It’s two week now since we spent time in the National Parks of Abruzzo but the memories of those climbs are still fresh and will be vivid for a long time to come. Passo Lanciano has seen Cunego battle it out with Basso in past Giro d’Italia editions but I had never heard of the Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso nor the Parco Nazionale della Maiella before. And why this part of Italy is not a cycling Mecca like Bormio or Lake Como, I don’t understand.
Once again we could have easily stayed a week or two and not repeat one climb, so many riding options are there. We sampled the highest peaks of the two parks. Our initial intention was to take up temporary residence in L’Aquila, the capital of the Abruzzo province. But then I read that L’Aquila was still being rebuild after the earthquake in 2009 and the inner city was yet to open to tourism again. Therefore we went straight to the autostrada exit of Assergi.
Late Sunday afternoon and there was no soul to be seen when we drove in. The navigation system dropped us in a tight residential street with fairly new family homes. This was supposed to be the town centre. The little tourist information was hidden away and closed. There was no church, no pasticceria, no gelateria – oh gosh!
Down the narrow valley road to Paganica we went and up again to Assergi, in search for a suitable parking option. We had the car park of the cable car in mind that takes people to the Campo Imperatore ski resort, but it seemed too far up the mountain, too much climbing lost. How did we get so greedy for uphill road?
Eventually we settled for the night in an equally quiet but pretty old village somewhere in-between Assergi and Paganica. Earthquake damage was still apparent everywhere but the road looked gorgeous, slightly uphill, merely a false flat in fact, perfect to serve as a warm up for the climb the next day.
The peaks in the clouds and the temperatures way down, I felt terribly underdressed after the first few kilometres of warm up the next morning. It was good that we could return to the motorhome for some late wardrobe changes. Because I knew the climb was 30km long and reached over 2000m of altitude, the three-quarter knicks and the new red winter riding jacket, which I had already stored away in some hard reachable corner of the motorhome, came out. I hadn’t thought I’d need them again this side of summer. Also my neckie, an extremely versatile piece of cycling apparel that I knew nothing about until I came to Europe, and beanie went into the jersey pockets. The two featured heavily during the long descends later that day but first we had to get up the mountain.
And how beautiful was this climb? A gentle gradient of 5-7% never made me gasp for air and allowed for plenty of energy to enjoy the views. Sure, a climb is always as hard as you make it, but we were planning a long day in the saddle so I kept my heart rates in the Tempo zone. Alberto was happy to hang around. He always is, no matter how much I urge him to ride ahead and wait for me at the top, or come back to fetch me.
The road was teasing us. We would spot glimpses of it high up on the bold slopes and then it would look deceivingly tame ahead of us, as though there were no 2000m high mountains waiting in the background. The real action lay in our backs as we rode out of the valley, facing the lower ridges. Every switchback opened up new views of grassy hills. Higher and higher the road wound, now and then allowing glimpses of the Corno Grande, the rocky pinnacle and highest peak of the National Park. I tried guessing, which direction the road would take us but I kept getting surprised when high mountain meadows appeared from nowhere. We were kinda in a high mountain pot, surrounded by higher ridges, yet on a plain.
Two hours had passed, two hours of constant steady climbing. We were high up amongst those mountains and it felt very remote. Then there was an intersection, a colourful map, up on a wooden frame, and Alberto’s begging eyes Can we go up the road to Campo Imperatore, just a little bit, just to see what’s behind that bend? The map showed a dead end, about eight kilometres to the ski resort. Of course we had to go, no point coming all this way and then turn around before the summit.
The place was eerily quiet, apart from the parked car with the two older Italian men calling out “Bravo!” as we flew pass. The road was slightly downhill there, it was easy to get carried away. It was magic! And then I saw the bunch of motorbike riders descending down the switchbacks high above us. Or did I hear them first? I spotted the ski lifts on the side of the valley. There were tiny buildings up there on the sharp ridge, below the now very close Corno Grande. There was no more guessing where the road was heading. Immediately after my realisation, the gradient kicked up to 10-11% and one of the motorbike riders gave us a big “Thumbs Up” with his thick-gloved hand when he thundered pass us, down towards the high plain. Then it was quiet again, only my laboured breathing echoed off the limestone cliffs.
There was not much of a Col sign at the top, not much life either, just a near empty car park, a couple of red and grey stone buildings, an observatory, TV towers and ski lifts. The hotel restaurant had “aperto” written on a chalk board in front of the entrance but it looked deserted and dark from the outside. A German couple also admired the views back down towards Assergi and we contemplated having a coffee with them. They had taken the comfortable ride up there in a Sports-BMW and just when I wondered whether their experience matched ours in any way, Willi told us that he had ridden all these passes of the Abruzzo National Parks in many cycling holidays in the past.
