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Alice Russolo & Marco Eydallin

CORSICA GRAND TOUR

#ATHLETESTORY

We are not cyclists.
With this premise we start planning our Bike and Climb trip to Corsica. I say with this premise because, in my opinion, a 'real' cyclist is the one who chooses the route on the basis of the most rideable roads, the most famous climbs, or the route that burns the most calories. We on the other hand started planning our adventure based on climbing the most iconic routes, the aesthetics of the lines and the compactness of the rock. The kilometers and the climbs came later and the amount of calories burned was never a thought that crossed our mind.

The idea
The concept is simple. We wanted to go climbing in Corsica, travel around the island on our gravel bikes and take everything we needed for climbing with us. We started buying books on the various areas - ranging from southern Corsica, to the fascinating Restonica valley, to Bavella so we were as prepared as we could be. Let's just say that on the climbing part we were prepared, and with other areas we weren’t so prepared. Our experience and knowledge with supplies, especially in terms of weight and bulk on our bikes was nowhere near where it needed to be. Like all mountain guides, Marco is always minimal with his supplies and gear selection. He never has too much or too little, and is never missing anything. But with Corsica, the story changed. We had so much extra gear we needed to bring: bike gear, the repair kit and all the photographic material including drone, computer and hard disk. The next question was whether to open the chapter on side bags or instead use a head bag, where, without too much space, you can brutally shove everything in. Climbing backpack included. We easily opt for the second hypothesis.

Energy
Riding a bike is a pleasure, but riding a bike with a trailer is not as enjoyable, especially uphill. We quickly realized that Corsica is synonymous with uphill, which made us doubt our physical ability. I thought I had cycled enough before leaving. I thought that a winter of only ski mountaineering and a summer filled with climbing, mountain running, and Dolomite approaches would have been an excellent foundation. The truth is, yes, it was, but the mix of the scorching heat of the Indian summer, the steep ascents, the trailer weighing about 20kg each, and the many hours in the saddle, sometimes caused the energy accumulation to suddenly drain, like a phone battery getting cold. It's still at 42%, you look at the screen, you think you'll make it through the day, but then a few moments later the monitor goes black, the phone turns off, and that's when the hunger crisis begins.

October was the perfect month for our adventure. Perfect temperature for climbing, fewer people around, the colors of autumn knocking on the door, and summer struggling to leave. Chestnuts on the ground in the mountain roads, goats, pigs, and cows watching our rhythmic pedaling towards the next destination, letting us pass without much interest. During the climbs I found myself observing the wild landscape surrounding us. Pinnacles of compact reddish rock and the dense vegetation like that of Sardinian hinterland. October is also the month when the high season is now a memory. Hotels are preparing to close for the winter break, and bars and restaurants may have reduced hours, or may not open at all - which was a problem when we had extremely low energy and were in the midst of a hunger crises. We learned to stock up on baguettes, as those are never lacking in Corsica. But even supplies always reach a point where they quickly drain like an hourglass in its final moments.

The Reset.
If I close my eyes and think of Corsica, it's as if in my mind it's divided into three parts, not only from a landscape perspective but also and above all from a mental factor. The beginning: The southern part, the long deserted beaches, the busy roads, the calm sea. Villas whose roofs emerge among the maritime pines overlooking the sea. The climbs to tame, in terms of water, food, weight, and temperature. The naive carefreeness of having water and food reserves in the pack that will probably run out soon. Approaching the first climbing route and choosing where to sleep. Only after the first day of climbing do we realize how everything must be strategically calculated to not waste time, and above all, energy. It's no longer about "let's go there because it's nicer or more convenient." Now the considerations to be made are: is there a supermarket along the way or a nearby restaurant that allows us not to pedal at night? Is there a bike depot or most importantly, how far is it from our climbing destination for the next day? During this adventure, we discovered how there are approaches to approaches, perhaps an hour of cycling and X meters of elevation gain before starting to walk for what would normally be the only true approach to the climbing route.

From Porto onwards, however, the scenery changes. The village is nestled in a west-facing inlet. Behind us, we have left the gullies and ahead of us are mountains with compact rock that immediately catch our attention. The roads narrow and steepen. The sea becomes rough, and the sand darkens. It's as if from Porto onwards there has been a reset, a second beginning. In the morning, we decide to go for a climb by the sea called Ambata di Melu. It is famous for the beauty of its rock, its verticality, and also for the Verdonian access, i.e., from above. The rappelling line does not follow the ascent line; some bolts need to be clipped on the descent to reach the anchor, to avoid dangling in the void. The red of the granite contrasts with the intense blue of the sea, and the waves break right at the base of the start of the first pitch. It's just Marco and me, along with traces of magnesium from those who came before us. The climbing is fun and enjoyable, the granite beautiful. We exit the route happy and satisfied, fulfilled by the climb. We retrieve the bikes we hide under a tree beyond the roadside edge and descend to the village, where we left the trailers and bags.

