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Sardinia : Big Ride

Trevor Ward
28 Sep 2015

While not as well known for its cycling as some of its Mediterranean neighbours, Sardinia offers rich pickings for the intrepid rider.

Maps are beautiful things. Their contours, lines and symbols chart history as well as topography, and record detail as well as distance. Even a free handout from the local tourist office, such as the one we receive on arrival in Sardinia, is packed with more intrigue and romance than the flashiest GPS device.

So it always breaks my heart when a hotel receptionist or tour guide takes out their biro and scribbles all over a map just to illustrate the quickest way from A to B. It shows scant respect to the skill and courage of the explorers, navigators, pilots and cartographers who devoted their lives to producing this patchwork of coordinates, elevations and measurements. Maps are extraordinary artefacts and should be treated as such. And now here’s Marcello taking a felt-tip pen to my 1:285,000 scale Carta Stradale Sardegna and defacing its colourful geometry with his thoughtless scrawl.

In one careless swipe he has obliterated a medieval castle, a seaside marina, a spectacular coastal corniche and various centuries-old historical monuments, including Spanish watch towers and megalithic tombs. And this senseless redrawing of history and geography has all come about because I happen to have a cold.

‘So can you suggest a loop that’s not too long?’ I ask, pointing at the map. ‘150 kilometres,’ is the reply.

Until arriving in Sardinia, I hadn’t been out on the bike for two weeks. For the first of those weeks I had been mainly confined to bed. And for 32 consecutive hours of that first week, I had slept solidly, dosed up to the eyeballs on Lemsip and paracetamol. My first bout of man flu in five years had left me as weak as a kitten.

Sardinia coastline

But this counts for nothing in the eyes of Marcello who, like most Mediterranean natives, simply cannot grasp the concept of the common cold. No matter how many times I have tried to convey through gestures and words that my body is not operating at optimum capacity, I am met by polite but blank-eyed incomprehension. It would be easier trying to explain custard.

‘So can you suggest a loop that’s not too long?’ I ask, pointing at the map. 

‘150 kilometres,’ is the reply.

‘Hmm, that’s a bit long. And it’s quite hilly. And I’m still feeling a bit congested.’

Marcello’s mind is clearly wrestling with the abstract concept of a virus triggered by an intemperate climate. He repeats, ‘150 kilometres.’

I take the map. ‘What about this?’ I say, pointing at a squiggly white line that lops off a big chunk of lumpiness. And that’s when Marcello strikes with his felt-tip, defacing hundreds of years of exploration and measurement before finally announcing, ‘That will make it about 40km shorter,’ but in a tone of voice that implies he is no nearer to understanding why anyone should want to do such a thing. (Remember that squiggly white line, by the way – it has a major part to play later on…)

 

The VIP treatment

Our hostess Maria Cristina greets us at breakfast at the Villa Asfodeli hotel with the slightly nervous air of someone who is dealing with a potential troublemaker.

Sardinia stop

‘And for breakfast we offer something a little different, because we know you have special needs,’ she says. She appears to think scissors and other sharp instruments should be removed from within my reach just because I’m wearing Lycra shorts and having trouble walking in my cleats. But in fact she’s embracing Sardinia’s new, welcoming attitude to cyclists, which can roughly be summed up as: ‘We know you are normal people just like us, really.’

As Marcello says, ‘Hoteliers see cyclists a bit differently, so we are trying to reassure them they don’t have to worry, that cyclists like the same things as other tourists.’

Marcello’s company, Sardinia Grand Tour, has been operating adventure itineraries for 12 years, but has seen a noticeable growth in demand for road cycling tours only recently. Sardinia might not have the roadie reputation or heritage of other Mediterranean islands such as Mallorca and Corsica, but it claims to have roads and landscapes no less impressive. Now that we’ve finally agreed on a route, I’m about to see for myself.

As we leave the hotel in the village of Tresnuraghes, a stream of immaculately turned-out locals is arriving at the church opposite for the Sunday morning service: young boys in ill-fitting suits and ties; giggling teenage girls with ribbons in their hair and phones in their hands; men with designer sunglasses and stubble; their wives clutching babies and matching handbags. They are smiling and happy. None of them arrive by bicycle. The emptiness of their lives shocks me.

We leave the village and are soon presented with a panorama of Sardinia’s west coast and its rippling, scorched hills. It’s a cloudless, still day. We follow the road down to the river Temo, soon arriving at the beautiful, bustling town of Bosa. We cross the river via a stone bridge before entering a maze of narrow, cobbled streets and tall, pastel-coloured buildings. For a Sunday morning, it’s a hive of activity. Tourists sit outside bars and restaurants, or wander between trestle tables laden with wine and cheese (it’s a wine festival, says Marcello). They are smiling and happy. None of them are riding bicycles. The emptiness of their lives shocks me.

