MY XPDTN: Tour Lou Gravel

Gravel trip in Occitania

It all starts with a trace.

Every trip on a bike starts before the departure and those who know me know that I hardly ride entirely on paths found online trusting blindly. In fact, I particularly enjoy starting the journey before traveling, opening Komoot (and paper maps) and being wrapped by the mountains.

Feeling a bit smuggler and a bit explorer, while knowing that everything is possible because someone from the area has already passed on those streets. And this is true for every bike ride, whether it is a day or a week ride, because the distances change but not the way you handle them.

This year our goal was to discover the Maritime Alps and Occitania: the fulcrum of our entire journey is the Salt Road. We have been thinking about doing so for years, but between the flooding in the Val Roya (which led to its closure in 2020) and the pandemic situation, it took two years for the conditions to be good to go.

This military road on the border between France and Italy is one of the most classic and famous dirt roads, and if a route is a classic more often than ever there is a reason.

But we also know that gravel is still a young sport and that most of the routes are still to be discovered, so we decided what to see and see how to link everything, spending every moment of our free time trying to find out if someone had already passed through those streets and if it is possible that we can pass on it while in gravel.

So we plan a journey on a new route in Occitania divided into 5 stages , 5 chapters with every day a hill to discover: Cannon Road (day 1), Via del Sale (day 2), Col de Turini (day 3), Mercantour Park (day 4)plateau and Rifugio della Gardetta (day 5), Passo Bellino (day6).

I’ll let the photos and maps speak themselves, but the journey (although we are on the edge of one of the most densely populated areas in the world) proceeds as a real adventure in which certainties remain firm:

the high Via del Sale is magnificent, the refuge Gardetta is indeed surrounded by beautiful mountains and those who run it are as beautiful as they say around (especially glad to see someone who does not arrive by e-bike), rangers of the Mercantour are actually strict as they say around (and force us to a detour on asphalt of 80 km for having covered a forest track banned near Isola 2000).

The beauty, however, is to discover the uncertainties: to see how the mountains are which you don’t know and of which there is no trace, perhaps because we are among the first to pass with gravel bikes. And here the Bellino Pass pedals up to its summit at 2800 meters above sea level (but you go down on foot on the side of the Varaita valley).


Just because of the uncertainty of the route (and the certainty of some stretches a little ‘beyond the Gravel) I chose to start with an Exploro Ultra in bikepacking asset, despite I had never used it before.

With 2.1 tires and a geometry that makes it even more docile downhill and more stable uphill (while remaining an Exploro) I did not have a single problem and I never wanted a different bike for the duration of the trip.

It can be said that the choice was a certain uncertainty: although I had never used it on such a long route and being therefore hesitant (it is always wrong to change bikes at the last moment before a “big” ride) I was sure it would be the perfect bike.

And so it was, becoming the icing on a cake of a perfect trip