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Discovering Provence: Cassis to La Ciotat via the Route des Crêtes

Discover one of the best-kept secrets in France.

While the southeastern French region of Provence is best known for its fields of lavender and sunflowers it has much, much more—as we saw on our morning ride along the coast and over the Col de la Gineste between Marseille and Cassis. As Louise and Sylvain, our two Panaracer ambassadors, enjoyed lunch at the old port of Cassis they still could not get over the incredible diversity of their short ride. “It was just stunning to be honest,” said Louise. “I mean, in only 30 kilometers we went from this huge city to barren roads to this quaint fishing village. And the Mediterranean was always just around the corner. It was incredible!” 

(Photo: James Startt)

As they savored their morning’s experience, the two French cyclists were already anticipating their afternoon ride—they understood that one of the most beautiful roads in all of France awaited them. “I’ve only heard about the Route des Crêtes,” said Sylvain. “To be honest, I don’t know what to expect. I have heard it is breathtaking, but also brutally hard. I will let you know later…but I cannot wait to find out.”

Indeed, the Route des Crêtes is one of the  best-kept secrets in France. Opened officially in 1969, this sinuous road links Cassis to La Ciotat. The two towns could not be more different. Cassis, the picturesque fishing village, attracts tourists year round. La Ciotat, in contrast, is very much a working town. In the late 19th and early 20th century, it was frequented by cinematic pioneers the Lumière brothers, and it thrived for years with its shipbuilding industry.

(Photo: James Startt)

But the Route des Crêtes, towering above the two towns, is a world apart. On paper the road climbs to only 400 meters (1,300 feet) above sea level, but the way in which it dances along the cliffs above the Mediterranean is simply dizzying with a vast array of deep-plunging perspectives.

Once finished with lunch, Louise and Sylvain rolled alongside the port and out of Cassis. Unlike the morning ride from Marseille, there’d be little opportunity to ease into this one. The entrance to les Routes des Crêtes is situated barely a kilometer out of town, and from there the road instantly spikes up with grades approaching 30 percent.

(Photo: James Startt)

Climbing with any kind of speed on such daunting pitches was out of the question and for the next 2 kilometers our two cyclists simply did their best to maintain balance and move forward. “That was some kind of steep, especially in the beginning,” Louise said later. “But as a result you get a sense of altitude real quickly. And the views soon follow.”

Indeed, with the steepest pitches behind them, the duo turned right, where the official Route des Crêtes begins. From this point on there would be no more driveways, and no more houses of any kind, as the two riders entered one of the most spectacular sections of the Parc National des Calanques. After climbing through the final grove of pine trees, Louise and Sylvain hit the first exposed road on the cliffs high above the water. 

(Photo: James Startt)

“It’s really dizzying if you approach the edge of the road in certain places,” said Louise, who clearly preferred to focus on the road in front of her. “Man, those cliffs are something,” Sylvain added. “Clearly, they have been sculpted out by the coastal winds. I sure would not want to have to negotiate this road on a day when the Mistral is blowing.”

 Once above the tree line, the cyclists were in a world all their own, sandwiched between the rocky lunar landscape found inland and the Mediterranean. Sylvain in particular was enjoying the technical aspects of the road, attacking the sweeping descents and powering up the numerous switchbacks. “It’s just such a fun road. There is just so much packed into it—technical descents, hard climbs and then there are the views!”

(Photo: James Startt)

“To be honest, I couldn’t imagine a better tire for this road than the Panaracer Agilest Duro,” he said. “It is just so versatile…stable on the descents with little rolling resistance on the climbs or whenever you are trying to get speed. They are just so much fun.” 

But while the Route des Crêtes is incredibly diverse, it is only 15 kilometers in total length; so, before they knew it, Louise and Sylvain had crested the summit and were making their way down the long descent into La Ciotat. “It’s a much more technical descent than the morning’s descent into Cassis, and the road is both narrower and rougher,” said Sylvain, who appeared unfazed as he picked up speed before La Ciotat came into view below.

Once in town, the two rode past some of the historic cinemas first built by the Lumière brothers, before stopping at the Bar A Tine, a welcoming watering hole. Louise opted for a Coke, but for Sylvain there was no question. “I’ll have a Pastis,” he said, ordering up the local anis-flavored drink. 

“In the end, we did quite a bit of riding,” Sylvain said. “Okay, perhaps it didn’t translate into a lot of kilometers, but in terms of altitude gain, well it was pretty intense.” 

And with the drinks served, a toast was in order. “Chin, chin,” said Louise. “That was a day well done!”

The tires

(Photo: James Startt)

For their ride over the Route des Crêtes, Sylvain opted for Panaracer’s Agilist Duro tire, a 28mm endurance clincher that he felt was best equipped for a rider of his size to negotiate this ever-changing terrain. “I went for a good all-around tire,” he said. “The Duro is the most resistant road tire that Panaracer makes and they’re just tremendous. Unlike similar endurance tires, the Duro is really supple and grabs the road on the descents. Something that is just crucial on La Gineste because the descent into Cassis is really technical and you don’t want a tire that is too hard, because you really need to feel secure gripping the road.”

Meanwhile Louise opted for Panaracer’s new Agilest TLR tubeless tires. “I’ll be honest, this is the first time I have ridden on tubeless road tires. And I definitely felt the difference. They were amazing. You barely feel the road beneath you,” she explained. “It too is a great tire that combines amazing comfort and performance. It’s the perfect balance between speed, weight and durability. I also went for the 28mm version. For me that is just ideal. It’s so comfortable and yet so fast!”

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