When I made the trek from Mont Blanc de Courmayeur in Italy to Chamonix in France two years ago, I had no idea that a far bigger, Italian-French adventure awaited me.
It was a journey that would last 8 days, covering nearly 700 kilometres and about 20,000 vertical meters. And at an altitude more than four times higher than Mont Blanc above sea level, it would be no day in the park.
That was our ambitious plan when we left Bratislava at the crack of dawn on the first Sunday in August. Our destination was the city of Turin in Northern Italy. From there, we’d follow the Torino-Nice Rally (TNR) on the bikepacking adventure of our lives, making our way along the old historical roads of the First World War. From the western Italian Alps all the way to the coast of southern France and the seaside resort in Nice.
Unexpected extra mileage
Even when you’ve planned your trip right down to the T, there’s always something that will rain on your parade. And I mean that both literally and figuratively.
Adventurers often not only must deal with adverse weather conditions and natural elements, but also must fight with themselves. Technical difficulties brought us to a standstill before we even managed to mount our bikes.
Our van refused to budge about 80 kilometres away from Turin and we had to be towed to the town of Navara (population 100,000). We therefore complete the first few kilometres of our journey on our gravel bikes covered with bags, eventually making it to the train station where we continue on to the capital of the Piedmont region.
We cycled away in the dark of the night, accompanied by the systematic flashing of taillights and a light drizzle. The mountains ahead of us were tucked away behind thick clouds, and I still had no idea what’s in store for us.
Sleeping under the stars and the Colle del Colombardo
On the first night, we slept in a modest gazebo at the edge of the road and at a much lower altitude than we had originally planned. Our goal is to reach a set of dusty gravel roads and the top of the Colle del Colombardo mountain pass. As a child, I was always used to falling on my bike when riding downhill. Now as I ride atop large rock formations, my wheels keep slipping and my cleats keep getting stuck. My ascent quickly turns into a hike-and-bike experience.
This is soon followed by a gravel slope complete with steep twists and turns, during which my hands are killing me, mainly from tightly clutching the disc brake.
We finish in the alpine town of Bussoleno completely worn out. Flags with a symbol of a train crossed out on them are flying everywhere in the streets of this quaint little town.
They represent the socialist movement NO TAV, which fights against the high-speed railway and the globalization that modernization brings. Portraits of Che Guevara hanging up in the local restaurant only confirm the left-wing mentality of these Northern Italians, who live shielded from the outside world by the very alpine giants that surround them.
On the trail of the Giro d’Italia
An epic climb awaits us the next day when we head along the Colle delle Finestre, a famous mountain pass known to Giro d'Italia fans. During the first 18 kilometres, we go around a series of bends, twisting and turning like a toboggan on a water slide until we end up climbing nearly 1,700 meters.
In the last eight kilometres, the asphalt disappears and the terrain changes into fine gravel. This old military road from the 18th century really knows how to make your life difficult, testing both your physical and mental endurance.
From the summit, we were supposed to continue along another gravel section, but after a rough climb we reassessed ourselves. Moreover, we were bogged down by telecommunications with an Italian translator, who is helping us with our towed-car situation.
We’ve still got some more climbing to do today and we’ll be crossing the border with France for the first time. The goal is to make it to the Montgenèvre ski resort, which will become our refuge for the next day due to rainfall.
Some much-needed rest
We wake up to a cold and damp morning. But the clouds are so thick that you can almost take a knife and slice them open while the road ends in a heavy fog both ways. We change our itinerary and enjoy a nice platter of smelly, moldy cheeses and salami while we watch synchronized swimmers at the Tokyo Olympics dive into the pool live on TV.
On the fifth day, we set off very early and start with a freezing cold descent dressed in down jackets. Except for all the puddles in the road, you could hardly tell it rained yesterday as the Alps wake up to a sunny forecast.
The ascent to the first hill starts in the town of Briançon. Perched at an altitude of 1,326 meters above sea level, it’s the highest settlement in France and has a population of at least 2,000. Stages of the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia start and finish here on a regular basis.
Sherpas and electric bikes
At a snail’s pace, we pedal our way towards the Col Izoard. With our bikes fully loaded, we look more like circus attractions, and we can count the number of cyclists we overtake on just one hand. Everyone in the area is all about that cycling life, and we see groups of cyclists of all ages headed uphill. I low-key envy all the retired folk on their electric bikes, but to voice my opinion now probably wouldn’t go over very well in our group. It’s really impressive at the top.
