The Gravel Pack – TNR

The 4th Torino-Nice Rally 2019

On a sunny September morning, 150 lucky riders started the 4th Torino- Nice Rally (TNR). Although being it only the 4th edition, the event quickly set a reputation as a popular bucket list bike-packing event. Therefore the number of riders was capped on 150 because James Olsen, founder of TNR, wants to make sure the event keeps his intimacy. To get a spot on the TNR you had to send him a postcard and from all submissions, James made a draw and informed the lucky riders that they were in.

Leaving Torino city center, the landscape changed quickly from suburbs to nice little Italian villages on wards to the Colle del Colombardo. This climb has a reputation, quite steep on the first tarmac part continuing on rolling, but beautiful gravel. We planned to do the Colombardo and the Colle del Finestre on one day, but what an underestimation it was!

Since it was our first bike-packing trip in the Alps, we didn’t know climbing goes that much slower with all the extra weight compared to our lightweight road bikes. A shift of mindset was necessary, climbing takes a lot of time. From now the vacation mode was on: the experience was more important than average speed. Luckily, we had plenty of time to do the whole route with all the original ‘rough stuff’ detours.

On the 2nd day the weather quickly turned very bad on the top of Colle del Finestre. Despite wearing almost all our clothes including a rain jacket we were totally frozen within 5 minutes onto the descent. Like an oasis, a small refugio turned up at the right moment. The refugio was warm and loaded with other wet and freezing TNR riders.

Most of them took a shortcut by descending onto the valley, others continued the original route. We fueled up with hot coffee and pasta and made the decision to call it a day in a nearby agriturismo. Rain and snow didn’t stop for the rest of the day and we didn’t want to miss out on one of the highlights of the route: Strada del Assietta. We spent the rest of the day reading, eating delicious home made food and drinking wine.

The next day a clear blue sky awaited us. Strada del Assietta was beautiful with snowy mountains surrounding us. On route we met other TNR riders who did the Strada del Assietta the day before in bad weather and stayed in a refugio. We finished the day a few kilometers out of Briancon where the first route choice had to be made: the wild Col de Peas ‘rough stuff’ route or the famous Col d’ Izoard. This wasn’t really a choice for us since every good ride includes some hike-a-bike and the less easy the route, the more rewarding afterwards……rewarding it was!

The decent started as a single-track before becoming a gravel track with wonderful views. Colle dell’ Agnello (tarmac) was next on the menu and the highest point on route.

The day after, before going up the Colle di Sampeyre, we first had to buy some band-aid for blisters we got from our hike-a-bike adventure with MTB shoes. On top of the Sampeyre the next ‘rough stuff’ route choice was easily made: the stunning Strada Cannoni was not to be missed since the route description stated it as the biggest, rocky gravel decent on the route. Sounds like something for The Gravelpack. Challenging on a fully loaded gravel bike but loads of fun!

We set for camp in the valley with other TNR riders and refueled with antipasti, pizzas, tiramisu and beers. Fuel we needed the day after for the next episode of ‘rough stuff’ in the Alps, the hike-a-bike into Little Peru. We hiked, sometimes carrying our bikes, on footpaths in beautiful surroundings including some old bunkers near the top. The first glimpse of the altopiano Passo della Gardetta was stunning. Again, the hike-a-bike was definitely worth the effort. A well deserved lunch at TNR hotspot Refugio della Gardetta awaited us. Stuffed with polenta we continued our route on a long, gradual gravel decent. Endless smiles for miles guaranteed! Our time-trial capacities were needed desperately afterwards in order to reach a bicycle store in time on this Saturday afternoon to check a brake that failed in the downhill. We made it on time and after some brake bleeding with Italian smiles we continued the next day with the tarmac climb of Col Tende.

The gateway to the incredible old military road, Via del Sale: 50 km of gravel heaven with the best views. Halfway up the Via del Sale we reached another favorite TNR shelter: Refugio Don Barbera. Delicious food shared with other TNR riders made it an unforgettable evening in an unforgettable place. We had the best gravel roads for breakfast before descending another very rough, rocky road in the Monte Saccarello area followed by nice rolling terrain in the woods. The next climb to Fort de la Forca near the top of Col de Turini, 1600 meters gain of which 1080 meters on dirt, was the largest dirt climb on the route. By that time we thought that we were used to all the climbing with our gear but this was a hard one.

Descending the famous switchbacks of Col de Turini was epic. The change from high alpine landscapes to Mediterranean scenes became noticeable. The end of our adventure came quickly. Busier roads, more people and civilization. By the time we reached Nice we had a feeling of a culture shock.

We missed the mountains, the views, endless dirt roads and the TNR riders we met during our trip. But we made it and will always look back on these days that were by far our best days on the bike ever! 

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