Five weeks ago I lifted my dusty bike and tired body out of a train from Italy and stumbled home, feeling strangely lightweight nonetheless. I had completed a great little adventure, surpassed my own expectations and taken some of the warmth of the people and landscapes back home with me. I had finished the 520km Italy Coast to Coast bikepacking event.
The mind is a curious thing. The way it organizes our recollections, emphasizing some over others, as time passes. I can already feel this happening when I think back to my experiences along the way. The initially dense cloud of memories is being distilled into a set of images that will linger with me for a long time.
As I tell the story of my journey to friends and family back home, I chisel out what will be left. What will stay with me is the generosity of the people, the beauty of the path and the thrill of finishing one of my longest days on a bicycle ever.
The Italy Coast to Coast unsupported bicycle event is a 520km route that crosses Italy from West to East, starting at the Thyrrhenian Sea and ending at the Adriatic. The route mixes dirt roads of varying quality, singletrack and asphalt, throwing in roughly 11’000 meters of climbing along the way as well. Race it or take it slow.
I had been told about the race by an internet acquaintance of mine, Luca, who builds beautiful artisanal steel bikepacking frames in Modena and is an all-around nice guy to boot. It was the inaugural edition of the event, the length and profile of the route suited me quite well and I relished the chance of finishing my bikepacking summer in the Italian sun.
When I started my long train journey southwards, fall had hit Switzerland with full force just days before, serving up cold winds that would make it feel like winter was just around the corner. Twelve hours later I arrived in the Montalto, the start of the race, to a beautiful, warm sunset. I was immediately stoked about the race.
The presence of the event could be felt in the small village, as a group of racers had taken over the otherwise empty local campground, where the pre-race dinner was held. It is always a joy to me to see this many bikepacking-ready bikes in one spot. Although bikepacking has entered, or is about to enter mainstream, we are in many ways still a small niche connected through the virtuality of internet, at least here in Switzerland.
It turned out that I was the only non-Italian at the dinner, but even though my grasp of the language is rudimentary at best, I was made to feel very welcome. I left the table well fed and ever more stoked about starting the journey in the morning.
I slept well in my hammock, glad to be in a place where night-time showers are less likely than back home. I got up to a typical Italian start into the day at the beachfront. I have to admit that the availability of good coffee even in the most humdrum backwater is one of Italy’s biggest lures for me.
At the start, I was immediately taken aback by the relaxed atmosphere that differed a lot from what I had experienced before at bike or foot races. People were friendly, encouraging and admiring each others’ set-ups, much different from the suspicious or taxing looks I have come to dislike and expect at other starting lines. This is how it should be in my opinion. After all, we are just a couple of weird, mostly hairless monkeys who engage in pretty absurd pastimes of pedaling two-wheeled appliances loaded with expensive gear for no reason but our own enjoyment. So we might as well take it easy and actually enjoy ourselves.
The friendly local police was out in full force (I assume, as I cannot imagine this small town to actually have more than two officers on payroll) and escorted us in full-on safety-car mode out of the village, which was pretty hilarious in my opinion. After that, the beginning of the race offered some road riding and I soon found myself in front with a group of about five others, taking turns drafting and making good use of my aerobars until we gave up our lead by missing a turnoff.
In hindsight, missing the turnoff turned out to be a big positive thing for the rest of my race. It put me in the company with Andrea and Yuri, two great guys from Verona, who I would spend the next two days cycling with. We were in many ways a good team, with two vegans out of three and balanced each other’s abilities out pretty well. Andrea is an excellent technical climber and an absolute madman on descents both paved and non-paved. I still have nightmares about trying to follow him downhill and soon gave up on it to keep my sanity. Andrea is a super-fit vegan, a well-balanced rider and enduring off-road climber who hardly ever lost his spirit and had the good grace to practice his English with me. I tried to add to the group by plowing through the flats and making up for my off-road descending deficiencies by attempting to crush every paved uphill I could find. And, I had also brought a fourth group member with me, Mr. Elefantino, who kept our spirits up throughout the race and served as the all-important team mascot for #teamelefantino.
I can only feel blessed for being put into a group with Andrea and Yuri for two thirds of my race through a little navigational error in our initial lead group. It seems bikepacking always has something to teach us — sometimes taking a wrong turn is what it is all about. To quote the late Douglas Adams: ‘I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.’
As a group, we had a tendency to perhaps go into it a bit too hard, almost riding cross-country speeds throughout the non-paved sections, which put us in front of the field pretty soon, but left us exhausted by mid-afternoon after a grueling dirt road climb under the scorching sun. We had to call in a rest stop at a restaurant where Yuri used his charm to get us a big plate of beans, the perfect replenishment for our starved bodies, while many other riders caught up with us again.
