Coming into its 6th edition for 2022, the Torino-Nice Rally was created as a ride to explore a high mountain route that crisscrosses the Alps between France and Italy, all whilst raising money for the Smart Shelter Foundation. It’s a rally, not a race, to saviour the time spent riding the route, the food, and stunning places to overnight whether it’s under the stars or in any one of the mountain refuges or camping sites along the route.
There is no entry fee, but simply a donation to the Smart Shelter Foundation, and such is the TNR’s popularity that to join in on the official start day in Turin, postcards had to be sent in (of an image of your own choosing) to James, the event’s organiser, to pull out of a hat. This format may change for TNR #6 however, so keep an eye on the website as the good folks at Northern.cc have taken over the running of the event. For the donation (suggested minimum is £18/€20), you received an iron-on official TNR patch and the TNR brevet card to complete as you wish.
Since its inception, the Piazza Giambattista Bodoni has been the start point as well as the location for unofficial official pre-event pizza/beer night at the restaurant thanks to the man on the ground in Turin, Sergio, who runs the Tabac shop next door. This is a great opportunity to meet up with fellow riders and chat bikes and kit. Although numbers for this year’s 5th edition were vastly diminished, this tradition was upheld with 10 riders dining out on Saturday night. I, however, couldn’t get to Turin until Sunday, for a Monday morning start.
The start time is a civilised 8h30 and everyone has their own take on what bike and wheel/tyre combo is best as the route takes in everything from smooth (ish) tarmac to super rough double-track descents. As James says though ‘ride what you brung’, but he does suggest a minimum tyre size of 700x45mm. What I brung was a Shand Bahookie drop bar with 29×2.2 Pirelli Scorpion XC RC tyres on 9th Wave Cycling Carbon Yarrow Wheels. Designed as a hardpack tyre with a close central tread, ideal for the smooth km, but with pronounced outside knobs for cornering grip when things got more rowdy. The Carbon Yarrow wheels have been reliable performers over the summer’s loaded adventures.
I had a solo Monday morning start, but at least Sergio was kindly there for the obligatory photo in front of the impressive monument of Alfonso Lamamora, a local Italian general and statesman.
The route heads north west out of the city and the hustle with the traffic is minimal at that time of the day, a couple of roundabouts to negotiate (which if you’re cycled in Italian towns, can be a little chaotic!), but otherwise you’ll follow the more quiet roads alongside the river out of town. You’re quickly at the city’s outskirts and soon rolling along gravel through a large park as the route heads for the hills.
The climbing starts on the way up to the village of Pui, away from main roads. Pui is a good place to grab some sustenance for the punchy climb up to the colle delle Colombardo and/or an early lunch, and coffee of course.
Its first half is winding single track road, consistently steep, so bring those low gears as there is a lot more climbing to be done over the coming days. Some respite is granted from the gradient as it levels out, just a little, by a couple of farmhouses where you’ll find water fountains and the start of the gravel. Although less severe on the whole, it does kick up at times. Height is quickly gained over the constant switchbacks, trees thinning out to reveal grand views, arriving well above the tree line at the col. There is a water tap at the near right side corner of the Chapel if needed as the climbing is not quite done. You can just about see the line of the trail across the hillside to your right, its far end the actual top of the climb. Up here are the first glimpses of the visual highlights you’ll get all along the TNR’s high tracks. Take a breath at this high point too to admire the view.
It’s (mostly) downhill and a long way back down, exhilarating switchbacks along smooth gravel and broken single track road. Dropping out eventually onto the main road with the town of Condove just off route for refuelling if required. It’s a flat haul, mostly following bicycle track alongside the main road, 15 km to Bussoleno where there’s a small supermarket. Best to stock up for the 1700m+ climb up the colle delle Finestre or a night out part way up. A picnic area about 4km up on the right is ideal, with benches and a fountain, but it was occupied already, so I carried on upwards, finding a good spot for the night under one of the stone arches holding up the road. Sheltered and dry.
