Torino-Nice Rally: Take Me Back to the Mountains
The third annual Torino-Nice Rally kicks off today. To commemorate the event, here’s a stunning collection of photos from Adam Ferris, along with a detailed writeup of his experiences on last year’s ride…
Words and photos by Adam Ferris (@adferris)
Despite all the planning, it nearly didn’t happen. Less than 24 hours before we were due to leave the UK to drive to Turin, Italy, the clutch went on our van. We pulled in a favor from a mechanic mate who was willing to work through the night to get us rolling. However, it was a Saturday, and he wouldn’t be able to get the parts we needed until Monday. If I’m honest, I’d already started looking at alternate places to go ride, but a late night text delivered the news I wanted: another favour was called in and we had a new van. We were back on.
We were heading to the Torino-Nice Rally, an unsupported bikepacking challenge set in the Alps. Traversing 700 km of mixed terrain, it promised to be a tough ride but an amazing experience. This was the second running of the event, organized by James Olsen, and it was gaining in popularity. We were heading out as a group of six: me, James (a different one), Will and Kieran from Bristol, and Christian and Luke from Manchester.
Picking the replacement van up at nearly midnight meant a late start the following morning. We were hours behind schedule as we drove toward the ferry to France. We knew it would be a long drive, and it was made longer by the fact the van wasn’t capable of going above 60mph. Undeterred, we stocked up on Haribos and baguettes, eating up those and the miles. We were battling to catch a glimpse of the Alps before the sun went down, but missed out by minutes. We’d have to wait until we were in Turin before setting eyes on our challenge. Rolling into an eerily quiet Turin past 1:00 am, we hastily unloaded the van and tried to get a bit of sleep. But not before some bourbon and Doritos.
The following night, we had a chance to meet other riders for dinner and beers in the square. The very first person I spoke to was here for his second year, and when I asked what the first climb was like he smashed his fist into his palm. This was going to be tough. Beyond chatting, the meetup was a thinly veiled opportunity to check out others’ bikes. Adventure bikes are always interesting to look at, especially when they’re loaded up for a big ride. Talking of bikes, mine was almost brand new, a titanium Sonder Camino bought and built for the adventure. I’d previously only ridden it on short overnight bivvy trips, and this was to be the first real test.
We woke early the next morning, crammed everything we had into our frame bags, ate a breakfast of packaged pastries and bananas, loaded our pockets with snacks, and rolled out toward the same square from the evening before. I couldn’t stop smiling as we slowly pedaled through town; it felt good knowing there was nothing left to plan or purchase.
The excitement in the square was palpable. Rumours that we were rolling out soon began to circulate, and sure enough, after a quick group photo, we were off. Our long caravan of bikes headed north toward toward the distant mountains. Most of us were heading into the Torino-Nice Rally physically prepared, but not really knowing what was in store for us. Halfway up that first climb, Colle del Colombardo, you wouldn’t be alone in thinking the ride was beyond your abilities. A steep paved section in the lower slopes gave way to an equally steep but much rougher section. Days later, James admitted that he was already contemplating throwing in the towel at that point.
Halfway up the climb, I was relieved to find that my concerns about finding water along the route were unfounded. There were alpine water taps running everywhere. We passed other rally riders, some pushing pedals and some pushing bikes. It was a tough climb and a reminder that this was not going to be easy.
We regrouped at the top and sat amongst other riders, watching and cheering as more reached the summit. And that was the last time we could feel the size of the group. Sure, we saw fellow riders throughout the whole journey, but after that moment we mostly stayed ahead of the pack.
Much of the banter leading up to the trip was based around me being the only one in our group not running tubeless tyres, so it came as a delightful surprise when the first sound of rushing air on the trip came from Kieran’s tyres, not mine. Our whole group stood laughing and appreciating that fact while he patched it up.
The next big climb was the Col de Finestre. We knew that we’d either be camping in its lower slopes or atop it. Either way, we needed food for the night, so we pulled up to a Carrefour in Bussoleno and loaded up our bags with heaps of fare. After a nod to the organiser, James, we headed up toward Finestre.
