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In-depth
19 Jul 2019
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This article was originally published in issue 1 of Cyclist Off-Road magazine

Words Max Leonard Photography Antton Miettinen

Stop for a moment and think about those perfect, sinuous curves of tarmac that adorn your favourite mountain vista. How did that smooth strip of road get there? What was there before?

And what made all that effort getting from one side of the mountain to the other worthwhile in the first place? Anyone else ever reflect on these things when panting and sweating slowly uphill? Just me? Oh…

This is the kind of ride that brings such questions into sharp focus. It has all the ingredients of a classic Alpine road ride, only everything is a bit more rustic. The roads are mainly unmade tracks, rather than tarmac. There’s a fair bit more dust but a lot less traffic.

We’re still on carbon bikes and wearing Lycra, but we’ve got fat tyres and bags strapped to our handlebars. Gels and energy drinks have been replaced with saucisson and strange homemade liqueurs.

And there’s definitely more swimming and more sleeping than you’d enjoy on your average road outing. This is road riding’s hairier, scruffier brother. This is gravel riding.

White gold

Our plan is to explore the Via del Sale, a track along the high border ridges between France and Italy. The name is Italian for ‘salt road’, which relates to the centuries-old route used by traders to carry salt to Turin.

Why Turin? It was the seat of the ancient House of Savoy, which for the best part of 600 years ruled the Alps – a region of which still bears their name – as well many other parts of Europe.

Why salt? Salt, if not quite more expensive than gold, is certainly more useful. It is an essential ingredient in the diet of both people and livestock, and before refrigeration was one of the primary ways of preserving food.

It has been used as a currency (the word salary is derived from the Latin for salt), has made people rich and has been fought over in wars.

The Savoy needed salt from the Mediterranean, but the coastline and hinterlands east of the Alps belonged to the powerful city-state of Genoa, which meant the Savoy salt had to be landed in Nice port and then hauled over the mountains.

In its heyday, up to 55,000 mules were employed carrying salt from Nice up and over the 1,871m Col de Tende, bringing wheat, animal skins and wool back south in return.

It was an age when salt roads criss-crossed the world. Even just from the coast inland to Turin there were multiple routes, falling in and back out of favour as political conditions and the salt taxes demanded by local towns fluctuated over the centuries.

As we take the train out of Nice towards the small town of Breil-sur-Roya, where we will start our ride, we pass restaurants and cafes named after the ‘Route du Sel’. Almost 200 years after the demise of the salt trade, its traces still remain.

But first, coffee

The early-morning air is still fresh when we arrive at Breil. We’re raring to go, but we are lacking caffeine, the essential precursor to any mountain adventure – especially one that will take us a long way from civilisation.

We roll into town for coffee, and visit the market in the town square. On a ride such as this, when you have the capacity to carry things and are never sure when the next opportunity might come, it makes sense to stockpile nice stuff when you see it. So, a few peaches, cooked meats and speciality pastries heavier, we head up the hill.

The first 15km of our route takes us up the valley of the Roya river, a tumbling, gushing torrent in a deep V-shaped gorge dotted with tiny Baroque chapels and ruined bridges, reminders of the long history of trade on this route. But then we turn left, towards the village of Castérino, and the climbing really begins.

In a region blessed by some of cycling’s best-known cols – the Madone, Turini, Bonette and even the Poggio and Cipressa are pretty close – the 14km dead end road to Castérino is a dark horse.

Steep and full of switchbacks, it snakes through pink granite rocks and acid green larches, against a backdrop of dark and forbidding forests on the opposite side of the valley.

There’s barely any traffic, since Castérino is mainly a winter sports resort and because of that aforementioned dead end. But it’s a dead end only if you need tarmac.

Behind the cluster of chalets rises a tiny track surrounded by laburnums and wild flowers, which soon becomes potholed, then more potholed than paved, and then gravel, rock and dirt. It will take us to over 2,000m above sea level.

We’re forced off the track by cows being driven down the hill. After that we’re on our own, our efforts seen only by an Italian World War Two-era bunker, staring down empty-eyed from the ridge. It’s a reminder of how close the border is – until 1947 this was Italian territory.

We skirt beneath it to pass our first col, the 2,028m Baisse de Peyrefique, and continue on a wide dirt track through the meadows on the ridge.

