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Borderline crazy: Carnic Alps Big Ride

In-depth
9 Apr 2021
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The Carnic Alps in the far northeast of Italy might not be as famous as their Dolomite sisters, but they're far from overshadowed

Words: James Spender Photography: Mike Massaro

The appeal of cycling comes almost as much from the people you meet doing it as from the riding itself. Yes, there are those times when you’re at a friend’s party and are enthusiastically introduced to an accountant called Mark with the words, ‘Hey, James cycles, and Mark’s thinking of getting on the Cycle To Work Scheme…’ but that’s a small price to pay for genuinely having something in common with a total stranger, namely that you both have a passion for riding a bike.

So it was on my arrival in Arta Terme yesterday. The small town is nestled in Italy’s slice of the Carnic Alps, about 14km due south of the Austrian border and 35km west of Slovenia, and there I was greeted warmly by a pair of such strangers, Marco Cantagallo and Maurizio, the latter bearing no surname to speak of, but with a commanding presence that suggested he didn’t need one.

At first I thought they were father and son – Marco had spoken excitedly over email of his father, a one-time Vatican guard turned cycle tour operator – and while Maurizio’s hulking frame didn’t exactly look like a gradient-slayer, his earring and grey ponytail spoke Catholic Renaissance security.

However, I quickly surmised Maurizio was no relation, simply the town’s general fixer, here to help with logistics. After a shake of his meaty hand followed by a very near kiss on the lips (mental note, start on the left cheek), the duo left me to my digs, the Grand Hotel Gortani, with a map of the route for evening entertainment.

Steep totals

True to his word, Marco strides into breakfast at 7.30am on the nose, already kitted up, his skin radiating a mahogany glow in the pale light, expression brimming with energy.

In a region that boasts the fearsome Monte Zoncolan it’s little surprise that a 100km spin here can take in some serious climbing, but nevertheless I’m struck by how Marco’s proposed 92km round trip comprises over 3,500m of ascent. These are figures worthy of two more espressos.

 

Cups drained, we clack our way through the hotel courtyard, which like everything around here is as much proving ground for handbrakes as car parking. We retrieve our bicycles and head down to the street to meet Maurizio.

He’s joining us on our ride today, albeit in a Fiat Multipla that looks like it grew up on a farm – and has 245,000km on the clock to prove it. Cyclist’s photographer, Mike, looks a touch apprehensive as he slides into the passenger seat beside Maurizio.

There should be sunshine today, but it’s still early for the mountains and the mist has yet to ascend from the sea of heaving conifers to the sky. With the landscape on gentle simmer, we strike out onto Italy’s near-deserted roads.

The going is pleasant but unremarkable, the road tracking a river I couldn’t hear even if I could see it through the trees, which I can’t – Europe’s bucklingly hot summer heat wave having reduced it to whitewashed rock and mournful puddles.

We tick off one little town after another, first Tolmezzo, a warren of new-build meets 15th century, then on to Amaro, no direct relation to the popular Italian drink (although there is much of the sweet liqueur to be found here) but nonetheless quintessential in its piazza-rich sleepiness.

 

Needs must, so we switch momentarily onto a section of fast Strada Statale – ‘state highway’ – which you’ll often see abbreviated on maps as ‘SS’ and which can range from the feeling of a quiet English B-road to a full-blown A. But what vehicles there are give us a wide berth before we turn off onto a narrow, tree-draped track and ride on towards Moggio di Sotto.

Over time, this mountainous corner of northern Italy has done a wonderful job of creating fast-flowing ring roads and tunnels to link more major conurbations without the awkward topographical leaps, so leaving Moggio di Sotto we join the SP112 (‘SP’ meaning Strada Provinciale), which takes us to the beginning of our first climb, the Sella di Cereschiatis.

Although the surface quality is noticeably poorer, the road is wonderfully free of traffic. Well, except for Maurizio, who seemingly has been here a while and is casually sitting on his bonnet smoking a cigarette.

Any other time the waft of smoke as we pass might be offensive, but here it somehow seems to fit – this piratical giant, his beat-up car and us the only souls around creating a romantic feeling of cycling from a bygone age.

