Touratech Crew Stories: Western Alps
Even though some popular routes may no longer be used - Piedmont remains a dream destination for adventure bikers. This became abundantly clear to a Touratech team who rode their wheels over some of the most beautiful gravel classics.
We let the Adventure Bikes roll quietly through the narrow streets of the old town of Oulx. Not only does the place look sleepy at this early hour but thick banks of fog still hang languidly over the valley.
Before we reach the village of Fenils, however, the deep blue of the late summer sky gains the upper hand. We quickly wind our way up a few asphalt serpentines and, after a few kilometres, find ourselves gliding over gravel through sparse mountain woodland. Our destination is the fortress on the top of Mont Jafferau. For years, it hasn‘t been possible to reach it via the classic route, but now at last the legendary curved tunnel is open again. In the pitch darkness of this tunnel, you still have to keep your eyes peeled for deep holes filled with water, in spite of the extensive renovations.
As we leave the cold and humid darkness after a few hundred metres, the fog has finally disappeared. After a winding ascent, we reach the plateau below the summit and are overwhelmed by the view of the surrounding mountains. At the summit fortress, of all places, a technical defect holds us up for several hours, so that we only reach the second destination of the day, the Strada dell‘Assietta, in the early evening. While the fog has already recaptured the valleys at this time of day, we have a fantastic view from Colle delle Finestre, high above the sea of clouds.
The next morning, we tackle the Strada dei Cannoni. We start off very gently in the hills at the edge of the Po plain and climb higher and higher up the mountain range between the valleys of the Varaita and Maira rivers.
The well-maintained gravel road quickly turns into a high mountain track, which is rough and stony. Almost imperceptibly, clouds gather as we ride, and finally a fine drizzle sets in. As soon as we‘ve passed the Colle di Sampeyre, which crosses the ridge road almost at right angles, the drizzle turns into heavy rain. When thunder starts to roll, it‘s clear that the picnic at Colle della Bicocca, at the end of the route, is not going to happen. We turn around and try to get down the asphalted Colle di Sampeyre and into the Maira valley as quickly as possible.
In the Maira valley we find refuge in a bar and fortify ourselves with a mountain Focaccia. Finally, much to our surprise, the rain stops and the sky clears. Let‘s go!
After only a short stretch on a road wet with rain, we reach the village of Preit. We wind up the Colle of the same name and leave the asphalt behind us. In front of us lies one of the most scenic gravel tracks in Piedmont, the Maira-Stura road. Low clouds, however, raise doubts about the view to be had along the track, which ascends to well over 2500 metres. At least it doesn‘t seem to have rained here - the gravel is dry, so we can let our Adventure Bikes rip.
With a balanced gradient, the track winds its way along the flanks of the mountains. Earthy, gravelled or rocky: the ground offers our tyres a varied programme. Unfortunately, the clouds are building up now; we find ourselves surrounded by thick fog more and more often; and dense drizzle sets in. Shortly after we pass a dilapidated military complex, the Caserme della Bandia, we‘re met with thickly swirling sleet The last hope of seeing the mighty Rocca la Meja through a hole in the clouds is wiped out. There‘s really no point in staying up here any longer - especially since, within a quarter of an hour, what was only barely audible rumbling to begin with develops into a fully-fledged thunderstorm with pouring rain. Fortunately, we soon reach an asphalted, serpentine road that leads us downhill.
It’s only after an adventure like this that the luxury of a shower, pizza and beer is truly
appreciated by modern, civilised man. We certainly don‘t want to swap the cosy guest room in our Stura Valley accommodation with any other place in the world this evening.
The next morning, the sky looks as if it‘s been brightly polished. The airstream over our wet enduro gloves dries them quickly. Wide, meandering serpentines lead us up the Col de Larche.
Just below the pass, we leave the main route and, via the village of Saint-Ours, reach the start of the track to the Col de Mallemort.
Above the village, this route leads uphill over alpine meadows and winds through sparse larch woods. It would be easy to miss the turn-off to the Col - it just looks like any other forest path.
Just wide enough for a narrow two-track vehicle, the trail runs along a stream and crosses it via a ford - to then quickly ramp up its level of difficulty. From now on, this track features stones and rocks, sometimes spread over tens of metres; narrow serpentines, deeply eroded; and deep layers of gravel. Finally, we reach a flat cirque floor, from which the rough gravel trail continues
upwards in narrow serpentines. With our fully loaded Adventure Bikes, tackling this pass is already turning into hard work. But that‘s only the beginning. Just behind a dilapidated fortress, the two-track path is reduced to a single track.
With enough momentum and full throttle, the first serpentines can still be mastered in one go - the further up we get, the steeper the terrain and the tighter the radii. From here on, we have to set back half way round the hairpin bends to get through – this requires good nerves in view of the sometimes-vertical rock faces below the track.
Nevertheless, we soon reach a saddle that allows a good overview of the terrain. From here to the summit fortress on the Tête de Viraysse, it looks like there are going to be about thirty or more of these sharp hairpin bends - with increasing gradient. In the face of threatening thunderclouds, we decide with heavy hearts to scrub the final push for the summit.
After a descent that is as exhausting as it is adrenaline-fuelled, we reach the fortress again - just in time to scuttle into the last building with an intact roof. When, after a good twenty minutes, the hailstorm turns to rain, we leave our shelter and carefully begin the descent over slippery rocks and treacherous scree.
Down in the valley, our colleagues from the street bike faction have been enjoying their pleasure trips in calm autumn weather. But that‘s no reason to get cross. Sudden weather changes are just as much a part of an Enduro trip as grandiose views - when you‘re aiming for the top.