The True Essence of Cycling: A Debrief from the Torino-Nice Rally

“The Torino-Nice Rally is not a race, that’s the main thing. No timing, no entrant lists or anything like that,” says rally organizer James Olsen. Instead it’s an event that champions the spirit of like-minded riders exploring together.

The idea for the event was born, as many ideas are, on a bike ride. In 2015 James and a friend packed their bikes and set off on a bikepacking journey from Torino to Nice. They plotted a few route options on their maps and GPS devices so they could check out different areas along the way. Their original route mixed roads and gravel tracks so that they could chat as they rode, enjoy the views and relax. The mixed terrain route generated a lot of interest among their cycling cohort and it wasn’t long before James decided to make the Torino-Nice Rally an official calendar event. 

The essence of the original ride was about enjoying the freedom of touring on a range of surface-types, and the official event champions that spirit of exploring with like-minded riders.

So what does the event look like these days? As the name implies, the general idea is to ride from Torino, Italy to Nice, France. According to the website, “the route includes around 300 miles (485 kilometers) of tarmac going up to a high point of 9022 feet (2750m), and taking in two Grand Tour passes. You’ll also ride 150 miles (240 kilometers) on rocky gravel-based military stradas along the border, often at an altitude of 6500 feet (2000m) or more.” Apart from scenery that makes your eye-balls pop out of your head, this rally is special due to the multiple route options provided. James acknowledges that this makes the planning a little more complex but it’s worth it. 

“It took a lot of map research and some knowledge of the general area to make this route work well because many valleys can’t be linked unless you have a mountain bike for the descents and hiking boots for the climbs. Using quieter roads and tracks that are OK to ride on a touring or gravel bike means some areas wouldn’t ‘fit’ into this ride as well as others.” However, riders with an adventurous spirit will find plenty of scope to explore, “The Susa [valley] and Clarée valley areas, all along the Maira valley, the areas towards Molini di Triora and the higher roads of the Assietta are all well worth adapting the route for. Alternative finishes in the Vesubie Valley can also work out really well. That’s why I’ve been back to this corridor along the France-Italy border so many times, and why a lot of TNR riders give themselves plenty of time to complete the route.” 

Given there are an array of route options to choose from, we asked James if there were any obvious favorite routes that riders chose. Turns out the most popular shortcut is the Vallon d’Elva, or ‘Death Road’ section, despite its name. It’s a stunning road and the alternative there is tough for thin-tired bikes. The Via del Sale is a very popular longer section simply because it’s one of the most beautiful tracks in the Alps.”

In addition to the popular route options James added, “I’m always impressed by the number of riders who take the ‘rough stuff’ route options. They are harder but these hike-a-bike sections can add to the adventure. They’re a chance to change the pace, slow down and stop to soak up the views more often. They’re not the most commonly-used sections but more riders take them than I expected.”

It seems that TNR riders don’t shy away from a challenge. That’s a good thing since some challenges can’t be avoided, like poor weather. As James recalls though, one of the highlights of his own ride on the TNR 4 came about on a rainy day; “Maybe 15 of us were camped or bivvying on the way up the Colle delle Finestre on the first night, near the bottom. I woke up in a bivi bag at first light and realized it was raining. The only choice was an early start and it didn’t stop raining all day. I met a few riders further up the climb in the cold drizzle, we rode and chatted as if it was a normal Sunday ride – it was great. Everyone I met that day was in good spirits, if a bit cold! That evening I bumped into a friend in the gîte the P.C.C crew recommended to me, had a good dinner with another friend, and the next morning the Col Agnel was all sunshine and fresh snow — beautiful. A good 24 hours in total despite the weather.”

While James seems to be good at embracing the experience in all weather conditions, he also demonstrated his deep love of cycling’s simplicity when we asked if he had anything else he’d like to add. A few things came up but by far the most telling was his take on the cycling industry itself, and what really makes a good ride; “Make do and experience the things that are more important than gears and carbon stuff: the people, places, serendipity or solitude.” 

The Torino-Nice Rally is a celebration of cycling. The nature of the mixed-terrain route means it’s impossible to have the perfect bike/tire/kit for every inch of the route, but you’re having fun anyway. And that is what cycling is all about.

You can see the 2019 Torino Nice route on komoot here.

Photos © Torino Nice Rally