Rider on Tremalzo
A few months ago, I was flicking through Instagram, when a sponsored message popped up from Kickstarter. A campaign to republish an old guide to gravel cycling in the Alps and Dolomites was underway. The book was called Rough Stuff Cycling in the Alps. I was preparing for the Torino-Nice Rally at the time, so this piqued my interest, and I followed the link and quickly backed the project. I did my first ride inspired by the guide this past October. Let me tell you, it is pure gold for anyone who loves off-road cycling.
It’s October the 24th, and I am set to start my ride at the Lago d’Ampola, 730 metres above sea level in the southern part of the province of Trentino. My main course for the day is the Passo di Tremalzo. Following in the tyre tracks of Fred Wright, author of the original Rough Stuff Cycling guide, and with the aid of the mapping app Komoot, I have put together a route that will take me over the Monte Tremalzo, all the way down to the Lago di Garda and then back to my starting point via the Val di Ledro.
A 13-km climb rises from the Lago d’Ampola at a steady 7.5% gradient, giving me a nice way to warm up. The fine tarmac road is very quiet. Apart from two vans carrying mountain bikes, there are no cars, which makes sense, since the paved road ends at the top. In the misty silence, yellow and brown leaves dance on the breeze. I ride on in a trance.
Besides two cyclists and the vans carrying mountain bikes, I pass two men who are working on the side of the road, pruning trees. We exchange quick glances, preserving the peace with silent nods. I see the respect in their eyes. Since neither my climbing speed, nor my bike is noteworthy, it’s probably because this area, like so many parts of Italy, adores cycling.
The two other cyclists I met were on mountain bikes, so I begin to wonder if my gravel bike will be able to handle what’s to come on the other side of the mountain. Since Fred Wright rode an old-fashioned touring bike, probably with 28mm tires (and mine are 45mm), I presume I will be fine. Only later am I told that Fred Wright grew up in British Pakistan and learned to conquer the Himalayan mountains in his youth. After that, the Alps were probably a kind of kindergarten for him. So my self-comforting comparison of our bikes is flawed, because it leaves Fred Wright out of the equation, a man who is probably as tough as the rough stuff he wrote about.
Near the top, I reach the start of the road that is described in Fred Wright’s gravel bible, my main goal for today. The Passo di Tremalzo was, like many other well known stradas, built during the First World War by the Italian army. It was meant to facilitate the transport of artillery for Italy’s fight with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite this violent purpose, the soldiers who built it were Italians and couldn’t help but make it an aesthetic masterpiece.
If you have ridden other Italian beauties such as the Via del Sale, the Strada dell’Assietta or the Strada degli Eroi, you will know what I am talking about. The Passo di Tremalzo is well within their league. The Via del Sale has that one hairpin bend that it is so famous for. The Passo di Tremalzo is made up of a seemingly unending series of hairpins that are just as beautiful. In a few places, you pass through short dark tunnels, which only make the road more impressive. How on earth were they able to build a road over and partly through a mountain that is so steep and rocky? The road offers stunning panoramic views over the Lago di Garda. I simply cannot resist the temptation to stop every minute or so to make photos.
After descending for nine kilometres on very rough gravel, I reach the Passo Nota. Here, I have a couple of options. One is to go east and continue on gravel for another 12 kilometres, all the way to the well-known Strada del Ponale, where you ride on a ridge that offers probably even more spectacular views over the Lago di Garda. Instead, I choose the faster tarmacked option and descend southwards to the little village of Vesio, and then to the Lago di Garda, before turning north to Riva del Garda. From Riva del Garda, I ride through the Val di Ledro. Compared to the touristic countryside around the Lago di Garda, the Val di Ledro is, like the Val d’Amplona where I started the day, beautifully rustic and rural.
But before I reach Vesio, riding for the first time that day on flat terrain, I look back on the Monte Tremalzo, which I have just crossed. Once again I am stunned by the view. From 10-14 kilometres away, you have a perfect view of how steep this mountain is. The zigzag pattern of the hairpins is clearly visible in the rocks. It’s as if a gigantic hand took a sharp pencil and drew a line on the mountain, which tiny soldiers then traced when they built the road. But obviously there was no gigantic hand helping them and the tiny soldiers did it all by themselves. It is, as Fred Wright says, a ‘surprising piece of roadbuilding’.
And how did my gravel bike perform on the Passo Tremalzo? Since I descended on gravel and didn’t try it the other way around, it was doable. Fred Wright commented that ‘those who like their rough roads rough should enjoy the stretch from the Bocca di Val Marza (the top) to the Passo Nota’. To that I can add that this stretch is indeed rough with a capital R and with my gravel bike I was nearing the edge of my comfort zone. Should you do the Passo di Tremalzo in the opposite direction, I would advise you to take a mountain bike or be prepared to walk a lot. There is an upside to doing the Passo that way though: climbing takes more time than descending and you will not regret any extra time you spend over on that side of the mountain!
My first ‘Rough Stuff’ ride surely must and shall soon be followed up by a next one. Fred Wright rated this section only a three out of five for ‘scenic quality’. His guide contains more than 300 ‘Rough Stuff’ jewels. I can’t wait!
Story and images by Jan Joosse, follow him @stickybottles