The first 12km are winding singletrack road, at an easier gradient than the Colombardo, to a fountain outside an closed up chalet which is also the start of the gravel of the Strada dell’Assietta. If this fountain isn’t running (which I’ve only encountered once at the end of the season) there’s an outside tap at a chalet/fromagerie 3 km further on. Ideal too if you are in need of a cheesy snack! If it’s open. Just beyond the fromagerie, the view opens up to reveal the track snaking its way up the mountain side to the gap in the ridge. Be a little mindful around the blind bends as the route can be busy with motorbikes.
From the col there are a couple of food and accommodation options at 2 rifugios, one directly off the single track road descent or further on just off the track. The food is ideal in both and even if you arrive late at the furthest one, Rifugio dell’Alpe, they’ll prepare some welcome hot food! Just phone ahead. Alternatively, depending on distance covered, 14km further on is the more remote rifugio Casa Assietta, where, again, the food is hearty and tasty! Although it is mostly climbing to get there.
From either rifugio Dell’Alpe or Delle Rane, it’s a climb up along the Strada dell’Assietta, which gets a little more rugged in sections. This is a stunning balcony track that hugs the mountainside, though it’s not all pushing hard, levelling out in parts.
The colle dell’Assietta sits at 2472m and a photo alongside its signpost is of course mandatory, with its 360degree views, but don’t relax those climbing kegs quite yet. It’s around 4 more km of undulating climbing, across spectacular terrain. Expect numerous additional moments to stop for photographs. Rifugio Casa Assietta serves a top notch lunch too if you’re hungry by the time you pass by. As I was.
From the rifugio, it’s another long descent, 28km of it, the upper section to Sestrière is fast, loose and eyeball rattling rugged. If you passed by the food option at Casa Assietta, it’s a slight detour off route into the centre of Sestrière where a couple of restaurants should still be open, where I bumped into Cyril and a few others.
It’s still a long drop into Ceasna, along steep dirt tracks, but keep an eye on your GPS as the route splits off left at a fork and you’ll be descending fast by this point, where the seemingly obvious choice is to follow the main track ahead! Ceasna is a small village with a few (pizza of course) restaurants and a supermarket just off the centre if you need to catch up on your general supplies.
After the previous climbs, the col de Montgenèvre is a mere lump, a 500m gain, all on road, but do turn off left after about 3km to ridge through the old tunnels (amazing light through its arches) avoiding the busy main road tunnels. There’s not much in Montgenèvre at this time of year, as it’s mainly an in-season town, but it’s a fast descent along switchback tarmac to Briançon where you’ll find everything you need, including bike shops. It’s always hard to swallow the coffee price back in France after Italy, but it’s worth grabbing a brew or a bite to eat in the old fortifications, a quiet oasis above the main town. If you have time, the bridge to the other fort crosses a spectacular gorge and is a fun gravel+ ride over.
The col d’Izoard starts directly from the edge of town, winding up past hillside dwellings and actually descends a little as it approaches Cervières. There’s a hotel here if needed and a water fountain opposite. Arriving late, I settled into the bus stop, a perfect shelter from the cold wind.
Taking the col de Peas option is a little remote adventure. The route climbs above Cervières into a quiet valley, a few dwellings dotted along its single track road. It ends at the tiny commune of Les Fonds where there’s a refuge, which was an ideal pit stop for a hot coffee to warm the core. The hike-a-bike starts not far from the refuge. If you’ve ridden the col d’Izoard previously and up for something different, this section is a piece of remoteness away from ambient noise or mechanical access into the hills. Conversely, you are fully exposed to the elements, so a prudent choice needs to be made if the weather is bad.
The crux of the hike is around 2.5km in, steep and loose hiking trail that requires some deft manoeuvrability of both bike and feet. It’s brief at least. The col itself offers dramatic views on the other side, but is fully exposed to the wind. A quick photo and it was onto the singletrack descent, which was a blast on the mtb wheels. It does eventually open out to switchback double track back into civilization, dropping you directly into the village of Château Queyras and its impressive hilltop Château. There isn’t much here, but there is a supermarket about 2km further on, on the left. The staff are punctual on their closing times though, being firmly informed that I only had 5 minutes to do my shopping as soon as I entered the store!
