Mountain Biking in Italy | Uncovering New Trails in Umbria
Incredible caves, amazing cuisine and some of the most stunning trails we've ever ridden. Is this Italy's best-kept secret?
Words by Tristan Kennedy | Photos by Dan Medhurst | Riding by Cal Jelley
“Guys, it’ll be dark soon. We should probably think about going?" We’re 1,566 metres up in the Apennine mountains of central Italy, it’s October, the wind is whistling through the frames of our bikes and the temperature is dropping rapidly. Ahead of us, according to our guide Andrea, lies a five or six kilometre descent down some fairly technical singletrack. And yet none of us - Andrea included - is in any particular rush to leave.
“Can I just try that again?" says Cal Jelley, a sponsored rider for Evil Bikes, as he jumps off and pushes back up the trail. No-one objects because from where we’re sat, behind photographer Dan Medhurst, we are being treated to possibly the greatest natural light show we’ve ever witnessed. As the sun dips lower through the thick autumn sky, god rays spread out across the landscape, the edges of the clouds seem to glow and the landscape around us turns a deep fiery orange.
“There’s no way a filter could make the world look this good."
“I’ve never seen anything like it," says Dan showing me the image on the back of his camera. “It looks like there’s some crazy Instagram filter on that," I say. “Ha! There’s no way a filter could make the world look this good".
The experience is all the more incredible because two days earlier, we were worried we might have lost our gamble with the weather. October is in fact an excellent time to go biking in Umbria. You can still ride in a t-shirt but it’s not too hot - daytime temperatures are around 15 degrees - and it’s usually still quite dry. However, as we pedal out of the pretty medieval town of Spoleto on our first morning, the heavens open and we’re forced to take shelter under the arches of the cathedral. We’ve only got three days here. If it carries on like this, we’re not going to do much biking.
It’s not just the weather that feels like a gamble either - Umbria isn’t exactly a globally renowned mountain biking hotspot. The other people waiting out the downpour under the eaves of the church, a group of elderly Germans, are perhaps more typical of the tourists who usually come to the region. It’s best known for wine, food and St Francis of Assisi, and coaches are a more common means of transport than full-suspension bikes. Of course the reason we’re here is that we’ve heard there’s another side to Umbria. But will we find the kind of trails we’re after?
On that first day riding out of Spoleto, as the rain abates, we’re unsure. Our guides are three Italian guys in their 40s who are clearly more into cross country and road riding than the sort of enduro itinerary we’re after. They’re excellent guides - super-friendly and knowledgeable and they ride ridiculously well. Despite the age difference, they leave us for dust on the climbs. But although the route we go on is incredibly pretty - taking us along a converted railway line, over several viaducts and down one of the famous strada bianchi or white roads that are typical of this region - it’s only the very last section that involves any sort of singletrack.
Of course this slightly more sedate pedalling is exactly the kind of cycling that most people come to the region for. Nicola Checcarelli who works with Bike In Umbria, a government funded body charged with promoting the region as a cycling destination, explains: “Maybe 50 per cent of the tourists who come here to cycle come with hybrid bikes. They’re older, maybe 40 or something and they ride 40 or 50 kilometres then they stop to have a good lunch, and visit a winery or an olive oil place. That's the typical kind of tourism."
The region is certainly well-equipped to handle these sorts of cyclists. In the ten years since Bike In Umbria was established, Nicola explains, it has poured millions of euros into mapping out and promoting routes for all ability levels. The infrastructure they’ve put in place is great for cyclists of all shades - mountain bikers included. “There are 170 ‘bike hotels’ in the region," says Nicola, “which are bike friendly with a lot of special characteristics to help bikers."
Everywhere we stay has a secure lock-up, a bike wash and - perhaps best of all - staff who won’t bat an eyelid when you come in covered in grime. One night the lovely woman who owns the Villa Pascolo goes one step further, coming out and switching her car’s headlights on so we can see the bike wash better when it’s dark. But just because it’s well set up for cyclists in general, it doesn’t necessarily mean Umbria is a mecca for mountain bikers.
On the second day however, we get a sense of the potential of the area. Our guide for the day is Lorenzo Ballarini, a sponsored downhill rider who’s only recently made the switch to enduro racing. He’s built like a roadie, tall and thin, but has an easy natural style and a great whip on him. He and Cal soon strike up a rapport, pushing each other on every spot we find.
Lorenzo leads us to his local bike park, Parco Batteria, where the dig crew have started to realise the potential of the incredible mountain landscapes Umbria offers. I say started, because it’s the rawest feeling bike park I’ve ever been to. Forget about carefully manicured trails, sculpted berms or north shore features - these are essentially trails hacked through the woods. They’ve cut the branches away and made a trail map, but that’s about it.
But if the trails aren’t as carefully groomed as those in Morzine or Whistler, they’re also nowhere near as crowded - in fact, we have the bike park entirely to ourselves. The only other person we encounter on the way down is a farmer walking his dog.
This lack of other riders, or other people full stop, is pretty typical of our time in Umbria. The hills we’re riding on are wild and unspoiled and the towns are small and un-touristy. Umbria has no major urban centres. The biggest city, Perugia, has a population of 160,000 - roughly the same as Reading in the UK. Of course, this is exactly what makes Umbria so appealing. “People who went to Tuscany maybe ten years ago now come in Umbria," says Nicola. “It's close to Tuscany and the landscape is similar but it's wilder and more genuine. It’s also cheaper than Tuscany."
