Tracing the Torino-Nice Rally

A Monument. If a pantheon of off-road routes that can compete with the five famous ‘monuments’ of modern cycling still doesn’t exist, for sure the Torino-Nice Rally could claim the title. And that’s exactly what scares us. But instead of worrying that we won’t make it, Sophie and I are all but certain we’re worthy of the monolith that stands before us. This keeps our minds busy as we tackle the approach along the winding roads of the Valle di Lanzo.

We leave Turin unharmed. A coffee – ameretto, a few warm-up challenges to settle us into the ride and it’s here, in the valley, that the ‘Turin-Nice’ takes hold. Without warning, just as a huge storm drenches us with the simplicity of a hello, the route heads left, and our GPS shows 18% after only a few dozen metres.

The Colle del Colombardo is not especially famous, for one good reason: it very quickly runs out of asphalt. However, it’s our doorway to a one-week adventure that will take guts. We spend an epic afternoon alternating between a slow pace and ‘hike-a-bike’ underneath a rumbling not-too-distant storm. The tone is set.

We don’t go for the challenge as an end goal in itself: we enjoy the effort and we understand wholeheartedly that big moments have to be earned. However, we rarely climb for the simple pleasure of the act. The first reward we earn is a simple one: a little cairn about 50cm high along the ridgeway which veers to the right after Colombardo, and which takes us up to 2,100m. No signs, no souvenirs, just nature in its rawest form, that we alone are here to appreciate.

For us the Torino-Nice Rally is broken up into an impressive series of triptychs. A period of high intensity which pushes us out of our comfort zone, a reward which exceeds that of a box simply ticked and which allows us to survey the land at high altitude, and then long periods of decompression, zigzagging, for the most part, back to the valley. Playing this little game, we take on the northern side of the formidable Colle delle Finestre, before turning off towards Assietta, the col, then the road, for two unimaginable hours on the roof of Europe. It’s incredible what a simple bike can offer you. We didn’t get the chance to properly prepare ourselves, even though we’d seen photos from those that came here before us. We might not have totally believed them before coming, and yet, it’s true.

The Torino-Nice Rally, as a route and as a trial, is definitely made for off-road biking and bikepacking, be it gravel or mountain biking. It offers a long and vivid homage to the great road routes that populate the central Alps. We go from Montgenèvre to Izoard, to Agnel (the highest point of the trip) and on to Sampeyre in two days. The final descent takes us down an alternative path from the official route along the Vallon d’Elva road, now closed to cars. It’s a tiny, battered road with worn-out gates on which we advance carefully, with repeated stops. But we don’t grumble, we are too busy in our disbelief that such a wondrous place exists. The Val Maira fireflies welcome us with open arms to this enchanting paradise for our night outside.

We wake up to the day we had struggled to plan when doing our itinerary, a day we’ve feared since the start. The fourth day’s climb takes us four hours, we push our bikes for most of it. We are overtaken by hikers armed with trekking poles, who also struggle to haul themselves up this steep, rocky hill. It’s difficult to know if they think we’re heroes or just crazy, but we both agree that there’s a thin line between the two. Neither Sophie nor I feel our mental strength flag though, much to our surprise. I am totally convinced that, at this stage, our subconscious has blind faith in this route we’ve been following for 300 km now. Whatever good it does!

Now for what people call “Little Peru”, and not for nothing. This Strada Della Gardetta, sitting beside a refuge of the same name (visibly popular) will certainly be the most epic moment our of expedition. A plateau of alpine pasture, almost free of human activity, undulates between 2300 et 2500m high. It’s mineral, unstable and it reveals itself bit by bit as we go along a demanding trail, but one without any technical difficulties. It’s not just the beauty. The majesty of this place really makes our heads spin. It takes the whole afternoon for it to feel real.

The climb to Tende, taking us along the roadway from Italy, heads through a part of the Via del Sale, and is our ticket back to France. A new descent opens up before us and it’s also the reason we’re here: the route is now called ‘Komoot Torino-Nice Rally’ and it’s our mission to test out some of its new stretches, made necessary by the Storm Alex floods in the valley of la Roya. Tende, a magnificent town that looks like the edge of the world, and dormant due to its recent flood damage, comes into view as we follow the hairpin bend of this breathtaking route with care.

The region seems to be under a veil, waiting. Its wounds are open, we can feel them. We have to turn back during our descent to Breil-sur-Roya, which forces us to take the train towards the col of Turini, the true doorway to the Nice region, via the historic road of la Maglia (25km, mostly on gravel).

A storm picks up 2km from the top of Authion, right above the col. Everything in this moment is epic. A hot chocolate, a descent down to the climb (yes, it’s possible!) and a biker hotel later on. It’s also decided that we’ll return to Nice via the road.

Apart from the buildup of fatigue, there is something else at play: is it possible to have ‘over liked’ what we’ve experienced? Should we have ended this adventure early due to Stendhal syndrome?

11:05 in the morning, Tuesday 20th July, Café du Cycliste, Nice port. We have just finished one of the most mythical gravel routes in the whole of Europe.

Further Riding