The First Torino – Nice Rally

IMG_1737 (1)Fomo.

Nope, I’d never heard of it either?  Another one of these new fangled modern words delivered at speed into our dictionaries by text speak. But “fomo” has been around for a while, or “the fear of missing out” as it is known by in more learned circles. It’s apparently the driving force behind a nation of mostly intelligent people becoming zombified by social networks as they scroll up and down ensuing that they’ve not missed a picture of a loose acquaintance’s dinner which may have been more appetizing than theirs. I’ve often imagined the ensuring farce were World War III to break out. The carnage as our young men stopped for battlefield selfies, the tank drivers holding up progress as they text family back home and the confused soldier wandering alone in no-man’s wondering where all the Pokemon are?

Anyway, I digress, “fomo” entered my life in June  when I received the following email from my friend Andy:-

To: Dave Barter

Subject: Re: Ryanair Travel Itinerary

Thank you for booking with Ryanair…

Andy had booked himself a flight to Turin the day before the start of the first ever Torino Nice Rally. His “fomo” grenade was designed to spur me into action and it worked. Within ten minutes my inbox contained a near identical email with the only difference being the passenger name being mine and a different booking reference.

The Torino Nice Rally was conceived by James Olsen who’d ridden a similar route the summer before. The idea was to create a self supported randonee that mixed mountains, roads, tracks and gravel without a bias towards any particular type of bike. He’d publish a route with a set of options, advertise a start time and leave it up to the riders to choose their line and which type of steed to ride it upon. The route distance would vary between 300-400 miles depending upon options taken and James anticipated a riding duration between three and seven days (more on that later).  All riders would set off together on the 6th September from Turin after a gathering over pizza the night before. There was to be no finish line, no set time limit, no controls, no race numbers, no rules, no support and no leaderboard. Pure cycling anarchy.
It was all very appealing as I’d only ever ridden my mountain bike down large Alps leaving the ups to the lightweight roadie machine. The lure of Alpine vistas, sustained remoteness and a break from the fist shaking white-van-men of the UK had me furiously polishing up my poor French in particular the phrase “Mon mal aux jambs, ou est la norriture?”.

The two of us began to concoct a broad plan. We’d fly to Turin with bikes in cardboard boxes. Abandon boxes at the airport then ride to the centre of town. Set off with the other riders and pedal a stress free pace hopefully arriving in Nice some 6 days later. The plan included bivying out every night and trying to do as many of James’s route options as possible.

As the start day began to push its way to the front of the calendar I transitioned into the well trodden route of bivy-ditheration. Bivy-ditheration is a fairly common affliction that I am prepared to own up to in present company. The main symptom of this malady sees the cyclist staring at a wardrobe full of kit whilst holding a set of scales and a weather forecast.  The head, chin and arse is scratched as the rider attempts to balance a delicate equation of comfort verses weight. Tents, bivy bags, jackets, sleeping bags, mats and clothing are then strewn around the room whilst internet forums and friends are consulted in order to find out “what the others are taking”. “Fomo” is replaced by “Fobtmgbahtljattsehpbyf”, if you’re struggling with that one it is “Fear of bringing too much gear but also having to look jealously at the thing someone else has packed but you forgot”. In my case this can range from a midge net to a working bike.

James’s route threw in its own particular set of gear conundrums. We would be going very high into the mountains where it is known to get cold. A lot of the riding was on road causing lengthy tyre debates. Are there midges in the Alps? I had no idea. And finally what would one wear on the beach in Nice at the finish? I’d heard that Ron Hill Tracksters were too “last year”. I hear a lot of male cyclists moaning about the amount of time it takes their partner to get ready before a night out or the money spent on expensive accessories, clutch bags or heels. We surf a sea of irony without realising it.

Finally, like Mr Ben in his fancy dress shop, I walked out of our spare room a bike packer ready to do battle with the Alps and carrying what I hoped to be the bare minimum of gear. A day later I was sat in the atrium of the Tomato backpacking hostel being shouted at by a mad lady three stories higher.

The hostel had become a focal point for many of the rally participants. Offering relatively cheap accommodation and more importantly a storage space for bikes. Andy and I got there relatively early but it was soon filled by a cornucopia of bikers all twiddling with straps whilst sizing each other up.  This faff-action occurred in the hostel’s atrium which was overlooked by a number of residential flats. One resident took umbrage with our conversations interrupting her siesta and swore at us repeatedly in her native Italian. Even mild whispering elicited a curse from her which seemed odd as the drum and bass coming from other flat caused no response. We decamped to a picturesque plaza in Turin centre where over 40 cyclists across many nationalities shared pre-ride beer, pizza and nerves.  I felt remarkably relaxed and reasonably well prepared. A bent disk rotor was the only casualty from my flight over and a Turin bike shop had come to the rescue. A mildly surreal experience as Andy was browsing the shelves and came across a real live baby in a cot. He missed a trick by failing to ask if it was XT or XTR.

Day 1 – Turin to Colle de Finistre

We all gathered in the same square at 8am the next day ready for the off. Twenty minutes later everyone was still looking at each other and no “off” had occurred. So Andy and I led a breakaway group of two away from the square and onto the first section of the GPX route. This was best described as pretty standard Italian city urban riding. Narrow streets, the odd plaza, some crap cycle lanes the occasional stupidly busy road and a decent amount of dog shite to avoid. After a croissant stop we were caught by the main group and chatted merrily away as the city began to fade into rural backroads. A bollard interrupted the chat after taking out one unfortunate rider who forgot to miss it, fortunately he arose knighted with road rash but no other injuries. We met a few other riders outside of Turin and our group slimmed down to about five as we hit the first off-road section, a flat track darting through some trees.

