Buckle up, turn the radio on and join us on our first trip to the Alpes Maritimes on the Border Crest Road, a high alpine 4×4 track build by Mussolini and his foes.
Always farther, ever more exotic: Even with the bike it attracts many more and more fancy destinations. But the great adventures often lie where they are no longer suspected: almost directly in front of the door.
Never was traveling as easy as today, even with the bike. It is no wonder that many of us are drawn into exotic plains. Are there still hidden trails in our overburdened mountains at all? Exciting roads and passes for a modern adventure on our doorstep? Or is this all just a matter of perspective? Maybe we are just too driven to choose ever more extreme destinations to show the world what a daring adventurer is within us.
Too often I catch myself as I plan the next trip far away from Europe and then realize that I have not seen averything in the Alps, let alone traveled. After my VW bus was finished after years of restoration, it was time to change that. A few years ago, I had been to Piedmont several times to bike at the Alpi Bike Resort around Sauze d’Oulx and Bardonecchia. Again and again I came across fully equipped Adventure-Mobile and off-road motorcycles. They usually disappeared quickly on the rough and steep gravel roads in the mountains. I learned that in Piemont there are some of the most beautiful off-road routes in the Alps that attract many 4×4 enthusiasts from all over the world. Properly planned you could go from here to Liguria all the way down the sea.
Turn the music on, cruise control set to 100, the journey in the old bus goes beautifully decelerated through Switzerland over Lugano and Milan past Turin to the mountains to follow exactly the tiremarks I’ve seen years ago…
Its September as we enter the higher ski and bike areas of Piemonte in the autumn, we find empty streets and extinct villages. The summer season is over and everyone is waiting for the snow. In Susa, we leave the asphalt and snake up through dark fog to the Colle delle Finestre. Shortly before we reach the highest point, we break through the clouds and see for the first time the massive mountain peaks in the moonlight before we finally allow the van and ourselves the deserved night rest.
The next morning: minuscels and frozen water holes around us. As we slowly gain strength, I discover the first trails. The high alpine gravel road is the starting point for a long route along the Italian and French border, which was built during the war for the military. Everywhere there are ruins of old bases. Today the area around Sauze d’Oulx is a mountain bike paradise with numerous trails. Not infrequently, however, I catch myself as I leave the bike on the vans rack, to get instead stoked with the Syncro bus on all the offroad options. After all, there are not a lot of real off-road routes in Europe, which can be used so freely. The van bursts through coarsest gravel and deepest mud all day long…
Briancon, on the French side, goes up to the Col d’Izoard and Casse Deserte, the high desert landscape. The Pass is a classic among road cyclists. No other than Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet are immortalized up there with memorial stones. Via Arvieux and Col de Furfande, the breathtaking road winds its way to Vars, a vast bike area with over 100 kilometers of singletrails. In 2001 there was also a Downhill World Cup in Vars. In the following years the municipality invested a lot of money for the expansion of the bike park and the numerous crosscountry trails in the area. But we are not searching bike park tracks. We are looking for still undiscovered trails, which may not be marked on any map as bike routes. The deeper we dive into the mountains and get lost in on the smallest gravel roads we could fing, the more we find what we are looking for. A huge playground is at my feet. The Alps still offer real treasures of flowing trails that no one knows. However, I also find some really technical and steep singletracks that would have been impossible to ride a few years ago with the then-trail bikes. But with today’s lightweight trail- almost small downhill-bikes they are no problem at all.
The next day we spontaneously accompanied a group of 20 German VW Bus fans on one of the most spectacular roads of the Alps in the Vallee de l’Ubaye, which winds through a deep canyon and numerous tunnels in the red rock. As we airrived at the bus camo, all the Vans were lined up and we had great chats with like minded roadtripers.
Total Vanagon craze, hardly ever you get to see so many T’s in one place, what a pleasure to hear all those stories about the troubles and good times other people have with their vans.