A river runs through it

They say if you’re ever lost somewhere, just follow the river. Water obeys gravity at the very least, so if it’s low ground you seek, take cues from a river’s downward flow, and if it’s higher, ascend against this natural direction.

By this same token it’s why roads tend to run next to rivers in mountainous areas, nature having already found the path of least resistance and done much of the bore-work long before heavy machinery arrives.

 

The Sella di Cereschiatis therefore tracks the Torrente Aupa stream near verbatim. Despite the dry summer, the stream is in decent enough health, fed perennially by some water table or snowcaps higher up. Its babbling adds a soundtrack to our nostalgic vignette, its cool waters sucking the heat from the air.

Begun in earnest several hundred metres above sea level and at a handful of per cent, Cereschiatis is one of those climbs that turns the screws almost imperceptibly, a lull of security nearer the bottom replaced by a labouring of breath that builds steadily towards its 1,065m crest. Or at least it does in my chest – Marco, it would appear, could well be pedalling gaily to the cafe for all his ease of chatter and smooth rhythm.

He is lean and strong looking, but nonetheless relatively slight, and this coupled with a snake-charmer’s out-the-saddle sway has me picturing a young Pantani. It could just be the shaved head, goatee and the name, of course, but during a more sedate section of road I catch my breath to tell him who he reminds me of. He seems genuinely surprised.

As I quiz him about his cycling past – that’s the other thing about being in the company of other cyclists: we do love to talk about ourselves – it transpires it’s not entirely implausible no one else has presented him with his lookalike before now.

 

Marco and his father, Emiliano, used to live in Rome, but when Emiliano’s mother died, ‘My dad had enough. He was 90kg, smoked two packets of cigarettes a day and said to himself, “Enough is enough!” So he moved out to Arta Terme and set up our cycling business.’

Two years ago Marco kicked his own habit and followed, and now spends six months of the year running guided tours and six months ‘chasing parties in Rome’. Whatever he’s doing it clearly agrees with him, as his 5ft 5in tall, 61kg frame (it’s rude not to ask) rises again from his saddle to wind cheerily off up a hairpin.

Gravelly racers

The wonderful thing about hairpins is the doubling back they do and the views that tend to unfurl as a result – in our case, views of limestone slabs smothered in velveteen green lining the horizon and the steamy clouds wafting from darker clefts like forest fires.

Periodically this disappears from sight as spindly pines encroach from both sides, stealing the view from its edges and meaning that when the summit does arrive it’s almost a surprise, the only ceremony a small brown sign, notably bereft of cyclists’ stickers.

A window through the forest speaks to another horizon, and as we lope over the top it only grows in stature as the road drops in height and the sky grows big.

There is evidently a different civil authority looking after this side of the mountain, because the road surface has changed from ‘fair-to-middling’ to more like a National Trust car park – rutted, scarred and with large patches of gravel.

Marco does the decent thing and goes ahead to show me the best lines, having first assured me that they sweep the roads here and that things aren’t as bad as they appear. The detuned-radio sound as my tyres struggle for grip says otherwise, as too the sudden lightness through my front wheel, with the bike almost sliding out beneath me. But at the last nanosecond grip is restored and I jerk back upright.

A token driver, his flat cap and twizzly moustache a fitting match for the setting, buzzes up the opposite side of the road in a rusty green Ape.

For a second our competing sounds match, our freewheels whining like infinitely cast fishing rods, his engine buzzing like the bees that lend his three-wheeler its name – ‘ape’ is Italian for ‘bee’, says Marco, where incidentally its sister vehicle, the Vespa moped, is Italian for ‘wasp’. But we’re together for only a moment before momentum propels us out and into a sweeping valley dotted with farmhouses and crisscrossed with arable land.

The temperature climbs as we lose altitude, the warming of our bodies only interrupted by the damp dark of a short tunnel, and soon enough we’re flashing past buildings with increasing regularity before we hit civilisation proper, Pontebba, and the promise of an espresso embrace.

