Originally published exclusively in issue 63 of Bicycle Quarterly (Spring 2018)
The 2017 Torino-Nice Rally
The Piazza Bodoni, in which a large statue of a soldier riding a horse stands proud, was crowded with a thick layer of riders. They had flown in from afar to reach their current location in the world and shuffled around arbitrarily, bumping into one another with hurried excitement. Somewhere within the pungent layer of sunscreen, rubber, and chain lube was the organizer James Olsen, and several self-elected shepherds fastidiously working to keep the group on time. Overhead, the buzzing sound of a drone moved closer, within feet at times, capturing the mass of steel and carbon and skin for an audience that was supposedly watching live.
The sun finally peaked above the buildings, it’s rays warm and harsh all at once. Someone stood on the top steps of the statue surveying the field for a lost friend. A group two steps lower were comparing forecasts for the week, a flurry of voices and fingers hastily scrolling through trusted meteorological apps and webpages. Rain, the main topic of concern, was guaranteed on Saturday and Sunday. Squaring off in loud, argumentative tones they focused solely on the predictive weather, while somehow ignoring the conjectural weather. These conversations, common and snowballing throughout the crowd, veiled a growing anxiety of the unknown, of riding a multi-day adventure through arguably some of the most rugged terrain in the Alps.
By now the nine o'clock start time had passed and I had made too many introductions. The rider who I thought was Rolf was actually Raymond, and the Swede whose bike I had admired was looking off into the distance, perhaps thinking he might get ahead of the mob. Someone whistled loudly, the way a parent does at a little league game. A few heads turned, bikes were picked up from their resting places, and rather quickly some one hundred and twenty riders lumped around the statue for their first major achievement. A rider, who may or may not have been sleeping next to the statue, rose with muted enthusiasm, his cleats slipping on the granite steps. The drone kept circling, a designated photographer kept shooting, and I was curious as to whether my choice of tires was sufficient for the day’s first climb.
Several riders had a theory about what kind of ride we had joined. All it was, one rider said, was a large self-supported group ride. Another said it’s not touring, not even bikepacking, but another kind of ride not yet classifiable. Sixty miles in you’d be hard pressed to find a rider who didn’t agree it would be the hardest ride they’d ever done. Spinning down the quiet roads outside Torino wagers were made, time-frames were extended, and alliances were drawn out as we rolled toward the Alps. Eight days was the magic number. Most felt this was optimal to allow for maximal tourism and to limit the physical burden of climbing to over 2500m above sea-level multiple times a day.
The Collombardo came on day one, followed by the Finestre, Assietta, and Montgenèvre on the second. Day three had us climb the Izoard and Colle Agnel back-to-back, day four the Valmala followed by the Col del Priet, day five Little Peru, and day six the Col Farguet. Sixty-one thousand feet of climbing in a little over six hundred and fifty kilometers was a staggering feat even for the well initiated. Among those climbs only a fraction of the riding was done on pavement. The mountains, to be sure, were a test not only of endurance and mental stamina but also of equipment, planning, and will.
Ascending was almost always done in silence. The climbs were steep and long and tedious throughout, but there was little that could be described with words, or rather, there was no need to speak when surrounded by the immense features of the Alps. The towering formations of rock and earth humble in ways that few natural formations on earth can. Cyclist or otherwise, the power of the Alps lies not within the natural forces that created them but in the way in which they are experienced. While in the valleys the mountains seems ominous and grand, with weather patterns of their own, though while climbing at slow, steady speeds, one’s contact with the peaks gradually changes with the landscape, and you realize that they are not the foreboding giants once thought. They are dynamic, animated pieces of a larger, slowly forming awareness.
At the top of the Finestre I struggled to hold back emotions. A climb so powerful, so painfully long and steep and technical it had been on my all-time list of climbs for more than a decade. Seeing riders like Contador climb in 2015 only heightened my attachment to the Colle. Looking over the valley, more than nineteen-hundred meters higher than a few hours earlier, I found my mind improbably clear as my eyes filled with tears. It’s hard to describe how good it feels to be humiliated by a mountain, to be humbled by a road designed to carry supplies during wars, not cyclists during the summer. It’s rare to do something so difficult the outcome surprises you, moves you to tears by way of accomplishment outside expectation. It’s perhaps one of the pivotal reasons to do these kinds of adventures; to find that the limits by which you measure yourself are moveable, and that in moving them you unlock greater understanding of how to move higher.
We set an agenda and tried to follow it. That was the basic idea from point A to point unknown. It could have been the village marked out while scanning cue sheets in the comfort of our homes, but it turned out to be construction sites outside of town tucked near a river or beside an abandoned trailer. There were files that told us where to go, and though they served as a reference and guiding light during the long, drawn-out days, they were only suggestions of when to start and stop. It’s futile setting strict goals for the days, which is different than setting personal goals for the route. There are variables and outcomes that are the indirect results of other occurrences hours, even days before. And like any good adventure there are only so many variables that are under your control. Which is ok, because it’s not a race nor a tour nor a brevet. Broken down into the constituents of days, hours, miles the rally is a moment in time, experienced at slower speeds than our ordinary, regimented lives, deeply etching into our character a feeling of being alive, of being a part of this world.
