Sanny, Dave and Matt tackle the Veneto Trail to see if it is possible to have an overseas adventure without sending the credit card into meltdown.
Words & Photography sanny
I don’t know about you but every time I read a piece about some adventure of a lifetime in some far-off land penned by a sponsored rider or paid for by a tourist board, I can’t help but wonder exactly how much it cost. It’s easy to have a brilliant time riding your bike and waxing lyrical about the amazing food, fine wine and five-star accommodation when it’s on someone else’s dime. But for most of us, it’s about as far removed from reality as me going on a date with Julia Roberts. (Although if you happen to be reading this Julia, my favourite food is pizza…) Of course, you could always go for the Yorkshire-esque approach of bivvying every night, eating food out of a tin can and treating personal hygiene as an unnecessary complication. However, nothing says misery to me more than being covered in dirt and sweat, then crawling into a sopping wet sleeping bag before enduring a seemingly endless night of half sleep and midge bites. Even in retrospect from the comfort of your favourite chair and smoking jacket beside a roaring fire with a cup of cocoa in your hand, it’s never going to be an enjoyable experience.
No, the real art of travel comes from putting together an overseas adventure that doesn’t cost a fortune nor is an exercise in the art of suffering. With this in mind, so it was that ‘Dave the Bastard’, Matt from DeAnima Cicli and I decided that with a few days to spare, we would have a bash at a self-guided foreign trip that would have only two rules:
No 1 – It had to be fun. This was meant to be a holiday with riding at the heart of it. If we weren’t enjoying ourselves, it would be pointless.
No 2 – The cost should be no more than an equivalent trip in the UK.
Being half Italian and a fluent speaker of the lingo, Matt’s suggestion of Italy was a logical one. But where to go? After an extensive, some might say exhaustive, two and a bit minutes of internet research, I had found a short video for the Veneto Trail, a 550km, 10,000+ metre bikepacking adventure in the heart of the Dolomites. A quick email to the accommodating organiser of the annual ride yielded a GPX route. A plan was coming together that Hannibal Smith would positively love!
With five days pencilled in for riding, our daily average mileage seemed pretty reasonable. Or at least it did from the comfort of our armchairs. Now at this point, a sensible person would have pored over the route profile. Had we done so, we would have seen that most of the climbing came in the first three days. However, never ones to let common sense and experience spoil the fun, our approach was a bit more haphazard. Rule No 1 dictated that we required a comfy bed for the night and proper Italian home cooking. Minor details such as whether or not we could manage several thousand metres of climbing in a day, fully loaded up, never really came into the equation.
With this in mind, TripAdvisor and a bit of local knowledge on Matt’s part came to the fore. It’s amazing just how easy it is to find good places to stay in otherwise remote locations with a few clicks of the mouse. Set the task of finding places to stay, Matt was like a veritable Judith Chalmers as he quickly found us places en route that cost about the same as a stay in a British Youth Hostel. Looking at menus promising traditional local fayre, I was practically salivating at the thought of this gastro tour.
Fly. Sleep. Drive. Ride. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.
Stepping off the plane (budget, of course and booked well in advance to keep an eye on the pennies), we were met by stifling midnight heat and Matt’s smiling face as we exited Milan Malpensa airport. We had arrived. Cramming our bike boxes and gear into the back of his car, we hightailed it to his flat where we spent the night sleeping on the floor of his son’s room. Top tip #17 – if your mate offers you space on the floor to kip, take it. Waking up to Italian sunshine streaming through the shutters, our first big challenge awaited us – picking up the hire car. For many a traveller, this can be a fraught experience. Tales of getting stung for exorbitant insurance excesses abound. However, we were prepared. Another online search prior to travelling (hmm, there is a definite theme developing) pointed me in the direction of a UK-based insurance company that offers comprehensive annual cover for overseas car hire for the princely sum of £39. As we waited in line, every other customer was falling into the excess insurance trap – one paying out over €400 for a few days’ hire. Policy in hand, we politely declined the offer of taking out additional cover and were quickly shown to our car. Perhaps it was because we were out of season, but our hire costs were ridiculously cheap – less than £7 a day and we even got upgraded to a larger vehicle. Win! For £7 a day, I would have been happy with a Reliant Robin. Of course, at that price, it did make us wonder what happens to your car when you hand over the keys at the long-stay car park. I reckon they might just be hiring it out as you sun yourself in foreign climes!
