I fell one day on the internet on an event called Torino Nice Rally (TNR), proposed by an English guy named James Olsen. The purpose was to go from Torino to Nice, over a mix of roads and non-asphalted tracks. It was not a race, nor even a Randonnée, but just an occasion to have a good time on the bike in beautiful scenery. The route was loosely designed by James, with many places where riders could choose between difficult or easier roads. There were some BIG on the way, some nice non-BIG climbs and some wonderful mountain tracks.
As I live in Nice, and that Torino is easy to reach, I was immediately attracted by this project. The fact that it was a MTB bikepacking ride and that I had no MTB except an old rigid bike with non-functioning derailleur, and that I had no camping gear, was of little impact, as six months were to pass before the start in Torino. Furthermore, having ridden every road in the Alps around Nice, I was willing to enlarge my territory by adding dirt tracks to my possible routes.
So on Monday, September 5th, I was ready to take the train to Torino, with my MTB, always old but now fully operative, loaded with sleeping bag, bivy bag and everything needed to sleep in the wild (the fact that I hardly used all this expensive stuff is another problem). I have been joined by another rider, Craig, coming from England, that I picked at the airport the day before, and we met two others at the Ventimiglia station. As we arrived at our destination in the beginning of the afternoon, I left the others to find me a hotel, and once installed I went on a ride around Torino, visiting the parks along the Po, and climbing colle della Maddalena where I enjoyed nice views over the town. At the pre-ride diner, in a Torino restaurant, we were about 50 persons or more, hardly knowing each other, with a mix of nationalities brought together by the magic of Internet. And we spent a very nice evening, talking of course only of bike.
The Tuesday morning, we were back at the same place for the official start. To go out of Torino we followed an Italian guy that led us through some beautiful parts of the town, and the palace of Veneria Reale. The program was to go to the airport on the way, to pick some other participants. But it happened that at a roundabout, while I was at the very last position of the peloton, the two riders just before me turned left instead of following the group. I decided in one second to follow them, feeling that they aimed at a shortcut to reach the mountains quicker, what they confirmed as I asked them.
We rode a bit on the highway, then on a cycling path nearby. On the first climbs, I saw that my young new friends were faster than me, so I told them not to wait. Later, I saw them at a fountain making water. I kept on riding, thinking I would see them again soon in the climb, but never did, I don’t know why.
And so I was the first one of the rally to reach the foot of the colle del Colombardo (don’t worry, I was not the first one at the top). This pass connects val di Viu in the northwest of Torino to val di Susa, a little bit south, with an unpaved road. There’s a solitary church at the pass, and nice views to the Mont Viso. The track continues to climb after the pass, reaches another pass and then a cairn where the descent to Val di Susa begins.
After some 20 km in Val di Susa, I began the ascent to colle delle Finestre. The first part of the climb after the last village has a lot of hairpins in the forest, and then the unpaved part begins, up to the pass, where the asphalt turns back. It was now nearly the evening and I advised an open refuge, Alpe Pintas, where I decided to stop for dinner. I was soon joined by Craig, that I had at home the day before, funny hazard, then three Italian guys arrived, then two more riders, so we were 7 at time to go to bed. When I arrived, the people at the refuge had proposed me to put my tent in some part of their ground, but they finally allowed us very kindly to sleep inside a large room they had in their house.
The normal route of the TNR from Sestrière was through col de Montgenèvre directly to Briançon. But as I’ve already climbed this pass, I went instead to the col de l’Echelle that I had not ridden yet. So, in Cesena, instead of taking Briançon road, I went down to Oulx, then turned towards Bardonecchia where I headed in the “Colle della Scala” direction. It was a nice climb, with large hairpins, and views over Bardonecchia to the Rochemolles valley, where I’ve been some years ago to climb the Sommeiller.
I then went down to Briançon towards Izoard. The program of the TNR proposed, leaving the Izoard road in Cervières, a detour by Col de Peas, which lies a little east of the Izoard. But I left that to the real MTBers, being myself only a road rider that turned MTB for the occasion. After the Izoard and a good stop at the nice bakery of Arvieux, I continued on well-known roads to the Agnel pass.
From this point, if I can annoy my readers with personal considerations, something went wrong in my head. I had evaluated at home my journey at about 600 km and 17000 m of elevation gain. According to my usual standards with my road bike, it was a trip that could be easily done in 4 days, so I aimed a finish on Friday. And despite I was perfectly aware that riding on stony tracks with a fully-loaded old MTB was of course slower than on tarmac with an efficient carbon road bike, and that I had no particular reason to come back home earlier than the Sunday, I was not able, for some weird twist inside my mind, to set a new, more realistic and more relaxed, planning. And so I kept pedalling late in the evening, stopping too late to have dinner, leaving too early and not sleeping enough, until the final exhaustion that made me renounce to the last part of the route.
This being said, let’s continue with the trip. It was getting late as I was climbing Agnel pass. I could (should) have stopped at the refuge at the top, but I had fixed Sampeyre as my stop for this evening. So I kept on climbing and was at the pass at about 21 pm, as the last days of light were fading away. I then went on a long descent, reached Sampeyre like I wanted to, and stopped at a hotel there at about 22 pm.
Nevertheless, the morning after, I was in the colle Sampeyre climb before dawn. Of course, when I reached the pass, the sun was up. At colle Sampeyre, like in Cervières, two routes were proposed: the road going down through Elva directly to Ponte Marmora, or an unasphalted track, named Strada dei Canonni, that followed the ridge between Val Varaita and Val Maira, mainly on the Val Maira side. This road has been presented by James as a rough one, so at first I decided to avoid it, especially as, despite having climbed colle Sampeyre a few times now, I never passed by vallone d’Elva, which looks quite spectacular. But when I saw some views of the Strada dei Cannoni on the internet, it looked so nice that I had to take it. And in fact the scenery was wonderful, winding along nude slopes, overlooking Val Maira of more than 1000 m. But as promised, it was a tough part to ride, the track being very stony.
