It’s hard for the riding around here to not be epic. Nature in all her glory of tall trees and jagged mountains, coffee and tiramisu and pasta when we stop, and extreme amounts of elevation gain.
In Washington, the average 60 mile ride might have 2000 ft of climbing. You have to search for the hills. Home in the bay the same mileage will have 6000ft on our go to rides. Not bad. Here in Alta Valtelinna you get over 10000 feet of climbing over 60 miles. Everything we ride here is in km and meters, but the figure is more impressive in the American sense.
Some of the climbs here are the stuff of legends, every cyclist knows the names Stelvio, Gavia and Mortirolo. They are famous because they are long hard climbs through striking terrain, but more so because they are the sites of epic battles in Italy’s biggest bike race, il giro d’Italia. These are names uttered over and over, so called mist rides for cyclists. There names plaster souvenir jerseys and t-shirts, and are undoubtably the reason people come here to ride.
I don’t disagree, but as I’ve written with traveling, this name-hype is limiting. Guiding bike tourists in the area, I do these climbs a lot, sometimes the same one a few times a week. More to come on the joys of that later, today was about breaking out of the mold.
This week I’m with a group of about 20 Israelis. Their fitness nearly equals mine, which is nice, but managing such large group is always difficult. By today, their fifth day and a so called rest day, we had done all the big ones. I wasn’t scheduled to work, but the youngest of the group wanted to go out for a hammerfest. How could I say no?
He may be the youngest- but undoubtably the fittest. I’m a strong rider, train a lot and have been here longer than any guests, which is greatly to my advantage. But Tom is the Israeli Ironman national champion and trains way more. Good thing I like challenges and suffering.
We spent some time poring over the map and found a few long squiggles without names. Perfect.
What struck me at first was how easy it was to get to our first excursion. We took the same roads I’ve been riding all summer – right past the famous climbs. The idea was to follow two long squiggles on the map, maybe a third depending on our legs. The first was a small road out of a town called Vervio. Its one of those small Italian towns so picturesque and expected that it becomes unremarkable. The road went immediately up, switching back left and right and on.
Whichever way the switchbacks pointed we saw mountains. The valley floor was quickly a huge leap below us. It was hot and the road was steep. As steep as it was, as hot as it was, it was all ours, save for the one dog that chased us. On the Stelvio, you can’t ride without being passed by a thousand loud motorbikes. Here there was nothing but the audible evidence of effort, and of perseverance. This is the cyclist truly in his element, left alone from the the onlookers of the world to confront the road ahead of him with only his bike and his buddies.
The road turned to gravel, which was fine, but then it ceased to be a road. Huge stones littered the way on a massively steep slope. It was no place for road bikes. Disappointed we hadn’t reached the end of the road, where the map said there was a refugio, we were nonetheless elated at what we had found. Physically we had a lot taken out from us, but our hearts were full.
Another espresso, the fruit of the Italian streets preceded the next climb, that came too soon in my mind. The next town up the valley had another squiggly line proceeding from it so we said fuck it, we’re explorers. Again, straight up, passing through towns without names, quickly leaving behind the world where people lived for the world where we dreamed.
Tom set a ferocious pace and I cracked quickly. Pedaling was a struggle, and I was sweating more than I could drink, but it gave me a few seconds to appreciate what was around me. In just ten minutes, we went from civilization to tiny mountain towns that seemed to live at a pace reminiscent of centuries ago. One turn off the beaten path, and we were breaking ground, setting new standards, exploring. Over and over I was awed at how empty of the tourism that prevails in this general area these small roads were.
So I ate, and I drank, and I recovered. And thank god I did, because as the towns grew further and further apart, and as the road got steeper and turned to gravel, it also because my favorite road in the whole area. We were deep in nature, and it looked like California. Pine trees, waterfalls, women walking donkeys and goats and craggy mountains surrounded us. Then we hit the end of the valley and the road just ended with a town and a field of cows. Snap a selfie and head down the hill for more coffee.
Its electrifying, exploring what is as close to “uncharted territory” as possible these days on a road bike. The sad truth is that in the grand scheme of things, there is not much of a frontier anymore, especially when your vehicle is as limited as a road bike is. But our individual lives have more focus than the grand scheme of things, and it doesn’t matter if someone has been there before if you never have. Especially when its just you and a buddy, not you and every single motorcyclist on the European continent. Some cool riders I follow have keyed a good term for it. Seek and diverge. Its all epic, even if no one has heard of it, and the better times are usually had in the places not so frequently rushed to. Adventure always, and when you can, go yonder.