Words & Photos: Dave Mitchell & Ditte van der Meulen
We were perched like a bird on a wire at 1883 m and seven stories up on Passo del Tonale. The town has zero character and spread like an oil slick in a casual but chaotic way in the speculative ski town development era of the 70s through to the 90s. Many buildings were erected, most of them of bad architectural quality, created only for the scope of making a profit. We all know how that always ends in tears. Anyway, for better or worse it's a place high in the mountains with tons of history, stunning views and loads of glaciers... even if they are receding rapidly. A bit like my memory and that wooly stuff on top of my head.
WW1 tunnelling high on the slopes above Tonale.
After the first world war all military installations, of which there are many, were pillaged remorselessly by the locals who removed all metals of any value, roofing, timber, doors and windows to rebuild their shattered communities and provide a helping hand during the great depression of the 1930s. So generally speaking, only the stonework remains, rusty barb wire very high up and discarded army ration cans, plus loads of tunnels. The local info centre furnished us with a Val di Sole Trentino mtb bike map and a tramping map for free. We had a Versante Sud mtb guide book of the area and some Tobacco and Kompass topo maps, so getting lost was not an option.
Forte Mero artistic ruin.
Fort supply depo has mountain bikes.
Tour Del Forte
A long valley stretches east from Passo del Tonale down to the towns of Vermiglio, Ossana, Pellizzano, Mezzana, and finally Dimaro. Our first ride was certainly heading in that direction but took us high up along the broad green slopes of the Saviana Range. The war and traditional farming had cleared away most of the natural pines and the old military road that we were following lead us to the remains of Forte Mero then on to its barracks and supply depot, and finally up a perfectly graded climb to Forte Zaccarana. We just kept climbing with the valley receding, slowly but surely, below us. A nice bit of singletrack delivered us to our high point, an open valley with a large cow barn for winter housing and a big solid looking log farm house hewn from local timber.
More fort rubble.
The descent was rapid through pine blocks and wood lots stacked neatly drying for next winter and the winter after that. It still gets bitterly cold here in winter by all accounts, even though the snow is moving higher up the mountain slopes and maybe one day it will disappear all together. We could see the rapid demise of the once massive glaciers depicted in interpretative panels near our first fort.
We finally dropped into the wee village of Mulino di Cortina, refilled our water bottles and hooked onto the dedicated cycleway at the bottom of the valley. It pointed upward for us but was an easy pedal on smooth seal. From the small town of Stavel the route went gravel to follow the green painted two hundred and twenty thousand volt high tension power lines. Like a row of green giants marching up through the tall pine forest towards Passo del Tonale. They were holding something up on long insulated arms and it wasn’t a clothes line.
The Forest of Stavel.
The bears of the Forest of Stavel.
This neck of the woods had been infected by some pine tree killing vermin as we discovered two big logging operations removing the offending individuals. We circumnavigated these massive piles of timber keeping out of the way of the heavy machinery lurking in the shadows. The final half dozen switchbacks delivered us to the top pylon where power went under ground. We rode around Passo del Tonale’s famous peat bog to what would become our favourite gelatiera, then back to base.
Cloudy initial climb.
Epic Trail Grande Guerra
With a name like that and marked in black on the Val di Sole/Trentino MTB Bike Map we just knew it would be our cup of tea. The initial climb was steep and loose through a jumble of ski lift access roads and random construction. Starting from Passo del Tonale gave us a huge height advantage and meant that the hardest gnarliest part of the ride up to the saddle at 2611 m was achieved on fresh legs. From the southern slopes of Monte Serodine singletrack materialised and never looked back. A short rutted climb took us onto a perfectly graded balcony trail that followed the 2300 m contour below Cima Le Sorti and above the town of Ponte di Legno. This provided stunning views and amazing riding for ages before climbing slowly northward on the beautiful slops below Monte Tonale and Cima Casaiole.
Balcont trail to Rifugio Bozzi.
Heading for the pass beyond Rifugio Bozzi.
A short steep climb delivered us to Rifugio Bozzi beside a small man-made lake with the ultimate prize, Forcellina di Montozzo, just 100 m away. We pushed the final rocky section after inspecting an old army barracks, only to find dry stone wall trenched on the very top, stunning views and a warm first lunch spot. A massive downhill lay before us like a extra long silver ribbon of divine flow. It proved to be rocky and technical with lots of challenging slab rock creek crossings. As Parcheggio Val del Monte came into view the track grade ramped up to grade 5 with a final punishing, but ultimately rewarding, set of tight and very tight switchbacks, set next to an energetic cascading waterfall all the way down to the turquoise water of Lago di Pian Palu. A high hydro dam in anyones books.
Super cool descent to Lago di Pian Palu.
The descent continues.
Its shoreline track provided great views of the lake and surrounding mountains and ultimately our second lunch spot. A steep trail took us down the hill to La Vecchia Baita Fontanino and half way to Peio town where with no alternate route the main road would prevail. It was not long and we were back on a dedicated cycle route at Cogolo and down to Fucine where we headed back up the same climb we had indulged the day before. This time it was a stop at Restorante Baita Velon with our fuel gauges headed for empty. The final climb was easy after that, logging 60 kms and 2065 m climbing for a great day out.
Military road and tunnel to Monticello.
Lago Alveo Presena.
