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The Italian job

Posted by Megan Owen on

Wheeling a bike box through fairly central London to make our way to the airport was almost as challenging a terrain as our destination, northern Italy. Flying into Milan on a 7am flight, we’d arranged a place in the city to store our bike boxes for the week so after some early morning rebuilding of bikes on the street (which attracted some inquisitive looks) we were ready to roll.

Myself & my riding partner Alex have used Restrap Bar & Saddle Bag Holsters along with dry bags on a previous trip so we’d definitely refined what kit we were carrying this time to be as light as possible for the mountains we had planned to face in the days to follow.

The destination for our first night’s stay was Brescia, around 95km east of Milan. Finding our way out of the city was easy enough on bike paths, albeit with some U-turns here & there to keep headed in the right direction. The ride wasn’t the most exciting, after getting up at 4am for a 7am flight & getting our bikes built, the main aim was to just make it to the apartment we’d booked to make dinner & get some rest.

After a big dinner, a proper breakfast & a good night's sleep we carried on heading east to the southernmost shores of Lake Garda before heading north on an epicly long dedicated bike path weaving our way through vineyards & orchards.

The signs for the Velo route weren’t always the clearest but no cycling trip is complete without a little pushing back up a steep track that leads to nothing. This was our longest day in the saddle, just shy of 160km so the steep slopes of 8-9% leading up to our B&B for the night were totally uncalled for.

It was dark by the time we arrived in Trento so we headed straight out for pizza at a restaurant that our host for the night recommended, she even called up to a 3rd or 4th floor window for her son Giovanni to come down & give us directions to the restaurant in better English. It felt like we were staying with a proper Italian family!

Day 3 would see us conquer (slowly ride over) our first proper mountain pass. Looking at the elevation chart, we were climbing for almost 50km through beautiful mountain villages and towns. It was a sunny day so we enjoyed a couple of coffee & food stops and took in plenty of views.

Gampenpass is at an elevation of 1518m which was a new high for both of us. We didn’t hang around for long & after layering up, we began the descent towards our B&B in Castelbello. Suddenly the language switched from Italian to German which is always odd. Another long day in the saddle by our standards, 120km with 2500m of climbing so we headed straight out to find some dinner which proved a bit difficult in a small town. We managed to find a restaurant open in the next town after a 15-20 minute walk, not ideal but we were fed & happy.

The next day started with a massive dose of apprehension. This is the day we’d take on the Stelvio. The climb is daunting enough without carrying a week’s worth of kit. 24km at an average gradient of 7.4% with 48 hairpins, 1800m of elevation gain topping out at 2757m above sea level.

The 27km ride to the start of the climb was pretty quiet, contemplating the challenge/pain that lay ahead, deciding what kit to wear; it would be sunny & warm at the bottom of the climb & snowy & cold at the top. The first few kilometres of the climb are fairly straight and the gradient seemed ok, “this is manageable” I thought. It wasn’t long until we hit the first of 48 hairpins, signposted & counting down as we ascend, I couldn’t decide if this helped or made it worse!

Due to the extra weight of bar & saddle bags we spent the majority of the climb in our easiest gear, I’d definitely consider using a wider range cassette for future trips to be able to keep a slightly higher cadence & take a bit of strain off the knees! After around 8km of climbing we stopped for a quick coffee & a snack after fretting about how much energy we’d need to make it to the top.

We were quickly back onto the road into the gruelling rhythm. It’s around lunchtime so the road was getting quite busy with cars, trucks & motorbikes both going up & down which adds another element of difficulty to the climb, for the most part, vehicles were pretty accommodating to our struggle. It was a clear day so the snow-capped peaks were in view for a lot of the climb, always questioning “is that really where we’re going”?

Approaching hairpin number 14, you can see the peak & the remaining hairpins stacked on top of each other are pretty daunting. By this point, we were well over 2000m above sea level & the air was getting noticeable thinner, after each swig of drink I was really struggling to catch my breath for a good 5-10 seconds. At around hairpin number 10 I ate my last bar as I was starting to feel pretty ropey, my legs felt ok, it was more my head that started feeling a bit dizzy. Fortunately the bar sorted me out & the final push to the summit wasn’t too bad.

