Words and photos by Ed Wolstenholme
I felt right at home 2000 metres up an alpine col surrounded by men (and women) in full colour-coordinated Rapha strip. Sitting on the short grass in groups, gazing out over the valley discussing the merits of various obscure cycle frames, I had found Rapha Man’s mountain habitat.
In truth, we were all grateful for a break from the seemingly unrelenting loose gravel climb of the Colle del Colombardo: six miles of climbing at an average gradient of 8.7% interrupted only by an oncoming Fiat Panda with a bale of hay strapped to its roof. This was a tough start to the second Torino-Nice Rally.
The night before, most riders had met in the centre of Turin (or Torino in Italian) for pizza, beer, and bike spotting. The Piazza Giambattista Bodoni was littered with gravel bikes, ’cross bikes, classic steel tourers, full sussers, hardtail mountain bikes, and all the weirdness that lies in between. We talked route options and swapped tales of similar events until the beer tokens ran out. A late-night tour of Turin’s cycle lanes ensued, dodging tramlines and relaxed revellers.
Back at the Piazza for the start of the rally the next morning, the atmosphere was laid back, and we didn’t leave the square until nearly half an hour after the planned 9am start. Rolling out of the city towards the distant mountains under a clear blue sky, I remembered why I love riding in Italy. Hectic city streets gave way to fields of golden corn punctuated by traditional villages, each with their church, tricolor flag, and troughs of colourful flowers. A section of ancient cobbled Roman road was our first encounter with the rough stuff; a good opportunity to see how our fully laden bikes felt off-road. My Cannondale Slate was fine on the flat, but the 10kg of luggage I had strapped to it made its presence felt as I started the 1000-plus metre climb to the Colle del Colombardo. I started to doubt whether my standard 52/36 and 11-32 gearing would be suitable. I stopped at a roadside fountain for respite from the midday heat; a welcome chance to refill my backpack with water and cool my head in the chilly mountain water. Little by little, I inched up the loose gravel of the Colombardo to be rewarded by increasingly spectacular views with each gravel switchback. Nearer the col the gradient eased, before I plunged down into the next valley round blind hairpins to the sound of overheated brakes and tyres skating over tarmac.
I was riding the rally with Mick, another rider from Yorkshire who I’d run into the night before. He was also excited by the massive descents and, like me, had no itinerary for the event; eat – sleep – ride should do it. That night we found a good bivvy spot next to a water fountain several hundred metres up the Colle delle Finestre.
What we didn’t realise was that French rider Benedicte (one of several woman riding the rally) was trying to take a shower in the fountain as we showed up with our torches blazing. Torches were swiftly turned off in the interests of international harmony.
The next morning we were at the Colle delle Finestre by 9am for a breakfast of sheep’s yoghurt, cappuccino, and fried eggs.
It was just what we needed before the famous Strada dell’Assietta3, which snaked along the side of the mountain ridge before climbing to the Colle dell’Assietta at 2474m. Motorbikes and 4x4s kicked up clouds of dust as they squeezed past on the Assietta; unsurprisingly we weren’t the only ones to seek the cols and abandoned forts along this old road. At one dusty col, three Italian old boys on electric bikes inspected my Cannondale Slate and asked questions about the bike, the single-sided fork proving particularly perplexing.
The descent from the Assietta was a riot of scattered stones, vague lines, dust trails, and the occasional crack as rocks hit my downtube. Unfortunately it was too much for my front wheel, which gave up a spoke to the descent; the rest of the wheel relaxed and bends became more than a tad unpredictable. Mick tweaked the remaining spokes and I restrained my descending to make it to Briançon, where an independent bike shop fixed the wheel for an amazing five euros whilst we had coffee.
Progress so far had felt slow; the Strada Bianca4 were more fun than tarmac roads, but our pace on them in the mountains seemed pedestrian. The smooth tarmac of the 2360m Col d’Izoard was a welcome change. We enjoyed the views switchback by switchback until we made the col just in time to see the sun retiring behind a ridge far above us. The scenery on the far side of the col was more dramatic: razor-sharp ridges, limestone pinnacles, and scree dominated our view. It was difficult to take in whilst repeatedly gunning for hairpin apexes on the fast, smooth hairpins of the descent.
The next morning we climbed the Col Agnel, an idyllic meander up a lush valley to reach the 11% ramps of the final kilometres.
The col was already busy with motorbikes and cars, so we soon dived down the Italian side, overtaking a BMW motorbike on the descent. Near the base of the climb we stopped for a plate of penne pasta and cappuccinos in a traditional village. The elation of the descent was soon dampened by news of a road closure ahead, followed by a puncture on my Slate which took 40 minutes to sort out. Whilst some rally riders obeyed the road closure for cycles, we rode through it and onto the Colle di Sampeyre climb; granted, the road was rough in places but no worse than most of the roads back in Yorkshire.
The narrow road was quiet but dark clouds closed in overhead and we saw our first rain of the rally, so we didn’t hang about at the top. The famous Death Road beckoned far below and we were looking forward to riding it. We could soon see why this stretch of tarmac, gravel, and landslides had become notorious. A ribbon of narrow tarmac clung precariously to the side of a steep ravine, diving under rocky overhangs and burrowing through rocky outcrops, leaving rough stone arches which were generally damp, potholed, and pitch-black inside. A rusty steel rail served inadequately as crash barrier; in some places it had been ripped through by unlucky cars, leaving the ironwork flailing in the breeze. We stopped to peer down a hundred metres to the final resting place of the road’s victims on the rocks below.
