This trip was a long time in the making. I can't even remember whose idea it was in the end, but probably Damian's. The 6 of us had been on 2 previous cycle trips in the French Alps and we reckoned we were ready for a longer challenge.
The Torino-Nice Rally has been running for 3 or 4 years at this stage; there's a good bit of information out there on the internet about it. We did think about joining the actual event but that week didn't suit everybody so we started on the Tuesday before.
We had considerable debate about how to transport the bikes as we were flying into Milan and out of Nice. In the end, we scrounged bike boxes from friendly shops for the flight out of Dublin and we were able to buy (much flimsier) boxes from SafeBags in Nice Airport for €25. A bit of damage on the way out - one bent seatstay on Damian's bike, but still rideable. More seriously, MP's SRAM STI shifter was broken, leaving him stuck in an impossibly high gear.
Day 1 turned out to be an easy 30km run from Milan airport to the next town with a provincial train station. Italian local trains have great space for bikes. We were unable to get Michael's gear fixed that evening in Turin so we decided to stay put and start the following day - Booking.com provided 3 rooms just beside the bike shop and we enjoyed a good meal and a great sleep. My sleep was especially good in the one single room.
Day 2 (Wednesday) - we decided to split into 2 groups with Michael H, Tim and Damian going over Col de Colombardo and Michael P, Niall and Steve staying to get MP's bike fixed and riding straight on to Susa. After a fair bit of faffing, one bike shop managed to rig up an ancient MTB friction thumb shifter to bypass the STI - the downside to new bike tech. We headed out to the first climb - slow exit from Turin, with quite a mix of historic buildings, beautiful squares, rundown apartment blocks and roadworks. Viu was the last town before Colombardo and we were lucky to find an open bar with prepared paninis before the climb. My rear tyre started spraying me, the bike and everyone else with sealant - this eventually stopped and I never needed to put a tube in. Horrible business cleaning dried up sealand off the bike after the trip though.
Not too much to say about Colombardo because we didn't see much of a view - mist all the way up. It was mostly gravel and very steep. The descent was a good test of our bikepacking skills - I had packed my seatpack especially badly and it wagged into the back tyre several times.
After a joyous reunion with Niall, Michael P and Steve and a substantial dinner in Susa, we started up Colle delle Finestre in the dark. We were sure that a perfect camping spot would appear; after several kilometres in the dark we settled on a slope. To our chagrin, we passed the perfect (flat) spot only 500m up the road in the morning.
Day 3 (Thursday) Colle delle Finestre / Strada dell'Assieta - long day, this. Finestre Tarmac gave way to a fantastic gravel climb in beautiful sunshine. I took MH's suggestion of buying a hunk of cheese from a local farm; for some reason, no-one else spotted the sign. Strada dell'Assieta was fantastic, only interrupted by a few motorbikes and a column of 12 4WDs with German reg plates. Michael P was obviously trying to impress some of the bikers with his fast gravel / dust cornering and had a roll in the dust. MTB-type descent, nice short-cuts for the corners. We bypassed Sestriere because the road was closed and we detoured to a ski resort called La Sauze d'Oulx but it was mostly shut - we eventually found a pizza joint. There was some debate about trying to get up Montgenevre that evening (getting dark again) but we stopped at a place called Cesana; Booking.com again came up trumps with an apartment. Some of us even managed to wash some manky cycle clothes (that was the last time that happened though).
Day 4 (Friday) - over Col de Montgenevre across the French border. This was a stiff enough climb and included a long tunnel so I was glad we hadn't tried it the previous evening. Bitterly cold descent into Briancon; we warmed up at a boulangerie. Damian managed to post 1.8kg excess baggage home. I think we would all have liked the chance to spend a bit more time in Briancon - we came down the main road through the old town; cobbled with a centre water course and very steep. Maybe another time. A return visit to Col d'Izoard came next; more interesting route than the last time we did it from Guillestre. We were quite spread out and it was very cold at the top so we descended separately and regrouped further down. Lunch was at Vieux Vielle; the waitress warned of snow up the Col d'Agnel. Agnel was a long and seemingly endless climb - actually very straight beside a river for a long stretch in the middle, which meant it was hard to appreciate that you were gaining height. We were pretty wiped out at the top after a long day and the descent was miserable - thick cloud / mist all the way down, we were dressed in every spare item of clothing. Rescusitated by some incredible hot chocolate in a rare open bar at the bottom and the time there seems to have saved us from a drenching further down the hill. Mostly descending after that; Italian Tarmac noticeably worse than French. We had our second / final night camping in Sampeyre - the campsite owner let us sleep on a concrete platform with a shed roof over the top. Steve manned it out in his bivvy / tarp close to the river though. The experience was spoiled somewhat by the 2 nearby churches - both pealing out the hour throughout the night but about 40 seconds apart. I think I was awake for every hour that night. Possibly the best meal that night in a local restaurant with a 15% discount for cyclists - nice one Sampeyre.
Day 5 (Saturday) Colle Sampeyre was a pleasant climb - sunny and verdant on Tarmac. We bumped into a couple of Aussies (Phil and Cam) who were doing a similiar route at a slightly more sensible pace. There were a couple of options for the descent after this, but Death Road won out - who could resist? It was truly spectacular - unmaintained Tarmac with lots of stone / rock falls and broken roadside barriers. A couple of the ubiquitous Fiat Pandas drove up it though. After lunch in the valley, 5 of us started on Colle Preit; Damian had the good sense to skip that one and he was able to scoot on down the valley and wallow in the luxury of accommodation without us. I think he even got some clothes washed, which explains why he smelled so much less horrible than we did by the end. Preit was a tough oul' beast of a climb, especially at the end. Michael P claimed first place on that one. We stayed at Rifuggio di Gardetta at the top - back onto gravel to get there. The first thing they told us there was that we couldn't shower. Dinner was an adequate compensation though; we and the Aussies had our own room to avoid the Italian talent show in the main room. Breakfast was less good - bowls of coffee to dunk stale bread slices / rusks into; hmmm.
