Road to Nowhere
Words and Photography by Ben Andresen
The Torino-Nice Rally is an annual self-supported multi-stage cycling event attracting gravel riders, randonneurs and other adventurous cyclists from all over the world. Danish gravel collective, Nordgrus teamed up with Pas Normal Studios, Ortlieb and Open Cycle and went to the 3rd Torino-Nice Rally a few weeks ago.
On Côte d'Azur the sun is always shining. Well, most of the time. The sleek, fashionable style of Nice, and its relaxed Mediterranean yet urban lifestyle, makes you believe that you've got a small part in a cool French film from the seventies, color graded in slight blue tones. As the local train continues along the rocky coastline, the cinematography changes and becomes less romantic, though. Arriving at the main terminal in Turin, you realize that the film is now more about the common life of a poor Italian pocket thief rather than the well-dressed French gentleman in the Polynesian blue suit with the musk 'odeur' you just met on the beach in Nice a few hours ago.
'Everything changes. Fast. And it is my simple task to go with the flow, adapt and consume everything I meet on my way.'
In Turin, the rain was pouring down in heavy floods, and only the forecast of blue skies in the morning made the fluffy black Nimbus clouds look a bit less dark.
Heading out of Turin the next morning, we were all filled with joy and great expectations. Our adventure was awaiting out there, and the meeting with unspoiled and pure nature was a welcome change from our everyday training and road racing. In all of our naivety, we were simply setting off for a week of bike-packing with some 650 km in the book and 17,000 hm of great and stunning climbs in sight. 'Good clean family entertainment' with no excuse. Consume and enjoy – every single minute and every second.
Within only a few km. I found everybody already chatting on the bikes. Italians and Frenchmen, Canadians and Israelis. Germans and Finns, Spaniards and Brits. Dutchmen and Danes. All checking in to join for some days, or weeks, of cycling memories. Some for the first time, some for the last. Some for the second or third time. Some were alone, on a personal quest, others in groups to have friends to share and enjoy the journey with. Rolling in on the first gravel roads the ride felt just as smooth as our self-imagined expectations of the Torino-Nice.
'It was the kind of gravel we know from where we ride. Firm, plain, with some loose grit on top. That familiar feeling of fast Danish gravel or Swedish 'Sportsgrus'. Everything was good. Everyone was good!'
The roads continued to be smaller, as well as the local cafés, which became more authentic and dusty. Precisely the way I love them. The latter also seemed to be the concept of the roads, and just an hour later, we entered the climb of Colle del Colombardo – a 13 km long, dusty, speed-killing road of rough gravel and small rocks, hitting several km with a continuous incline of over 13%. It was already here that the first thoughts of doubt hit my mind. Altogether with the intact feeling of our upcoming adventure becoming a reality, it started a twisted bipolar monologue inside my head. I remember once reading Danish filmmaker and poet Jørgen Leth describing cycling as a mirror of life. I've always had that as my inner vision, and today that picture was clearer than ever before.
'The Colombardo is without comparison the most exhausting and brutal climb I have ever done. I had no idea, really. No idea. It's when three kilometers feels like forever, and then just cynically continues with some more forever-ever evilness. I am grateful that I had to fight this giant on the first day. Otherwise, I am truly not sure I would have made it to the top.'
The next day, we went on and conquered the iconic Colle delle Finestre, a GT-featured climb I have wanted to ride for years. And after that, the 'easy' but extremely beautiful Colle dell'Assietta, which welcomed us in the misty clouds. With a long rolling ride on the Alp-plateau wrapped in yellow and red colors, the day came to an end. 65 silly km may seem totally ridiculous, but it took the most of the day and a yet another hard effort. We were super tired, and a cheap bed on a mediocre skiing hotel in Sestriere seemed like the only sane option for the night. At the breakfast the next morning, we decided to enter 'damage control mode'. No gravel today. Just tarmac. Riding longer. But just no gravel. If we could make it to the foot of Colle di Sampeyre, we were roughly back on track according to the original schedule. We succeeded, but somehow it felt like it was just a matter of time before we had to face new obstacles.
'I would have never thought of describing 125 km with over 3000 hm of climbing over Claviere, Col d'Izoard and Col d'Agnel as a rest day. It was nevertheless how it felt, and it somehow exposes the quality of the gravel roads we were facing here.'
The descent from the clouds on the Col d'Agnel, known as Colle d'Agnello on the Italian side of the border, was something I will remember forever. Steep hairpins followed by long loops through the mist. Then straight as long as the eye could reach. The plush feeling of the 47 mm tires and the fully rigged bike flying like a missile with 80 km/h on the long sections made me feel weightless. Under the domination of grey and black clouds, we passed one village after another. All abandoned. No people. Nothing here. Just the feeling of silence and decay, like a twisted, yet to be explored, David Lynch movie. It was picturesque, scaring and beautiful. As the days went on, it became apparent that our conservative schedule was anything but that. It seemed that we were in constant search of more time. Early up in the morning. Short stops on the road. Fast eating. Quick refuelling. Fast everything. Early to bed.
