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Fango, Frane & Fine Ales

29 August 2023

Words & Photos: Huw Kingston

“You crazy Australian. What you doing?” It’s a long story but my ‘doing’ was mountain biking in Italy for the first time, competing (hardly) in a 6-day stage race, riding a singlespeed for the first time.

I spent much of that week perfecting the art of pushwalking in the Apennines, that spine of hills supporting the boot that is Italy. I won my category of one and was, for my efforts, presented with a huge ham that would feed a large Italian Catholic family for a week. I’m a vegetarian.

In truth it was a lot of fun and reignited my passion for that country of passions. Passions for food, for wine, for their history and for their land. So much so that for the past dozen years I’ve run a MTB tour to Italy. Biking the Boot first weaves a devious line through the Apennines on singletrack, dirt tracks, gravel roads and a bit of asphalt. From the outskirts of Rome through Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany and into Emilia Romagna. Then, after two weeks, we travel up into the mighty Dolomites for a final week from Cortina to the mountain bike town of Riva Del Garda and a finish after some 800 km of riding.

Riding in the red zone, Umbria.

Early singletrack in Umbria.

Skills park in Spoleto, Umbria.
The Apennines

Close to Rome, in the town of Rieti, we did circle work around the Umbilicus, the plinth marking the centre of Italy. It was good to be back for the first time since Covid. A bar hidden down an ancient narrow, cobbled street had, the night before, set us off on our quest to find good beer all along our route. Italy too has embraced the craft beer scene, no longer having to endure the unjust deserts of Peroni or Moretti. Biking the Boot or Biking the Brew?

We eased our way into the hills, adding vertical with diversions to hilltop villages for espresso. The sun blessed us for the first few days, but, on the approach to Assisi, the first deluge began. Fortunately Birra Dell’Eremo, a fine brewery, offered shelter and succour, preferable to the dry cathedrals of Assisi.

Riding beneath Assisi.

La Dolce Vita can come wet or dry, solid or soft. The last time I ran the tour, waterproofs didn’t come out once in three weeks. Then in 2023...

‘Molte fango, molte fango’ the cry went out. Loads of mud. We slithered some singletrack, softened by the previous day’s rain. A creek crossing offered an opportunity to wash the worst of bikes and bodies. Dex our tour mascot, a cross between a king and a dinosaur, had his ermine robe well plastered after a fango facial from his handlebar throne. Dex had been chosen to mark both the coronation of King/Rex Charlie on the first day of our tour, and perhaps the extinction of the anachronistic institution.

Dex sees the writing on the wall.

Dex living the life of luxury, before ...

landing in the fango.

At our hotel in the centre of Gubbio, we were momentarily excited by a shop next door called Ale, newly opened since my last visit. But alas it was boutique fashion, not brews. Fortunately our support vehicle had a stockpile from a brewery in Spoleto, picked up two days before.

The next day had rumours of a small brewery on a small farm. We found the farm, but there was nothing indicative to entice us in. But we’d rode too far to turn back now, and pedalled through the gate, past some sheds and there, on the corner of one, a tiny plaque ‘Cocca Mia! – Birra Agricole’. There was no-one around until eventually the farmer turned up to explain Cocca Mia! was his son’s venture and he, Mario, was still asleep somewhere in town. Senor opened up the shed to pour us some tasting glasses. The Doppio Malto was a favourite, so we organised for our support vehicle to swing by later in the day to collect supplies when Mario came to.

A selection of Cocca Mia! beer.

Singletrack in Umbria.

Farm track in Umbria.

Our last night in Umbria is at a favourite agriturismo (farmstay) below the tiny, hilltop village of Monte Sante Maria Tiberina. Adriana, Gianpaolo and their family always give us the warmest of welcomes and the finest of food. Inevitably Gianpaolo brings out his Vin Santo, the wine of saints, as we always find plenty to toast – the country, the riding, the food, the Vin Santo itself. Inevitably too, Lucio, my good friend, mountain biker and owner of six hair salons, swings by to join us for dinner and to give me a haircut, egged on by the crew with suggestions as to how best to deal with my tangled mop.

Before the Vin Santo comes out at Il Monte.

Huw gets styled (some hope) by Lucio, the mountain biking barber.

It pays to eat a small brekkie before we leave Tiberina. An hour’s ride away, just after we cross into Tuscany, Mirella waves us into her kitchen with crostata, fresh from the oven. Well, it’s normally an hour away. This year our regular track was blocked off, and the only route to crostata heaven involved a longish detour. Along the way we took an alternative track that seemed to head in the right direction. We shouldn’t have.

The 30 minutes of hauling bikes up a too steep slope was bad enough but the descent was fango dancing hell. Superglue mud consumed us and our bikes, building layer onto layer. Bikes tripled in weight and had to be pulled, pushed, carried and thrown down the slope. One kilometre. One hour.

Fango dancing.

Leafy trail in Tuscany.

We were late, starving and filthy when we arrived at Mirella’s, but the welcome was as warm as always and we devoured her delights.

