On any clear day from the cobbled streets, court yards and balconies of Bormio, the stately peak of Cima Bianca (Bormio 3000) looms large with the snow capped Monte Vallecetta rising up into the heavens behind it. We had a cunning plan and drove up to Bormio 2000 (1938m) to start the mean 1200 metre climb to the top (Bormio 3000).
The ski field service road was wide and steep with little respite from the grade or the prevailing elements. The occupants of two descending lift service vehicles surely thought we were mad by the look on their collective faces, and of course we were, no doubt about that. The top came in its own good time with the pain of climbing slowly receding as we acclimatised in the hot sun, sheltered behind the Bormio 3000 lift restaurant and surrounded by thin air and remnants of a recent snow fall. We were alone on this erie ridge top, the ski infrastructure had packed its bags and gone inside to wait for winters snow.
The views were outstanding amongst a sky full of white fluffy clouds above valleys and mountains of shadow and light. A 13km freeride gravity downhill awaited our first pedal stroke. Refueled and hydrated we took the plunge. The trail is rocky, in fact its rocks piled upon rocks on a rocky bench track. A tad bumpy but no lack of braking traction and noisy feedback. Our descent was as if sound tracked by caveman banging a barrow load of rocks together. The mystical lake of Bei Laghetti and Laghi di Profa soon came into view. A large group of goats inhabited the high ground between them and inspected us from afar as we rode down to these intensely blue glacial remnants.
From the lakes the track swings into the Sobretta Valley on dirt and smooth round rock, proving to be the most technical section of the trail. A series of steep, rutted and very loose drops dragged us unapologetically into the bottom of the valley for a magic switch back descent beside a waterfall to the grazing high country below. Lunch in the sun was well deserved before we tackled a singletrack climb into the forested slopes above St Caterina Valfurva. This was followed by a fun section of tree roots and drops amongst the free growing pine trees, pine needles and leaf litter. We finally reached a wild and wacky farm house with tumbling barns, the Italian flag flying proudly above the jumble.
Our cunning plan was to traverse then climb and then traverse again on a series of forestry roads back to our motor at Bormio 2000. Some good advice from the old farmer proved its worth, but the super steep ascent up to the second traverse knocked all the wind out of our sails. Granny gear was no match for the gradient and lose surface at times. The second traverse was a hoot, gradually descending all the way back to Bormio 2000 to close the loop. Only 32kms in distance but made up for by the 1750 meters of uphill torture and a very memorable and awesome descent. We were too late in the season, but the lifts do run for mountain bikers between July 2nd and September the 4th.
Livigno slumbered in the shadows as the morning chill crept into our very souls. We layered up with every skerrick of GE clothing we had in our packs, before heading along the benched single track. This beautiful unappreciated section of track took us to the valley floor where big fat inquisitive cows cruised around oblivious to the hard frost. Our only aim was a patch of yellow at the far end of the trail, where the valley headed right and upwards in all its goodness and warm light. Redemption soon arrived and we found ourselves stripping down to one layer and climbing rapidly towards the Swiss border.
The Swiss border was manned by young hipsters. We did not cross there, but took the cunning piece of trail that headed upwards into the mountains. This superb trail had been recently serviced and re-benched, making it into an exceptionally good climb. A section of switch-backs took us past a large steel blue alpine tarn and onto the pass. A massive glacier filled up our vision and on the downhill to the Bernina Pass had only a small insignificant hydro lake to compete with. Yes, this is where the famous Swiss train journey summits and was, surprisingly, named after a very good line of sewing machines. Im sure in every Swiss basement there is a model train set, and in the countryside trundles the real thing on narrow gauge and wide.
In the mountains the clockwork cog railways climb, the most famous of which starred in the “Eiger Sanction” movie and claws its way up from Kleine Scheidegg to the Jungfraujoch. Their railway system is so well utilised for freight and passengers that on the main trunk line a train rushes by every two minutes, like Swiss clockwork. The planet's longest train tunnel resides deep underground in Switzerland. After 20 years of hard labour and toil, the 57km (35-mile) twin-barrel Gotthard tunnel has burrowed its way under the alps between northern and southern Europe.. In the mountains it's tempting to think that every house flying the Swiss flag is a Red Cross depot, and who knows, it may well be true from a first aid point of view. Help is readily at hand as Swiss Telecom have managed the impossible task of effectively providing 100% cell phone coverage across the entire land, so ordering a pizza at any remote rifugio is definitely on the cards. I digress.
