In life we do some mad things, spontaneous utter craziness. I have ridden and raced fast down hills and taken risks my whole life. Coming from a family of professional sports people and risk takers I guess this explained my often-mad outlook on life – When I was approached to join the Komoot Women's Torino-Nice Rally I immediately said "YES". That moment of enthusiastic madness morphed into fear, panic, and trepidation. The more I read online about the ride, the more I was filled with dread. Huge mileage, monster ascents and roughing it in the wild, whilst carrying house and kitchen sink on a bike!
I had never ridden this distance with this amount of climbing in such a short space of time. I have always been more about the speed going down than the struggle going up. Anyway, the short and long of it was me arriving in Torino with a boxed titanium gravel bike, next to no clothes, a tent I had no idea how to put up and a lot of fear. Training had certainly been hit and miss with a good dose of flu in the lead up to the event and I was not sure how my decrepit body would fair with seven nights sleeping on the ground.
Komoot and Torino-Nice
This amazing route was developed by James Olsen in 2015, designed to allow riders to pass over mountains using gravel roads and paths in lesser know areas of the Alps. The routes popularity to bikepackers inspired Lael Wilcox of Trans Am fame to approach Gaby Thompson from Komoot to offer the route in a rally format to women from around the world. In October 2021, 25 women rode the first women’s rally (opens in new tab) over eight days. After the initial success of this rally, in 2022 Komoot offered the rally to up to 55 women to take part.
Ups and downs of the rally
Beginning in Torino and finishing eight days later with a 4pm rendezvous at the Service Course in Nice, riders basically follow a set route, organizing themselves in any way they desire, from hefting tents and belongings over every Col to luxury hotels and accommodation. There are also paved escape routes off mountains for riders struggling with gravel descents and there are alternative routes to avoid steep climbs. Although flat sections of road or trail are extremely rare on this route.
The rally is not a race and all about meeting people, challenging yourself and sharing the adventure, whilst supporting fellow riders along the way. The bottom line is the route 650 KM with 17,000 meters of ascent. Taking in classic paved climbs, old gravel trade routes and tracks dating back centuries from the Western Italian Alps to the coast of Southern France.
With a mixture of ages, bikes and abilities from big hitter Olympians and World Champions to housewives, teachers, and students. The Komoot Rally is open to any women who wants to challenge themselves on a bike. A mountain bike or gravel/cx bike is suitable for the terrain and there was a mixture of 75 percent gravel to 25 percent unpaved on this trip.
What goes up slowly comes down fast – my lightweight Ti Gravel bike weighed in fully laden at an eye watering 25kgs, despite the heft, the bike was easy to pedal and a delight to ride on and off-road. I carried 1.5 liters of water and enough food and snacks to last me a couple of days. The 2.1 Terravail Rutlands tires' larger volume certainly helped on the rough gravel descents and also gave me tremendous grip on steep gravel climbs. The durable compound also provided a level of security as I preferred the additional weight over fixing flats in the middle of nowhere. Despite being a little slower on the Tarmac I think the trade off was worth it for comfort, reliability and grip.
Our start point for this epic adventure was the square in Torino. Once press photos were taken, and last-minute toilet stops made, 55 women rolled out of Torino. Snaking their way through shoppers, Lamborghinis, and general early morning hubbub through the suburbs. The mountains ominously beckoned, and it was not long before we found countryside and hit the first gravel.
Colombardo and Finestra had been billed as tough – and tough they were! Colombardo, our first taste of Italian mountains was a monster climb. Rubble pitches often more than 18 percent topping out at 2,000 meters. Combined with the roasting mid-day heat, this climb tested and even broke some riders. Many taking their bikes for walks or even camping on the first climb that night. Fueled by Haribo and gallons of water, I managed to survive the climb, occasional pauses to stretch and snap the views helped. The first big descent of the trip induced mile wide smiles, snaking my way down glorious hair pin bends the pain of the climb was forgotten. As the light faded, I rode up the valley floor to the small Tarmac road onto Colle Della Finestra. I cursed myself letting it get so late and having to erect my tent in the dark. Sadly, this continued to be the common theme for the week, my tent often collapsing on me during the night. The climb was a densely forested tarmac road before it changed to the most stunning gravel track which zig-zagged endlessly upwards, with no less than 54 switchbacks. Eagles soared, cow bells chimed, and I found the best panacotta I had ever eaten in a tiny farm on the mountainside. Breakfast of champions!
The first few days looking back melted into a blur of amazing views in every direction, restful valleys, distant peaks, mountain streams and the endless chatter of Marmottes. The Strada dell’Assietta was one of the most amazing gravel roads I have ever ridden. A 18th century military road cut into the side of the mountain, meandering off into the distance as we rode towards France for the first time. Ranking equally high in favorite days was the Gardetta Pass into Little Peru, a high-altitude gravel road linking military forts and deserted villages.
The days went incredibly quickly, with a rhythm of eat, ride, eat, sleep, repeat and nowhere to be and no discernible deadlines to meet. Daily monster ascents followed by kamikaze descents. My legs amazingly improved as the week progressed and my fears of sore nether regions never materialized. One day we raced a storm on our descent, we did not manage to beat it and got thoroughly drenched riding the most technical track of the whole trip. The only positive was I used the wet weather gear I had packed. We hastily decided against another night under saggy canvas and booked a hotel. I have never ever been so happy to finally have a shower and bed!
So many cols climbed, and everyone was simply mind blowing, many of these roads and paths were cut into the mountain hundreds of years ago. I spent many hours wondering how men and women could have survived up high and built these roads without machinery or technology. In the blink of an eye, we had made it to our final camping spot, nestled in a clearing surrounded by olive trees high above the Mediterranean coast. Our names had been chalked onto the final road climb and it had brought more than a few tears to many riders as the realization dawned that all 55 riders from 20 different countries had almost made it. Each battling very often personal battles and achieving different goals through the week. For some it was to ride it fast and for others just to have fun, survive and make it to Nice.
As I crested the famous Col de Madone and rolled down into a busy Nice, I felt I wanted to carry on riding – To pedal into the mad rush of a large town was like a weight had been added to my panniers. The lack of every day ‘life’ stresses on the trip had been delightful, I had made a conscious effort to turn off my phone when we began and had rarely bothered to turn it on. Like many on the trip, I realized my outlook on life and riding had shifted. I will always love the challenge of racing, but now I want to test myself in different ways whilst exploring new places. Rather than looking at Strava QoMs and analyzing FTPs, a loaded bike has opened a whole new strand to my cycling life. Where once I was looking for every gain to go faster, I am now looking to save grams on sleeping mats and investing in a tent I can manage to erect in the dark. It has inspired me to ride further and even enter some ultra-distance gravel events. It looks like my winter could be busy planning and getting fit.
The whole rally and organisation were faultless and I cannot thank Lael Wilcox, Gaby Thompson, Rue Kaladyte for their vision, and the Komoot team who have created a wonderful recipe for these amazing events. Chapeau to James Olsen for establishing one of the best Bike Packing routes in the world. The ladies who took part traveled from every corner of the world and it was wonderful to be able to share this adventure with everyone of you.
Next year there are Komoot Women’s Rally’s proposed in Arizona, Tenerife, and Slovenia. There will also be another edition of the Komoot Torino-Nice Rally for both sexes in September 2024. Simply follow Lael Wilcox (opens in new tab) on Instagram for any announcements and/or #Komootwtnr #torinonicerally.