Our Italian Bikepacking Adventure and the Hospitality of Strangers
La nostra avventura di bikepacking italiana e l'ospitalità di sconosciuti
My NEMO colleague Kate Paine and I recently did a four-day mountain bikepacking adventure around Torino, Italy. The trip definitely met the definition of an adventure: ”an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity, especially the exploration of unknown territory.”
Prior to the trip, I connected with Valerio Fava, the owner of Ciclocentrico, a bike shop in Rivoli, Italy specializing in outfitting bikepacking trips. Valerio had an interest in selling NEMO gear in his shop, and I had an interest in bikepacking in the mountains of the Piemonte. He also sponsors an unsupported bikepacking tour called 150 S-miles, and offered to let us pre-ride portions of the route to provide feedback. We would share social media assets to promote NEMO, Ciclocentrico, and the 150 S-miles event. Classic win/win: the kind of arrangement I prefer.
As for any adventure, planning and preparation are key. I scoured Bikepacking.com for recommended gear lists, acquired a cookstove, dehydrated meals, energy bars, energy drink mix, first aid kit, spare tubes, etc., downloaded a GPS app, loaded the GPS track (which arrived one day before departure from its creator, Massimo). Before we got on the bus to the airport, I asked Kate to download the app and upload the GPS tracks for redundancy in case I had any trouble with my phone (I would).
We arrived in Rivoli on June 9, and after driving the wrong way on several pedestrian-only streets of this ancient, cobblestoned city, finally found our way to Ciclocentrico. Valerio set us up with Salsa Woodsmoke Carbon bikes and Miss Grape seat and frame packs. We also picked up a paper map, tube repair kits, a fire starter, and gas canisters for the cookstove. More on this later.
Kate got a taste of Italian customer service, which, for an American, takes a little time to appreciate, but makes sense once you understand the philosophy. Basically, in Italy, shopkeepers will work with one customer as long as necessary to completely service that customer before assisting another customer. It can make for a long wait, but once it’s your turn, you get the shopkeeper’s undivided attention.
With bikes in hand, we made our way to our bed and breakfast, Di Ago In Ago. Our host, Roberto, kindly informed us that we could store our car in his parking lot for the duration of our trip, and that on Wednesday when we returned, he would open the B&B for us to shower. He joked that this would be "best for everyone" who would make contact with us on Wednesday. This was our first taste of l’ospitalità di sconosciuti, the hospitality of strangers.
Dinner with Valerio, sampling of local artisanal ales, frantic packing of gear for our first day of bikepacking, then sleep. On Sunday morning, Roberto made us a killer breakfast, including our first of many Italian cappucini, then we loaded up our bikes, said our goodbyes to Roberto, and began pedaling…for about 50 feet. Adjustments to bike packs, adjustments to phones, GPS, a couple of photos, then finally on our way out of town, through some fields and onto the trails.
Day 1: Everyone has a Plan
Our first day was supposed to be fairly easy, about 60 miles with around 1,300 feet of climbing, all south of Torino. The second day would be a little harder, again about 60 miles, but with 4,300 feet of climbing. The last day and a half would be the hardest, only 50 miles, but lots of climbing, 7,600 feet over two mountain ranges. The weather forecast for day one was excellent, but the forecast for the next few days was less than ideal, with a lot of rain predicted. We hoped for the best and got on our way.
As I mentioned before, for any adventure, planning and preparation are key. But, as Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Our first punch in the mouth was realizing that we had gone the wrong way out of Rivoli and were following the route in the reverse direction. My phone had all but died (wouldn’t charge), so we had to make use of our redundancy plan and Kate became the navigator. Another key to a successful adventure is flexibility, so we shrugged off our directional error and proceeded into the mountains, winding through il Parco Naturale Laghi di Avigliana, on our way past la Sacra di San Michele, one of seven religious structures on an imaginary line from Ireland to Israel.
We grabbed lunch in San Pietro, with a view of la Sacra di San Michele, imbibed more Italian espresso (Kate likes coffee), and Kate had her first (and not last) experience with a squatty potty. We then began our journey up into the mountains. Lots and lots of climbing on our first day.
We were starting to hit sections that were essentially unrideable and began to realize that, Massimo, the creator of the GPS track, may have created the route from maps, without actually riding the route. At a certain point, we were faced with a narrow, steep, rocky trail between two concrete walls that led straight up an incline with seemingly no end. A guy on a trials motorcycle began the ascent, but quickly turned around and went up the road instead. We followed him. It was our first diversion from Massimo’s GPS route, but would not be our last.
We were in the mountains now, having been riding or pushing our bikes for about 8 hours. It was a beautiful day, but the sun and the incline were taking their toll. At one point, we noticed an elderly farmer with a cane walking his horse on a lead ahead of us and realized that he was going faster than we were. We decided we should start looking for a place to camp.
