A year ago, while riding the italian Alps, I complimented James about his bike. He answered laughing : “I like your bike too. I designed it !”
Q&A with the multi-talented founder of the now iconic Torino-Nice Rally.
You have worked at Genesis’, now Pinnacle…How does one switch from designer to international event organizer ?
The original route plan for the tour that became the TNR was to find some Tour Divide terrain in Europe, those long dirt roads and big climbs and to add some classic col riding, partly to test a bike I’d had made. The route was intended to be a good test of any bike that claims to ‘do it all’ and many bikes could work well on it. It’s inclusive in that way. No bike really can ‘do it all’ equally well, but some do more than others and that’s the area of bike design that always interested me the most.
Maybe bike design and route creation are part of the same journey, exploring bikes that widen the scope of our riding.
Why particularly from Torino to Nice, what’s the story with this route ?
Both cities have airports and there’s a lot of great high altitude tracks and roads between them. The way some of the military stradas and other similar tracks linked up meant Turin to Nice worked well. Geneva or Grenoble are other starting options, we’ve done rides to Nice from both, on and off-road. There’s so much potential for similar riding in the area but the Turin and Nice end points were where we started for this one. ‘Torino-Nice’ had a nice ring to it, sounded like a classic rally event.
In these times where gravel races pop up everywhere, why make it a rally? And why free ?
‘Why not free’ I suppose, I don’t see why anyone needs to pay to ride a GPX file I’ve made, it’s all just file sharing and bike riding.
If it was an MTB event and I’d made the trails myself it might be different. The TNR is non-profit, there may be a need to cover the running costs in future but it’ll be done in a way that sticks to this general ethic.
Why not a race? I’ve had some of the most amazing experiences of my life while racing long distance events but I didn’t see any need to create another race or ITT route, there’s already so many good options. There’s a place for open social rides also but there’s not many of them, particularly over longer distances. If what you want isn’t there, go and create it, right?
So the TNR is the opposite of a race, it celebrates taking time to socialise, take photos and enjoy the hospitality in the refuges and places to eat and rest along the way. Stay somewhere a while just so you can still be there in the morning to see sunrise, that kind of attitude.
It’s more sociable when there’s no pressure to ride fast. Of course you can do all that within a race too, just ride mid or back-of-pack, I just think there’s a great opportunity to see what happens when we remove all of the influences of racing and have such a wide mix of riders getting together.
From 70 to 130 this year, almost twice as many people rode the 2nd edition. Don’t you fear it will get more and more difficult to « leave no trace » if it doubles again next year?
Yes, very much so. Good question. There’s nothing more important to me than us all leaving no trace, hardly being noticed as we go and making only a positive impression on people along the way.
I remember reading about the demise of the Oregon Outback, that was a real shame and it shows what can happen. Sharing an interest doesn’t equate to sharing ethics. I really hope the TNR doesn’t go that way.
I wonder if being a non-race event the TNR might develop a more party-pace vibe and that’s great, but it may have these risks. I hope not, don’t expect so, but I’ve already seen social media posts of camp fires in places I really don’t think is necessary. Good times I’m sure but a slippery slope.
I guess in a similar way there’s ‘wild’ camping that’s pitching tents close to roads or in sight of people’s houses – fine if you’re in during darkness and out at dawn and no crime if not, but in daylight it’s more likely to be noticed. Out of sight is out of mind. I don’t want to sound judgemental here, sorry, not the intent … only that if there’s 150+ of us riding the route next year route we need to act in a way that leaves no trace.
A trace as a negative impression in someone’s mind can last longer than a patch of fire-burned earth.
Let’s not forget Rule #1 and remembering that rightly or not often we’re not the judge of what makes us a dick – other people we encounter on the ride are. Anyway – apologies if that’s getting onto negatives. It just needs to be talked about to prevent it becoming an issue. Everyone I spoke to along the way was really positive about the ride though and I’m sure I’m only being protective and cautious. I didn’t meet a single person on the ride who wasn’t someone we’d all be happy representing us. Even Andy Cox has got sponsored and become a role model for bikepackers everywhere.
Did you notice differences with the 1st TNR ? Atmosphere, riders’ origins, profiles, equipment…
It was really similar actually, that was great. A wide range of bikes, riders, ages, everything. A wider range of nationalities this year. It was so good to see many riders again who I met for the first time last year also. I did see more riders with larger tyres on their bike, that will increase again next year I’m sure…
Besides fire hazard, campfires are likely to damage wildlife on the long term.