Riding into the mountains as the sun began to set, we deliberated whether we should set up camp early at the cost of a low-mileage day, or push on and risk reaching the summit in the dark. The decision was made for us when we passed some flat ground with a couple of picnic benches and the soothing sounds of running water. We pulled in and started to set up camp. We couldn’t help but question our decision to stop as sets of lights silently slipped past, one after another. We all knew it wasn’t a race, and we knew we’d finish, but the thought of sitting about while others weren’t didn’t feel right. So, straight into the bivvys it was for a good sleep, ready for an early start.
We all awoke around the same time, individually preparing porridge, some of us making coffee. I rather smugly brewed a pour over with just a mug and filter paper. It was at this point we realised something: there are downfalls to riding in a larger group, but there are also plenty of upsides. We could buy and boil in twos, not on our own. We were here as a group, so we figured we should work as one. Of course, we were still all self-sufficient; we needed to be in the event that things went wrong.
Soon we were off, pedaling up beautiful switchbacks and shooting photos that composed themselves. A quick stop for a sandwich in a perfectly placed cafe just down from the summit, and the first half of our group were off, since waiting in the fresh air would mean getting cold. You’d be forgiven for thinking that you might have a nice descent after such a long climb, but not here. A couple of minutes of freewheeling and we were heading back up again on more rough stuff. “How far to Sestriere?” I must have asked at least five times, even though nobody knew the answer. We were all too enamored with the landscape to bother looking at our maps.
The rolling gravel continued, and we rode on not knowing this was some of the smoothest gravel we’d encounter. Later, we reached the summit of Colle dell’Assietta at 2472m. “How far to Sestriere?” A regroup and quick stop and we were heading down a long, winding, enjoyable descent. Before long, we were back on tarmac. “How far to Sestriere?” This time, I got an answer from Will, “One kilometer!”
Finally, Sestriere. Pizza for starter. Gnocchi for main. By that point, eating was less about enjoyment and more about fuel. That said, the gnocchi was delicious. It was blissful, sitting there in the sun in the silent square, James sharing his cranberries with the bewildered waitress, her having somehow never seen them before. An awareness of how long we’d been hanging around and how spaced out the groups were getting set in, so we got on our way, no time for ice cream.
A couple of tunnels and around 35 km later, we arrived in France. Next up was Col d’Izoard. We thought we might camp in the lower foothills, but given it wasn’t even 5:00 pm, it felt too early to stop. A check of the phone offered somewhat of a pep talk from Christian. His text told us they were going over Izoard, tempting us to hit it too. It was just what we needed. A quick trip to another Carrefour and we were fueled and ready. We started turning the pedals and we were on our way up.
The climb had a gravel option, but hearing it was a hike-a-bike section, we decided pretty early to take the road route. I’m glad we did, as it was a beaut of a climb, made all the better because we were climbing through the golden hour. Highlights included local kids being shocked to find out we were heading up so late, switchbacks, pink hues, and passing longboarders flying downhill. Will’s highlight was seeing a naked guy stood next to his car, flapping his bits around. He still hasn’t stopped talking about it. I could sense the opportunity for a good photo, so I pressed on in the last couple of kilometres to the summit and was the first to arrive in our three-man group.
We took some time at the top to take more photos and chat with other riders. Perhaps too much time. We hadn’t noticed how fast it was getting dark, and the temperature was dropping. We hastily put on arm warmers, knee warmers, jackets, and flicked the lights on for the first time. I went over the edge and thought about how different this place must’ve looked when the Tour finished there only three months earlier.
Rolling up to Hotel Le Guilazur, I noticed a road sign that read Sommet à 20.9 km. Tomorrow’s breakfast was to be Col Angel. For now, though, we were more concerned about dinner. We needn’t have been, as the first group had sorted us a meat platter that we ate with beer, still dressed in lycra. Usually, with the food, beer, and company, one might enjoy staying up late and savoring the experience, but all we could think about was getting some sleep. The proprietors of the hotel were kind enough to let us stay in their garden, which was great as it was tucked a couple of metres below ground level and out of the wind. As soon as we sipped the last of our beers we were tucked in our bivvys, fast asleep.
