Deep in the Italian forest lies a resort by the name of Abetone. Thick tree cover and mossy, loamy terrain are the order of the day, making for some of Europe's better official riding. Paul Aston tapped-out.
13-16.09.13 Abetone, Tuscany, Italy PIC © Andy Lloyd

Far from Europe’s highest peaks both figuratively and literally, Italy’s Central Appenine mountains are perhaps not top of most riders’ lists of priority destinations. However, having visited Tuscany’s Abetone Bike Park late in 2013 we can confirm that its forested slopes and abundance of trails – not to mention its food and delicious coffee – make it wholly deserving of becoming a key mountain bike destination.

DIRT ISSUE 145 - MARCH 2014 

Words by James McKnight. Photos by Andy Lloyd

THE STORY

Sitting with feet up, surrounded by a sprawl of baggage, our group was enjoying what is surely every visitor to Italy’s first port of call: a strong coffee accompanied by rich, exquisitely unhealthy breakfast food. This was possibly a metaphor for the days to come… extended days, Italian style fine dining and a scattering of fast–paced bike riding thrown in for good measure.

We were waiting for our tour guide, an Italian by the name of Rolando Galli – someone I felt I knew reasonably well following a long stream of emails and enthused phone calls – who was to pick us up and whisk us away on a mystery mountain bike tour into the unknown. Our lazy break ended with the arrival of a bouncy, chatty middle–aged man sporting shorts and trainers.

OH TOSCANA

Tuscany. A region that holds the ability to conjure up images of long summery evenings and distant, picture–perfect hazy views with its every mention. People the world over know Tuscany from the countless films and photo shoots that have produced images of beautiful rolling hills and slender upright cypress trees. In terms of mountain biking, however, the region was perhaps overlooked until 2013 when the first ever Enduro World Series race took place in the hills behind Punta Ala’s crisp shoreline. That race was of course a complete success and demonstrated that mountain biking hotspots can pop up in the most unlikely of places.

Abetone Bike Park then, the focus of our week long trip, sits high in Tuscany’s mountains, which summit at somewhere around 2000 metres, amongst dense and ancient woodland. This is a popular winter ski resort servicing the populations of Pisa and Florence, which is almost impossible to comprehend when arriving in the summer months. The road that provides access from the major towns is narrow and twisty, the terrain vertiginous and tricky. Buildings are old and seemingly few and far between, and the aforementioned forest envelops every trace of human interaction with these inspiring mountains.

A GAGGLE OF BIKERS

The opportunity to visit Abetone arose some time early in the year, but having looked at some dodgy maps and vague trail descriptions found somewhere on the internet, and having based my entire opinion of the area on those two findings, I turn my snotty, spoilt nose up at the notion of visiting ‘another’ (undoubtedly beautiful) place with ‘yet more’ snakes of trail at every crest. Later in the year I thankfully reconsidered my actions, and boy am I glad I did. A date to visit was hastily set in late September.

It’s never exactly going to be hard to quickly summon a group of bike riders for a trip to an undiscovered ‘Promised Land’, abundant in fine food and virgin trails, and so on putting the word about I quickly gathered a motley crew consisting of a photographer, a trail crafter, a boat builder, a part–time raw–vegan and a desk jockey: Andy Lloyd, Rowan Sorrell, Richy Taylor, Paul Aston and myself. A mostly acquainted group with the wild card among us (really, really wild) being Richy, a colourful character new to these pages who hails from Scotland and now lives ‘the life’, travelling from snowy Alpine slopes where he winters, to sunny Italian shores where he summers. His arse has twice made appearances in Dirt, but that’s another story.>>

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[part title="Abetone Bike Park | Tuscan Raiders Page Two..."]

13-16.09.13 Abetone, Tuscany, Italy  PIC © Andy Lloyd
13-16.09.13 Abetone, Tuscany, Italy PIC © Andy Lloyd

STOP ONE: CUTIGLIANO/DOGANACCIA

Our ascent from airport to destination could probably be described as ‘brisk’, certainly more so than it could potentially have been with anyone less motivated to show off his local turf than Rolando. During the hair–raising–at–times ride up into the hills, Rolando, who splits his time between living in Florence and Abetone (but his soul is definitely settled in the mountains), did manage to casually drop into conversation the fact of his title as current Masters Skiing World Champion and aspiring downhill mountain bike racer. He’d be joining us for all rides and showing us where to water afterwards. We were clearly in for a great trip.

