Day 6: Gouta

When planning this trip I thought I might need a “short day” to relax at The Chocolate Tree and given yesterday’s late arrival I decided to play that card today. The plan was simple: 35 miles of trail riding to get acclimatised to the Ligurian Sea Alps in preparation for my assault on the LGKS proper. The route? Something cobbled together from a collection of unpaved roads and Google Earth visible trails, starting and ending at the B&B. What could go wrong?

Silly question. For starters I had to find fuel, and that’s when I learnt my first bit of practical Italian: Chiuso. Closed. As demonstrated by the sign at the petrol pump in Pigna, just down the road. Fortunately a cyclist saw my confusion (hello, karma) and directed me to Dolceaqua, where I filled the tank with 95 and my camelback with cold water. The temperature was already touching 30 at times – so much for getting an early start and beating the heat. I was good to go in no time and headed back to the B&B, passing rather than stopping, with the road surface getting progressively worse as the altimeter ticked. Just after a sign announced the Passo del Gouta any pretence towards regular surface gave out and I was on dirt proper. So far so good, this wasn’t all that different from a Surrey trail ride, just less ramblers.

Alpine mountain track with bike on it

Reassured by the regular vehicle tracks in the dirt (in more ways than one – they seemed to be road tyres) I continued for an hour covering just 8 miles, during which I stopped twice to let the bike cool down and admire the view. The third stop was at a border crossing, just a dirt crossroads on a hill, and I wondered if it had always looked like this or just since the Schengen agreement kicked in.

Clearing in the forest, with a bike in it, natch.

Onwards I ploughed, taking the “road” from the border crossing that I’d earmarked when planning the route. It wasn’t long before the twin tracks that could have accommodated any number of four-wheeled vehicles ended by a small tree which had fallen across the road. I hopped across gingerly, paying attention to the boxer cylinders sticking out either side of my engine, and continued on the track, which had by now narrowed to a single lane, passing some kind of catholic shrine in a woodland clearing.

Small fallen tree blocks the way, just begging to be ridden over. Ride over me, it says.

Before long there was another tree, and this time I wasn’t going to hop across, not without somebody else there to call international rescue should the worst happen. Time to double back, abandon the planned route, and seek an alternative. Well, it was either that or high-tail it home along familiar paths, and we couldn’t let that happen now, could we?

Not hopping over this one, sport.

I picked up one of the other options at the border crossroads, and soon wished I hadn’t. Up until this point I’d been convinced that nothing bad could really happen out here. Where was I – Outer Mongolia? No, this is central Europe, probably the most civilised place on earth, and any illusion of being miles from nowhere on perilous tracks was surely just that – an illusion which would come to an abrupt end with the sight of a gift shop and a Starbucks. That’s all very well, but suddenly I was climbing a narrow 35 degree slope paved with rocks the size of babies heads, with nothing but mountain on my right and nothing but nothing on my left. It’s at times like this that you realise just how screwed you’d be courtesy of a mundane oil leak or a cracked rim. Just then a large rock struck the bottom of the bike, the engine note changed, and I swear a little bit of pooh came out.

T'is but a scratch - small dent in bike's exhaust pipe

Fortunately it was just the link pipe between the two exhausts. A boulder kicked up by my front wheel had caught the edge of my belly pan, bent it, and put a nice dent in the stainless exhaust. This link is pretty much redundant but a point had been made. Just as you can drown in 2 inches of bath, you can come a cropper on a trail ride.

The craziness just went on and on, trails ending in dead ends or impossible gradients, and before long I was really, really looking forward to being on tarmac again. None of the terrain was actually that challenging, but the combination of being alone, on a slightly inappropriate bike, and miles from anywhere magnified the situation somewhat.

After another couple of hours I somehow found my way back to the international crossroads in the forest, and since I’d now taken every combination of tracks possible I returned home the way I’d come. 80 km of this tomorrow, at over 2000 meters? You’re having a laugh.