Keytie and I had settled into a comfortable routine of climb, crest, descend, repeat, a routine appreciated for its structure but one that nevertheless left little time for tourism. We made sure, throughout the course of the trip, to stop as often as we wanted for photographs, food, beer, and the occasional spin through small medieval towns. It felt like the right thing to do, given distances traveled to get to a place, to anywhere, to get out of the house and commit to five hundred miles of riding through the Alps.
When we did stop in the small villages scattered throughout the passes every boulangerie was a diamond in the rough, every trattoria a beacon of light shining around the corner. They were the quintessential stops, the refuel destinations the minute you exited the mountains, and then every day after that, as often as you could find one. The Cafe Americanos were always one Euro. The pain au chocolate always melted in your mouth. The pasta was rarely over five Euro and always fresh and covered in toppings we’d had before but somehow tasted superior to anything we’d had before. Continental breakfasts were both a breakfast and a re-supply, and lunch was usually somewhere between siesta and whenever, depending on the village.
Linked between the food and beer and coffee are the people and towns and church bells and brightly colored buildings that are pillars of the culture of the Alps. They provide a refuge from the rugged landscapes of the mountains, and it is here, among the people going about their lives, that the settling in of the experience is allowed to happen.
It's easy to see the beauty in a place, harder to understand why that beauty exists and how it stayed preserved over time. Time, in this part of the world, appears to have stopped, having escaped total destruction from man, nature, and war. Little Peru, a passage that links the Colle del Preit to the southern valley in Demonte, is a thriving example of defunct happenings decades ago. We arrived here on night four, having climbed to the famous Rifugio Gardetta to spend a night among the stars. Being there at over eight-thousand meters redefined what it meant to be disconnected, to be remote, removed from the world without actually leaving the ground. You aren't more than a few hours ride to a small village, but the landscape hides everything in an amphitheater of jagged peaks and cliffs. The Refugios are hidden from view, the taps of water non-existent at this elevation. Yet it is utterly beautiful and quiet and remarkable.
We departed early on day five, skies clear and temperatures near freezing, with a shining sun rising over the peaks. The riding on this stretch of the TNR is challenging while at the same time extraordinary, and moves along crumbling military roads linking abandoned bunker after bunker until the greener grass of the Riserva Regionale Juniperus can be seen in the distance. From the martian like landscape we descended into a humid expanding valley filled with smoke from a nearby burn, leaving behind the past but not forgetting.
That rain remained consistent for two straight days was of little concern. Yet standing in the white-out face of a cloud, with sleet and wildly gusting winds near the top of the Col de Tende was an unwelcome turn of events. Keytie, by this point, had no working rear brake. He relied solely on the front, and our GPS devices were of little or no help. In the cloud and cold we made our way down the forty turn switchbacks off the Col de Tende, opting to bypass the extended rocky sections of the Via del Sale for a more direct line to Nice. As we descended, the smell of brake pads wafting at each treacherous bend, layers were shed down to bare bibs and unzipped jersey as we began our last major climb, a forty kilometer, fourteen hundred meter ascent up the Col Farguet into the Mediterranean Alps.
Both mentally and physically, the last two days proved challenging in ways that had yet to manifest earlier. Our legs, more tan and stronger than when we left, carried us through the cold and rain as we made our way into the warmer, humid climate near the coast, but our minds were foggy and restless, the result of continuous climbing and lack of proper sleep days earlier. We slept on night six down a ledge near a river, only twenty-five miles out of Nice, and were awoken by a stranger that had somehow, somewhere seen our bivvy spot from the road. Lacking sufficient skills in the language of the French, we may or may not have agreed upon a ten minute window for breaking camp, our equipment soaked from a heavy morning dew, our shoes and tires covered in a thick layer of umber clay. So we packed, a silent self-conscious intensity moving us along, and rode without haste down into the Cote d’Azur.
I’d like to say there was grand celebration at the end. I’d like to say we danced in a shower of champagne as we wheeled into the front foyer of Café du Cycliste. Our arrival, a day earlier than expected, was unceremonious yet simultaneously full of emotional and physical exudation. Keytie and I exchange a handshake and a hug before settling in for a coffee and some encouragement from other riders who had finished the day before. With smiles on our faces, and a slightly sweet and salty smell on our skin, plans were made for the beach, for dinner, for confirming previously booked accommodations, and there, overlooking the yachts docking on the Port Lmpyia piers, a subtle sadness set in knowing our journey was coming to an end.
Be it the sentimental nature of ending an event in such a place as the Cote d’Azur, or be it the rapidly enfolding memories of the days that seemed to stretch out into time, there were several waves of emotions felt in the days after we arrived. While climbing for hours on end, across two vastly different landscapes and countries with people you’ll likely never meet again, something changed in one’s sense of self. The trip, the experience, the choices made along the way to push harder, ride longer, or make it to that next town were experiences outside of major comfort zones, but experiences that, regardless of their difficulty, were the better decisions made. I do not regret the choices that made us work harder, or made us exhausted and grumpy and frustrated, because they asked of us more than we knew we had to give, and ultimately were more rewarding.