Tyne Valley MTB Cycling: 2016 Alps tour by MTB
10 members of Tyne Valley MTB Cycling have returned from a very challenging 7 days mountain biking selected sections of the http://www.via-migra.de/ between the border of Austria and Monte Grappa. The Via Migra isn‘t a single Alpencross route but a corridor of recommended route options riders select according to available time, difficulty and weather.
The route begins in Mittenwald in Germany and ends on the southern slopes of Monte Grappa in Italy hence its name - MI GRA. 9 club members rode the northern section in 2015 before entering the Dolomites and cycling to Salzburg to complete the chosen North East end of the Great Alpine Chain Route by MTB a core group of members have been uniquely inventing and cycling since 2005.
Our 2016 tour began in the northern Dolomites where we left off in 2015 and followed the Via Migra corridor to Monte Grappa leaving a day in hand to ride Monte Pasubio near Lake Garda. The following pages are a synopsis of the tour. Just to say Grant drove his car to Munich from his home in France and car-share-hopped each day as appropriate alternating the driving with Vic his Dad.
A BIG thank you must go to Paul Chapman from Gosforth who stepped forth 7 days before departure as tour support driver when the original guy had to drop out. Many thanks too to Andrew West of Tyne Valley Van and Car Hire for providing a super new minibus for our 2016 Alps adventure.
With 4 seats removed, bikes and kit were loaded on Thursday evening ready for an early departure for Dover / Calais on the Friday and a further 3.5 hours drive to Namur where the 3 drivers over-nighted. After 7.5 hours driving on the Saturday, the minibus pulled into the Munich airport parking area at 5 pm just as the fliers exited the main building and soon after the bus with bikes bags and riders headed off to our first night’s accommodation in a simple but very pleasant mountain ‘rifugio’ high above Mayrhofen in Austria.
Ominously we arrived at the Dominikshshuette at the road head high in the mountains in rain.
PS. The guy in red in the pic above is called Bidu and he stopped off in Hexhamshire for 3 days in 2013 on his way to Edinburgh. Despite the rain he was introduced to the thrills of MTBing in Hexhamshire, the joys of road biking north of Hadrian’s Wall and he also rode the Lonesome Pine at Kielder.
Sunday 21st August 2016: Dominikushuette to Spinges
6 weather-protected cyclists left the Dominikushuette (1835m) and headed up to the Pfitscher Joch (2251m) in gentle rain much welcoming an unexpected brew in the Lavitzalm hut (2095m). The descent route included a fine section of ST in gradually clearing weather into a sunny Italian valley.
The traffic-jammed Brenner Pass delayed the minibus which changed the pm route plans.
Monday 22nd August 2016: Spinges to Gherdenacia / La Villa
Tired cyclists eat well the previous evening...
Tyred cyclists the following morning pre departure...
Though very difficult to communicate with for the booking process, Hotel Brunnerhof in Spinges was very comfortable with good food. Two punctures slowed the ride down to the valley bottom where we loaded up for the 35 minute transfer to Kronplatz with its lift assisted downhills but tempus had fugitted enough to persuade us to miss out this monster and head straight to St Vigilio where we caught the two section gondola to 650m before descending the man-made downhill. The top third comprised the steepest berm trenches most of us had ever ridden and the remainder certainly kept everyone on their toes. NB. Alps red grades are definitely UK blacks.
We lunched in the carpark, caught the gondola up again and biked cross country at an increasing pace to catch the last chairlift at 1630 up towards our mountain hut accommodation high above La Villa. Hot and sweaty we accidentally bumped into a relaxed Grant at Badia hastily asking him to transfer his Dad to La Villa in his car before we raced off to hopefully catch the last lift only learn on our gasping arrival that the last lift was in fact 1730 which Grant had learned early pm but decided to keep a secret. Thanks a bunch Grant!
With our sacs already prepped for an overnight with a difference, we thankfully caught the chairlift and rode / pushed along a narrow track to where we would stash our bikes before the steep 50 minute ascent on foot to the Gherdenacia Hut located high above the Ega valley at 2050m.
Lunch at St Vigilio...
Gaining height to off-road tracks en route to Badia...
Lift and walk up to the mountain hut...
Evening view from the balcony an hour before the pre sunset Alpen glow...