We checked the topo map and single tracked our way down the valley to the biggest gelato shop in all of Switzerland. The trail started from above the tree line, wound its way through it and along dry stone walled farms and mountain villages. A smooth gravel road climb took us up to Rifugio Saosea and back onto single track for the final ascent to Passo Viola. The longer shadows of afternoon were invading this rocky mountain landscape adding contrast and subtle shades of rich colour to our vistas. Mountain tarns reflected jagged peaks of shattered rock and alpine streams clattered noisily over the flat smooth rocks on their chosen paths.
The summit came soon enough with only downhill remaining to our rifugio. We sped along an old military track, just wide enough for a couple of horses pulling a gun carriage, to Rifugio Viola. It's an old WW1 military barrack with metre thick walls and gun slit windows impervious to gun fire and most of the cold. Our hosts and a large bunk room greeted us in Italian. Tea was big slabs of polenta and a hot stew, washed down with strong red wine and mountain water, followed by cake, tea and coffee. In this rather large rifugio we were only joined by a solitary Swiss National. He professed to having only studied old Greek, Latin, Italian, English and German at collage as he switched seamlessly between English for us and Italian for our host. Their micro hydro plant kept the lights blazing and the heaters heating. We slept like an army mascot, under a pile of rough woolen blankets.
The next day dawned crystal clear and cool. As the shadows lifted slowly from the valley into a clear blue sky. We set off refreshed but under-breakfasted, as only two small white buns with jam and a big pot of tea were on offer. Not our usual culinary start to the day. Bits of singletrack lowered us down to a critical junction with an invitation to head back up into the hills for an entertaining climb towards our second big pass of the trip. The track was well sign posted with the now familiar cast aluminum red and silver plaques, and went 4WD to an old mountain hut where gnarly singletrack prevailed, the lower section of which we pushed.
The track's upper reaches were ridable to the pass. Its crest surrounded big mountains with virtually no trees in sight but a few tenacious pines are returning to the lower slopes. The downhill was rocky, wet and committing, but provided lots of fun as we rolled back to civilisation. First a few remote farm buildings came our way, then a small settlement and finally a tiny village near the town of Trepalle at the main road. This was going to be our lunch spot and it didn't disappoint. Two giant pizzas and large Radlers marched out to our table in the sun and both were inhaled.
The restaurant was packed with local workmen, having their usual hour long lunch break filled with beer and pasta. Singletrack took us all the way back to Lake Livigno, that wonderful duty free town. We had a relaxing gelato and bathing in the hot afternoon sun recharging our batteries. A short climb and we had closed the loop back to the van. We packed up amongst a herd of Hungarian adventure motorcyclists, all watching these strange alien mountain bikers, a riddle to them, and then they were gone. Bormio but a windy mountain road drive away.
Our last stint in this fables land saw us climb unassisted to Passo di Verva, to explore a bunch of WW1 relics. A row of drunken railway sleepers marked the top, its barb wire removed and stored rusting next to the trail. Tunneling above the pass revealed an extensive network of gun emplacements and trenches with military tracks heading towards the clagged out tops. We inspected the remains of an old barrack complex and lunched sheltered from the cold wind, but with an excellent view into the next valley over. An old military road returned us back to the van and home in time to pack.
We had used up way too many weather credits, and even with a couple of crocked dice, you can't always throw a seven. It was time to fly south to the Riva del Garda and the promise of double digit inflation, limestone and a rather large water body.
The original 23.6kg Swiss Army Bicycle, AKA Armeefahrrad - Militärvelo - Militaervelo - Militärfahrrad - vélo militaire - bicycletta militare, and the M0-5, made its way into the hearts and minds of every 31.8kg backpack carrying Swiss soldier from 1905 onward. With its coaster rear brake and spoon front, this single speed, steel tubed monolith could be muscled up hill by the extremely fit and reach uncontrollable downhill speeds with ease. The quality of its build and extensive accessories are legendary and if thrown from a high cliff would quickly disable a battle tank, thus insuring the integrity of Swiss neutrality.
An extract from “Zen and the Art of the Bicycle”