For some odd reason this injected an element of pace, Andy and I left them to it as the sun was beginning to properly heat the place up and we knew we had a lot of climbing further down the road. This was fortunate for the escapees as I came across an expensive Paclite jacket on the track. It was reunited with its sheepish owner, Craig, a few miles later. Who I must remind owes me a beer as the consequences in the higher mountains could have been large.

And thenimg_1763 we began to climb. Initially at an easy gradient on smooth tarmac. Three Italian riders on road bikes nipped passed with a few shouts of “Forza”. I glanced at our rigid 29er mountain bikes with concern, looks like we could be last in to Nice. A mile or so later we found a shop and two French riders on CX bikes. More concern. The locals had eschewed mountain bikes. I distracted myself by asking for an impromptu French lesson. Then we continued our climb. Craig caught us after the shop and then rode at speed past a required turning despite my furious whistles. He should have kept going as the gradient went from manageable to “really?” very quickly and stayed there for a long time. The tarmac road leading to the Colle Colombardo is uncompromising in its quest for height and the track beyond it continued the theme. Both suggested that you really ought to get off and walk without quite making it mandatory. I focused on a switchback at a time and caught the French guys after a few kilometres of track. But victory was short lived when one of my bottles ejected its top, forcing a 500 metre retreat down the track in a futile and sweary search for it. Eventually I gave up and continued the unrelenting climb finally succumbing to a brief walk on a particular steep switchback. At the top one of the French guys thanked me, it had made him feel better about his own dismount.

The Colle de Colombardo has a large building at the top with a water tap attached. The Italian and French guys were busy trying to empty it due to the heat which was somewhere close to 30 degrees centigrade. Behind the building was a large cross and behind that a spectacular inversion. It was suddenly clear how high I had climbed to get to this point and the mountains beyond told a story of exactly how much higher I’d be climbing for the rest of the route.

Craig crested the hill a while after, grabbed some water and raced off, determined to make Nice by Sunday. Andy and I enjoyed the views a few moments more and then continued to climb higher. A number of motorcross bikes passed me on this climb including an unfortunate German rider who stacked his on a gravel corner. He apologized profusely as I handed him his indicator stem that I’d picked up from the trail. I wondered how he would get home only able to turn right.

Finally the track began to head down and we were soon reunited with the three Italian road bike riders. Rider one was on  a mincefest over some rocky ground. His eyes fixated on the gnarly trail and his hands in a deathlock on the brakes. Rider two was fixing a puncture. Rider three had slightly better tyres and was waiting for one and two at the bottom.

img_1765We gained tarmac and made our way into Condove in search of lunch somewhere around 3pm.
This is when we became aware of the Italian custom of closing restaurants just in case anyone might want to eat in them. A few loops of town delivered nothing but “chiuso”. We ended up with cold pizza slices and ice cream from a shop that had forgotten to shut its doors. The two of us pressed on into the heat along 15 miles or so of tarmac before the road began to wind upwards again. Just before Meana de Susa we both stopped and looked at each other. There was a problem.

Neither of us had properly considered a plan for the night. The road was about to head upwards at a frightening rate ultimately delivering us to the Colle delle Finistre close to 7000 feet in height. We weren’t carrying an evening meal and there didn’t seem to be many towns on the route from here on. It was important that we assessed our options. And assess we did for nearly an hour including online searches for shops, streetview sessions hoping for restaurants, gps map analysis and an aborted conversation with an aging Italian farmer that only managed to liberate the fact that we should not drink the local water. Finally we made the decision that should have been taken an hour ago.

“Fuck it, we’ll press on and see what we find. Looks like there may be a campsite at the top”.

Just around the corner we found a B&B. We asked the owner for a meal but he could not comply instead he pointed us 500 metres up the road to a restaurant. I nearly fainted with joy to find it open and brushed aside the owner’s apologies that it would take at least 10 minutes to heat up any ovens. He came over with menus and I ordered pasta tubes filled with meat and covered in a tomato sauce. This should get us up the climb. Thirty minutes later meat skewers with a tomato turned up firmly underlining why I left languages behind at O level. Dejectedly we ate them paid the bill and set out to finish off this climb. It was somewhere close to 8pm now and the sun rapidly began to disappear. We passed a few other riders who’d decided to stop for the night both of us pedaling a decent pace on the tarmac. In fact we kept up too decent a pace silently egging each other on to go faster whilst waiting for one of us to crack and crave a rest. Fortunately we caved in simultaneously and took a few moments to re-gather legs on what was becoming an increasingly challenging climb.

Darkness saw us hit dirt. No lights were visible ahead of us, we were lone riders. Rounding a corner we were greeted with cacophony of bells and then witnessed a trio of mad Italian cowherds trying to coerce their stock in the dark using pathetically small flashlights. Big cow faces loomed out of the dark. We pedaled on and it got colder. It was close to 10pm when we made the top and set off in search of the campsite. Nothing. Bollocks.