Day 6 (Sunday) - possibly the highlight of the trip? We found ourselves on a millitary road from the rifuggio and in an area known as Little Peru. Stunning mountains and it felt completely deserted - only 2 Pandas on the gravel roads. Abandoned Italian Army barrack buildings - lonely spot to be posted to in winter. Unbelievable descent, especially when the Tarmac started - another that seemed to last forever. Freezing by the time we reached the end, glad of coffees in a tabac. Back on flat roads for a bit and we met a clean and shiny Damian at a roundabout in a decent-size town called Borgo san Dalmazzo. It had an amazing patisserie. A bit more flat, through a nice little town called Limone, before the next big climb up Colle di Tenda. We regrouped at the top - getting cold and back on gravel road; we brewed up coffee in a small cave.
The weather turned seriously nasty some time after that - we had just started to descend after an age of climbing, on a very photogenic corner when we were hit by stinging hailstones and thunder. We shivered folornly in our lycra before deciding that moving on was really the only option. By this time, the hail had turned to proper snow; deafening thunder and forked lightning. We actually witnessed a lightning strike about 20m away from our track - it was as if someone had fired a missile into the rockface. I suppose it would have been a quick end..... We met a Danish chap on a MTB coming the other direction and encouraged him to turn back. A shepherd welcomed us into his hut on the way and fed us tea; we were seriously wet and cold at this stage and Damian had a puncture to fix. Thankfully, the next rifuggio (Barbera) was only 1 - 2km away; we reached it like a party of cold, wet rats. Another good meal but again no showers; we had stopped noticing how bad we smelt at that stage. We got most of our clothes dry as well. I don't know about everyone else, but I hardly slept that night in the dorm; too much excitement for the day, perhaps. We were actually rather worried about being snowed in - we still had to get to Nice....
Day 7 (Monday) Rifuggio breakfast was a copy of the last place; someone needs to have a word with management there. They did make us sandwiches though. We woke to snow all around - the hill back up to the main track was unrideable and we made slow progress once we reached it. We were now on the Via del Sale - it was longer than we had thought and very beautiful. The snow actually only lasted about 4km and we were then back on fast-moving gravel. We got remarkably filthy from slush and mud. It was the sort of road you would never want to end - perfect. It ended with a savage descent on gravel / rocks - my mountain biking got me down it first. We crossed back into France at some stage on that ride, sad goodbye to Italy. Late lunch in a French town (French prices also) and a long (long) and tortuous climb up Col de Turini - this was mostly on gravel again. We were rewarded at the top by the sight of the Med - at least, I thought it was the top but there was still a very long way to go. My gear shifter decided to stop cooperating then by only going into the lower 4 gears (subsequent repair at home revealed a rubber cable bung stuck in the cable housing under the bottom bracket - my fault entirely, not SRAM's). I was really feeling rather miserable at the top of Turini; it was already dark and I didn't properly appreciate the wonderful descent down the famous hairpins. Being stuck in low gears didn't help. We stayed in a mobile home in a campsite in Sospel that night. We managed to find an open restaurant - the waitress hastily placed us as far away from other diners as she possibly could and proceded to serve us without inhaling - even we could smell how bad we smelt by then (apart from Damian). I actually slept remarkably well in the mobile home, despite sharing a double mattress with Steve in the living area. We relished our first shower in 3 days as well - pity we hadn't anything clean to wear after......
Day 8 (Tuesday) I had great plans for our arrival to Nice. I had even taken up precious saddlebag space with a pair of swimming togs. Sadly, it was not to be - by the time we had consumed the remaining porridge oats with no milk (gruel) and coffee bags the rain had started. The final 50km included a (gravel) climb over Col de Brauss - with the final photos at the top the reality that the trip had come to an end started to dawn. The last section was on increasingly busy roads into Nice and the rain poured down. We stopped at the hipster Cafe du Cycliste; Damian met a kindred soul, who was actually riding an appallingly ancient bike that really should have been consigned to a museum / scrapyard a long time ago (Singer). We got to the airport on a nice cycle path and arrived like drowned rats. We managed to completely take over a whole seating area and dismantle and pack our bikes - apart from a long-haired chap who sat down in the middle of all the chaos and calmly munched his way through 2 giant bags of crisps. None of us could face going into Nice in the rain, so we stayed put and ate over-priced airport food until we could check on to our 2300 flight home to Dublin.
Someone will have the exact altitude, but from memory we did 16,200m climbing (at least, I and Michael H did as we did Colombardo and Preit). About 630km. Trip of a lifetime with a fantastic bunch of friends.
Highly recommended route - if you get the chance, do it. In retrospect, we could probably have brought less sleeping equipment and more warm clothing but it's hard to anticipate exactly what you'll need on that kind of trip. You can't carry much with a bikepacking set up (handlebar bag / frame bag and saddle pack for most of us) but the limited luggage space does help to keep the weight down. We were blessed with mostly dry weather and far fewer technical problems than we might have had as well.
Time to start planning the next adventure...........