The Appenninica MTB stage race may be the new kid on the block, but it has all the ingredients to firmly establish itself in the European stage race calendar. The brainchild of Milena Bettocchi and Beppe Salerno, they bring their wealth of knowledge of running cycling holidays across the region of Emilia Romagna. Combining their passion for this area and their love of mountain biking, they wanted to showcase the riding in this little visited ( except by Italian tourists) Apennine mountain range, nestled between Bologna and Florence, following parts of the Alta Via dei Parchi MTB trail. This race wasn’t to be just be about the riding though, but about the views, the host towns, the food and the vibe of being part of this event. With a prologue and 7 stages, it was going to be a solid challenge too.
I was racing in the mixed pairs with fellow team Gore rider Naomi Freireich, but plans don’t always work and this was one of those times. On test for the event was a Santa Cruz Blur shod with 9th Wave’s new Yarrow wheelset, wheels with a 29mm internal diameter for the same weight, if not lighter than many equivalent alloy 25mm wheelsets. Tyre choice was the WTB 29×2.25″ Ranger. Used to their handling on 23 and 25mm rims, the terrain was going to be a good test for their bolder shape on the wider Yarrows. See the end for my thoughts.
There was no messing about with the Prologue, within 100m of the start it was straight up, alongside the portico of San Luca leading to the Sanctuary of San Luca, 300m above the city of Bologna. A spectacular roofed arcade (which extends for 40km through the city), not that you’ll notice it much as the way up is steep and at only 9.7km overall, the red mist rapidly rolled in. Some respite was offered along wooded singletrack and a track marked out across park land with views of the city below, before being thrust into a steep descent back to the start. A rude awakening for the legs before a transfer southwards to Berceto, the location for stage 1.
The whole race was due to play out over 550km with 20,000m+ metres of climbing, stats to rival most other alpine stage races. Any organisers’ nightmare is bad weather, but this wasn’t an issue during the event (although some riders may not agree, given the heatwave being experienced across the whole of Europe!), but a couple of months before. Exceptionally bad weather had caused landslides and downed trees causing chaos along some of the designated trails. Following the original route would have meant hours of hike a bike for riders, not a welcome prospect, so a re-route was created, reducing the distance to 410km but still retaining 16,000m of climbing. Given the heatwave pushed temperatures to over 45° some days, the re-route was probably a blessing.
The prologue’s leisurely 1230 start allowed for a relaxed sign on in the morning, time to check bikes and meet fellow riders. 16 nationalities were represented at this first edition, with riders from as far as SA, the US and Australia. For a first edition, the race had some strong partners, Garmin, Squirt Cycling Products, Natali sports wear, Sportograf and the renowned cheese company, Parmigiano Reggiano. Who doesn’t like good cheese?! The main attraction of the morning was the cutting of the cheese and the subsequent, mandatory tasting.
Berceto is a small town, nestled 850m up in the hills and our accommodation was in an old monastery with the luxury of beds and pillows in large dorm rooms. This singular night of ‘luxury’ was enjoyed as the rest of the week would be on our sleeping mats. The routine for the week was easy to follow, evening meal at 1830 and the briefing/results starting at 2030. Breakfast was anywhere between 6h and 7h depending on the stage start time.
Stage 1 set the scene for the week of riding we were in for. Plenty of climbing rewarded with on point and scenic singletrack, through forest, across hilltops and ridgelines with panoramic views of rolling, forest clad mountains all around. Rooty, dirt tracks to loose and rocky, it had it all. Hike a bike was minimal, a small hump in an otherwise superb day of riding.
From the start, my race partner wasn’t up to her usual strong self, lacking power and finding it overly tough in the heat. Her speed was limited but her dogged determination remained intact, although her expression was telling.
