Destination Mantova: Taking the Long Way to BAM!
Last summer, Aimee Gilchrist and Jeremy Collins traveled to Italy to attend the 2022 Bicycle Adventure Meeting (BAM!). To maximize their time away, they mapped out a meandering route that took in some of the highlights of the Dolomites. Find their story of making the most of their miles en route to BAM! and a vivid selection of Jeremy’s illustrated journal excerpts here…
Words by Aimee Gilchrist, illustrations by Jeremy Collins, photos by Aimee and Jeremy
Dust off the cobwebs. Roll open the map. Refill that cup of coffee. It’s time to plan the bike journey of a lifetime to the heart of bikepacking at the Bicycle Adventure Meeting (BAM!) in Europe. It happens once a year in June, so get cracking. To get you inspired, I’m sharing some highlights from last year when my husband, Jeremy Collins, and I trekked halfway across the world with our bikes in tow to experience it for ourselves.
Bikepackers. We know we’re a different breed. High maintenance and low maintenance in the same breath. We go through the effort of lugging our bikes through airports and train stations. We don’t rent cars or hire guides. We obsess over routes and maps and avoid crowds, people, and cities. We debate tire size like it’s an Olympic sport. We count every ounce, pack, and repack, only to save space for that splurge item: an oversized, vintage Polaroid camera. To top it off, we’re the ones who can’t stop talking about the last trip we took or the one we’re about to go on. Perhaps you know the drill, or maybe it’s just me?
When Jeremy and I heard there was an event in Italy designed exclusively for bicycle travelers, it sounded like the holy grail. The Bicycle Adventure Meeting was started several years ago by a passionate group of riders and event producers with the goal of gathering the road-worn wanderlusters and creating a sense of communal magic through a bikepackers’ meetup. The premise is to ride any bike route from your home to arrive at BAM in Mantova, Italy, in time for the weekend’s shenanigans. Take as many days as you need, but you’ll want to ensure you arrive at BAM with enough time to soak it all in. Upon arrival, pitch your tent on the lakefront grass, consider a shower and nap, then make your way over to the event grounds to experience live performances, speakers, food vendors, and bike brand vendors. And you don’t want to miss the late-night music, which pairs nicely with a botanical Italian amaro called Gazunt, I might add.
As much as Jeremy and I wanted to take a month off work to ride from Los Angeles to Mantova, we were forced to improvise. We had eight days to make the journey from Venice to Mantova, and we knew we wanted to see the Dolomites—a UNESCO World Heritage Center spanning seven Italian provinces—and wanted to sneak in some rock climbing. It took the help of many, but we finally planned our route and bought our plane tickets.
Before we knew it, it was time to get rolling. We crossed our fingers that the airline wouldn’t lose our bikes, and we crossed the pond. With the help of a friend who gave us a shuttle from Venice to our starting point, we were officially on our way to BAM! We gave ourselves a generous amount of time to journal, take photos, draw, and sip espresso al fresco. Don’t mistake that for easy. The Dolomites are ruggedly steep, and we mapped out a route that would take us on as many trails as possible to stay off the tourist path, providing us with even more unpredictable obstacles.
Given our travel from the United States and short turnaround time, our plan was to overnight in the ultra-convenient mountain refugios, making it more of a hut-to-hut ride. Unfortunately, we arrived to learn that the huts (and most mountain lifts) were opening late that year after a heavy winter season. So, without camping gear, we opted for local bed and breakfast tour. I’ve spent many a night eating a dehydrated dinner and sharing my tent with mice having chewed their way into my cozy, nylon abode. This was my first time doing a tour with fluffy pillows and a breakfast buffet. Let me tell you, I could be tempted to do that again!
We made a point to put miles on every day except for one when the weather was too risky. The mountain passes were still seeing winter storms which made riding treacherous. Instead, we did a short side trip up Tre Cime di Lavaredo, made famous in the 2013 Giro d’ Italia by Nibali when he finished Stage 20 in heavy, wet snow. I recommend taking a moment to watch a clip of the last five minutes of that stage. It’s incredible! We didn’t have those conditions (or the cheering crowds), but be warned, it gets extremely windy and chilly at the top. Check the weather before heading up.
We emptied our bike bags and launched from Misurina for Tre Cime on with our steel Kona frames and 2.25″ tires, red-lining this 4.6-mile paved climb with around 2,150 feet of elevation gain. The stunning scenery literally took our breath away. We assumed the roadies passing us were getting a good laugh as they cruised by us, chatting it up, not showing an ounce of struggle. But once we arrived at Rifugio Auronzo, we knew we had the right bikes to take us the remaining 5.5 gravel miles to the base of the three rocky peaks. The snowy trail kept us from continuing, but it was an absolutely gorgeous ride for the books.
Our third day out pedaling was one of our favorites. We had arrived in Sassi de Stria via the most perfect singletrack trail and hitchhiked up Passo Falzarego to spend a beautiful morning rock climbing an incredible route up Cinque Torri. Our friend, Andrea, loaned us some gear and left it at our hostel so we didn’t have to carry it the entire way. Since this lift was open to bicycles, we ended up coming back with our bikes and getting a little head start on our next day.
In the end, we traveled 125 miles by bike and climbed 22,000 feet before arriving at the bikepacker’s paradise that was Mantova. The town was bursting with cyclists filled with positive energy, hugs and high fives, and genuine enthusiasm to be there. We were greeted with pizza slices, cold beers, and a shady place to unwind. In total, more than 1,000 cyclists pedaled to the event from all corners for this Italian rendezvous. We laughed, celebrated, danced, stayed up too late, and had too many sips of Gazunt, but the best thing of all was witnessing the true generous and free-loving spirit of the community. We were reminded that there is hope for a better world.
We dreamed up this idea two years ago with the help of Andrea Benesso and the great people behind BAM Europe. Thank you to all of them as well as Kona Bikes, Brooks England, and Komoot for helping us bring this story to life for all of you. It was more beautiful than we ever could have imagined. By the end of the trip, Jeremy had created a fully illustrated travel journal from our travels. Brooks would turn one of these drawings into a custom bike saddle. What a special ending to this incredible journey. We will be back for round two, and hopefully the refugios will be open next time.
You can learn more about the Bicycle Adventure Meeting at BAMEurope.it.
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