At around 7:30 PM, we spotted a rock outcropping in the shape of wolf’s head high on a ridge and decided that was our spot. It was magnificent, maybe the most picturesque and remote campsite I’ve ever had. We made camp at 1800 meters, took a bunch of photos, soaked in the views, and began to look forward to a hot meal.
Second punch in the mouth coming at us. As I popped the plastic seal off the propane canister, I realized that it had no threads. Are you f@#%ing kidding me?!? Nearly 10 hours in and out of the saddle with only a salad and a few energy bars in our bellies, and no way to heat our dehydrated meals? Arggggh!
Planning and preparation; flexibility and adaptability; essential elements of a good adventure. We took stock of our Good To-Go meals and chose the Indian Vegetable Korma to rehydrate with cold water in hopes of some savory nutritional satisfaction. After 30 minutes, as our energy waned and before the sun went down, we devoured our bags of Korma while sitting peacefully on the wolf’s head overlooking the valley with the Sacra di San Michele far off in the valley about 15 miles away.
Oh yeah, I forgot my toothbrush and toothpaste. Finger brush.
Day 2: Italian Hospitality
The morning of day two started off with a beautiful sunrise over the eastern ridge, some Good To-Go Granola, and a valley engulfed in thick clouds that were moving quickly toward our location. A few more photos on the wolf’s head, then we packed up the gear, just as the clouds moved in and everything became immediately damp.
We walked and pushed our bikes up a steep gravel road, past ancient-looking sheep barns with unique, hand-laid stone rooves, making our way toward Truc Muandette at 2022 m. There’s a beautiful memorial there with a 360-degree map of the panorama. We completed the climb on our bikes up to 2100 meters as the clouds rushed up the ridge, engulfing Kate as she rode ahead of me.
Third punch in the mouth on the way, as the rain began to pelt us, and the lightning started to paint the sky. No time to take in the now non-existent view; we had to get moving down the mountain, and try to get away from this thunder storm. We threw on our rain shells and covered our packs and made our way down the gravel road filled with water bars, switchbacks, and flowing water.
After about 6 miles, we hit an asphalt road and followed it along the Viù river to the little town of Fucine. We were soaked and cold and hungry and pulled in under an awning to get out of the rain and try to get something dry and insulating on us. Kate’s hands were blue from cold and neither of us could open the packages for our energy bars.
I saw a man come out of his house and went over to ask him in Italian where we could go to get a coffee. Fortunately, my 20 months living in Italy 12 years ago had left me with enough Italian to get us through. He told me up the road about 1.5 kilometers. We had to get warm, so Kate and I began preparing ourselves for a 1.5-kilometer climb to coffee, a bathroom, and some warm clothes.
L’ospitalità di sconosciuti, the hospitality of strangers.
Two minutes later, the same man came back out of his house and motioned to us to come inside, that he had coffee. Let me introduce Alberto and Rita, married for 54 years, originally from Torino, retired to the little town of Fucine, and lovers of a quiet life, la dolce vita.
They quickly welcomed us in, told us not to worry about soaking their floors, chairs, table, and everything else with which we came in contact, and to sit down next to the wood stove. Rita kept exclaiming, “che poverina, che poverina,” when looking at Kate, who was shivering noticeably. Rita made us espresso and Alberto pulled out the local grappa for Kate’s first caffe corretto, which Alberto assured us would warm our insides.
Rita insisted that we peel off our wet clothes and hang them to dry as she told us about her family, her two sons, one of whom she said was like una corrente elettrica, always moving, never resting or relaxing, making work to have something to do. They were a lovely couple, comfortable in their own skin, playfully poking fun at the size of the other’s belly, their familiar idiosyncrasies, and their quiet lives in Fucine.
Alberto served caffe corretto to warm us up.
As the rain continued, Rita insisted on preparing lunch for us, which turned out to be a six-course meal: antipasti, pane, pasta, vino rosso, formaggi, frutta, torta, and espresso. As we finished, warm and stuffed, the sun came out, and it was time to ride. We thanked them heartily and asked if there was anything we could do to repay them for their kindness in our time of need.
Rita suggested that we send her some photos and a note so she could put them on her wall and boast of her American friends to all her family and friends in Fucine. Meeting Alberto and Rita may have been the best thing that happened to us on our trip.
Fucine is in the valley at around 700 meters. We needed to get ourselves back up to around 1400 meters before dropping down to 500 meters at our eventual stopping point in Lanza. Punch in the mouth number four on the way.
The roads were too steep to ride, so we pushed our bikes for a couple hours, then found ourselves on some ancient, steep trails filled with well-worn, rounded stones, separated by vertically oriented pieces of slate serving as water bars every 10 feet or so. This was the low point of the trip. Pouring rain, slippery rocks, heavy bikes, not enough upper body strength, every switchback seemingly longer and steeper. Massimo!!!
There’s no way that guy rode this route before sending us out on the “trail”. When we finally reached the summit of the pass, the sun came out, and we were in a beautiful alpine meadow. OK, maybe it was worth it. After a few energy bars and a nature break, we were finally going to get to ride our bikes again.
