What better way to end six months in the Alps than with one of the classic road rides; The Sellaronda Circuit.
“well how far is it?” Is always a difficult question for a ride that I’ve never done before, but my enthusiasm prevented me from outright admitting I hadn’t the faintest idea. Instead I answered with “the map says…” And we set off to ride around the towering hulk that it Monte Baldo. Luckily for me, Christa doesn’t complain when riding a bike; its like she knows we’ll be riding til we’re done, and that’s when we’ll finish.
On my last trip to Garda, I’d attempted to ride the loop, but got turned around when I realised the torrential rain was not letting up. I was glad of my decision the day after when the clouds parted and I could see the fresh snow at the top. This time we had not a breeze or a wisp of cloud in the sky, and we cruised through the tunnels on the main road south. Riding along the shore gives a much better appreciation of how big the lake actually is, and it took us a good hour to get from Torbole to our first food stop in Torri del Benaco. We’d assumed that just like every other town in Italy, we would easily find a small Spa supermarket to stock up some food, but after a search around town, all we found was a tiny little shop with the worst selection of instant sugar I’ve ever seen. Much to Christa’s dismay, we couldn’t even pick up any Haribo! Instead, we took a moment to enjoy the lake, before climbing away from it.
The road from the lake up in to the hills is a gentle progression of switchbacks through open olive groves and Italian mansions. Unlike the immediate shore, the houses look homely and lived in, and we see plenty of people tending to the fields. We get passed by an old Italian guy late for his group ride. Helmet free and riding $10,000 worth of bike, he cruises by just slow enough for me to catch his wheel, and we ride together up the last stretch of the first climb. I look behind and find that Christa is only 30 seconds back, and we part ways with our new friend to start our cruising descent into wine country. Only 20 minutes from the lake, its a completely different world of bigger square houses surrounded by miles of dead straight vines.
Within 15 minutes we’ve moved up through the geographical strata, and the architecture returns to the north Italian alpine style. The town of Ferrara is the top of the second climb, and from here we can see the road snaking its way up the flanks of the mountain ahead. I reassure Christa that we’re halfway done with climbing for the day, and anyway we only have 25 miles til we’ll be home. False.
We’re still climbing. The road has got narrower, quieter, and the congregating grey clouds hanging over the tops of the peaks seem to get much closer with every corner we turn. My GPS tells me we’ve almost climbed as much as we’re supposed to today, and something doesn’t feel right. I don’t bother telling Christa, as she is climbing strongly and it looks like the top is just around the corner. The road zig zags sharply up the hill and the trees become sporadic around us. We can feel the alpine breeze cooling against our skin, and before long we reach the first ‘top’ to see the road snaking another 1000 feet up.
The road is now cutting precariously along the flank of the mountain, and successive ledges of deep green meadows drop in steps down to the Adige river some 5000 feet below. The wind is whipping at us, and its with much haste that we don our extra layers, have some final food and tuck into a 45 mph crouch. It doesn’t last long, though, and we come to a junction. I ask some stopped riders in my best German-Italian combo the way back to Riva, and they point confidently in the direction that seemed most obvious. We have no reason to doubt them, and as we follow the suspiciously un-downhill road, we corner through the trees to be faced with not-the-top #3. Its only the saddle with a glimpse of the lake that saves the situation.
This last climb is a struggle. I’m tired, and Christa hasn’t said anything for a few minutes. I wonder whether she’s secretly cursing my very existence in her head, or whether she’s just resigned herself to the fact that the quickest way to not be climbing this hill is to climb it faster. I guess its the latter, as the pace barely drops as the grade begins to level off. This time we’re less optimistic, and we begin the descent with fear that we’ll find another climb.
We don’t. The 22 km descent is freshly paved, and later we discover the Giro will be TT’ing up it in a couple days. We make the most of the fresh surface, and hardly brake around the multiple 180 degree bends. The grade is just right, and I savour the picture of Christa poised over her bike looking balanced and in control. Beauty in motion. A few turns make us doubt our direction, and as the road keep pointing the wrong way, we begin to loose our nerve as to whether we took the right path down. We have no choice but to continue; we finally find the bottom, and the road to the lake, we debate whether sugar is needed. As we cruise past a supermarket, there was no hesitation, and we provided the locals with some entertain; Christa assumed a prone position in the car park whilst I hurried into the shop to find sugar. I do a great Bambi impression right by the checkout, and throw haribo and coke around the shop, before quietly departing and pouring gummy bears directly into Christa’s mouth; still lying flat on the ground!
We decide that in our delirium, it would be wise to heed the ‘no bikes’ sign on the highway, and we take the bike path the final few miles back to the lake. Within a mile though, we’re confused; the bike path stopped suddenly, there are construction signs, and we end up climbing over a wall before re-joining the busy main road. Christa tucks in behind a Mercedes going 55 mph, and I realise at this point she really wants her pizza!
We arrived in Limone Sul Garda late last night. The drive down from Bruneck was a bit longer than we had expected, and we didn’t really pay too much attention to our last-minute booked hotel, other than for the fact it was just a little difficult to find. The town seems to consist entirely of hotels, and we had some frantic searching in the dark before we pulled into the anonymous driveway surrounded by olive trees. We went to sleep in the slightly damp room and looked forward to waking up to a beautiful bright morning. The sleep was good, but unfortunately the weather had different ideas; the surface of the lake boiled as rain drops forced their entry into the water, and the swimming pool that held so much potential last night now looked cold and uninviting in the grey morning light.
