This is the report of the mountain bike rides (and some hikes) Rudi and I are taking in France and Italy in the summer of 2022. Partly we do so on old military roads, high in the mountains. In seven cycling days we ride some 420 kilometers and ascend 12,300 meters.
The plan was to ride on our mountain bikes in the Maritime Alps for two to three weeks, staying overnight in hotels and mountain huts. But I’ve been recovering from a nasty hip and back injury for over a year now, have occasional wrist problems, and recently a painful bursitis in my elbow. In short, a challenging cycling vacation is unfortunately not feasible. Our plan now is to make day trips from some fixed locations. After a long drive, during which we even reach the Mediterranean coast, we arrive at the municipal campground in Tende.
Day 1: Hike Tende
On this first day we will go for a hike. Through the narrow streets, alleys and tunnels of Tende (815 m) we walk to the cemetery. After this, we will climb further on a steep path to the cliff west of the town. On top is the small Chapelle Saint-Sauveur. From here we have a nice view. We continue uphill until we reach the highest point at about 1,500 meters. This is followed by a rather boring descent through the forest.
Day 2: Tende > Col de Tende > Vallon de Casterino > Tende (61 km)
Today we cycle up the Col de Tende. We fill our backpacks with fresh bread from Boulangerie des Merveilles and set off. We saw it the day before yesterday in the car, and now again: everywhere in the Vallée de la Roya people are doing road construction work. The floods in October 2020 caused a lot of damage to the road infrastructure between Breil-sur-Roya and the Tunnel de Tende. The repair work is expected to take years.
The partly unpaved pass road is easy and, thanks to the many hairpin turns, quite varied. At the top of the Col de Tende (1,871 m) it is crowded with day tourists who have come up by car from the Italian side. We drive around the impressive fortifications. From the pass height, military roads continue east and west into the mountains. We save the eastern one, the Via del Sala, for later this week.
We cycle to the west on the Italian side to the Fort de Giaure: a nice climb with a great view of the Rocca dell’Abisso. We get stranded a few hundred vertical meters below the summit on a steep footpath with loose boulders. We turn around, descend again to the pass height and take a jeep track on the French side toward the Ancienne caserne de Peïrefique. The view of the many hairpin turns of the Col de Tende reminds me of the Portachuelo de Llanganuco in Peru (see report Peru 2017, day 8).
We continue to climb further to the Baisse de Peyrefique (2,040 m) and then descend on a scenic road to the rugged Vallon de Casterino. Meanwhile, we ride through an old tunnel and pass a bridge over a waterfall. Also in this beautiful tributary valley of the Roya, road repairs are underway in several locations. From Saint-Dalmas-de-Tende it is still a few kilometers false flat to Tende, after which we reach the campground.
Day 3: Hike Tende
The weather forecast is not looking good. Therefore, today we will go hiking. We do so from the campground. We first walk a few kilometers on a paved road along the mountain stream Réfréi to an old quarry, and then continue on a jeep track to the hamlet of Granges de la Pia (900 m). Traces of the landslides are still visible in this valley as well.
We climb to a strategically located, old bunker complex located at about 1,350 m in a distinctive mountain. It is accessible through two entrances and it is pitch black. After a short descent, we climb back up on the other side of the stream to a mountainside from where we have a beautiful view of the valley. It starts raining quite hard so we descend as quickly as possible to the campsite.
Day 4: Hike Tende
Due to my physical discomforts, I prefer a hiking day between biking days. Hopefully this will help with my recovery. I stroll a bit down the main valley and through the many alleys and stairways of Tende. Rudi cycles up and down to the Col de Tende.
Day 5: Tende > La Brigue > Via del Sale > Tende (88 km)
Today we are finally going to do what we rode all the way to the south of France for: the Via del Sale. The name refers to one of the salt routes along which, during the 14th and 15th centuries, salt was transported from Nice by mule over the mountain ridges to Turin. Later, military fortifications were built in some places, especially at the Col de Tende.
There are several ways to get to this ridge. We do so from the charming town of La Brigue (750 m), located a few kilometers southeast of Tende. At the Chapelle Notre-Dame-des-Fontaines, we leave the paved road and continue on a jeep track. This approach is quite steep only between 1,300 and 1,500 m altitude, and otherwise perfectly doable. Also, the road is virtually traffic-free; only the occasional jeep or motorcyclist passes by.
