When I first heard that Matteo was organizing a new gravel event in his home region of northern Italy, I couldn’t resist being part of it, despite an already overbooked first season of ultra cycling. Having started the season with one of Matteo’s events, Granguanche Gravel, I figured it would be quite fitting to end it with another.
At 360 kilometers long, GranGarda has the nice advantage that it fits inside a weekend, so logistics were quite easy. However, with over 10,000 meters of climbing and 60% off-road, the event was not to be underestimated. I was especially intrigued by the promise of discovering a region entirely unknown to me, one that’s often overshadowed as a cycling destination by the hub of the Dolomites just a few hours away. Knowing Matteo, I had complete confidence that the route he created would showcase his region in the best way possible.
Arriving in Peschiera for the briefing was like meeting a family of old friends. The crowd of ultra-cycling enthusiasts in Europe is small enough that if you pack a few events in your season, you are guaranteed to cross paths multiple times. The discussions with the evening’s pizzas centered around the different race strategies and expectations, and mostly about the inclement weather coming our way. The big question was whether to go for the “non-stop” approach of completing the event with no sleep or whether a night (or two) in a hotel would be a more reasonable choice. The forecasted rain definitely threw some doubts in the planning. This time of the year, nights are long, and the task of cycling over 12 hours in the dark, cold, and wet seemed quite formidable.
For some, like Arie from the Netherlands, the event was a personal challenge to complete the whole course after recovering from a recent sickness. Others, like my friend Peter, came all the way from Ireland to discover Italy for the first time. Like myself, his target was the two day pace (we set a rendezvous for a finisher’s beer at sunset on Sunday), but while I had a constant tugging away approach, his was more of the race hard play hard style, bombing down technical bits to then relax and enjoy some good Italian food in a cafe. My friend Weronika, a seasoned bikepacker, wanted to push herself and see what is possible. My husband Philippe was also planning on no sleep, taking full advantage of competing solo (we mostly race as a pair) and not having to wait for me. He was in no shortage of good company for a fast pace, with many motivated riders taking up the Audax challenge of finishing under 24 hours.
Whatever the goal, everyone was here in one way or another to test themselves. A test that would come at different points and in different shapes to everyone. For me, it didn’t take too long before I was asking the famous question of how did I get here? It happened on the slopes of Passo di Tremalzo about 120 kilometers into the event. As if on cue, the forecasted rain arrived precisely at the moment I reached the bottom of the pass. My Garmin displayed the harsh reality for my next couple of hours: 15.4 kilometers of gravel climbing with an average gradient of 9%. The little group that I happily shared the first kilometers with was by this point completely scattered along the course.
Here I was alone, with only the vastness and deep silence of the mountains. The misty conditions added to the overall solitude. The steep gravel serpentines were just as relentless as the cold rain. I often had to descend and push my bike, and progress was slow and painful. Discomfort, cold, doubt, and a face-to-face realization with the task at hand: this is not going to be easy. Yet, this is exactly the type of experience we dream of when browsing ultra cycling events from the comforts of our homes. What a luxury in our busy daily lives to stop and have a whole weekend doing what we love, alone in nature, completely autonomous and self-reliant, with the sole purpose of following a track on a GPS. There is something really nice and fulfilling about having such a simplified but all-encompassing task. We only need to move forward, however we can, but to do so requires all of our strength and mental fortitude. We are immediately forced to be in the moment. Life only extends as far as the GPS track.
After what seemed like an eternity, I reached the dark and cold tunnel at the top of the pass. And what magnificent views opened up on the other side: the most beautiful steep and twisty gravel hairpins—carved into the side of the mountain—plummeting straight down into the lake. I reached for my phone to take a few pictures, but despite the breathtaking scenery, I knew better than to linger for too long. The air was cold, and it would soon turn to freezing. I put on all my layers, double gloves, and began the descent.
It’s a strange concept, these ultra cycling events. On one hand, we are here to meet other like-minded people, to feel part of a community, to experience these strong emotions together. But on the other hand, we spend most of the event alone, in remote and quiet places, facing our own challenges. Despite their short duration, the encounters with other riders are some of the most remarkable memories that we take home with us.
On the second day, toward the top of Monte Baldo, I reached another rider, Bastian, who had pushed through the night. Despite my five-hour stop at a hotel, I did not feel much fresher than him. We were both exhausted from the long climb but grateful for each other’s company on the last kilometers, even if only in silence. There is instant mutual respect for each other because we both completed the same challenge, and a bond because we were moved by the same places.
And there was no shortage of beautiful places at GranGarda. The course over delivers on the variety of landscapes that are packed inside its relatively short distance, from the impressive military gravel roads and tunnels built into the sides of mountains, the foggy and moody mountain tops that don’t invite you to stay, the many salamanders, rabbits, giant toads, and occasional badgers keeping us company at night, the flowy singletracks that were a dream to ride, the full-on enduro-style descents that had me grumpily carry my bike, the smooth tarmac that came as a relief, and the crazy steep concrete farm roads on what my Garmin classified as a descent.
By the time I arrived back down at Lake Garda I was both relieved to finish what has been a very challenging route but also sad that it was over. The hustle of Peschiera on a warm Sunday evening full of pedestrians, cars, and tourist buses was a stark contrast to the loneliness and cold mist of Monte Baldo earlier in the day. At the finish line, I met my husband Philippe, still beaming from accomplishing the fastest time. He told me about his encounter with some angry sheepdogs in the foggy night and getting stuck behind some sleepy cows that didn’t want to move out of the way. While riding most of the route alone, he was kept on his toes the whole time by the strong Enough cycling duo of Manuel and Federico, all three of them finishing well under 24 hours.
I learned from Weronika that her night was also full of adventure, with her front lamp running out and having to follow another rider, being extremely sleepy but incapable of stopping due to the risk of hypothermia, and entering a discotheque for some snacks in the early hours of Sunday as nothing else was open. And my friend Peter? Well, he arrived fashionably late for our sunset beer with as much enthusiasm as ever. Despite taking some tumbles along the way, he smashed undeterred all the technical descents and took the time to enjoy the best of what Italy can offer. Arie also successfully completed the course in the next few days, his steady approach paying off.
In the end, whatever we all came looking for at GranGarda, I think we found it. We discovered not only a new region but maybe even something new about ourselves.
2022 GranGarda Gravel Rando Results
- 1st Place: Philippe Bechet (22H:29M)
- 2nd Place: Manuel Truccolo (23H:44M)
- 3rd Place: Federico Bassis (23H:44M)
- 4th Place: Niccolò Varanini (24H)
- 5th Place: Agon Ahmeti (25H:4M)
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