Just one more climb, one more climb; one more climb to the Rifugio Ristretta where we were promised beds for the night. Unfortunately that one climb was around 1500m, initially along the valley bottom and past a couple of villages to open ground. Once past the villages, I gazed up at the spruce trees clinging precariously to the steep mountainsides that surrounded us, but I could not see where the road went. We knew, though, that it must climb up there for us to reach the hidden gem known as ‘Little Peru’. Following the road round tight hairpins, it kicked up and had both of us out of the saddle wrestling handlebars through the corners to make the crest of the climb. Meanwhile the clouds closed in again and thunder rumbled in the distance; dusk beckoned. I wondered whether we had stumbled into a horror film where we would be the unwitting victims
The tarmac road ended at the Colle del Preit, but we kept moving up a gravel track following signposts for the distant rifugio; we did not know how far it was, but we had to be there for 7:30pm or we’d be going hungry tonight. Finally, a flag was glimpsed and we rounded a corner to see a collection of old stone buildings with bright red painted doors and window frames. Most importantly, we’d made it in time to eat.
The next morning I was up early to wander over frosty grass under a deep blue sky before breakfast; the feeling of tranquility up here away from roads and villages was sublime. After breakfast we rolled off through the breathtaking beauty of Little Peru along the old military road. Limestone pinnacles punctuated the skyline, and far below cows grazed golden meadows between steep scree-laden slopes—it was a dramatic landscape. So dramatic that we were soon retracing our tyre marks after a missed turn. A steep shove up to the highest point of the track at over 2500m revealed a panorama of peaks stretching far into the distance.
We would have hung around longer, but the descent looked like fun, and it didn’t disappoint. The track continued to the tarmac road head where we could have turned off to the Pantani memorial at the Colle dei Morti, however we were keen to press on so we’d be in Nice the following day. The descent into Demonte seemed endless; we passed shepherds, a café, and a group of Lada Rivas on the rollercoaster of a road. It twisted and turned through blind gravel-strewn bends until we ran out of gradient in Demonte. A quick stop at a bakery for focaccia and pizza fueled us for the next two minor cols, but the big one was coming up at the border: the Col de Tende, although tarmac on the way up, would be more of a challenge. There is an unwritten rule, though, that before leaving Italy via the Col de Tende you must buy gelato, and fortunately we found the best gelati in Limone Piemonte. The lemon sorbet and fruits of the forest ice cream that we indulged in were out of this world, bursting with crisp natural flavour, and just what we needed after a thousand metres of climbing in the midday heat.
The Col de Tende was fortunately well graded; it was the old road over the border until a 4km tunnel was built far below us through the base of the mountain. We spun cranks to the col where the tarmac ended. The French had long since stopped maintaining their side of the pass and it had deteriorated to loose gravel with drainage berms every few hundred metres, which made for interesting descending at speed on fully laden bikes.
It was now late afternoon and we had no plan for where we’d stay or how we’d get to Nice the next day. We bumped into French rider Benedicte once again and decided to ride together as far as we could make it that night. After enjoying a pizza at a nearby bar, we set off up a remote valley towards the biggest dirt climb of the rally—more than 1500m to the top. The pace was relaxed but intent as dusk fell and we turned left onto a forest road that zigzagged up through the trees above us. The track climbed slowly to a ridge, by which time it was pitch-black, apart from a blood-red moon rising in the distance. Spinning our way along the ridge we could see valleys far below filled with mist in the moonlight, whilst distant streetlights to the south reminded us that we weren’t far from our destination. Nights like this reminded me why it’s so good to get out and ride at night or in the early morning—it was a different world up here in the darkness high above the civilisation of the valleys. The three of us continued up into the cloud and towards the ruins of the Fort de la Forca. Winter gloves and leg warmers were hastily found and wrestled on to numb limbs at the summit just after midnight. It was too cold to bivvy up here, so we descended quickly past the Col de Turini to find milder air at 800m. After a few hours’ sleep by the side of the road, we freewheeled round the remaining tight bends of the Col de Turini and along the base of a spectacular limestone ravine towards Nice.
The last few miles into Nice were something of a shock after days in the mountains: trams, traffic lights, and the noise of the city all serving as reminders that we were on our way back to normality. Reflecting on our journey at the Cafe du Cycliste, I felt privileged to have ridden to the places we’d been in the company of like-minded individuals. Organiser James Olsen was absolutely right in his event briefing: it’s a rally, not a race; a dram to be savoured, not a shot to be downed. Find out for yourself next September.
1Fiat Panda: small Italian car which doubles as tractor, shepherd’s dog, and spare bedroom.
2Rapha Man: Discerning 30- or 40-something male who prefers a garment hand-crafted by artisan seamstresses. Seeks adventure
3Strada dell’Assietta: 34km military road dating from the 1800’s, connecting Sestriere with Pian dell’Alpe; used in the 2015 Trans-Continental Race. Most of the road is at an altitude of more than 2000m
4Strada Bianca: The ‘white’ gravel roads of Italy
- Cannondale Slate Ultegra with Hunt Wheels
- Apidura bags (Specialized handlebar roll)
- Navigation by Komoot on iPhone
- OMM Sleeping bags and waterproofs
- MSR Shelter
Thanks to James Olsen for the route, Jen@Velofondista for bike prep, and Mick for laughs along the way.