2021 Komoot Women’s Torino-Nice Rally Report (Days 1-3)
In her first report from the 2021 Komoot Women’s Torino-Nice Rally, Lael Wilcox shares a heartfelt update on her first few days of riding through the mountains between Italy and France with an inspiring group of 20 other women. Read it here…
Photos by Rugile Kaladyte (@rugilekaladyte)
It’s getting dark. The pitch is steep. 0.7 miles to camp, 0.5 miles to camp, 0.4 miles to camp. “How much farther?”
I’m waiting for Rue at another turns in the road. We’re aiming to meet most of the others at a picnic area with a water fountain. We spot a couple of other riders, pulled over, getting their lights out. It’s Charlotte Inman and Nic Carass.
Nic jokes that every time I see her, she’s having some kind of problem, but she’s totally capable. Mid-morning, I caught her fixing a flat at the base of the Colombardo. On her first trip, a couple of months ago, she got six flats. She’s on new tires but didn’t have time to set them up tubeless. She’s frank and fun and has never done anything like this, but is totally ready for it.
Nic and Charlotte are great riding partners. Charlotte is on 3” tires and about as laid back as it gets. Nic has 35mm and the focus of a razor blade. As women, they’re both hyper-aware. We all are.
Nic tells me that the Colle del Colombardo, which she summited just hours ago, was the first mountain pass she’s ever climbed—2,000 meters with a grade as steep as 16% at times—ten times harder than anything she’s ever ridden up.
Nic and Charlotte had planned to get a pizza before starting up the Finestre to camp but found the shop closed. Out of food, they weren’t sure what to do. The owners of the pizza place found them out front and offered to deliver fresh pies to their campsite at the picnic area—Italian humanity at its finest.
I spend the first half of the Colle del Colombardo shifting into my spokes. I check the derailleur hanger. It’s straight. Somewhere along the way, I must’ve dinged the derailleur. I have SRAM AXS shifting and I don’t know the right buttons to push for a micro adjustment, but I know it should be simple. I don’t have cell phone reception, so I can’t look it up and resign myself to climbing into my second easiest gear, a 1:1 ratio. I’ll fix the shifting later. It’s a hell of a grind, but I make it to the top. It’s sunny and hot. The weather couldn’t be better. A dozen or so ladies make it to the church near the top, take breaks to catch their breath, eat snacks, drink water, talk, and get back on the bike. We have another 200 or so meters to climb. We’re above tree line and you can see the road carving the mountainside.
Rue makes it to the church and I’m in the middle of the 12-minute Foundation Training, something I do for back health every day. Scotty, the media driver, is asking if Rue needs her camera kit, where she’ll be tonight, and what are her plans. It’s a hell of a hard job to ride mountain passes, take photos, edit, stay organized, and coordinate with other shooters.
Let’s get back to the basics. What we’re going to do right now is get over the top and descend to the next town and find something to eat. Europe is brilliant for resupply. You’re never far from water and food. In Italy, this means espresso and pizza.
The descent goes on forever and is stunning. Any feelings of struggle or questioning the worth of the ride disappear. We pass a trio of riders at the first tabac and see a group of five at the next bar. They give us the low down. The kitchen is closed, but you can still get sandwiches: salami and cheese, ham and cheese, or just cheese.
“What about without cheese?”
Rue is not a cheese fan. After listening to the first Coffee Break Italian podcast during the climb, I do my best to order in Italian for the two of us.
“Due Fanta. Un sandwich con salame senza formaggio e un sandwich con formaggio e… how do you say ham?”
“Bravo!” Says the barkeep and I smile like a five-year-old.
The others are getting back on the road. They’ll stop at the supermarket and shoot for camp at the picnic area, three kilometers up the Finestre climb.
We eat our sandwiches, drink our sodas, and watch a couple of YouTube videos about adjusting SRAM AXS.
“Okay, so you just push the button inside the lever at the same time as you shift and then a green light will turn on it.”
It works! Sort of. I’m still shifting into the spokes, but we’re losing sunlight. I’ll look at it at camp.
We stop at the market to buy bread, cheese, salami, a cucumber, pesto, Russian salad with potatoes, chocolate mousse, potato chips, a bar of chocolate, a bag of green olives, and a liter box of white wine.
“No, we don’t need a bag.”
With armfuls of food, we walk outside to our bikes. A guy from the bar comes over and gives me a little green plastic bag.
