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Big ride: On the slopes of Gran Sasso

In-depth
16 May 2018
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Words Mark Bailey  Photography Pete Goding

At a fork in the road, a solitary Italian shepherd is selling plump wheels of Pecorino cheese. He doesn’t look like he’s getting much trade in these remote parts, and we don’t stop to give him any business either.

Instead, a swift left turn delivers us into the wind-whipped mountain amphitheatre of Campo Imperatore – the Emperor’s Field.

We’re in the Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga National Park, a 2,014 square kilometre arena of brooding limestone and dolomite peaks, slithering glaciers and seductively silent roads in the Apennines of central Italy.

This particular canvas of high mountain meadows, framed by jagged pinnacles and scudding rain clouds the colour of Roman chainmail, is known to locals as Piccolo Tibet (Little Tibet).

The mountains here may not be Himalayan in stature but their spiritual silence and aristocratic grandeur is enough to make any cyclist stop pedalling and stare.

Chi si fa pecorella, i lupi la mangiano’ (Make yourself a sheep and the wolves will eat you) is a popular adage in rural Italy. It’s a fitting aphorism for cyclists who wish to sample the rugged terrain of the Apennines.

Stare too long at the swirling mountain road that rises ominously towards the misty peak of Gran Sasso (Big Rock) and you’ll be tempted to flee downhill to the nearest village for a bowl of risotto instead.

Better to drop down a gear, crank up the watts and bite back. When we complete the meandering 1,263m ascent to the highest paved road on Gran Sasso at 2,130m, the clouds dissipate and the primeval landscape of Campo Imperatore opens up beneath us.

‘My bottom feels like ice cream,’ says Gianluca Di Renzo, the cycling guide, bricklayer, guitarist and published author who is my cycling companion for the day.

Channelling Marco ‘Il Pirata’ Pantani with his earring, beard and bandana, Gianluca guides me to a solitary stall selling bottles of Peroni and hot sausage and prosciutto ciabattas.

On encountering Gran Sasso during the 1999 edition of the Giro d’Italia (the climb has featured in the race four times) the leonine Italian sprinter Mario Cipollini said, ‘I hope when they give us our race numbers they also give us our ski passes.’

It is indeed colder than a bowl of gelato up here, but this is a view worth savouring.

With its eerie emptiness and raw beauty Gran Sasso and the atmospheric hilltop villages nearby have featured in a range of movies, from the deadly mysteries of medieval Franciscan friars in The Name Of The Rose (1986) with Sean Connery, to the treacherous world of assassins in The American (2010) with George Clooney.

But 74 years ago the mountain was the scene of true historic drama.

After his arrest in July 1943, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was secretly imprisoned at the Campo Imperatore Hotel, a stark red building that today sits opposite the sparkling white domes of the Campo Imperatore Observatory.

But in a raid that September known as Operation Eiche (Oak), a team of German paratroopers and SS commandos intercepted coded radio signals that revealed Mussolini’s location and, under direct orders from Adolf Hitler himself, arrived in planes and gliders to rescue him.

Il Duce was understandably relieved, until 18 months later when he was re-captured and shot near Lake Como. His body was hung upside down at a service station forecourt in Milan for all to see.

In the solitude of the mountain I find it easy to imagine Gran Sasso as the sanctuary for the 13th century hermits who used to shelter here or the 20th century dictator once imprisoned here.

This is a raw and hostile terrain, where wolves, bears and wild boar still roam, watched by golden eagles and peregrine falcons.

It’s this sense of remoteness that makes the Apennines, sandwiched between Pescara in the east and Rome in the west, such a unique place to cycle.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s return to the start of our ride, which begins in the maze of medieval streets and stylish piazzas of L’Aquila, capital of the Abruzzo region. 

Gran designs

I meet Gianluca at La Fontana delle 99 Cannelle (the Fountain of 99 Spouts), where the trickling tranquility of the water only strengthens the already sunny optimism of this dazzling Italian morning.

Gianluca is a guide for Italian cycle tour specialists ABCycle and knows this region of the Apennines intimately, so he’s acutely aware of the dangers the mountains pose, even on a glorious day like today.

He tells me that the historic city we’re in was badly damaged by an earthquake in 2009, and in early 2017 an avalanche on the opposite side of Gran Sasso to our route tragically killed 25 people.

Suitably forewarned, I decide to let Gianluca lead the way through the Porta Rivera arch in the city’s walls, where the soft green hills of Abruzzo immediately come into view.

We spin past the gurgling River Aterno and pass through the towns of Coppito and San Vittorino before heading northeast to a gentle climb, averaging 4%, along the flanks of Colle della Croce to a height of 1,450m.

The road is paved with smooth, grey tarmac and only a few wheezing Fiats glide past. For the first 20km I glance at the green, brown and purple patchwork quilt of fields below, but on the climb along Colle della Croce the epic views are replaced by towering fir trees, their chaotic roots visible through the mounds of earth at the sides of the road.

