Austria is a very small country and it was only after being there that I realised that if had wanted to I could have crossed it in two days. As it happened I actually stayed in Imst for two nights, recovering from my first pass crossing and horrified at the prospect of crossing another pass like it. I whiled away the time at a picturesque campsite in Imst’s town centre. Even though its location was fairly urban it felt like we were nestled in an isolated mountain valley which in fact I was.
The weather was changing from minute to minute and at night the lows, while not too cold, were a bit brisk, thank the heavens for my foresight to buy a merino wool base layer I can get by wearing only this one item and feel warm without having to dress like an onion. I’m rambling I should stop here and just say I was basically pussying out at this point. I stayed in this valley and used the time to post my pictures from the Rhine journey but in reality this was just avoidance of the blindingly obvious fact that I would need to cycle my way out of here. If I couldn’t leave the Alps there was no way I have a hope of finishing this damn trip.
I had to leave this place. I had only made friends with a couple of German climbers whose names I can’t remember and who were curiously more interested in getting stoned and drunk than actually climbing, the weather wasn’t helping any good intentions they may have had. In short I had no emotional ties to this place. The night before I left I got royally fucked up on whatever they were giving me. They didn’t speak much English but they did tell me they weren’t fascists, which was nice to know, before then feeding me large quantities of beer and Morgan’s rum. I was enthusiastically showing them video of the descent from the pass two nights previous when one of them said, “Its okay but we mountain bike” he then proceeded to show me in insane mountain bike descent he had filmed on his GoPro. It was at the point that I thought – what I’m doing is not in the least bit extreme, I felt like a grandfather. Definitely time to go challenge myself.
After an age of packing I was on my way out of the valley getting lost on the confusing tangle of roads and cycle paths out of town. It took only three hours to get to the Swiss border where a coffee shop and rest stop sit below the pass at Martina. I asked the woman in the shop how long it takes to climb the pass and she looked me up and down and said, “You could do it in an hour I take about two. It’s easy children do it all the time.” After hearing that I was so elated and you know what – her estimate was spot on. One hour later I was having a snack at a bakery in the Alpine town of Nauders a paltry 1,394 m up.
The ride that day was a walk in the park and the rest of it was a wet weather adventure another hour down the road to Reshcia. As I passed the sign indicating I that was now in Italy a wave of triumph and relief rushed over me. It wasn’t late but I was not in the mood to meet another mountain pass in this weather. Spotting an old watermill by the lake I decided I would stop there for the night I used the rafters to hang the travel hammock I’d bought in Germany. It wasn’t exactly made for health and safety inspectors and hanging the damn thing seven feet up and getting into it was a bit of a procedure to say the least. It is made of polyester and combined with the synthetic material of my sleeping bag felt like I was getting into a water park flume ride ready to slide out with the slightest movement. I’d hung my ground sheet in front of the opening to the road to try to stifle the brisk wind and shade me from the view of the passing traffic but the side of the building was open so it was a pretty futile attempt at stealth or comfort.
After reading my Kindle till dark, I was finally getting to that chapter in Ray Kurweil’s book where he would miraculously explain how we’re going to deal with the technological changes looming upon us when I began to nod off. Sleeping in a hammock is art. It’s an art I have not yet perfected. In fact its a kind of the art of how to torture yourself. The first hour is usually blissfully if you mastered lying at the right angle, diagonally placing your body across the hammock. By the second hour the fact that I couldn’t turn for fear of slipping out of the damn thing was annoying me because at night when the temperature drops you can feel it in your back. It’s like a dull ache then turns into a bone chilling extravaganza of pain. I stuck with it for a about three more hours trying desperately to sleep in 6 degrees and pulling the sides over me to protect me from the cold wind. By 4am I called it quits and decided never to sleep in the hammock at night again and more or less fell out of it in a crumpled heap on the ground still in my sleeping bag.
I made a breakfast of muesli and yoghurt – which by the way is the best road breakfast you can have cheap, filling and tasty if you get one of those flavoured drinking yoghurts. Two cups of tea later and I was ready for the road. It was 5.30am which when I think about it even now is the earliest start I’ve had so far. It took a lot of effort to get going given the amount of sleep deprivation I had suffered but the landscape and the view of the Dolomites to the south was so enticing. I knew it was going to be a good day to ride. The first section around the lake was a sinuous curving path with some climbing and some fast descents but generally all at the same altitude until the end of the lake. It was then that I saw what lay ahead…
On the map the road from Reschia onto Merano through Bolsano and finally to Trento looks like it goes over through, it does but you’re in a river valley so in fact the whole ride from Reschia to Trento, 100 miles, was all a flat downhill. I don’t think I’ve smiled so much on the bike for the entire trip. I think my average speed was around 35km per hour that day and I barely had to pedal at all. The landscape was lush and green, not the dry landscape of Tuscany in the summer that I’m used to. I passed through vineyards, park land, towns, by rivers and mountains on either side of the valley. Most satisfying though was passing cyclists going in the opposite direction because for them it was only climbing with no respite till the border… suckers!