Our first breakfast, before the climb, was the best we had on the trip: warm croissants, granola, yogurt, toast with jam, and hot coffee. Remembering the downfalls of riding in a group and not wanting to be the one everyone was waiting for, I packed up quickly after breakfast and and was ready to go. James didn’t share my concern and was still cramming stuff into his saddlebag as I clipped in. We started riding up the hill to give him some extra encouragement.
Well, calling it a hill isn’t quite doing it justice. Col Agnel is more than that. It’s a beautiful, wide, meadowed valley with a gradual gradient that give ways to a few fantastic kilometres with switchbacks and a grade rising to as much as 11%. The lower slopes inspired a game of spot-the-marmot. We didn’t think we’d see many, if any at all, but we stopped counting at 22, joking that we were bored of them.
Col Agnel was the second asphalt-only climb in a row, and as nice as the super smooth surfaces were, I longed to be back on gravel. The summit was a particularly stark reminder of what it’s like to be amongst tourists. We all agreed to get out of there almost as soon as we’d arrived. A beautifully smooth and winding descent followed, all the way into Casteldelfino. It was only 10 km to Sampeyre, so we pushed on through. Despite the fact that it was flat and smooth, we all felt like it was among the toughest 30 minutes of the trip.
We opted to sit for dinner, rather than the usual Carrefour smash and grab. Six lasagnes that looked and tasted like they’d come out of a microwave were served. They had the necessary calories and came out quickly, so we were happy. We were joined by some other riders, and our conversation revolved around the rumour that the next climb was closed to cyclists, and the subsequent need to bag a bed for the night in the refuge up ahead, Rifugio Don Barbera. Benedicte, another rider, called ahead to reserve her bed and kindly asked for us, too. Such was the nature of the ride: we didn’t really want to plan ahead, but given how high above sea level we were, it was sensible. Plus, it gave us a target to aim for.
Leaving the restaurant, Will and I decided we would crack on with the climb, Colle di Sampeyre, whilst the others popped in to the shop for some supplies. As we started the 1300m climb, we passed the clear “No Cycling” sign near the bottom and wondered for a minute if we’d soon see it again on our way down after an unsuccessful attempt. Zig-zagging across ski slopes and past empty lodges, we kept checking back down the road to see if the others were catching up. Our group was mostly together as we entered the clouds. But not for long. After a joke sprint for the summit won by Christian, we were all present and correct, apart from Will. He had stopped not 500m from the summit for a rest. Because of the cloud cover, he couldn’t see how close he was, though he caught up before long.
Next up, another route choice. We chose Death Road. You can’t skip a road with a name like that. As the sun shone down, we jumped aboard for the wild descent through the valley, occasionally stopping to look through the broken barriers to the valley floor hundreds of feet below, just to check if what we were seeing was real. Tunnels cut through the mountainside, rocks littered the broken tarmac, and forgotten, rusted-out shelters offered little protection from above. The narrow road we were pedaling along was on its way to being reclaimed by nature. At one point, as I speedily approached a corner, I noticed Kieran waving in the middle of the road. He was warning us of some concrete barriers nonchalantly placed on the exit of a blind corner. I guess it’s sensible to stop cars heading up, at least.
There wasn’t any flat terrain that day; the elevation profile looked like a shark’s gumline. In truth, there wasn’t much flat any day. We spent a couple of minutes stopped at the bottom to laugh about the descent and we were headed up yet again. It was a phenomenal climb that snaked through the lower slopes and farmland, and we could see the impending wall that was Colle Preit. Surrounded by high mountains, this was a tranquil moment for me, especially once I had a little distance from the riders in front of and behind me. I couldn’t hear a sound, save for the distant cowbells of grazing cattle. It was a wet climb, which added to the moment, as did the rumble of far-off thunder. The colours were different, somehow more lush. Not thinking about getting a camera out for a photo for fear of it getting soaked meant my mind was focused on what was around me. Knowing we had a bed and food at the top freed my mind, too. This climb was steep. Really steep. Somewhere amid the solitude, I found myself trying to shift to a lower gear, even though deep down I knew I was already in the 42.