The idea of floating with the moment – just being – more and more became a restless feeling of being in movement, with no time to consume the actual being. Just inputting without room or time to output the impressions and emotions we were collecting.
The lack of proper recovering – both physical, mental and social – primarily due to the nights sleeping in the tent – now also started to show, and on the fourth day, I woke up to yet another tough and exhausting climb, feeling that I had 30% of my physical and mental power left. I realized that we'd been a bit naive about the whole thing. Not only about the course and how tough and demanding it was, but just as much how the twenty-four-seven life together was draining, almost devastating, all our social resources. That day the rain came, and I am not sure if it was our momentary saviour, or if it just postponed the pain and inner conflicts. After some arguing, we stopped at a hotel along the road and decided to stay for the night
'For the first time in four days we had two hours of doing nothing. Just relaxing. No one spoke a single word. Just waited for dinner, waited for the rain to stop. Waited for rest.'
The next day we woke up, the sun was shining from a clear sky, and for a moment we forgot the exhaustion and the lurking emotional conflict. After some steep grades on the tarmac of Colle de Preit and some virgin km as bike hikers, the Gardetta peak opened its arms and embraced us with mind-blowing sights and purified silence. We had already heard the tales of the hike-a-bike section of the climb to Gardetta many days before we got there. Still we thought it was possible riding it to the top. We were wrong. Terribly wrong. So, we had to let go of the idea and walked the staircase-like path for the next three hours. Even though it had very little to do with bike-packing it had everything to do with adventure, and for the first time, we saw the Torino-Nice experience in a new light – a very beautiful one. No wonder this part of the route is considered the most scenic and breathtaking by many riders.
We were balancing on the edge, trying to breathe the experience in full, and at the same time fight the imprisoned emotions and unsaid words. Little Peru gave us a well-deserved injection of peace. Sitting there in the middle of the quiet and calm high altitude valley, cooking lunch on our stove, while marmots were doing their everyday business on the grassland around us, was a truly unique moment.
Along with the truly great moments, we were more and more finding ourselves in a very uncomfortable and schizophrenic state of mind, with no clear opportunities to regain balance or power – well, not until we would arrive in Nice some few days later. Words were irrational and unconstructive, and communication and conversation became unclear. The conflict was showing its unavoidable face just around the next rocky hairpin, but in hope that solutions were also somewhere out there, we continued to push further on. The legs, the mind. In a rare emotional moment on the 6th day, we had to stop. Stop right there on the Via del Sale, where beauty meets divinity at the very peak of the adventure.
'We had to face the reality that we were well in the process of destroying everything we had. All the great things we had built for years. Our friendship.'
The conflict and our irrational minds and exhausted bodies were trying to divide us, but the enormous expectations we had, the strong bonds we have achieved together – and maybe a loaded gun full of rational bullets against our heads were trying to unite us. It was one of those rare moments, where everything will potentially collapse, or the painful process will make us wiser and cleaned from the excessive thoughts that filled our heads. For the first time in many days, we put words on our emotions and the constant pressure we felt. It was relieving, but more painful than all the climbs we had done on our ride so far. We had a tough but constructive conversation, realizing we were facing the wall and about to lose it. It was very emotional and giving – almost like an absolution. But how had we come this far?
After the 40 km of truly beautiful, but very heavy, gravel riding high up on the Via del Sale section, we faced a 25 km descent, where only the last 5 km to the small village of La Brique were paved. The first part of the descent was some of the most technical riding we've ever done on a gravel bike. Add to that, we had our bikes fully loaded with packs. Hands and shoulders really suffered on those rough roads, but the sensation when we hit the transition to very fast and hard packed gravel, where speed went from 12 km/h to 40 km/h, was so relieving and intoxicating it's hard to describe. 6 days of alpine downhill gravel riding definitely improves handling skills for this kind of setup immensely.
After defeating Col de Turini, one final gravel climb, and the mountain pass between Italy and France, we arrived in Nice one day later. We were exhausted and filled with all embracing memories and profound experiences. Entering the noisy suburbs of Nice was an almost depressing experience, but as soon as we hit the ocean, undressed and took a swim in the Mediterranean Sea, I understood why James (the organiser of the Torino-Nice Rally) chose Nice as his destination on a truly amazing route. Floating in the salty waters made me realize what we had been fighting the last 7 days. Gravity!
Endless views and pictures fastened to my inner vision. Thoughts and emotions enough to force a supercomputer to reboot. The journey fulfilled all the expectations that one can have – and a lot more than that.
'Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.'
When you go on a ride or a journey, I believe you always bring what you carry inside. Whatever that is. It may be subject to be practiced or trained, formed, transformed or healed. I've now found that you should always be prepared to lose whatever you bring. It is the true risk when riding out exploring the outskirts of the world and searching the body and mind. I lost my Garmin on this quest (yes, the pocket thief on the train) and I lost my heart to the heartbeat of the silent and ancient mountains – and I almost lost two great friends I was never prepared to lose.