Deconfinement diaries-Shand in Liguria

04 December 2020
Scott on the Liguria Trail, showing the mountains in the background

01

Our fourth instalment of Chamonix-based Shand rider Scott Cornish’s ‘Deconfinement Diaries’ comes to us from Italy this time, where Scott tackled the Liguria mtb trail on his Shand Bahookie. Take it away Scott…

Liguria Bike Trail

The Liguria Bike Trail may not be big on distance, but it’s certainly big on adventure, taking you from the temperate climate of the coastal waters of the Ligurian Sea to high up into the peaks of the Ligurian Alps. You’ll pass through hillside villages, along hidden trails, eat good food, all with contrasting views of the mountains and the sea. Rescheduled to the 25th September, autumn temperatures on the Ligurian coast still linger around the mid to high 20s, but being prepared for high mountain weather would turn out to be essential.

Scott in the sun at the start of the Liguria Bike Trail

Two distances are offered, the full 320km with 8900m+ or the 250km with 6500m+. Not an ultra distance, but it is still a hit for the legs with the amount of climbing. A diminished, but no less motivated field turned up for the 7h start on the Friday for the full distance with the shorter version scheduled for Saturday at the same time. If needed, you could overnight at the event HQ on the coast, on the floor in this local community hall. Not luxury, but quiet with basic facilities and access to a post ride shower in the sports hall across the road.

However, I almost didn’t start. Just as I crossed the border into Italy via the Mont Blanc tunnel, new Covid regulations came into force requiring a test either prior to entry or within 48hours of arriving. I was stuck in my tent at the Finale Freeride Outdoor Village until a test could be organised! I am eternally grateful to the staff at the village for taking the time to quickly organise a test for me at a clinic in a nearby town, but I had to sit tight until my appointment time. It came back negative so it was game on, but I was a day behind getting to the start in Ospedaletti.

The Liguria Bike Trail isn’t billed as a race, but an adventurous ride and I took it as such. With so many races cancelled, it was quite refreshing to not have the pressure of competition, simply riding for the sheer pleasure of pedalling along new trails.

02

The Bike Set Up

Bike set up is a Shand Bahookie drop bar 29er with 1×11 gearing using a Rotor Kapic crank and 32T Q ring (on setting #3), rings I have used for many years. Wheels are 9th Wave Yarrow 29 alloy shod with the versatile 29×2.4 WTB Rangers. Maximum tyre size for the Bahookie is listed as 29×2.5, but depending on how much mud clearance is needed and rim diameter, you could squeeze a 2.6 in there. Seated comfort is provided by WTB’s Silverado saddle and bars are Curve Cycling’s uber wide Walmer bar (55cm version). Bags are by Wildcatgear, with Lezyne’s Flow side cages doing an ever reliable job of keeping bottles in situ. Never had one pop out! As night riding was planned to be limited, the only light carried was the helmet mounted Exposure Lights Diablo. Compact with enough power and runtime on program #3 in setting #2 to last. The one heavyweight item that is a constant on all trips, which has proved its worth on numerous occasions, is the Leatherman Wave+. Every tool has been used at some point.

7h was a perfect time to start. Just as light was starting to appear on the horizon. The legs had barely 4km along rolling coastal road to warm up before the climbing started, rising steeply through coastal communities, all vying for that sea view. Despite the rude awakening for the body, the climbing was actually opportune, the rapid height gain offering mesmerising views of the rising sun glinting across the sea. Tarmac became dirt track, its sizable loose gravel and rutted surface made me glad that I had heeded the advice that this is an mtb specific route. Big tyres were going to be king. The 650m high peak was a moment to enjoy the morning’s warmth and views of the wider landscape, getting a glimpse of where we were heading.

Scott Cornish riding the trail on his Shand Bahookie

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Riding the route

The route stayed high, rolling around the edge of the pre-alps, oscillating between backcountry access roads and trails, past hillside villages, offering opportunities to enjoy a picturesque coffee stop, depending on your planned tempo.

