FLYING TO NICE ON A CLEAR DAY, SOARING OVER THE PEAKS OF THE SOUTHERN ALPS IT'S IMPOSSIBLE NOT TO LOOK OUT THE AIRPLANE WINDOW AND THINK "I’D LIKE TO GO AND GET LOST IN THOSE MOUNTAINS"
From Ponte Marmosa in the Maria Valley the Col de Preit climbs the vicious north side and where the steep slopes of the tarmac eventually reach the saddle between the peaks, it turns to gravel.
Gravel in front, gravel to the right.
Torino-Nice Rally (TNR) riders take the right and leave the Col behind. They climb and they descend and they roll on rare flat sections, some smooth, some more rocky.
On day four they are used to taking the rough with the smooth. This section - 'Little Peru' - serves up 35kms of high mountain, gravel riding wilderness.
Pre-event packing worries have disappeared, first day nerves are gone and mechanical paranoia is forgotten. Riders flow with the rises and falls of this double-track paradise, which skirts around the inside of a bowl of jagged granite peaks before its helter-skelter form rejoins the tarmac just below the Colle Fauniera.
Popular opinion surmises that this is the sweet spot of the whole event. It’s possibly the most mesmerising gravel ride in the whole world.
FROM THE PLANE YOU WONDER 'IS THAT LINE CUT ACROSS THE SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN RIDEABLE'
What is rideable and not rideable is never a serious question on TNR.
It’s all doable if you have the right bike and luggage set-up. The group that assembled in Torino shows a huge selection of bikes, from enduro MTBs to adapted cyclo-cross and even road set-ups.
We made the flippant statement in pre-event email exchanges with organiser James, 'they are only mountains.' He probably sat back and thought of the Colle del Colombo and laughed at our naivety. 25% gradients, football size rocks poking out of the ground, 25-30 degree heat. Oh, and your 9kg luggage.
This is Torino-Nice Rally. Like it and lump it.
OUT OF THE WINDOW, BESIDE THE TIP OF THE WING, YOU SEE A SNOW-CAPPED PEAK AND YOU THINK 'HOW HIGH IS THAT ?'
Riding the TNR leads to the conclusion that the sweet-spot of riding bikes in the mountains exists somewhere between two and three thousand meters above sea level.
It’s here where the peaks escape the trees, the rocks reveal themselves in all their geological beauty and the sky definitely becomes more blue. Blue-er. A new, high kind of blue.
And at the other end of the journey, the Via del Sale walks the ridge line and the border at 2,000m.
The unpaved paths that lead off (and usually continue upwards) from the regular road cols, deliver free-riding paradise. No-one said getting up there would be easy.
BETWEEN THE FOLDS OF THE MOUNTAINS, SOME VALLEYS ARE HIDDEN IN THE SHADOWS, IMPOSSIBLE TO VIEW FROM THE WINDOW SEAT. 'WHAT IS DOWN THERE ?'
In the valleys are a mixture of surprises. Take the duo of 500m climbs between Pourrieres and Briançon, before the return to altitude via Col d’Izoard. Not the warm-up tired legs needed.
Doubts are found down here. Unexpected tiredness, re-grouping and resurrections over Izoard, but maybe Agnel is possible before sunset? There is a hotel at the bottom of the climb and the only other confirmed accommodation is 18kms up the road and it's 1800h. Sleep outside in true TNR fashion? They do beer and a menu à la carte in there and some washed bibs would be nice…
These are the temptations of the valleys.
Did we mention the trattoria on the Italian side, delivering perfect doppios and foccia with smoked ham, tomatoes and mozzarella?
WHAT IS UP THERE ON THOSE SUMMITS ?
On the ascent of Colle delle Finestre we pass a herd of at least 50 cows being individually milked by a team of two. At seven o’clock in the evening and at 1,800m.
On the other side, we hear soaring birds of prey through the darkness and have a close encounter with some roadside deer.
But it’s mostly the cows. Why are they up there in Little Peru ? To keep the grass short ? And as a consequence to produce the best mozzarella in the world ? In the late summer sun it seems like the good life, but we guess like us, this mountain paradise is only open for business for another month at most.
RIDING PLANS ARE IMAGINED FROM THE AEROPLANE SEAT. BUT SEEING THE GRANDEUR OF THE MOUNTAINS BEFORE DESCENDING INTO NICE DOUBTS ARE ALSO PRESENT 'COULD I ACTUALLY DO THAT ?'
The answer to this for Torino-Nice is that you can do it, and you can do it however the hell you like.
The route card and gpx files are there if you want them. If you don’t, find your own way to Café du Cycliste in Nice. Like Benedict Campbell who decided to take in Col de la Bonette and explore some bunkers in the process.
Truth is, our effort is what happens when ‘roadies’ do TNR – zero outside bivvying (even though we carried the gear), big breakfasts and late starts, surges in pace when we decided to get a valley transition done in team time trial mode, double doppio stops in the middle of the afternoon.
THE PLANE LANDS IN NICE, YOU FEEL THE WARM BLAST OF AIR DESCENDING THE MOBILE STAIR-CASE AND GET EXCITED ABOUT ROSÉ AND/OR BEER ON THE BEACH DURING WHICH THAT MOUNTAIN ADVENTURE WILL BE LAID IN CONCRETE.
Pre-event info mentioned the re-group in Café du Cycliste and the ensuing beers at the Irish pub, Ma Nolans, just up the Port.
The window for this appointment – anytime between 5 and 12 days after the start. That’s how TNR rolls. Torrential rain put paid to those dreams for us. Stranded in a train station with no trains in La Brigue we took option C – phone a friend.
But by then the deed was done. The mountain tracks had made their mark. And we will return.