I was really cold now and concerned that we had a long night ahead of us traipsing over to Sestriere. Fortunately we were saved by a refuge which looked open and came with a trio of waving Italians outside complete with road bikes. The guys high-fived us as we made our way over. We were soon ensconced in the bar and presented with a platter that held a cheese mountain. Somewhat symbolic of what we had just ridden but not really the best meal to end the day with. The two of us picked at it and then asked for the bill. 15 euros each, I’m fucking glad I’m not a mouse. I’d be destitute. Too tired to protest we retired to our sleeping quarters for the night. A floor space in a room complete with three Italian roadies, Craig and another bloke currently snoring. There was one bed available and you have to salute our bikepacking credentials as none of us took it, all electing to use mats and the floor.

This strategy worked for the others who all slept soundly. I lay awake for most of the night. The room was far too hot and I was dehydrated which always interferes with my sleep. I think I drifted off somewhere near 4.45am only to be shaken back into consciousness at 5am by AC/DC. One intrepid rider had set his alarm, good on him for electing to take an early start. But the problem was that he didn’t. He hit snooze. And so at 5.15 we had AC/DC and again at 5.30 and again at 5.45. I’m pretty sure this constitutes what is known as “fuckwittery”. By all means set your alarm, get up and go. But the snooze function has no place in a room full of dozing bike-packers. I sulked in my sleeping back whilst the others got up. There was no point in doing the same as it was still dark and I had no intention of riding until dawn had broken.

Day 2 Finistre to Ville Vielle

img_1784I crawled out at 6.30am and was ready to go at 7 as we now had light. Interestingly, Mr AC/DC was still there compounding his fuckwittery further. Craig and the other bloke were long gone when we left the refuge closely followed by the Italians. They came past on a short road section but saw our arses as it turned to track and began to ascend. The two of us enjoyed a dawn ascent of the Colle dell’Assietta shrouded in mist. This gradually burnt away as we gained height freeing our eyes to traverse spectacular high mountain views. The track carved its way around the mountain tops always threatening to dive down into the valley but never delivering upon its promise. Breakfast had been a Mars bar stoking a fantasy of a large plate of something hot when we arrived at the ski station of Sestriere.

An Italian waitress killed my fantasy with a gesture towards the “breakfast cabinet”. This contained a few croissants and a lot of crumbs. We ate all of the remaining croissants and I replenished the fantasy bank with an image of a meal in Claviere. We dropped out of the ski station and met the main road to Montgenevre. A long climb delivered the fantasy with a lunch of spaghetti carbonara complete with a runny fried egg on the top. How I loved that egg. Forget your expensive truffles there is no plate of food that will not benefit from a runny fried egg deposited aloft. I wanted to savour it as pickings had previously been so slim. But the hole in my guts had a word with the central nervous system which ordered my hands to eat the spaghetti as if it was stolen.

After Montgenevre we enjoyed the road descent into Briancon passing the Italians fixing yet another puncture. Then it was on the the Col D’Izoard and the first decision of the trip. Take a left at Cervieres for some hike-a-bike or carry on up the road for a shorter ride.

James’s route notes told us that this hike-a-bike was short and strenuous but that the Col de Peas descent was worth it. This had swayed our decision to head off road and it seemed to be the right one as we enjoyed a quiet and spectacular road climb out of Cervieres followed by a run through a beautiful valley leading to Les Fonds. As we reached valley end the light was beginning to dim and we began what we thought was a “short and strenuous” section of pushing. After this ended we found ourselves continuing to push as the path was tricky and the gradient still high enough to limit riding. A few minutes later we met two wizened empty handed Chamoix hunters with rifles strung over their shoulders. I kept quiet about the bit of one in my bib shorts just in case.

Our conversation began in French but quickly exhausted by vocabulary. One of the hunters reverted to English:-

Where are you going?

Up there

Why?

We’re riding to Nice.

But that is maybe not the best way.

We know.

We were up there earlier looking for Chamoix but did not find any. It’s difficult, it will take at least 30 minutes to walk.

We know, it’s what we do.

The other side is … not so difficult. Good luck, Bon Courage! (you bloody idiots)

img_1815As we pushed on up the path it became apparent that the only way out of the valley was a steep rocky buttress or helicopter. The buttress push was horrendously steep requiring the use of brakes to hold the bike in place whilst rider struggled upwards over loose rocks. I looked down at my top tube and the sticker that had been given to me by Stu from Bearbones, “Stop Being Soft” it read. So I did and thrutched my way up the buttress hauling the bike over the top triumphantly only to be greeted by the site of another steep path and second buttress at its end. The incantation of “fuckity cock bollocks” did nothing to make it disappear so I stopped being soft some more and hauled the bike onwards. It took somewhere close to 1 hour 20 minutes to make the col. A hike of nearly 1000 feet in total over 3.4 kilometres. I’m sure I read somewhere that this was only supposed to take 30-45 minutes.

We celebrated our conquering of the Col de Peas with more swearing and some puzzlement as to how the hunters were going to drag a chuffing great Chamoix down that. The swearing continued down a steep track as I lost all ability to ride a mountain bike and simply skidded on locked brakes downhill. Progress was halted further by a flock of sheep who eventually parted to let us through but leaving one straggler flailing about in a ditch. Suddenly there was very loud and deep barking and we were confronted by a wolf like dog that had positioned itself between us and the herd. Signs had warned about the wild dogs that protect the sheep and advice was to stop and let it approach. There were a few tense moments as this fellow continued to bark and snarl until finally realising that the sheep presented a greater threat to these idiots than the idiots did to the sheep. One final bark told us to “hop it” and we gladly did one off the mountain at great speed and down a long descent into Chateau  Queyras where, no surprise, everything was shut just in case a tourist came through.

