a category 2 climb, that the riders in Tour de France had actually passed over in 2013. We were in the heat, with no shade to be seen. We have to cycle over that? I thought. Yes we did. There always comes a low point in cycling, where you question everything: why am I doing this? I can’t do this. Then Jesse got the music going, and Leanne the mentally strong attitude. I usually love climbs, but I was struggling as a result of some dehydration and a mild sunburn. Fortunately my friends wouldn’t let me lose my spirits, despite the non-existent shade. I stopped briefly for some water under a small tree we found, feeling a bit dizzy. Their inspiring mental strength (and music) helped me make it up this approximately 8 mile climb. Finally, once at the top we took a more lengthy break to have some more water. The feeling of being at the top, knowing that we climbed our way up, is always a good one, no matter how hard the effort or how weak the legs. It was strangely calm and peaceful at the top. Looking down below at what we had climbed was pretty cool. There is nothing quite like making it to the top of a long climb.
The remainder of the ride was a descent and flat stretch back home. The descent was fun, smooth and curvy. I soared down the mountain, letting the wind beat at my face. Every ride is a great ride in some capacity, and tougher days build resilience. We totaled about 50 miles, a solid days work.
Ride 3: Calanches de Piana, the must do ride
- DISTANCE: 40 miles
- ELEVATION: 4100 feet
- CLIMBING: 5 mile climb ~ 5% grade from Porto to Piana + shallow rolling and gradual climb ~8 miles
- DIFFICULTY: High
- FUN LEVEL: Extremely High
- SCENERY: Oceanside, mountains, unique red rock formations, coastline
The final day of cycling. I was more than excited for today as the plan was to tackle my most anticipated route. The Calanches de Piana. It would also be the most elevation gained (~4000 ft). I had hyped this up in my head after googling pictures from the Tour de France, of riders whizzing past deep blue ocean and towering red rock formations. We took a drive south along the coast to get a bit closer to the section we were hoping to bike. The drive was beautiful, with winding and smooth roads carved into the mountainous landscape. The section north of our start would have been great riding as well. We eventually reached a small town called Osani, where we would park the car and start an out and back to Piana.
From here we had a long, fast and winding descent, with some flatter sections, that passed some small establishments selling food. All I could think was “Oh no, we’re going to have to climb that later, and I hope I have the energy to do it.” Eventually, there was a long and steady climb upwards through some treed areas and some exposed rocky landscape. Up and up we went, and gradually the rock lining the sides of the road became redder and redder. We passed a section where hikers were taking off for hikes into the Calanches de Piana.
The high point:
Eventually, the rock walls became higher, and snippets of the ocean came into view. It was overwhelmingly beautiful. The ocean was a deeper blue than I could have imagined, the rock a Mars-like red, and the formations of the rock unique and almost eerie looking.
As we climbed, we rode through narrow sections of rock, towering over us, and the ocean plummeting thousands of metres below. We worked together, ascending for about 5 miles from Porto to Piana. This was even better than I had imagined. We had a brief stop in Piana for some gelato once we reached the top at a small shop/restaurant. We relaxed here, pretty stunned at how gorgeous this ride was. The anticipation matched the experience of this ride- I will never forget it.
The way back was faster, and the final gradual climb back up to the car, not as steep as the descent had seemed. All in all, a great 40 mile ride in some of the most exotic beauty I have ever cycled in. That is what cycling does to you. It somehow gives you more than you put in, and it keeps giving.
Overall Trip Impression:
I HIGHLY RECOMMEND cycling in Corsica to anyone and everyone who likes cycling! The hills are tough, yes, but there are plenty of routes to pick from and diverse landscapes. It’s much flatter on the southern end of the island, which is great as well. The scenery on the west coast was some of the best that we saw on the island. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to bike in the centre of the island on some of the bigger mountain climbs, but the hiking there was great. You can save on costs by camping, and still have access to showers at many campsites. The only downside was unexpected sections of rough road. Out of three cycling trips I have been on, this was my favourite.
I would love to hear thoughts, comments or questions!