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Big Ride: Italian Appenines

In-depth
21 May 2018
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Zig-zagging up the slopes of the 2,142m Blockhaus mountain – an imposing mass of rock in the central Apennines of Italy often likened to Mont Ventoux for its stark and sinister allure – I can feel the late summer sunshine boiling my brain to gnocchi and the razor-sharp gradients gnawing at my legs.

But the true pain, the one that will still make me wince tonight, stems from the fact I’m being beaten uphill by a cycling-mad octogenarian with a jersey full of pastries and a pair of youthful lungs stolen, it seems, from Vincenzo Nibali himself. 

Nunziato Pellegrini is the suitably bubbly name of the vivacious 80-year-old local cycling legend who has agreed to accompany me on my Apennine adventure. He was riding beside me a minute ago, chatting about the figs and grapes he grows in his back garden.

Now he’s a distant blur of tanned, leathery muscle whirring merrily somewhere up the road, like an extra who has just pedalled straight off the set of Cocoon.

More shameful still is that Nunziato had knocked back pizza and beer for lunch, whereas I had adhered stoically to bread and lemonade.

While I’ve been sipping a carb-dense energy drink, he’s been guzzling natural mineral water from an elaborate network of fountains, taps and rivers, the locations of which only he and the local shepherds seem to know. Whenever I tinker with my Garmin for elevation data, he simply peers contentedly up the road and carries on pedalling. 

The spine of Italy

For cyclists the fearsome Blockhaus is one of the highlights of the Apennines, a wild and characterful mountain range that marches down the central spine of Italy for more than 1,200km.

Today I’m exploring a heart-shaped 146km route in the Majella National Park, which is sandwiched between Pescara in the east and Rome in the west, in the Abruzzo region of central Italy.

The landscape here is a medley of hulking limestone peaks, hidden grottos and caves, windswept plateaus, vast open meadows dotted with forts and monasteries, deep glacier-carved valleys and solemnly beautiful vistas. 

The Apennines don’t resonate with as much cycling history as the Alps or the Pyrenees, but that’s part of the allure. Rides here are much quieter and the area is bulging with opportunities for adventure.

These mountains are millions of years younger than the Alps and geologically much closer in character to the rugged Atlas Mountains of North Africa and Dinaric Alps of the Balkans, so the region entices cyclists with a passion for exploration.   

Into the silence 

Our ride begins in the atmospheric mountain town of Pretoro, a chaotically beautiful jumble of stone houses clinging to the sides of a steep slope.

Here men play cards in cafes, ladies in aprons waddle past with bags of vegetables, and tiny birds dart through the maze of narrow lanes.

On the day we arrived, a ferocious electrical storm lashed the town, but the chilly welcome melted away when our host Patrizia, the owner of Hotel Casa Mila, offered us some sugary delicacies freshly baked by her own mother. 

After assembling in Pretoro’s sun-drenched piazza, we enjoy a gentle descent past the vineyards and orchards that I’d seen far below when I opened the shutters of my hotel room this morning.

We toast our legs on a short climb to the village of Pennapiedimonte, where a cluster of white houses bursts out of the forested hillside, and cross a bridge at Bocca di Valle where tall, thin Cypress pines stand guard.

We glide past a shrine carved into the rocks where Andrea Bafile, an Italian World War One hero, is buried. Nunziato tells me that he took part in a special sportive last year in honour of the centenary of WWI, which is why he has a photograph of soldiers taped to his bike. 

As we enter more open countryside, we soak up sweeping views of corrugated fields and distant peaks. To our right, a fragile wall of rock is being held back by giant metal nets. To our left, lumpy pastures roll all the way to the horizon, like the snug duvet of a vast unmade bed.  

Around 30km into our ride we begin a long, 40km section of climbing towards the Valico della Forchetta – not a single climb,but a series of shorter ascents. I can hear only the whispering of the trees and the chatter of cicadas.

It’s no surprise that this region has attracted monks and hermits over the centuries. Peter of Morrone, the founder of the Celestine monastic order who became Pope Celestine V in 1294, lived in a nearby cave from where he could savour the vast, silent landscape. 

Pasta, pizza and pigs 

As we slice through the country terrain, I can feel the sun’s rays bouncing off the roads, which are cracked with fissures.

At the town of Lama dei Peligni we make a short diversion to look at the sixteenth century Church of San Nicola, with its stone colonnade and squat bell tower. Shortly afterwards we stop for a break in Palena’s bustling Piazza Municipio.