We tapped on to Ville-Vielle and were shocked to find an open hotel that was serving food. We also found Joachim who was stuffing his face full of it and it was nice to share experiences of the ride to this point. This was his first bikepacking trip and probably a tad harder than he had contemplated. But he was holding up and planning to ride up the Col D’Agen for a bivy later that night. We had other ideas as the village had a public toilet and a secluded woods. The night was warm so we bedded down in bivy bags only. I set my alarm by asking Andy to wake me at 6.30am. Got into my bag and was asleep before the sandman could get me.

Day 3 Ville Vielle to Col Preit

img_1829If Andy had a nasty streak he’d have woken me with “Back in Black” as it was we both arose simultaneously to a cool morning with light mist. Within minutes Andy was tapping his foot waiting for me to be ready. His system was nigh on perfect, he seemed to be able to slide out of his bag and onto his bike with minimal requirement for intermediate tasks. My routine was the opposite requiring at least three attempts to pack the bike interspersed with a search for something vital that had inevitably found its way into the depths of one of my bags.  A headtorch was required to use the public toilet and so the bikepacking ethic was partially maintained. A quick Mars bar and we were off up the col. Thirty minutes later I realised that I’d forgotten to brush my teeth. Luckily Andy was a bit behind so I was able to have a quick clean by the roadside. A woman clutching baguette gave me a tentative “bonjour”, I responded with phlegm and toothpaste. But my senses were alerted to the presence of fresh bread and we were soon ensconced in a café downing fresh Pain au chocolate and coffee.

Then we climbed up to the border between France and Italy. I type that flippantly but it took a long time as the climb began at a steady gradient up along valley before morphing into switchbacks at the top. Along the way I passed another rally rider on a bike completely masked by luggage. Every inch of it had a bag attached and he even had some sort of large camera bag swinging by a strap from his bars. The weight caused him to zig-zag across the road and he barely croaked a “bonjour” as I span past. Maybe he was smuggling meals into Italy in defiance of the restaurants that refused to serve them.

The top was windy and cold, populated by smug motorists taking pictures from the warmth of their cars. I huddled in the lee of a rock waiting for Andy and had a quiet giggle to myself having ridden a classic road climb on a mountain bike festooned in luggage. Must take this bike to the velodrome. We hurtled down into Italy again, paid ridiculous sums for soft drinks at a bar and continued on down to Sampeyre. The resupply in the town wasn’t entirely fruitless as I emerged from a shop with a banana. But pickings were still slim, my hunt for something savoury had only come up with bratwursts and yet again multiple mars bars were added to my bag. We were living on confectionary, croissants and Magnum ice creams. A French child’s dream but not my idea of an endurance athlete’s diet.

[cont]

Andy sat turning yoghurts into energy as I contemplated the next climb. The Col de Sempeyre was an old friend of mine. I’d ascended it a few times before from both sides during the Fausto Coppi Gran Fondo. I knew it was long and steep in places and doubted that I’d have an old Italian man hand me up newspaper for the descent as had happened before. As a result the first third of the climb felt really slow due to lack of titanium road bike and shaven legs. The midday sun had also made itself known and I developed a voracious thirst which needed quelling as I knew there was no water at the top. The gradient levelled out a little and  I passed two cyclists paused at the roadside. I threw them a cheery “Bonjour” with a subscript of envy due to their lack of luggage. She looked hot and bothered, he looked impatient. I focused ahead of me and continued the climb.

As my thirst reached a zenith the climb delivered a timely surprise, a roadside pipe spewing fresh water. I emptied both of my bottles into me and filled them from the pipe only to hear labored breathing behind. He’d chased me up the climb. She was nowhere to be seen but he’d clearly had enough and decided that no fully laden mountain biker was going to show him a clean pair of heels. I tipped my helmet at him and left him with a quandary. Chase again or fill up from the pipe. He chose the pipe and no doubt spent more frustrated minutes trying to foot-tap his partner up the climb.

Approaching the final ramp I could see Joachim cresting the summit so put in a little effort to get up there quicker and ensure we’d have a short chat. 100 metres from the summit I saw him talking to two other riders. I sprinted in the heat determined to catch them before their descent only to see their arses disappear down the road. Another gossip opportunity lost.

img_1837Joachim was sat at the summit eating an apple. Not just any apple but a huge juicey monster of an apple. One that I’d clearly missed in the village shop. He made conversation as I fixated upon his fruit. I wanted that apple, I wanted it above everything else in my food supplies and more than any drink. I craved its slightly bitter sweetness and the sensation of chewing its natural juice out into my mouth.  I nearly asked him for a bit, considered mugging him for it or offering swapsies for a Mars Bar. But my food envy was interrupted by a wizened old Italian mountainbiker tapping me on the shoulder and motioning me to get out of the way, then motioning me to move my bike, then motioning me to take a photo of him in front of the summit sculpture, then not being satisfied with my camera holding and motioning me to move into a position that gave him his desired frame. All these motions distracted me from Joachim’s apple.

