Some rides just really stick with you. They become wonderful memories that you recount with vivid detail over and over again. For nearly a year I kept hearing about this breathtaking but arduous ride in Italy that began with a short cycle to Bassano del Grappa from the Italian Cycling Center, followed by a meandering train ride beyond the Monte Grappa Massif, a very challenging, grinding ascent and a long descending route down the Asiago Plateau. Details, however, were somewhat sketchy. George Pohl, our host at ICC, had only traveled the route once before. The year prior he paced a very strong rider, Bob Kaplan from Washington, D.C., on his motor scooter but without the train segment. Bob was responsible for introducing this ride. He is known for exploring new routes throughout the Veneto region, often-times very long, challenging rides that involve memorable climbs and long days in the saddle. As George told it, given the length of the ride and its arduous nature, even Bob was on “fumes” by the time they returned from nearly 170 kilometers or just over 100 miles, which prompted the recommendation to add the segment on the train to our itinerary.
So on a bright day in mid-May 2012, along with four other riders, I rode down to the Bassano train station to purchase our tickets. George departed from there on his scooter with final instructions, “Get off the train at Levico Terme and I’ll meet you there”. All seemed very straight-forward as we enjoyed coffee across from the station while waiting the hour until departure. The trains are most impressive in Italy, even the local ones. They are modern and well-designed with a distinct car equipped with a section to transport bicycles. Upon entering, however, we discovered that the bike racks could only accommodate two bicycles and one was already occupied. While our group was trying to navigate this problem the conductor arrived and kept telling us that the train could only accommodate two bikes and that we would have to leave the train. We did our best, not speaking Italian, to negotiate a beneficial outcome, but this got even more difficult when a second conductor appeared and also emphasized the space limitations. It really seemed that this much-anticipated journey would end before it really even started. Luckily, the owner of the bicycle that was already secured, a local who spoke English, was able to intercede on our behalf and convinced the conductors that we could position everything so as not to interfere with passenger access to the aisles and lavatory.
With this first obstacle overcome, we settled in and enjoyed the scenic ride which cut its way along the Brenta River Valley. Marked by steep cliffs on both sides and occasional stops at small mountain villages, the journey passed quite quickly. We arrived on time and George was there waiting. The start of the climb was barely three kilometers away from the Levico Terme train station. We collectively decided to forgo a meal before the climb mostly due to our anxiousness to get started and decided to all regroup at the top. The ascent distance was unmarked and without knowing the depth of the task before us, we proceeded to climb. Climbing seemed to be a gentle term for the experience. It was more like grinding. The road was extremely narrow and twisting with several hairpin turns that made passage by anything but smaller vehicles nearly impossible. The grades were averaging approximately 11% with substantial portions spiking to around 20%. As grueling as it was, the scenery was absolutely breathtaking and the ride worth the wait. The Dolomite Mountains were in view for a portion of the climb as well as a large lake, Lago di Caldonazzo. After nearly an hour and a half the pass reached its zenith and I could stop to catch my breath. Within a few minutes the entire group was together and the next mission at-hand was to find someplace to eat lunch and restore the energy reserves for the long ride back to camp.
Our location in a heavily forested zone did not afford us a variety of choices. In fact, as we proceeded for a significant distance there was only one restaurant/bar along the road. As we approached it became very clear that it was closed. The next real town, Asiago, was some 30 kilometers away and this seemed like an option that no one wanted to contemplate. George went to see if perhaps anyone was around and fortuitously a woman came outside, saw our situation and offered us lasagna or pasta. The wood-beamed interior had a country lodge flavor and there was a group of local men at one table also eating and hanging out. Words can’t describe how great it felt to eat that lasagna and we were all grateful for the warm hospitality. We did notice while eating a distinct theme of stuffed and mounted animals local to the region on the walls, including squirrels. In fact when we complimented the women on her fine meal, she spoke (through George interpreting) of the great combination of venison, horse meat and squirrel she had blended for the recipe. Well…it was still really good and appreciated. Enough said!
Our belief was after the extended climb that we had reached the top of the Asiago Plateau and the ride would be overall descending until the coastal plain near the camp. We actually had some climbing ahead but soon enough we were winding our way downhill through a thick stand of conifers. Even with a headwind we had no trouble maintaining a speed of roughly 40 kilometers (25 miles) per hour. After another regrouping in Asiago, we proceeded down the plateau for nearly 36 kilometers (24 miles). Much of the route thereafter is characterized by long, slightly curving stretches, but at the lower elevations there is a series of switchbacks leading to the valley floor. At that point only a few kilometers separated us from our return to camp. Feeling tired and invigorated at the same time our group definitely put this in the ride category to remember.
Photos: Bart Delfiner, Weaver Lilley