Although the trip bore the title of Abetone, we were in fact to sample three riding locations all based around a central focal point – one of the area’s most imposing peaks and a towering divide between our base in Tuscany and the neighbouring region of Emiglia–Romagna, Monte Cimone. The first of our stops in fact came en–route and was intended as a sort of whistle–stop visit, but haste is a word little heeded in Italy…

And so it was that we unpacked in a quiet, sunny layby in the small town of Cutigliano, a place that holds a special place in Rolando’s heart as his mother’s birthplace, and made our way up the old cablecar to Doganaccia, a thousand metres higher and the start point for several long, not too demanding downhill tracks. Although Doganaccia had somehow completely missed my radar previous to the trip, it had in fact been a base for Kiwis Wyn ‘TV’ Masters and Brook ‘Bulldog’ MacDonald several years ago, before they hit the big time. Our afternoon of arrival was a shock to the system as we were thrown straight into long runs on the back of an Italian lunch (six courses to get us warmed up for what was to come later in the day).

The trails on the hillside behind Cutigliano are likely to strike a chord with any UK visitor on a downhill bike, or similarly on anything down to a 160mm travel enduro machine. Never too far on the steep or extreme scale, always changing in direction and terrain. They traverse and weave their way down through the endless forest, cooled by the thick canopy and no doubt brought up the loam–scale thanks to the protection of the trees.

On one particular section that bursts out of the trees and into the long grass below the wires of the gondola we sessioned a perfectly bermed turn for roughly the amount of time it takes one’s entire skin to be masticated by mosquitos (I can vouch for this). Having invested so much of his recent time and energy into his own bike park at home in Wales, it was good to be reminded of Rowan’s skills here as he hit the corner over and over, getting lower and lower until his knuckles were churning the dirt to the point of bleeding. By this point it was getting dark and we nipped down the mountain, re–packed the van and headed for our first overnight stop: Hotel San Rocco in Sestola.

STOP TWO: SESTOLA

Just over an hour by car from Cutigliano, and the far side of Monte Cimone, is Sestola, a ski resort that sits facing inland and balcony–like over the lower slopes of the mountain, with the rolling hills of Emigliana–Romagna displayed in all their golden glory below. The view is endless. Now I won’t go into detail too much as this is a mountain bike magazine, but the dinner we ate here in Sestola was simply ridiculous: 10 courses of local produce turned into stupendously delicious foodstuffs. We ate in style and also permeated it… or perhaps not: we were straight off the mountain in our stinking kit and on the back of a long day of travel and bike riding, but with that great buzz that a bike trip to a surprising destination brings. Sparkling red wine – a speciality of these parts – may have also had something to do with the satisfied feeling.

The group rose severely early and spring chicken–like, bouncing with energy and lurching with abundant enthusiasm, the previous night’s consumption doing absolutely nothing to negatively affect working output. One or two of the group may have struggled to get going in the morning having missed the opportunity to take on sugar and caffeine supplies at breakfast, Rolando’s inexorable liveliness sweeping the group out the door and to the base of a relatively busy chairlift from the centre of town. The ride through the narrow streets was enough to wake the weariest of us though, and with characteristically pleasant weather things were looking good.

Sestola’s mountain bike trails, which are grouped under the heading of Cimone Bike Park, are a world away from the leafy singletracks in Cutigliano, but not in a bad sense. Wide and machine–built, the crafters of said trails appear to have grasped the concept of gradient in a way that certain Alpine resorts have not. Although fast and featuring jumps, berms and intermittent steep sections, with the main course reminiscent of Morzine’s Pleney to some degree, the steep mountainside has been used in a way that makes the ride a whole lot more enjoyable and far less prone to the corrugating effect of braking that affects the famous French resort’s main track. There are several routes down the hill, with two main downhill tracks (previously used to host downhill races) and other offshoots providing plenty of entertainment. The scores of riders hammering out runs all day proving the hill’s got enough to satisfy all riders.

At this early point in our trip we were already starting to reconsider our decision (upon my recommendation… ahem) to bring reasonably lightweight bikes, as a downhill sled would have been preferable here and not a burden the previous day. We joined the masses and hammered out fun runs resulting in a few pinch flats and the odd dinged rim and bent steerer tube, the high speeds proving a touch too much for a bike of 160mm or less. Not that we were complaining – Sestola’s riding is super fun and adds a degree of depth to what would prove to otherwise be mainly natural, technical trail elsewhere in the area.>>

[part title="Abetone Bike Park | Tuscan Raiders Page Three"]

High above Abetone, Rowan carves a quick turn before heading back to base for more wine and bilberries.
13-16.09.13 Abetone, Tuscany, Italy PIC © Andy Lloyd

STOP THREE: ABERTONE

After just a day at Cimone Bike Park we once again circumnavigated the mountain at breakneck speed, typical Italian driving standards ensuring our almost instantaneous arrival – this is via 20-odd miles of mountain roads – at Abetone. The most famous of ski areas in the region, Abetone brings in many thousands of keen snowplanking enthusiasts during winter. Summer is of course a very different matter, and late in the season we were among the hardcore few to still be riding the gondola–accessed mountain.