Andy’s arrival at the summit caused more motions from the Italian. He imparted a bizarre set of mimes which were hard to interpret. I think he was telling us that we were weak for riding up the road and that he himself had come up the track. The mime went on to tell a story of utter madness before indicating that he was off back down said track and “goodbye”. This cemented our decision to follow the route down the road. We needed a meal and didn’t need a running battle with a two wheeled Marcel Marco.

The descent from the Sempeyre initially reflected the climb before turning off onto one of the most fascinating road sections I’d ever ridden. A thin battered strip of tarmac clung tenuously to a spectacular valley side. The road was strewn with rocks and bordered with railings smashed by landslides and avalanche. There were no cars, and the distant thunder of water accentuated the height of the road. At one point we encountered a huge roadside shrine clearly cared for and maintained. Was this in memory of those who had overshot the barriers? We hailed a few Marys and carried on down, past barriers that had been pushed aside and finally onto a proper road.

This road led to the town of Ponte Mamora and the potential for a meal. However, it was late afternoon and the only open restaurant was deserted the tables laden with the detritus of an earlier lunchtime. With our hopes held low we asked whether they were serving food and moped out after yet another culinary rejection. Our moping clearly caused some consternation amongst the staff as a few minutes later we were invited back in for a meal of pasta and tomatoes. It took a while to come a few minutes to eat and a few seconds to forget. Something had to rescue us from the Italian food doldrums,  we pinned our hopes on a village a few miles up the road that promised a shop. It was nowhere to be found. We managed to scrape an ice cream out of a bar further up the valley but were now committed to pressing on towards a refuge marked on the map at the Colle de Preit.

img_1854James’s route notes had promised a “stunning climb” and as the road meandered up a valley following a river I began to question his notes. The scenery was better than my native Swindon, but a few trees and large clusters of flies don’t add up to “stunning” in my book. Then we ran out of valley. Huge cliffs surrounded us and we both wondered where we’d find the tunnel. However, the road builders had had other ideas. The tarmac began to switchback up vertical cliffs picking a seemingly impossible line to the top. The climbing became hard but I ceased to care as the height created a new canvas upon which the stunning valley vista was painted. The final set of ramps were the hardest probably in excess of 14%.  And suddenly the road was gone. I left it with a tinge of sadness. It had conquered the cliffs only to be morphed into a dirt track. Its job done once the proper height had been gained.

From our vantage point we could see a large building straight ahead less than half a kilometre away. It looked like a refuge but the map told us otherwise. Our destiny was to head right for a kilometre which we duly did and found a quaint building perched on a hill with walkers hanging clothes on a fence outside. A young lady confirmed that this was indeed the refuge but were we to want a meal we had to go to another building at 7pm. We asked for some water, she advised that we get some from a tap in the toilet. But another walker blocked our way. He was not so accommodating, he needed to know why we were going inside, what we wanted and what was that peculiar smell? Our request for water was met with suspicion and he maintained his stance in the doorway eventually grudgingly taking a bottle to fill. Victory was his when the toilet was found to be occupied and he could return our bottles of air. Victory was mine when I later sneaked in and deposited a huge shite in the toilet whilst drinking my fill at the same time.

As 7pm approached we made our way to a farmhouse drawn by the smells of cooking. Previous experience had taught me to keep my hopes low when asking for food in Italy hence the puzzled expression on the face of the chef as two men danced in the twilight following her “si”. We were shown into a room full of walkers drinking wine and directed to a table next to a roaring fire. I’ll never forget the meal that followed, three courses starting with a plate of garlicy smoked meat, cheese and a spinach and egg tart, followed by polenta and beef stew and rounded off with a lovely semi-fredo yoghurt. We were charged 20 euros a piece. The best value food we’d had all trip in the remotest location. I left a tip, I bet Mr toilet blocker didn’t.

Our bivys were set up at the rear of the refuge and another toilet visit was sneaked. This was our highest camp to date at an altitude of nearly 2700 metres, however the air was remarkably warm and I enjoyed a long pull on the starry view above facilitated by a lack of cloud and light pollution. It would have been a great night if I hadn’t pitched my bivy on a slope. I lay there wondering why I was finding it hard to get to sleep, the answer coming when the last drops of blood left my feet en route to my skull.

Day 4 – Preit to Col de Tende

img_1871One of the great draws of bikepacking for me is the morning. Every one is different and I enjoy the excitement of emerging from a night’s sleep to something brand new outside. This can range from a cloud of midges blocking out a Highland rising sun to a stolen motorbike being ranted round some Welsh wasteland.  I’ve faced quizzical shitting dogs not used to campers on their walks and bored cows drooling over my face in the hope that I’ll stop lying on the nicer grass they’d earmarked for breakfast. Occasionally it won’t be raining, even less frequently the sky will be clear. On our fourth day we had a perfect dawn, low orange light that cast dramatic shadows creating explosions of scenery all around us. We rode through this in awe struggling to take it all in and trying desperately to capture it upon our cameras. We shook our heads in the knowledge that Joachim had probably ridden through this in the dark. The trail from Colle de Preit along the high altitude military road is one of the best I’ve ever ridden. Nothing to do with what is underwheel as it’s basically a track, but the location and surroundings are wild, remote, savage yet beautiful. We were alone that morning and able to savour all of this without interruption. Of course I ruined it all by stacking my bike on a rock and swearing out loud. The Von Trapps would definitely have disapproved.

