I've already looked down at my rear cassette a hundred times, to see if I really am in the lowest gear, when I start to wonder if I didn't bite off more than I can chew this time around. And it was only the first climb of the first day. I looked down at my cassette again. "Nope, still in the lowest gear". During the seven days it took us to traverse the Torino Nice Rally, this compulsive behavior almost developed into a tic.
The Torino Nice Rally or TNR is not a race. It's actually just a route and about 130 riders that leaves Torino, Italy on a September morning for a 700 km ride to Nice, France. Sounds cosy? Well it is, in a tormented, masochist kinda way. The fastest riders reach the Mediterranean Sea in just over three days and the route takes you on a joy- and painful roller coaster through the French-Italian alps, stacking the height meters like a glue assisted game of Jenga. I lost count of the number of conquered Cols (french cycling lingo for mountain pass) but at the end of the trip we accumulated just over 20 000 meters of climbing. Still sounds like a breeze? Then add 10 kgs of extra gear, since this is a totally unsupported ride and you might need to sleep at altitudes where the temperature drops below zero at night. Oh, I almost forgot. 50% of the route is on gravel roads. And not just the dreamy cornflake sounding type of gravel that you used to cycle barefoot when you were twelve. Very often it's like a trail covered with baby skulls and dragon teeth on the way to Mordor kind of gravel. In other words, excellent conditions.
The first 60 km leaving Torino is just a warm up although we gain a few height meters on our way to the foot of the real mountains. Riding through the villages you cheer at other riders that have stopped to fill up water at the local fountain. As the days go by, the field will spread and the faces of other riders will become rare. Just before the first climb, we stop for lunch and share a table with some riders from Amsterdam. It's hot and they seem a bit taken by surprise by the effort required so far. "We're not really used to all this climbing" I gently try to tell them in an optimistic way that they have plenty of practice ahead of them.
We both ride the Open U.P. An excellent option for this type of ride. The low weight combined with a road bike geometry make it easy to climb and fun to go fast downhill. The gravel plus sized tires give heaps of grip and suspension on the rough gravel. Our gear is set up bikepacking style with soft bags on the handlebar, in the frame and under the saddle. The advantage with this setup vs a low gravity front wheel pannier set is partly the reduced air resistance (probably minimal) but mostly the way the soft bags handle rough terrain and shaky roads.
The first climb up to Colle Colombardo is a beast. It's not the longest, nor the highest but the steepness of the first section is nothing less than a slap in the face. Despite the fairly low gearing of my reasonably light bike, I have to revert to zig-zagging across the road to make my way up the steepest parts.
The climb is officially categorized as "HC" or Hors Catégorie which is another french cycling term meaning "beyond categorization" and was originally used for mountain roads where the support cars were not expected to be able to pass during races. Little did we know but along the route we would do countless of HC's and at least three of them has been used multiple times in the Tour de France.
Although no stranger to biking in the mountains, Torino Nice Rally was the first time I biked above 2000 m and for me it was a revelation. When you pass the tree limit it's like entering another world. If the weather is good with clear skies and no wind, it can be a transcendental experience. The silence is deafening and the views will leave you gasping for that crisp fresh air. At the other end of the weather scale it's a brutal reminder of how vulnerable we are to the elements when there are no indoors to escape to. The transition from one state to the other can be almost instant, in both directions. On several occasions we were engulfed in thick fog with less than 50 meters visibility when a gust of wind would break up the clouds. From one second to the next, the steepness of the cliffs revealed themselves and you could see for miles. It's hard not to be struck by vertigo when your perception of space is so rapidly tilted by the dramatic unveiling of the landscape. A second later, everything is yet again draped in milky white fog.
What makes TNR different from other gravel events is not only the sheer climbing meters required but the amount of time actually spent on high altitude (above 2000 m). Traditionally, roads that cross mountains are built to connect lower areas of population. Always using the lowest possible pass so goods and people can travel with minimum effort. For cyclists that means that you mostly climb a mountain and bomb down on the other side (sure, we did that too). As a contrast, the TNR route often remains on high altitude, using small gravel roads that follows the mountain ridges and the existence of these roads has a very specific historical reason.