Biking the Boot continues into ever wilder terrain, moving north through Tuscany and into Romagna and, at Poggio Scali (1620m), reaching our highest altitude before the Dolomites.

Below that highpoint at another favourite hotel in tiny Campigna, a weather warning came through for some rain, a little heavy but not excessive. That same night I was explaining to the crew, over beers from Sardinia, that unlike Australia where we still build on flood plains and other inappropriate places, the ‘old’ countries have reached a sort of equilibrium with their land after thousands of years. Land that might flood, hills that might slide, now avoided.

The following day we rode, in ever more torrential rain, keeping to the blacktop for simplicity and safety. Rivers rose and rocks rolled onto roads. Soaked to our skin we arrived at our hotel in San Benedetto in Alpe. We stayed the one night as planned, another as the deluge continued. Frane, Italian for landslides, now blocked our way out, roads disappeared. Where the waters rushed out from the mountains, the beautiful old towns of Faenza and Forli suffered terrible flooding.

Normally a stream, now a raging torrent in San Benedetto.

Hillsides just slid across roads near San Benedetto.

Crossing a fresh landslide enroute to Faenza.

Buckled road above Predappio.

Reaching Brisighella, the final destination of this first stage of Biking the Boot, was now impossible. Faenza, some 50 kilometres away, a possibility. As the rain eased, Margherita, the friendliest Carabineri in all of Romagna, permitted us to leave but warned us to take great care. 10 hours and 90 kilometres later, clambering over landslides, mud often up to our knees, through fields where roads had once been, diversion upon diversion, we eventually came to Faenza. The old city was devastated, mud from the receding waters everywhere. The region had suffered its worst floods in 200 years, 20 people killed, thousands homeless. So much for that equilibrium.

Brisighella, Romagna.

Less than two months later southern Italy, southern Europe in general, was burned by temperatures never experienced before. Equilibrium is no more in a changing climate.

Loading bikes and bodies onto and into a minivan at Faenza, we escaped and drove the four hours to the Dolomites that same night. Even a Moretti at midnight tasted good.

'Flood and Landslides-Seeds of hope emerge from disaster' Newspaper billboard, Brisighella.

A conference of ducks discuss the floods.
The Dolomites

I sometimes think the two weeks through the Apennines is plenty to satisfy any mountain biker. But, without fail, when I wake that first morning in Cortina, when we ride those first trails, I think no way could we miss this. Cloud piercing mountains, still snowcapped, soaring cliffs that give you vertigo just in the viewing and mad trails that weave amongst it all. God I love the Dolomites.

After the efforts of the previous day, it took a bit of effort to get going on our first Dolomiti day. Gregg didn’t hang around though when he was chased by a large, aggressive, male Capercaillie, a bird that stands close to a metre tall.

Fending off a Capercaillie.

On the Sellaronda.

Many ride the renowned Sellaronda route with gondola/chairlift assistance through summer. But, going in May, the lifts take a break between the winter and summer seasons. So long, steady climbs to passes – Campolongmo, Gardena, Sella – often on the blacktop, give access to singletrack descents that demand a photo at every turn.

Even the roads are spectacular and as we climbed up to the Sella pass a tiny, red, ancient Fiat 500, the classic Cinquecento, passed me. Struggling as much as I was I whipped out my camera, but was too late. Then, rounding the next switchback, there it was, pulled over, as if knowing I wanted it to. The driver climbed out, a huge bear of a man that had me puzzling how the hell he got into the Cinquecento in the first place.

Cinquecento in the Dolomites.

Strength obtained by one serve of tripe.

The weather was kind to us as we trended south west across the alpine country. An ancient, rocky path beyond Passo Rollo shook tooth and bone, and gave me a good spanking on the hardtail. Timing our arrival at Caoria a bit late for lunch, we caught the back end of a festival celebrating the 60th anniversary of the local mountain rescue team. Food was still available, if tripe is food. Even Trent, renowned for his gutsiness in the true sense of the word, found it hard to stomach.

Tough ascents, to Broccon Pass and the Asiago Plateau, were tempered by soft beds, hot showers and endless courses for dinner. Weiss Biere refreshed, the Teutonic influence a function of history and demands of visitors from Austria and Germany. Ascents tempered too by equally long descents on trails of every description.

Descending from Rollo Pass.

Rocky Trail in the Dolomites.

Sunset at Broccon Pass.

In Lavarone, on our penultimate night, Andrea, who bears a striking resemblance to Louis Theroux, fed us a meal to die for. The final forkfuls a mix of satisfaction and sadness. Whilst the final singletrack of the final day to Riva Del Garda beat the final deluge, the storm caught us on a route the Giro D’Italia had traversed the previous day. We viewed pink banners through rain spotted glasses, grateful we were on fat tyres not thin. Then grateful to be on the bike path to Riva as the storm passed and the sun over Lake Garda, Italy’s largest, sparkled.

Join me in May 2024 - although if you’re thinking you might bring a singlespeed, I could probably dissuade you. More details at www.huwkingston.com.

So many routes.

Tunnel track near Broccon.

The perfect lunch log.