We all knew that we were supposed to turn right toward Rifugio Gardetta as soon as we got to the top. Despite knowing this, however, we all individually doubted if it was in fact the right way when we arrived at the summit. Being cold and wet, and at the highest point of the trip, I think we were all very nervous about making a wrong turn. Around the next bend I saw Luke, Christian, and James heading back toward me. Perhaps this was the wrong way. I stopped and waited for them to reach me, and as they rolled to a stop at my wheel they informed me there was no Rifugio to be seen. They had been a couple of kilometers and couldn’t see it. The sign at the bend said “Rifugio Gardetta 1” and they had definitely ridden more than a kilometer. Only later did we think about the fact that there weren’t any cars up there, only pedestrians. Turns out the 1 wasn’t the distance, it was the approximate walking time in hours.
Kieran soon approached from behind, armed with GPS navigation, and was immediately on his way to where the other guys had just come from. He confidently informed us that it was, indeed, the right way. We all knew it now, at least. Well, not all of us; Will was still climbing and yet to appear from behind the corner. The four of us briefly discussed who should stay and wait, but having learnt from our previous mistake, we decided we would all wait. We stood there, teeth clattering and torsos shaking, longing for Will to appear.
We rode on as soon he rounded the corner, Luke pointing out that they’d already ridden this. But, at least Kieran hadn’t returned. Surely this had to be the way. I rode a high cadence, trying to warm up, and before long we saw the sign we wanted: “Rifugio Gardetta.” As I turned off the track onto another path, I looked back to a spectacular view of the impending storm above the landscape. It was too perfect not to stop to take a photo, no matter how cold and wet I was.
As we rolled up to the old stone rifugio’s bright red doors and window frames, Kieran came out to point us in the direction of a stable where we could store our bikes. I quickly released my barbag and headed back to the main building, the squelching beneath my feet easily heard amongst the surrounding silence. I forgot the cold and took a moment to appreciate the tranquility.
As we gathered around the sinks and attempted to wash ourselves and our kit, I looked out the window at the freezing rain in the day’s last light. A bit later, we headed down to enjoy an excellent three-course meal and a couple jugs of beer with other riders. We were all happy to see the steaming pan of gnocchi arrive at our table, a staple that was quickly becoming the signature dish of the trip.
The morning couldn’t have been more different. A brief stroll before breakfast revealed pink skies destined to turn blue, damp stones soon to be dry, and frosted grass ready to be bathed in sunlight. Today will be a good day, I told myself. We gathered around our upturned bowls, looking into the kitchen, hoping to catch a glimpse of what we could only assume was a big pot of porridge bubbling away. Unfortunately, we were reminded that the Italians don’t really do breakfast when it was revealed that our bowls were actually for coffee, and we’d only have Biscoffs to eat.
Before long, we were on our bikes and made it to the incredibly photogenic Little Peru. It was too good to ride through without stopping to take it all in and record what I could on my camera’s memory card. I kept thinking the landscape would change soon, so we best enjoy while we could. But it didn’t. Well, it did, but changed into something even better, tempting us with more reasons to stop. Amongst a collection of passing Lada Nivas and the occasional motorbike, we saw beautiful rolling hills, short and rocky climbs, abandoned forts, and finished with a stunning tarmac descent to Demonte. There, we enjoyed lunch from a small panetteria. A pizza slice, a focaccia ham sandwich, and a cold can of Coke were the perfect fuel for the two small cols we had face next before stopping for something more substantial in Limone Piemonte. At 500m, they were small climbs compared to others on the trip, but they offered a new experience where we could be more relaxed and jovial.
We had another first on one of the climbs when we spontaneously broke out into a six-man rendition of Robbie Williams’ Angels. We’d continue to add to our catalogue as the trip went on. As we crested the climb, a small church provided some shade while we rehydrated and waited for James to fix a rubbing brake pad.
Six ciabattas and a dozen Cokes in Limone Piemonte and we were refuelled and ready for Col de Tende. Once at the top, we had yet another routing decision to make. This one was a no-brainer, though, as we all knew we wanted to ride the whole of Via Del Sale, as we’d seen in in the photos. The group split as we were mounting up, with James again taking a while to get everything ready. As I watched the first three ride off, I decided to wait and ride with James and Will. It would be slower and offer more chances to take it all in, I thought.
