Yes, a 25BC model.
Ahhh, cold spring water.
When the Romans marched into Aosta in 25BC and turfed out the riff raff (Celts) that had been ensconced in squaller, they set to work and civilised the place. Their legacy is plain to see - castles, forts, irrigation, drainage, aqueducts, viaducts, tunnels, canals, dams, bridges, roads, schools, hospitals, wine, cheese, beer, pizza, gelato and massive hydro electric power schemes to name but a few. "Yes but what did the Romans ever do for us" is scrawled in Latin on the city gates dated AD42.
Choc Tools. Yum.
The attraction of RED.
It's now a bustling city of over one hundred thousand souls surrounded by monster mountains with villages and farm-houses perched on the rocky slopes. Terraced vineyards, orchard, cow, sheep and goat farms dot the less fertile higher slopes - pockets of green amongst the patchwork forests. Aosta is Italy's smallest province. It is self governed providing much better social services than the rest of the country. The province is ringed by some of the tallest mountains in Europe, many over 4000 meters with impressive glaciation, but receding fast. Something we would never have guessed is that Italy is about the same size as New Zealand.
Ditte and I had been to Aosta on a couple of previous occasions. Once in 2012 when we spent a week in La Salle mostly riding local tracks, and a second time in 2016 when Ditte's broken knee cap was diagnosed at the Aosta Hospital - this sent us packing back to the Netherlands for rehab. I managed to score a couple of rides around St Nicholas before we left. Fast forward to 2018. We had booked an apartment in Sarre on the edge of the city of Aosta. It's a wee way up the hill with stunning views, two balconies and a brilliant owner, Nichole, who kept plying us with fresh veges - tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, garlic, aubergine, courgettes, herbs and lettuce.
Home away from home.
We armed ourselves with copies of 'Mountain Biking in the Aosta Valley' and 'Single Trail Book Aosta', the full collection of Kompass Aosta Valley topo maps, the Aosta Single Trail Map... and the three French topo maps that cover the Italian side of the 'Tour de Mt Blanc', plus access to GPXs downloads for all the rides. We figured we had the equivalent coverage of a Pinion 600% mtb gear box.
Mt Blanc Massif.
Back in 2012 we had rattled around the 'Tour de Mt Blanc' trail in an anti clockwise direction from Chamonix over four days and enjoyed it immensely. The two Italian balcony trail sections were the most spectacular and we planned to ride these as two single day trips from Courmayeur at the top end of the Aosta Valley.
Val Veny was first up with a steady, then steep climb on the local Courmayeur ski field road to Maison Vieille Hut (for coffee & cake) and the start of the singletrack. The trail is quite challenging in places but generally ambles along at the 2000 meter contour. We had a crystal clear sunny day with stunning views across the Val Veny void to the glaciated and snow capped peaks of the lower Mt Blanc Massif. This is the biggest and highest block of rock in the EEC and kept us spellbound for most of the day. It's a popular track for walkers so we kept our speed in check on the flowing sections and bell digit poised.
Seen better days.
All good things come to an end, with a fabulous downhill to Bon Combai where we legged it up to Lago del Miage for lunch. A glacial lake where the remnants of a once mighty ice flow is now camouflaged by its collapsing side walls. An old military road then single trail returned us to Courmayeur for a gelato and wander through the old town.
Val Ferrett, plus variations, started with a long sustained climb up the Val Ferret mountain road to Greuvetta, where a steep switch-back singletrack climb began. We managed to ride most of this and were soon on the famous balcony section in the face of Grandes Jorasses and the 4810 meter Mont Blanc. In the cool morning air we seemed to have the trail to ourselves. White fluffy clouds were slowly invading the mountain tops as Ditte and I enjoyed firm trail in these high green meadows.
A moment to reflect.
After Alp Sechron we left the main TMB trail on the variation and followed cow trails up a wide valley to a rustic old stone building. Cattle roamed these high pastures as we pushed and carried up to Col du Sapin, then more of the same to the peak above, Testa della Tronche at 2584 meters. This was a grunt but the reward was lunch with stunning views into the Aosta Valley and then beautiful single-trail on the ridge-top all the way to Rifugio Giorgio Bertone.
The rifugio was packed so we didn't linger and headed onto the very rocky and gnarly descent to La Saxe. We had pushed up this on our first TMB experience and wondered how it would ride gravity assisted. "A total body workout where some of the switchback corners were touch and go" was the answer. Some of the fascinated walkers on the trail were clearly anticipating carnage. Much to our amazement, considering the high water bars and the never ending staircase of rocks & boulders, we made it without flats or wheel damage. A great bit of smooth single-trail then delivered us to the village of La Saxe then back to Courmayeur for a late, massive lunch of pizza.