At the Passo delle Capannelle – a mountain junction used since Roman times – we enjoy 15km of refreshing descent, beginning with four swirling switchbacks and a long straight dash along a rocky plateau.

The peaks of Monte Stabiata and Monte di Aragno loom to our right as we descend. The landscape is a rustic blend of open fields, rust-coloured patches of rock, stony meadows and wildflowers.

It’s devoid of any signs of human life except for a few shepherds’ huts, some dusty hiking trails and a sprinkling of religious monuments such as the Cappella Di San Vincenzo.

At the town of Fonte Cerreto we take a break before starting the Gran Sasso ascent. I offer Gianluca a caffeine gel but, as a native Italian, he’s appalled at the inauthentic coffee taste.

A fan of The Who and the Rolling Stones, and armed with a Pink Floyd ringtone, Gianluca says he likes gritty cyclists such as Felice Gimondi and Mark Cavendish. ‘They are like soldiers,’ he says. ‘They always fight.’

Some of that gladiatorial spirit will be required to tackle Gran Sasso, which involves 1,263m of vertical ascent. Although the gradient averages just 4.1% with highs of 8.2%, it is the length that hurts: the climb continues on and off for a draining 31.1km. 

Hidden peaks

The summit of Gran Sasso is the 2,912m Corno Grande – the highest peak in the Apennines. It’s a mighty edifice of grey rock with a terrifyingly steep north face, but approaching from the south, as we are, it’s hidden behind its softer, rounder foothills.

The highest road accessible to cyclists on the slopes of Gran Sasso is the one that leads through Campo Imperatore to the hotel and observatory at 2,130m.

It starts with a steady ascent through forests of beech, fir and chestnuts as the late morning sunshine dapples the road ahead. When we climb above the treeline, views of mountain pastures open up around us.

The boulder-flecked plains stretch out to the mountains beyond, whose dramatic creases and folds are accentuated by the shifting battle between the sun and the gathering clouds.

After 16km there’s a steep ramp that yanks us out of the saddle but after 24km we enjoy a 5km downhill dash along a narrow road etched into the side of the mountain.

With near-perfect visibility, I crank up the speed to 70kmh and then let gravity take over, occasionally pumping the pedals to keep up with Gianluca.

Around 60km into our ride we reach the Pecorino-selling shepherd standing with his shaggy white Abruzzo sheepdog at a fork in the road.

This junction marks the start of the final ascent through Campo Imperatore to the summit road. A sudden sprinkle of rain leaves us reaching for gilets and jackets, but it’s over in a few minutes.

Gianluca has seen worse rain than this before – he once cycled from Edinburgh to London.

The ominous grey clouds seem to threaten a biblical downpour that thankfully never comes, and the lingering menace of the weather only adds to the raw beauty of the scene.

A thin ribbon of tarmac leads straight towards the cloud-covered peaks ahead. Rivers of white scree spill down the slopes like tears.

The presence of limestone and dolomite rock are what give the mountain its unusual ash colour but in the foreground are dark green fields that rise and fall in a riot of hills and hollows.

To our right is Laghetto Pietranzoni, a mirrored lake that today is the colour of thick black ink. As the wind claws at my wheel rims and the clouds darken I feel the electrical charge of excitement that comes from cycling into unknown terrain.

In the final 5km the road kicks up with a series of hairpins at 6%, 9% and 11%. Gianluca, a triathlete not averse to the odd 3km ocean swim, peels ahead.

It’s a good time to reflect on what’s going on beneath my wheels. Buried under the mountain is the 10km tunnel of the A24 highway, which links Rome with the Adriatic Sea.

Also hiding beneath the mountain is the Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso, an underground particle physics laboratory where international experts research neutrinos, high-energy cosmic rays, dark matter and nuclear science.

How I could do with my own supplementary energy source right now. But I know we’re close to the summit when I see the lifts of the Gran Sasso ski resort – a popular holiday spot of the late Pope John Paul II – and the domes of the observatory where scientists working on the CINEOS (Campo Imperatore Near-Earth Object Survey) study the movement of fast-moving asteroids and comets.

The telescopes are unlikely to register the slow-moving cyclists who have just arrived, heaving and panting, outside. 

Back in time

After a short lunch break for those sausage ciabattas and celebratory bottles of Peroni we enjoy the reward of dashing back down the road we just climbed to return to the fork in the road.

My Strava file suggests we dropped 300m in a tenth of a kilometre but none of us can remember falling off a cliff so I suspect the GPS system had a snooze.

The gritty road is like sandpaper, and while I wouldn’t want to take a fall here it means I can sweep around the hairpins at speed without worrying about my tyres sliding from under me.

