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WORDS: Max Leonard | IMAGES: @cyclecotedazur
“Ping!” says the car thermometer. This is not good news. We're still 30 kilometres and several hundred vertical metres from the start of our ride, and the temperature's dipped below 4°C. Maybe climbing the Cime de la Bonette, the highest paved road in Europe, in October, isn't such a good idea.
But let's look on the bright side: The bright side is that golden sun is clipping the tops of the trees high on either side of the sheer rock walls of the Tinée valley, a cleft that meanders from deep in the southern Alps to the Med. The bright side is that it's only 8:30am, the sliver of sky above us is clear, and the sun will already be warming the upper slopes. The thermometer continues to fall. Into minus figures. Oh…
When we reach Saint Etienne de Tinée, it's 2°C, and we're grateful for any plus we can get. Out of the car, on with the kit, and up the hill we go. Bottom to top: winter socks, regular bibs, Merino base layer, club jersey, gilet, and a rain jacket in the pocket for layering higher up. Full-finger gloves, plus, I'm testing the new Merino arm and knee warmers.
See the Merino Arm Warmers »
The Merino mix, developed specially by Rapha, slips on smoothly and feels good. As soft as a Roubaix-backed fabric, but thinner. I wear the knee warmers high (after all, it's not a grim, wet spring classic we're dealing with here, it's a mountain in the autumn sun) and the silicone gripper at the top is perfectly pitched. A minor revelation: Merino under bibshorts feels good. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, but it's amazing.
See the Merino Knee Warmers »
Finally, we ride out of the shade and into the sun, which at 1,200 metres at 9:30am provides little more than a shadow of warmth. We cross a small bridge, head up the west wall of the valley, past sheep being put out to pasture, and settle into a climbing rhythm. Despite being thinner, neither the arms or the knees feel less warming than standard Roubaix-backed warmers, and the flat-locked stitching means they're super comfy.
Closer to the 2,800m summit, we ride through the ruins of an old army barracks, past icicles on the banks, then climb past the gates which will be used to shut the road only 10 days after our ride (there's more than a metre of snow on top now). We duck in and out of the shadow of the mountain, the air thinning and the wind rising, trying to bite, but I'm kept perfectly warm. About two kilometres from the summit I put the rain jacket on – it is somewhere near minus figures for sure, even in the sun, and the arm warmers are perfect for layering. The knee warmers are a marvel in the cold and wind: they turn a pair of summer bibs into real three- (even light four-) season wear.
We don't stay long on top. Time enough for photos and to wish I'd put shoe covers on for the 26-kilometre descent, then down we go. Shoulders locked with cold as the wind bites, fingers tight on the bars, feeling for feeling for feeling the brakes. Down to where the sun begins to warm us again; down to where the birds begin to sing; then to where the air is permeated once again by the smell of pine, and the flowers growing by the roadside. We are stopped abruptly at the bridge, where the aforementioned sheep are being loaded on to a truck by men and large white mountain dogs. I'd like to believe they are off to be sheared, and the wool used to make arm and knee warmers… but I fear the worst.
Down in St Etienne de Tinée, we order coffees and huge pizzas from a reassuringly Alpine restaurant: they know how to make a filling pizza in a ski town. Satisfied with the ride: we'd pushed the limits of the possible, and all the kit had performed.
Subsequently, I've worn the arm and knee warmers through the tail end of a Mediterranean autumn storm (there's not much other rain in Nice), and they perform well in the wet. They're great for cold mornings, and the arms also manage to keep their warmth when soaked through with sweat after being rolled down to the wrists. They're quick drying too.
Did I mention how nice it was to have merino warming the quads and thighs? On this showing, I'll be wearing the knees for winter riding in London, under trousers.
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