The final few days of last August were the nadir in Conor Dunne’s and Larry Warbasse’s careers. Their Pro-Continental team, Aqua Blue Sport, informed them, via email, that they would be folding. What’s more, they wouldn’t be riding the Tour of Britain, the pair’s main focus for the second half of the season.
Without employment and no longer having an immediate race to prepare for, Dunne and Warbasse sat down to conjure up an idea of how best to deal with the situation. Their decision was to rewind the clock to their youth and ride their bikes for pleasure — a novel idea for professional cyclists.
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And so came about the NoGo Tour, an eight-day bike-packing adventure through the French and Italian Alps, that headed from their Nice home, over 14 huge cols including Alpe d’Huez and Col d’Izoard, and back south to the Côte d’Azur.
Dunne says that “it began as something to keep us animated through a mentally tough period” but it ended with Warbasse declaring it one of the happiest weeks of his life.
“When I think back, I think about how cool it was to do something like that. It was life changing,” the affable American says, clearly high on rediscovering the freedom his bike gave him as a boy in Michigan.
“Honestly, and I said it at the time, but it was one of the most fun weeks of my life. It was totally unexpected considering that the week before was one of the least fun weeks.”
Once the team-mates left their Mediterranean residency, it didn’t take long for them to realise that they were discharged from the normality of everyday life and were immersing themselves into a temporary bubble of freedom and perpetual enjoyment.
Where typically they would have a set route to follow, this time they decided on a road if it looked good. Out was the strict diet and in were baguettes, ham and brie for lunch. The only problem was deciding what song they should sing next — ‘Torn’ by Natalie Imbruglia was a favourite.
Dunne had another matter to contend with, too. “Larry can talk down a house; it was a case of getting him to shut up!” he jokes.
“Being able to choose where we wanted to go every day, not having an exact destination, going places we wanted to go, that was maybe one of the best parts,” Warbasse explains.
“Being spontaneous made it easy,” Dunne adds. “The Alps are such an unreal place to ride a bike. There are always so many options and it was nice to keep options open. Normally we would plan our route until lunch and then plan the afternoon after that.
“We would brainstorm our routes, our thoughts, which climbs we wanted to go on. But if we saw something on the way, we would go and see it.”
Dunne admits that, due to training demands, the magnificence of where he rides sometimes fails to register. But the NoGo Tour reminded him of the grandeur and splendour of the Alps.
“We were able to appreciate the places we rode in, and able to stop at the side of the road and appreciate spectacular views,” he adds. “The Col Agnel, the Col d’Izoard, every place was different in its own way. It was like going into a new country with every col;
that’s the beauty of the Alps. There is so much to it and so much variety.”
Warbasse agrees: “We went on some of the most beautiful roads in the entire world. The timing of our trip was great, the touring season was finished, the weather was good, we weren’t fighting with cars and we had the roads to ourselves.
“The whole time I thought, ‘Wow, this trip makes me want to go on holiday to the Alps.’ This would have been the best ever advertisement for the Alps as all the time I was just saying, ‘This is the most incredible place I have ever been.’”
A new favourite hideout for Warbasse is Lake Annecy. “I had never been there before,” he says. “We stayed close to the lake and went swimming; it was a cool evening.
“The night before we stayed by a mountain lake at Cormet de Roselend and that was incredible. It was absolutely beautiful. There was nothing up there, and it felt like we were out there in the wilderness.”
Their daily updates to social media amassed a huge following. Even though the Tour of Britain and the Vuelta a España were taking place, for eight days the Irish champion and former American champion were the hottest names in the sport.
The people they met impressed them, too: there was the Swiss skier who tightened Dunne’s rotor disc that kept coming loose; the Italian couple whose food in their quaint B&B had them both vowing to return; and the couple who had got married that day and took a photo with them, the bride and groom still in their wedding attire.
“Meeting people was the crazy thing,” Warbasse says, laughing. “On the sixth day, we met some people at the top of the Col du Lautaret who were really excited to meet us. We then descended to the Col d’Izoard and halfway up the climb there were people coming down and going crazy.
“‘Oh my gosh, you are the NoGo Tour guys! We’ve been following you!’ Of course, they were Irish, too! It was cool to meet them and talk for 10 minutes. We just weren’t expecting that.”
The following day they arrived at a cafe in Italy. With all the outdoor tables occupied, Warbasse asked an older cyclist if they could take his seat as he appeared to be leaving. They got engaged in a conversation. “We said we had been touring the Alps, that we were heading back to Nice and it came up that we were pros,” Warbasse recalls.
“It was then he stood up, looking shocked, and said, ‘Wait, it’s you guys! I read about you in the newspaper. You’re famous!’ He knew our story and explained how this ride was really blowing up. It was serious now; it wasn’t a small social media thing anymore.
“He found me on Strava and sent me a link to a Rome newspaper that had written an article on our trip. There’s something about bike-packing that people can connect to.”
An open road
The American says that the week gave him the push to explore and satisfy a hidden wanderlust. The pair unanimously agree they will do a similar thing again.
“This trip made us feel like kids again on a bike,” Warbasse reflects. “When you were young, you didn’t know all the roads and you would just go exploring. That’s what Conor and I did, but on a much larger radius than before.
“Every day we chose our own destiny, where we should go. Having that total freedom was so different to anything we’ve been used to. That was really cool.
“We got back to the original reason why we fell in love with the sport — exploring with your friends. And where we explored just happened to be one of the coolest places to ride a bike in the world: the Alps.”
The NoGo Tour, stage-by-stage
Nice, France > Saluzzo, Italy
117km, 7hr, 20min, 3,400m of climbing
Climbs: Col de Tende
Saluzzo, Italy > Lanslevillard, France
136km, 6hr, 22min, 3,550m of climbing
Climbs: Colle delle Finestre and Col du Mont Cenis
Lanslevillard, France > Cormet de Roselend, France
106km, 4hr, 46min, 2,600m of climbing
Climbs: Col de l’Iseran
Cormet de Roselend, France > Lake Annecy, France
124km, 5hr, 13min, 2,750m of climbing
Climbs: Col de Saisies and Col des Glières
Lake Annecy, France > Clavans-le-Bas, France
171km, 7hr, 31min, 4,215m of climbing
Climbs: Alpe d’Huez and Col du Glandon
Clavans-le-Bas, France > Chinale, Italy
126.5km, 5hr, 43min, 3,575m
Climbs: Col du Lautaret, Col d’Izoard, Col Agnel
Chinale, Italy > Pontebernado, Italy
132km, 6hr, 3,450m of climbing
Climbs: Colle di Sampeyre, Colle Esischie
Pontebernado, Italy > Nice, France
185km, 6hr, 36min, 2,730m of climbing
Climbs: Cîme de la Bonette
Weight problem: Carrying baggage
When the adventurous duo left their Nice homes on September 2, they did so carrying 20kg of bags. Their basic panniers, bought from Decathlon, were strapped to their team-issued 3T Strada bikes.
The initial response to riding with extra weight was met with disgruntlement. “That first day was hard,” Dunne reveals. “Hard to get used to the bikes, hard to get used to the bags and often worrying if they would all fall off. We both knew the packs were there as it felt so much different to how we usually rode. On the climbs we would notice that we were going a lot slower.”
But it didn’t take long to adjust and, for a temporary period at least, transform their riding styles.
“Sometimes, we really forgot the bags were there,” Dunne continues. “I got so much better at descending with the bags by the end of the week. The interesting thing was that when we took the bags off at the end, neither of us could ride out of the saddle. It literally took us 30 minutes to try and get back to normal cycling.”