The track began to make its way toward civilization as we rode between a set of abandoned gun emplacements and reacquainted ourselves with tarmac. This road led to Demote a larger town which surely knew that  “breakfast” meant more than a buttery tasteless pastry washed down with a splash of coffee. We did two circuits of that town looking for a decent café the second of which saw us become part of a funeral cortege. Defeated we retreated to a shop and bought croissants and ham to go in them. The low point of the ride was reached as I breached one of my croissants to find marmalade inside. Fucking ace. Marmalade croissant and ham. Even Mary Berry would go all Gordon Ramsey if that was served up in front of her. I managed to eat it in between moans, augmenting the shitest breakfast the world has known with some equally shit fig rolls. I now knew how the guy in the coffin had got there. He’d starved.

img_1884We left Demote in a bit of a sulk and were soon uplifted. Not by thoughts of food but by the road which had reached again for the heights. This was the Madonne del Collette, I’d been up this before. The climb was shrouded in trees and fights hard to disguise the height gain from the rider. The top offered some shade, an old building and a descent to Valdieri that mirrored the climb. We pushed on towards Verante encountering another ascent after a short while. This was a steepish road climb led on to tracks that wound through high level forest occasionally teasing us with views but never quite letting on as to exactly where we were.

The resulting descent was interrupted by a long period of faffage caused entirely by the GPX trail we were following. It appeared to leave the twisty road and dive steeply down into the forest. By steeply I mean “requiring a ladder”. We rode a few metres of this before looking at each other quizzically. What on earth was the point of this diversion? The path was surely designed for walkers alone and met up with the road again after a kilometre. The route purists in us quickly lost the battle as we heaved our bikes back up the track and continued in down the road. It was well into the afternoon by now, time for another vain quest in search of lunch.

Verante did not disappoint. The one open café we found presented meagre pickings. The signs were there as the locals were sat outside quaffing cups of phlegm, or limonchello as I think it is better known. We both risked ham and cheese paninis and were not surprised to have two plates of lukewarm cheese fused cardboard deposited upon our table. I forced mine down, Andy took a single bite and discarded his. We sucked calories out of coffee and sugary drinks instead. The afternoon sun injected a complete lack of urgency in the two of us. We sat there for a long time, I collected my thoughts, Andy frantically cancelled a lost bank card. Then a Dutch rider, Frank, appeared and introduced himself. He’d been riding with others but was now making his way to Nice solo. His arrival spurred us into action but a kilometre up the road I found a sports shop and it was OPEN. This was far too good an opportunity to miss, I’d decided to buy a new water bottle to replace the one that had broken on day one. This time my Italian worked and a sales assistant appeared holding a bidon. I held out my hand for it but she refused to pass it over. A stream of Italian indicated that there was a problem with this purchase. I was starting to get the feeling that intelligence services had me marked as a difficult consumer who’s attempts to buy anything remotely useful ought to be blocked. She finally interpreted my look of total incomprehension and indicated at the floor gesturing that I was to remain there at all costs. Then she disappeared. A few minutes later she returned with a colleague in tow who announced in good English that the bottle should be rinsed before use.

Sport shops really do not understand bikepackers do they? I’d refrained from washing myself for 4 days, had drunk from fountains without any consideration as to the number of sheep pissing in them upstream and had eaten marmalade and ham in the same mouthful. I’d be willing to risk a water bottle bought from an air conditioned shop without a full sterilization.  After more minutes of tense negotiation they agreed to hand it over. I got out of the shop before a disclaimer was produced.

A few more miles up the road we came to Limone Piemonte which painted us in regret with its swath of open restaurants and a supermarket that actually sold food. Frank was stocking up his bags and we did the same. I thought of Joachim as I loaded two ripe apples into my food bag and also thought of breakfast by buying bread, cheese and sausage to fend off any croissant based meals. Andy took the opportunity to down a full 600ml pot of yoghurt in one go. I silently resolved to keep myself in front of his arse for the rest of the day.

Our next objective was the Col de Tende, a high pass on the Italian – French border. The climb began on a busy road with lots of signs about tunnels. I began to silently stress about this as I couldn’t remember whether the route cues had us taking an alternative. The road was too busy to stop and look at my phone, so I plugged on and took a right turning off the main route with great relief. This road was bereft of traffic as it meandered lazily up to a ski station. Behind me drama was unfolding.

I was a few minutes ahead of Andy after the turnoff (probably down to 600g of yoghurt) when a lorry passed him and disappeared around the corner. The next thing he heard was a squealing of brakes and other horrible lorry type noises followed by a deafening silence. He fully expected to round the corner and find me plastered all over the road. Fortunately I’d heard these noises as well from behind me and had been passed by a lorry that smelt horribly of clutch. We climbed on.

I caught another rider at the hairpins above Panice Soprana offering a cheery “Hello” in passing. This meant that momentum had to be maintained so I pressed on at speed to the top thinking all of time of my apple reward on reaching the col. The final few hundred metres of climb were track then I was done. I’ve never had a better tasting apple in my life, thanks Joachim for that one. A shout of “strong climbing!” announced that I’d been caught but the rider had no time to chat and shot past on his own personal mission.

