Reintroduction to Mountain Biking - Urbino Project 2015
Biking in Le Marche has its ups and downs.
URBINO, Italy - In the blink of an eye, my handlebars turned sharply left, bringing the bike to an abrupt stop, launching me into the blue Italian sky, arms outstretched to soften the landing. But it hurt anyway.
I had many expectations when joining a local bike trip in the foothills of the Apennines Mountains, but none of them included lying on the trailside holding my wrist with the wind knocked out of me. Yet here I was, a 21-year-old cyclist from the rugged Rocky Mountains only three miles into a 22-mile race, already dropped by groups of Italian men twice my age.
Brushing the dust off my shirt and leaving my ego back on the ground where I fell, I got back on my bike, my only ambition now to finish this race without making a fool out of myself.
“Oh God,” my guide said, shaking his head and laughing, knowing a long ride awaited me.
Piergiorgio Guelpa, President of the local club Montefeltro Adventure and owner of the tour business, had invited me on the trip after we discussed cycling in Italy and North America. The trails I’m accustomed to riding at home are typically quick downhills or flatter single-track routes with little uphill climbing. Feeling confident with my biking experience, I gladly accepted Guelpa’s offer.
I wasn’t surprised by the offer. Any visitor to this walled Renaissance city will notice it’s strong cycling culture. People of all ages can be seen biking on the cobblestone streets on a number of different styles of bikes. Groups of road bikers race down streets early in the morning, cars with mountain bikes strapped to the racks and residents biking for leisure are every day common sights for residents of Urbino.
And while mountain biking may have originated in America or France, it has certainly found a home in Le Marche. Vincenzo Virduzzo, a bike instructor for Pedalo Sicuro, an organization that teaches kids to mountain bike, said, “The sport is very, very popular in this region. Much more popular than in Sicily, where I was born.” Virduzzo, who bikes three trails a week in the summer, as well as instructing kids, is familiar with terrain ranging from the easiest rides, to the most technically challenging routes, “There are very difficult routes around Urbino, but others can be easier.”
Guelpa, whose club has members of all ages, said “The sport is still young in this region, but it is growing quickly.”
Urbino and the surrounding areas have become a haven to Italian road and mountain bikers looking for challenging terrain to conquer. The rolling hills of Le Marche present a sprawling patchwork of golden wheat, dark green vineyards and silver green olive trees. They provide a colorful contrast to the dark shadows of the taller Apennine Mountains rising just 30 miles in the distance. Brick and stone churches or castles from the 14th and 15th centuries crown almost every hilltop.
Guelpa’s club, Montefeltro Adventure, is a biking and hiking tour business founded in 2012 that hosts a number of bike excursions throughout the year. These outings can range from grueling three-day, 180-mile rides to the coast, with cyclists sleeping wherever they can find shelter, nighttime bike excursions with the aid of headlamps or more leisurely day-trips.
When Guelpa invited me to come along on a race starting in Castello di Cavallino, I felt it would hardly be a test of my skill and strength.
But the first tinge of doubt crossed my mind as I sized up my rented Cannondale against the carbon frames and full-suspension bikes of my fellow riders. We weren’t far into the ride when it dawned on me that I was grossly underprepared for what I had gotten myself into.
Taking off from Castello di Cavallino we briefly climbed up gentle roads before veering off into the hillsides of the surrounding area. Flags directed us down trails where we ducked tree branches and thorns, all while trying to keep our tires on the overgrown country road.
While our ride began at a friendly pace, I soon realized I was going to be pushing my limits just to keep my fellow riders in eyeshot.
After breaking out of the dense trees into the expansive countryside, I felt myself becoming more comfortable with my bike and the terrain. Comfortable enough to remove one hand from the handlebar to make a quick adjustment to the camera I was wearing. A split-second after this questionable maneuver I knew what was coming; I was about to get an even more intimate relationship with the dirt on which I was biking.
Slamming into the ground, my shame overcame my pain, but only for a moment. As if this ride wasn’t already proving to be hard enough, I would now have to complete it with a bum wrist.
Following my brief brush with death I slowed my pace. The ride became more enjoyable, and my body thanked me for not following through with my expectations to keep up with the pack. I also learned one of Guelpa’s “universal laws of biking” – while down hills offered a brief respite, they were invariably followed by an equally steep and taxing uphill climb.
In addition to reducing the risk to life and limb, the slower pace allowed me to enjoy the unique qualities of Italian mountain biking.
While trails in the U.S. are known for their natural scenery, Italy’s trails also provide a sense of history. We came across churches hundreds of years old, tiny villages, fields of crops and an Italian WWII cemetery all in the span of 20 miles. It’s hard not to imagine yourself going back to the time when Roman Legions marched through the same countryside.
This experience not only gave me a new perspective for Italian mountain biking, but for the beauty of Le Marche’s countryside.
I was nearing exhaustion when Guelpa and I pushed over the last hill. Although my body resented me for what I had done, I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment in conquering the hills that tried their best to break my will.
“The best part about cycling is getting away from the troubles of every day life and enjoying nature.”
This trip may have been relaxing for Guelpa, but for me, I might wait until I’m his age before I try my hand at biking in Le Marche again.
See the video “Gastronomia Beltari” produced by Dylan Orth & Anita Chomenko.