Good morning Aosta.
The French management, who had contributed little to the war effort except wining and dinning the Germans, decided upon liberation by the allies that annexing a chunk of Italy (in the form of the Aosta Valley) was a cunning plan. Aosta population was French speaking Italians not displaced or lost Frenchmen, a fact the French overlooked. The French invaded under false pretense, but were soon told by the British and Americans, who had liberated Italy from the Germans after the Italians had liberated Italy from Mussolini, to go home or no Marshall Plan aid would be forthcoming. French along with Italian became the two official languages and Aosta kept its independence as a province within Italy. Yeehaa. The French made nice and turned their attention to Indochina and we all know how that panned out.
2 x world wars.
Don't get me wrong. There are way more than three lifts in the Aosta Valley. Some say one hundred, if you count the minos and pretenders - but only a few operate all summer long and feature the drawbridge-like Aosta castles. Our non-consecutive three-day passes provided access to the local Aosta lift of Pila Bikeland, Cervino aka the Matterhorn and La Thuile with its French Connection. We spread the three days out and used the uplifts as much needed rest days between big rides.
Pila top trail.
Pila offered two excellent adventure trails that roamed the upper levels of the city's southern peaks and kept us busy for many hours. From the top of the second lift we climbed to Lago di Chemole on pristine single-trail, traversed a skyline track to a narrow ridge descent that dropped us into the picturesque Vallone di Comboe. An extremely steep farm track then took us onto a working water-race track and from there a series of linked single-trail hummed all the way back down to Aosta. After lunch it was back up to Pila for a more undulating ride heading west on a series of tracks overlooking the steep faced Val di Cogne. The final pine-needle downhill was pretty awesome to finish up on. The tracks were deserted apart from a few walkers and brave locals with their wicker baskets picking dodgy looking colourful fungi.
It's a sign!
Breuil-Cervinia with its stunning backdrop of Cervino (the Matterhorn) and the Gruppo Monterosa provided a lift up to 3500 metres and another day's worth of adventure riding - plus fun flow trails to keep us amused below the truly jaw dropping backdrop. At Testa Grigia Plateau Rosa a massive glacier fans out of the Gruppo Monterosa providing summer skiing and a place for huge diggers to do what diggers do best at the bottom of equally ginormous and inconvenient crevasses. Presumably to stop humans from tumbling to their demise and thereby thwart evolution and frozen humans exiting thousands of years down the track.
The glacier ski field is in Swiss territory, not that the casual observer would notice the tiny flag on the Refugio Guide del Cervino, probably mistaking it for a first aid station. The Swiss lift from Zermatt is an engineering marvel and goes all the way to the 3900 metre top of the Gruppo Monterosa. With nowhere higher to go, it represents a last defiant stand against global warming and the place to be when the water bubbles upward.
White fluffy clouds soon rolled in to keep these 4000 metre giants company and shrouded in mystery. The lift was kept busy with skiers, sightseers, walkers and the odd biker. We discovered an old mining narrow gauge railway, some very gnarly downhills... and how sharp rocks cut tyres, invalidating the manufacturer's warranty and testing the tyre-sealant's will to go on sealing. In a very messy op, an inner tube was duly installed amongst the goop. We finished off with a couple of flow trails from Plan Maison and headed to a pizzeria, shattered from way too much descending.
The Giro came here.
But is it potable?
La Thuile Bike Park is a ball of spaghetti-inspired Mtb trails roaming below the impressive La Rosiere Mountain. It was a cool day when we arrived in town with a cold northerly adding a big time chill factor. This became pronounced on the open chair lift as we were elevated to the top. Beanies, long fingered gloves, leg warmers and our jackets were extracted from our packs before we pedalled upwards to Colle Belvadere and France, to check out the French connection.
The French ski resort of La Rosiere and Bike Zone occupies the slopes on the other side of the mountain. Alas swirling mist had enveloped the entire valley and the French could keep it that day. We continued upward discovering what looked like ancient military barracks and fortifications, all roofless. An original stone border post marked this as an ex Italian installation and a tunnel reaching back in the Italian direction alluded to just that. We froze our butts exploring the complex before heading for what turned out to be a series of amazing black and red Mtb trails. We called it a day when the rain set in around mid afternoon and the rocks and roots became mega slippery, a Billy Bragg accident waiting to happen.
La Thuile's rocky trails.
The conifer section.
Which came first?