Day 1 – What was rule 1 again? Things not to do on a ride.
If someone has taken the time to craft a bikepacking route through some of the finest scenery in northern Italy, the chances are that they may just know their onions. So why was it that we thought we knew better as we took a short cut up an old Roman road? We felt pretty smug as we spun up it – well, for twenty yards at least. Almost immediately, the path deteriorated into an eroded mess of rain run-off channels and slippy limestone baby heads. Common sense would have had us retrace our steps. Annoyingly, we had left it at home. What followed was a lot of cursing and grunting as we manhandled our laden bikes up to the road above. Narrowly avoiding the strangely brown toilet paper in the middle of the trail was a particularly special moment for me that I am sure I shall long cherish…
Finally reaching the tarmac high above, I wasn’t sorry to be back on the road. Well, for the first few minutes at least. Now at this point it would be really rather wonderful if I could come up with some pithily cutting Oscar Wilde-esque comment about the vagaries of Italian driving. But being less Oscar and more Kim, let me be more direct. Italian drivers are lunatics! Any notion that you might have about stylish Italian cars breeding good drivers is a nonsense. We lost track of the number of close passes and near misses we had. The highlight (or should that be lowlight?) was the weapons-grade fool in a Porsche who overtook Dave on a descent immediately before an unlit tunnel while Dave was already being overtaken by another car. If you harbour romantic notions about riding classic Italian road climbs such as the Stelvio and the Ghisallo, just try riding on an Italian road, any Italian road, for five minutes. Quite why there are so many road riders in Italy continues to utterly baffle me. On the plus side, it sure as hell made us ride up the mountain faster.
That wasn’t in the brochure!
Spinning along a gloriously long-abandoned railway track that wove its way through high mountain villages, it felt like we were making good time. However, it is one of the immutable laws of touring that trails which look easy on paper never quite pan out that way. Fire roads are something which we in the UK will happily endure, but rarely find challenging. In Italy, things work differently. What started as an easy spin in the late afternoon sunshine on sun-dappled, pine needle-covered trails gradually deteriorated into a loose morass of slippy limestone and wheel-sucking sand.
Dusk came and went as the temperature plummeted with only the eerie shape of high pasture sheep ducking in and out of an ever-deepening mist keeping us company. We hadn’t planned to descend to our rifugio for the night in darkness, but we had no choice. The prospect of an unplanned bivvy in the dark forest with the likelihood of wolves for company didn’t fill any of us with joy, so when we finally caught the faint glimmer of our home for the night it was a very welcome sight. A warm shower, a comfy bed and enough food to feed the 5,000 beckoned.
For the cost of a mediocre B&B in the UK, we were treated to home-made cheese, salsiccia, pizza, bread and various cuts of antipasti. It was culinary heaven and a theme that would be repeated throughout our adventure.
Day 2 – Rule #27 – Be prepared for mishap.
Starting from a high point of some 1,700m, our riding took us through high Alpine pasture. The landscape was rolling, almost benign, but in the distance the towering, jagged peaks of the Dolomites dominated the skyline, a reminder of harder riding to come. Dropping down through the trees, I had reached that point of contentedness that riding in the sunshine on dusty trails brings. I was at one with my surroundings. Pffft. Pffffft! All was right with the world. PFFFFFFFFFTTTTT! I was a leaf floating on the wind – oh FFS, a bloody puncture! Watching the tubeless sealant seep out of my front tyre, the hole was too big to self-seal – necessitating a scramble in my toolkit for an anchovy. I was feeling pretty smug when it sealed, but the sense of achievement lasted all of 30 seconds as my back tyre decided to go down too. Another bloody tyre slash! This time the sealant and anchovies weren’t going to cut it and it was an exercise in creative swearing as I ended up covered in sealant manhandling the tyre off the rim. Inner peace, my arse! Tube and tyre boot deployed (only after much wiping off of gooey sealant) and I was finally back riding again some half hour later.