“If the trails aren’t as carefully groomed as those in Whistler, they’re also nowhere near as crowded - we have the bike park entirely to ourselves"
The sun is low in the sky when we leave the bike park, but Lorenzo has another treat in store for us. After riding down the road for a short distance, he dives off to the side between some olive trees and down a series of steep stone steps. It’s a hiking trail, but you’d never guess from watching Lorenzo ride it - he cruises down easily, jumping round the sharp corners like Danny MacAskill.
Near the bottom the path opens out onto a viewing platform and we’re greeted by the incredible sight of the Mamore falls. The tallest manmade waterfall in Europe, it was created by the Romans who diverted a river off a cliff in 271 BC. The 165m high cascade is now a major tourist attraction - although this being Umbria, it’s still amazingly uncrowded. There are just two other groups watching the sunset with us.
If a day with Lorenzo has given us a taste for Umbrian mountain biking, then it’s our final day that seals the deal. Our guide doesn’t look like your typical enduro rider - he’s dressed in lycra and riding a 29-inch hardtail - but looks can be deceiving. It turns out Andrea can pretty much outride us all. We set off on a stunning climb up a leaf-strewn path which winds upwards through the woods.
When we make it up above the treeline, we’re treated to incredible views across the valleys and out to the Adriatic coast beyond. Apart from two couples hiking, there’s not another soul around and it’s hard not to lose yourself in the beauty of it all. Or it would be, if the technical nature of the ascent wasn’t taking up all my time and energy. Andrea, fit as a fiddle, cruises up as if there’s no gradient at all.
“We’re served Coratella, a local dish involving liver, kidney and brains..."
One of the best things about mountain biking in Umbria is there’s no such thing as ‘grabbing a quick sandwich’. This is Italy after all, food is not something that can be dashed off quickly. The lunches, the dinners and the trays of antipasti, which appear as if by magic with your post-ride pint, have all been amazing. But our final lunch in the Monte Cucco National Park is particularly special. As well as antipasti and two pasta courses, we’re served Coratella, a local dish involving liver, kidney and brains. It might not sound like the most appetising combination, but in the hands of these chefs it’s genuinely delicious.
Over lunch we’re introduced to Mirko Berardi, who explains that the mountain we’ve been riding around the outside of is actually better known for what’s inside. Beneath the trails lies a vast network of caves. It’s nine kilometres deep at its deepest point, and extends for 30km underground. The ceiling of the largest room - 250,000 cubic metres in size - is 60 metres from the floor.
"We don't know when the cave system was discovered," says Berardi, “Probably in prehistoric times. But the first writing by people we can date on the walls is from 1499." In the years since, the Monte Cucco caves have become famous, and with good reason. “In the 1600s and 1700s people came and wrote romantic novels and poems about the caves," says Berardi, “so they became famous throughout the world". Wandering into the two majestic main rooms, it’s not hard to see why they moved people to poetry - they’re as large and impressive as the greatest gothic cathedrals. “Every year on the 11 July we have a mass in here," says Mirko. “We’ve had concerts here too."
"It’s not hard to see why these caves moved people to write poetry"
Emerging blinking eyed and slightly overawed into the daylight of the cave-mouth, we say goodbye to Mirko and embark on a steep hike-a-bike of about 20 minutes to get to the top of the mountain. We’ve already spent longer than we should underground and by the time we get to the top, the sun is starting to set. But any thought of hurrying down before dark goes out the window when we get to the summit. If the caves were incredible, then the sunset view from the summit leaves us slack-jawed with wonder. After spending far longer than is probably sensible shooting photos, we finally persuade Dan to pack up his camera and start to head down.
To cap it all off, the descent down from the top of Monte Cucco to the village of Costacciaro at its base is one of those trails that leaves you grinning from ear-to-ear. Starting off on stone-strewn paths, it then dips into the woods for a long, loamy section that has all of us whooping as we go. A quick pedal along a road takes us back into the woods for a long, final section of stony single track which spits us out into the village at the bottom. It’s basically dark for most of the final section, and it takes a fair bit of concentration to see where you’re going. We’re exhausted but exhilarated, high fiving each other as we pedal down the cobbled streets and park up outside a café.
It’s only when passers-by stop to greet him that we realise Andrea, the man who’s been our softly spoken guide all day, is in fact a big cheese around these parts. He’s the mayor of Costacciaro, no less. He’s also, he tells us proudly, the holder of the second-fastest ever time down the descent we’ve just done.
If Andrea is something of a dark horse, then the same could be said of the region he calls home. Yes, Umbria is very well set up for cruisey, hybrid bike riders. And yes, there are more roadies here than there are mountain bikers. But while there might not be much of a ‘scene’, we’ve met some incredibly talented riders, and ridden some insanely good trails. Not only that, we’ve had them all to ourselves. Umbria is everything you might expect, but there’s another side to this region and these mountains too. Just make sure you get there before the secret gets out.
DO IT YOURSELF:
Ryanair (ryanair.com) fly direct from London to Perugia from £127 return.
We stayed in two of Umbria's registered "bike hotels" - Hotel Deiduchi in Spoleto (hoteldeiduchi.com) and Villa Pascolo Country House (villapascolo.com). Both were excellent. For the full network of Bike Hotels see the Bike In Umbria website (bikeinumbria.it)
Guides and Routes:
The stunning final ride we took (with the caves) is around Monte Cucco - details of this and the other routes we rode can be found on the Bike In Umbria site (bikeinumbria.it). The Parco Batteria bike park is also well worth a visit (parcobatteria.it).
Our excellent guides were arranged through Bike in Umbria (bikeinumbria.it) and Umbria & Bike (umbriabike.eu). For further information and booking visit their websites and the Umbria Tourism site (umbriatourism.it).