Bike Hike Bike
A trip into the Monticello Mountains saw us ride south from Passo del Tonale to Lago Alveo Presena and, like finding an elephants graveyard, we discovered where old ski lifts go to die and get cut up with mighty acetylene torches. The bike up to the glacial lake was easy and made the tramp way better. We hid the bikes and locked them to a tree then continued on foot up a rocky military track.
Austrian WW1 rocky road to hell.
From the tops.
The poor sod Austrian conscripts had the task of building a Roman road capable of conveying two donkeys side by side laden with ammo and big guns up to the troops on the jagged rocky skyline. Dry stone wall skills were honed to perfection as was Roman drainage and moral fibre. How they built a track up through such rocky terrain is anyones guess but obviously the Austrians had been at it for ages before the war got going. A massive fort, tunnels and fortified lookouts clustered around the ridge top greeted us with views coming and going amongst swirling clouds. A matching series of picturesque tarns edged with a sea of white cotton topped stems and wild flowers of every colour imaginable made for a good lunch spot. We retreated as the mountains clagged in.
Malga Monte refill.
Trail Malga Campo Boeing 707
A quick trip west down the Val di Sole to Fucine where we parked in the industrial part of town next to the main substation that brings in power from the many hydro schemes that lurk below dams and man made lakes high in the surrounding mountains. We felt electrified as we flowed onto the cycle path that took us through Ossana to Pellizzano and out the other side. We crossed Torrente Noce and following No 707 trail markers headed north on tarseal through the town of Castello, resplendent with castle, and final Ortisé. All fine mountain villages and towns with lots of style and character and colourful bee hives.
Heading for cheese.
Still heading for cheese.
Not long after Ortisé we hit gravel and ascended out of the mixed forest blocks into the vast open high country that spans the south face of the 2800 m Cima Bassetta. We had finally climbed to the top so blobbed out for lunch in front of Malga Monte at 2159 m. Smooth flowing singletrack greeted our refuelled bodies as the route headed back into forest. From there rocky and rooty sections joined in the fun all the way around the mountain to Nestalp Malga Campo where to Ditte’s delight they sold strong farm gate cheese.
Pellizzano Town Square.
Now this is where the track got interesting and very well marked. It joined up a 'liquorice allsorts' trail and like a mountain stream down a series of rapids, we were on a roll. With gay abandon it crossed and recrossed the main farm track all the way down to the village of Strombiano then straight lined between dry stone walls covered in moss and ferns out to Ossana. We were shagged after 1200 m of full on descent but at the same time buzzing from the ride. Pellizzano church square provided flowers, frescos, gelato and a red letterbox ride. Home James after 40 kms and 1400 m climbing.
Climbing to Cima Bleis
A steep rutted and rocky ski lift access track didn't defeat us at the point where the Bleis alpine tarn revealed itself, but we struggled on the short singletrack climb to the Cima Bleis ridge top. From there the views were stunning, as were the alpine flowers. As ever, we found traces of WW1, including a heavy piece of rusting shrapnel which could probably tell a story, but only in German or Italian. We continued on our quest dropping down a vague double track past dry stone wall terracing that marked an old military camp with an elaborate tunnel system behind it that had partially collapsed.
We headed up a side trail shielded by a beautifully constructed dry stone wall that meandered all the way back up to the ridge top where eagles are reputed to soar and guns are not allowed according to the faded sign on top. From there we had a clear view of the town of Ponte di Legno where no doubt the Austrians lobbed a few spare shells from this heady advantage. After a quick side trip to what could have been an old cemetery, our downhill continued unabated, going back onto singletrack and back out to Passo del Tonale. All’s fair in love and war, so they say.
A 724 Loop
From just above Ponte di Legno we cruised a gravel road that meandered through forestry blocks and traditional farm lots to a long valley that roamed west from Pezzo. From the end of the valley a beautifully graded military road returned us back to Rifugio Bozzi and the Forcellina di Montozzo Pass. We chatted to some sheep on the way up, and from the pass zoomed down the other side for a few kilometres for lunch in the sun.
Trench warfare at altitude.
Ultimately our mission was to do the stunning balcony trail in reverse and bomb the famous 724 switch backs into Ponte di Legno. It all came together with fine weather, spot on navigation and an empty trail to enjoy. A day of great riding and stunning views but we couldn't find a local gelato shop. Passo del Tonale had one though.
Our final ride was local and just above Passo del Tonale with pure singletrack to Forte Zaccarana then onto an old water-race trail. This roams on a flat contour up the Strino Rio Valley to its source. The Malga Strino cheese shop was shut but we did meet some nice cows along the way. It was flat then superb downhill singletrack all the way back to civilisation after a good dose of technical riding.
The upper valley view.
Val di Sole had proven its mtb credentials and Passo del Tonale a good spot to camp out, being strategically central. Staying in the beautiful towns of Ossana on the west side or Ponte di Legno on the east side could also work and would certainly be a bit warmer in the shoulder season and way prettier.
Museo Forte Strino.
We visited the 'Museum Fort Strino Vermiglio' where in its hay day it was described by D.W Freshfield, “On a projecting knoll, about half way up to Vermiglio, stands an Austrian blockhouse. Mounting seven guns. It is commanded by many neighbouring heights, but would be used against a Garibaldian inroad…..”
Inside was a vast collection of military artefacts and a sobering photographic exhibition of the war in Ukraine. History repeats, and on that note we are heading for France.
Laghetti di Strino.
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