After covering an elevation difference of almost a kilometer, we reach the ridge at the Baisse de Sanson (1,700 m). From here on, the road surface suddenly gets a lot worse: we bump over boulders and more boulders for kilometers. This is not funny. At first we cycle mostly on the French side of the ridge, and then whole stretches on the Italian side. After the toll station (Stazione Ingresso Via Del Sale), where motorists have to pay 20 euros and motorcyclists 15 euros, the road surface improves.
Turning around a ridge at the Passo di Framargal (2,200 m), we suddenly arrive in the beautiful Valle dei Maes. All the way to the Col de Tende, the stony landscape has wonderful shapes. Just before the Rifugio Don Barbera (2,070 m) we encounter a flock of sheep, and later we pause when a herd of cows blocks the road. From the famous Tornante della Boaria (2,100 m) we look far into Italy, and see Monviso (3,841 m) in the distance. After a well-deserved descent, we get pizza.
Day 6: Travel day
Since the Tunnel de Tende has been closed for several years, we travel by car on the narrow and partly unpaved pass road to Italy. Each driving direction has 15 minutes every two hours to begin the trip. So you drive up in a caravan. The turns are often steep, and twice I have to take an extra turn to avoid driving into the gutter or abyss. At the top of the Col de Tende, we descend on a narrow, paved road on which many cars with day tourists drive up.
Mid-afternoon we arrive at the Valle Maira campground. This campground is not too large, with flat, unnumbered spots and good grass, spots between trees or in the sun, situated by a mountain stream (nice to sleep by), and with relatively many people with a tent. They bake delicious fresh bread themselves. The toilet, shower and dishwashing facilities are neat. There is a climbing park and large lawn where you can play soccer and frisbee. A top campsite!
Day 7: Camping > San Damiano > Colle Sampeyre > Camping (64 km)
From the campground we first descend quite a while through the Valle Maira to the town of San Damiano. There we turn left into the side valley. After one kilometer there is a junction: on the right is the main road and on the left a narrow road. We go for the narrow road, which goes through the forest and along a stream, and at one point becomes quite steep: 15 to 20%. Fortunately, we cycle in the shade.
After a sharp right turn, the road becomes unpaved. A few kilometers later we reach the hamlet of Fracchie, and continue through a forest on a very bad dirt trail full of boulders. After a few kilometers, the jeep track turns into a trail that is surprisingly good to cycle on. In the village of Serre are houses with slate roofs and a little church. Here we have a nice view through the entire side valley. Because of the bad road surface, we are already quite tired, even though we still have a thousand meters of climbing ahead of us today.
After another two hundred meters of ascent, we finally reach the old military road that runs from the Po Valley all the way past Colle Sampeyre. On the map this track looks easy, but the many boulders make it tough to cycle. Occasionally people on mountain bikes, motorcycles or toy cars pass by. Once we are above the tree line on the ridge, we are rewarded with beautiful views to the south and southeast. Further on, we see beautiful rock formations to the southwest and threatening clouds over the mountains to the west.
On top of the Col de Sampeyre (2,274 m) Rudi takes a picture of a work of art made of steel. Then we descend. It is a narrow, winding road from which we descend a lot faster than the day tourists in their cars. Occasionally there is a very nice view of high, steep cliffs. After a nice descent, we chill out at the campsite.
Day 8: Hike Monte Bert
Today we will go hiking. We drive up towards Marmora and park the car a few kilometers after the village of Preit. We ascend six hundred meters and arrive just before Lago Nero on a kind of plateau. From there we climb another hundred meters to Monte Bert (2,394 m). From the summit we have a beautiful 360-degree view. We descend and reach the car after only eleven kilometers of walking.
Day 9: Villar > Colle di Bellino > Villar (33 km)
First we drive westward by car to Vilar (1,380 m), the first village after Acceglio. From the parking lot we cycle on asphalt for several kilometers steeply up (15%) to the north. At about 1,600 meters altitude the road surface deteriorates. After five kilometers we definitely continue on the unpaved, old military road, which by the way is nowhere steep or difficult until the summit.
