Torino to Nice — across the Alps on a bicycle

In Cycling, France, Italy, Piemonte, Provence, Travel
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There are almost endless permutations of possible trans-Alpine cycle routes from Turin to Nice. This trip followed the Torino-Nice Rally course, which itself has a variety of options, shortcuts and potential extensions. The core track takes in some of the most stunning passes of the eastern Alps as it winds along the Franco-Italian border, following mixed terrain and taking advantage of the high-altitude military roads constructed during the 18th and 19th centuries. I clocked up 333 miles (533km) over seven days. My GPS track is here.

Three bike rides and five regional trains delivered me to Lanzo Torinese, my starting point

Day 1. Lanzo Torinese to a woodland on the Strada del Colle delle Finestre, Susa

Lanzo Torinese, a small town literally at the edge of the Alps, is a short suburban train ride and pleasant cycle (because, in August, the 19:43 from Dora station becomes a bus around 8 miles from the end of the line) along a surfaced path from central Turin

As the train pulled up in Cirié, the thunderstorm building over Turin broke and I was faintly envious of those who were decanted onto the waiting coaches. However, this was the first and last soaking of the trip, and the virtually traffic-free route across gently rolling green fields was a delight in the warm, misty twilight. Although the hotel, old-fashioned but endearing, had stopped serving food, the local pizzeria would be open for hours yet on a Friday night. ALICE was quickly accommodated in a function room and I went out to find carbs in preparation for some serious climbing

Dawn in Lanzo — a reconnoiter of supermarket and banking facilities

The eclectic silver collection in the hotel car park

Crossing the Lanzo river to enter the Viù Valley

Approaching Viù

Tiny church in Viù

Bridge at Forno di Lemie, dating from 1477 and located just before turning off the valley road to begin the 1,050m climb to the Colle di Columbardo

Climbing sharply, at first on tarmac…

…and then on gravel, passing this icon “la nosta Madona” (sic)

The climb continues from 1,884m at the col to over 2,000m, before descending into the Valle Susa

My bivvy on the first night of the main ride was in front of this stone wall, handy as a worktop for cooking, off the lower tarmac section of the climb to the Colle delle Finestre, above the town of Susa

Day 2. Climb to the Colle delle Finestre, Susa, to Sestriere

Susa, now far below

Gravel switchbacks below the col at 2,178m. The 1,750m altitude gain from the Susa valley was the greatest single climb of the route

The first of three delicious and very welcome courses of the set menu at a ristoro that serves the produce of a local agricultural cooperative, situated on the plain of the Chisone Valley below the Colle delle Finestre, near the beginning of the Strada dell’Assietta

The old military road Strada dell’Assietta snakes upward toward the horizon, commencing its 60km path, almost all above 2,000m following the ridge separating the Susa and Chisone valleys, to Sestriere

One of the fortifications lining the Strada, in this case above Sestriere. These tracks were used to move cannons and mules around and were later expanded to accommodate larger equipment, with an intense period of fortification following Italian unification from around 1876 to defend the main routes to the Po Valley

Day 3. Sestriere to Château-Ville-Vielle, Briançon

Sunrise at bivvy site two, behind the bike on the only flattish ground in this small, secluded patch of woodland within sight of Sestriere

Climbing above Sestriere on a quieter, off-road section of the route onward to Briançon

Forts at Briançon

Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Nicolas church and the city walls of Briançon. Here, I refuelled from a boulangerie-patisserie before the 19km climb of the Col D’Izoard from the north

The Col D’Izoard, famous for its appearance in iconic Tours de France stages, has a cycle lane for climbers on the Briançon side and info posts displaying current altitude, distance to the summit and average gradient over the following kilometre

Cervieres, 10km from the summit of the col

It’s difficult to find literature on Alpine architecture but, as the owner of an Italian stone house, I find these structures fascinating. It seems that in this case there’s the usual storage at basement level with living accommodation above, then more storage on the upper levels, ventilated via the round holes in the walls. Perhaps for drying wood or produce?

Three kilometres to go, things are getting steep (maximum gradient 8.9%, relatively modest in comparison to the Col D’Agnel’s 11%)

The obligatory summit photo

The south side of the col and road markings from July’s Tour de France stage

The incredible Casse Déserte, with weathered dolomite pillars

Thirteenth century Fort Queyras at Château-Ville-Vielle, photographed despite objections from fragile motorists

Day 4. Château-Ville-Vielle to Colle della Ciabra, Dronero

A beautiful morning for the 1,350m climb of Col Agnel (Colle dell’Agnello in Italian; the third highest road pass in Europe at 2,744m) from my bivvy site in a line of trees along fields above Château-Ville-Vielle. Here, passing through the outskirts of Molines-en-Queyras

Saint-Romain’s church, Molines-en-Queyras. Completed in 1469, destroyed during religious wars, reconstructed between 1628 and 1637, and renovated in 2011

The gentle early slopes are followed by steep gradients for the final 7km, but even these are relatively modest in comparison to the concluding part of the ascent from the Italian side, which would be my terrifyingly fast descent/brake test