The route drops back down to almost sea level into Dolceacqua, a larger riverside town, ideal for supplies and of course, coffee. The village ‘square’ with its cafés was an ideal sunny spot. The border with neighbouring France is but a stone’s throw from here, a cycling club from Monaco sitting just across from me. This is the last significant town you’ll come through for the next 110km, so if you’re picky about food choice, now is the time to stock up on supplies. The deli adjacent to the square is stocked with typical Italian goodies or head further in town for a small supermarket. From here the route becomes increasingly wild as it heads towards alpine terrain, gradually climbing to over 2000m across the next 78km.

It’s a picturesque route, gradually winding its way up, through the narrow streets of hillside communities and along trails only local knowledge would be able to find. Still within the catchment area of the coastal climate, late morning temperatures were in the high 20s. For its usual late July slot, temperatures will no doubt be significantly higher, but you probably won’t need to carry more than 2 large bidons as the route passes regular watering points.

Barjado, a hilltop village along the trail

65km in, the route seems to needlessly veer off into Barjado, a hilltop village that had been visible for the past 5km, but the slight detour wasn’t wasted. It directs riders to a much needed water fountain and a quiet, sunny spot for a quick snack. Basking in the warm weather wouldn’t last however.

Now deep into the alpine backcountry, the view from the 1500m high col was pretty spectacular. Southwards to blue skies over the open sea, northwards to the highest peaks, but where the sky was dark, very dark. The 6km descent was the last of the dusty trails I’d encounter for a good while, heading directly towards the clouds that were clearly building to some heavy weather.

Scott heading directly towards the clouds that were clearly building to some heavy weather.

04

The weather unleashed

Scott's Shand bike outside while he refulled at the refuge

The WTB Rangers were proving to be ideal on the rough mountain terrain, as I was pushing hard to reach rifugio Allavena before the weather unleashed. With the temperature rapidly dropping and the clouds becoming darker, lowering the ambient light, I made it to the rifugio. Just. in time. 5 minutes after I walked through the door, it started. I was all prepared to ride in wet weather, but the heavy snow and sleet was unexpected! At 90km in and especially if the weather is hot, the refuge is an ideal spot to refuel and fill bidons. As I was here, it was a good excuse for an Italian hot chocolate. The thick and rich kind, which turned out to be 2 as I waited for the worst of the weather to pass.

Emptying my bags of all the warm, weather proof gear I had; Gore windstopper overshoes, Gore C3 Gore-tex paclite trousers, Gore-tex gloves and Gore R7 Trail Shakedry jacket (the one with the hood, ideal in such wet situations). The staff looked on quizzically, finally asking ‘you’re heading out?’ It was time to crack on as I have a dinner reservation in 3 hours time at rifugio La Terza, only 25km away, but it wouldn’t be fast riding over this mountainous terrain with another 1100m of elevation gain.

There’s nothing like some bracing weather to invigorate the soul. Windy, cold and wet, I headed straight up into the low hanging cloud. For the sake of an extra few hundred grams, it was a good decision to carry this gear, as my hands and feet suffer when cold and wet. Some would have travelled lighter, but we are all different in how our bodies react in these conditions.

The intensity of sleet abated a little, becoming intermittent with gaps in the cloud mocking me with views of blue skies over the coast. The mountain track wasn’t technical, just harshly rugged, the rocky terrain slippery with the damp conditions. I encountered numerous mtb riders descending the track and did wonder if that was a bad sign?! Some were clearly underdressed and stopped to ask me how far rifugio Allavena was. There was a nod of relief as I told them it was barely a few km straight down the track. I carried on upwards, the refuge disappearing under the low cloud lying far below me.

Panorama of the Liguria trail and mountain views

Although not that far from either refuge, the dense cloud completely shrouded me at times, entirely blocking any views, giving momentary sensations of total isolation.  Save for the flashing lights of the Spot trackerWith access even into some of the more remote areas of the Alps, a sensation that is, nowadays, rarely experienced..

Well above the treeline, the plateau at 1920m, was no place to linger, fully exposed to the harsh weather. Zipping everything up tight, bracing for more of the same along the descent, I soon popped out of the low cloud, leaving behind what had been a micro weather pocket. Once back within the protection of the treeline, the temperature immediately picked up.