Andy and I regrouped and made the decision to bivy at this point as an abandoned mountain top fort looked like an ideal location for a kip. We rode back a short way to buy sandwiches from a restaurant and picked up Frank who was also doing the same. The three of us then nosed round the fort at the top of the col. It offered some shelter but there were other people about and we wondered whether our sleep would be disturbed? So we pedaled on to a second fort which seemed much more suitable.

img_1898Fort Central had many rooms and was three stories high. It also had huge gaping holes in the floor that dropped into a dark basement. We even found what appeared to be “long drop” toilets and to cap it all off an abandoned pot of balm. What more could the roaming bike packer want. Andy and I quickly selected a room sheltered from the ever increasing wind. Frank was a lot more selective. He “ummed” and “ahhhed” his way road the fort seemingly inspecting every single room against a detailed checklist. Some thirty minutes later he’d selected alternative accommodation from us which he claimed was more suitable. However, I knew he too had witnessed Andy’s yoghurt imbibing.

With our bivy bags set up we retired to the mountainside and watched the sun disappear behind the peaks whilst eating our sandwiches. To clarify, we ate the sandwiches, they were not robbed by the sun. I should maybe rewrite that sentence. As the sunlight faded our bedroom for the night became a little spooky. I lay in my bivy bag staring at the roof and imagined the souls of the soldiers that had served in this former garrison looking down disapprovingly at my unkempt clothes and dirty bike. Later that night dogs howled in the distance and I heard all sorts of strange noises. Probably Andy’s yoghurt.

Day 5 – Col de Tende to Nice

img_1901We awoke before dawn, packed quickly and Andy looked on impatiently as I desperately tried to force down my breakfast sandwich. That was the last time I’d buy ciabatta and try and eat it a day later. It took me back to the cardboard panini in Verante. The wind had picked up quite a lot in the night and we surveyed our planned route east from the fort. This was a committing high level track though the mountains that offered minimal escape routes. Very dark clouds shrouded it and a quick look at the forecast said “thunderstorms”. James had given us two route options from this point, east off road or south off the col and into a town.

We had a long agonizing conversation over the route during which the clouds got darker. A lack of supplies and will to get to Nice in one piece prevailed and so we headed south off the col into the dawn light following a tightly curved dirty track down to the base of the valley. It never feels good to make a decision like this and in all likelihood the sun shone all day on the track we had abandoned. But sometimes you have to recognise that your alpine experience is limited especially when you have no idea of the trail conditions ahead. I’d neglected to bring leg warmers which had not been a problem so far but could have caused issues in a day spent at high level in freezing rain. They’re getting packed next time for sure.

St Dalmas de Tende was the first coffee stop for the day after which we pressed on along a section of road and were overtaken again by our three Italian amici. The guys were in good spirits and it made a change to see them not fixing a puncture. We chatted briefly along the road before turning off to begin the huge climb of the Col de Turini. I watched the three of them disappear up the road ahead of me, but noticed that their relatively high gearing was having them out of the saddle even on the lower slopes. I’m not going to hide from a little bit of competitive nature because as they gurned their way up I thought to myself “I’ll see you later” which came true. The road melded into gravel track favouring my thicker tyres and lower gearing. I gave my usual cheery wave as I passed the three of them higher up.

The climb offered a pause 2/3rds of the way up with a tadpole strewn water trough at a shelter. I remembered I had another apple which I cleaned in the trough and then threw in the hedge after realising it had been advertised on maggot AirBnB. The Italians passed again as I sat swearing about the apple. Then the climbing continued along a track that cut a glorious swathe across the mountainside  dragging the eyes left to stare in wonder at the huge valley vista below. The final few kilometres hit tarmac again and I could see the Italians ahead, they were catachable, my pace increased accordingly. Then I stopped. What the bloody hell was I doing chasing them up the mountain? This was not a race and I doubt they would have cared anyway as they’d be too busy worrying about the next puncture. So instead I chatted with Andy to the top and then we burnt past them at high speed on the descent.

img_1915We would have beaten them to the bottom but a restaurant intervened. We were in France now and this one was open with families sat outside who were clearly eating food. Our eyes widened like kids in a candy store at the menu that had things other than ham, marmalade and pastries upon it. This was going to be another long stop which became even longer when the table next to us ordered fruit pie and we saw the massive slabs delivered. A few spots of rain tried to send us on our way but we refused to budge. Another round of coffees were ordered. A good while later we’d both run out of excuses not to cycle and waved “goodbye” to the second best meal of the trip.

It felt like we still had a lot of height to lose from the previous climb which explained our puzzlement on turning off onto a very steep forest track that headed upwards. A sign by the restaurant had announced “Nice 47km” and pointed down the road. Our resolve was  severely tested here and it would be lying to state that we didn’t even consider the shortcut. Rain was starting to fall and a quick sprint to Nice was sorely tempting. Especially given that our GPS maps confirmed it would be mostly downhill. But we’d stuck to the route up until this point and it seemed wrong to leave it so close to the end. This turned out to be exactly the right decision as the steep climb led to a long section of forest track downhill followed by a spectacular almost car free road descent towards Sospel. Thunder rolled around us as we headed down underlining our earlier decision to take the road option. Rain fell for a short period causing me some concern  on a smooth off camber concrete. But as we reached our next turnoff at Sospel it had moved on elsewhere. We were back in short sleeves and heading up what I thought to be our final major ascent.

