Founded 3 short years ago the Appenninica MTB is the brain child of experienced promoters and tour teams who worked together to build and continually improve a dream of sharing a much loved and seldom experienced region of riding in central Italy. The Dolomites are rough and rugged, the Alps get all the press, but the Apennine Mountain range which runs down the spine of Italy has played host to more history and has an arguably deeper story to tell.
For this team the ideal background for their story is a 7 day mtb stage race; showcasing specific areas and host villages and intertwining tremendous singletrack experiences with a fully curated experience. On paper the presentation of Appenninica is fairly easy to chew on. 7 stages, gradually moving up through the Apennine mountains through 5 host towns; Poretta Terme, Lizzano, Fanano, Cerreto Laghi, and Castelnovo ne’ Monti. Total distance of 450K and 16,000M of climbing. Thats 279 miles and 52,000 feet of vertical. Aside from the “Pippo Yeah” stage on the 4th day the course has subtly changed each year with tweaks to adjust for a better experience or route closures.
Each day begins with breakfasts provided by the race staff right at riders dorms or host hotels. