Piemontgravel is an event defined by the organizers themselves as “an adventure that takes place along trails, mule tracks and secondary roads,” starting in Alba and crossing the hills and plains of the Langhe. “Adventure” – we realize during the weekend – is the key word of the definition.
Alba and the Langhe are one of those places that would be on the cover of the Lonely Planet guide to any other country in the world. Not in Italy, though, thanks to all the other heart-stoppingly gorgeous areas in our country. And this might be just as well. Because we don’t know much about the Langhe – maybe only that it’s an area of hills, of truffles, of excellent wines and of hazelnuts – and we get to know it over the 200 kilometers of the Piemontgravel. The best way to learn about the details and nuances of an area.
The Langhe welcomes us Friday evening with the smile of Beppe, our Airbnb host, who gives us eggs and homemade tomato sauce and a bottle of wine made by a friend with a vineyard not far away. A country house, the hills and his kindness are the outstretched arms of the Langhe that welcome us for the weekend.
Pasta and the wine from Beppe, and it’s time to get ready for tomorrow’s adventure. Because in a gravel adventure, preparation and planning are at least as important as the adventure itself. So we prepare our Supergiara kits and a Fiandre Light for the crisp morning air and put everything we need in our bags and on the bike. A Garmin to follow the route, lights for the night, some food and a few tools for emergencies.
IOn Saturday we wake up to the sound of the rooster from our chicken coop. To be honest, he’s a bit too early of a riser, but maybe it’s better this way: there’s time to have a proper breakfast and arrive punctually at the start in Alba.
Like us, another 200 cyclists are ready for adventure. We wonder briefly if our setup might be a bit too road-oriented when we see our companions armed with mountain bikes or gravel bikes with 27.5 tires. But we’re here now, the weather is perfect and the start is in just a few minutes. There are no more excuses for backing out.
The first kilometers of the Piemontgravel are a constant up and down among the hills and vineyards typical of this area. Most of today’s elevation gain is here in the first part, but the effort still leaves us time to enjoy a panorama that itself is worth the trip. And to realize that, like all things of value, for Piedmontese wine the secret ingredients are work and patience on the part of those who cultivate the grapes. It’s Saturday morning, but there’s not a single deserted vineyard; in each field there’s at least one farmer weaving vines onto the wires or a tractor running, ready to fix something.
Patience is also what we need throughout the first 100 kilometers. Between the climbs, a few navigation errors and some very technical sections where we’re forced to walk, the midpoint of the route never seems to come.
With stream crossings, singletrack, and railway bridges with spiral staircases that you have to climb with your bike on your shoulder — it’s true — the first 100 kilometers are long, but there’s no time to get bored. And so we finally reach the second part of the route, the most linear part, between the fields on the plain and along the river as we return to Alba.
An ice cream and a coffee in the late afternoon bring us back to life and, like new, we prepare to face the final kilometers, but not before stopping to admire the sunset while eating Haribo candies and feeling a little like Peter Sagan on the occasion.
We put on a Fiandre Light and turn on our lights and we’ve entered the final kilometers. We’re climbing again (and not just a little), in the darkness of a very dense forest. A steep and highly technical trail, the last difficulty of the day, challenges us and forces us to get off the bike at the most difficult points.
Now it’s (almost) all flat for the last 25 kilometers. A puncture and the dampness put us to the test once again, but we finally reach our destination and can sign the sheet and pick up our prize: a beer and a few slices of salami. We couldn’t have asked for anything better.
We go back home, kindly given a ride by the Piemontgravel organizer. A shower and dinner are just what we need to end a perfect but challenging day.
The usual rooster wakes us up the next morning. Time to pack up and have a chat with the farmer who is tending the grapevines outside the house. Then it’s off toward home again, still seeing and feeling the Langhe, its hills, and one of those weekends that make you make peace with the whole world.
Alba, Piedmont, Italy
Federico Damiani @damianifed