A few ideas to lessen your impact :
-Whenever possible, use an existing fire ring.
-Off-the-ground fire : isolate your fire from the ground, putting a firebowl over a few stones.
-Only burn dry wood that you gathered on the floor, and not too thick, so that it will burn to ash.
-In order to heat up your dinner, why not just use a stove ?
-Eventually, the obvious solution : do not make a fire !
In these times of technical clothes, rare are the events when one needs a fire to survive.
Of course, a nice campfire feels good, it warms up the body and comforts the mind.
It also has the advantage of leaving a peculiar smell on your sleeping bag !
Talking about equipment : we’ve seen it all on the TNR, « kitchen sink » carriers to 3-days-and-done weight-weenies. What do you consider absolutely necessary? And do you carry anything even you consider unnecessary ?
Absolutely necessary – warm gear for riding in the wet, high up, and spare parts or tools with the knowledge of how to use them to minimise the risk of needing to walk out.
I needed the warm clothes when a bunch of us decided to try the Via del Sale in the rain. It got cold! But it was also the best day of the ride because we got outside our comfort zones while being able to cope with it.
It may be a bike ride on tracks you can drive a car on but mountains and 2000m+ altitude mean thinking about mountain safety.
Unnecessary – like a bottle of bourbon? Nah, a great idea! I’m inspired… Nowhere near as extravagant but I carried coffee and a super-light stove. It’s not needed but I like to have 15 minutes or so in the morning sat up in my bivi bag with a hot coffee and a nice view. There’s not many better ways to start a day.
I don’t take much with me on rides like this, needing less stuff is part of the appeal. Little luxuries like that morning coffee, or headphones and some spare warm socks for when I get into my bivi bag. Simple life.
When riding last year I told you it could become a classic route, just like the Highland Trail or Tour Divide. Seems like it is happening : many people ride it « off ». How do you feel about that?
It’s great, I’m happy that people enjoy this type of riding and the big climbs are worth it! It’s an open route so why not ride it at a time that suits you, not everyone can get time off in September. And I think the quality of the images you see from previous riders on the route makes it quite inspiring, it’s such a beautiful area. There’s no better advert for a route than good images that you just want to ride into.
What are your future plans ? Will you go on tweaking the route, create something else maybe ?
The route will get a little more work, just ironing out the kinks and trying to get better continuity. Not going too crazy on the rocky sections, not too far on roads that have more traffic than the rest of the route, that sort of thing.
This will sound daft but it should be like a good film, a dramatic introduction that grabs your attention, a steady build up or twists in the plot, a good ending.
So I think there’s some small details that could be improved or have better continuity, it’s taken 3 rides of the route to get a better feel for it all. The basics will be the same though, it works as it is. There’s a couple of other optional sections that could be added and the start location and first 10km of the route can also change to help manage the numbers on the route should the increase, it’s manageable. Beyond that I’d just like to let the event evolve naturally and help keep it what it is.
One rally is enough for me, for now.
And I’ve got a bike design that I want to perfect … that do it all bike idea – I think it’s both impossible to actually ‘perfect’ it as well as finding it impossible to resist the challenge of trying to get closer to perfection. The TNR seems to be a good testing ground for it.
The TNR supports the Smart Shelter Foundation, that provides earthquake-resistant building techniques to the poorest, especially in Nepal. Among all the existing NGOs, how did you bond with this one ?
I met Martijn by chance in Nepal in 2008. I was there hiking, just me and a Nepalese guide. I was able to get a month off work and I’d always wanted to go and see the Himalaya up close. Martijn (the founder of SSF) and I were in the Annapurna area at the same time, he saw me making a small shelter so I could bivi near to the end of the glacier below Annapurna’s main peak and we got talking. I found his story inspiring.
There’s times (like when I decided to make the trip to Nepal) when my work in products, retail, brands – consumerism etc – seems to be doing little or nothing to improve the world and here was someone who’d left much of that behind to use his engineering and social enterprise skills to improve the lives of others.
The TNR is a very small piece of the support that Smart Shelter Foundation deserve and need but still, I’m really grateful for everyone’s support of them through the rally.
This year we raised almost five times what we raised last year, a great result and a strong motivation to keep up the work on the event.
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