There are a couple of restaurants in Château Ville Vieille right at the foot of the Col d’Agnel climb, but it depends if you want to eat a full meal just before the start of the 19km climb up to the highest point of the TNR?! It’s a long haul, but it doesn’t get steep until over half way up as the switchbacks start. The wind was blowing, but thankfully not strongly, as it can descend the valley with real vigour! Water wise, there are fountains in the villages and outside the refuge d’Agnel 2km from the summit.
The refuge d’Agnel may only be within spitting distance of the col, but Violette and Jérémie serve up great food and is a comfortable option for an overnight, the sunset views from the terrace are stunning, all to the tune of the vocal marmottes that live around the refuge. The refuge’s homemade tarts are particularly tasty!
The way up was sunny, if a little windy, blowing down the valley, but which all changed in the brief time I had stopped at Agnel. Dense, cold cloud had rolled in, entirely enveloping the col, so no views at all, barely able to see 10m in front of me! The single track switchback descent was a little precarious, inching my way down slowly as the hairpin bends weren’t visible until you were virtually at them!
The same for cars, suddenly appearing out of the cloud just metres ahead. I had a flash ‘oh s**t’ moment as a car attempted to overtake from behind (dumb move anyway on this upper section) and a car appeared out of the cloud infront. There was nowhere to go. Luckily the car behind came to a grinding halt in time. The adrenaline took a while to subside. After the initial steep drop in and the hairpins, it’s probably one of the more graceful descents on the route with its sweeping bends down to the reservoir at Chianale, then an easy pedal to Sampeyre, the last reasonably sized town for a while, especially if you take the 30km off road option off the col. Good options for food with a small shop near the centre.
Davide at camping Val Varaita at the base of the colle dell Sampeyre welcomes all TNR riders with a patch at no charge. Rest up here or there is rifugio Sousto just off the col. It’s another significant climb, along broken tarmac winding its way up the mountain, views disappearing riding back up into the lingering low cloud. In the obscurity of darkness, cloud and light drizzle, the 3.5km descent to the refuge seemed to go on forever. (which is off route for the main route or on the short cut route down death road). It was a social evening, chatting to Jacopo over dinner, his strong command of English to my non-existent Italian, chatting all things life on the mountain. Seems like an ideal base for some ski touring.
As I was following the main route, it was a climb back up through rolling low cloud to the col. No views again today then. The track hugs the mountain side and is smooth gravel for the first 2km before then gets really choppy as the gradient descends. For the next 23km!
It’s exhilarating and fast in places, but too much speed can invite punctures and stay sharp too as you may come across 4x4s around any of the bends. It does become tarmac for the final 6 km, passing a couple of small villages until you drop out onto their main road into San Damiano Macra. There are refueling options here, but it’s worth holding out for the small innocuous cafe further on past Stroppo, on the left, that serves really good food and their cakes are super tasty. Ideal calories to go. As tested by me. The route end at Ponte Marmora isn’t far off from here.
Whether you decide on the shorter route via col de Preit or the original rough stuff route, with a hike-a-bike, up to Little Peru, both ways are spectacular, the rough stuff route being a little more ‘adventurous’ with its lengthy and at times rocky, hike to arrive above rifugio Gardetta. Route 4.2 passes below the rifugio, so it’s a brief ride up to it.
I took the rough stuff way, climbing back into dense, low cloud, disabling any visual navigation, purely following the line on the Garmin Etrex. An ancient stone military bunker appeared through the cloud, an interesting place to overnight perhaps? Just before the ridge, I broke through the cloud, like an invisible wall holding it back it simply stopped. Arriving above the rifugio Gardetta , the view is dominated by the peak of Rocca La Meja standing like a guardian, dwarfing the rifugio below.
If the planning works out, the rifugio is a great place to stay and it usually ends up being highly social too as it is a popular overnighter for riders of the TNR. Paolo and his family have run it for many years and you’ll get a hearty welcome as well a hearty feed for dinner. Sunrise is stunning. It’s worth standing out in the morning chill as it rises up from the valley in between the peaks. If it’s a clear morning. Which we didn’t have as the low cloud had rolled over the ridge and it remained for the duration along this high track! I bumped into Hanes and Elena again, a couple from Berlin whio I ended up riding the day with, both of whom spoke perfect English, intermingled with my fading German.
