Saturday, April 21, 2012

Trails, Mountains and Lakes... Sweet Riding in Lago Di Garda

So after three and a bit days of hanging in Torbole on the shores of Lago Garda, I'm still salivating at the thought of how much amazing riding there is here. Actually, it doesn't stop at riding... There is windsurfing, rowing, kayaking, climbing, hiking, skiing and canyoning all within a stones throw from the town. This place is paradise... Lakes, mountains, trails... All I need is my little log cabin in the hills and I'm set to live here... But in the meantime, that is probably not much more than a pipe dream and I will have to settle for extending my stay a week longer than planned to next Friday. Originally, I had intended to go riding in San Sebastian, Spain, but the hassle of travelling with a bike and the cost of getting there when I could just stay here in Garda and ride my little heartout just doesn't make sense, so here I stay. I feel really at home here... Really comfortable. The locals are lovely, the place I am staying is absolutely stellar, the trails are incredible and I can find food to eat that fuels my body the way I like... It's a good place to stay and ride/train in the lead-up to 24 hour solo world champs.

Wednesday was my first full day here and I booked in to do a mountain bike tour with one of the local shops, Garda on Bike. I'm staying at this wicked hotel called Santoni, and as part of my accommodation, I get tours with this bike shop for free, which is a pretty sweet deal considering the rate on the room was substantially discounted already because it hasn't quite hit their peak season yet. I was warned that doing tours with the bike shop would likely be little more than an orientation session for me, as the group rides tended to be a pretty slow pace, but to my delight, when I rocked up at the shop Wednesday morning, I was the only one booked into my group... I had two guides all to myself!

The cool thing about this was that it was kinda like just going out for a ride with mates... The other cool thing was that it meant we could give it some stick and ride a bit quicker than a normal group tour. We set off to the west of Riva, through cobblestone villages and straight onto a climb which would eventually bring us up to about 950m. There is a lot of big climbing around here, and subsequently, a lot of stunning vistas. Whilst the climb was mainly on sealed and gravel roads, the scenery was amazing. The lake stayed within sight most of the ride, and when there was no lake, we would see historic townships, castles, or vinyards terraced up the hillside. I couldn't wipe the smile off my face.

The two guides I was with, Matteo and Stefano, were really top dudes. From what I gathered, Matteo has a cross country racing background and Stefano a downhill, so as we climbed, I got a pretty good workout sticking to Matteo's wheel, but we had to wait at the top for Stefano. It was a kinda good feeling to ride one of the guides off my wheel, but to be fair, he was on a heavier, all-mountain rig, and he totally got his own back once we started descending! We climbed around the terraced vinyards in the area and then went off course to the "usual" tour (another benefit of being the only one in the group) and did a little side trip to Lago Tenno. This lake was an amazing shade of turquoise and was so still that the mountains behind reflected off it like a mirror. We then visited one of the historic mountainside towns, Canale, which is now inhabited by a variety of artists. The township is a maze of terrace houses and cobblestone roads. It was such a beautiful place to visit.

We continued climbing and once we arrived at our high point, it was literally all downhill. The temperature difference from down by the lake was about 5 degrees and whilst we had been quite warm climbing, the descent was going to be pretty chilly, so we stopped for a bite to eat and to layer up a bit. The following descent was like nothing I had ever ridden before. It was quite technical, and super rocky. If I were to try and describe it, I would say it was just one continuous rock garden that was like Paris-Roubaix on steroids. Although it was naturally occurring, you could have sworn someone had laid a steep cobblestone road and then forgotten to grout it. It took some getting used to. Because the rocks were so smooth, brakes were useless, so it was really a point-and-shoot game. The arm pump was amazing. Stefano and Matteo completely owned me down the descents... I wouldn't say I was dawdling, but they were down quick enough to have time to get off their bikes and lounge around while they waited for me at the bottom.