The desolate rubble slopes of weathered rock with protruding peaks they call Casse Déserte created a dramatic backdrop in historical photographs from the “Big Loop” back in the 1950s.
Through the alpine pass to Italy
But Col Izoard was just the appetizer. Now for the main course. In the scorching hot sun, we cycle over to the next hill, which for me will serve as the greatest memento of this trip.
Col Agnel is a mountain pass between France and Italy situated at an altitude of 2,744 meters. Markings everywhere point to the more than 20-kilometre-long climb with an average incline of 6.6%. I count down every meter I climb. The never-ending journey through the flatland took away all my will to continue, and so on some sections with an incline of more than 15%, I just push my bike with my eyes downcast as I walk onward.
The road curves and contorts like an anaconda in the Amazon and I'm just waiting for it to devour me, exhausted. At the top, we put on warm jackets again before going downhill to Italy. Along the way, we’re met only with motorcyclists and mountain goats that have evolved to withstand harsh conditions.
Coffee and croissants aren’t enough for the climb
At nightfall, we huddle close together in a small caravan in Sampeyre. A challenging day is behind us, but more challenges still lie ahead. We enjoy a longer breakfast than normal, knowing that the morning hill starts with a steep climb. Our bicycles leaning against the café terrace arouse interest from older Italians, who nod their heads in respect.
Their bodies may have wrinkles, but they still have the nearby hills in their muscle memory. Espresso, croissants, and systematic pedaling. Ahead of us is another alpine pass, the Colle di Sampeyre. Pesky insects keep landing on our skin and drowning in our sweat. This hill is really hitting us hard. We reassess what we think we can handle and give up the iconic gravel section known as Little Peru.
We ride downhill again and then try to get as close as possible to the climb we’ve got planned for the next day.
We seek refuge in a gazebo at the altar of St. Macaria near Vernante. I don’t know whose patron saint this saint is, but thank the God-fearing Italians for building a small chapel right in this very spot. What comes next is a hearty dinner cooked on a stove, chilled beer from a nearby restaurant, and restful sleep accompanied by the lullaby of crickets chirping.
The last big climb to the Col de Tende awaits us, where we’ll certainly come to appreciate the rough tread on our tires and the structural design of our gravel bikes. The ancient, highly exposed road, which is said to have been built by the Phoenicians and maintained by the Romans and Greeks, leads us again to France. There are almost no cyclists here and we’re again met only with a few motorcyclists blowing clouds of dust.
A hotel frozen in time
A real treat is our descent between rocks and a number of breakneck turns. Our brakes once again take a beating, but the reward is magnificent views of the valley. We stay in a 120-year-old hotel in the alpine village of Fontana.
The hotel appears frozen in time and we’re captivated for a moment by the zeitgeist of the period and the atmosphere of a French alpine hamlet.
The coast is within sight
The last day has us in good spirits. We’ve got two smaller climbs, then one long descent to Nice. Beyond the first hill, we can already smell the sea air.
And past the horizon, we look impatiently for the sea coast. As the temperature rises, we add extra layers of sunscreen. After making it past the second hill, it already reads 41°C on our thermometer, and the olive trees along the way offer little, if any, shade. However, a strong headwind blows our way, preventing us from lifting our hands off the handlebars to wipe the sweat from our brows.
Needless to say, the final 30 kilometres to our destination is a real killer. But the euphoria hits us in Nice. Luxury yachts line the harbour. The beaches are full of tourists. Music plays. And just like that, our alpine adventure ends with a nice dip in the water as we look onwards at the private jets that shuttle millionaires from nearby Monte Carlo and Monaco for a late-night dinner in Nice.
Our cyclists’ gear
For this multi-day bikepacking tour, choosing the right clothes that were both comfortable and easy-to-pack and that offered maximum wearability in various temperatures was essential. That’s why the gravel collection featuring both current and upcoming products combined with several of our classics became their go-to choice.
Why take long cycling trips
Camping while on a long cycling trip adds a whole new dimension to the experience. And anyone who’s ever tried it knows just how important cosy, rickety buildings can be. That’s why the Torino–Nice Rally supports the Smart Shelter Foundation, a non-profit organisation that builds earthquake-resistant buildings in Asia.
Using durable, locally sourced materials and with the help of locals living in the affected areas, they’ve managed to develop cheaper and safer methods for constructing homes, schools, and shelters in Nepal, Indonesia, and India.