Throughout the first day I also found out that I was not the only non-Italian in the field. Will, an Englishman, and Matt, a Kiwi, had also by some strange fate found the way to Italy, apparently for reasons related to selling paint in Sweden and the tour Aotearoa. Ask them yourselves, they are great ambassadors for the latter at least. It seems to be possible to spot foreigners in Italian bikepacking races by their use of aero bars as we were the only ones using them. I am pretty sure the under-representation of foreigners will lessen in the coming years because I cannot imagine a better event to get to know the charm of traversing Italy by bike and it will be interesting to see whether this will lead to a propagation of aero bars in Italy. Let us see.
After our mid-afternoon rest stop, we rode on a mixture of beautiful backroads and a good amount of non-paved uphills, always with great views of the Tuscan landscape. We kept the tempo quite high and when it started to get dark I was pretty toasted. I started feeling the weight difference between my fully loaded rig and the lightweight, no-shelter set-ups Andrea and Yuri were running. So I decided to call it quits at the first set of nice-looking olive trees, actually using the advantage of travelling with a luxurious sleeping set-up consisting of mat, hammock, sleeping bag and tarp; when you feel tired just stay wherever you need to. Andrea and Yuri went ahead a bit to the next hotel they thought they would find just ahead. It destroyed them as they told me the next morning, when I rejoined them there. The first place to stay was much further than they had thought and the way to get there featured a muddy, technical night-time downhill and a hard, long dirt-road climb.
I was glad to tackle these sections in the morning and got up quite early to rejoin Andrea and Yuri, enjoying the morning solitude and beautiful dirt roads along the way the other two had suffered on the night before. Team Elefantino as a whole thus got up to a late start, with pretty burned out legs and without breakfast as well. But Italy came to our rescue immediately. We found an all-you-can-eat breakfast in the most beautiful agriturismo imaginable — for five euros. In hindsight this probably saved the entire day for us. Feeling our legs recover and finding a good group rhythm again, we soon ticked off the first leg of our journey by reaching Perugia. Perugia and the famous Assisi just afterwards marked the cultural highlights of the route, and I thought that routing the event through these two cities steeped in history led a nice touch to an event that otherwise stayed pretty much clear of larger population centers.Andrea arriving in Perugia
Arriving in Assisi by mid-day, the heat was beginning to take its toll on us, or at least on me, and we took a short break in the middle of the tourist huddle. Assisi marks the start of the proper climbing of the event. There are three big climbs along the route and the first one takes off right after Assisi, a relatively long but nicely graded, mostly paved climb. Compared to Alpine climbs in Switzerland it is relatively easy fare and I was very happy that it was paved which played to the strength of my fully rigid setup. Needless to say, Andrea and Yuri caught up with me on the descent again. I still have not decided whether I was too chicken or they were just mad but I would have rather climbed every hill twice than riding at their breakneck speeds.
After this first climb out of Assisi we rode into the night again, although the roles of the night before were reversed. This time, my two companions had to stop a bit earlier to find accommodation while I decided that my legs were feeling good enough to get some more climbing done and scale another hill before nightfall. In many ways, this was a turning point during the event for me. Climbing on my own, I found a perfect rhythm, riding a beautiful dirt road ever higher above the lights on the small hills below. I became more and more convinced that the next day’s climbing might just as well turn out to be a thing to look forward to.
Climbing into the night.
I set up my hammock in a small forest along the way and prepared for a frosty night. I like sleeping on the top of hills rather than in the valleys below because I have had some bad experiences with fog settling in lower elevations, leading to a lot of unwelcome humidity during the night. However, higher altitudes unavoidably bring wind and lower temperatures, two things that had me waking up shivering at around 5:30 am, unable to go back to sleep again. But as I felt well rested, I texted my two Italian friends that I would go for an early start, hoping they would catch up with me again and hopped onto my bike. In the end, I would only see them again at the finish line.
It was the beginning of one of my toughest and most rewarding days on a bike. The day is still a big beautiful blur to me. Riding up a freezing cold valley so narrow no sunlight would touch it at 11am. Two big hill climbs where I reveled in the incredible feeling of my climbing legs responding to almost everything I demanded of them, passing scores of other riders. Realizing that I might actually make it to the finish line at the top of the second hill. Wrapping my hands in socks because some of the fast downhills would beat up my rigid bike so heavily. Being chased by a dog at 10 pm with only about 20km to go, pinch flatting at the worst possible time and fixing the flat with trembling hands while the beast stood there for 5 minutes barking at me like crazy. Seeing the vast, black expanse of the sea, knowing that nothing could take the finish away from me now and hanging happily in my aerobars for the last 10km along the seaside.
A beautiful bikepacking event does not need to include that much, it seems to me. Two things; a well thought-out route and a big-hearted group of people should suffice. What you make of it is in the end much more in the hands of the individual participant. The Italy Coast to Coast surely offers both things and has rekindled my interest in these events for the year to come. So much that I do not even mind winter’s arrival here in Switzerland. There is a lot to plan and scheme for next year and I know that at some point I will be back in Italy, racing and trundling along these strade bianche and looking forward to the next caffè.
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