The switchbacks started early and I began to establish an early rhythm which was blown to pieces as a cyclist hammered past at twice my speed followed by a dog. This was no bike packer, he was about ten years old and riding a long travel downhill bike. The temptation to chase him didn’t need resisting as he was way too fast up the hill. Three switchbacks later I saw him manual the bike and then dive downhill into the forest followed by the exhausted dog. No doubt he’d be sessioning this all afternoon. I wish I knew his name, I bet it’s French for Steve Peat.

True to the route’s form the thin road we were riding ran out of tarmac and returned to its roots a loose but easily rideable track. I lost myself a bit climbing it, caught up in the rhythm of ascent defined by the mantra of my breathing. I can’t relate with those who despise long cycling ascents as I find them meditative. The trick being to enter the steady state of constant effort and keeping the concentration to maintain it. However, I wasn’t able to quite reach enlightenment on this one as nearing the crest I encountered some campers and their two dogs. Or maybe rats that bark was a better description. These things were no bigger than one of my feet, a Jack Russel type hound and something indeterminate that was fluffy. They completely ignored their owners “arête!!” and decided that I was fair game following me barking up the trail. I put in a little sprint to see them off but these were determined little buggers who kept up the chase for hundreds of metres. I stopped when the track met tarmac again and sat eating a Mars bar surrounded by yapping. A hissed “fuck off” met deaf ears as did the red faced screaming of their owner who’d puffed up the trail after them dragging her not inconsiderable weight along for the ride. The dogs completely ignored her. She was forced to get between me and them in order to coral them both back to the camp..just as Andy arrived. I sat pissing myself with laughter as I heard the barking start all over again and imagined him emerging from the woods pursued by the barky rats.  I should have told her another one was on the way.

img_1918We climbed a bit further to the Col De Braus confident that the track would lead us downhill until we met the sea. A few minutes later our confidence was rewarded by the first views of the Mediterranean and we began to realize we may be spending the night in Nice. Our track traversed some more hills and transformed once again into tarmac. A few undulations upset our descent as we traversed some more but then the road went down with a vengeance and we began to believe we’d soon be on the sea front.  Until it went up again. And up and up and up for a long time. If we’d been better prepared we’d have known about this final climb the Col de la Madone. But we weren’t and it was two very sweaty and slightly annoyed cyclists that arrived at the top saying to each other “where the bloody hell did that come from?”.

The sun was starting to make its journey towards the sea as we began our final approach to Nice. At first a lovely thin road hugging the rock face at the top but eventually a wide featureless dive directly towards the water. We’d had a vague plan of finding a campsite but on hitting the seafront and its busy main road this plan was abandoned. Our destiny was a time trial to Nice in heavy traffic. Probably not the finale to such an epic ride that we’d imagined. As darkness encroached this time trial became more trial than time. Traffic lights hindered our progress, the GPS trail was hard to see in the twilight and there were absolutely no accommodation options making themselves known. We decided to seek out the Cafe de Cyclist which had been nominated the unofficial finish point. Hopefully they could come up with some options. Sadly it was shut. Darkness convinced me to reach for my phone and book a hotel. There were no complaints from Andy until we arrived and it emerged that I’d booked a room with a single double bed. Frantic negotiations led to another room being offered at a slightly increased price. We were too tired to argue and completed the last climb of the trip by hauling our bikes up the two flights of stairs to the room.

img_1926So that was it. Torino to Nice ridden in four and a half days. A pioneering ride as the event had not been run before and James had admitted to me at the start that he’d only ridden about 80% of the route. I stood in the shower desperately trying to return my legs to their original colour via the use of exfoliating soap (hence the extra room cost). The mud streaked bath tub told the story of the previous days through pictograms formed  of dissolved dust. Whilst I’d not had the greatest culinary experience of my life I struggled to remember a moment that was properly shit. In fact it’d been the opposite. The constant challenge of long laden ascents intertwined with the never ending celebration of just where you were. James’s route had delivered on remoteness, challenge, deep alpine immersion whilst offering just enough protection to remove the constant stress of survival. Almost every bit of it was rideable and the bits we hadn’t ridden properly justified the effort of pushing and dragging the bike. The route presents an interesting puzzle for the rider to solve. Which bike? Which tyres? Which camping set up? Stop high or stop low? Carry food or eat at restaurants? And I’m not sure there’s a single solution that fits all. Some routes narrow this down to a single set of variables. Torino  –  Nice offers you choice and only mildly punishes you if you get it slightly wrong. Imagine dragging a road bike round the Highland Trail?

Admittedly we’d been mostly fortunate with the weather and maybe over prudent on our final day. The long hours spent up high would be an entirely different proposition were the weather to turn. As I write this the Col D’Agen has two feet of snow at  the top.

I stood in that bath thinking one thing over and over again. This is me, I Ioved it, this is what I want to do. Thanks James.

Photos here

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4 comments on “The First Torino – Nice Rally
  1. Jenny Barter says:

    A great read ! looking forward to the next part

  2. Good stuff. Nice to know how it went at the front of the ride. BTW, Dan, who hit the post actually broke his femur… Still completed the shortcut ride and 18000m climbing though. Hero!

  3. Robin Birch says:

    Again a fabulous read, well done Dave, both for the writing and the riding 🙂

  4. Cracking read, Dave. Pity you didn’t know about the jam filled croissants in advance (known as cornetti). Next time you want to look out for cornetto vuoto (my favourite, and often translated as empty croissant).