Will put in a bit of an effort on the lower, busier slopes, and I wondered if I’d chosen the right group. I think he just wanted to get off the fast road and into the quiet, and thanks to his effort it wasn’t long before we did exactly that. We were climbing the old border road, and it was blissfully quiet since most cars opted for the shorter route through a tunnel into France. Ten Italian switchbacks on lovely, well-maintained roads and we were into France on gravel tracks. We knew we were running out of daylight, and a wrong turn would mean navigating in the dark. As such, I found myself pointing ahead and shouting “Rifugio Gardetta?” to every passing shepherd to confirm this was indeed the right way.
We headed into the soup, following an old military road that wound up and on, perfect gravel crunching beneath our tyres. Brief breaks in the clouds gave us outstanding views of the mountains, but these short glimpses were just teases. Nature was closing the white curtains on us once again. Perhaps it was a sign we shouldn’t be stopping to admire the views, rather pushing on toward the rifugio before sun down. I felt pretty good, so was comfortable riding ahead of Will and James, setting myself up to take photos of them as they rode. As we neared the rifugio in the fading light, I passed an electric MTB rider heading the other way. He confirmed he had seen the rifugio a couple of kilometers earlier. As James and Will caught up and we parted ways with my new friend, I wondered where he might be headed with just half an hour of daylight left. It was almost dark enough to get my lights out of the bag as we snaked around the rocky ledges, but before long I was looking down on the rifugio. The others were a few minutes behind and I thought we should arrive together, so I waited. We freewheeled down the short hill in the very last of the evening’s light.
We were greeted outside by our host, who informed us that our friends had eaten all our food. She looked at our faces and immediately let out a laugh. “I’m just kidding,” she smiled. We left our bikes outside and headed straight for the door. We were ready to eat. We stepped through the doors and into warmer air, laughter, and foreign conversation from a large room with a couple dozen diners sitting to eat. We sat down to heaping plates of food and were offered seconds of every delicious course. Everything was washed down with a couple of cold beers, and before long we were off to sleep.
After an alarm and an unwelcome but necessary flick of the light switch from Kieran, I headed down the creaky wooden stairs to collect my Garmin from the single available charging socket. It was easy to find, not being the birds nest of wires it was the night previous. I was greeted not by the murmur of conversation and clinking of coffee cups I expected, but by silence and darkness. We got everything packed up and ready before breaking fast that day.
As we sat alone in the large dining room, sipping coffee from our overturned bowls, I realised most here would be hikers, not too concerned about making the most of the available daylight. I looked out through a glass door and noted that the silence inside was equalled by nature on the other side. Calm and quiet. Like peering inside last night, looking the opposite way this morning felt even more inviting.
As we spun up the slope we’d freewheeled down the night previous, we were rewarded for our early departure with the most beautiful sunrise of the trip. We each stopped to take a photo back toward the rifugio in the perfect light. It was a fitting way to remember that fantastic and welcoming place. We had around 43 km of Via Del Sale left to ride, mostly on gravel. Another tubeless tyre puncture and plug fail provided the opportunity to stop and look over the seemingly endless drop from the ledge we were riding, the clouds adding to illusion. Another donated tube and we were back on, spinning through the atmospheric air once more, the greens and yellows of the grass contrasting beautifully with the greys of the rocks and clouds, the sun looking like something from Star Wars attempting to pierce its way through.
Descending from Via Del Sale, we knew there was a decision to make. We’d heard of landslides in Monesi, the ski town we were fast approaching. We could either take a shortcut or carry on and attempt to get around any obstructions. We decided to press on, strangely excited by the potential for another challenge. When we arrived, the town was eerily quiet. Ski towns are usually sleepy in September, but this felt different. It was almost post-apocalyptic. Disregarded belongings blocked the roads with no urgency to be moved, weeds grew in cracks between tarmac. This place was deserted. As we negotiated the concrete blockade in the road with a convenient bike-sized gap, we knew there must have been a landslide. Sure enough, we were soon taking turns clambering over the buckled asphalt that looked more like an earthquake disaster movie set than a rural Italian B road.
