By Emma Boutcher
I believe it was around the time I was graduating from college that my dad said to me, “I know you’re going to have a job and you’re not going to have much vacation time. But, in the next few years, it would mean the world to me to do a bike trip with you in Italy.” This was 2019. We set a target year of 2021, but as most stories start these days, it was postponed due to COVID. While our whole family was quarantining in Burlington, Vermont my dad was scheming up the dreamiest of bike trips, knowing that if you can’t be in Italy, the next best thing is to dream about being in Italy.
And then in 2023, my dad, Steve Boutcher and I set out for Italy for the bike trip of a lifetime.
Part 1: Arabba (Region: Veneto Alto Adige)
If you have yet to visit the Dolomiti, I would strongly recommend bumping this place to the top of your list. The mountains are striking, vertical and acute, with spires that shoot up to over 3000m from lush green valleys below. It’s one of those bewildering places that leaves you endlessly amazed, unable to comprehend how such a place could exist.
We arrived in Italy via Milan and spent our first night visiting friends outside Treviso (home of the beloved tiramisù). From there the drive was roughly two hours, plus another hour if you left your helmet at your last night’s accommodation. Add on another two hours for a Prosecco tour because you are in the place for it. And because we don’t condone drinking on an empty stomach, tack on an Autogrill stop, a gas fillup (I’ve seen anywhere from 1.68-2.00Euro /L) and you should make it in time for sunset (which is currently at 9:10PM).
The motivation for this entire trip was centered around a single day event called Maratona Dles Dolomiti; a gran fondo that draws in 10,000 eager participants from all over the world, who want to experience both the beauty and pain of pedaling their bike through the insanely switchbacky goodness that the Italian Dolomiti have to offer. In other words, it’s a big deal.
The conditions for entry are based on a lottery system. Or, like most things in Italy, you can just pay your way in. Being the aspiring citizens that we are, we choose the latter. Doing so requires a minimum four night stay at a local hotel, which includes buffet breakfasts and dinners, race day shuttle service, and ample bike parking.
With a cool and rainy forecast for the days ahead, we weren’t sure how race day was going to shape up. But as luck would have it, the weather was quite possibly perfect. Temps ranged from 50-65 degrees, starting with clear skies in the morning and then progressively cloudier skies as the day went on. A perfect views to sweat ratio if you ask me.
The course was an incredibly demanding 86 miles with 13,000ft of vertical gain over eight major climbs. The terrain is constantly undulating, giving you only two options: to slowly chug up a 9% grade climb or rip down one at 45mph (sorry Mom). Given that this is one of only two days a year that cars are banned from the roads, I think that speed is permissible.
My near bonk moment occurred on the hardest and second to last climb, the Giau, when I realized I was under fueled and nearly out of water, thanks to the distraction of talking to other riders. As I was entering the pain cave, Steve came riding along from behind in seemingly good spirits, but then proceeded to cramp up not too much farther up the road. We regrouped at the top of the climb, refueling our bodies with un panino or, my personal favorite, the little Loacker wafer cookies which became a ride staple for the rest of the trip.
Most of the day was ridden in this manner, as we yo-yoed back and forth riding together while also enjoying solo moments to strike up a conversation with other riders (something I learned my dad is incredibly skilled at). The opportunity to meet and ride with people from all over the world is certainly a huge draw of the event. Beyond the ripping fast descents, spectacular scenery, and multicultural experience, an unexpected highlight for me was encountering people sporting the 3D printed Mirror saddles that I worked on during my time at Specialized. If I had time I’d ask someone what they thought of it and was pleased to hear everyone rave about how it has improved their cycling experience. A guy from Chile even asked to get a photo taken with me because he was so in love with his.
The ride was incredibly exhausting but equally fulfilling and took us over nine hours from start to finish. We enjoyed pasta, pork, french fries, and beer at the finish line together. The highlight of the entire trip happened for me on this ride as we crossed the finish line. Nearing the finish my dad requested that I take a video. For 20+ seconds he does his little commentary and then you see this massive smile spread across his face as we crossed the finish. It’s a feeling I know all too well – relief, exhaustion, and joy from pushing your body hard – but his with an overwhelming sense of joy – a smile that says “I truly cannot be any happier than I am at this moment”. That is my dad, Steve Boutcher “live every day like it’s your last” smile. And I got to witness it a lot on this trip.