We arrived back in Riva much earlier than their usual group would, so Matteo suggested that we head over to Brioche (where I had ridden the evening before) to hit up some more trails, which was an offer I couldn't refuse. We parted ways with Stefano and headed up the climb to the top of Monte Brioche. At the top, there is an old battalion station which I had seen the evening before, but didn't realise you could actually climb up on the roof for views over the lake. Matteo led the way and although it was quite a foggy day and not the best visibility, the view was still stunning. From the top, we could see the mountain we had climbed that morning and the valley we descended. The trails on Brioche were as sweet as I remembered from the day before. As we were about to enter one section of trail, I noticed a couple of signs that I found pretty amusing. There were two "NO BIKES" signs either side of the paved road, and the only other way down was the sweet singletrack to the left of the road... Bit of a no-brainer really!

We parted ways at the bike shop early afternoon and I headed to the waterfront to smashback some food before heading back to the hotel. On my way back, I noticed one of the other bike shops in town and their rather colourful use of language in their store's name... "Mecki's F#@king Perfect Bike"... Hmmm, ooookaaay. It made me wonder if they had chosen the name without originally fully understanding the implications of the word... Either way, it was a pretty bold statement. I paid a visit to the store in the afternoon and they had the F word on everything... T-shirts, shorts, jerseys... And the even more hilarious thing was that on some of the shirts, their English grammar wasn't all that great, which made it even more awesome.

Thursday morning, I awoke to the news that there had been snow on the peaks down to 1600m overnight, which made it a cold morning, albeit quite clear and crisp. I arrived at the bike shop for another one of their tours. I was secretly hoping I would be the only one in the group again, and I was, but my legs felt a little smashed from all the climbing and keeping up with Matteo from the day before. I was pretty happy when Carlo told me Stefano would be my guide for the day. It meant I could take the climbs a bit easier without letting my competative spirit rip the legs off me. We didn't go out for the scheduled tour. Instead, Stefano took me up the towns most famous walking/biking trail, Ponale. Apparently in the high season, the track is a highway, and I could understand why with the stunning scenery. It was nearly embarrassing that around each corner was something new I wanted to take a photo of.

The trail was riddled with tunnels, all with archways cut out of the side of them to let the natural light in. There were also pieces of singletrack criss-crossing the main trail along the edges, which was going to make for a super fun descent. It was really pleasant chatting with Stefano. I find the more time I spend here and the more comfortable I get with the language, I will switch from English to Italian when I know the word, then back to English when I don't. I am also finding that I am more easily understood if I eliminate "unnecessary" words from my vocabulary, like "the" and "a", which has been a bit of a learning curve for me because I am such a grammar fiend. I find that if you try to speak bits of the language, people really appreciate that, and I am really enjoying learning and using it, too. Stefano told me how him and Matteo had grown up together and lived in Riva their whole lives... I could understand that... Why would you go anywhere else when you had this huge playground right on your doorstep?

When we arrived at the top of Ponale, we had the option of going back down or riding to Lago Ledro. I was pretty keen to explore a bit further, so we continued on towards Ledro through a road tunnel. It was quite a bizarre feeling. The tunnel was about a kilometre long, and you knew you were descending because of the speed you were going, but you had no external point of reference to understand how much you were descending or how fast. It was really weird. We stopped off in a little town along the way to fill my water bottle. In the mountains, there are these natural springs on taps everywhere with lovely fresh water. You can head out for a 6 hour ride, take one bottle with you, and know there will be plenty to drink along the way.

Lago Ledro was, once again, a spectacular spot, relatively untouched by tourists. It was bloody cold up there with the wind blowing directly off the fresh snow you could see scattered across the mountain tops. Apparently it was extremely unusual for Garda to get any snow at this time of year, and it was usually quite a bit warmer, too (just my luck!). But the cold didn't bother me too much... It just meant you had to strip to climb, then rug up before descending, and the descending today was bitterly cold.

The Ponale trail was a blast to descend. We skipped from side to side across the trail, pumping over the smooth, firm dirt, which was a very different experience to most other trails in the area. Walkers looked at us like we were a public menace, but a friendly "Ciao ciao" and a token gesture of braking to wash off an insignificant amount of speed would usually get a friendly smile. We then headed across the valley and up the hill on the other side of Torbole. It was nice to see the view of the lake from the other side. Whe. We reached the top, there was this really cool BMX track which looked like loads of fun, but was fenced off and locked up... What a waste. We arrived at the head of a trail with a super technical beginning, but was otherwise quite flowy and fun.