It was chilly up at 2100m so we decided to keep moving. Spontaneously, after studying the map and discovering a loop option (They always look better on Strava than the out and back rides), we decided to descend a different way and add a few more kilometres. After a fast downhill into the high meadows and fields, immediately followed by some more climbing up the other side out of the “pot”, we started the actual long descend down the white band of a road that gently meandered through round grassy hills towards the lower valleys. Cows raced us alongside the road. Then a few switchbacks, before the road dropped us gently, gently down to Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a village perched on top of a rocky outcrop in the middle of a green valley, like an eagle’s nest.
From there it was a short ride to Barisciano and back to Camardy and our Motorhome.
Campo Imperatore from Assergi: 33.5km
Elevation gain: 1945 m
Average gradient: 4.1%
Altitude: 2100 m
With just under 100km (The Strava version only shows 91km because I missed a few kilometres after forgetting to switch the Garmin back on after our stop at the top) and over 2000m of total ascending I was quite pleased that I had plenty of energy left for the rest of the day. I took it as an early indicator that training might be right on track for L’Etape du Tour in July. Could I have ridden another 40km and climbed another 2000m? That I couldn’t answer but if heavy legs on the Blockhaus the next day were an indicator, too, then I may just need a bit more training after all. But then again, Passo Lanciano and Blockhaus are completely different climbs altogether.
The 80km scenic drive along the National Park borders to Lettomanopello in the Maiella NP the same afternoon took us just under two hours. We settled in for the night with a beautiful view.
The next morning we first descended four kilometres because Lettomanopello overlooks the valley from above. Those four kilometres were easy to climb back up but no sooner had we passed our Camper and followed the Passo Lanciano signs through the streets of the village, no sooner it got steep. My legs complained, not only because of the distinct sore feeling that the previous day had left behind but also because of the ten, eleven, twelve percent gradient. It didn’t drop below nine for the next three or so kilometres.
While I remember the beautiful green pastures, white limestone rocks and yellow mountain flowers of the Gran Sasso, the Passo Lanciano I remember by the colours and textures of the asphalt. Dark grey with white sprinkles at the earlier part, more whitish grey with a few dark pebbles further up. And cracks, where the water had frozen, expanded and cracked the surface in mini explosions in past winters. The maple shaped shadows dancing in front of my eyes, mirroring the leaves above my head, moving in the welcome breeze. It was hot and I didn’t dare looking up. I was concentrating on pedalling rather than admiring the views, meanwhile hoping that the climb wouldn’t be this steep all the way.
And my wishes were heard. No sooner did we reach the open plain, views of the Blockhaus summit opened up and the gradient settled to a 7-8% before the forest covered the views again but offered shade in return. At the pass we refilled bottles with cool water from a pump, had a quick chat with a couple of Italian cyclists who had come up from the other side and weren’t continuing on to the Blockhaus but descended straight back down. Another older cyclist, who had just come down from the Blockhaus made the motion of arms clasping around the body, indicating that it was cold up there. Being still hot and sweaty from the climb so far, I couldn’t quite imagine to be cold. Having wisely stuffed arm warmers and gillet in my back pockets, the thought of cooler temperatures didn’t worry me.
The Blockhaus is basically a “second part” to the Passo Lanciano climb that continues initially through forest before hitting the tree line at 1200m and becoming bare with low vegetation offering stunning views all the way to the Adriatic sea. Some sources quoted an additional 10km from P. Lanciano to the Blockhaus summit, others spoke of 6-7km.
Not exactly knowing added to the thrill but before we knew it we hit snow that covered the narrow bitumen strip. Cars were no longer allowed this far up. Alberto was determined to press on and hiked along the mountain edge, bike shouldered. Despite 19 C there was a chill in the air and I didn’t want to wait around so I resistantly followed his lead. The road was clear again and we continued the ride… only to encounter another hiking section soon after. The third time, this time there was no road in sight behind the snow, we called it a ride and turned around. We had ridden as far as we could and apparently as close as 500m to the summit.
Passo Lanciano from Lettomanopello: 14.5 km
Elevation gain: 1140 m
Average gradient: 7.7%
Altitude: 1300 m
Blockhaus from P. Lanciano: 7.6 km
Elevation gain: 520 m
Average gradient: 6.9%
Altitude: 1930 m
By the way: I have added a another paragraph about the rides and some more photos on the previous post about the Amalfi Coast – in case you are interested!