After all the planning it nearly didn’t happen. Less than 24 hours before we were due to leave the UK for Turin, our van dropped its clutch and various other essential parts all over the road. Even a mechanic mate willing to work on it overnight couldn’t get parts until the following Monday.
If I’m honest, I’d already started to look at alternate places for a week’s riding when a late night text had the news I so wanted: another favour called in and we had another van. It was older, couldn’t make it above 60, and didn’t have air conditioning… but our Torino Nice rally was back on.
The Torino-Nice Rally is a bikepacking, touring or randonneur event - a ride that has a bit of most things except technical difficulty (in the mountain biking sense).It's not a race, just a challenge to finish.
The night before the start we had a chance to meet other riders and eat some dinner in lovely little square in central Turin. This opportunity is generally used to look at everyone else’s bikes. Adventure bikes are always the more interesting bikes to look at, especially when loaded up ready for a big ride. Talking of bikes, mine was almost brand new, a titanium Sonder Camino bought and built for adventure. One guy I spoke to was here for his second year and described the first climb, Colle del Colombardo by smashing his fist into his palm. This was going to be tough.
It was a good night sleep apart from being woken by what we each of us individually thought was someone stood right over us shining a torch at us. Turned out it was the moon.
How far to Sestriere?” I must have been feeling it as I asked this question about five times even though I knew the answer. Nobody was looking at a map. The rolling gravel continued, we rode on not knowing this was to be some of the smoothest gravel we were to face. Soon later we reached the summit of Col dell’Assietta at 2472m. “How far to Sestriere?” This time I got an answer from Will - “1k!”. A brief chat with the front of our group as they were leaving and we sat for lunch. Pizza for starter. Gnocchi for main.
We hadn’t noticed how fast it was getting dark nor that the temperature was dropping. We hastily put on arm warmers, knee warmers and jackets, flicked the lights on for the first time and went over the edge thinking how different this place must’ve looked when the tour de France finished here in only 3 months previous.
The owner of the restaurant was kind enough to let us sleep in the garden of the restaurant, which was great as it was tucked a couple of metres below ground level and out of the wind. No sooner had we sipped the last of our beers were we tucked up in our bivvys, fast asleep.
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 a couple of hundred feet down - just to check if what we were seeing was real. Tunnels cut through the mountainside, rocks littered the broken tarmac, and long-forgotten rusted-out shelters offered seemingly little protection from above. The road was well on its way to being reclaimed by nature.
We all knew that as soon as we got to the top we were to turn right, Rifugio Gardetta was on that gravel road. We all knew this but as each of us summited solo we turned right and started to doubt if it was the right way. We were so cold and wet that we didn’t want to make a wrong turn, not now. 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, when they did they said it wasn’t that way. They had been a couple of km and couldn’t see it. The sign at the bend said ‘Rifugio Gardetta 1’ and they had definitely been more than 1km. We were later to realise that there aren’t many, if any, cars up here but there are a lot of walkers. The 1 wasn’t the distance; it was the approximate walking time, in hours.
Six ciabattas and 12 Cokes in Limone Piemonte and we were re-fuelled and ready for Col de Tende. It was atop here there was another route option, with this one there was no option for us, we knew we wanted to do the whole of Via Del Sale; we’d seen the photos.
We’d heard of landslides in Monesi, a 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 carry on, strangely excited by the potential for another angle to this trip. As we joined the tarmac we immediately sensed the town was eerily quiet. Ski towns are usually quiet in September but this felt different, almost post-apocalyptic - abandonned belongings blocking roads with no urgency to be moved, weeds growing in cracks between tarmac, this place was deserted. As we negotiated the concrete blockade in the road with a convenient bike-width sized gap we knew there must have been a landslide. Sure enough, we were soon taking turns to clamber over the buckled asphalt, looking more like a earthquake disaster movie set than a rural Italian B road.
As the size of the gravel increased so did the hold ups. After another couple of punctures of tubeless tyres now running with inner tubes came shortly before a shepard and his flock were blocking the road. This was at a time when the gravel had turned to rocks so negotiating the sheep wasn’t the only challenge. The shepherd soon noticed us and signalled for his limping doggo to clear us some room. He didn’t clear much room though, it was still pretty scary when adding the challenge of a sheer drop to the list. I thought about that doggo a lot on the way down, he was limping pretty bad and there wasn’t much that resembled somewhere to rest for quite some time
This was the weakest I’d 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. 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 rider taking shelter under a small tin roof until morning. Back on the gravel road, the rain increased and the temperature dropped. Regular circulation of Haribo among the group kept the pedals turning. Looking back at the data, I stopped for a total of exactly 3 mins for the 2 hour 40 minute climb. This was for a brief chat with the fellow rider and for a change of clothing.