The dense cloud swirled around us all day, visibility dropping to a mere barley a few metres at times, knowing that there was a steep drop to our left side most of the time. It was a shame, as the views here from what I remember are spectacular. Still, the cloud made for an atmospheric ride.
Descending was precarious, reigning in the speed to make sure we didn’t overshoot the tight bends! Arriving at the col where the track becomes tarmac, there is the option of a brief, easy climb to see the Pantani memorial tucked away on the little visited, remote colle dei Morti. It’s an amazing structure hidden away up there, but not no visit this time as we were super chilled from the damp air and cold wind. The descent is fast and narrow with tight hairpins. Take caution!
Another big, winding descent that took a long time due to its dramatic views all the way down. You had to keep stopping for photos. Once back in the valley, rolling back roads kept you distant from cars, all the way to the main town of Borgo San Dalmazzo with all the supplies you’ll need, including bike shops. Ideal spots for a good feed and restock if you’re heading over the Val di Sale. (definitely ride this section!) For great gelato, head further on to Limone Piemonte, a smaller town just before the climb up to the Colle di Tenda.
The climb is all tarmac, but once you turn off to avoid the tunnel (which is closed anyway), it’s surface reminded me of home, riding the potholed broken roads around the Mendips! As you pass through the closed ski station of Panice Soprana, there’s a ‘woah’ moment as you catch a glimpse of the track high above, across the mountain side as it passes behind the upper lift station.
There’s a cafe near the col if needed, with a terrace, perfect if it’s sunny. Preferring not to cool down, it was onwards, past the impressive hill fort and back into the darkening low cloud. There is the shortcut option to drop directly down into France from here, along a gravel track that is smooth at the top, but gets rough at its far end, straight into the hillside town St Dalmas de Tende, though it’s a short ride up, off route, into the town.
Climbing up past ski lift stations, it’s only 17km to the rifugio Don Barbera once at the col, but we took a good while to get there. The dirt climb is fairly steep and around every bend is yet another stunning view. A slow ride to take it all in!
With the climbing done, you’re plunged into an almost hidden track that winds its way through the mountains, between the peaks. Perhaps purposely built like this being an old military road.
The locals up here are more inquisitive than anything menacing, lumbered along the track, 1 by 1 at their own pace. We gave way to them as they are rather stout with large horns.
Rifugio Don Barbera is right at the Franco-Italian border and is another refuge that is well worth staying at. The food is plentiful with another hearty welcome. By dawn the low cloud had finally disappeared, for a sunny ride up and over the border.
Once over the French side, there is a stark change in the vegetation, the air warmer and drier, a welcome change to the previous couple of days. You could get some good speed on this descent, long, the gravel less rugged, down into forested valley.
It felt good to be in shorts and short sleeves again. A brief climb leads up to a high ridge with 360 degree views. Buckle up as it’s an exhilarating ride down to St Dalmas from here. (with a brief uphill section).
The top part is the roughest section of the entire route and watch out for motorcycles coming up. Gradually becoming smoother gravel further down you can pick up some good speed, sliding around switchback bends, the wrists a little pumped by the end.
If you want supplies, it’s a brief ride up into St Dalmas or a good ride down the valley Breil sur Roya has a large supermarket (slightly off route). The valley is still being rebuilt, over a year on from the devastating floods that destroyed much of the valley’s infrastructure and people’s livelihoods. One of the recommended riverside campsites no longer exists, having been simply swept away. Even now, some of the destruction is still visible all the way down the valley, destroyed bridges, buildings with their foundations and basements torn away, massive boulders littering the river bed. A reality check of our rapidly changing climate.
If it’s hot, carry some extra water for the 1700m climb up to La Maglia. It takes a while. Steep in parts and mostly on gravel, it’s the longest climb in terms of time and the final, significant climb of the TNR and is a remote journey back up into the hills once off the main road. The TNR has clearly made quite an impact on its riders. On the main road at the start of the climb, a guy pulled up in his car, shouting ‘Torino-Nice? Je l’avais fait il y a 2 ans. La montée est belle! Profitez bien!’ How cool.
