Italy & France: The Torino-Nice Rally (05/09/21-12/09/21)

I applied to ride the Torino-Nice Rally way back in early 2020. I’d heard many great things about the route, and along with a few friends I entered to ride. Like many things, the 2020 edition (due to take place in summer) was postponed until the following spring. That was subsequently delayed, until things looked like they may actually be on track for summer 2021.

To quote the event page, the ‘Torino-Nice Rally is a bikepacking, touring or randonneur event – a ride that’s a bit of most things except technically difficult in the mountain biking sense. It’s not a race, just a challenge to finish and a question of what to ride and where to focus your efforts.

​The route includes around 300 miles / 485km of tarmac going up to a high point of 2750m and taking in two Grand Tour cols, also 150 miles / 240km of rocky gravel-based military stradas along the border often at an altitude of 2000m or more’. 

For the last few years it’s been run as a group start event, which is free to enter. You apply to ride by sending a postcard to the organiser, who then runs a raffle for places. 

Getting to the startline this year was a little fiddly, thanks to covid-19 restrictions. In the end, I was in quite a lucky situation. I’d rolled over plenty of annual leave from last year, so had time to take a longer-than-usual holiday. I was in Greece for a fortnight before traveling to Italy, which meant that it was unlikely I’d have to isolate anywhere (having recently received my second vaccination). The situation wasn’t so easy for those coming from the UK. As the virus rippled through the country this summer, much of the world was (understandably) not so delighted to have us. Italy had a mandatory quarantine period of 5 days for those arriving into the country from the UK, a rule that only stopped a few days before we began the TNR. 

In the end, most Brits (including those that were going to come riding with me) dropped out, but my friend Ross gambled and made it out to meet me in Turin.

My flight actually arrived in Milan Begamo, which is a decent journey to Turin via a couple of regional trains. I arrived late, met Ross at a hotel and set up my bike ready to hit the road once again. I actually spent a night in Turin a couple of years ago when I raced the Transcontinental Race, but on that occasion I also arrived late and left super early – so I don’t really remember the town, nor did I see much of it. 

This year, anyone who had applied to ride the previous TNR edition was welcome to join. Ordinarily there’d be a large group start, but in 2021 the start was split over two days and there was no official start time. We had to pick up a couple of bits and bobs before setting off, so didn’t actually see anyone until late in the first day. 

The first climb, Colle del Colombardo, is a real beast. It rained on us on the way up and we were reduced to walking on the steeper sections. It was a rude awakening to how much climbing we had to look forward to over the next week. Sadly we were deep in the cloud at the top, but I assume the view was nice from up there – over 2,000m asl.

We’d given ourselves 8 days to ride the TNR, which meant averaging around 85km and a little over 2,000m climbing every day. I’d done my best to match that with the daily distances in Greece, so I was pretty confident I could do that without too much difficulty in around 6-7 hours pedalling a day. In many ways the terrain was quite similar, but the passes in the Alps were considerably longer and higher. Those long climbs can take hours over an entire chunk of the day, which puts you in quite a different head space.

We zoomed down into the next valley, our big climb for the day done, and found an official campsite near Bussoleno where we pitched our tents in the rain. I still had my old route from the Transcontinental Race saved in MapOut (my preferred app for mapping in mountainous regions), and I’d been curious to see just how close I’d come to this area – vaguely recalling leaving Italy and heading into France around here. It turned out that I’d cycled along the exact same road that passed the campsite and through the local town. I had absolutely zero recollection of it. I suppose the TCR was such a sleep deprived blur that much of it is only a vague recollection. Does slightly make you wonder what the point is if you can’t remember the places you’ve pedalled!

After putting our tents up in the rain, we had dinner in a local pizzeria with a couple of German TNR riders also staying at the campsite. We’d bumped into one of them on the pass earlier in the day – it was nice to have some company in the form of other riders, even if it was only a small crowd this year (without about 30 participants).

