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Italy's Alta Valtellina Bormio and Livigno

07 October 2016

By Dave Mitchell


Leonardo Da Vinci had a soft spot for Bormio “At the head of the Valtollina are the mountains of Bormio, terrible, always full of snow, here ermine are born” but he did enjoy the hot springs back in 1493 “In Bormio are the baths” he also said. He saw the mountain biking potential of the area and subsequently went on to invent the modern safety bicycle along with the roller chain and ball bearings for all things that rock and roll. These innovations, centuries ahead of their time, were treated as a novelty at court where his advanced war machines were much admired and put to good use.

Mussolini was also a fan, offering to utilise the Alta Valtellina WW1 fortifications to make his last stand back in 1945. Luckily a bunch of partisans and the liberating allies intervened and he never got any further than a vacant Esso gas station and a novel way of advertising discount fuel.

This high altitude mountainous landlocked peninsula is about 1200 square km of mountain biking joy in a convoluted sort of way. Bordered to the north by the illustrious mountain biking nation of Switzerland and to the east and south by a couple of Italy's innumerable provinces, it shares its incredible mountains and stunning vistas with Switzerland. The single-track passes and returns over imaginary borders laced with WW1 military tracks and trails, trenches and embattlements, forts and barracks. The mountains still echo with battles fought in appalling conditions for empires that have long disappeared in the dust of war and peace.

Bormio and Livigno make up the heart of the most wonderful MTB and road cycling area one could ever imagine. The six municipalities of the Alta Valtellina offer 1500km of bike and trekking trails, much of it single-track. The first thing we did when we got to Bormio after secreting our belongings in the excellent accommodation we had booked almost a year ago, was to head down to the excellent information centre. The monumental purchase of a boxed set of 25,000:1 topo-maps on all things trail, and the companion English edition book set of more things trail would set us up for our three week stay, at the bargain basement price of eight euros.

This was not the first time Ditte and I had fallen on our feet in unknown territory, and hopefully wouldn't be the last. Our large and palatial apartment was in the old part of the town within easy walking distance of the main shopping area. This boasts the highest density of classy Italian fashion shops this side of Rome. In contrast gnomons cast ghostly shadows across ancient sun dials on many of the old buildings, reminding us all that when the sun shines time does not stand still. For us this would be the final part of our Italian MTB trilogy. It all started many moons ago in the Aosta Valley, then a stint in the Dolomites and now finally Alta Valtellina. A bit like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, adventure and stunning scenery around every corner without the orcs and goblins.

The area is mainly famous for road cycling and contains six Giro d' Italia mountain pass rides. These attract hordes of hungry cyclists from all over the globe, who come and ride these famous climbs and Giro stages. The Cima Coppi named in honor of the five time Giro d'Italia winner, is bestowed upon the highest pass during the tour and the Stelvio Pass at 2760m is the highest and most famous of them all. There are a good few people who come just to walk all the tracks and trails, or like Leonardo, come to enjoy one of the four local hot spring spas. Winter is all about snow with a bit of fat tyre biking amongst the snow balls and snow men. They did tell us that without the amazing new fangled snow making machines a ski season would soon become a thing of the past.


Ditte's knee had made about 85% recovery and just in time. As Bob Dylan once said, and I misquote “the lifts were all closed, the gambling wheel shut down and anyone with any sense had already left town” great for us, no crowds but no lifts either. We started the pedals turning with two big adventure rides. The first headed along the half empty man made hydro lakes of Giacomo and Cancano, high in the mountains to the north and west of Bormio. Massively contorted 1000 metre granite grey rock buttresses loomed above us on the southern side of the lakes and a chain of 3000 metre peaks to the north marked the Swiss border. A single track loop took us down to the long hook shaped Lago di Livigno via the Passo di Valle Alpisella and back up via Passo di val Trela on sections of flowing single-track and back around the lakes to close the loop.

On our second day we climbed up to the legendary Stelvio Pass on our 2.4 knobblies pumped up to the max, mixing it with carbon road bikes that weighed less than our full back packs. It was clear and sunny so we just kept climbing to the Rifugio Garibaldi at 2838 metres, because an old military pack track descends and vagrantly criss crosses the Swiss border to Passo Umbail. The Swiss border patrol were out in force checking lorries and doing a bit of weeding and spring cleaning around their barracks. We sneaked back into Italy before they could enquire about our passports and parentage, taking a narrow single-track up to the WW1 fort remains of Bocchetta di Forcole. Above the fort a beautifully benched military road climbs back and forth up the rough and rocky hill side to the ridge top where another old fort resides. Its dry stone retaining walls still intact but parts of the bench are disappearing under scree. We found another long section of well formed military road on our downhill. It ended abruptly at a switchback trail that fair plummeted down to the Valle Forcola and yes more military road took us back to Bormio via Passo Piano. This, like many of our rides made possible by the tragedy of WW1.