Tuesday 23rd August: Gherdenacia to Alleghe
With the descent behind us, we loaded up and transferred to Passo Falzaregro (2,019m) before dropping down to the Scoiatolli chair lift which after lunch carried us up to 2,225m followed by a 288m push in strong sunshine up to the Rifugio Averau at 2,413m. A short descent led us to an unlikely looking track ascending to the right of the ski piste which we pushed up until it turned into a thin challenging gently descending singletrack across a scree-filled steeply angled slope below the towering limestone mountain called Averau.
Soon after the terrain eased and turned green. After an interesting traverse of knolly bumps we began a 1,320m descent to Caprile on excellent singletrack which fed onto 2m wide trails which connected us to descending fire roads, a downward-heading tarmac road and finally a steep old packhorse route to the outskirts of Caprile and our RV with the minibus.
3 riders rode easily to our hotel in Masare at the south end of Lago Alleghe whilst 5 riders took advantage of the minibus to access and catch the Padon chairlift up to 2,369m. Some of us rode there from Passo Pordoi in 2015 along a narrow traverse path in thick cloud. After a welcome brew we set off on the 1,370m descent to Caprile from the east only this time taking in the magnificent view of the Marmolada glacier we could only imagine in 2015. It was 6 weary but happy riders that arrived at our hotel at 7-30pm having biked down a little over 3,000m, mostly after lunch.
Unfortunately Grant stoically missed the second descent after Vic realised he had left his helmet in the car in Caprile. Grant kindly lent his Dad his helmet which went to Vic’s head.
Wednesday 24th August 2016: Moonscape day loop
And what a loop! Right up there (literally) with the very best of Alpine loops we’ve ever ridden along the whole Alpine chain between Geneva and the Dolomites which is a long way. With Angus having already ridden this loop during a previous club tour, it was 9 MTBers that were dropped off near to Passo Rolle to ride down into San Martino di Castrozza where we had lunch before catching firstly a (new) gondola and secondly a cable car up to the limestone moonscape at 2,600m.
Our route followed an old military ‘road’ constructed in WW1 to transport armaments and supplies across the limestone wilderness called Altipiano delle Pale di San Martino – the sloping flank shown above right. Rifugio Rosetta Pedrotti in the middle distance was thrumming with sightseers and though harmless enough, we were pleased to leave them behind us.
The route surface was very rough to ride on and required full concentration at all times in order to maintain optimum rolling speed whilst avoiding stopper rocks as a fall on this surface would make ‘rock rash’ a certainty or a worse injury.
Amazingly, suitably-steered bike wheels ensured safe passage and it was even more amazing that we didn’t get one puncture.
Regular stops were required to take in the panoramic views of the spectacular peaks, jagged ridges, vertical spires and the monstrously large rock faces which surrounded us.
The lengthy descent from where the greenery was back in control was continuous and relied on countless tight zig-zags to lose height. No wonder every face bore a smile on completion. Yet another day with a descent of 2,000m this time even in even more spectacular scenery than before - if that was possible.
Paul and Angus met us in Taibon Agordo and after a very pleasant refreshment stop, we loaded up for the short uphill transfer back to our hotel and an excellent meal.
A truly memorable day in hot sunshine with deep blue skies amidst magnificent scenery.
Thursday 25th August 2016: Alleghe to Zortea
For the first 4 days of our annual Alpine adventure, the itinerary which was envisioned in October 2016 had largely gone to plan but for a number of reasons this was to significantly change today, on Friday morning and on Saturday, our final day. Undoubtedly the main reason was up until today Ted our organiser and ace navigator Allen, had first hand experience of almost all of the routes we had ridden up until then but from today we were adventuring into new territory.
After the required amount of faffing, lubing and sorting, we set off from Hotel Adriana on the short ride to Alleghe (990m) where we caught two lifts up to Col dei Baldi (1922m).
After a short link we began to push / carry our bikes up a mere 250m to Rifugio Sonino al Codai (2132m) but from about a third of the way up the route became steeper, rougher and harder. Much harder. Soon we were lugging our bikes up large rocky steps and we were all very grateful when we reached the rifugio and its very welcome sustenance. Had we known what lay ahead of us we would have drunk more water and eaten a lot more than we did.
The subsequent section up to Forclaz Codai (2,191m) was also steep and very loose although no-one complained as we took in the amazing view of the surrounding peaks and Lago Codai, a green mountain lake nestling in a hollow some 50m below us.
For the second time that day, it dawned on us. This time it was the reality that the route beyond the lake required yet more ‘hikeabike’ to surmount the cols we could see ahead of us. This was a black option 5 in the Via Migra guidebook and by the minute it was looking a bad choice.
