• The Italian Job - Behind the curves (Steve Thomas)Source: Steve Thomas
As the Giro hit the slopes of the Stelvio and the Motirolo, Steve Thomas got down and dirty to show us some of the finest mountain biking in Europe, which dangles just off these fabled road climbs.
Steve Thomas

Cycling Central
27 May 2017 - 9:40 AM 

We were heading deep into a valley in the Alta Rezia region, which lies a short drive out of Bormio and just down the mountain from the Gavia pass in the northernmost Italian Alps. It had been a somewhat late night decision to head out of the main valley and vary our week’s riding with this trail, all new to most of us.

A long and steep off-road ride in a Landrover took us up and into the thin air above the valley. At first this option seemed a little soft, but after seeing the severity of the climb, I appreciate the wisdom of the call. I would not fancy riding up and down this mountain in one day unless I was in racing snake like shape, which I am not. 

The trailhead is reached from an old refugio perched on the side of the valley. From here you cop full frontal, eye watering views over the lunar like landscape ahead, capped and crowned with a pristine glaciated high mountain ridge, one of the most impressive I’ve seen in a while.

There’s no double-track lead in to this ride, it’s straight into skinny trail and operatic Italian drama. The air is thin at these altitudes, and even after a few days acclimatisation it took some handling. At least it was an all-inclusive downhill day, wasn’t it?

Less than 20 minutes in and my assumed laws of gravity were about to be disputed – we were going up there, and the “down there” would follow later, after we’d hauled ass and bike up a long and craggy gully to the foot of the glacier above us.

Wheezing and sweating like a polar bear in a sauna I clambered and stumbled upwards. Orange and grey rock slabs were all I could see in either direction, and all led towards the glacier. It was more of a Himalayan vista than an Alpine one, which made things feel more epic than they were.

For a while we cruised around this snowline plateau, before heading towards another high spot on the other side of the valley. A couple of Tibetan style suspension bridges and a long clamber took us higher still, and then finally the “all down flag” was raised.

Overall I’m a hardtail and seat up kind of guy, and raise my hand to not being a wearer of padding. But today I was Senor freeride; all bounce and pads, and I have to admit that it felt very strange indeed, even if it was a wise call.

For the first time in a fair while I felt I was actually wavering on one balding and soft tyre along the icy edge of my limit. The trail was all natural, and unforgiving - and without a single hair in place. This was a wild and rugged trail, without the soothing touches of man or shovel to help tame it.

The trail was perfect because of its imperfection, and demanded skill and respect in return for a rite of passage. Despite a couple of on foot nervous skips around the switchbacks I managed to get down it, but certainly not tame it. It had been a wake up call, and a great reminder and testament to the wonders of Mother Nature, the greatest trail builder of all.

The Antipasti

During the lead in to the Alta Rezia ride we’d hopped and ridden around the nearby Livigno valley by using the extensive ski lift network, which along with everything and everywhere else here is fully geared up for mountain biking during summer.

Just about every creed and level of trail can be found within a few minutes of the main town. In a week of solid riding we’d taken in a huge and varied amount of terrain. From wild high mountain singletrack to “sweet-as” flow trails to full on downhill’s and pisted bike parks; this place has the full-monty, and they are imminently accessible.

Being something of an old school lover this place was a real treat for me. In a single ride we could reach dramatic high Alpine ridges, blast through deserted valleys, twist through the tree lined flow trails and even ice off the ride with a shot or three of homemade pump track moonshine grappa.

For pure and accessible variety of riding, Livigno takes some beating. They call it the “Whistler of Europe”, and also “Little Tibet”, neither of which really fit with what this place is all about.

It won’t slap and dazzle you for lunch and then disappoint at dinner, it will leave you happy and contended all-round. In its own mild mannered way it will “blow your doors off.”

Bike shops

There are a couple of good bike shops on Bormio, and many more in Livigno – and they also offer high-end rental bikes too.

Stay on track

You really can't go too far wrong when it comes to finding great riding around this area, but of course you do need to pick and choose trails that suit you. Many trails are way-marked and mapped out, and therefore are easy to follow without a guide.

There are numerous lift assisted and hand crafted flow trails, mountain bike parks, pump tracks and natural trails to go at out of Livigno, and many more natural trails out of Bormio. Maps and details are best found in town, as they are more up to date and have details of any weather or other maintenance issues.

It is possible to make some great place-to-place single and multi day trips into Switzerland, or take on the epic Alta Rezia as a day trip by the Gavia, which I did).

There are several bike shuttle services available locally, often operated in conjunction with the bike hotels and their guides. 

Keep your head down

There are loads of great places to stay in and around Bormio and Livigno, with options to suit all tastes and budgets. Although this is a popular area, prices are surprisingly reasonable and much lower than on the Swiss side of the Alps. You can also find bunk and camping options around town.

Many hotels in the region are certified as bike hotels, which means they have store rooms and basic workshop facilities on site – and many are fully equipped with spares, trail info, rental bikes and guides too.

Flights of fancy

Bormio and Livigno are situated in separate valleys to the northern end of the Italian Alps, not far from the Swiss border.

The nearest international airports are around a three hour drive away. The closest are Milan and then Zurich, with Munich being a little further.

Shuttle buses and transfers can be arranged, although a rental car is a great way to get here too, and offers the freedom to hop around the region.