So I’ve moved back to Italy, repeating my consistent, yet exhausting habit of moving every eight months.
Making friends in a new place is always a challenge, especially if you don’t speak the language very well. However, let me share with you a little secret to making awesome friends; buy a bicycle. Yes, if you can throw a leg over a bicycle and make some pulls in the local group ride or shred the trails you are guaranteed to make great friends. Why? Because if you can speak the language, the language of cycling, you are one of the tribe. I was lucky enough to be placed next to a mountain biker at work, Diego. It didn’t take long before he invited me out for a big ride with some of his friends. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, these guys aren’t like my roadie teammates back in Savannah. I don’t think they prance around in lycra and I doubt any of them shave their legs…I decided to toss some baggy shorts over the the lycra.
Val Maira is in the southwest of Piedmont. We would be climbing 5,000+ vertical feet up to Passo Gardetta and around the backside of the mountain to make a big loop. The plan was to leave Torino at 6 AM but by 6:15 they hadn’t showed up at my apartment, so I took the opportunity to stuff down some rice & eggs. Around 6:30 we were ready to go and I was jammed in the back of a Renault Kangoo, a funny looking euro car that also manages to be super practical yet charming.
We arrived two hours later and I decided to break the ice by pulling out my Rapha chamois cream and rubbing it all over my nether regions. Mystified by this wonder creme everyone took a turn, using 30 dollars worth of creme (it is Rapha after all). Diego, Massimo, Gian Paolo and Roberto all spoke varying degrees of english but it never hindered our communication. Climbing fast enough for a workout but slow enough for conversation I got know these new riding buddies and practice my Italian. For example, did you know chilly means vaginal soap in Italian? So next time you’re in Italy don’t make a passing comment on how chilly it is outside today… It was however, a brisk 35 degrees out and the sun was playing games with us. It’s precious warmth just out of reach around the next corner and over the next ridge. As we climbed I felt more at home, they were just like my riding buddies in SoCal, jokes, rubbing tires and spontaneous wheelies are universal to mountain biking. Small villages, tunnels and even a heard of cows served as reminders that I was definitely not in SoCal.
Finally touching the sun, it welcomed us with an explosion of color through golden autumn leaves. Basking in its warmth our bodies thawed and legs loosened, powering us out of the treeline and and into the barren high alpine environment. At higher elevations we found ice on the road and promptly had sliding competition, Gian Paolo won. Must have been the chamois cream. Reaching a high alpine plateau the road disappeared behind us and a rocky trail stretched endlessly in front of our eyes.
After 8 miles and 3,300 feet we finally left the paved road and ground our way up to Passo Gardetta, taking a quick lunch break at the closed Refugio Garrdetta. Massimo had wisely chosen to bring a flask of Grappa and we obliged to help lighten his pack. Reaching the top of the pass we were rewarded with stunning views in all directions. We celebrated by doing victory wheelies and more grappa.
Massimo lent me his 26″ hardtail that was clearly to big for me but it worked fine on the climb, I was a little nervous for the decent. Having only a handful of MTB rides in the year, mostly on big travel full suspension bikes in SoCal, I wondered if riding in the Alps was as rugged as I remembered it. The rest of group looked like a rowdy bunch, throwing on layers and itching to start ripping down. Like fighters rolling in to dive bomb a target we dropped in, gaining velocity fast.
Endless miles of flowy single track stretched in front of our eyes broken up by chaotic rock gardens. After the upper section we fell into the shade of the valley and I was quickly reminded how brutal riding in the alps can be and the terrain got much rougher and rockier. Negotiating some tight switchbacks we passed an old military outpost, reminding me we’re right on the border of France. Amazing how these trails were once made for war and now used for our enjoyment.
The trail got smoother as we left the high alpine, and colorful vegetation began to creep back onto the trail. One section of trail was so bright yellow and orange I expected the Lorax to jump out from behind a tree and scold us for ripping through his forest. Soon the trail turned into an ancient footpath with steps and all, winding its way through villages and even under a home. While this is normal for those familiar with the alps, I always find it exhilarating to rip into a deserted village shoot out the other end back onto the trail.
Everyone was riding well, we made it up over the pass without problems and while the descent was technical we didn’t have any crashes. Something wasn’t quite right, it can’t go this smoothly! And sure enough as we roll into a big incline and Roberto downshifts I hear a heart wrenching snap! Broken spokes? Derailleur hanger? Actually the bolt had sheared in half when the derailleur caught the spokes. Thankfully we had just arrived at road crossing and after some handy work from Diego we decided catch the road back to the cars. Giving Roberto a running push I sent him down the mountain and grabbed my bike. We bombed down the mountain in tucks, occasionally giving Roberto a push when he needed it. The sun was already low in the mountains and the air was getting cool again. Yet I couldn’t help but feel like I’m home. Sure I speak Italian like a caveman, and Italians still haven’t discovered the joy of post ride burritos, but thanks to the bicycle I’ve got a new tribe, and I speak their language.