Exploring the Southern Alps between Nice and Turin
October 2013
This year's plan was to start in Nice and wiggle my way through the Alps towards Geneva, but the late-August thunderstorms that were forecast for the high mountains made me change my plans. Thanks to the strong sea breeze, the first 80km riding up the M6202 along the broad Var valley were extremely fast. Then came the remaining 15km, a steep climb from the valley town of Isola to the ski resort Isola 2000.
The first day is often painful and this time was no different. With no acclimatisation whatsoever, my body responds in a predictable manner starting at around 1600m, that's halfway up the climb: headache, a wildly thumping heart, and accelerated breathing. The stops on the road side become longer and more frequent. It's dark before I know it. I arrive just before midnight, but I am glad I arrive at all. I spent almost the entire next day in bed, recovering.
From Isola 2000 it's still a few hundred meters of climbing before reaching the Col de Lombarde at around 2350m. From there it's a fantastically long and fast road down into Italy, to Demonte at a mere 780m.
View into Italy from the Col de la Lombarde. It's a long climb and an equally rewarding descent.
In Demonte, I take a tiny, and at times very steep road that snakes up a long valley to the Colle d'Esischie at around 2400m. It's a beautiful stretch and there's not a single car for 20km, and not one rider going my way. A handful descend past me, and all are covered in weather-proof clothing. With still a few hundred of climbing to be done, the rain starts, the temperature drops and the wind is picking up. But I am too far into it now to go back. At the top, it almost blows me off the road and I hasten to find my way back into the valley.
The view back towards Demonte. This is a spectacular climb and somewhat of a secret. A few more narrow hairpins and the track peaks at above 2,400m.
The road back to safety is in such bad condition that I expect one of my tires to blow up at any moment. The worst, the road surface changes from manageable, to barely rideable to not at all suitable for a road bike, so one has to be on high alert all the time with the hands never too far from the brakes. While I am thus chasing down into the remote and forbiddingly narrow Valle Maira, big thunderstorms are forming behind me, but it's not until I finally arrive in Stroppo, all in one piece with both tires intact, that all hell breaks loose.
The weather further West didn't hold much promise for the next few days. Besides, the Locanda alla Napoleonica in Stroppo was such a delightful place, at the same time rustic and refined with the most delicious regional food and wine from the Piedmont region, that I happily decided to stay there for two consecutive nights. This allowed me venture into the mountains once more without luggage. I took the very narrow SP104 1km West of Stroppo. It quickly leads deep into a side-valley, even more narrow and more remote than the Valle Maira. It's pretty steep in places, I reckon around 15%, but a joy to ride. Up above the tree line are a handful of mountain hamlets and a few hundred meters higher the Colle di Sampeyre, from where it's a virtiginuous drop back down to Stroppo.
On the way towards Colle di Sampeyre (2,284m)
The next day, instead of taking on the Col Agnel in bad weather, I leave the mountains towards the East and finish the trip with a fast and fun ride to Turin. All in all, a short but memorable vis-a-vis with a rough and remote part of the Alps.