Mountain Biking in Elba | Riding Excellent Trails on Napoleon's Exiled Home
I doubt whether Napoleon’s conquest of Europe came from a travel itch so much as megalomaniac tendencies. But like me, with a continent at his feet, he rarely found peace
Words and photos by Dan Milner
In geological terms, two hundred years isn’t long. It’s long enough for, say a river to carve a slightly different course, or a rock face to slip its moorings during a deluge and change a mountain’s silhouette, but in the big bang scheme of things it’s just a blink of an eye.
This random thought crosses my mind as I peer down from the 1018 m Monte Capanne — the highest point on the island of Elba — at the rocky coastline that wraps an almost 360-degree arc around me far below. This coastline probably hasn’t changed much in two hundred years: waves crash into its cliffs, seagulls soar effortlessly on the thermal uplifts, but it’s witnessed more flux than I can comprehend.
As my gaze wanders to Monte Capanne’s summit, I realise that a couple of centuries of human timeline can separate very different worlds. I look at my fellow mountain bikers, Scott pro riders Holger Meyer and Karen Eller, their vibrant, synthetic clothing clashing with the solemn grey steel of an enormous radio antenna that shares our mountain perch.
Two hundred years ago, Napoleon stood here and pondered his life in exile before raising another army to try to reclaim his European empire. I’m sure cell phone masts and clothing spun from crude oil residue never entered his consciousness — nor did mountain bikes.
It’s mountain biking that has brought me to Elba and united me with my two co-adventurers. Here we are, one Brit and two Germans, exploring an Italian island in a harmonious spirit of exploration.
Unlike Napoleon, we have the luxury of a Europe at peace —at least for the moment— and the chance to reap the rewards of discovering lesser-known corners of our continent unchallenged. Or at least that’s what I thought. Getting to this little Mediterranean island lying 10 km off the Tuscan coast was easy; traversing it on mountain bikes is throwing us plenty of challenges.
"Karen reminds me of just how much adventure we’re ‘enjoying’ when an hour later we’re carrying our bikes across yet another field of boulders."
Beyond the radio mast, lies today’s chosen trail, and it begins with a twisting rocky set of steps that disappear down the mountainside at an improbable gradient.
Below this test of nerves and bike-handling skills we’ll join another trail, marked ‘GTE’: the Grande Traversata Elbana (Great Traverse of Elba): the focus for our exploration of Elba. Starting at Pomonte on the west coast, the GTE climbs over Monte Capanne and cuts east before abruptly doglegging north to the meet the sea again at Elba’s most northern tip, Capo Vita.
It’s a 60 km long hiking trail that would give us a taste of what mountain biking on Elba is really about, and with very little information on riding on the island already out there, adventure was guaranteed.
Karen reminds me of just how much adventure we’re ‘enjoying’ when an hour later we’re carrying our bikes across yet another field of boulders. Exploring new ride destinations is full of unknowns and tests of resolve, but no matter how many hours I spend with my bike slung across my back, the sight of hiking trails on maps still acts like a red rag to a bull for me. I pour over the contours and marvel at the twists and turns of the dotted lines of trails, picturing endless flowing turns under a warm Mediterranean sun.
More often the reality is a lot of bike carrying and cursing, sometimes under warm sunshine and sometimes in blizzards, or hail, or spirit-dampening rain. But the rewards of riding new places are plenty too: the sense of achievement of finishing an unknown route, the endorphin hit of carving down trails that few, if any, have ridden before, and the friendships that are cemented by sharing an ordeal. Driven by wanderlust and inquisitiveness, it’s an internal battle in me that rarely finds peace.
I doubt whether Napoleon’s empirical conquest of Europe came from a travel itch that needed to be scratched so much as narcissistic, megalomaniac tendencies. But like me, with a continent at his feet, he rarely found peace. Whatever his reasons for romping across Europe with an army in tow, he ended up here on Elba, after losing various strategic corners of his empire to the Russians and their allies. He was exiled to Elba in 1814, along with 700 of his troops and stayed for 300 days as its sovereign ruler, before escaping on a ship disguised under a British flag.
Our own stay on Elba is 265 days shorter than Napoleon’s, but it gives us a taste of the island’s many flavours. We find our flow on trails across Monte Capanne’s shoulders, dipping our handlebars between short, stout Mediterranean bushes as we carve across deserted hillsides. We steer our front wheels over rock gardens and through the tangled oak forests that hug the hillsides north of Porto Azzuro, and we puff our way up steep climbs before launching into fast, furious descents that punctuate the north-south ridge of hills towards Cavo.
And all the time, we have the GTE to ourselves it seems. Aside from the scattering of seaside towns that dot its 147 Kilometres of coastline, the interior of the island is largely uninhabited. Today tourism has moved Elba’s income stream to its sandy beaches, turning its back on many of the agricultural and mining operations that Napoleon supported during his enforced staycation. His ore and salt industries have gone, but lucky for us his legacy of olive groves and vineyards remained. We celebrate each of our day’s exploration of the GTE with a bottle or two of Elba’s wine and salads and grilled vegetables drenched in rich olive oil.