There was something different about this land and it wasn’t how it looked. The first place I found that served coffee I stopped at. I wanted some of that caffeinated goodness Italian style so, in my naivety, I proceeded to unleash my eight year old level italian at the woman in the shop and found to my surprise she replied back in German, flatly refusing to speak any Italian. I realised later that this was in fact because this is Sud Tirolese, like the Catalans and the Basque people, in these parts don’t think they belong to their mother country and would probably declare independence if they could. Its pretty much like that until you get to Trento. Also the coffee is only about as good as you get in Germany or Austria not quite up to Italian standards yet.
The whole time I was cycling through the valley a wall of rain clouds was looming behind me and in front the sun was blazing. My stop for lunch was cut short by the catch up of rain clouds but within in no time at all I was outrunning them in a cat and mouse game to avoid being drenched. I stopped under a bridge to relax and read my book once I had reached 130km. Two German cyclists pulled up next to me and we started comparing bikes. Every cycle tourist becomes a bit of a bike geek and they were especially happy that I had a set of German-made Schwalbe tyres and a Son dynamo hub complete with the same USB charger one of them had. In fact though my Genesis bike is a British brand just about everything on it apart from the Brooks touring saddle was made in another country including the Taiwanese made Genesis frame. The British design stuff, we don’t make anything anymore we ‘add value’ whatever that means.
The last leg of the journey was a cool ride over the Caldaro near Bolsano, some ancient volcanic crater now a lush green valley full of vineyards complete with a small lake in the middle. I attempted to make it to Trento but had to admit defeat after completing a full 100 miles (170km) by the town of Zambana just short of Trento. I decided not to set up a tent and to sleep in the open but without a sleeping bag I froze almost as much as I did the previous evening in the hammock so at 3am I reluctantly pulled out the tent, set it up and collapsed till morning. I woke up with no feeling in my legs, crawled out of my tent and startled the morning joggers who hadn’t noticed I was there at around 6am. I took a refreshing dip in the river next to the bridge I had camped under to try to wake up.
Cycling into Trento and indeed the entire valley was pleasant as I was following perfect cycle paths and did not have to contend too much with road traffic during the trip. I think it must have been a Saturday or Sunday (days meld into one when you have no work schedule) because the path was full of people who looked like they were training for the Giro d’Italia, lycra clad tanned bodies all cycling in streamlined teams. The Italians love cycling but I didn’t see too many cycle tourists.
Trento is a beautiful city and if I had more time I would have stayed for longer just to explore the hills and the old ruins dotted about the landscape. I pulled into Bar Funivia by the river and was treated to a free breakfast by an amazing Czech woman by the name of Jana who stroked my cheek like I was lost child and then she proceeded to stuff my panniers with sandwiches and cherry tomatoes for the ride ahead. I’m always astonished at how kind people can be with no prompting. They see what you’re doing and they simply want to help.
Fed and resupplied I hit the road again to my destination for the night, Lake Garda. Unbeknownst to me my brakes were rather depleted after my alpine ride and combined with an earlier tour in Greece the pads were in dire need of replacement. This wasn’t a problem until I finally arrived at Garda. When you arrive from the north you are at the top of a massive hill staring down at a lake that continues till the horizon. It’s so massive it looks like a sea. I setup my camera on my handlebars planning on getting a video of my descent towards the lake. As slowly glided down the hill pulling firmly on the brakes to slow my descent I heard two great big clicks and suddenly began speeding down the hill. The only thing that saved me was my quick reaction unclipping my shoes and scraping them along the ground and then there was an up hill turn to my left which I swerved into hastily. If not for those two things I would have been smashed into a pulp at the bottom of this steep hill a 14% incline!
In the end I had to hike down with my bike trying to drag me down and almost no brakes left to stop it! At the bottom I found a bench overlooking the lake and took stock of the view and the ride so far. I was only three days ride from my destination in the Apennines and in the the three weeks I’d been on the road I had experienced some of the most incredible scenery Europe has to offer. Not bad I thought before then proceeding to fix my bike. After replacing brake pads, and a frayed brake cable, neither tasks I had done before, I set off around the eastern road and found the perfect camping spot for the night complete with a beach. As I settled in the rains had found me again and the sound of gigantic rain drops on my tent formed the backdrop to my dreams.