 

Chase on, chase off

Caffe Alla Posta does not disappoint: chairs and tables outside in a cobbled square, a nonna on the tills and cakes to make Mr Kipling give up and go home. Other cyclists have clearly realised the delights too, and a couple of touring bikes are racked up in front. As too is Maurizio and his Fiat, and judging by the coffee cups and ashtray he has been bumped up on the curb for some time.

As I scoop up the last syrupy dregs from my coffee with a teaspoon, a van rumbles through the square followed by a familiar ticker-tocker of coasting bikes. A local cycling club is on tour, and with Marco’s irrepressibly fine fettle now charged with caffeine, we set about trying to chase them down.

Or up, as from Pontebba that’s where the road is going with immediate effect, whether you choose to head due north to the Austrian border, just 13km away, or west, where we’re headed, up the Passo Cason di Lanza.

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If you’re not from around here it’s highly unlikely you’ll even have heard of this climb, but only a few kilometres in to its 15km total it’s already one I won’t forget in a hurry. The road surface will be familiar to anyone who rides in the UK – cracks running its length, desperately narrow, with occasional holes covered in fallen foliage like trapdoors.

Trees, abundant again, add to the gloom and provide cotton-woolish acoustics. Atmospheric is one word; oppressive is another. But it’s good oppression, like being swaddled not squashed, held in a temporary dream where the backgrounds slowly roll past like stage scenery, as if it’s us who are stationary.

I can smell pine, then the familiar waft of something incongruous. Maurizio pops out of the brush from nowhere, a beer in one hand, fag in the other, and runs alongside us laughing and shouting ‘Forza, forza’, a one-fan army and directeur sportif combined.

 

Yet even with all the encouragement in the world it grows increasingly unlikely that we’re going to catch the cohort of riders ahead on this climb (although I suspect Marco probably could without me in tow). We finally relent and settle into our saddles in as comfortable a rhythm as the double-digit incline permits.

Bearing up

On occasion the trees break and we can see a tantalisingly far-off section of road hugging the cliff edge. Hugging the road more immediately, however, are twisted metal barriers, bleeding rust through their cracked paint.

They are the product, Marco explains, of the storms that ravaged this area in October 2018 and decimated the forests and roads. That at least explains the gravel, which has become familiar going under tyres by this point, threatening to rob me of grip every time I stand on the pedals to negotiate the sharp inclines that follow each hairpin.

I could want for better legs but not for rangier gears, and again I marvel at the indefatigable Marco and his less than sympathetic cassette. If we were playing drivetrain Top Trumps I’d have all his sprockets by now, with the chainrings soon to follow.

Save for Maurizio and the cawing of unseen birds there has been little by way of living creatures on the pass, so it’s with a jolt I see the rump end of a deer diving through the trees. Marco gleefully informs me that there are bears here too, although far fewer than in years past because loggers have moved in and these slopes are now more managed than wild, despite their rugged appearance.

And one bear in particular is something of a local hero – Bear Francesco, who is apparently well known thanks to his albino appearance and for the fact that every year he takes a lengthy swim across several lakes and into Slovenia in search of a mate, or perhaps just a bit of holiday fun.

Bear Francesco might not be alone. A still fiercely Catholic country in a political sense, there are only four legally licenced casinos in Italy, so Slovenia has positioned itself as a gambling mecca next door, and alighting at the border a string of gambling shops and low-rent casinos is precisely what you’ll find; Italians precisely who you’ll find inside.

At any rate I’m pleased for Bear Francesco – his lifestyle sounds well balanced (I assume he gets to sleep a lot too), and at the very least this tale is distracting me from the task at hand. Again, how Marco is able to recite this when I can barely grunt is astonishing.

 

The last gasp

At last we arrive at the crumbling refugio and lone bar restaurant that sits at Cason di Lanza’s highest point, 1,552m in elevation and with panoramic views and the chill of exposure to match.

Jackets unscrunched and zipped up, we take to our heels and for once my extra mass is the making of me, my pace gathering quickly and Marco left trailing in my wake.