I’d say there has been a mental reset from here, because we have figured out how to efficiently plan our trip and how we are going to get around. There's no more division into days of "today we pedal, tomorrow we climb." Here, we pedal every day. The approach to the approach has become essential for choosing where to sleep. If we finish climbing early, (as we did in the route in Porto) there's no half-day of rest; we get back on the saddle and try to steal a few kilometers of the next stage, strictly uphill, before descending into the hinterland, into the most Corsican town of all, Corte. The climb from Porto to Corte is eighty kilometers, not very long, but the2000 meters of elevation gain, and pulling our trailer make it quite a strenuous ride. The game that the mind plays in situations like these is crucial. You have to be aware that the day is not over after climbing, it's not time to relax yet. Let's call it a "change of gear," a short break and then off again. Satisfaction doesn't come with the last pitch, but we'll start to feel that beautiful feeling pervade us only after completing the first 24km and 1000m elevation gain, which, on this day, bring us closer to Corte. We got a hotel with dinner on the ground floor, with a garage for the bikes right on the road - we didn’t have to deviate even a few hundred meters. We are definitely getting into the heavy bikepacking mood.

The third part begins after cresting the Col de Bavella, a very long descent to Porto Vecchio. We see the sea again, the traffic, the larger cities. We are on the way back to Bonifacio, ready to close the circle. The legs spin, and surprisingly they spin well. On the twelfth day, I feel enthusiasm growing inside me, the awareness that the hard part is done, and it's been overcome for a while now. We haven't given up on anything; we've reached all the goals we set for ourselves, and even more. In the descent, the air on our faces is warm, pleasant. It allows you to think about what has been until now; it seems like a lifetime since we've been away considering how much we've done, how many kilometers we've covered, how many different landscapes we've seen, how many routes we've climbed. But in reality, it's only been twelve days. We've realized how biking and climbing can perfectly complement each other. Rope and pedals stand on the same podium.

The Climbs: Col de Verghjiu, Bavella.
Corsica is synonymous with climbing. In 13 days, we climbed 11,000 meters of elevation gain, most of which with the trailer in tow. When we set out in the morning with just our backpacks to go climbing, it felt like we were flying. The climb to Corte, starting from Porto, was one of the longest but also one of the most fascinating. From the more maritime landscape, we ventured into the Corsican hinterland. The road narrows, and the cars disappear, making room for groups of wild pigs and processions of goats. The latter deserve a special mention as they are the only overtakes I managed to do uphill. We divided the climb into two, from Porto to Evisa, then Evisa to Corte. On the morning of the sixth day, the air is crisp as we leave Evisa. We are at 1000 meters above sea level, pedaling through the woods amidst the rays of the low morning light filtering through the pines. If I weren't sure I was in Corsica, I'd dare to say that the landscape resembles that of American parks. A halfway campground and a cross-country ski track are the only human signs we see all the way to the top of the pass. The temperature changes, and from here, clad in shell jackets and arm warmers, our descent begins amidst a beautiful larch forest, populated only by a few pigs here and there. We reach Corte in the afternoon, where we are greeted by a cheerful town, full of bars where a lot of younger people are having an aperitif. Corte has always been one of the places that was essential for us to visit. The gateway to the Restonica Valley, famous for its endless climbing possibilities and for the super aesthetic route, Symphonie D’Autumne. The Restonica will be an important piece for us both to test our slab climbing because it presents us with 1000 meters of elevation gain, (with a not so pedal friendly climb) before being able to access the approach on foot. It's off-season, so there are no shuttles. It's October, so the days end early and the weather can be uncertain. It's the seventh day, so we’ve exhausted a good bit of energy by now. We decide to take an active rest day by renting two electric bikes, which was a lot of fun and a great way to freshen up for the kilometers ahead. We leave Corte early in the morning in the rain, only to find ourselves two and a half hours later at the base of Symphonie, with clear skies and a fabulous panorama.

From Corte, the next climbing destination will be the Bavella area. This is the place where the route Le dos de l’Elephant is located, which Catherine Destivelle defines as “The most beautiful granite route not only in Corsica but also in France. ”Our tour plan is to attack Bavella from the east, from Solenzara. Col de Bavella is a destination coveted by cyclists as much as its rock is coveted by climbers. And here our organizational skills are once again put to the test. The routes we want to climb are about halfway up the pass, which means 700 meters of elevation gain and 20km from Solenzara. The campground where we find an available bungalow is at 600 meters of elevation gain and 13km from the route. The only supermarket is by the sea, (i.e., in Solenzara). which is also the same for the bakery. I'll spare you the details, but the moral of the story is that we loaded up on pasta, tomato sauce, baguettes, and Nutella for the next three days, and so we set off towards what will be the first climb of the first half of the Col de Bavella, up to Arghjavara. Yes, the first climb, because it turns out that we will end up doing this famous pass three times halfway up, plus a complete ascent completely in the rain. How to describe it? Spectacular. Granite spires as far as the eye can see, a lush forest 360° around, and finally, in the rock, you can see the real Tafoni. Tafoni are cavities created by wind and weather, which have sinuous curves and gigantic holes. Climbing on this rock, Marco called it "a 3D climb." Every pitch on this granite is worth every single pedal stroke it took to reach it.