05

The descent and photo opps

The sweeping, forest lined descent was fun but short-lived. Losing some layers for the climb, I was once again soon above the treeline, with only 600m+ left up to La Terza. Mostly on south facing slopes, it gave a grandstand view of the setting sun, barely a cloud now in the sky. A stunning place to be, enjoying the silence and solitude. Along with sunset, the temperature dropped too, accompanied by a fiercely cold wind chill. With a couple of kms to go, the refuge came into view, conjuring up images of a hot meal. Off the bike and it was straight into the warmth and a surprising busy dining room.

Sunset on the trail

La Terza was quite different to other refuges I have experienced. An open kitchen and a choice of menu, more restaurant style than basic refuge. The food more than just satisfied hungry legs, it was actually full of flavour and plentiful too, finished off with a sweet panacotta. At this time of year, despite the apparent numbers, the refuge was short on being full, so I had a 4 bed dorm to myself. No snorers to contend with.

With a pillow and thick duvet supplied, there wasn’t actually the need to have carried the PHD sleeping bags, but little did I know that I would be super glad that I did however when the following day’s plan came a little unstuck.

The same bitingly cold wind greeted me in the morning walking from the dorm into breakfast, light just about breaking over the surrounding peaks. Lucky that I had decided to take a more relaxed approach to this event as breakfast wasn’t served until 7h30. Chatting to another rider on the shorter version, he had travelled light and was now asking around for spare gloves for the descent, of which I had none.

From the refuge there was still some climbing to be done, a good way at least to warm up. With the clear blue skies, photo opportunities kept presenting themselves and it took me a while to ride those first few km!

Scott hitting the trail again on his Bahookie in the sun

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High points and plummeting descents

The highest point offered a visual feast of rolling peaks and an enticing ribbon of mountain trail that was the way back down. The suspension fork was a good decision as the descent plummeted down rocky and loose switchback trails, all too quickly over for the effort to get to the top! The guy behind didn’t look so content though, picking his way down slowly on his gravel bike. It wasn’t, however, the direct 30km of descent as it seemed to appear on the profile. Punctuated with numerous brief climbs as well more photo stops, it took a good while longer than anticipated to descend. Testament to the low temperatures, remnants of the previous afternoon’s snow still lingered in shaded parts of the trail along with numerous frozen puddles.

Once back in the tree line, I could finally remove some layers. Then it was straight down along winding and fast woodland trails. About 3km from the end of the descent is the small hamlet of Borghetto where there is a restaurant. The plan was to ride the additional section across the mountain to avoid dropping at the way down and back up the road. Although there were no diners at the time, the owner said that they were full and wouldn’t entertain the idea of a takeaway pizza. I wasn’t, however, looking my cleanest! With barely a Hard bar left, I had no choice but to continue downwards and into the next village of Pieve Di Teco, via an enjoyable, riverside singletrack at least.

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Refuel pitstops

The route only skirts the edge of the village, so it’s a 1.5 km detour into its centre. There were a couple of fine dining restaurants on the old market street, a (closed) pizzeria on the main street, but it was the high street bakery which came up trumps.  When asked how many pieces of the pizza, I simply mimed, the whole please!

Just under half way in, the profile flattened considerably, a little deceiving as what it lacked in long climbs was made up for with steep! Although the ensuing km and climbing was on tarmac, the back country roads were mostly devoid of traffic. I even momentarily joined in a local road sportive, joining some riders on a short climb. Small villages en route supplied simple snacks and water if needed. Once back up high, the route pitched and rolled around hillside trails, dropping into hidden gems of singletrack and fun descents.

The soft light of early evening over the sea was pretty stunning on the descent into the coastal town of Andora. Barely touching the edge of town, it’s worth carrying on until the main coastal towns 12km away for a good refuelling. Indirectly getting there via a 300m climb is made up for by the dirt descent into St Bartolomeo and Imperia further along.