Part 2: Italian Alps (Region: Piemonte)
Following our time in the Dolomiti we sent it cross-country to the region of Piemonte, stopping in Pescheria di Garda (same town I visited for work 2.5 years ago) for a mouth wateringly good panino at Marco e Daniela Time.
The small town of Roure, the only non-cycling specific destination on the itinerary, was stop number one. After months of digging into his ancestry, my dad discovered that his German ancestors had previously lived in this area of Northwestern Italy, after having fled religious persecution in France. While its appeal didn’t include two wheels, we were nonetheless touched by the act of being in a foreign place and yet feeling a sense of being at home among long lost relatives.
My dad found an adorable B&B in the tiny town of Balma (situated in Val Chisone). We were greeted by the owner, Angela, and her daughter Francesca, neither of whom spoke much English. Luckily, Steve has been studying Italian in earnest for the last three years and impressed both me and the Italians with his knowledge of some 400 verbs. While only staying for one night, we got to enjoy the beautiful breakfast Angela prepared for us – set in the garden next to a massive fig tree with the sound of running water and birds. I’d live that morning on repeat if I could. The rest of the day was spent “exploring our heritage” which included visiting Blanc Luca Baker (Blanc being my great-grandmother’s maiden name) wiht a list of names to search for. As luck would have it - we found a few! This was followed by a visit to a stunning cemetery, thanks to the Agnelli family, founders of Fiat.
The next main cycling destination was the town of Susa, located in the valley just north of Chisone. Our draw to Susa was to ride the well-known Colle Delle Finestre, an 11.6 mile climb, half on pavement, half on chunky gravel. Directly translating to “pass of the windows”, the climb snakes up into the hills on a single lane road, shaded by dense trees that occasionally open up (“windows”) to give you a view of the valley below. This ride got my vote due to the sheer absence of vehicles and the one ride on the entire trip that warranted my knobby 42mm gravel tires. Despite there being very few cars we encountered a few other cycling groups from Australia and Belgium. This climb also happens to be featured on the Torino Nice Rally – a bike touring event I hope to do in the future.
The day following the Finestre we rode from town into France via Col Du Mont Cenis. After ~15 miles of climbing and a seamless border crossing we reached the top and opted for a quick bite before beginning our descent. Despite the absence of any formal border crossing we were both acutely aware of having crossed a border given the change in prices, food offerings, and absence of English being spoken. But given our lowered expectations this place totally blew us away – serving up possibly one of the best burgers of my life. While I was busy enjoying said burger, Steve was perpetually in awe of the french fries that accompanied it, unsure how the kitchen staff managed to make these crispy fries that were somehow hollow on the inside. After telling the waitress how he felt, we heard her walk back into the kitchen and proclaim to the staff “he says these are the best fries he’s ever had.” I suppose being in France may have had something to do with it.
Leaving Susa we continued north to the town of Locana. Locana stands out in my memory as one of the more special parts of the trip for many reasons, but maybe most importantly because it was the only stop on the itinerary Steve had yet to visit. While of course nice to have had a tour guide for the majority of the trip, there’s something uniquely special about seeing a place for the first time.
With no expectations we were both blown away. Things started strong with our arrival at our AirBnb, thanks to our fabulous superhost, Milena. Boasting a flawless 5 star review, we felt like the most honored of guests, from the fresh honey she delivered to our doorstep, to the lettuce greens gifted from her garden, to the little swimming hole just a few minutes walk from the house. I easily could have enjoyed a full week there.
The Colle Del Nivolet, which starts in the town of Locana, was hands down the most beautiful bike climb I have ever done. The weather looked a bit dicey, and given our short three day stay, we didn’t have many options. Our host notified us of a webcam at the top of the climb, so naturally we refreshed this every 15 minutes, hoping to see a break in the clouds. By 11AM we decided to cross our fingers and go for it.