We bumped into a few more TNR riders the following morning (having left at a more sensible time ourselves), on the way up Colle delle Finestre. It was a long gravel climb that probably would have been empty had it not been for a huge rally – potentially called the ‘European Mountain Summit’ – also heading over the pass. The rally was made up of cars that were at least 20 years old, and there were a lot of them. The company became slightly tedious. 

After dropping down the other side (in the clouds once again) we headed onto the Strada dell’Assietta – which was rough enough that the rally cars couldn’t join us. It was a beautiful section, at high altitude, dipping in and out of the clouds whilst we caught glimpses of the views.

We booked an Airbnb in a little ski town called Sestriere. It was a sorry place, completely deserted at that time of year but still too cold for a summer holiday. A functional, purpose built ski-town that we were pleased to be leaving the following morning. 

We crossed over into France, where suddenly everything felt far more quaint with Alpine postcard villages. The sun was out, which helped, and we rode down to Biancon in our t-shirts. We bumped into some Croatian TNR riders at a cafe, who had left Turin the previous morning – cycling almost twice as fast as us. They were planning on finishing in 4-5 days, which is quite impressive. In contrast, we’d met some other cyclists the previous day who had no time-frame at all. It was a mixed bag, but if you are happy to pack light and stay in accommodation or simply bivvy, you could quite easily approach the TNR as a real test to see how fast you can finish. 

The TNR isn’t just one set route. There’s a series of options, where you can choose between different sections. Often one was a harder, more strenuous route than the other. At this first junction we had the choice between Col d’Izoard and a hike-a-bike up Cold du Peas. Being a masochist, I’m always up for the harder option – but Ross said that Col d’Izoard was a famous and beautiful road climb, and that was a good enough reason for me to ride it. 

It was indeed a gorgeous ride. The sun was glaring and the road was busy with other cyclists. I don’t really follow professional road cycling, so my knowledge of these famous climbs is very limited (in fact, I hadn’t heard of any of these climbs before riding them) – but Col d’Izoard was very beautiful. 

We camped at the start of Col Agnel that evening, boiling fresh tortellini from a local deli with some tinned peas and pesto. A real treat that became our go-to camping dinner. We’d carry an extra bread roll just so we could mop up the pots to save ourselves the cleaning. 

We crossed the pass the following morning, after a long slog up to the top. It was the highest point on the route – at 2,744m asl. We couldn’t see anything because it was so cloudy.

It’s been a long time since I’ve cycled mountain passes so big that – even in the height of summer – you have to layer up in everything you have before you descend after having reached the top in a t-shirt. Col Agnel was particularly cold, deep in wet clouds. We layered up and zoomed down, but had to stop in a cafe to warm up as we were shivering so badly.

At the top of the next climb (one of the tedious road ones) we turned onto the Strada Cannoni, a gorgeous border-road with a really bumpy descent. The type of track that you wish you had a MTB instead of a gravel bike. We were relieved to hit the tarmac again after what felt like an eternity, and we wrapped up the day at the campsite Valle Maira.

We’d reached our next route choice, and after taking the ‘easier’ option over Col d’Izoard we opted for the rough stuff hike-a-bike section into an area known as ‘Little Peru’. It was a tough push, once again deep into the clouds. There was barely another soul around, but the one hiker who we saw easily overtook us. It’s a pity we were in the clouds again – I think that next section is supposed to be very beautiful, but we couldn’t see much of it. 

We wrapped up the day at an Airbnb in Borgo San Dalmazzo, a town at the foot of the mountains. The previous couple of days had been hard work, and we were ready for a night in a proper bed. It was hard to calculate how long different sections would take us, as some of the climbs took hours but some of the rough descents were also slow going. On this particular day we underestimated how quickly we’d cover the miles descending on road (over around 30km), so we ended up stopping early with plenty left in the tank. Still, we were ahead of schedule having ridden closer to 100km some days – so we had plenty of time to play with. 