TMF stands for Tour Mt Fallere and its black letters surrounded by a yellow triangle appeared on more rocks than we could remember. We followed them for two days up hill and down dale. Unlike the TMB this ride stays firmly in Italy. It's totally uncrowded, has stunning views and features underdeveloped narrow 'adventure' singletrack. Ditte and I started the tour in Vens, an ancient mountain village perched high above the Aosta Valley. Its stone tiled roofs showing the orange lichen of old age and a good few UHF TV aerials pointing into space. It was barely 10 degs, the coldest day for almost 3 weeks but a clear blue sky promised sunshine and its life giving warmth. A shadowy climb kept the layers of clothing in place as we moved through the larch and pine forests on the lower slopes, but the thermostat was turned up as the Citrane Valley opened out and our WindFoil jackets were consigned to the bottom of our packs.
The cows were out on the high meadows enjoying the sun and ringing their bells while they could. It's a long hard winter at this altitude and eating straw in a dark barn just doesn't compare, and who knows what they do with the cows. We found singletrack at the very top of the valley. It climbs steeply to Passo Citrane and provided way fewer riding opportunities than push/carries. Massive power pylons dominate the skyline, like meccano men holding up high wires. The Gran San Bernardo Valle spread out below us with Mount Velan and Dolent dominating the skyline.
Downhill to Entrouble
The descent was at first open and fast but a little tricky to follow, owing to the profusion of competing cow trails. This is where our GPX download to our Garmin GPS came to the rescue. The lower section is steep and rocky with plenty of drops, many mid corner, and tall stone water bars just waiting to take the wind out of your tires. We loved every last last bit of it and surprised a few walkers, fungi hunters and their dogs on the way down. The track took us through a dense larch and juniper forest, and a final water-race section into the town of Entrouble. Our next big climb began, passing the motor camp, a derelict summer camp and onto a forestry shingle road. This got more and more remote and looked less and less travelled, as we ascended. The final climb was hot and loose to the Refugio Chalige. A beautiful restored stone farm building above a long row of cow sheds.
Host Moira made us welcome and we found a spot to lounge in the late afternoon sun with delicious coffee and apple cake with fresh cream, before our scheduled 7:30pm dinner. She explained to us that historically in the Aosta Valley, if you grazed your cows there you owned the land and that included the mountains. But this doesn't preclude ski-field operators, walkers and bikers from using it all. Dinner was a feast, the showers were luke warm and the next thing I remember it was morning.
It's a sign.
Day two and we continued our climb from Refugio Chalige to above the tree line and onto singletrack. A couple of shepherds and their woolly dogs were watching their cows graze above the track on the long grass and herbs growing on the steep slopes. We invented our own variation of the TNF by joining sections of singletrack all the way up to the beautiful Lac Fallere for lunch in the sun and then onto a short climb and gnarly descent towards the Tibetan prayer flags of Refugio Fallere.
Lost in transit.
Smooth singletrack took us across a wide plateau and onto a steep and fast descent to the tree-line. The depths of this mixed forest looked promising but tree fall dogged our every turn. With profound relief we connected with the main forestry road for a long traverse to our final piece of single-trail back to Vens. And what a great bit of trail this proved to be. We reluctantly slid the bikes back into our wee van and penciled in a rest day on our way back to Aosta.
Great St Bernard.
We ticked off a bunch of other fabulous rides over our first two weeks in Aosta, going up the Rhemes, La Thuile, Central and Great St Bernard Valleys. It had been an unusually hot and dry summer as experienced by most of Europe but once you gained some altitude the temperature cooled and the riding was pleasant.
We dialled into driving right and the shopping routine - with the obligatory 2 hour midday suspension of trading. Got used to the narrow streets and mountain roads but we're still not quite sure if we could cope with the long hard winters. High mountains and long shadows sounded like a bleak combination, so we exited stage left and pinned it home to En Zed.
Any excuse to eat.
It's only us on the GSB.
Part of the Russian war machine when Joseph & Adolf were friends.
An extract from 'Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance'
"While most of the cycling population happily migrated to the safety bicycle, a hard core group of suicidal individuals clung resolutely to the penny farthing. They raced and mountain biked them, receiving the label eccentric, among others. On reflection the view gained from its heady saddle, was forever lost to the greater part of humanity and has distorted the world view ever since. No wonder flying animals are so much better at seeing the big picture."