It wasn’t the end of the world and things took a decided turn for the better as Matt’s business partner, Gianni, unexpectedly met us mid-ride with croissants, bananas and energy bars. A true gentleman in the very finest sense of the word! Stopping at a bar for the obligatory lunchtime coffee, we looked at the map – two big mountains awaited us before dinner in Agordo. Remember what I said about studying your route well in advance?
What followed was a bit of a race against time. We were now on a mission. Climb number one was dispatched with ease – being on the road, it was easy to settle into a rhythm as we wended (wend? wound?) our way up through a steep-sided valley before a long descent that interspersed road and non-technical off-road sections which took us into the picturesque town of Fiera di Primiero. Lunchtime had slipped into late afternoon into early evening and we were famished.
Right on cue, we happened upon what is now known as ‘The Greatest Cake Shop in the World – Ever!’ Despite Dave and I only possessing the most rudimentary of Italian phrases, we were able to make ourselves understood as we pointed out which cakes we wanted. Accidentally dropping one of them on top of another, the woman serving declared that I could have that one for free. Like I said, Greatest Cake Shop – Ever! Practically inhaling them without even touching the sides, time was against us if we wanted to finish in the light. Passo Cereda was calling.
Despite being September and having seen snow a few days before, it felt like we were melting as we winched our way up the climb. We weren’t just warm – we were hot with a capital H. Not having the same low gears as Dave and I, Matt had no choice but to steam ahead up the climb. As we sweltered, he chittered at the top of the pass as he waited patiently for us to reach him. Regrouping, it was downhill all the way to Agordo where we were staying for the night. As the gloaming took hold, Dave turned to me and in ever such a polite manner asked: “Can you reach under me and give my baws a squeeze?” I looked at him with no small degree of incredulity. Had the heat fried his brain? Had he gone tour loco on only the third day of our trip? As it transpired, it came as something of a personal relief that he was referring to the curiously shaped rear light that dangled from his saddle.
Day 3 – The gondola of champions.
How do you make a great trip even better? You spend €11 on a gondola ride, that’s how. After a good hour of gently climbing on fire road and singletrack road, we reached the resort of Alleghe. The combination of glacial lake and soaring peaks in every direction made for a place we could have tarried a while. However, ahead lay some 1,000m of fire road climbing through the trees. Now I don’t know about you, but I know what fire road and trees are like to ride up and they can be a bit, well, dull. However, find yourself a handily placed gondola that takes you directly to the top of the pass with a café at the top and you have a no-brainer decision to make.
Sitting out on the deck of the café at well over 2,000m, we soaked in the views and rejoiced in our fiscal fortitude. We were now in the very heart of the mountains and at one of the highest points of the trip, both literally and figuratively. Had we cheated? When you make the rules, the answer is a definite ‘no’. We had merely used the facilities to our advantage and supported the Italian economy. As a bonus, we had been able to spend more time here than our schedule would have otherwise allowed, exploring remnants of Italy’s war-torn past, before tackling one of the best descents of the trip. Well, for Dave and me at least. For Matt, not so much. Ever wonder what happens when you run tiny rotors on a gravel bike on a big Alpine descent? Well, the front brake fails followed some while later by the back on a particularly steep section of trail where all that separates you from losing a whole load of skin is jamming your Sidi shoe into your back wheel in a desperate attempt to stop. It’s the smell you notice first – like a burned-out clutch. None the worse for his near death experience, Matt cut a calm, albeit wide-eyed, figure when we caught up with him.
And then there were two.