Once again we opted for the tougher of two route options, and climbed up to Via del Sale. The ascent was boring, but the dirt road of Via del Sale was truly sensational. Up there with the best roads I have ever cycled. 

Progress was slow and we were struggling to find somewhere to wild camp on the steep mountain-sides. Just as light was fading we spotted a flat section above the dirt road which could not have been more perfect. It was our final wild camp on the TNR and I couldn’t have asked for a better pitch. 

We could finally take our covid-19 lateral flow tests the following morning, to present for entry back into the UK. It seemed funny that in three weeks of travelling to France via both Greece and Italy, the only test I had had to do was the one to get back into the UK (aka Europe’s hotspot). 

We had one final, nasty climb keeping us from the coast – Col du Turini, by far my least enjoyable climb of the trip. We started at slightly lower altitude and the sun was out, so the heat made things really tough for the first time. On the other side we stopped in the municipal campsite in Sospel, leaving us with a short day to finish on. 

By the time we reached Nice it was early afternoon. We’d wrapped up the TNR in 8 days, which felt like a good amount of time. It had been a tough ride and we were feeling fit – but I think both of us were ready for a good break from cycling. It would have been quite easy to knock a day off the total riding time, but in 6 days or less I think it would have been a little too strenuous for my liking.

We bumped into a Swiss couple riding the TNR in town, who we’d seen a few times over the previous week. I think in total we saw around 20 other TNR riders, which meant we probably crossed paths with around two thirds of the participants. It would have been quite a different experience in ‘normal times’ with over 100 on the same route, but the solitude was nice this year. We saw another TNR rider almost everyday, which was a nice reminder that there was a disconnected peloton crossing the Alps in unison. 

Ross and I had struck a good balance of riding together. It’s been a very long time since I’ve toured with just one other person for so long. I revert into being a total cheap-skate when I’m riding by myself, always wild camping and spending as little as possible on food. With Ross we compromised a little in the middle, and treated the trip like a holiday – it’s nicer to pay for accommodation and go out for dinner when you have someone to share the experience with. 

We had quite different bikes, but ultimately they were trying to do the same thing. I was on my modified Dawes with 650b 47mm WTB Horizon tyres. My bike was pretending to be a modern gravel bike, which is exactly what Ross had – a Specialized Diverge with the same size tyres. Ross was on a lighter aluminium bike with slightly less luggage, but ultimately we rode at a fairly similar pace which was handy.

It was a peculiar route. I can’t think of another time when I have, or would, spend so much time riding up and over big passes non-stop. In most situations you would cross a big pass to reach the next flat section of riding, but the TNR forces you to zigzag over these cols everyday.

Before the trip I asked one a friend who’d ridden the route for advice on gearing. He said the only important thing was how low you could go, and that the rest wasn’t that important – as you were either climbing in your granny gear or free-wheeling. That was a pretty fair assessment and good advice for the setup. For the record, I ran a 42t up font with a 11-46t cassette. I could quite happily have dropped lower, but I could ride pretty much the entire thing with that range.

The route is around two thirds paved, which is quite similar to what I dealt with in Greece. We rode about 650km with 18,000m of climbing, which is almost exactly the same as what I did in Greece (but done over an extra day). That’s my kind of pace and my kind of terrain. 

I’d been in Nice once before, about a decade ago when I went interrailing with a friend in January/February and we stopped in town for around a day. The Nice carnival was taking place, but it didn’t make much of an impression on us. It was cold and full of old people. 

This time I fell in love with Nice. We were knackered and all we wanted was some sunshine and a place to drink. The town backs onto the coast and the water was a dreamy temperature. It’s a shame we didn’t have long to enjoy it, and spent a large chunk of our time running around searching for bike boxes for the return flight. 

What a route. I’ve never spent much time cycling in the Alps and I’ve been missing out, it seems. I would highly, highly recommend the Torino-Nice Rally. 

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