Words: Matthew Vandivort
Images: Matthew Vandivort + Lisa Vandivort
For a trip that in the planning phase fluctuated between sailing in Croatia and returning to the Spanish Pyrenees, come mid-July we somehow found ourselves somewhere quite literally in the middle: on an overnight flight to Milan prepping for 11 days in Northern Italy for the latest in a series of bike-centric escapes.
Over the years these adventures have provided a surprising number of “best day ever on the bike” – from ascending Mount Mitchell at peak foliage, to getting lost on the backroads and cliffs of Costa Brava, to more recent memories in Northern California.
In short the bar has consistently been raised and we were out to raise it yet again.
Planning is overrated (except when it’s not)
Despite a mixed track record (see also Escape to Norcal: This was a Bad Idea) the trip was constructed with minimal advance planning, at least when it came to riding (far less was left to chance when it came to maximizing the consumption Italian cuisine).
In the early days this lack of ride planning provided a nasty surprise as we attempted to climb out of Lago d’Iseo via a series of backroads with a grade that can only be described as terrible, torturous and generally quite mean.
A bit of residual jetlag certainly did not help, nor ample wine consumption the evening prior, but somehow we had unexpectedly found ourselves on the steepest and most challenging climb either of us had ever experienced (sorry Devil’s Kitchen) with no option to plot an alternative route given this was a point-to-point journey.
And so we plodded on, weighed down by excessive pasta consumption in the prior days and stopping on numerous occasions to recover from the effort at hand.
A contribution to the mountain gods
Rest stops and some curious looks from the Italians who witnesses our hillside struggle aside, we ultimately survived that torturous ascent and the following day headed into the Dolomites. Despite the prior day’s unexpected “fun” our planning didn’t progress much – “it’s just four turns, how hard could it be” was muttered at some point – but we quickly discovered the high mountains were actually far less steep than the climb out of Iseo and far more scenic. As in mind blowing, this is the best ride ever, scenic.
Being a sprinter / crit racer I generally dislike any uphill grade. In fact I pretty much loathe climbing of any sort unless it’s followed by “into bed.” But there was something very special about this backdrop – with sheer cliffs towering overhead and the valley spread out below it was the best stretch of road I have ever been on. As this realization was hitting me, somewhere on our second major climb of the day, I realized that Lisa was no longer behind me. A quick u-turn and I discovered her with a worried look on her face. It turns out that somewhere between the first climb and this one – a stretch of some fifteen miles – her wallet and with it both of our drivers licenses and credit cards had fallen out of her jersey pocket.
And so our meandering loop through the Dolomites became and out and back route as we went in search of our means of identification and a source of funds. Long story short: we never found the wallet, though thankfully we were able to exchange USD$20 for some much needed hydration, albeit at a decidedly off market exchange rate. Not the ideal outcome, but as we ripped down the same road we had ascended a few hours prior the conclusion remained the same: best. ride. ever.
Switchback after switchback after…
With our legs slowing adjusting to the mix of climbing, pasta and vino that characterized our days in the Dolomites we headed into the belly of the beast: the 48 switchbacks of the Passo dello Stelvio. At this point Northern Italy was under an unrelenting heatwave with temperatures hitting triple digits in the valleys, making the initial portion of the ascent a fairly trying affair.
Thankfully temperatures dropped nicely somewhere around switchback number 40. Or was it 35? It was hard to keep track of our progress as momentum carried us through our right turn, followed by a left turn, then back to a right turn routine of slow progress to the summit. That is probably a simplistic description of what is a staggeringly beautiful climb, but it’s also a reflection of the fact that this was A LOT of climbing. Thankfully as should be the case for any proper climb (are you listening Bear Mountain) the summit was packed with bratwurst vendors, providing a most excellent post-climb refueling stop.
Karma from the mountain gods
The gameplan from the summit was to descend (48 switchbacks!) and ride back into Merano where we had an over the top meal planned at a mountainside restaurant overlooking town. Of course once again our lax planning came back to bite us when we realized (a) our ascent of the Stelvio was really slow – we are crit racers after all – and (b) we really took our time eating bratwurst at the summit, because views. As a result we were way behind schedule with a single crowded Italian roadway seemingly our best route into town.
Fortuitously shortly after hopping on that crowded roadway we discovered that, at least in this part of Italy, they actually care about cycling infrastructure. And not in the “paint a portion of the road green so trucks have a place to double park” manner of New York City. No – in this instance there was a standalone bike path set alongside a mountain stream that would carry us the twenty or so miles back into town on a mix of pavement and gravel (#dirtsearch).
It was quite welcome and incredibly scenic. And the mountain gods remained in our favor later in the ride as well: as we were about to hit town with no time for a proper shower we discovered a trough of sorts, fed by that same mountain stream. It turned out to be the perfect refresher before heading off to our oh-too-many courses Michelin starred meal.
Wrapping it up in Emilia Romagna
Eventually we had to leave the high mountains behind, heading South to Emilia Romagna where food and wine perhaps took a bit more of a priority over riding. No regrets though – the food was magnificent and between days of sailing in the Adriatic and tasting 70 year old balsamic we still managed to get in more than a few rides on the Italian backroads.
Sure we got lost on one of them – getting yelled at by some shirtless Italian men with very angry dogs in the process – and perhaps trespassed on an abandoned velodrome during another, but in the end we walked away from Italy a few pounds heavier and quite certain that we had raised the bar for “best ride ever” yet again.