It's no coincidence that pizza and bicycle wheels are both round. Rumours infer that a quattro formaggi inspired the first mountain bike expedition into the Italian Alps, or at least fuelled it. And there is no better post-ride treat than a triple headed gelato. In fact, I submit that if the peloton ate more pizza and gelato then less drugs would be consumed in the grand tours.
I digress. Ditte and I planted the flag in Chamonix last September for a month of mountain biking. The trails are sensational but some were crowded and others closed to bikes until the end of August. After a few rides, including the legendary tour around Mt Blanc, we upped sticks and headed through the Mt Blanc tunnel for the less busy Val d'Aosta in Italy.
The Aosta Valley stretches from the French border in the west to Point-Saint Martin in the east, and from the National Park Grand Paradiso in the south to the Swiss border in the north. It is chocker full of tall peaks (including the five highest in Europe), high passes, river valleys and glaciers – all laced with singletrack ready to be explored. We anchored ourselves just beyond the famous ski resort of Courmayeur, at a campground in the rustic little town of La Salle.
We had snaffled a big fat copy of Mountainbiken im Aostal. An english version exists but we were unable to track down at short notice. Ditte’s school girl German was put to good use deciphering the guidebook’s 61 rides, from flattish valley cruises to mountain tours with buckets of climbing.
First up we combined a couple of the book’s rides, heading up the slope behind La Salle to Challancin and on to Les Ors at just over 2000m. A singletrack descent delivered us into the alpine village of Planaval. A big black Harley was parked outside the local bar. Over the road, a dozen immaculate white Scott mountain bikes were lined up in a cave that doubled as a garage. Very strange. Stranger still was the butt-naked bloke having a bath in the village square. We didn't linger nor risk refilling our water bottles. Out of town, we crossed a river and enjoyed pine needle singletrack down to Morge and back to Challancin. Our added variation channelled us into the mountains and down a rocky goat track to the remote town of Charvaz, then down some serious singletrack to Fenetre and Prariond. A 35km figure eight with1355m of climbing. Very zen.
The Tour of Mt Fallere looked like a winner for our second ride… 62km with 2700m of climbing to enjoy. Starting at the small village of Vens, we struggled to find the track. Enquiring at the local inn, we discovered the start had been washed away over the winter. An alternate forest track was prescribed. High country meadows and bell ringing cows greeted us as we emerged from the forest, followed by a very fast downhill and equally steep climb.
The local cows had knocked over the track markers, making route-finding quite time consuming. A final carry to the Col Citrin was rewarded with fantastic views from the sunnier side of the hill. The descent included some great lines but navigation continued to challenge us. We passed a number of derelict 18th century stone farm buildings, collapsing slowly into the meadows, before finally reaching the edge of the woods. A luge of steep, rocky technical trail swimming with switchbacks descended to the valley floor. Arms pumped, brakes burning and smiles on our dials.
Pointing north, we continued to Etroubles and its famous bakery. Tanks full, we reflected on the morning with one and a half hours route-finding and just three hours of riding. It was a late lunch and at that rate we would be returning in the dark. So we reluctantly turned around to retrace our steps. The grovel back up to Col Citrin was hard yakka, but the downhill to Vens compensated. Defeated in part, but we still notched up 52km and 2200m of climbing.
A day of rest 'n' all, we drove to Colle San Carlo on the south side of the Aosta Valley for our Sunday ride. A wide gradual path ambled along to the shores of Lake d'Arpy . Lunch in the sun preceded a granny gear climb above the lake. This prime position provided stunning views to the Col de la Croix, across to the rocky crags of the Becca Pougnenta and back down to the lake. We imbibed the grand vista then descended to join a mule trail that climbed to the Col de la Croix… carrying, pushing and occasionally riding our way up.
The Col is home to a vast array of military ruins including a short stocky rock wall leading from the barracks to the 2400m peak on the adjacent ridge. We climbed to the summit, and had fun matching the surrounding peaks with a large, suspiciously pizza-shaped, brass dial. Mt Blanc was dominant amongst the many glaciated peaks and valleys.
The long singletrack descent that peeled off the summit had clearly been built by the gods (of the Catholic variety no doubt). It wound gracefully around the ridge and snaked its way back to Colle San Carlo through miniature conifers, rock fields and switchbacks. 22km of bliss and 855m of climbing. A rest day indeed.
Heading from La Salle towards the city of Aosta, we drove up a long valley to the alpine village of Lillaz at 1600m. Lillaz was host to a section of the gruelling 330km Tor des Géants Trail Run. Weary competitors shuffled by as we unloaded our bikes. The first climb took us through the rocky crags on the lower slopes of the Punta Penna Bianca and along an open terrace above the river. Beside a dusty trail an old church is all that remained of a once thriving farming community and above it waterfalls tumbled over sheer rock walls, splashing their way to the river below.
A switchback climb following a rocky water course eventually led us onto an expansive 'big sky' plateau. Cows ambled and ruminated in the traditional fashion. A gravel road then wound its way across the main river and up a jeep track to the Passo Invergneux trailhead. Steep singletrack, only just etched into the slope, climbed 350m to the sum
mit. We pushed and carried the unrideable sections, including the final scree slide to 2902m. This was the highest point on our trip… as Phil 'le Tour' Liggett would say, "wellinto rarefied air". The rocky ridge eased down into a gentle grassed valley, with small sparkling blue lakes dotting its upper reaches and singletrack as far as the eye could see.
After lunch beside the first lake and we lapped up the uninterrupted downhill to the quaint settlement of Erveilleres. A tricky descent then dumped us in Pralognan for more endless downhill to Alpeggio Pila. A short climb followed, before the final unforgettable flowing descent to Gimillan. We were all singletracked-out aswe cruised beside the river back to the start, 34km and 1400m later. Gelato at a quirky bar in Lillaz capped the day. The patron appeared to have escaped from a spaghetti western. Not to be messed with.
Our final fling in Italy took us to the Saint-Nicolas region and the Tour di Vetan. From the one horse town of Vetan Dessus we climbed a series of winding farm roads to Arpeggio Or and on to the hanging valley of Les Crottes. A massive ski chalet and herd of ding-dong cows greeted us. A small tarn and large cairn strung with Tibetan prayer flags provided a nice spot for lunch of local cheese, tasty tomatoes and fresh bread.
The anticipated singletrack downhill into the open meadows duly arrived. We circumnavigated the high pasture before choosing a gnarly trail that dropped in fits and starts to the valley below. Crossing to the next ridge we descended to Chatelanz, then followed a fast flowing water course before looping around Mount Greume and back to our start point at Vetan. Hay making was in full swing. Its sweet smell lingered while we packed the van. By contrast the three wheel motorised carts hauling the hay along the once quiet back roads noisily spluttered smoke and oil at us. They were dangerously overloaded and seemed constantly at risk of tipping over. We survived to attend to our own packing that night and a sumptuous last supper.
I confess to falling in love with the ubiquitous Fiat Panda 4 x 4s. Stacks of these old things in varying states of disrepair plied their way along the tracks and trails that connect Aosta's many mountain villages. Light and agile, slim and cheap to run.
We tunnelled our way back to France. Our tantalising taste of Italy left us hungry for more. Like Arnie, we'll be back – next time with our bikes stashed in a Fiat Panda.