A quick email to the Aosta Bus Company to clarify rules and costs for carrying bikes generated this reply:
“It is permissible to transport the bicycle, as far as possible, against the payment of half of the ticket of the simple race, as foreseen by art. 23, paragraph 2, of L.R. 29/1997. Best regards.”
Tza de Flassin.
We peddled down to the bus station confused but forever hopeful, where the very grumpy driver reluctantly let us stow the bikes below deck in the voluminous luggage locker. For seven and a half euros, the average Italian price of a 650B inner-tube, all four of us were transported to the start of the trail at St Oyen. This contrasted slightly with the 59 SF we paid for a similar Swiss bus ride. Our under two year old yellow Norco twins had to pay full fair on that occasion.
Carry stage 1.
After crossing the valley the ascent started immediately on a metal farm road. It climbed steeply up a side valley, below the north face of Mt Fallere, and ended at a row of cow sheds and semi detached hut at Tza de Flassin. Now this is where the TMF variant, track number 13 started. For the most part it was an hour carry to the 2800 metre Col Fenetre with just a few short riding sections to rest sore arms and shoulders.
From the top we bagged a 360 degree view of the Aosta Valley's main peaks. From Monte Rosa and Cervino to the east, Mont Velan to the north, Monte Bianco to the west and the the ice fields of Grand Paradiso to the south with just a few white fluffy clouds bobbing along the ridge tops. These are the highest peaks in Europe, all over 4000 metres and those in between are 3000+. A large carved log had made its way to the col and we lunched below its glare. We could reach out and touch the top of the 3061 metre Monte Fallere as it stood crystal clear, seemingly in the very centre of the Aosta Valley.
Follow the black dots.
A rocky downhill commenced with black dots, but it was mainly clear of loose rubble and proved a great start to the descent. As we rounded the ridge onto more moderate red dots, the Rifugio Mont Fallere came into view. After a beautiful series of challenging serpentine we rolled into the busy rifugio to fill our water bottles and admire the wooden garden art.
Mont Fallere Art Centre.
A long fast section of single track delivered us to Tsa De La Comba and on to a climb up to Becca France. It was literally and figuratively all downhill from there. The track was showing a few signs of wear and we were getting slapped around by the odd bit of overgrown flora. A storm must have caused the carnage with some deep ruts and fallen trees to work around, but the bottom section to Bellum was crisp and clear, full of switchbacks and steep stuff. Yes!
We refilled again in Bellum's shaded water trough, resting our pumped up hands, arms and legs before hitting the seal. A short pedal took us to Remondet, where a rather nice Giro-pink trike resided and signalled the start of single-track No17. This headed in the direction of home. A riverbed of cobbles had been laid down to protect the steep sections from erosion but for the most part the trail was no more than a narrow bench descending the open hillside. Great views could be snatched along the Valle Centrale to Aosta when you dared take your eyes off the trail.
Below us rock faces and long dry grass mixed it up with vineyards and orchards, garden plots and villages radiant in the late afternoon sun. When the map ran out we guessed our way through a maze of random tracks - arriving home much to our collective amazement. But we did have a shining star to follow, in the form of a massive bank of PV solar panels on the hill high above our apartment. What a day and what a ride. 1660 metres up and 2310 metres down thanks to our bus ride.
Church No 42.
Like Disneyland, Aosta has more than one land to its name. It's not only the land of a 100 castles, 1000's of churches and 3000+ metre peaks, crazy scooter drivers and Fiat Panda 4 X 4s - but more importantly the land of 4 X 4 gelato. On one gloriously sunny day Ditte and I discovered the ultimate gelato shop, with an exquisite selection of flavours. But here's the thing, you could select a large waffle cone and have four flavors. But wait there is more, a spoon is included so sharing expanded the choice to eight delicimo flavours. The combinations were endless, just like the excuses to drive or ride through the narrow shopping street of St Pierre to revisit our favourite gelateria.
Too much choice.
What a project.>>
From the town of Villeneuve the trail starts on a country lane, but soon veers right onto an ancient road that runs beside a beautiful drystone wall. We reached the tiny village of Champlong Dessus and headed along a obscure singletrack that runs due south above the impressive Valsavarenche limestone gorge, before returning higher up on a forestry lane. It then climbed steeply under a dense canopy of larch to the some open meadows and the very top at Petit-Poignon, where a collection of well kept houses and broken down vehicles reside.
