Stepping out of the comfort zone, and onto the dirt roads of the Alps.
Words by Beth Hodge. Photos by James Corlett and Beth Hodge.
I’m sure we’ve all been there, sitting in an interview being asked the typical questions like ‘What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?’ I think I’d now struggle to answer this question. It would be a tough call between a) leaving the job that I had spent years getting into debt for, or b) riding hundreds of kilometres over a ridiculously tough gravel route in Europe.
Feeling a bit lost with the day job, an opportunity to spend a few months house-sitting in the French Alps came my way. It was a no-brainer – a chance to take some time out to consider the next steps in life. Before long JC and I were settled into our temporary mountain home, busy exploring our local mountain and grand plans started to develop. Something to tell the grandkids about. Something not to tell my mother about.
We wanted to inspire other people by showing them that you can really go off the beaten track within a normal holiday allowance, for minimal cost, on a ’cross bike. Our adventure goal was to craft an off-road route over a network of gravel-lined cols, which would stay high in the mountains for multiple days. Not so simple, but not impossible.
The Gravelly Grail
We were given a tip-off about a col that had 48 gravel-lined hairpins. The Holy Grail of gravel cols, surely? Separating the Maritime Alps from the Ligurian Alps sits the Colle di Tenda, the most southerly of the great Alpine passes. Three solid days of route planning followed. Sitting side by side, we slowly got to know the Mercantour Alps from the comfort of our chairs. A mountain-to-coast gravel adventure was crafted: Cuneo to Ventimiglia, eight days, across multiple mountain ranges.
The route passed by the doors of many mountain refuges, which would offer us showers, meals, and a bed for the night. Camping was scrapped – we could now travel lighter and further each day. The planning was getting bolder, and the stats were getting bigger.
We had left ourselves no wriggle room. The geography of the week was tough, public transport was minimal, or on some days non-existent, so there would be little chance to bail onto a train should we not reach our daily base. This proved to be nearly disastrous, as I got very sick the night before we were due to leave.
Disastrous Day One
Day one had to happen, or the trip was off. I likened it to taking a flight to catch a cruise ship without the pina coladas and evening dresses. Setting off from our base on day one, reality hit. We had a hot long day ahead of us. I could barely ride 5km without having to stop and lie down, anywhere. Roadside laybys had never been so appealing. Slow progress meant that we still had a way to go at 5pm. We contacted the refuge to let them know we would be late. We hadn’t quite appreciated just how late that would be, as our gravel road ended and turned into a steep path. We were forced off the bikes and we began to push uphill as the sun set behind the huge peaks, pink light illuminating the valley floor. Even though we were knackered and feeling a bit lost, we were already overwhelmed with the beauty of where we were. A couple of chamois mountain goats were startled in front of us as we reached yet another ridge. Pushing past deserted WWII bunkers and carefully picking our way through rusted barbed wire, we eventually saw the refuge as the last strands of light hit the peaks. I couldn’t believe we had made it.
Waking up so high in the mountains is incredibly special. As we set off on day two we were already in the thick of it, the gravel track winding its way around the mountaintops – every corner revealed something new. Riding the gravel tracks was tough, as even the slightest amount of gradient with a loaded bike slows you down. We became experts in aggregate, and I jumped for joy inside when we found tracks with compacted gravel. Simple things please at 2,000 metres.
On reaching the top of the Colle Fauneria in the Cottian Alps, we enjoyed a long descent on sealed roads down into Demonte, passing leathery elderly Italian cyclists on the way up. Our next stop was the Rifugio Sant’Anna, and religious or not, the sleep in the refuge that night was entirely holy after a horrifically hot climb up to it. Admittedly on more than one occasion I absolutely lost my shit due to feeling rather broken.
Thankfully, the third day was cooler, and as we set off through the morning mist to take the gentle gravel Colle della Lombarda on into France, things were feeling rather more positive. Halfway up that gravel col I could hear the buzz of a generator, which triggered memories of the burger van that sits at the top of the Black Mountain pass in my homeland of South Wales. I wasn’t disappointed. We would be rewarded for our tenacity by the best frites ever from the Lombarda snack van, the patron playing loud ’90s hip-hop and wearing a T-shirt with a scantily clad woman on. This is what we had come for. Moments like this.
The daily riding pattern established itself soon enough, but we realised that we had totally overestimated what we were capable of on the bikes and the terrain. Passing a lonely gite towards the end of day three, we made a call to cut the day early, taking the opportunity to rest while we could. It was a real turning point in the trip. This was our route, and it had already been incredible. We didn’t need to meet every single kilometre that we had routed, so long as we could find a viable alternative way or somewhere to stop. We had maps and Internet. We had charge and bucketloads of mini Daim bars, and this wasn’t a race. We could go wherever we liked. What a feeling of freedom and luxury.
As we continued through our week, we began to get into the rhythm of off-road touring. Our strength increased and we set off earlier each day to ensure that we could enjoy what the route had to offer without feeling the pressure of arriving too late at our daily refuge stop, which ultimately became a huge highlight of the trip. We were inspired by others we met and gave inspiration, swapping stories over strictly timed refuge dinners of pasta, bread and chocolate desserts. We took to our beds early and forced earplugs in so hard to avoid the snoring that one night I gave myself a headache.
The 48 Hairpins of the Colle di Tenda
We set off early from our hotel, having had to negotiate with the owner about letting us get our bikes out of the store before 9am. The 48 hairpins unfolded before us. It was everything we hoped it would be, a mysterious and peaceful col with softened edges from nature taking its course. We climbed slowly up the gentle gradient towards the top. The Fort Centrale loomed above us and black storm clouds gathered, which only added to the drama. We enjoyed the peace and views over our lunch and then pushed on, anxious to reach the Rifugio Don Barbera before the storm broke.
Fast and flowing singletrack snaked around the mountaintops, and before long we reached the Via del Sale, a road ‘not for sissies’ according to one 4×4 website. Originally a trade road crafted in the Middle Ages to take salt from Ventimiglia to Limone Piemonte, it was then used for military purposes connecting the various forts along the French/Italian border. We had always planned to take this route, but the photos we found while planning couldn’t prepare us for just how good it was going to be. The road twisted and turned before us, every corner revealing an incredible view. We were in our element. Upon arrival at the refuge we celebrated in the best way possible – with a beer, then a nap.
The penultimate day was pretty special. Wild and exposed as we climbed up the Cime de Marta, a long, loose gravel track above the last refuge of the trip, we looked down over the Ligurian Alps towards the sea, drinking it all in. We rode over 1,500m of gravel descent on this day, and it took its toll. I could barely use my brakes by the time we got to the refuge because my arms were so sore. It proved the point that no part of this trip was a free ride. Pushing up hills, controlling the bike downhill; it all took an incredible amount of energy and concentration, and faith that the bike could handle it. That it did. We had zero mechanicals and punctures over eight days of gravel. Incredible.
We reached Ventimiglia with grins all round as we turned the heads of beach holidaymakers in our less than fresh cycling kit. What a week… from the route to the people we met, the roads we’d taken, and the challenges we’d overcome. Feeling pretty invincible, we hit the gelateria and so the story ends.
It was a trip like no other. It will stay with us for a lifetime. We’re already planning the next one.