Fast dirt descent into the coastal town of Andora

I never thought it was possible to have a bad pizza in Italy. Apparently it is! I stopped for some sit down food at a pizzeria just off the main road. Awful Calzone! Only managing half, the rest went in a zip lock bag for later (always carry a few on trips for this purpose). I hadn’t planned to be here this late in the day. WIth night not far off, I didn’t fancy my chances of being able to get supplies once back in the hills so grabbed a further few slices of pizza and some water from an outlet down the road. A good plan as it turned out. There is the small town of Vasia 10km further on, but everything looked closed as I rolled through.

Away from the coast, once again found silence and solitude back up in the hills as the night drew in around me. The 700m peak was only 20km away, but as I had now come to expect, it wasn’t straight forward with a succession of steep climbs and descents. The Exposure Lights’ helmet mounted Diablo, even on no2 setting, punched well into the darkness, lighting up the rugged trails. (I also carry a helmet mounted small battery pack, doubling burn time)

The plan was to have finished the ride before midnight, but that clearly wasn’t going to happen. Too much faffing and I wanted to make the most of the trails by riding as much as possible in the daylight. Some way down the descent, I rolled through a small village, one of its narrow streets providing a much needed water fountain, tucked into the wall. Even without a mat and bivvy, I decided to see if I could find a covered spot to covertly shelter for the night.

Wandering through its deserted streets, an opportune place presented itself, undercover and warm. Bingo. No need for a mat either. Perfect. So I thought. I assumed that church bells everywhere don’t chime throughout the night, especially in village communities, but alas not here in Italy. It chimed loudly. Every. Hour. And I was right next to the church.

Bivvying in for the night on the Liguria trail

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The last stretch

Getting going again under the cover of darkness, breakfast was cold pizza further down the descent just as light appeared on the horizon. Focused on the flow of the winding tarmac descent, I almost missed the turn off! Steep switchbacks gained height quickly, as the early sunlight danced through the trees. A chapel at the 600m peak overlooking the sea was a good moment to sit, eat and reflect under the sun’s growing warmth.

At the 600m peak overlooking the sea on the Liguria trail

That warmth soon disappeared on the descent as it was completely in the shadow of the mountain, a damp cold penetrating deeply after the heat of the climb. Even once out of the hillside trail and back onto tarmac, the meandering valley road was still out of the sun’s reach. Chilled, the next open cafe offered some welcome warmth and a second breakfast.

The invigorating warmth of the sun motivated chilled bones for the final 400m climb. This wasn’t just for the sake of adding climbing though, but a finale of riding along some of the local, coastal mtb trails and a superb switchback descent down into Riva Ligure back along the coast. The final 17km was a flat spin along the coastal bike path back to the start point.

The final 17km was a flat spin along the coastal bike path back to the start point of the Liguria trail

The Liguria Bike Trail showcases some of the best riding in this stunning area, from its coastal singletrack to high mountain trails. A ride to savour and enjoy a night at one of the refuges too. This was a rescheduled date from the summer, so daylight hours will be different of course. I arrived at Rifugio Allavena around 15h30 for example, with photo and coffee stops en route, so it would be otherwise faster. Ride it over 2 or 3 days or race it, either way, you won’t be disappointed. Just be prepared for possible changing weather once up in the mountains, as it can be highly localised.

The Shand Bahookie drop bar was ideal for this route. I could have ridden it on the carbon rigid fork with the ‘comfort’ of the large volume WTB 29×2.4 rangers, but the suspension fork simply made it more fun.

I took advantage of its proximity to Finale Ligure to stay there and ride some of its trails beforehand and enjoy the food and ambiance in Finalborge. I stayed at the Finale Freeride Outdoor Village, which is  camping only, but they can provide a large tent. They have facilities for cleaning the bike and a pool for those uber hot days. From here it’s a straightforward hour train ride to the start where you can overnight in the event HQ building.

This is a small and friendly event and an introduction to the riding and bikepacking possibilities in the area. If you want to explore more, there is the Alta Via dei Monti Liguri route, starting at the opposite end of the coast in La Spezia, or nip across into France and ride the Cote d’Azur coast. If mtb stage racing is your thing, the Alta Via mtb stage race will be back for 2021.

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