For Matt, the ride was approaching over. A call to Gianni meant that he would be taking the autobus home (albeit one in a cruel twist of fate that had a punctured tyre), while for Dave and me all that remained was a trifling 900m climb to Rifugio Mezzomiglio nestling high in the hills above us. We were now on our own – armed with just a map and a temperamental GPS that would randomly freeze and then unlock. No pressure… It was a welcome sight when we finally pulled up at our accommodation for the night. Contrary to our normal MO, there was still light in the sky when we got there. As it transpired, we were the only two people staying. Despite speaking no English, our host with her mountain sheep dog could not have been more welcoming while her cooking was quite simply sensational. Our host, not the dog! A dog cooking would just be weird. Salty ribs, home-made polenta, hand-picked mushrooms, a Primo Piatti di Gnocchi Bolognese – we were in foodie heaven. Even when we were utterly stuffed, we kept on eating until we both had food babies. It was epic and all for only €45 for the night. We would have happily paid that for the food alone.
Day 4 and 5 – The same, but different.
With the hills slowly receding into the rear view mirror, the next two days passed in a blur of big sky views, fast trails, fields of corn, pizza, strange wooden shelters in the woods, dilapidated old houses and factories, cheese and ham toasties Italian style, gelato, stopping at supermarkets for dirtbag make-them-yourself sandwiches, vineyards, cafes, bean festivals (yes – really), beautiful Italian piazzas, towns and villages dripping with history. Then, more punctures for me on a limestone trail we christened ‘The road of knives’ – this time necessitating a trip to buy a new tyre from a bike shop that, in an act of serendipity, was right next door to where we were staying. Then the trip continued with riverbank singletrack, more lousy Italian drivers, an abundance of wild crocuses, stifling 35° heat, more incredible food and cheap but cheerful accommodation that would put some four-star hotels here in the UK to shame, gesturing while using the odd key Italian phrase to make ourselves understood, and a GPS that would cut out for no reason. In short, it was everything we hoped for and felt like a proper adventure.
So what is stopping you?
Our trip may have been done on a budget, but it never felt like we skimped on the luxuries. The food, being Italian, was exceptional, while the language barrier with those of our hosts who spoke little or no English proved to be no barrier at all. I’d like to say that we planned things down to the nth degree but in truth, we really didn’t. Booking our accommodation in advance was a sensible move as it took the hassle and worry out of the trip by knowing where we would be staying for the night. It also gave us a goal to aim for each day. Would I do it again? Hell, yeah. We’re already planning our next trip. Should you? Absolutely. The internet has opened up a whole world of route possibilities to explore and as we proved, you can do it for less money than staying here in good old Blighty. Go on, give it a go, you might just surprise yourself.
The kit we used and things to consider.
Bikes – Being a mix of mostly non-technical off-road, road, monster climbs and equally monster descents, there is no right bike for the Veneto Trail. Dave opted for his Santa Cruz Highball CC in top-end race spec while I split the difference and was riding a DeAnima DeFer custom steel gravel bike with 2.1in, 27.5in knobbly tyres. Matt was the most hardcore of us – a prototype DeAnima carbon gravel bike with Fulcrum carbon wheels, 40C tyres that had less tread on them than there is hair on an egg and road ratio gearing.
Bags – While Dave and I used kit from Ortlieb and Revelate Designs, Matt went for the budget option – a LOMO waterproof seat pack matched with an Alpkit dual-ended dry bag and frankly brilliant Voile straps. The total cost for his kit was less than £60. That, my friends, is a blinking bargain.
Gear – If you are heading into the mountains, pack for bad weather and expect mechanical mishaps to occur. We took a bothy shelter with us along with synthetic belay style jackets and full waterproof kit. We were blessed with sunshine and temperatures in the high 20s and low 30s. However, shortly after our trip, storms in the area saw major flooding and landslips. Trails we rode became impassable, so being flexible with your route and preparing for bad weather is key.
Pack light – staying in rifugios means that you can wash your ride kit, squeeze it dry by wrapping in a towel and twisting like the old pro racing cyclists used to do and then wear it again the next day.
Finally, don’t rely solely on tech – pack a map or three. GPS devices and phones are great but as we found out, they don’t always work as you might hope and tend to go wrong just when you need them the most.