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Further: adventure on the Alta Via

In May, we sent ultra-cyclist and Parcours test rider Chris Herbert off on an adventure in Italy.  He set out to ride the Alta Via dei Monti Liguri, a 500km trail running across the coastal region of Liguria in Italy.  This is his story, told in his words, with his photos

Further. That’s what cycling’s about. Your first long ride. First mountain. First event. Milestones that lead you to question how much further you can go. For me, further started as 200km. Then 300. 400. 600. 1,400 in under 70 hours. Ultra-races, bikepacking trips and endless hard-earned kilometres.

No matter what further means to you, we cyclists have a shared desire to push our limits. To find what we’re capable of. My ‘further’ and yours might be completely different, but the challenge remains the same. It never gets easier, you just go further.

Following the Silk Road Mountain Race coverage and seeing incredible photos and reports from friends in the field set off a wanderlust in me that threatened to redefine my ‘further’ once more. I’m a roadie at heart and while many of my trips have been reasonably remote, they’ve been nowhere near as wild as the backcountry in Kyrgyzstan.

Inspired, and with a new gravel bike in hand, I set off to find my limits – to see if ‘further’ would lead me off-road and into uncharted territories. The test would be straightforward. One week. 640km. 21,500m of climbing. Off road. On a rocky hiking trail in Italy. In the off season.

The ride report suggested ‘suspension and plus size tyres’ were required… oh and allowing a full 15 days to complete the route. Rated 9/10 for difficulty, the Alta Via dei Monti Luguri is a “challenging and scenic bikepacking route”. Perfect, then, for a gravel bike with 40mm tyres.

Within hours of starting it was clear I’d bitten off a lot; hike-a-bike before lunch and nervous descents along steep cliff edges. “Pretty sure they said there was only a bit of hike-a-bike – must be getting it out of the way early”. No such luck.

Still, excitement was high, and the hike-a-bike was occasional and straightforward. I was making up time on the descents and life was good. Until I caught my front wheel on the edge of a rock bombing down a cliff-edge path and launched myself over the bars. Stunned and with a cracked helmet, I hauled the bike back onto the path and caught my breath. No more making up time on the descents, then.

Rocky, rooty and incredibly steep descents became a theme of the trip. Walking up a steep mountain with a laden bike is slow, hard work. Walking down the mountain is a whole new world of smashed shins and frustration. Standing to the side of the trail while a full-suspension MTB clatters past will really make you question your bike choice.

A combination of an intense storm on the first night, closed roads and poor planning resulted in crawling over a mountain range on an empty stomach and a 24-hour gap between meals. Running on empty, deciphering a trail that resolutely avoided brushed paths in favour of rocky riverbeds, I stumbled steadily onward. While the trails were marked with the ever present red and white AV logo, it was clear they hadn’t been used recently. Fallen trees, overgrown paths… even a fast-flowing river crossing where a foot bridge had been removed for the spring flood waters.

As the days wore on, I rode less and hiked more. Pushing my loaded bike up unbelievably steep gradients, occasionally passing a shocked hiker and enjoying their reaction when they asked what I was up to. The days became a blur of jumping on and off the bike to avoid obstacles, orienteering along overgrown paths and breath-taking views to reward the relentless death marching.

Finally, I reached the queen stage. A 2,300m gravel pass from Italy into France. Strong winds pushed me quickly up the paved section and the gravel was actually rideable (minus the short section washed away by a recent landslide). It finally began to feel more like a holiday and my spirits lifted as I neared the snow line.

Then reality sunk in. The snow line means snow. I stopped to take a posed photo of my bike in some un-melted snow near the top before turning a corner and meeting a colossal snowdrift blocking my path. Not good. Treading carefully, I got within a single step of the next section of clear path before the bike slipped. I followed. Second time lucky. I went from ahead of schedule to hours behind, hiking the next 6km up to the summit through endless snowdrifts.

By the time I reached the summit, I was done. I pulled out my phone and looked up the fastest way off this godforsaken mountain. In my haste, I didn’t question the ridiculous amount of hairpins that crowded the screen. I set off down the downhill MTB run in full ‘send it’ mode, just wanting the experience to be over.

You’ll be surprised to learn that before long I was walking once more. After nearly half an hour of hiking and bushwhacking, there was a cacophony of barking. Suddenly, two giant dogs were barring my way. Snarling, snapping and creeping toward me. I turned round to find another dog slightly behind and above me. Panic set in and I worked my way slowly back up the path. A total of six dogs were now stalking me. Eventually I left their territory and the barking and growling ceased.

I checked my phone. No signal. Climbing back up the MTB run would be near impossible. I gave it ten minutes and started back down the mountain. They’d left a lookout. The barking resumed. I couldn’t see any other option – I lifted my bike, swung it at them, screamed and sprinted. Hounded, I fled down the mountain, finally losing the dogs in a river.

This was further alright. Way further than I’d intended to push myself. Miles further than my comfort zone. It was also the most rewarding experience I’ve had on (or pushing) a bike in years. I found the ragged edges of my abilities and explored just how far I can push myself. Next year, I’ll go further still… maybe even Kyrgyzstan.

You can follow Chris on social media:
Instagram: @_chris_herbert_
Strava: Chris Herbert

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