Here's a simple question... where's the best mountain biking in Europe? During a stint in Germany I taxed a few friends with this question and consistently got the same reply. "Lake Garda". I rifled through some bike magazines and found shots of Lake Garda leaping from the pages. It looked pretty wild. My mate Dickie was an exchange student in Trento at the time, which is within spitting distance of Lake Garda. I negotiated a patch of floor to camp on and shot over the Brenner Pass into Italy to see what all the fuss was about.
My trip coincided with "Bike Fest" - a weekend festival where thousands of German mountain bikers get drunk in a field beside the lake, then try to ride 80 miles the next day. We cruised down to Riva to check out the action. Our first glimpse down the Arco Valley revealed an impressive 1500m rock face rising directly from the otherwise innocuous valley floor. Awe would soon be supplanted by fear the next day when we found ourselves edging around the top of that very cliff. On to Riva where we discovered yet more vertical rock and 5000 festival goers- most of whom appeared to be working up a sweat at the free beer tent. We spotted a few "stars" at the festival - Greg Herbold and Gary Fisher among the throng.
My confused head struggled to reconcile great cycling with vertical rock. Back in Trento that afternoon, Dickie smugly announced "all would become clear" with a ride up the small hill at the back of his flat. The small hill was actually a 600m cliff but he assured me that there was a track of sorts leading up there. This area saw a bit of action during World War One hosting the front line between the Italian and Austrian Mountain Corps. The hills and cliffs are riddled with tracks, tunnels and bunkers. The tracks vary between cart and person width and are peppered with sobering vertical drops. After half an hour of pushing and carrying we arrived at a remarkable wooded plateau bordering the cliff. We sat on the edge, savouring the view down the Adige Valley in the setting sun. The descent was a taster for the next few days- one ill timed wobble would send you into a fatal free fall trip to the bottom.
Desensitised to the exposure, we opted for a biggie the following day. I had the 'Moser' guide book of Garda (available in German only) which provides route cards "guaranteeing that you will not need a map". Guide Book ratings are generally a bit easy for my taste, so we selected the "very hard" Monte Casale trail. Big mistake. Armed with the route cards but with no real idea of the terrain ahead we confidently headed off into a nondescript Italian forest. The track climbed steeply until it branched off onto some pleasant singletrack. Dickie was ambling along in front until he dramatically threw his bike to the ground and let out a string of expletives. I rushed up to him thinking he'd been bitten by a snake or something. The trees fell away leaving thin air between us and the valley far below. We were at the edge of the cliff we had gazed up at the previous day and Dickie had almost launched himself off the edge. The singletrack proceeded to wind its way precariously along the edge for a couple of kilometres before climbing to the summit of Monte Casale at 1632m. The top was lush like a bowling green with a refugio nearby. The only food I could ask for in Italian was pasta, which was lucky as that seemed to be all they were offering. Post lunch we struggled with a 1000m zigzag descent and a long traverse back to the car. After about 8 hours of riding, Dickie and I collapsed in a friendly alpine meadow; we agreed to leave each other to die there. A rest and snack returned us to reality and just 100m around the corner we rejoined our car.
The moral: sometimes 'very hard' does mean 'very hard'. Later in the trip we rode a 'moderate' route that finished with a near vertical 600m descent over 2km, and an 'easy' that protected the rider from a nasty cliff with a mountain bike proof fence. It's all breathtaking stuff.
Our highlight was the infamous 'Strada della Galleria' on Mount Pasubio. Many rate this as the best mountain bike ride in Europe. A difficult claim to verify as it is no longer legally open to bikes - a series of fatalities led it to be closed recently. To assist with compliance a big iron gate guards the track and during the weekends a policeman sits at the bottom collecting the £80 instant fine. The route is a 7km mule track along a cliff edge (of course). It loses 1000m and travels through 52 tunnels en route - the tunnels are unlit and rough-hewn from rock. At one point the track balances along a 1m wide ledge above a 1500m high precipice. At another spot it enters a pinnacle, performs seven spirals within the pinnacle before emerging from its base. Although the route is now closed a visit on foot is a must. Cycle to the Refugio Papa, then walk to the dramatic upper stages of the Strada Galleria before riding back via the less insane track on the other side of the ridge. The best trails in Europe? Who knows, but Lake Garda is certainly better than anything I've ridden so far. The major bummer is that none of the routes are marked and no English language guide exists- so you have to rely on astute map reading skills or brush up on your German.