Not long after, we came upon an almighty gap in the tarmac. A quick back trace and a 10-minute walk through the woods to get around and we were through. After rolling a few minutes on unsurprisingly quiet roads and a quick negotiation of another concrete barrier, we arrived in San Bernardo. Here, we turned off and up again, back onto the gravel of Via Del Sale.
As the size of the gravel increased, so did the hold ups. First it was another couple of punctures of once-tubeless tyres now running inner tubes, then a shepherd and his flock blocking the road. And the gravel had since turned to rocks, so negotiating the sheep wasn’t the only challenge. The shepherd soon noticed us and signaled to his limping dog to clear us some room. He didn’t make much space, though, and it was still pretty scary when factoring in the sheer drop beside us. Descending from Via Del Sale was bittersweet. It was without doubt one of the most beautiful roads I had ever ridden, but the steep and winding gravel descent was taking its toll on my back and I found myself longing for some tarmac.
Soon after an unceremonious final border crossing back into France and a rare, dried up water fountain, I had my wish and we were enjoying a speedy, smooth, albeit short, descent back down to Earth. We rolled into La Brigue in the glorious sunshine, which we soaked up as we sat with pizza slices and Cokes. Sat in the sunshine, laughing, feeling leisurely, we made the choice to press on, which may have been the stupidest decision of our trip. In hindsight, we should have stopped for the night and enjoyed the sun, but it’s hard to break the mentality of pushing on, something we’d been sticking to without thinking.
Even though the rain was coming, we decided to ride the 12 km to our biggest challenge, Col de Farguet. Those 12 kilometres disappeared pretty quickly, and it wasn’t long before we were on the lower slopes. This was the weakest I felt on the whole trip. With the rain dripping from my cap, I was fighting to stay on the wheel of the group. I’m not sure they knew how much trouble I was in. The only thing keeping me from checking out was the prospect of climbing two and half hours alone into a storm with the light fading and no real idea of where I was going. I managed to get it together before we left the tarmac for gravel, briefly missing the turn off before being pointed in the right direction by a sensible rally rider taking shelter under a small tin roof until morning.
We pushed on up as the rain and temperatures fell. The climb was stunning, but also physically demanding. Not wanting to stop, the occasional pass of a jelly sweet kept the pedals turning. Looking back at the data, I stopped for a total of exactly three minutes during the 2 hour 40 minute climb. This was for a brief chat with the fellow rider and for putting a rain jacket on.
I was surprised how good I felt higher up, considering how awful I felt on the lower slopes. I was happy to be pushing hard to catch Kieran, who had gone on alone. I used seeing Kieran up the road as motivation to push on. We soon regrouped, and when we reached the summit we were actually higher than the road pass of Turini, so we needed to descend. This was when we got really cold, all adding layers as the temperatures dropped. We negotiated the tight bends and potholes, ice forming on our bar bags, the lack of feeling in our fingers not allowing us to know if we were braking hard enough, and I was grateful Luke had called ahead to reserve a couple of rooms in a small hotel.
As we rolled into The Ranch, we discarded our bikes in an unlocked garage whilst trying to keep a level enough head to grab what was needed for the night. Our host could see we were cold, and quickly distributed room keys. I spent two minutes, which felt like ten, waiting to see if the shower would heat up. Part of me didn’t think it should, that we should be outside in a bivvy without such luxury, but damn did that warm water feel good when it finally trickled out. We were soon back downstairs, each of us dressed in a merino base layer and lightweight shorts, sipping cold beers and eating hot food served by the patron and his wife. It was nice to see them eating the same food at another table. Even more luxuries followed when they insisted our kit be washed and dried.
The next morning, we wandered down early, our noses following the smell of freshly baked pastries. Warm croissants and pain au chocolats were waiting at a table for us, along with hot coffee. After breakfast, we pulled on our refreshingly clean kit, settled up, and rolled out to retrieve our abandoned steeds from the garage. Our chains began playing a chorus of squeaks as we rode off together, a brief interlude achieved by squirting some water over our cassettes.
