The Trentino region has its fair share of calcium carbonate (limestone), and you would think that the Valle del Sarca that runs down to the northern end of Lake Garda and its surrounding mountains are made of nothing else. It was pushed gradually up from the bottom of the ocean and shunted vigorously by the African continent to its present position. The last ice age and a troop of massive glaciers gouged out the bath tub that Lake Garda now sloshes in, plus a string of smaller lakes that reside up the Valle del Sarca. In its present form Garda Lake dives down 300 metres below sea level with a surface area of some 365sq kilometers, a little larger than Grenada or Malta but way flatter.
At its northern end Riva del Garda had always been a strategically important town, controlling the trade routes north and south over the alps. So much of its history relates to war and fortification. The Romans were fighting there in 268AD, Napoleon in 1796, the Italians in 1859 and lets not forget the naval battles on the lake between Italy and Austria in 1866. The Germans occupied the place for a short time from late 1943 with peace and slumber reining down ever since. Looking like a skew-whiff popped cork from the air, Monte Brione which divides the towns of Riva and Torbole is riddled with these war related fortification and a very good MTB track. In common with the rest of the region Garda only became part of modern Italy after the first world war.
Ditte and I were coming to the end of our European odyssey and our final MTB destination, Riva del Garda should have been quiet in October, like a small mouse. But it was packed like a sardine can. But unlike the humble sardine, it was Germans that proliferated. It was their east/west reunification day making it a long weekend. Back in 1990 this extra holiday was neatly added to their six weeks of annual leave and their 13 to 14 months of salary. Being so close to the border, no wonder Lake Garda and its surrounding environs are considered an Austrian/German playground. It's Italy's biggest and deepest lake surrounded by sheer and contorted mountains. The area provides excellent propulsion for anything with a sail or a kite, great rock climbing for nine lifetimes and very good mountain biking, if you know where to look. Not to mention jumping off sheer cliffs with wings. For us it was another quick visit to the info centre and more MTB trail maps were added to the growing collection.
Our first ride took us up an old balcony road cut straight into the limestone. It runs gradually up from the lake's edge. Built by a benevolent Italian back in the 1920s and retired when long tunnels came back into fashion. Only bikes and walkers can enjoy the stunning views, road builders handy work and magnificent tunnels. On a graveled bike trail we headed for Lago di Ledro and up a steep 4WD track to the limestone tops. Never have we seen so many mountain bikers on one trail. Gnarly singletrack took us down to the mountain village of Pregasina, perched high above the lake with commanding views to die for. This proved to be a great intro into the rocky and loose terrain that the local country erodes into.
They call them enduro, free-ride and even downhill trails, but we are never sure of the difference. The term gnarly would spring to mind for all three with rocky, loose, rooty and slippery being added for clarity. On that very note, we were heading lift assisted up to Monte Baldo at 1738 metres for a short downhill, then a climb up to Monte Altissimo at 2062 metres to tackle the legendary 601 Trail. A confusing array of tracks and signage awaited our first pedal stroke. By the most massive coincidence in the western spiral arm of the galaxy, we got lucky. Directional challenged, that luck arrived as if by magic in the form of the articulate and handsome Robert the Austrian, with Oliver and Marco in tow on their immaculate enduro rigs. They too were in 601 mode and didn't mind a couple of tag on Kiwi's. It turned out Robert had been a Garda guide for 5 years, Oliver played logistics at BMW but drove a Skoda and Marco was IT-ing together the 400 German universities from his underground bunker in Berlin.
Robert's chosen method of sorting the wheat from the chaff was a short challenging section of roadside single track, survival was a follow me pass. First I must mention the extremely gnarly and loose climb up to the Mt Altissimo Rifugio in the hot sun, anaerobic is the word that springs to mind. Seats were lowered, suspension turned to wide open and pads donned in centurion fashion as this very gnarly trail beckoned. Legend has that Liteville, some say overpriced but superbly engineered German made aluminum ultra enduro MTB frame, was named after this trail and the reverse may be said when time travel becomes a reality. Massive rocks and drops kept us on our toes with no time to marvel at the stunning views and interesting alpine flora whilst riding. Below us the lake tussled with a flotilla of small boats and even smaller wind surfers, with not a sea gull in sight to show its appreciation.