The relationship of the British with the weather is sometimes misunderstood. Its not that I love the rain, because I don’t. But I also don’t hate it, and there is no way that a little bit of moisture is going to stop me from enjoying myself. I take great pleasure from asking other people whether they are soluble! Its with this mind-set that I underestimated the effect of rain on my sun loving Colorado bread girlfriend. To make matters worse, the hotel had mistakenly left the coffee heating for the last 16 years, and we left breakfast severely under-caffeinated. We drove over to the beautiful lakeside town of Riva del Garda and positioned ourselves on the waterfront with two cups of much better coffee, then watched the predominantly German tourists navigate the wet streets in various interpretations of waterproof clothing.
With the sun finally fighting off the clouds, we got on the bikes and improved the day vastly. With a couple thunderclouds shadowing us, we cruised down the lake. Christa’s knee was still feeling sore, so she decided to take it easy, and gave me a free reign to blast up a couple little climbs through the olive groves of Arco. The roads and trails go off in every direction, and I soon found a dirt road to take me up to a vantage point. Although a little more relaxed than our grand ideas of putting in huge miles in the sunshine, it was a great first day by the water, and slowed the pace of the holiday; less worrying about where we were going, and a lot more actual doing.
First task for any road trip is to buy a map, but normally this is preceded by working out where on earth we might be going. To cover all eventualities we headed over to the book shop and had a browse around until we walked out with ‘central Europe’ plastered over a huge piece of multi coloured paper. With not-so-detailed roads all the way from Haute-savoie in Alpine France to the Croatian-Italian border, we were pretty covered. That still didn’t change the fact of not knowing where we were headed.
We’d spent the previous day not picking up a campervan, after I had inadvertently not responded to the confirmation email. I had assumed that a pick up time, location, price, and deposit on my credit card would have been sufficient, but I will from now on never fail to read the small print, even if it is in German. As such, we’d felt a bit like we’d lost a day of the trip, and I was struggling to play catch up for the months we’d been apart already. Five hours of spending money going nowhere in the pouring rain certainly didn’t help, but by the end of the day, we had a VW golf, and a vague direction planned. I’m an admitted Strava addict, and our first concern regarding a destination was ‘where can we find the most sinuous stretch of snaking tarmac’, of which the ride-finder tool provided particularly useful. With the option of bringing just one bike to this continent, we would be on pavement for the entirety of the trip, but that was something I would not be resenting, as riding bikes together beats riding bikes apart, no matter what kind of bikes they are. Strava told us that we should drive an hour south to Bruneck, where we could circumvent the ski area of the Kronplatz, before dropping into Val Badia for a scenic cruise back down the valley.
Bikes in car. Coffee in hand. Freshly baked, hastily consumed croissants sitting comfortably in our stomachs, we jumped onto the motorway and immediately found traffic. Lots of it, all going the same way: south. We sat, I remembered what a manual transmission was like in stop start traffic, and we got frustrated. Our drive doubled in time, our wallets lightened with the Italian tolls, and we finally pulled in the centre of Bruneck to pay our first of many car park fees. We hustled our bikes together as quickly as possible, and within little time the world was a much better place. We spun out of the cobbled pedestrian streets and onto a small bike path that paralleled the busy road, and followed that all the way to the base of the climb.
Less than 30 minutes into the ride, and at the base of the very first hill, Christa pulls up in pain, and is off her bike with shooting pains in her knee. Not ideal. A week long riding trip should never begin with knee pain. We stop and stretch, and its obvious things aren’t quite right, but an insistence to continue means we pedal trepidatiously up the remaining slopes of the Furkelpass.
Its hard to recount a story when every place has two names. The Alpine scenery in this part of Italy is Germanic in more than just architecture, and the majority of the population is German speaking, and thus is seems appropriate to use Deutsch names here. We greet fellow riders in German, and get buzzed by troops of middle aged and overweight men on expensive and loud motorbikes. Their identities would have remained more of a mystery if they hadn’t have stopped at the top of the pass to marvel at the same view we did.
We cruised down a couple of switchbacks, but couldn’t resist the views and had to stop for more photos. Its such a hard decision when you have to choose between railing amazing alpine descents, or breathing in huge mountains of the dolomites. Again, we stopped another couple of turns down as we saw a hoard of motorbikes approaching. A local centenarian took the chance to talk to us, by which I mean he made a number of sounds which could have been interpreted as language, and I responded with things like ‘we’re riding to Bruneck’. Whatever he was actually trying to say, he seemed happy! We carried on through winding lanes and villages perched on the hills in between meadows of long grass flowing in the afternoon breeze.
Back in town, we decided to christen the first day in Italy with a proper pizza. We made ourselves look a little less like cyclists and wandered along the small streets, under the shadow of the castle. Our mid-afternoon mealtime meant that most of the restaurants were closed, but we found a deserted place at the far end of the street, and tucked into the first of many delicious treats. With sustenance, we headed on our way, again further south, and up into the high dolomites.
After the mornings drive through horrendous traffic, we chose the scenic route. The downside of our map covering most of Europe was that we weren’t really sure of how long it would take to get to lake Garda, but we knew the roads would be small. Time wasn’t really an issue, so our drive was relaxed and winding. Through the magnificent Alta Badia, over Passo Gardena and directly into the heart of the biggest rock faces I have ever seen. After watching a magnificent sunset, we drove on and down and down, and down. We reached the Trento-Adige valley in the dark, with huge blobs of rain hitting the windscreen, and drove the final 45 minutes hoping we’d make it to the lake before our hotel check in closed.
We made it. Just.