The final part of our ride takes us into a greener landscape filled with crumbling medieval castles and ancient villages once ruled by the Medicis. But first we must complete a short drag over a high-mountain pasture that’s strangely bleached of colour.

It’s so desolate it would be like riding through a desert were it not for the cold shadows that leave my hands shaking on the handlebars.

The terrain bears the traces of both ancient and modern grazing practices. The slopes are populated in spring, summer and autumn by flocks of sheep, along with herds of cattle and semi-wild horses.

The ascent is short but I can feel lactic acid torching my legs. We’ve been climbing for over 50km of our 85km journey so far, and it comes as some relief when Gianluca leans over his shoulder to tell me that it’s pretty much downhill or flat all the way home.

After a long descent, featuring fast roads interspersed with tight hairpins, we crest a short hill and a softer, sunnier landscape appears, dotted with bundles of houses and neatly packaged segments of farm land.

Not far from here is the 10th century castle of Rocca Calascio, the highest fortress in the Apennines, and the 13th century citadel of Castel Del Monte.

The sun reappears and it’s hard to believe we are only a few kilometres from the apocalyptic clouds of Campo Imperatore.

We cycle into the medieval village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a charming cluster of stone houses, artisanal shops and labyrinthine staircases that’s popular with tourists for its art galleries and gourmet lentils.

Those stairs mean it’s not a particularly bike-friendly destination but it’s worth the waddle. We walk with our bikes through the streets with the stiletto clatter of cleats echoing through the ancient passageways.

We order beers at a cafe and I’m heartened to see Gianluca swap his American stars and stripes bandana for a Union Jack version.

After a short rest we ride along a scenic balcony road. We’re still descending so we enjoy bursts of free speed that soothes my rapidly solidifying leg muscles.

We dash past the ruins of the Castello di Barisciano, which is perched on the side of the Selva mountain near the village of Barisciano, on our way to San Demetrio ne’ Vestini.

The road here, which weaves through farms and orchards bordered by stone walls, is narrow and quiet like an English country lane.

As we approach San Demetrio ne’ Vestini the road gets busier so Gianluca leads us onto a quieter road to the hamlet of Sant Eusanio Forconese.

We keep pedalling to Monticchio, a town surrounded by volcanic lakes that became a shelter for brigands during the Italian unification process of the 19th century.

This is agricultural land and I can smell the warm earth from the fields as I pedal past.

Eight hours after leaving L’Aquila we arrive back in the town and shelter in the shade beneath the imposing double doors of the basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio.

This elegant building, dating back to 1287, is decorated with a bright pattern of pink and white stones. It’s been an epic ride, taking in wild mountains, wind-raked pastures and ancient villages.

Gialunca grabs me by the shoulders and gives me a hearty Italian double-peck on the cheeks.

Our trip to L’Aquila has coincided with the festival of La Perdonanza Celestiniana (Festival of Forgiveness), which commemorates the papal bull of Pope Celestine V.

Issued in 1294, the bull granted indulgence to everyone who confessed at the basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio and walked through the imposing double doors beneath which we now sit.

As the evening draws in, the colourful streets are soon filled with men dressed as knights, women in medieval dresses, belly dancers, musical celebrations and commemorative sword-fighting contests.

Whether you arrive at the basilica out of religious devotion or at the end of a 138km cycling odyssey, this is one pilgrimage worth making.

The Gran Tour

Follow Cyclist’s route around the slopes of the Gran Sasso 

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/61gransasso. Head west out of L’Aquila on the SS17 before turning right onto Via Giovanni Falcone and passing Coppito and San Vittorino.

At Cermone turn right onto the SS80 to the Passo delle Capannelle, then take the SP86 to Fonte Cerreto. Head east on the SS17 and turn left to climb Gran Sasso to Campo Imperatore.

Retrace your route to the junction, then carry on along the SS17 before heading right all the way towards Santo Stefano Sessanio. Head through Barisciano, San Demetrio ne’ Vestini and Fossa to complete your loop back to L’Aquila.

 

Big 

How we got there

Travel

Ryanair offers flights from London Stansted to Pescara from £16.99 each way, although prices rise in summer and the cost of taking a bicycle is currently £120.

It takes 90 minutes to drive from Pescara to L’Aquila but ABCycle (abcycle.org) can offer transfers to save you the hassle of renting a car.

Accommodation

We stayed at Hotel 99 Cannelle (hotel99cannelle.it) in L’Aquila, an ancient building dating from the 14th century that features comfortable beds, good showers for post-ride recovery and an impressive restaurant. Prices for a double room start at €60 a night.

Guiding

A trip to the Alps or Pyrenees can be managed with the help of a good map, but in the rugged terrain of the Apennines a local guide will really improve the enjoyment and range of your riding options.

Angelo of ABCycle can arrange routes and is himself an entertaining and knowledgeable guide who can help you discover the hidden gems of the region. Find out more at abcycle.org.