The Rock.
We chose to climb routes that weren't very long, 6/7 pitches, except for Le Dos de L’Elephant, which reached 9. Not that we don't like long (or very long) routes, but 6/7 pitches seemed perfect to reconcile biking and climbing. After various transfers, organizing movements, and approaches to approaches, climbing felt the easiest and most natural to us. The mind was free and determined to enjoy every moment on this rock. Climbing had become the lighter part of the adventure, and, precisely because of this sensation, we enjoyed it even more than usual. All our logistics revolved around the routes we had chosen, and once we reached their base, there was only joy and desire. I don't know if I can convey the feeling well, but it was as if climbing allowed our minds (and legs) to rest and brought us back to our comfort zone.

A magical place where we climbed is the Restonica Valley, also famous for winter ski mountaineering trips. Walking towards the base, you immediately see walls of gray granite around you. The route, Synphonie d’Autumne, is located above Lake Capitellu. It starts with a traverse with a fixed rope that immediately suspends you over the lake, taking you after about ten meters to the start of the first (real) pitch. After the initial, vertical pitches on small edges and sometimes delicate moves, we emerge at the top where three slab pitches separate us from the summit. Here it seems like we have the lake directly behind our backs: the first section of the route disappears from view, and that's how the lake is right behind us. An intense blue spot that stands out among all the gray rock that surrounds it. The afternoon sunrays accompany us, softening the landscape. The slabs, on the other hand, not even the Golden hour can soften them. We both thank each other for opting to climb this route before those that are called the "most beautiful slabs in the world," those of Le Dos de L’Elephant, in Bavella. The route is famous for its airy bolting and the almost non-existent possibility of integrating or protecting. A rock formation shaped like an elephant's back, about an hour's walk into one of the side valleys after the Arghjavara area. From afar, it seems completely devoid of holds... and in reality is not that far off. We met two climbers, she Italian and he French (French or Corsican?! Good question!) who were venturing into this valley, which they said, in their opinion, was the most beautiful in the area.

We saved the elephant for last because we knew it would be the route that would overall challenge us the most. The first pitches flow quickly - a fun, vertical climb. The key pitches are the slabs at the top. The steepness lessens, but even the already small handholds collapse, or rather disappear. From here begins the mantra that will accompany us to the top: "place your foot, pray, and push." A purely technical climb of feet, where maximum trust is to be placed on the minimal formations of granite on which we smear our climbing shoes. The day is wonderful, as is everything around us. It feels like we're in a suspended jungle. We can even see the sea. We smile with joy and satisfaction, already thinking about the beers waiting for us at the campground. Amidst one positive thought and another, a hint of sadness also finds its way in; we know this summit marks the end of our climbs in Corsica. We repack the trailers, this time closing in the climbing backpack what we won't need anymore.

We are cyclists.
The next morning, we load all our belongings into the trailers, bid farewell to Camping U Rosumarino for the last time, and begin pedaling towards the real Col de Bavella. It's raining. It's as if the weather knows we've finished climbing. Dry rock is no longer necessary for us., As has happened several times on this adventure, putting everything into perspective, cycling in the rain doesn't seem like a big problem. We set off, quickly warming up on the ascent. By now, I know the curves of the first 12km perfectly, looking around trying to memorize this environment that has "granted" itself to us, allowing us to achieve all our small goals and dreams. It continues to rain, but we don't mind. We laugh and joke amongst ourselves, knowing that a bit of water had to be taken sooner or later. A group of foreign cyclists pass us, and we learn that they plan to conquer the Col de Bavella. They have a support van; we see them stopping occasionally, some asking for water bottles, some for a break. We continue determined, still satisfied from yesterday's climb. I've saved one last gel knowing that today it would come in handy. The mind is free, and thoughts flow quickly. Before my eyes are the 12 days just passed; it feels like I've been on the road for a lifetime. I think to myself how things have changed, what was mostly hardship at the beginning is now joy, a personal challenge that will turn into satisfaction and yes, even self-esteem, because if my legs are turning better now, the trailer certainly hasn't become lighter. A guy dressed in all black overtakes me, distracting me from my thoughts; he turns, looks at me, soaked and heavy. I greet him with a smile, and he replies, "keep it up, keep it up! Respect." Perhaps this phrase had the same effect as the gel. Happy to pedal, to feel good, in the rain, with a trailer that at this point is no longer just full of gear but of experiences. If I look back and think of Corsica, immediately the climbs and the rock come to mind. Again, bike and rope are on the same podium.

The bike was the added value to our journey, the challenge within the challenge. The bike was what made it special and what multiplied the satisfaction by two for this whole experience. I re-read my words, look at the photos again, already thinking about our next adventure, of course, also on a bike. In the end, I think we, too, are cyclists.

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