Punch in the mouth number five. After 20 yards on the “trail”, we realized that it was going to be essentially unrideable, overgrown, narrow, off-camber, slippery, dangerous. We were already pretty banged up, so elected to walk our bikes down until we hit another road and could ride comfortably again.
Once on the road, we had a sweet descent, winding around corners, trying to take the most efficient lines. It felt good to just cruise for a bit. We pulled into Lanza around 6 PM and immediately started looking for a shop that sold gas cannisters for our stove. Three different shops, no compatible gas cannisters.
With no real interest in cold, dehydrated food again, we decided to go to an actual restaurant for dinner and savored insalata mista, tagliatelle al salmone, vino rosso, e tiramisu fatto in casa.
Day 3: Crushing Miles and Racing Thunderstorms
After a couple local digestives, and a reasonably good night’s sleep, we were on our bikes again for day three. The goal was to crank out some miles and get ourselves within five hours ride of Rivoli for the final stretch on Wednesday. We set our destination as Chieri and set off.
The first notable sight of the day was an ancient Roman stone bridge that spanned the Lanza river. So cool to appreciate the knowledge and skill that went into building a bridge that could span the test of time so well, with no steel or concrete to support the structure.
We rode parallel to the Lanza River for a while, then cut east, and eventually merged with the Po River. We raced a thunderstorm up a 2.5 kilometer climb just in time to take shelter under an awning in Sciolze before the skies unloaded.
Back on the bikes and descending, we pulled into Chieri around 6:30 PM and began looking for a suitable place to pitch our tents. We were on back roads surrounded by fields with not much tree cover, so not the ideal spot to inconspicuously set up camp. As luck would have it, we passed a mountain bike school that was just getting started with a class. L’ospitalità di sconosciuti.
I rode in and told the instructor what we were doing and asked him if he could recommend a place for us to camp. He immediately said he was a mountain biker and led mountain bikepacking tours, and that we could camp on the school grounds as soon as the class was over. He gave us a couple of beers and some chips (needed the salt by this time) and recommended a place to eat in town. This was perfect.
Once we got our tents pitched and cleaned up a bit, we rode into Riva Presso Chieri in search of the recommended restaurant. So excited for a hot, Italian meal.
Punch in the mouth number six. It was Tuesday, and in Riva Presso Chieri, every restaurant was closed in town, except for one zero-atmosphere pizzeria. Oh well, a hot Italian pizza is better than a cold, dehydrated meal, so we scarfed our pizza and a beer and went back to camp.
Day 4: Take It Home
Day four, up early, granola in our bellies, we hit the road for the last five-hour stretch into Rivoli. By this time, we were focused on miles per hour and not necessarily scenery or off-road adventures. We pulled in to Rivoli just before noon and found an outside café for an adventure-capping cappuccino.
It felt good to be off the bikes, but sad to be ending the adventure. Roberto was a man of his word and opened the bed and breakfast so we could shower and get clean. He also arranged for us to leave the bikes and packs with him and organized with Valerio to pick up the bikes later. Roberto is a man who understands the value of hospitality, and we and he are no longer strangers, but friends.
On our way out of Rivoli, we stopped at Ciclocentrico to say goodbye to Valerio and settle our affairs. He presented us with a bottle of local rosé and gave us a notable sconto on the bill, which was greatly appreciated. We also met Massimo, creator of our bikepacking route, and, by the looks of him, surmised that he may actually have been able to ride the route.
I feel like the hospitality of strangers made the entire trip possible, more fulfilling and enjoyable, and longer-lasting in my memory. Maybe it was more pronounced in Italy, but I think we can find l’ospitalità di sconosciuti when we need it most just about anywhere. And the givers and recipients of this hospitality quickly become familiar with each other and are no longer sconosciuti, but conosciuti.
I’m planning my next GO FAR already. Awesome experience and a true adventure.
- Hornet 2P ultralight backpacking tent
- Tensor Insulated Regular ultralight sleeping pad
- Disco 30 Long spoon-shaped sleeping bag with temperature regulating Thermo Gills
- Katadyn BeFree Water Filtration System 1.0L – clean water anywhere
- Good To-Go Indian Vegetable Korma and Granola – both are tasty even when you have no hot water
- Skratch Labs hydration mix, energy bars and energy chews
- Ciclocentrico Italian cycling cap – I used to think these types of caps were just silly, but they are incredibly functional, keeping the sun and rain out of your eyes, providing a cushion between your head and helmet, and wicking sweat off the visor away from your face and eyes. Still a bit silly looking, but super functional.
- Miss Grape seat pack and frame pack
Salsa Woodsmoke Carbon mountain bike
The NEMO GO FAR (Get Outside For Adventure & Research) Program gears employees up and sends them out to spend time in interesting places in NEMO gear. We believe great design starts with real adventures, and are committed to making sure all NEMO employees get to experience it. Brent Merriam is the Chief Operating Officer at NEMO, and can be found surfing, snowboarding, mountain biking, or trail running nearly every day of the week.