As the last few hairpins counted down, there was a massive feeling of excitement & achievement, we’d made it! Alex & I rolled over the top together & immediately started layering up as it was only around 4 degrees & pretty gloomy at the summit. A couple of restaurants & a few gift shops aren’t really what you’d expect at the top of a mountain. A quick coffee & we started the technical descent to Bormio; my hairpin cornering definitely still needs work! We descended the first few kilometres fairly slowly trying to savour the reward for our hard work, the views! Absolutely incredible is how I’d describe it; the view down the valley is insane!

The descent to Bormio where we’d stay for 2 nights was well worth the climb, the whole day felt really special & definitely a memory to savour. Bormio is a lovely little town, old buildings with narrow cobbled streets. A quick trip to the supermarket to stock up on food, with full bellies we could relax for the evening & watch some Italian TV; there was a particularly good documentary about apricots!

As we were staying in Bormio for 2 nights we could go for a ride without our bar & saddle bags, although after climbing the Stelvio, the temptation to just sleep in & chill out for the day was overwhelming. We decided to try & find a route/climb to do that would only be a 2-3 hour ride as a compromise for our tired legs. We decided on the hairpin-filled climb to Torri de Fraele & Lago Di Cancano.

The start of the climb was only around 5km from our front door so we didn’t have much of a warm up before ascending once again. It was probably the hottest day of our trip so we got a sweat on pretty quick once we hit the hairpins. Riding without bar & saddle bags feels pretty weird to begin with, the bike & steering feel so much lighter but going uphill gets you used to it pretty quick. The climb was 8km long at an average of 7%, in our pre-Stelvio days, this would have seemed like a beast but we actually looked forward to this one.

Unsurprisingly it was still hard work in the heat, conquering a bigger mountain doesn’t really make the smaller ones hurt any less! The switchbacks were really cool & we made it to the top in around 40 minutes. The view at the top was ace with a couple of medieval lookout towers; you can admire the hairpins you’ve just ridden up. You can carry on a bit further on gravel tracks to Lago Di Cancano which looked awesome in the midday sun. A quick bite to eat at a small restaurant overlooking the lake & we descended back down to Bormio.

After our 2 night stay in Bormio, it was time for us to head south & descend out of the mountains, but not before taking in one more mountain pass. We had planned to take on the famous Mortirolo Pass but at almost 12km at an average of 11% gradient, our weary legs decided against it, unsure we’d be able to make it up the climb with a fully packed bike.

There was still no way of avoiding some sort of mountain pass to continue our journey south so we settled for the Passo dell’Aprica, a 7 mile climb at an average of 6%, a lot more manageable! On leaving Bormio, we started descending, no pedalling required for about 30km! The views down the valley were totally surreal; I had to slow down to really take it in. After the fast descent we hit the bottom of the climb, after conquering the double the distance & steeper Stelvio a couple of days before, this mere 7 mile mountain pass climb seemed easy, in reality it still really hurt & took just under an hour to crest.

At the top of the climb is the small town of Aprica, we stopped at the supermarket for some lunch & after building some sandwiches on a nice bench we cracked on. Looking at the elevation chart, the next 65km were supposedly downhill, but blowing up the valley for the rest of the ride was a strong headwind, so for most of it, it didn’t even feel like you were going downhill. It was 65km of quite tough, busy main roads, not massively memorable!

We arrived at our next apartment for the night in Pisogne. Greeted by a massive Newfoundland dog barking at us while we tried to work out which person was our host for the night, after some confusion, we made it into the apartment & chilled out for the night; dinner on the balcony to the sound of church bells was nice!

We’d made it to our last day of cycling! Pisogne is sat on the edge of Lake Iseo so once we’d packed up in the morning we first headed down to the lake to check out the views. It wasn’t the clearest of mornings but the lake still looked lovely. There was a perfect bike path right alongside the lake for the first 25-30km with tunnels carved into the rock that flanks the edges of the water.

We planned to stop for lunch in the city of Bergamo so headed in that direction after the Lake Iseo bike path came to an end. Bergamo didn’t disappoint, the older upper district called Città Alta, encircled by Venetian walls, is a must see if you’re in the area. A big Calzone & some spaghetti later, we began the final part of our trip back towards Milan. The ride ended with a nice stretch of bike path alongside a canal, passing through Gorgonzola(!!) before hitting the city streets of Milan again. It was an awesome trip making some great memories, not most people’s idea of a holiday but it’s a great way to (bike) pack in a lot of different places and scenery into a week!

Follow Matt's adventures: @aplmat

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