From the col, called La Colletta (2,850 m), we cycle a little further to an old military barrack. This used to be a base of operations for the soldiers manning the bunkers in the area. You can walk inside the building, but there is nothing interesting to see. In the background, clouds rise on one side against the mountain ridge; a beautiful sight.
We move on again. The mountain bike trail actually leads from La Colletta to the top of Monte Bellino (2,937 m). However, that trail doesn’t look so rideable. Also, I don’t want to put unnecessary strain on my aching elbow. So we traverse a narrow path to the Colle di Bellino with the bikes on our arms. In the middle of a stony slope, we pass an old bunker whose four walls have fallen outward.
After a short climb, we reach the pass height (2,795 m). The view of the rugged mountains is phenomenal.
The technical descent that follows is doable for experienced mountain bikers, but quite challenging for us. We regularly walk with the bike in hand. It’s not until we reach the cattle gathering site at Grangia Nicolina that we rejoin a jeep track. The Rocca Croce Provenzale (2,402 m) literally and figuratively towers above the mountain pasture here. The descent to the starting point is easy from this point on.
Day 10: Day of rest
The weather is beautiful today, but I nevertheless take a rest day. Yesterday from carrying the bike I got a sore tendon near the right knee and also my right elbow continues to irritate. In that case a day of doing nothing is probably best. Rudi cycles up the Colle Sampeyre again to get some exercise.
Day 11: Camping > Rifugio Gardetta > Colle Valcavera > Camping (55 km)
From the campground we cycle a short distance to Ponte Marmora, and turn left to the south. With gradients of up to 15% it is quite challenging. A tendon in my right knee hurts me and I take it easy. At Marmora we turn right to the Colle del Preit. Now and then we have to push hard. Fortunately, the pain slowly subsides. The narrow road up to the col is open to cars, but it is not busy.
On top of the Colle del Preit (2,080 m) we reach a wide plateau where several jeep tracks run across. We cycle further west on a reasonably good road, on which front-wheel-driven cars sometimes plow. We order Apfelstrudel and coffee at Rifugio Gardetta (2,335 m). No motorized traffic is allowed here. Without the irritating roar of motorcycles, it is pleasant here in the sunshine.
From the rifugio we climb eastward again. We have continuous views of the imposing peak Rocca la Meja (2,832 m). It is very varied cycling here. We see an Italian father on a gravel bike pulling his son on a mountain bike on a steeper section with a rope. This is much cooler than the many cyclists on e-mtb’s being “pushed” uphill.
At one point we arrive at some old military buildings: the Caserma Della Bandia (2,405 m). At the Colle Valcavera (2,416 m) we reach the asphalt and enter yet another valley with patches of clouds. From here a road goes down to Demonte. We turn left to the Colle Fauniera (2,481 m), where a memorial to “pirate” Marco Pantani is located, and then the Colle d’Esischie (2,368 m). After this we descend on an irregular road to the campsite.
Day 12: Hike Celle Macra
Because of the expected bad weather, today we take a short hike in a side valley about a 20-minute drive from the campground. We walk among the tiny villages on the eastern slope of the valley, each with old houses, a church, a water tap and a bulletin board. Meanwhile, we watch a tiny cloud grow into a huge thundercloud. When we return to the campsite at 2 p.m. it begins to rain. We pass the day until we can get pizza at 7 p.m., enjoy the beautiful evening sky for a while and go to bed early.
Day 13-16: Vosges region
The next day we drive to the Vosges region. From the large Camping du Schlossberg (500 m) near Kruth, we will make several bike tours in the immediate area: one to the west (56 km) and one to the east (65 km). After the beautiful Maritime Alps, the Vosges region is quite boring. The highlights are cycling in thunderstorms, having lunch at Les Délices de Cornimont bakery and eating steamy pizza in the car.
– Day 2: Tende > Col de Tende > … > Tende (61 km; 1.700 meters elevation gain)
– Day 5: Tende > La Brigue > Via del Sale > Tende (88 km; 2.300 m)
– Day 7: Camping > San Damiano > … > Camping (64 km; 2.200 m)
– Day 9: Villar > Colle di Bellino > Villar (33 km; 1.460 m)
– Day 11: Camping > Rifugio Gardetta > … > Camping (55 km; 1.700 m)
– Day 14: Vosges trip to the west (56 km; 1.500 m)
– Day 16: Vosges trip to the east (65 km; 1.640 m)