The Other Side of the Lake
Lake Garda is blue and beautiful, Italy at its dreamiest. It’s one of the more stunning locations to be found anywhere. Mountains drop straight into the kind of blue water one only sees in paintings. Water that’s so clear, you can look into it and pick out individual rocks and wood as you ride by. At the right moments, it doesn’t look like there’s anything there.
Garda is also a cycling mecca, both for road and mountain bikes. To broaden the view a bit more, it’s a mecca for pretty much everything outdoor related. Walkers, hikers, runners, wind surfers, kite surfers, divers, children shredding the playground, patio wine drinkers. The word recreation was surely coined over a weekend play along the shores of Garda.
Lago di Garda’s immense popularity can make it a bear to deal with on its main thoroughfare along the lake’s edge. Cars and bikes coexist well, but there’s a general feeling that life would in fact be happier if we got off of this road as quickly as possible. Heading north from our hotel on the east side of the lake, we veered onto a narrow path sandwiched along the water. We rolled along slowly and gawked at the views like the tourists and connoisseurs of outrageous views that we are. Some spots beg for a stop, and a vacant dock stretching out into the lake called for just that.
Just across the lake from the dead-end dock we could see our destination, a road that Winston Churchill called the eighth wonder of the world: the Strada della Forra (which translates directly to “Road of the Gorge”). It was a fair summation for a road that had been deemed impossible to build when it was first proposed by a local, Arturo Cozzaglio, a self-taught engineer with no university degree.
There was only one problem: a whole lot of kilometers on the main road north around the lake separated us from our destination on the west side. Again, the roads aren’t dangerous, but they’re not fun either. Single file riding is not high on my list of things to do when riding with friends. I want quiet roads, fast.
The evening before, I looked at the map for a while, wondering how to fix this logistical conundrum. I eventually noticed a dotted line through the lake from Malcesine to Limone. Ferry! We could cut off a giant chunk of busy road and replace it with something way more fun and memorable. Plus, we could delight in a few extra minutes before the ferry arrived to enjoy cappuccini and a giant piece of tiramisu split four ways between Jan, Kate, Ashley, and myself. Win.
Have you ever noticed how impressive mountains are when you get a little ways away from them? Distance seems to increase grandeur, from the outside looking in so to speak. That’s the feeling the ferry provided. Instead of looking at one side of the lake, we looked at all of the sides. We were all suitably awed.
If the water of Lago di Garda and the clear mountains in the distance are the stuff of hyperbole, then the Strada della Forra is another giant step further along the line, heading in the direction of disbelief. The road is a small crack in the wall of the mountain’s fortress. It climbs rapidly from the lake, but patiently holds out at the beginning before performing the surgical procedure of taking the rider into the mountain: the road does not immediately dive into the crack. Instead it lingers along the mountain’s face, giving us the feeling that we were perched on a wall, a view normally reserved for rock climbers.
At one of the early tunnels, Ashley saw a small road just off to the right. We hopped the curb and emerged by way of another small tunnel on to a long forgotten tunnel bypass (pro tip: always, always give the tunnel bypasses of Italy a try). Cypress trees lined the narrow road cobbled by fallen rocks and punctuated by new foliage growing out of the disused old road. A small bench near the rusty guardrail offered a view across the lake. We sat down.
The ‘road’ eventually reemerged on to the normal route, and the fun began with a bridge over the canyon and views of lake that primed the wows. It was only to get better from here.
At a stoplight, the introduction was complete, and the impossible road began in earnest. The road is so narrow, it’s impossible for two cars to share its width, so traffic is regulated by a long stoplight. Cars line up and wait patiently for green. We moved over to the side, let the cars and motos pass, and then the road was ours for a few minutes as the tarmac needled its way between the walls of the cool, damp, dark canyon, which had narrowed to pinhole proportions. It felt like we had left the normal world and landed in a sci-fi setting.
As suddenly as the sliver of road began, it ended at the traffic light on the opposite end. We emerged back out into the normal world with trees and warmth and sunlight. There was a restaurant at the top, so we ate a pizza and drank some coffee, then headed back for the ferry—the last of the day that would allow bikes.
Once back on the other side of the lake, the sun was drawing low on the mountains above us, but we had one more mission before the sun set: take a quick look at the devilish climb of Punta Veleno. (Note: veleno is “poison” in Italian.)
This climb is known the world over amongst that special group of bike riders that love the ultra-steep climbs. Some might call them sadists. We’re not talking about Alpe d’Huez here. We’re talking paved farm paths chopped haphazardly out of mountainsides where construction materials must have been terribly expensive, because the road from bottom to top takes the shortest possible route. One has to wonder how roads like Punta Veleno were paved at all. Did the paving truck stop at the top and just pour its wares down the mountainside?
Punta Veleno AVERAGES 16% for its middle six kilometers. The whole thing is 8.8km and 12%. Consider this: if you’re going fast downhill, you can easily cover 6km in six minutes. This 6km climb can easily take an HOUR. The fastest riders average 10kph on this section. The story goes that former Giro d’Italia director, Vicenzo Torriani, scouted the climb ahead of the 1972 Giro d’Italia, but dismissed it as troppo velenosa—too sick of a climb.
As with seemingly all of the terrible climbs of Italy, the road is a former military route to fortifications that once stood as the border between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In other words, the guys who made this road slept on rocks, ate three-week-old bread and hydrated with grappa. It seems highly unlikely that they spared a second thought for reducing the gradient.
We weren’t interested in the climb though. There’s a reason SRAM’s engineers used these terrible, veleno slopes as a testing ground for their hydraulic road disc brake development. It’s hard to imagine a sterner test of brakes than the top-to-bottom descent of Punta Veleno. There’s no real letting go of the brakes for what feels like hours. It’s a fairly simple task: grab hard on the brakes and hold on all the way down. If it were possible to have a product problem, this descent would dig it up out of the ground and shine a very bright light on it.
I had previously dismissed Punta Veleno as a steep freak show of sorts, but once we were on the road, watching the sun go down, I loved it. It’s a marvel to just stand on the really steep roads, feel gravity tug at your body, and then think about how hard it is to WALK up this thing, let alone ride bikes. And besides, there’s a reason we ride 34x32s—it’s for silly stuff like this.
We lingered a little while longer on the rough road, and as beautiful evening light headed toward darkness, we descended, weaving through narrow village alleys on the way back to the hotel.
We hadn’t ridden far by any means—nor very long—but that ride to the other side was one to remember.
IMAGES: Jered and Ashley Gruber // WORDS: Jered Gruber
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