Our only companions up here are some Czech bikers on big overland motorbikes, who are currently eating a picnic and washing the dust off in a stream, and a 4x4 pick-up with a sheepdog and bales of hay in the back.

Oh, and lots of big stone forts – again built by the Italians to defend the border.

Thousands of men once lived up here, keeping watch on the foe down the hill, and it feels strange to ride through a deserted space that was once so strategically important. 

We round a corner and the famous gravel switchbacks of the Col de Tende come into sight. Far below, cars queue for the tunnel into Italy, but up here there is nobody around.

It’s the same story with many Alpine roads: formerly mule tracks or paths used to lead livestock to pasture, they were then improved by the military and finally tarmacked – or, circumvented and obsolete, left to decay into dust.

We’ve already been off tarmac for more than 20km, but this is where the Via del Sale proper starts.

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

From Tende the track rises past a ski lift to another col, and although the track ducks and dives through numerous cols, from here to the rifugio where we’ll spend the night we won’t dip below 2,000m.

As we climb the surface deteriorates. It’s also very, very steep, with gradients persisting at around 15% for much longer than you’d expect on a paved climb in the Alps. Soon the salt from my sweat is stinging my eyes. 

Even on lightly loaded bikes, riding gravel in the Alps is difficult and intense. You work harder on the ups and have to concentrate harder on the downs – there’s no meditative cruising like you get on a road bike – but you also get to feel more, experience the different surfaces and geologies, get closer to the earth.

And perhaps because you’re in less of a ‘flow’, it seems easier to stop and take everything in.

Meander up a path you weren’t planning to take, just to see what’s around the corner. Sit on a rock and cut yourself some salami (always take a knife for impromptu cheese or salami-chopping interludes).

Eat a peach. Take in the view.

The skies have lowered as we climbed and suddenly we find ourselves in the clouds. It’s easy to see how smugglers used to frequent this route and brigands hid in the mist, waiting to rob travellers of their precious cargo.

There’s a volley of raindrops and we pedal faster, following the beautifully engineered track as it cuts across the ridge.

A precipitous drop is marked by carefully cut stones, and although the surface is rough there are points where the original cobbles survive – all the work of the army, again, to ensure it could supply the forts that lined the border ridge.

The border these days, however, is invisible, and we will cross it five times today without even noticing.

The summer storm continues to threaten, so we try to keep the speed up, but on this terrain a road rider used to spinning along easily at 30kmh will struggle to keep an average of half that. The landscape changes again, now all jagged limestone and green meadows, but with no cattle.

Despite it being July, the Via del Sale has only officially been open for two days after the winter snows. We swoop over a final lump, making our way towards a cluster of 4x4s parked by a building nestled in a valley.

It’s the refuge. We’ve only ridden 65km, but it has included some 2,600m of climbing, so we’re glad to lean our dusty bikes against an outbuilding and swap our cycling shoes for a pair of Crocs from the pile inside.

A quick cold shower later and we’re sitting outside, watching the sunset at 2,100m and debriefing over whisky sipped from a hip flask.

After a sumptuous three-course Italian meal and a shot or two of homemade herbal liqueur, we’re ready for bed. As we lie in the dormitory, silvery midsummer twilight filters through the window.

There’s no phone reception or Wi-Fi here, so we’re unaware that at this moment, thousands of miles away and thousands of metres below us, Eric Dier has just scored a penalty and put England into the World Cup quarter-finals.

The only way is down

The next morning we collect our sandwiches from the refuge and leave for a short uphill slog, but it’s rather breathless work when the climbing starts at 2,100m.

The reward is a long downhill on beautiful tracks through pine forests where we can shift into our biggest gears and power over the bumps like racers at Paris-Roubaix.

We consult the map quickly – we have the route in our bike computers, but it’s best to also carry paper maps – before one final gravel climb that takes us up the switchbacks to the Pas du Tanarel (France again).

The descent is the rockiest yet, and takes us through a scarily dark tunnel, until we hit a beautiful smooth road into Triora (Italy again). Down in the valleys the heat is suffocating, so we stop to cool off in a river before taking on our final col.

The 9km climb to the 1,130m Colle Langan averages 7% and feels easy now we’re on the road. It’s also shady, which is a relief in some ways even if it isn’t helping my bibshorts dry out.