From the red we go over to Black Rock, a few miles further into Guillaumes. The place is known for the Enduro races that take place every year. Unbelievable trails, clever and streamlined in the natural terrain of the black slopes. With ease, we drive directly into the area through the steep and challenging 4×4 tracks and set up our camp there. It’s very cool to get out out of your sleeping bag the next morning and find yourself already standing directly next to the finest bike trails. Van-Life at it’s finest – well, only until the rear differential lock gave up in the tricky terrain. Quicker then expected I found myself under the car trying to get it fixed while at the same time it started pouring rain. Completelly coverd in dirt I managed to get the van back on the road.
We escape the rain as fast as possible and travel spontaneously to Digne-Les-Bains, the big-mountain-location, also called „Black Sands“. The riding zone was not easy to find. We were a bit lost as the disaster finally happens: on a single-lane road, the car suddenly slips sideways into a deep ditch and we got stuck on my underbody protection. I thought the car would roll over and that would have been it… What to do? Either get help and let us be towed by a tractor to the street or try it with full throttle and make it in the other direction onto the meadow. But I only have one diff-lock available now since the other one broke before. I close my eyes briefly, hope for the best and then give in the oblique full throttle. According to Sebastian, I have been driving at least ten meters on two wheels as the Van somehow made it without a scratch out of the ditch into the safe field.
With a lot of adrenaline in the blood it goes on and finally we find Black Sands. In the distance I see other campers at the riding location. It is my ION team colleague Nick Pescetto, who can not believe that we meet here by chance. He’s here for a few days before his departure to the Rampage and gets himself here in similar terrain as in Utah. We spend two days together with the Local Heroes on the. Blown away by the potential of this place. So many lines, so many epic ridges to ride and jumps to hit. This alone was already a real riding highlight of the entire trip. Legendary is a fat step-up kicker, the Freeride legend Wade Simmnons jumped in New World Disorder many years ago mas he missed the landing remained hanging in the branches. Even today, the jump is still massive but the local kids are backflipping it.
I would have preferred to stay in the Black Sands for two weeks, but the bad weather keeps moving forward and we have to go on our last leg to the mountains before the snow catches us: the famous Ligurian border crest road!
At Limone we reach the northern entrance on the eighth day of our Roadtrip. A few similarly equipped syncros meet us with wide, and satisfied laughter. The 63-kilometer-long, former military road was mainly used during the time of the two world wars between 1880 and 1940 along the Italian-French border. The large Forte Centrale military fort built at the Tenda Pass in 1880 is reached in just a few minutes. We continue in the ghostly mist to the famous Col de la Boaria and its breathtakingly narrow bends. In the masonry of the street there are still gentrification stations from the war period. It is a bit scary just to imagine must have happened here. A whole mountain, which suddenly begins to shoot from hundreds of holes, is altogether scary.
To my disappointment, I have to realize, however, that the gravel road was freshly laid out a few years ago. Most of it can be done with a normal SUV today. But after many kilometers and a few hours on the Ligurian crest road I find a promising branch, which according to my map looks a bit more demanding. In the dark, however, it is also time to find a good place to stay. The gravel road is very narrow – only as wide as the van itself – and very steep on ever more loose rolling rocks. Turning impossible. In walking speed and with a faint feeling in the belly we move carefully down the mountain. In addition, the constant rattling of my knocked-out joint on the steering wheel … What if I suddenly hold a loose steering wheel in my hand!? Again and again I stop, creep under the car and make sure that nothing can really break or tear. After a few grueling hours, we finally find the perfect night camp at midnight, under a bright, bright, full blood moon. We set up a fire and open a good bottle of wine while we review the impressions of the day.
The next morning we set out to find that we were only a few hundred meters away from the end of the Ligurian border road. From the deserted mountain roads down to the sea, the journey takes us back to civilization. I am glad to have asphalt again under the wheels, to put the last kilometers back to the Ligurian coast and jump into the sea. The end of the trip could hardly be more contrasting: we cross Monaco with our fully mud-covered Syncro – a beautiful picture between all the rich freaks and lightning-polished supercars – before it goes back home on the highway.
Altogether, we have covered 2860 km in ten days, discovering, experiencing and learning so much. That the great adventures can start at our doorstep was definitely the best realization.