Stage 2 threw us into the queen stage at 101km with 3700m of climbing, reaching the highest point of the event at nearly 1900m. Despite its climbing, the views and singletrack made up for that, riding ridge lines and endorphin boosting descents, past bewildered locals in their hillside villages as riders broke their quiet afternoon. For the middle 20km of the stage, we stayed high, flowing along hill tops singletrack before dipping back into forest trails and more sublime singletrack.
It wasn’t until we noticed the ghostly silent chairlift that we clocked that we were descending a ski piste, an unexpected feature given the heat and humidity in the region! A 1000m climb km finished off the stage and many rider’s legs. The concomitant drop into Fanano was steep, rocky, brake finger fatiguing. Tough, but wow! I don’t think anyone was quite expecting the level of engaging riding we had experienced so far. Everyone was reminiscing about the tight switchback forest descent to feed 2 at the finish. This became a theme for the week at dinner, tales about the daily doses of singletrack. Accommodation was again in a sports complex and food was plentiful, spread across numerous courses!
The stage took its toll on Naomi, she rode through gritted teeth, feeling worse as the stage went on. Staying with her, we arrived at feed 3 with no chance of making the cut off time for the stage. We sat for a while at feed 3, consuming calories to see if it would bolster Naomi’s legs for the final climb, but health comes first over the sake of a few kms just to finish the stage and she called it. It was a good call, better than dig a deeper hole which would then be harder to extract herself out of for events later in the season
Rolling out under deep blue skies again on stage 3 I was riding solo, rather sombre at losing my race partner. A 12km, 900m mixed terrain climb led out the stage. Curiosity got the better of me, sitting with the 3 front guys, intrigued the pace they were setting. After all, I was racing as unclassified now. These guys were fast. Obviously, but almost half my age. In the red, I lasted until km 10, peeling off to the 2nd group, curiosity having given me a good kicking. Once up top, clear of the forest, it was singletrack nirvana, rolling on and on, across the hill tops, rugged rocky sections challenging handling skills, with the occasional exposed section.
From the off, the Blur’s most immediate trait was its descending ability, no rear wheel swagger through the rockiest of trails, but what surprised was just how it maintained rear wheel traction going up steep, rocky climbs, the only limiting factor being pilot error. Sit, pedal hard and the Blur just surged upwards.
The initial part of the main descent was super aggressive, so the recommendation was to hike down the first couple of hundred metres, with one of the organisation team standing at that point. You could see why, the way down was deeply stepped, narrow and steep, surfaced with nothing but loose stone with some steep drop offs. Every rider took the precarious approach, except the sweep motorbike riders from the racing medical team. These guys have skills!
The next 23km took us down, punctuated with brief, punchy climbs to the finish at Porretta Therme. The final 6km of descent was stunning; steep, loose, rocky, exhilarating, more braking finger fatiguing riding, right into the town piazza, once the steps up and down the bridge had been negotiated. I ended up around 6th overall for the stage.
Another of the organisation team, Cinza, was everyone’s favourite person that day, handing out tickets for free gelato from the shop across from the finish! Not sure if this will be a standard feature for this stage at future editions, but it evoked huge grins from every rider given the heat! The spacious, sports hall accommodation was a bit disjointed from the finish area, but only a short walk, ideal for loosening up stiff legs.
Stage 4 was stage 1 for the 4 day riders, their ‘prologue’ being a 24km TT. 2 minutes separated categories, but with a scant 30 seconds between each rider within a category, it was a game of chase. Racing as unclassified, a Sophie Hemming had had the ‘great’ idea of entering me for the solo4 event, which the organisers had already arranged with a hand written number board before I had even turned up at the race office. Racing against fresh legs, with no age category separation and short stages, this was going to be fun.
The TT climb was fast, on open tracks, a super steep, loose trail briefly breaking the legs’ rhythm, pushing the body well into the red. A momentary glance at the far penetrating view from the peak was all we got before plunging back down through the forest and some glorious, tight singletrack, not without a sting in the tail though. A 2km tarmac ascent before joining the bottom part of yesterday’s descent into the town piazza. Bullying the Blur upwards, I managed to make the steps us this time. With the rest of the day free, it was lunch, gelato and the local 50m swimming pool. In that order.