Sardinia descending

OK, so Marcello has told me there’s a 12km climb coming up, and I’m feeling a bit jealous of all these happy, smiling people who are enjoying coffees, eating lunch or tasting wine without the spectre of a 12km climb looming over them. I put it down to the antibiotics I’m still on and Marcello’s wanton vandalism of my map which, even before he’d taken his felt-tip to it, hadn’t given any indication of something so arduous as a 12km mountain climb so early in the route.

We have a macchiato outside a bar. Marcello tells me how he studied ‘cycling and wine tourism’ at university. I ponder how those words would never have cohabitated in the same sentence a few years ago. He tells me how all cyclists are ‘big children at heart’, but he’s worked hard to convince hoteliers and other service providers that they expect adult levels of service: ‘Good food, nice rooms and a quiet night.’ That’s why Maria Cristina had been so anxious to satisfy my ‘special needs’ earlier.

We pay the bill and click clack awkwardly across the cobbles to our bikes to ride back along the palm-fringed riverfront and over the bridge to a supermarket. The next village is at the top of the climb, and Marcello isn’t sure whether its restaurant will still be open for lunch or not, so we decide to stock up on bread, cheese and fruit.

Sardinia cycling

The start of the climb takes us tantalisingly close to the grey, bleak castle that dominates the hillside above Bosa. Beneath its 800-year-old walls, another row of trestle tables is dispensing wine, food and happiness to the tourists, but the scene is callously snatched away from me as the road veers sharply to the left. Suddenly it’s just me, Marcello and a road that disappears up into the heat haze ahead. There are no more smiling churchgoers or happy tourists. In fact, for the rest of the day, there will be hardly any traffic at all.

Marcello tells me that Sardinia – which is bigger than Wales – has a population of only 1.5 million. That’s the second-lowest population density of any Italian region. As we climb gradually, we see the hills and ridges of the island extending eastwards. The usual signs of civilisation – pylons, radio masts, chimneys, the smudge of a village or distant blur of a motorway – are all missing. It’s just a rolling patchwork of scrubland, forests and barren slopes. Its emptiness shocks me.

From McEwen to Aru

The most traffic this area has ever seen was in 2007 when Stage 2 of the Giro d’Italia came thundering down these slopes on the way to a sprint finish (won by Australia’s Robbie McEwen) in Bosa.

The following day’s stage to Cagliari was the last time the Giro visited Sardinia, although Marcello is optimistic it may return soon thanks to the exploits of the island’s most popular cycling son, Fabio Aru, who was born about 100km south of here. ‘We were all supporting him during this year’s Giro [where he finished second overall to Alberto Contador],’ says Marcello. ‘He had a reputation as a strong rider when he lived here. He won lots of the local races before he left for the mainland when he was 18.’

Sardinia hillside

I wonder if Aru ever practised on the climb we are grinding up now. It’s not especially steep, but it drags on forever. With no traffic or roadside buildings, the regular, lazy curves are the only distractions from the relentless incline. We have soon lost sight of the Sardinian Sea behind us. Ahead of us, a section of false flat punctuates the climb before thrusting upwards once more. Yet again – and not for the last time – I’m struck by the emptiness and quiet of it all. Quiet, that is, apart from my pneumonic wheezing as I try to hold on to Marcello’s wheel.

I think the name of the village we finally arrive at is Montresta, though the last couple of letters on my map have been obliterated by Marcello’s felt-tip. It’s perched on a slope overlooking forests of cork and oak trees and a plant whose bitter scent has been acting like a Vicks inhaler on my nostrils all the way up the climb, the asphodel, which is used to weave the baskets and ornaments on sale in many Sardinian souvenir shops and beloved of certain types of tourist.

As feared, the village’s only trattoria is closed, but we douse our thirsts with Cokes from a nearby bar. One of the locals is nattily attired in a pair of knee-high, intricately laced-up, polished leather gaiters. We learn from Marcello that he’s a shepherd, and the gaiters are essential to protect him from stinging nettles in the surrounding fields. I’m suspicious. His legwear looks a bit too immaculate. And where are his goats? Sure enough, as we leave the village, Marcello reveals that it had in fact been the shepherd’s day off, but he’d put on his best gaiters to spend his Sunday loafing around at the bar. The road plunges downhill for a few kilometres before a sharp left turn and the resumption of duties in the small ring as we commence an even longer 15km ascent that will take us up to a ridge and the highest point of our route.