The track descended into dwarf pines and beechwood forest with white limestone below our wheels, either attached or unattached to the ground. The gnarlier sections were inspected and ridden, control was an illusion and out of control just a bad line away. Chestnut, beech, larch, oak and pine trees created a high canopy over the lower slopes filtering out the light. We survived, and in Germanic fashion high-fived our way to the bottom. Robert took the lead, Oliver on his tail and Marco enjoying a bit of space in front of the Kiwis, who I must say were full of surprises. Ditte would not have believed the stuff she was now riding, her philosophy “well the bike can do it” and it did. Afterwards we wound down at the Sails Cafe at lakes edge and planned our next ride.
From then on we would meet at the same cafe, and with Robert leading the charge we would head out on another one of his favorite rides. Next up was the Naranch Trail, a 1200 metre climb to Mt Velo and Passo Santa Barbara for a spectacular downhill over a huge and gnarly mixture of terrain to the town of Nago. The trail was unmarked on the topo map but sort of sidles below Mt Creino and Brugnolo before picking up bits of 637 trail. This was followed by a 600 metre climb to Doss dei Frassini to finish off the bottom section of 601. The day before we had been emotionally side tracked onto a secret trail and just missed the end bit of 601. The bottom section rides a ragged line below a series of massive bluffs before switch-backing its way back into Nago with only a short ride back to Riva.
A day later it was up to Malga Campo on the slopes of Mt Stivio in the Monte Bondone group via a 1600 metre climb. We stopped for a break at Castello de Drena and admired the ramparts keeping a weary eye open for the adjacent restaurant's chef with his pot of boiling oil and medieval bent. It was a long ascent but well rewarded by an equally long and exciting descent. This wound its way down from the upper slopes going cross country to join 666, a beast of a trail in the nicest possible way. It diverts onto 668 along ancient paths and finally though olive groves and vineyards to the cobbled streets of Martine, shaken but not stirred on it's massive pave. We polished it off with an excellent double gelato in the quaint town of Arco. A magnet for rock climbers with a dozen specialist shops thriving and chalk dust everywhere.
On our last ride together we spun quietly up the steep road towards Mt San Giovanni, turning left for a final climb up on old deteriorating forestry trail, to track 409B. What followed by accident or design was a technical trail of sheer brilliance, all the way to the outskirts of Arco. It covered every sort of terrain imaginable with loose rock slides, sand, roots, ruts, hard and soft dirt, flow and long sections of smooth angular rock. After all the excitement we returned to Riva from Arco via a very nice cycle path for the second course. This was a short 360 metre climb up the very famous Monte Brione. Home to old forts, tunnels and battlements and an MTB trail that visits its fair share of these relics, all ending in Riva del Garda for coffee and cake, debrief and farewell.
We were sad to see them go. Alas the lads were heading back to work. The thing that always gets in the way of another good ride when the weather is fine. We would have to paddle our own canoe, plot our own course through the jumble of tracks and trails that infest the mountains and surrounding valley of this wonderful area. First was a move 20 kms upstream to a very modern apartment on the outskirts of Pietramurata, and before anything else, check out the local supermarket, gelato shop and pizzeria.
The wheel, like the triangle is a natural phenomena, popping up readily in nature and the greater universe, with little encouragement. The wheel was probably rolled around the countryside by our tree swing ancestors, no doubt for fun and entertainment but it took a staggering three and a half million years to find its feet. Around five thousand years ago the penny finally dropped, so to speak. An axle was added, which some say was a monumental engineering milestone and brilliant piece of original thinking. Others credit the woodpecker for steering us away from the round peg in the square hole thing humans are famous for. Alas the triangle took another 5000 years to be integrated into something useful and finally the wheel and the bicycle frame met in an iron clad embrace never to be parted.
An extract from “Zen and the Art of the Bicycle”