“For you. I met some other women in your group. Are you going up the Finestre tonight?”
His wide eyes are comical and he goes back to his drinking buddy.
Packing the groceries into little bikepacking bags without crushing everything is like Tetris. The baguette goes on top of Rue’s hip pack, next to her microphone for shooting video. The rest goes into framebags and gas tanks and feedbags and finally, I strap the four-pack of chocolate mousse to my seatpack and Rue does the same with the bag of chips.
We roll out of town into the orange light to ride through the valley. I can’t think of anything more romantic than riding into sunset in Italy with my wife to camp out for the night. We have everything we need and more. We just need to get there. Our only stop on the way is to pick a couple of figs from a tree. In late September, It’s just after the season, but there are still a couple of good ones. So delicious!
We meet Nic and Charlotte. We all roll into camp. Half a dozen riders are seated at the picnic table, headlamps on, cooking dinner. I push my bike across the grass and find a spot to set up the tent. Lay out the body. Snap together the poles. Toss the rain cover over the top. Stake it all down. Blow up the sleeping pads. Pull out the sleeping bag.
The evening is warm. No need to bundle up. We eat dinner in the grass—torn pieces of baguette with pesto, olives, salami, cucumber, mouthfuls of white wine from the box, and little pots of chocolate mousse that we clean out with pieces of bread.
Time for bed. We zip ourselves in and before I know it, I’m fast asleep.
Up before light, Rue is editing photos on her phone and I’m responding to emails. The sun starts coming up. I hear the clicking of tent poles, the rustling of fabric, the noises of packing up. I hear footsteps and laughter. I pull the deflate tab on the sleeping pads and start packing up. Everything has to go back into bags.
I look up more shifting videos and start thinking about limit screws and try to find diagrams of derailleurs and at the end of it, I just look at my derailleur. I start turning screws and continue to shift into my spokes. I reset everything. I look again.
“Well, when it’s in the easiest gear, that screw almost touches the derailleur. That must be it.”
I turn it a full revolution, get back on my bike, and hammer on the pedals. It doesn’t shift into the spokes. Hooray!
At this point, the riders are all but gone, on their way up the Finestre. Neza, from Slovenia, is still there and she walks over. She has a diamond of purple KT tape over her knee.
“I’m afraid I have to leave you today.” She’s calm, with the hint of a smile.
“Are you okay?”
She tells me she’s having knee problems and she’s never had any before. I offer Ibuprofen and she says she already took so many and it didn’t help. Then, she jokes that maybe the American ones will be magic and takes a couple.
Rue and I try to convince Neza to stick around. Maybe she can hang with the media crew for a day, take photos and recover and she’ll feel better tomorrow. I really love her photos and would love for her to capture this ride. In the end, the logistics are too complicated. We hug and say goodbye and I’m sure I’ll see her again. I’m already dreaming of riding in Slovenia.
Now, I’m a full hour behind the closest rider. I’ve got a mission. I’ve got to catch up. I couldn’t be happier about it. I put in some pop music, throw a leg over my bike, clip in and I don’t sit down for an hour. I’m standing up, cranking on the pedals and having the time of my life. The Finestre is paved for the next eight kilometers and then it turns to dirt. I start passing riders, hooting and hollering and having a ball.
It’s foggy up high. I can’t see a thing. I know I’m surrounded by mountains and somehow that’s comforting.
I get to the top of the Finestre, put on a long sleeve and my rain jacket, and keep cranking. There’s a little descent and then it starts climbing again. I had a yogurt and half a Naak waffle for breakfast and I know if I don’t get some more energy in, I’m going to lose my legs. I really don’t want to stop, but I have to, so I’ll make it quick. I put a foot down and pour a packet of Gnarly Fuel20 in my bottle, shake it up, take a sip and I’m back on the go. I’m rolling on dirt above a rifugio and climbing to another rise. It’s the Colle dell’Assietta. The sun is splitting through the fog. There’s a group of six or eight Italians on motos at the top. I look out and see the rugged peaks of the Alps and whoop with joy. The moto riders whoop back, we’re all pumping gloved fists in the air.
For the next couple of hours. We leapfrog one another. The Italians stop at the viewpoints and catch me back up on the climbs. It might be the most fun I’ve ever had on a bike, but I probably say that every week. I just love to be out there.