The view into Italy from the col, with mist produced as a result of the extensive forest releasing water into the cold mountain air

Chianale, the first/last village in the Val Varaita, and member of the club I Borghi più Belli d’Italia (the most beautiful villages in Italy)

The settlement has been inhabited since prehistory, existing for four centuries as French territory, but has recently become depopulated of residents, despite itinerant tourist hordes in summer

Sunset from the bivvy site at around 1,500m on a ridge separating the Varaita and Maira (or Macra) valleys, overlooking the town of Dronero. This was part of a diversion prompted by the official closure to bikes and motorcycles of the Colle de Sampeyre due to “many dangerous holes” (caused by much heavier, more damaging vehicles, but regressive and perverse logic are hardly uncommon in transport policy). This was simply an exercise in arse-covering and nannying by authorities and treated with contempt by locals, as is traditional with Italians and most rules. However, if the road was really crappy it would be tough going without a suspension fork and I opted to avoid the potential for hike-a-bike on this occasion

Day 5. Colle della Ciabra to Demonte, Cuneo

View from the ridge in the early morning

The track leading down from the ridge to the small town of San Damiano in the Maira Valley

A typical Alpine hamlet

When the paper map and GPS track seemingly contradicted one another on the climb from the Val Maira to the spectacular high plain of Gardetta (Altopiano della Gardetta), these amusing and sweary hunters were delighted to help, offering red wine and handing me their own well-thumbed map to take away

The wine did nothing to disguise the brutal climb to the Col di Preit, first paved in 1999 for the Giro d’Italia, which averages 7% all the way and is much steeper for long stretches. However, the reward is access to the Altopiano della Gardetta (“Little Peru”) and its spectacular high-altitude network of military roads

As I crossed the plain, the weather closed in and a huge storm arrived. Remarkably, the rain seemed to pass around me. During the descent to Demonte via the Val D’Arma, the sun reappeared

Arriving exhausted in Demonte at around 19.00 after 11 hours on the bike, I was in no mood to leave town to find a bivvy site and cook spaghetti in the now very damp surrounding countryside. I checked into a cheap hotel, which nevertheless seemed luxurious with its running water, toilet, electricity, wifi, beer and pizza

Day 6. Demonte to Vallon de Caïros, Saorge

The day of the final border crossing back into France. Having lost my cue sheets from the back of the bike on the previous day, along with their information on routing options, I followed the standard GPS track. This takes in two relatively short but steep climbs and descents to avoid busier valley roads to reach the main highway to France via the 1,870m Colle di Tenda (Col de Tende). Since 1882, a tunnel has carried travellers for over 3km under the pass. Cyclists cannot use the tunnel, and those interested in seeing the summit can also continue upward on the old road, where the tarmac switchbacks eventually meet gravel tracks. Gaining altitude in the midday August heat only to lose most of it again, twice, before the climb to the col itself made its mark psychologically and this was the summit I was most relieved to see despite its relatively modest elevation

Part of the climb to the col above tunnel level on the Italian side

The cable lift and restaurant on the Italian side, with ominous-looking clouds that surprisingly yielded only a few spots of rain

Running from the rain again — crossing into France

The spectacular gravel switchback descent into Provence’s Roya Valley, with regular mounded “jumps” that keep motor vehicles out and cyclists focussed. Not for the first time, I congratulated myself for the decision to fit new brake pads for this trip

Far below, beyond the now tarmac switchbacks, the queue of vehicles waiting for their turn to use the one-way tunnel. A replacement two-way bore is under construction

Tende (Tenda in Italian). Chanté’s cameo (far left) is a giveaway that this image was taken on the return car journey

St. Dalmas de Tende

The route leaves the descending Roya Gorge and heads up the Caïros Valley into the heart of the Mercantour National Park

My legs and the fading light told me that it was time to stop for the day, but it seemed that every inch of the valley was owned and protected by enclosures with forbidding notices. The only accessible, flat areas were part of someone’s garden. Finally, I summoned my remaining energy and pushed the bike up a trekking track, emerging at this clearing, where I spent the night

Day 7. Vallon de Caïros to L’Escarène, Nice

After an early start to avoid discovery in my bivvy site, the route soon left the valley road and followed a forest track. For the first time since I left Turin I was alone. No coaches, aggressively ridden motorcycles, four-wheel-drives, day-trippers or even other cyclists. The silence of the forest was broken only by birdsong, the crunch of gravel under rubber and progressively louder rhythmic creaking from ALICE’s ailing bottom bracket

Much larger than fox scats and full of hair — the product of a wolf

The route leaves the forest tracks and climbs to the Col de Turini via the ruined fortress of L’Authion

Lucéram, a beautiful Medieval village located on the ancient salt road through the Alps from Nice, at 650m after a spectacular descent from the Col de Turini

Façades of L’Escarène, the venue of my final bivvy camp (in a quarry after much searching — descending from the forests of Turini for the final evening was a mistake in hindsight) before continuing to the Niçoise suburb of La Trinité and continuing by car to meet family in Fréjus

Watch the highlights video:


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