On a cool and overcast grey day with rain in the air, we drove to the duty free town of Livigno, for some cheap diesel (78c/l vs 1.28c/l), Swiss choc and a single track loop of scenic splendor. We roamed along a pristine balcony trail up to a small mountain cafe and cheese shop, which was sadly shut. A single-track descent bounced us down to the valley floor beside an equally enthusiastic stream and then along equally excellent trail that returned us back to our start point. We met a group of hard charging Czech riders, their leader looking and sounding for all the world like Chekov from Star Trek. They left in a cloud of conflicting directional adjectives. We also admired a series of large hand carved wooden sculptures along the way and posed sympathetically with them.


We explored the many trails around the hills of Bormio, joining up some great single-track and interesting forestry trails to a few of the many old castle and church sites. We rode through small villages and remote farming settlements - little changed from the 1800s apart from the ubiquitous Fiat Panda 4 X 4s parked on dangerous slopes. These trusty and rusty motors coming in every colour and vintage imaginable. Hand cut grass on steep slopes is the norm, collected and fed to the cows over winter while some even get to graze outside in the summer.

We managed to get into the snow on a particularly bleak and cold day, climbing into sleet to the Rifugo Pizzini on a steep 4WD farm track. But the sun made its move as we descended an excellent benched single-track down to an the old fort of Rovine Casema then onto Rifugio Forni. A ridiculously steep 4WD track took us up to Rif Bianco where a very rocky and technical slice of single-track rode past the del Forno Glacier and over a couple of Tibetan bridges going directly back down to the van, much to our surprise. Clouds of every shade of grey and white marched relentlessly across the sky revealing mountain tops, glaciers and the valley floor below. The dynamic weather matched the dynamic riding with as much sunshine as not.

We returned to our two favorite hydro lakes for a leisurely loop into Switzerland via the Alp del Gallo and Passo di Mora. We encountered the Swiss version of the Kiwi MTB cattle stop, a couple of informative Swiss MTBers and tons of great single track to play on. The mountains were majestic and the trail was kind and flowing. Single track prevailed around the north side of each lake and below us the sunken city of Atlantic was emerging from the lake bed thanks to global warming. The lakes really did look like half filled bath tubs.

Bormio 2000 beckoned with an 800 meter road climb followed immediately by a long flowing balcony trail that headed east up to Santa Caterina. All the wild blue berry bushes were changing into their autumn shades of oranges and reds, and the birch trees were showing the first signs of yellow. We got a bit lost in our map translation and ended up winging our way back to Bormio on a nice series of high forestry trails and roads, an easy day thus extended.

Yet another famous Giro road climb drew us back to Santa Caterina, this one has been used 8 times since 1960. Interestingly, in 1988 a blizzard ensued and blast froze the riders as they came up to the summit of the Gavia Pass, both were covered in snow and ice. The Dutchman Eric Breukink was first up, followed by the eventual tour winner Andy Hamsten, neither had kind chattering words for the organizers. Swirling cloud greeted us at the top but it was sunny on our side of the up. A military trail took us to the Fausto Coppi monument and sculpture of the patron saint of cycling. We rode this trail around the lake and heading down the designated single-track from Rif Berni. It neither flowed nor plummeted to the open ridges above Santa Caterina. It was a bit of a frustrating trail and seemed more up than down. From the end of the open ridge a promising switch-back-downhill of epic proportions delivered a great top and bottom section, exiting at the east end of the town, which had all but shut up shop just waiting for the snow to arrive.

We had squeezed in a couple of well deserved rest days, found the local pizza and beer excellent and finally discovered some good bread for lunches. With another week up our proverbial sleeve and track ride options to match, everything was working out, as long as the weather agreed. In another month the snow tyres and chains would be out, the days would grow shorter and the nights long and cold. If global warming interrupts the warm swift Atlantic ocean current that provides Europe with milder summers and winters than their latitude deserves, they may return to bullet proof ski seasons and glaciers in the red. All that expensive snow making equipment could be packed up and sent to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

The humble marmot not only has an incredible whistle that fellow marmots say can be heard ten kilometers away in the high mountains of Europe, but some are mathematically gifted. They fully developed string theory eons ago, but soon realized it wasn't the event horizon it was cracked up to be. An unusual byproduct of all this hyper mathematics was a small simple unassuming equation, which in the fullness of time went on to predict the rise of the most efficient form of movement on the surface of the planet, the bicycle. Alas the mastery of which would go to a biped.

An extract from “Zen and the Art of the Bicycle”

Happy Biking