Our original thought was to cycle tour through Italy. Then we mused that a mountain bike road trip might be more like us. The thought of combining the two didn't really emerge until the drive train on my touring bike imploded during a test outing in the Black Forest. The cost to replace all the broken bits was about the same as buying a trailer. Decision made, we would ride our trail bikes from one mountain bike destination to the next.
'Our' and 'us' would be Sonja and myself. Sonja is Swiss and we were living near Basel at the time. Both had had our noses perilously close to the grindstone for longer than intended. So it was easy to justify some time off for bad behaviour.
Traversing a small part of Europe on a 6" travel bike doesn't immediately present as a brilliant concept. Dragging your life and a set of knobblies behind you on a trailer, an out-dated map of questionable accuracy, and an implausibly low allowance of euro 50 a day for the two should have telegraphed disaster. Unperturbed, we kicked off in the Pinzgau area of Austria. Blowing our nose, Monty Python style, in the general direction of such famous mountain bike destinations as Kitzbüel, Saalbach, Leogang and Kaprun - we headed instead for the fabulously named, but little known Neukirchen am Grossvenediger (literally but perhaps incorrectly translated as the New Church on Big Venetian). It's a small town with some amazing tracks including the Rob J Supertrail, somewhat predictably built by local guru Rob J. Beyond the manufactured mountain bike tracks, the truly outstanding trails were those with a bit of history. Rewarding not only for the never-ending technical descents and uninterrupted views of the Alps but also for the 'forests' of wild blueberries we encountered on one memorable outing. Bashing through all that precious muffin filling we eventually emerged into town with huge smiles, a backpack full of berries and stained lower legs that suggested we had been attacked with a cricket bat.
A kindly Austrian with a big car and a penchant for yodel music dropped us at Staller Saddle. Ahead of us lay three days of flowing downhill from the Austrian border, down and through Südtirol- the German speaking part of Italy. The route was close to 100% free of cars. Cycle touring in the region is amazing. A cycle path that includes an old rail line (complete with tunnels), runs from the north of the Dolomites all the way to Venice. As tempting as that was, we exited stage right at Roveretto and set a course for the mountain biking utopia of Lake Garda.
I've been to Riva del Garda three times now, and without wanting to spark a fiery debate, I rate it as a good time but have since found even better mountain biking destinations in Italy. However the setting, gelato and riding made Riva a worthy stop as part of this larger trip. We indulged in very big climbs and loose rocky descents terminated with pasta and wine.
Windsurfing is really big at Garda and it blows seriously hard. With the wind on our backs we pedalled south to Verona to meet Romeo and Juliet. Once there, unable to navigate to our chosen campground, we enlisted the help of the police. It was frustrating and amusing in that order. The officers assured us that there was no camping in or around Verona and emphatically not at the address specified. An hour later, having embarrassingly climbed the same hill twice, our campground was discovered precisely where the police declared it wasn't.
An indirect route avoiding main roads lured us further south, through Parma (as in ham and therefore sandwiches) to Cinque Terre National Park. A small sachet of dried porcini was purchased at great expense and then promptly lost off the back of the bike trailer. Sadly there were no mushrooms with the risotto that night. We received conflicting information about cycling through the Cinque Terra. Some fellow travellers told us the tunnels were closed to cyclists while the locals said it wasn't a problem. At the Tourist Office in La Spezia we were advised "you can't ride there but if you go now it should be ok". We split the odds and caught the train through, camped on the other side and then cycled back in and out of the Park as a day trip. The Cinque Terra is brochure perfect and worth the effort - terraced olive groves and vineyards step down to the lime washed ancient fishing villages and deep azure of the Mediterranean.
Heading east along the Italian Riviera we dropped anchor at Finale Ligure. It's the quintessential postcard town complete with stripy sun-bed filled beaches and a medieval town centre. Scratch the surface though and there's an expansive trail network covering numerous valleys, dropping from 1400m to sea level. Mostly old Roman military or trade routes, the gradient is relaxed - making for long flowing singletrack laced with plenty of technical surprises. Trail access is either self-propelled or by shuttle (with or without guide).We indulged in three days of each and happened upon some of the best riding when lost. Gelato and a swim perfectly capped off each incredible day of riding. Our budget, bikes and bodies took a hammering. It was worth it.
With my passion for cycling only equalled by that for food, touring through Tuscany had been a long held dream. We trained toPisa, took a snap of the building with a slight lean and hurried to Lucca. Along with San Gimignano and its famous towers, Lucca is one of my favourite Tuscan towns. It was home to Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini, writer of many famous operas and presumably inventor of the cursed mushrooms we lost earlier in the trip.
Avoiding Tuscany's main roads rewards the keen adventurer with minimal traffic, views of nearly every Tuscan clichè, and the added delight of generally not having a clue where you are. On the morning we left San Gimignano we made our way down a small dirt road, which became a smaller steep dirt road, across a vineyard, onto a dirt track, over a stream, up yet another steep dirt road to find ourselves behind the large gates of a Tuscan villa being yapped at by a three legged Chihuahua. The dog-shaped rat alerted the owner and the gates opened, spilling us onto the road about 50m from where started two hours before. At that point Sonja asserted her authority and insisted on a more direct pathto Siena and then on to Florence.
Cycling through the vineyards and olive groves of Chianti it was clear that there was a bunch of great trail riding to be had in them there hills. With luck we'll make it back one day to explore. Savouring that promise to ourselves, we happily meandered along the back roads, taking timely breaks from the sun to sample the local culinary delights and wash it all down with a glass or three of Classico.
Our jaunt through Italy mixed 2000km of cycle touring with two weeks of trail riding, around six weeks in total. It proved to be an inspired combination. One we plan to replicate as time and finances allow.