With lunch consumed and padding in place we started down. Apart from steepness, rock armouring, water control, superb flow and banked serpentine... what did the Romans ever do for us? The trail roamed through the most beautiful forest, like a giant luge, and finally bottomed out above the Vallon di Cogne gorge.
The trail continued descending at a lesser grade to Point D'Ael where there is the most impressive piece of kit you could possibly dream of having in your backyard, a Roman aqueduct. Built in 3BC using private funds this 50 metre long and 57 metre high mega structure was part of a large and complex hydraulic system taking water from the Grand Eyvis Stream. It supplied the water needed for cutting and processing marble for the construction industry.
Water then. Bikes now.
Once upon a time the water ran along the top where we now biked, but we returned on foot through the lower galley where the glass floor shows off the eight massive cavities that gave the structure lightness and elasticity. This probably explains why it has lasted so long. Back on the trail we traversed and climbed beside some of the original Roman water race to a short, well lit tunnel that bypassed a major slip. We then sidled along a balcony trail back to the castle of Villeneuve and downward to our starting point, all Roman-ed out. We enjoyed the descent sooo much, we went back for seconds after the weekend.
3BC inside out.
Thumel resides at the sharp end of the Val di Rhem with a whole host of glaciers straddling the 3400 metre Granta Parey of Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso. Our ride took us skyward to Refusio Benevolo and onto singletrack where riding opportunities came and went until a steep and exposed descent into a quiet and scenic valley interrupted the flow. We could ride the valley floor but this came to an abrupt end at the coal face of Colle Rosset where a steep and rocky trail zig zagged its way to the colle with nowhere to hide.
A cool breeze massaged the narrow saddle, where we rested, refuelled and padded up for the rockery below. Stunning views back west to a string of glaciers were revealed by the 3000 metre elevation. To the east an egg carton landscape of blue lakes unfolded. The descent was way too much fun with a mostly ridable series of long switchbacks down to Lago Lette. A more relaxing trail skirted around to Lago Rossett and north back into the mountains.
The edge track.
The subsequent climb was well benched and surprisingly ridable up to Colle Leynir. The clouds rolled over the tops as a group of fellow mountain bikers appeared from the 3438 metre Taou Blanc, a short side trip you carry up and bomb down having bagged one of the Alps' highest Mtb ascents. It was on our bucket list but not worth the effort so late in the day without clear skies.
Safely on the snow.
Unexpectedly a descent to die on came next. Winter had trashed the north side of the saddle leaving a steep moving slip full of huge loose rocks and no marked trail. We descended as if walking on egg shells, staying offset and well spaced. It took us a full hour to get to the relative safety of the bottom and leagues away from the boulder runout zone. Much of this side of the hill sported scars from the winter and provided a mystery as to how the other side had remained unscathed.
The rock garden.
We soon picked up the trail in the meadows below Monte Cornett and a superb serpentine pine-needle forested section back to Thumel. We were elated and relieved. Going back from Leynir saddle would have been a last ditch option after completing 1800 metres of climbing for the day.
September arrived like a steam roller and the first colours of autumn were appeared along with wild apples, grapes, figs and purple plums - all ready for trail-side foraging. With such great weather we had endeavoured to make the most out of our days, clocking up almost 1200kms, climbing 21,000 metres and descending 30,000 metres. Our time was up, we had run out of sun worshipping credits and Sardinia was on our autumn menu. You could spend a lifetime discovering all of Aosta's mountain bike rides. There is endless potential for multi-day trips staying in refugios and the many towns that dot the countryside. Along with rides that wander into France and Switzerland, you would need a second lifetime to do it all justice.
In the nature.
In anticipation of the mountain bike, the 'Roman Military Engineering Handbook' is a tome of knowledge and wisdom, and has a great deal to say on track building. Modern Mtb track building crews could do worse than to take heed of the seven most important sections. Note the repetition, and therefore importance of, water control!
i. Water Control
ii. Water Control
iii. Water Control
iv. Water Control Hardening
v. Track Gradient
vi. Track Hardening
vii. Track Cornering Slope and Hardening
viii. Wagon Wheel Friendly Water Bar Design
A companion volume 'Cobbles, Small Bridges and Dry Stone Retaining Walls' is also well worth a read. The illustrated appendage on moving large rocks is not applicable and would probably contravene all subsequent Health and Safety legislation, but sounds fun.
A Roman aspiration.
It's all downhill from there.