Once back on tarmac after a couple of hours climbing, the hill fort and top are just 2km away. Exposed to the elements up here, but luckily the sun was out. Ride an extra few hundred meters up to the fort for the views or drop directly down to the Col de Turini and its cafe/restaurant. I grabbed a hot chocolate in the sunshine, a sugary hit to maintain the concentration for the 24km of descending to Sospel. Met a couple of guys up here too who had managed to make the journey out from London, Their first time riding the TNR and they were grinning talking about it.
What an incredible descent. One switchback after another as you descend the mountain side dropping into a more sweeping section through the gorge. No need to stop at Moulinet, it was straight down until Sospel. It’s one of the iconic road climbs in the area and you can understand why. Sospel has everything you need, including accommodation. Enjoy some food by the river or grab supplies to go, as I did, chasing sunset to the last bivvy spot.
It’s 12km of climbing to the (highly) recommended final bivvy spot. A steady 10km up the col de Braus, all on smooth road, then an easy 2km on gravel, off the col, to the bivvy spot. Should have pedaled harder as I only caught the tail end of sunset. Bivvy/camp up high just off route on a flat area or in a lower spot with a view of the coast. With only glimpses of sunset from the higher perch, I made sure to see sunrise. Which was stunning.
The climbing is all elementary now. The col de la Ma de Gorbio from here, along quiet singletrack road, is a mere 325m+ before rolling down towards the mountain village of St Agnes, where there is a great cafe, Le Lilly’s. It’s a ride up into the village, but worth it for a chilled morning caffeine hit before the final 350m+ up to the infamous col de la Madone, Lance Armstrong’s training hill. Being this iconic col near Nice, it’s the only col in France to have a glitzy monument at the top. As it was a Sunday morning, and sunny, the descent was busy with local cyclists making their pilgrimage up from la Turbie, where you’ll drop down into, back into the bustle of this popular coastal area.
For the first time since Turin, you had to tune back into riding back on busy roads, disappointed that the ride was coming to an end. Dropping down onto the coastal road, it was a rolling 12km ride into Nice and to the first of the two official end points, the Café du Cycliste, by the main port.
Here you’ll receive a complimentary coffee and no doubt bump into other riders, as I did. Number 2 is Brewdog, for which you receive 2 beer vouchers in the TNR pack, but no morning beer for me as it doesn’t open until 4 in the afternoon! They do food here too and it’s a great place to gather for a post ride, evening feast. Alas, I missed out on the beer and the food as I had an early afternoon lift back to Chamonix.
The Torino-Nice Rally is a must for any gravel bikepacker. It’s not a race and is all about meeting fellow riders, enjoying its stunning visual experience and supporting the Smart Shelter Foundation. Keep and eye on the website here for developments for edition #6 next year and the route can be found in the Komoot Collections series here
For more information about the Smart Shelter Foundation and its projects, click here. To date, the combined donations from all TNR riders and Komoot have amassed to over 10,000€. A significant achievement to help create safe environments for the poorest. Awesome. Even if you want to ride the TNR outside of the official ride, please do make a donation to the SSF.
Custom Shand Bahookie – larger frame triangle to be able to fit a small frame bag plus 2x750ml bottles.
9th Wave Cycling Carbon Yarrow wheelset
Pirelli Scorpion xc RC 29×2.2 tyres
Rotor Kapic crank and 34T Q ring 11-46 cassette
PNW 520mm width Coast handlebar
Exposure Lights MaXx D
Exposure Flare rear light
Revelate Designs Terrapin 14L
Revelate Designs Harness with Saltyroll
Revelate Designs Egress Pocket
Revelate Designs Gas Tank and 2 x Feedbags
Wildcat Gear Ocelot-R frame bag
Garmin Etrex Touch 35
Gore Explore shorts with Long Distance bibshorts+ underneath
Gore SS baselayer with C7 Pro SS jersey
Gore Spirit gilet with thermo arm warmers
Gore C5 Shakedry
Gore C5 thermo LS jersey for cold weather
Gore C5 Trail gloves with M thermo windstopper gloves for cold parts of the day
Gore thermo knee warmers
Rab down jacket
Lake MX238 shoes in wide fit
MSR Carbon Reflex 1 tent
Thermarest NeoAir Xlite
Alpkit Pipedream 400 sleeping bag
Alpkit Hunka XL bivvy bag