A have a couple of friends up ahead—Rachael Walker and Anna McLeod. They’re on a five-day schedule and have to ride bigger miles to make it back to work. Maybe I can catch them? Maybe if I wake up really early tomorrow, I’ll get to them.
I catch them at lunch. They’re in the Sestriere plaza with Emily Chappell and Valerie eating bowls of gnocchi. I’m thrilled to see them.
“Can I ride with you all over the next pass?”
I drink a double espresso and they give me a couple of dark delicious rolls and we get back on the road. The sky is grey, but it’s not raining yet.
There’s a tiny climb to the high point, then a long descent to Cesana, over the wooden bridge with red flowers and back up the Col de Montgenevre. This one takes you through a long stone cyclist-only tunnel.
I’m with my friends and we’re just chatting away. The bikes almost feel like an afterthought. This trip is their first time getting on an airplane since the start of the pandemic. COVID hit the UK really hard. We talk about bikes, about the industry, about career changes, about future dreams. We’ll reconnect in a couple of weeks when Rue and I visit the UK with its own world of cycling culture.
Soon enough, we’re over the top and taking switchbacks down to Briançon, the highest city in France. Its ancient fortified walls climb out of the rocks.
We need to find food. Tomorrow is Sunday and all the stores will be closed. A storm is coming in with lightning in the forecast. It’s mid-afternoon, decision time. Let’s climb over the Izoard and stay somewhere on the other side.
Valerie is Swiss-French and starts making phone calls to refuges and gites. Some are fully booked, some are closed for the season, but there is one, Chalet Viso, and we can stay in a demi-pension there. We’ll have a roof, dinner, and breakfast.
We get back on the road to ride 1,200 meters up the Izoard in the golden light. I’m riding side by side with Emily Chappell and she’s recounting stories from guiding. Every year, she takes 50 people to ride the Tour de France a week before the race. They ride every single stage in order and get completely trashed, humbled, and full of joy along the way. Emily says she might cry at some point. She’s so happy to be back in this area—so many good memories. We talk about bike touring and ultra-distance racing and how she almost moved to Argentina. There are so many specific moments when your life could’ve gone in a totally different direction. We talk about her sister and how she’s getting into cycling because of the pandemic. Emily shares that the best way to avoid pain while reheating your frozen feet after a really cold ride is to keep your socks on in the shower. Emily is thoughtful and considerate; brave and humble. I have so much respect for her riding and demeanor.
We pull over to snack and the others catch up. I’m eating individually wrapped portions of Camembert, bites of a whole cucumber, and a Prince Polo candy bar that I brought with me from Iceland. At this point, the chocolate wafers are all crushed and I have to pour them into my mouth.
We have about an hour and a half of daylight. Time to get up there. I ride the next stretch with Valerie. She rode half of the Torino-Nice Rally in June. We just missed each other at the end of the Hope 1000. She works at the bike shop closest to the finish. She’s steady, with a calming and kind presence.
On the way up, the only traffic we see is half a dozen skateboarders flying down the pass, winding down the road through the rock features, fully tucked. They get a lift back up to the top and do it again.
At the top, we put on layers and lights and make the descent to the chalet. The owner welcomes us. There’s one room that’ll sleep four and a dome that’ll sleep two. We take showers and go down to the dining room for dinner. We get a small pitcher of wine and eat whatever he puts in front of us.
Life on the bike is mentally easy. You push the pedals over the hills and feel the wind on the descents. You buy food and you eat it. You drink water and look for more. But if it was only this basic, would it be worth it? Your mind wanders and you learn new things about yourself and the places you travel through. Your impressions are your own. You make connections.
What if you set out on a ride with 20 other inspiring riders? What if you had the chance to talk with them, make decisions together, learn from one another, experience shared beauty and hardship, laugh, and then make more plans?
Time on the bike is special. Every ride is unique and it’s a gift to be riding the Torino-Nice Rally with this group of women.
The following day, I wake up with a sore throat to rivers of rain, thunder, and lightning. We’re facing the 2,700 meter Col Agnel. It’s sure to be snowing up high. This is not a race. We take the day off and let other riders catch up. We sit by the fire and recount our experiences. We walk a kilometer in the rain to get burgers and fries. I take an afternoon nap and when I wake up, the sun is shining.
We’ll get back on the bikes tomorrow and ride back to Italy, over the Col Agnel and then the Col Sempeyre, and there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be.
You can find our day two route below, along which most of the above action takes place.
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