These Ligurian Alps descend in immense green folds towards the sea, hiding beautiful perched villages. Like many roads in these forgotten corners of Italy, the surface is pretty bad, so I’m happy to be on a big-tyred bike.

On our way south to the sea, we briefly touch the start of the Alta Via MTB di Liguria, a new bike-friendly route along the crests of the hills, but that’s an adventure for another day.

The summer afternoon storms have descended again, and the peaks are shrouded in black cloud. Instead, we roll towards Ventimiglia, where we’re suddenly surrounded by immaculately dressed Italian roadies.

Dirty, smelly and dusty, we feel out of place. But it’s only a quick spin along the coast road back to Menton in France, where we finally unclip for good.

In two days we’ve covered everything from perfect tarmac to dirt, from fine gravel to gnarly (borrowing a word from our baggy-shorted cousins) drop-offs.

Are these bikes perfect for this terrain? In truth, for the really rocky bits the answer is no, and on long off-road descents you’d really prefer to have suspension.

But, looking at the ride as a whole, there’s nothing I would rather tackle an off-road riding adventure on than a gravel bike.

A trail of two countries

Follow Cyclist Off-Road’s two-day route

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/or1/france. You’ll need a good bike computer that can handle off-road trails, preferably backed up with a paper map (or, even better, hire a guide).

From Breil-sur-Roya follow the D6204 north for 17km to St-Dalmas-de-Tende. Turn left onto the D91, signposted for Castérino. Follow this road on deteriorating surfaces until it becomes a gravel trail.

Head northeast and along the Via del Sale, tracing the border between France and Italy, until you arrive at the Rifugio Don Barbera, which is home for the night. The route then heads south along the border on gravel paths before diving into Italy to rejoin paved roads at Triora.

From there it’s around 60km to Ventimiglia on the coast, and another 12km along the coast to Menton in France. 

The rider’s ride

Open UP, £2,230 frame and fork, veloatelier.co.uk

We hired an Open UP from Basecamp (base-camp.bike), which also offers the Open Upper and 3T Exploro gravel bikes for hire. What these bikes have in common is that they were all designed by Gerard Vroomen, the man who co-founded Cervélo in 1995.

Ross Muir of Basecamp says, ‘Vroomen once explained to me the difference between them. ‘The Open is an off-road bike that you can ride on the road and the Exploro is a road bike you can take off-road.’

That may make it sound like the Open UP is essentially a mountain bike with drop handlebars, but it’s an altogether more refined machine than that. At around 8kg it’s as light as many road bikes, and the geometry is more akin to a road bike than a pure off-roader.

To achieve that racy geometry Vroomen had to ensure that the chainstays remained reasonably short (420mm), which meant he had to design a special ‘dropped’ chainstay for the drive side to allow enough space between the chainring and the fat tyres.

The result is that the UP feels at home both grinding up gravel-strewn climbs and swooping down smooth tarmac descents. We rode it on 700c wheels with 40mm tyres, which suited the terrain and distance, but a swap to 650b wheels with even fatter tyres would turn this into a real off-road beast.

Short of the gnarliest mountain bike trails, there’s little the Open UP couldn’t handle.

How we did it

Travel and accommodation

Flights to Nice on the southern coast of France are available from all major UK airports. From Nice we took the train to Breil-sur-Roya (one hour), where we started the ride.

That evening, we stayed on the Via del Sale at the Rifugio Don Barbera (rifugiodonbarbera.eu), which has prices from €20 (£18) for just a bed, to €50 for half board plus a packed lunch for the following day. The next day we descended to Menton on the French coast before taking the train back to Nice (40 minutes).

Bike hire

Bikes came courtesy of Basecamp (base-camp.bike). Located in the Haute Savoie region of France, it rents out road and gravel bikes from around €80 (£70) a day, including Open’s UP and Upper bikes and the 3T Exploro.

The company also offers gravel-based guided tours in the Alps and other areas around Europe. One of its tours will take in many of the same roads as this Via del Sale ride, with overnight stays in mountain refuges.

Kit

As well as our usual cycling kit, lights and bike tools, some additional items we carried included: lightweight down jacket, T-shirt and casual shorts, spare socks, paper maps, USB power pack, toothbrush/toothpaste, lightweight towel, silk sleeping bag liner, pocket knife, lightweight shoes and, of course, a hip flask.