Due to the unavoidable alteration to the route, stage 5 heralded a transfer to the start town of Santa Sofia in the morning of stage 6. Travelling south, the terrain changed, becoming more rolling and drier.
Stage 5 was circular with 2 main climbs. The first, long, hot,, slow going through its more technical sections, meandering up to 1100m. Feed one was a welcome sight, sheltered from the sun in a small village up off the main track with a fun step ride returning riders to the route.
The 2nd climb was shorter and more sheltered, wider dirt tracks keeping the tempo relatively fast, flowing along the hillside contours. From the 2nd peak, it was 19km of descending, fast flowing tracks and forest trails, interspersed with brief climbs. The final few kms along the riverside was the toughest, seeing locals cooling off in deep water spots in the river, just what was needed right now. Order of the afternoon was rehydrate, food and a river dip!
With the continuing heat, an additional 2 water stops were added for stage 6. The climbing was subtle, along rolling trails, diving in and out of forested singletrack, for 32km to reach the 1240m high peak for the day and stunning views we had now come to ‘expect’.
The way back down was just as jaw droppingly good, fast, loose, with no room for error on the corners, otherwise you’d be wearing gravel rash as a tattoo for the rest of the race. Popping out of the trees onto Tuscany esque managed field tracks, you almost forgot you were in a bike race, reigning the speed a little to enjoy the tranquility of the landscape. Until we were rudely thrust back into the moment up 2km of steep, cobbled track, averaging a front wheel popping 24%. Some walked, a few of us stubbornly rode it all, but only for some perverse, personal satisfaction. The Blur made short work of the final part of the climb, up the rocky singletrack. A rugged, fast descent finished off the stage, arriving in style into Bagno di Romagna along its decorated pedestrian area to the town piazza.
Food that evening was plentiful over several courses with as much cake as anyone wanted to engulf. After you had done your post race stretching of course.
Stage 7, the grand finale, was a 2 lap affair. A mixed terrain climb up, with all the ingredients of the previous days, with the descent following some of the local enduro course and 2 goes at it. What a descent it was to finish off this captivating event, pushing xc fullys and their riders to the limit, leaving every rider with lasting memories right up until that finish line. Both Milena and Beppe were there at the finish to welcome each rider in, all of whom were super stoked with what they had experienced over the past 7 days. Not the finish myself and Naomi had planned, but the legs got me to 3rd in the solo4 event.
Dinner was a celebration of an awesome event, everyone having gotten to know each other over the week, recounting stories from the trail. Riders, the staff, the medical team, the sponsors and the photographers all contributed to creating an engaging vibe to the event.
Putting together a new, independent stage race is a tough call, but the folks behind the Appenninica have pulled this off with every success. They have opened up the Apennine range as a hugely credible mtb destination, showcasing some of the captivating and engaging riding that this area has to offer. It’s Italy’s best kept secret no more! This event wasn’t simply about the racing though, they have created a whole experience around discovering a little visited area of Italy with each host town a special location, stages ending in their stunning central piazzas.
The 2020 dates have been announced as July 19th to 25th. The prologue will be absent, so you’ll be diving straight into some incredible riding. All details on their website here.
Details about the Appenninica MTB Stage Race
Food: It was plentiful, with the obvious pasta courses, plenty of parmesan cheese and a variety of meat, cheese, vegetable dishes and cake depending on the host town. Spread across various courses, so don’t get too glutenous with the first dish, as I may have done, as there is always more to come! If you do have dietary requirements, such as coeliac disease, or being a vegetarian, it is best to contact the organisers direct to make sure that they know and that they can accommodate you.
