Hardcore roadies—that’s what best describes Dan and I. When it comes to cycling, we are all about tarmac. We could eat switchbacks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and still want more for dessert. Once we had this crazy idea of going on a mountain bike trip together. Seven days on the best trails of Switzerland, from Graubünden to Wallis. What could go wrong? Well…Dan smashed his face and broke some ribs. I walked…a lot. Up and down. We are definitely tarmac people. Or rather, we were….
In 2015, I took part in the Transcontinental Race, an unsupported race from Geraardsbergen (Belgium) to Istanbul (Turkey). There was no set route. There were no stages. Only four checkpoints in France, Italy, Croatia and Montenegro. In between, the 180 participants were free to choose when to stop and which roads to ride.
This was a true adventure race which included the Strada dell’Assietta, a mandatory gravel section of 30 km in Piemonte (Italy) that connects Sestrières and the Colle delle Finestre, made famous by the Giro d’Italia.
It was one of the highest and lowest points of my race. Highest, because I was blown away by the savage beauty of this stretch of road between 2,000m and 2,500m. Lowest, because riding it on a road bike was like bringing a knife to a gunfight. I suffered multiple pinch flats on its rough gravel and had to walk the last five kilometers to save my last intact tube.
Although I was racing and desperate to make it off the mountain before dark, I could not help but stop and take in the views. I was mesmerized. I promised myself that I would go back to the Strada dell’Assietta to share its incredible beauty, but only with the right bike. Which seemed to be a gravel bike, the new sensation on the market.
The opportunity came this summer to test Scott Addict Gravel bikes, and it was not difficult to convince Dan and Jacqui to join me for an adventure in Piemonte. Jacqui is strong on the road (you’ll find her in the top 20 of the mighty Passo Giau segment on Strava), but her heart belongs to the trails of British Columbia in Canada where she comes from. Two roadies and a mountain biker: we were the perfect team to push gravel bikes to their limits.
We would finally ride the Strada dell’Assietta as it should be ridden. But as I was planning our trip, I discovered a tight network of unpaved roads in the area thanks to the excellent blog site Cycling Challenge created by passionate Alpine cycling explorer Will. The conclusion was obvious: we would not spend one, but two days riding gravel bikes in the wilderness.
We set off to Piemonte with a car full of bikes on a hot summer afternoon and arrived at the Rifugio delle Rane on the eastern end of the Strada dell’Assietta just in time for dinner in the purest Italian style: antipasto, primo piatto, secondo piatto, dolce. Buona notte!
The next morning, we left early to ride the first part of the Strada dell’Assietta, which winds up to Alpe Assietta. There’s something magical about riding alone in the mountains as the sun rises, and this section proved the perfect terrain for our gravel bikes: lighter and faster than mountain bikes but much more comfortable than road bikes with their 35mm tires. The trip could not have started better.
After a short flat section, we left the Strada dell’Assietta at Col Blegier to ride down to Salbertrand through the Parco Naturale Gran Bosco. After a first rough section, we were looking forward to the lower part, which Will had described as « smooth as Wimbledon ». Well, maybe it was when he rode it up, and on a mountain bike. It was anything but for us. 1,500m of down on a rough 4×4 trail with 40+ switchbacks were a hard test for the bikes, and our bodies. Everything held up…just. This is how mountain biking must have felt in the 80’s before the advent of suspension.
It was very hot in the Susa valley and we enjoyed a much needed bowl of pasta in Exilles before the final part of our ride. What comes down, must go up: we had to climb the Colle delle Finestre (2,176m) to get back to the Rifugio. With 19km at an average of 9% and countless switchbacks, it is a bucket list climb – one of the toughest in the Alps which appeared in the 2005, 2011, and 2015 Giro d’Italia. It is also another great testing ground for gravel bikes as the top eight kilometers are unpaved.
We saw barely anyone on this 1,700m ascent. Although we were tired, the bikes felt great on tarmac and on dirt. This is maybe the most surprising fact about gravel bikes: they are not slow on a road. The wide tires and low air pressure make for a super comfortable ride without compromising speed. This seems counter intuitive but is now backed by research and pro riders are using 28mm tires more and more – not just on the Flemish cobbles.
Dan and I bonked on the same curve just below the summit and we were happy to reach the Rifugio at Pian dell’Alpe after a big day: 74km including 40km of gravel, 2,440m of climbing, and over one hundred switchbacks.
The plan for the second day was to explore the Strada Militare Colle Finestre – Gran Serin. An abandoned military road closed to traffic, this 15km section goes above the Strada dell’Assietta and reaches 2,800m straight out from the Rifugio delle Rane at 1,900m. It was steep right from the start… and stayed steep. Again, we found the limits of our bikes, and went slightly beyond. We had to walk a short section, and we struggled to stay upright more than once. But we loved the huge views and the remoteness of the Strada Militare, definitely the highlight of our trip.
After a break at the Forte Gran Serin, a fortification built at the end of the 19th century, we made our way down to the Colle dell’Assietta where I suffered the only flat of the whole trip. The view on the ridge leading to Sestrières was a nice distraction for Jacqui and Dan as I was fixing it.
Polenta and sausage: this was our lunch at Rifugio Assietta, before riding the final section of the Strada over a succession of small passes: Colle Lauson (2,490m), Colle Blegier (2,381 m), Colle Costa Piana (2,313 m), Colle Bourget (2,299 m) and Colle Basset (2,424 m). 20km of pure gravel bliss to Sestrières, a comically ugly ski resort built in the 1930s by the powerful Agnelli family, owner of Fiat. From there, we were back on tarmac to ride down the Chisone Valley and back up to the Rifugio delle Rane via the southern side of the Colle delle Finestre. 65km for day two, 40km on gravel and 1,950m of climbing; we earned our big Italian dinner. One more night on the Assietta and we were back to civilisation the next morning, rich from a new, big adventure in the Piemonte mountains.
So…are gravel bikes a temporary hype or a long lasting innovation? I’m not an industry expert, but as an end user with a road cycling background, I can clearly see the benefit of this type of bike.
Of course, it is possible to ride a road bike on dirt. I’ve done it many times, not just during the Transcontinental Race. But the wide tires and low pressure add comfort. Where I am bouncing on a road bike, I can ride comfortably on a gravel bike. The wide knobby tires also give more traction when the trail gets steep or rough (or both). And the disc brakes are a must when going down.
Also, with traffic increasing everywhere on paved roads, road cyclists are looking for new quiet territories. “In recent years (…) I noticed more and more drivers staring at phones, had a few close calls, then I got hit by a car myself. Nothing serious, but enough to make me paranoid” wrote Dan when we came back from Italy. Gravel roads are a safe and fun alternative.
Finally, as we found out, gravel bikes perform remarkably well on paved roads. They are comfortable and fast.
If I had to own only one bike, it would be a gravel bike.
By Alain Rumpf (aka A Swiss With A Pulse)
Born in Switzerland, Alain has been riding his bike in the Alps since he was 12. In a previous life, he raced at an elite level and worked 20 years for the UCI, the world’s cycling governing body.
In 2014 he decided to leave the corporate world to become a professional bike bum. An ambitious career change that sees him work as a guide, photographer, writer and consultant for Switzerland Tourism, Alpes Vaudoises, Scott, Apidura, Strava, CyclingTips, Vélo Magazine, Grand Tours Project, Chasing Cancellara and more.In 2019, he will lead ALPSinsight’s new road and gravel biking spin off.
With his wife Lillie and their son Ben, Alain lives in Gryon, in the French speaking part of the Swiss Alps.