Rising high above town, Abetone’s Monte Gomito peaks at 1893 metres, its lift providing nearly 600 metres of altitude gain in a matter of minutes, and in our case much needed protection from the elements. With Rolando in charge as head of the lift system in the area it perhaps should come as no surprise that the lively and wholly able rider wants to promote summer activities on the mountain and his way of doing so being through bicycles of the downhill variety. Rolando races regularly and his experience shows in the five official trails that this hill harbours.

Beginning on the exposed summit, the Abetone trails initially take on a rough and ready guise as they make their way through rocks and shrubbery in order to descend quickly through the most significant area of nature, which as a side–note for later is abundant in bilberries. The three main downhill tracks (marked as separate numbers on the trail map but all essentially being the same line down the mountain) start proper just above the treeline and rapidly pick up momentum. Throttle wide–open and flat–out across the undulating open piste, the track here gets the heart rate rocketing from the get–go before plunging into more of the area’s distinctive dense woodland and entering into a world of technical magnificence. Roots expand from every tree and into the path of the raucous track, rocks litter the way and greasy mud fuses the two: a tech rider’s dream. Aside from being amazed at the nature of the track, we were also pleased to hear of Abetone’s proposal to host a World Cup race in the near future, and with the backing of the town’s partner, the city of Florence (who played host to the 2013 Road World Championship), this seems likely to happen. Fingers crossed as the track would provide a true test to racers.

As with the majority of these trips, our misfit crew was in town for more than just a trail, so once we’d lapped–out the flowing, fast, never ending technical maze of roots, rocks and ruts, we capped our day’s riding and headed into town to the affordable–but–swanky Hotel Regina where we were booked in for a couple of nights. The Regina sits centrally in the small town, a conveniently short shuffle from the main bar, Ciuste, where we headed along with plenty of other folk for a much deserved beer or too (many). I was nursing bruises from a lack–of–rear–brake related near death experience that resulted in dents to my back, wrist and ego, while the wild Scot Richy was doing his job of ‘integrating and entertaining’ – the integration coming from the locals’ acquaintance with his bare arse and the entertainment from his never-ending source of good humour and crafty puns (if you ever meet Richy Taylor ask him about Honour). Well lubricated, we headed to Regina and dined in style once again, this time on a bright purple bilberry risotto – a far cry from the Alpine staple of ham, cheese and potatoes…

A day was spent with this scribe nursing his sore paw while Rowan, Richy, Paul and Andy took on a local DH race on the main track. Due to lack of suitable bikes, the crew cobbled together a collection of poorly fitting steeds and threw caution to the wind with one practice run each (the morning’s practice effort hampered by sore heads once again). Rowan absolutely smashed his way down the course, putting in a time that resulted in a joint first place (the results were somewhat confusing but we’ll forgive them for that), proving boy still got it! and warranting an afternoon of celebration as the heavens opened, lifts closed and the central bar showed the big action – not Rowan’s win but the World Cup racing from Norway with Steve Smith smashing it. We felt like proper sports fans and did our best to emulate them. A pizza fit for an Italian in a classic restaurant called the Garage sobered us up and Rolando ferried us back to the sanctity of our accommodation.

THE CIRCULAR ‘ENDURO’ TRAIL

The final day of our trip brought fine weather and with it incredibly bright light that found its way into our room early enough to get us up and out and ready to ride before first lift. Rolando pitched up on his enduro bike – a Trek Remedy with dual semi slick tyre combo – and we made our way up the mountain ready to take on the area’s Big Loop. Beginning once again from the high point at Rifugio Zeno Colo at the top of Abetone’s lift, the area’s ‘enduro trail’ is marked in a circular route that descends one of the best trails on Monte Gomito before crossing town and diving down into the Wild Woods and heading for the other towns described in this feature. There is a network of trails connecting villages with singletracks left, right and centre, all of which provide an incredible ride taking in copious gorges and rickety old wooden bridges and remnants of previous habitations. Very cultural.

While the British gaggle slid down the rocky, muddy and occasionally treacherous trail, Rolando kept it composed up–front with little concern for the lack of tread on his tyres. Twice the age of some of our group’s members yet half as phased. We battled on and had to cut the ride short as our dithering forced us out of daytime, but having sampled the amazing terrain here and in the area as a whole we made a vow to be back as soon as the 2014 season opens.

Abetone: Inspiring landscapes, meals of epic proportions and bike riding to absolutely die for. Flights to Pisa are cheap and frequent, the weather is favourable and the lift system is open from early June until late September. Get yourself there.

www.abetonegravitypark.it