Accommodation: You will need to provide your own sleeping mat and sleeping bag. Accommodation is mostly in large sports halls, so plenty of room or take the hotel option. You’ll receive a 90L event bag at the start along with an additional bag for your sleeping gear, so plenty of room for all your kit. Leave your bike bag at registration and it will be transported to the finish.
Bike: A hardtail will be fast, but you’ll be picking hard fought lines on descents. A full suspension bike, if you have the option, is intensely more fun and efficient, including on the more technical climbs. The terrain will be tough on tyres, don’t bring those super light ones and make sure they are packing enough sealant.
My bike for the Appenninica MTB Stage Race
My ride was the Santa Cruz Blur, an XC rig that has been well reviewed, but one which I had never swung a leg over. Getting some proper trail time on the Blur it surprised with just how capable it was, beyond its XC designation. From those first few, technical trails, it was obvious that the Blur is so much more than simply XC, trail DNA running deep through its carbon fibres. Compared to the now common, pivotless XC designs, the VPP system looks complex by comparison, but therein lies its efficiency and effectiveness, with a tight connectivity between the front and rear triangles. Hauling down technical trails, there was no lag in the rear triangle following the front with sudden changes of direction over the race’s loose terrain. Once used to its handling, you want to challenge just where the Blur’s limits are. The VPP design does add some minimal weight, but offers a progressive suspension platform that seems to bely its 100m travel, feeling like more. It evoked confidence in tackling technical terrain at greater speeds than I would otherwise teeter down. Descending wasn’t its only prowess. Climbing too was unexpectedly, exponentially enhanced. Riding up steep, and/or rocky technical trails, you would reach that point where you’d normally expect the rear wheel to break out and be off and walking, but the Blur refused to let go when sitting and pedaling. It became a game, challenging the Blur up the steepest and rockiest sections, seeing just how far I could ride, errors on my part the limiting factor.
With stage races and marathons increasingly using more technical trails, the Blur may be Santa Cruz’s ‘XC’ race platform, but it can more than hold its own when pushed into more ‘trail’ riding duties. It is a bike which blurs that boundary yet which remains super fast and poised for competing at a pure xc level.
For its efficacy, the minor trade off with the VPP platform is a single water bottle mount. My solution was the minimalist Osprey Katari 1,5L hydro pack. A pack which is barely noticeable on the back and compact enough to leave the rear jersey pockets accessible. The Osprey bladder was filled with purely water with a concentrated solution of Tailwind in the bottle, enough for 2 hours and I carried custom made concentrated sachets of Tailwind for refills.
The 9th Wave Yarrow wheels
9th Wave supplied a set of their in house designed and developed Yarrow alloy wheels. With a 29mm internal diameter wheelset, initial reservations were weight and whether such a wide, seemingly more trail orientated wheel could cut it for xc/marathon use. Those reservations unravelled from the point of the weigh in. At 1618g built onto their inhouse 6 bolt, boost hubs weight is on par or lighter than many equivalent 25mm wheelsets for what is a much stiffer wheel. Recommended for 2.25 tyres upwards, the 29×2.25 WTB Rangers filled out to give a larger contact patch, which came into its own on the fast, loose descents of the Appenninica. The wheels come supplied as standard with tubeless rim tape and valve fitted, a nice touch, removing one step of the tubeless set up process for the consumer.
With the wider spread of the tyre, I ran slightly lower pressures, 23 upfront 25 rear, without fear of the tyre wallowing on the rim, offering intense grip. For the more technical trails, the Yarrows offered an obvious stiffness gain over 23mm and 25mm alloy wheels without any penalty in rolling weight for the climbs. Built with DT Revolution spokes, wheels stayed true over the week, despite some rather sudden changes of direction on technical descents.
Thanks to; Jon at E3Coach.com for putting speed back into these endurance legs, RITM Media and Sportograf for the photographs. To Gore Wear for the cycling apparel . To Luck Cycling for the custom made Rex shoes which actually fit my super wide feet. To Squirt Cycling Products for their chain lube and tyre sealant.