The climb started out at a mellow grade along a semi busy two lane road but managed to circumvent the few tunnels en route thanks to some lovely bike paths. Back on the main road we continued to wind our way up to the Lago di Ceresole passing quite possibly hundreds of cyclists as they descended back into the valley (the most we saw on any ride with the exception of the Maratona). About 75% of the way up the climb, everything started to open up and the views just continued to improve, with the last 5km being the most spectacular of all. Magically, the clouds cleared in these last few ks, revealing snow capped peaks and crystal clear lakes in every direction. If there was only one climb to have done on the entire trip, Colle Del Nivolet would have been it.
Part 3: Bormio (Region: Lombardia)
To round out the trip, we headed back East, bound for the little northern mountain town of Bormio. The drive time from Locana to Bormio is ~4.5 hours, taking us past Torino, Milano and Como. We made a quick cafe stop in the town of Melzo outside of Milano to meet up in person with Elisa, my dad’s (and now my) Italian teacher of three years. We spoke in English the whole time.
Bormio is a cute little mountain town, tucked up in the northernmost part of Italy not far from the Swiss border. It’s a small and wealthy town of ~4,000 people, including a cute cobblestone downtown area nestled among ski slopes and with access to multiple famous road climbs. The food in Bormio was typical of an Italian mountain town. We made sure to try pizzoccheri (a regional pasta dish utilizing buckwheat flour and generous amounts of butter and cheese), Amaro Braulio (a bitter liquor from Bormio), and a multitude of well plated dishes from the Slow Food recognized restaurant Al Filò. Honorable mentions include amarena gelato from Gelateria Fresh, best music/worst name at Osteria De I Magri (Tavern of the Skinny), and the rival to Subway’s footlong – the meterlong (see photo below).
The hotel was spectacular and gave off refined Vermont cabin vibes. The breakfast buffets were plentiful and the espresso machines educational. As the machine finished making you a fine cappuccino, the screen would read prelevare, prompting you to withdraw your beverage. This should not be confused with the verb prevelare which my dad thought it said, but couldn’t seem to understand why the machine would be telling us to prevail.
Unlike most other stops on the trip which featured just one climb, Bormio was noteworthy because of the multitude of world famous rides from our doorstep. We enjoyed quite a few over the course of five days including: Passo Dello Stelvio, Torri Di Fraele, and Passo Gavia.
The Stelvio was the biggest day of the three climbs (63mile, 10,000ft, 6.5 hours). The Stelvio is easily the most famous of the climbs we did – and for good reason. It’s the second highest paved road in the Alps with a whopping 48 hairpin turns and has been featured in the Giro d’Italia 13 times. Starting from Bormio we climbed the Passo dell’Umbrail, followed by a delightful descent into Switzerland. Back in Italy we stumbled upon Kulturcafe Salina in the German speaking town of Glurns (a place worth checking out on a future trip) before starting our final ascent up the Stelvio. Delicious, but not hollow fries, awaited us at the top before we were rewarded with a long descent back down the same road we climbed at the beginning of the day.
The following day was a rest day for dad but I opted for one last day of riding, having taken a rest day a few days prior. While always happy to ride alone, I was fortunate to tag along with a Belgian cycling club that happened to be staying at our same hotel. The heaviness in my legs from the previous days’ ride was quickly forgotten, as I got to enjoy the benefits of a sag wagon and cute Belgian accents. Following each day’s ride with a cold draft lager on the hotel lawn didn’t hurt either.
Part 4: Bonus Italy
And just like that, the number of days left went from 15 to 1. The day before our flight out of Milano we headed back towards the airport by way of Lecco, a mid-sized town situated on the southeastern shore of Lago di Como. Within minutes of our arrival (due to the ease and size of the parking spots) and a short walk out onto the lakefront, I fell totally in love with Lecco. The town was quaint without feeling manicured, scenic but far from touristy, and shockingly youthful compared with the rest of Italy. The cherry on top was, of course, stumbling upon a Specialized owned bike shop. This particular shop also happens to be the home of a few Soil Searching Italy ambassadors, a real mountain bike stamp of approval in my opinion. File under places in Italy I would move to in a heartbeat.
Days Traveled: 18 | Rides: 11 | Hours: 47 | Miles: 397 | Vert (ft.): 54,771