Sardinia farmer

From the undulating spine of the ridge we get sweeping views of Sardinia’s interior. Flat-topped mountains rise from lush valleys. It’s late spring, so the island’s vegetation hasn’t yet been drained of its colours by the heat and dryness. As the road flattens, I realise I’m hungry. Ravenous, in fact. But the only sign of civilisation is a church, stood on its own in the middle of nowhere. Once again, the emptiness of this place is startling. If the church is still in use, its Sunday worshippers have long since departed. On the opposite side of the road is a drinking fountain and stone benches in the shade of a tree. We pull over and wolf down our picnic. The restorative powers of a slightly squashed ham and cheese supermarket baguette should never be underestimated. 

The squiggly bit

We crest the next rise and are reunited with our view of the sea. A bit further on is the modern hilltop town of Villanova Monteleone, where Russian rider (and current Tinkoff-Saxo team member) Pavel Brutt led a five-man breakaway on the way to Bosa in the 2007 Giro. The road continues to the popular seaside resort of Alghero, but we are due to take a short cut – the ‘squiggly white line’ so contemptuously dismissed by Marcello and his felt-tip several hours earlier. We find the turn off and ease out of the saddle for another short but testing climb. We arrive at the top to find another spectacular view of the coast, but it’s not the turquoise seas or distant mountains across the Bay of Alghero that have caught our attention. Directly below us is something far more exciting.

The road we are on – that ‘white squiggly line’ that looked so unprepossessing on my map – unspools down to the sea in a long and labyrinthine series of curves and hairpins. We spend a good 20 minutes looking down and trying to plot its course as it regularly disappears behind clumps of trees or beneath rocky overhangs. It looks like a big grey snake slithering in and out of the undergrowth.

On the map, it doesn’t merit a number. It doesn’t even connect two settlements. It joins one bit of emptiness to another. Nor does the map do justice to how sinuous and sprawling this stretch of asphalt actually is. As I was saying at breakfast, maps are wonderful things, but there are some roads even they can’t capture the exhilarating, magical nature of.

Sardinia undercroft

Needless to say, the descent is a delight. I feel my mucous cobwebs being blown away once and for all. At the bottom, we join the coast road back to Bosa. The fun hasn’t finished yet, because this 36km stretch of road is a rollercoaster, cresting rugged cliffs and skirting remote coves. The ridge above me is dotted with the ruins of watch towers built by the Spanish during their 400-year rule over the island. Near the top of the longest undulation, after almost 10km with just a couple of brief respites, I encounter the first line of traffic since leaving Bosa: a convoy of tourists riding mountain bikes and wearing flip-flops and sun hats.

Instead of retracing our route through the picturesque streets of Bosa we continue for a couple of kilometres along the coast, where the road comes to an abrupt end at a huge wall of rock. The final 7km of our ride will be solidly uphill.

With my respiratory passages feeling as unclogged as they have in weeks, Marcello and I begin attacking each other with gusto. He has the advantage of knowing where the steep bits are – he launches one attack just as a ‘10%’ sign looms into view – but I have the impetus of a grudge that has been festering all day under the hot Mediterranean sun. When I pip him to the ‘finish line’ outside our hotel, I have finally got my revenge for him desecrating my map with his felt-tip pen seven hours earlier.

Do it yourself

Travel

The nearest airport to Tresnuraghes on Sardinia is Cagliari, which is served from the UK by several airlines. The transfer time to the village is about two and a half hours. Alternatively, you could fly to Olbia, which is in the north east of the island, but this would add about an hour to your transfer time. 

Accommodation

We stayed at the charming, family-run Villa Asfodeli Hotel (asfodelihotel.com, doubles from £60 B&B per night including bike rental) in the centre of Tresnuraghes. As well as providing for cyclists’ ‘special needs’ with a generous buffet breakfast, the hotel offers a fully equipped bike station where you can hire a road bike or service your own. The hotel boasts beautiful gardens and a swimming pool overlooking the Sardinian Sea. 

For food, there is a pizzeria next door, or you can travel the 7km down to the riverside town of Bosa where there is a range of restaurants. We enjoyed a slap-up meal of Sardinian specialities – including sea urchin, tuna carpaccio and cuttlefish in its own ink, washed down with a bottle of the local Nieddera rosé – for €30 a head at the Borgo Sant’Ignazio restaurant in the old town.

Thanks

Thanks to Marcello Usala for arranging the logistics of our trip. His company, Sardinia Grand Tour, offers guided and self-guided cycling tours around the island, including hotel accommodation and bike hire. Seven-night guided tours, including airport transfers, accommodation and most meals, start from €1,090 (£776). More details at sardiniagrandtour.com.

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