"So far we’re all sweating, but still smiling."
We’re riding on Elba in March, a period when finding an open restaurant is as challenging as riding off Monte Capanne’s summit. But come here in the summer and you might find a different island — one of sunbeds and beach umbrellas. Sitting in the rain shadow of nearby towering island of Corsica — visible 30 km to the west — Elba boasts a dry climate that makes riding here possible all winter. And this climate and its limestone geology make the riding fast and loose, and the climbs hot and sweaty.
As we climb the south-facing hillside out of Porto Azzurro on day three of our traverse, the heat of mid morning ignites the warring sides of my own internal battle. The steep, unrelenting climb has me digging deep into my reserves of energy and patience, but I know somewhere ahead of me the rewards will come. It’s a mental game of cost and rewards shared by Holger and Karen too; both are cursing under their breath and sweating visibly, but we grind on knowing that gravity will be back on our side before long. We shelter in the shade of a stand of pine trees before riding onwards, our trail leading us across wild, open hillsides of golden grass and weaving between towering outcrops of rock. So far we’re all sweating, but still smiling.
Organising exploratory trips like this carries responsibilities too. When things go wrong or the trail fails to deliver the expected endorphin hit, eyes fall on the person behind the idea to try riding a new trail, but rarely does the resulting unrest become vocalised. But then sometimes, it might.
Three hours into our last day’s ride, we take that wrong turn and slide down a loose, vertical slither of a trail that dumps us out on a secluded beach. I scratch my head and pull out our Kompass 1:30,000 map from my pack. Losing all visible trail markers in the forest above us, I’d made the split decision to follow what felt like the trail — at least it felt like a well-used trail when poking my front wheel along it.
"We plod up the climb in silence."
But now sitting on rocks on the shore its clear that the trail we descended only accesses this beach. There is no other way off it except to retrace our way in and hike back up the steep trail. It’s a thirty-minute hike with our bikes on our backs under a blazingly-hot midday sun. I note with irony that the beach we have ended up at is called Cala dell’ Inferno. Sensing some disquiet in the ranks, I decide not to share the information.
I can feel the heat of my co-riders’ frustrations from a hundred metres away as we climb up from the beach. On adventures like this, everyone has their frustrations at some point, determined by lack of loam or diminishing energy levels or even lingering hangovers. And no one is exempt from airing such frustrations when the challenges of exhaustion, hunger and committing technical rock gardens conspire to wage war on your sensitivities. We plod up the climb in silence.
We rest at the top of our hike-a-bike to regather our thoughts and cram sugars back into our bloodstreams. Ten metres away is the paint marker we missed, showing a right instead of left turn, and leading us onto the GTE. A little more hiking and we’re back on our bikes, rolling across an undulating ridge towards Monte Grosso. On both sides of us, some 300 metres below, the sea glistens silver, while a cool breeze returns smiles to three sweaty, dusty faces. In less than an hour we will catapult out of the last of many fast turns of a hectic descent, and roll into the narrow streets of Cavo.
Here we will drink a well-earned beer by the gently lapping waters of a crystal clear sea. It’s the same sea that saw Napoleon arrive two centuries earlier, sailing here on the tailwind of war and conflict. And it’s the same sea that brought raiding parties of Barbary pirates in the 1500s, and invasions by Etruscans and Romans before them. It’s the same sea that carried the Spanish army here in 1596 and the French in the early 1800s, but now, those wars are far behind us.
This week, these waters have carried mountain bikers here to unite in a new quest — to find trails and share their hard-earned rewards. And now, with that accomplished I get to enjoy a little moment of peace. It’s a peace that will prevail until I pull out a new map of another new riding idea, and start marvelling at the dotted hiking trails that cut across its mountains.
Do It Yourself
Elba’s location just off the Tuscan coast makes it a viable riding destination for 10 months of the year. Outside the busy, hot summer months, the trails are nigh-on empty and the climate perfect for all-mountain riding. At only 27 km long, the island is compact enough to cross easily by car, but its two backbone ridgelines, one east to west, the other north to south, deliver hundreds of miles of winding footpaths.
Accommodation can be found year round on the island, from hotels to self-catering apartments in Porto Azzurro and Capiloveri. You’ll need a vehicle to access the trailheads to ride loops. Direct flights to Elba are scarce, so fly to Pisa (1 hour away), rent a car to take the ferry from Piombino to the island (45 minute crossing, 50 euros o/w with car).
The Kompass map no. 650 shows all the footpaths on the island accurately. Be prepared for a little hike-a-bike here and there. We rode the GTE from Porto Azzurro to Cavo and trails numbered 5 (very technical), 7, 34 and 35 near Mount Capanne and Campo nell Elba. There are hundreds of kilometres of other trails to explore too, including a network of way-marked XC bike trails on the Capiloveri peninsular. Elba calls this the Capiloveri Bike Park (trailmaps available from the bike shop in Capiloveri town).