As we made our way down the mountain, we would cross the road as we went. The trail began getting pretty technical... Tight switchbacks with loose, steep run-ins and run-outs, and steep sets of steps to descend. I had found yesterdays riding at that point where I thought "this is bloody scary, but I can ride it"... These trails were just a little bit beyond that, and if I didn't have world champs in a few weeks, I may have thrown myself into them, but self preservation still needs to remain fairly high on my list at the moment. We parted ways at the bottom of the mountain and I went for a little scenic ride and hit up some lunch before heading back to the hotel for a shower and nap. I felt pretty smashed, to be honest, and I wasn't sure if it was the residual fatigue from the Cape Epic or from travelling or if I just needed to back it off a bit.

This morning I had booked in for another tour to find that unfortunately, there weren't quite enough guides for the shop to give me my own guide for a day again... That was fair enough... I had been pretty lucky the last couple of days. Matteo was taking the road group out, which was kinda funny because he isn't much of a roadie (apparently this was his second time on a road bike!). I gave him some stick and told him he needed to lose the baggy shorts. So I jumped in with the road group. It was a pretty slow group, so I was able to easily keep up on my mountain bike. It was a good active recovery ride for me. I also found I was able to stop and take photos then sprint back to the group, which worked well for interval training.

It was actually really nice to have some company, and I learnt a new skill... How to be a photographer whilst riding... And without blowing my own trumpet too much, I think I was pretty bloody good at it! The ride went roughly north towards Arco, which was an area I hadn't visited yet, which was nice. Matteo pointed out to me where apparently the BEST gelato is (mental note... Must return here before I leave).

As we rode along, I noticed one of those weird three-wheeled cars that doesn't seem to know if it wants to be a scooter or a car (that's right... Like the ones off Mr. Bean). I was quick to use my new skill of on-bike photography to whip the camera out of my pocket and get a pic of this marvel of modern(?) technology.

As we approached our only climb of the day, Matteo pointed out to me a mountain bike trail I could detour through on the way back, then he pointed out to me on the right one I could jump on straight away and the group would meet me at the top of the trail where it met the road... Cool! So I headed up this track, which was a loose, rocky road through a vineyard and eventually came to a Y junction. I wasn't too sure which one to take, so I assumed I should just keep climbing. It turns out that I had chosen the wrong way and ended up further up the road to where the rest of the group was waiting for me. I waited for ages (and apparently so did they) before I decided to keep riding up the hill to see if I could find them. I went quite a way, past a castle and through a tunnel before I came to the conclusion that there was no way they would have expected me to ride this far before we met up, so I turned around and headed back down the mountain.

I still didn't find them, and as it turned out, they had waited for me and must have headed up to the castle and turned off towards the lake while I was somewhere up near the tunnel. I wasn't too bothered by it. I just hoped that they weren't still waiting for me somewhere and that Matteo wouldn't get in trouble for leaving me out on my own somewhere. I was pretty sure he wouldn't be too worried about me.

I headed back down the mountain again via the trails that came off the side of the road, then back down the trail I had climbed (which was great fun!). I was pretty stoked Matteo had shown me the other trail for the way back and I jumped off the main road onto that. I made my way through a vinyard and then onto a lovely rocky singletrack that undulated along the side of the mountain just above the vineyard. It was really pleasant riding and not too strenuous, and a much nicer way back home than the road. The trail joined back up with the cycle path and I made my way back to Torbole (via the shop to let them know I hadn't gone missing!).

After a shower, I headed into one of the local cafes to get some lunch and to my delight, they had the Giro Del Trentino telecast on the TV, which resulted in me whiling away a couple of hours eating fruit salad and drinking hot chocolate as I watched the riders climbing up to the 2200m Passo Pordoi in the snow (BRRR!). I then enjoyed a massage, nap and then some dinner before taking a stroll along the lakeside to watch the sunset after the sun had made a very late appearance for the day. It was spectacular.

So the weather for tomorrow looks pretty good and after being warned off Altissimo by the locals (apparently all the good trails are above the snow line at the moment), I am planning a ride up towards Tremalzo tomorrow for the day. Tremalzo is the peak on the other side of the valley, and I hope I get to see some snow while I'm up there, too!

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