After having left the high altitude, I entered in the forest, with much less to look around, and on a track that wasn’t getting easier at all. The route has been drawn by James down to Dronero, on the very beginning of the Val Maira. Going all the way back from this point to Ponte Marmora on the valley road had appeared to me as a serious drawback. So when, arrived at some point called Colle Birrone, I saw a sign on my right indicating San Damiano Macra, I went this way without hesitation. Well, I have not ridden the part between colle Birrone and Valmala, and I don’t know what I’ve missed, but when I was on the road it appeared to me as a very good compromise.
So, after a not so long than I had feared ride along the valley, I arrived in Ponte Marmora. The program here was to ride the altopiano della Gardetta, a high plateau lying between Val Maira and Valle Stura. An unpaved road crosses it at an altitude between 2100 and 2500 m. Here again, there were two solutions for reaching the plateau: via Acceglio, Chialvetta and a hard to cycle MTB path, or via the asphalted colle del Preit, both sides joining just below passo della Gardetta.
Apart that I feared the MTB side, I had something to conclude with colle del Preit. Two years ago, I cycled all the way from Nice to climb this pass, as it was the nearest over 2000 m I have not been yet. But after having ridden all day and arriving at the top by the late afternoon, my camera ran out of battery just for the last picture, of the sign pass. I promised then to turn back, as climbing a pass without taking the picture at the top is doing half part of the job. So in Marmora road I turned right towards Canosio (turning left would have taken me to the Esischie and colle dei Morti/Fauniera passes). The climb was as steep as last time, but I finally reached the pass. I took my picture and continued climbing, on a dirt track but well rideable, up to the crossing of the passo della Gardetta road (I have a little regret not to have gone to this pass, but this will be a motivation for coming back next year). I found that the road through the plateau was much longer, and rougher to cycle in some parts, than I had expected. And I was happy that a flat in the descent of the Esischie delayed me and made me renounce to ride it with my road bike the last time I’ve been there.
Apart from the cycling considerations, I have no words to describe the scenery. It’s beautiful in every direction. From colle del Preit, the road performs a big loop all around the place, first going westwards to passo Gardetta, then following the south side eastwards, with many passes on the way. At some point, the crests over the Tinée can be seen in the distance, then the track comes across some military ruins and a funny open air sanctuary at the colle della Bandia, overlooked a good part of the way by the impressive Rocca la Meija.
But all good things must come to an end, and the exit of the plateau arrives, at colle Valcavera. There begins the descent to Demonte, 2 km below colle dei Morti. In Demonte I just had to cross Valle Stura to climb Madonna del Colletto. It’s a road quite steep all the way, but not very long. From the pass, I went down on the other side to Valdieri, in Val Gesso. To leave Val Gesso, the TNR proposed another pass, colla delle Goderie, that allows to reach Vernante through a little valley called Roaschia.
I arrived in Roaschia as night was falling and should have stopped there. But I had fixed Limone as my stop for this day, and the end of the valley seemed to show a pass that was not far away, so I continued. But what looked ahead like the top of the road was in fact just the beginning. The pass turned to be much higher than I had expected and furthermore the road turned to gravel. There I began, for the first time of the trip, not to appreciate my ride. I was climbing in the night, tired, not seeing the end of the pass (but, as I said, it was all my fault).
I finally reached the pass, which was followed by little ups and downs before the beginning of the real descent towards Vernante. I arrived there of course very late, and stopped at the first hotel I saw (that was about to close). Here again it was too late for meal, and here again I was back on the road in the very first hours of the morning, long before sunrise. I began the gentle climb leading to Limone, annoyed by the traffic that was important despite the early hour.
But, after a few kilometres on this road, exhaustion fell suddenly on me. I had nothing to eat but one or two bars, that didn’t change much my physical state. I continued to climb, at a very slow pace. I passed along Limone as it was still very dark so thought it was not worth the detour to look for something open. In the Limone 1400 village I saw nothing open, so I continued climbing. A little before colle di Tenda there was a bar announcing an opening at 8:30. I could have waited for its eventual opening but thought finally it was useless.
I felt in fact so exhausted that I was quite certain that even after a (hypothetical) good meal, I wouldn’t be in a good condition to ride all the way the Via del Sale, which I knew was hard, having ridden the beginning a few years ago. So in the col de Tende I called it quits. The fact that the Roya valley is reachable from Nice also led me to think that I could do this ride anytime and that it was stupid to do it now when I was too tired to appreciate it.
So I went down towards Tende through the many hairpins of the descent. When arrived in Tende, I had finally the good breakfast I was striving for since hours. Having looked at the train timetable I saw I had time to go down and catch it in Breil, but when arriving in Saint-Dalmas, I finally chose to stop and wait quietly there. Finishing the ride with the train may sound strange, but for me that live in Nice, it’s a thing I do frequently when I go riding in the Roya. And I was not in the mood for riding a 10th time in the year col de Brouis and col de Braus roads.
Despite this little frustrating end, I have only good souvenirs from this TNR, from my little ride in Torino the day before the start to, let’s say, the beginning of my climb to colla delle Goderie. I will certainly do my best to join the 2nd edition, and I’ve already started to think about my future route, linking the parts I’d like to do again and the ones I’d like to discover.
More pictures : http://cathie.charbonnier.free.fr/piwigo/index.php?/category/8