We opted for the high cross-scree traverse path in the hope we could avoid dropping losing height only to re-ascend and so reduce the amount of hikeabike we could see ahead. Clearly, rock falls had occurred over time and each of these was a challenging bike ‘portage – especially in cleated footwear - until down was the only option to reach the next up.
And so it continued and as lunch time disappeared into the past, energy rations became really important. Fortunately our leader was carrying enough for 2 people which probably avoided a very nasty situation as far as one of the tours’ newbies was concerned. Well done Angus for back-tracking countless times to carry this group member’s bike up the same hillside after depositing his own. Amazing feet, we all agreed.
Finally we crested the last col at 1,895m where Ted decided to split the group into the faster and the steady away for the long descent to where the minibus was waiting at Listolade (670m).
Both groups descended at a speed they were comfortable with and partook in a much-needed late afternoon lunch before loading up the bikes for the transfer to Zortea the location of our next stop-over. Grant (seated centre) was on car transfer and after a pm siesta wasn’t at all fatigued!
Sadly, the choice of two options for the planned half day ride to Zortea from San Martina di Castrozza was binned and it was necessary to phone ahead where we had stayed a few years ago to put the evening meal back an hour.
Albeit through majestic scenery of Tolkienesque proportions, today’s disproportionate amount of hikeabike was disappointing but….
….nevertheless, no-one complained and good food in Zortea’s excellent Albergo Serenella managed by our old friend Denis, plus much needed rest, set us up for the next day of our ongoing adventure.
No one said Alpencross was going to be easy!
Friday 26th August 2016: Zortea to Masi Brenta
Definitely a day of two halves. In the morning, post maintenance, we rode from the door via the village of Gobbera (985m) only to miss a key turning to add to the challenge of the near summit ascent of Monte Totoga (1,705m) up a continuously zig-zaggingly steep mule track over 2 km. It ascended relentlessly and arrival at the notch, which was the start of our descent, took for ever.
We soon joined a lofty fire road and after a lot of free-wheeling and sight of a Golden eagle not far above our heads, we enjoyed the hard-earned descent of 43 numbered tornante (turns) which rapidly took us down to the now-closed back road from below Zortea to the main valley road where we planned to RV with the minibus for lunch. Meeting up was easier said than done but eventually achieved. Yet again the bikes were loaded and off we drove to the summit of Monte Grappa.
Monte Grappa is a very special place and well worth visiting. The grandeur and unique nature of the huge war memorial at its summit demands respect and we stood in silence as we tried to take in the many thousands of wasted young lives during WW1. The Italians bravely defended Monte Grappa as they fought to defend the whole of Italy from the Austro-Hungarian invasion from the north.
Then it was time to tackle the amazing main defence ledge route before rapidly descending 1,200m down to the plain north of Venice to meet our minibus for the 2 hour transfer to our accommodation near Rovereto.
The descent to the entry point of the ledge route was both tricky and enjoyable and a puncture just before the start allowed us to further absorb some of the history of this once pivotal battle field. Fault lines in the limestone had been excavated for use as trenches and the incredible ledge route which rose and dipped below the summit ridge of Monte Boccao and Monte Meatte was a testimony to the brave men who developed it.
It was now early evening and we had the mountain to ourselves. The sun was still strong but the view south across the plain was dimmed by a band of man-made pollution serving to remind us that humans have become so accustomed to poisoning the air we breathe that we don’t notice it when its in our faces. Our Monte Grappa experience provided us with food for thought on many levels.
The ledge route ascent required quite a bit of pushing but no actual portage. Photographs were taken – how could you not – but ‘on the hoof’ as there just wasn’t time to frame the best images.
Unfortunately, the wise decision was to descend by road to Crespano del Grappa from the end of the ledge path as opposed to the planned singletrack trail but such is life. We met the minibus in Crespano where we ate pizza before loading up for the transfer to our accommodation at Agritur Masi Brenta on the outskirts of Rivereto. This amazing rural tourism accommodation was to be our base for our last two nights and boy, didn’t we all love it.
Because Grant was a late ‘joiner’, Vic and Grant stopped in B&B accommodation in the town of Rivereto which worked well.
Saturday 27th August 2016: Monte Pasubio bonus day
Paul steered our minibus up and down the narrow access road up to Masi Brenta several times with just centimetres to spare at the point shown. This farm tourism accommodation was superb.