It was to be our final day of riding. The tone of the group revealed how we all knew that the worst was behind us and this was to be a relaxing day. The first 30 km was certainly that. Rolling downhill past Moulinet, the seemingly endless gravel switchbacks allowed for some fun in getting the back ends out. It was also on this descent that I had my first and only puncture. As the rear tyre softened, I denied it was a flat. I quickly filled it with air and carried on, swerving left to right to avoid the potholes and crevices. I’d been looking forward to bragging about not having a flat for the entire trip and supplying tubes to others, but as I rounded the next bend it had gone again and the tube had to be replaced, as did my smug grin.
We maintained the joyous mood we’d started the day with, and we had an unhurried feeling as we trundled down the tarmac toward Peïra Cava. Our relaxed chat was soon interrupted by a chorus of Garmins and Wahoos informing us we’d gone off course. As we turned around and rode up a ramp from the road, pine and sticks crackling beneath our tyres, we wondered if it was a necessary turn off or if we could just stay on the tarmac. Not wanting to take the easy option, we carried on through the trees and the unfamiliar setting.
We descended down through the trees before joining tarmac once more near Moulinet, turning back on ourselves before entering the town. This was some of the best riding we did away from gravel. We rarely needed to turn the pedals for 9 km whilst following the snaking road down through the valley. We passed under the picture-perfect bridge of steps up to Notre Dame de la Menour chapel, between vineyards, and along beautifully built walls cut into mountainside. We descended S-bends stacked upon each other, shifting our weight left to right, taking advantage of the smooth, wide roads and lack of motor traffic. With no need for switchbacks in the lower slopes, we rode long, sweeping bends, occasionally within arm’s reach of the cliff face.
As we neared the inevitable congestion of Sospel, I was glad when we turned off, delaying our return to civilisation. We stopped at the junction right at the bottom of a 10 km climb with 670m of elevation gain. And for the first time on the trip, we were out of food. Not wanting to go searching away from the route, we distributed what little we had and carried on up the climb, no doubt heading for a cave. A few of us actually went pretty hard, attempting to get over the top of the gravel climb before using up the last of what little energy we had left. When we could sense the top coming, Christian decided to add another track to the soundtrack, and it wasn’t long before we were all singing B*Witched’s smash hit C’est la Vie.
Luckily, we happened upon a small cafe soon after getting over the top and back onto the tarmac. We sat in the sun at Buvette Du Col de Braus, enjoying filled baguettes and Cokes, a couple of the lads enjoying a well-earned beer, watching road cyclists pass by. Straight after lunch, we were back on the gravel and climbing over a couple of lumps, the first being a long track with views of rolling hills. Now full of energy, the soundtrack really came along, and we brought out many of the classics.
Things started to feel different right around then. We weren’t out there anymore, we were very much back to civilisation. I turned this feeling of regret to anticipation; the thought of seeing the sea was causing some excitement in the group. As we descended down toward Sainte Agnès on very quiet and surprisingly well-maintained roads, we thought how lucky local residents are to have riding like this at their doorstep.
Nearing Sainte Agnès, we turned off and joined Lance Armstrong’s favourite training climb, Col de Madone, and our final climb of the trip. There, we had our first real sight of the sea and soaked in the climb’s beautiful views as the sun beamed down. A little pacing from Christian and we were at the top.
We descended down and past Monaco below, and it wasn’t long before we were in the city limits of Nice. The traffic gradually increased in both frequency and annoyance. We rolled up to Cafe du Cycliste just as they were closing for the day, then celebrated the end of a great trip by finally getting an ice cream. Having to watch over our bikes whilst queuing felt like and unwanted a contrast to the previous days, and the slow spin to our accommodation and awaiting van felt much the same.
Cars. Motorbikes. Traffic. People. Take me back to the mountains.
About Adam Ferris
Adam Ferris is a web developer from Bristol, UK. Having previously travelled much of the world, he looked to combine this love of exploration with a relatively new love, cycling. Looking for a different kind of adventure, he swapped the narrow tyres of his road bike for the wider tyres of his gravel bike. You can see more of Adam’s work on Instagram @adferris.