This side is not nearly as gravelly as the other, but diligence is the friend of staying upright so we proceed with some caution down a gloriously twisty, tree-lined road to Paularo, our mountain surrounds ticking in and out of view like a zoetrope.

The majority is single lane but it has the feel of a road rarely used by cars, albeit with the smell of burning brakes lingering in some corners. Maurizio can’t be far away.

Foolishly I’d assumed that everything, even past Paularo and onto our finish back in Arta Terme, was downhill from here, but there’s no such luck. We pull in to remove our jackets before we overheat, and for the first time today I notice Marco is happy to sit in my lee while I plug away over the mercilessly undulating terrain.

This area is many things but flat is not one of them, so it’s with relief I see a puffing Fiat Mutipla ahead, Maurizio at the wheel and ready to draft us home. He even offers a ‘sticky beer’ out the window.

By the time we arrive, lunchtime service has ceased in Arta Terme. But knowing who and what he knows, Maurizio disappears into a bar and returns with a round of beers and some sandwiches. ‘Saluti’, he says gruffly… before lighting another cigarette.

The Italian Job

Follow Cyclist’s route around the hills of Udine

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/96italy. From Arta Terme, take the SP21 south along the river until a left turn over a bridge to Tolmezzo. Follow the SP125 through Amaro to join the SS52. Take the left-hand slip road just before the main bridge and follow this narrow road to Moggio di Sotto, where it turns into the SP112 and the start of the first climb, the Sella di Cereschiatis.

Arrive in Pontebba 24km later, then head out on Via Zardini, where you’ll see a brown signpost for Casso di Lanza opposite the town hall. Here begins the second climb, Passo Cason di Lanza, on the Via Paularo. Follow for 28km to Paularo, then join the SP23. After a few kilometres, take the right fork signed Valle/Rivalpo, which then segues into the SP40 and carries you back to Arta Terme.

The rider’s ride

FiftyOne Disc, £12,000 (£6,000 frameset)

‘You could buy a dilapidated hotel in northeast Italy for that!’ I imagined someone saying to me. But no one did, because top-end bikes have long since passed the 10-grand mark, and five-figure bikes no longer surprise the initiated.

Don’t get me wrong, 10 grand is a lot of money, but for a (relative) few quid more, you can go a big step further and get a full custom bike such as this FiftyOne, right down to this truly stunning paintjob. But the bike is much more than its looks.

With huge tyre clearance and shod with 30mm Goodyear tubeless rubber, this FiftyOne Disc negotiated the delicate tightrope between stiff and comfortable, yet the overriding feeling I got whenever things took a turn for the rapid was just how well balanced it was. It demonstrated incredible grip in the corners, unflappable poise under heavy braking and a surefooted hot-step down the Carnic Alps’ many craggy-surfaced descents.

It climbed beautifully too, again thanks to that stiffness and low weight – 7.46kg. It may be outrageously expensive, but it is outrageously good.

Get yours now from fiftyonebikes.com

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist flew to Venice Marco Polo, which is the de facto airport for flying cheaply into northeast Italy. From there it’s a not-unpleasant two-hour drive to Arta Terme, although if you go via the fast roads (the countryside way is winding but more beautiful), expect to pay around €15 each way for tolls.

Accommodation

We stayed at the Grand Hotel Gortani, which is a beautifully appointed hotel in Arta Terme surrounded by mountainside and graced with superb food and all the spa mod-cons to treat yourself post-ride. Double rooms start at around £70 per night in June. See gortani.it for more details.

Thanks

Huge thanks goes to Marco Cantagallo and Maurizio for helping us plan routes, riding with us and offering wing-mirror handholds and general moral support.

Marco and his father Emiliano run Pendenze Pericolose cycling holidays out of Arta Terme, and they arguably know more about cycling here than anyone else – Emiliano has ascended Monte Zoncolan over 200 times. See pendenzepericolose.it for more details.

Thanks also go to the Grand Hotel Gortani’s manager, Chiara, for being so accommodating of bikes, early breakfasts and bumbling Englishness.