Similar in shape and history to Monte Grappa, Alpe Pasubio is a small compact 2,000m high mountain range to the east of Lake Garda with a famous challenging ledge route which ascends to the summit of Monte Forni Alti before curving down to the amazing Rifugio Achille Papa, a mountain hut that clings to the mountain side at its western end.
In WW1, Pasubio was the most vigorously fought battle zone along the entire Alpine front. Italian troops only took a year to construct an ascending high level ledge route on, and passing through, the southern aspect of the mountain just below its summit ridge. It has 52 tunnels of varying length.
This epic route was supposed to be our bonus day mountain bike route for all the best reasons. In the event, we certainly experienced an epic day but not quite as we had anticipated.
The plan for our last day was to very carefully push, walk and where safe to do so, ride this epic route. We soon discovered the Pasubio 52 Galleries route was not what a lot of advance research suggested it would be and in truth, the decision should have been made to chose another route.
Undoubtedly, Pasubio provided a significant challenge to the group as a whole and understandably some group members felt threatened by its uniqueness – especially those with almost nil high mountain experience. During the day no-one was ever at personal risk but the exposed nature of the locations in which we found ourselves as we pushed our bikes up this route often in the dark, gave a different perception and of course perception is reality.
As time slipped by it became clear that cycling back to our accommodation as we had planned, ceased to be an option. From the highest point shown above, the best by far of two exit options opened up three possible safe escape routes accessible from the other side of a short steep section of path leading to a col from where it was relatively easy to begin our descent.
Once we had descended to a 4 x 4 track, with its upper section made up with gravel and the lower half being tarmac, our chosen escape route quickly dropped us 900m to where the minibus had delivered us some 7 hours earlier. After several phone calls, eventually Paul and Angus arrived in the minibus to collect us from the veranda of a nearby rifugio where we kept warm in the extra layers of clothing we had brought with us and we returned to our accommodation to enjoy an excellent meal albeit 2.5 hours later than planned.
In conclusion, we found the Pasubio 52 Galleries route to be a superb walking test but definitely not an acceptable mountain bike experience. It was a mistake to allow thoroughly researched well respected guidebook information and You Tube evidence to win the debate to set off along it.
Sunday was our ‘travel home’ day and after a 3.5 hour drive, the fliers were dropped off in the centre of Munich where they spent half a day before flying back to England later that evening. In the meanwhile, the three drivers Ted, Paul and Trev plus Angus headed back to England arriving at a pre-booked hotel in Namur at 0130 for 5 hours sleep before driving to Calais, catching the 12-30 ferry to Dover and then heading up England to arrive at Hexham at 10-00pm.
In summary, the total distance driven from Rovereto to Hexham was 1,250 miles which took 36.5 hours. The route we cycled required a duplicate set of 11 marked-up local maps plus 6 large scale road maps. We stayed in two comfortable mountain ‘huts’, enjoyed 3 hotel nights, 1 night in an albergo which is lower grade hotel and 2 nights in an exceedingly comfortable agri-tourism accommodation all of which were different and chosen for their location and suitability.
Our 2016 Alps by MTB tour was every bit as challenging as it was billed and all 11 participants were increasingly tested as the days passed which is the nature of Alpencross – the technical name for trans Alps mountain biking. We rode some exceptional trails, stayed in excellent accommodation of varying sorts as summarised above, ate well, faffed, laughed and lubed a lot and saw masses of amazing scenery.
Paul, our stand-in support driver at very short notice did us proud and unsurprisingly, every word of the pre-tour advice provided to the tour participants proved relevant at some point – especially what to carry in your day sac when traversing high mountains.
Alpine mountain biking is a serious commitment often comprising epic days which require a very different approach to what is the norm in the UK. The high Alps deserve huge respect and should never be under-estimated even when the sun shines brightly.
In the meanwhile we have returned to riding our local trails both richer (culturally) and wiser (experientially) after a demanding week cycling our version of the Via Migra mountain bike route through the Dolomites.
Finally, in 2015, four of the most Alps-experienced club members completed the Great Alpine Chain Route by MTB: Geneva to Salzburg and in 2016 three of those four completed the Geneva to Venice Plain alternative end which is an amazing achievement. The book of the GACR is in preparation.
Discussions will begin shortly to hold a ‘best of’ Alps tour in 2017 which would be our 15th Alps by MTB tour since 2005 but with a different / improved format as far as organisation and leadership is concerned.