I resist the temptation to buy a pair of €1 pants, and we set up camp outside a local cafe while Angelo heads inside to order a platter of pizzas, sandwiches, beer and water.

I’m concerned by an ominous poster in a tourist shop window showcasing the various types of bears that roam through the Apennines.

Wolves are also present in the mountains but Gianluca tells me the only wildlife cyclists need to be careful of are wild boars whose muscular bulk would play havoc with a set of bike wheels.

Refreshed and refueled, we navigate the mazy streets of Palena and continue our journey along a stunning balcony road.

Once I overcome an initial dread of peering over the edge, which is guarded feebly by broken stone barriers, it offers wonderful views of the forests and fields below.

The shadows of clouds dance over the landscape, momentarily turning patches of earth into darker tones, before the sunshine lights them up once more. 

Up ahead lies a vast canvas of dark forests and looming mountains. The peaks are marked with patches of white and grey scree that tumble down their faces like tears.

I suspect tears will soon be tumbling down my own face because after pedalling past the cliffs of the Passo San Leonardo and darting through a tunnel at Caramanico Terme, we reach the village of Roccamorice, which marks the start of the Blockhaus climb. 

Mental block

The Blockhaus earns its un-Italian name from an old stone garrison on its summit that was christened ‘Blockhaus’ by a German commander in the 1860s.

It has a fearsome reputation among natives and visiting cyclists alike. In the book Mountain High, Daniel Friebe recalls how locals once believed the devil shovelled snow from its summit, pelting local villages with hail, until the villagers were forced to ring a church bell to banish him back to hell.

The mountain has also featured in some epic Giro contests. Eddy Merckx won his first mountain stage here in 1967. 

The Blockhaus involves 31.6km of pain and suffering with a total altitude gain of 1,961m. The suffocating conditions and exposed terrain only enhance the drama. When Nunziato and Gianluca peel away, I know I’ve got no chance of catching them up, so I resign myself to a long, solitary battle.

Passing a field of burnt white tree trunks only adds to the feeling of despair. This is a mountain of solemn majesty, not pristine beauty, but the challenge is impossible to resist. 

The heat is starting to make me feel nauseous and I graciously accept any emotional lift I can. When a cool zephyr wafts across the road it breathes life back into me.

Angelo hops out of the van to pass me a banana and give me a short push uphill and those few seconds of easy ascent feel like a divine gift. I carry on riding through the epic mosaic of fields, forests and fragments of rock and peer at the tabletop plateaus across the valley.

After what feels like an eternity, I reach the crossroads that mark the last stretch to the summit. Nunziato and Gianluca are waiting. Up here the road is wreathed in thick fog and the temperature has plummeted.

We pull on warm clothes for the final siege, but as we ride uphill the fog thickens and the car headlights only become visible through the mist disturbingly late. Angelo isn’t happy and hangs out of the window to suggest we turn around.

Before he has even finished his sentence, we perform the fastest U-turn in cycling history. We don’t need much persuasion to turn gravity from our enemy to our friend. 

Expect the unexpected 

On our return to Pretoro, we are met by a strange sight. This sleepy mountain town has become the scene of an extraordinary downhill mountain bike race, with armoured riders blasting through the narrow streets, leaping down stone steps and sliding around sharp corners.

It’s a bizarre and unexpected end to the day, but the Apennines is a region in which you should expect the unexpected. 

As if to prove the point, Angelo says he is going to a raucous birthday party tonight that won’t finish until 3am. Gianluca, the builder-guitarist-cyclist, tells me he has just published a book that is proving very popular on Amazon, especially in Chile.

And Nunziato reveals with twinkling eyes that his wife is cooking him another pizza for dinner. As I hobble back to the hotel like an old man, with my cleats echoing through the warren of cobbled streets, I decide I’m going to live here when I retire. Abruzzo: the land of endless climbs and eternal youth.

• Looking for inspiration for your own summer cycling adventure? Cyclist Tours has hundreds of trips for you to choose from

How we got there

Travel

Ryanair offers flights from London Stansted to Pescara from £19.99, although prices soar in holiday season. It takes an hour to drive from Pescara to Pretoro, and Angelo and his team at ABCycle offer transfers to save you the hassle of renting a car. 

Accommodation

We stayed at the Casa Mila B&B, which offers snug rooms in an 18th century stone house and a hearty breakfast from €32 (£25) per night. The owner, Patrizia, will also reveal the best places to eat and drink in town. 

Guiding

A good guide can have a huge impact on the enjoyment of your ride in this relatively unexplored region. Angelo of ABCycles is a knowledgeable and entertaining guide, and any trip here would benefit from his company.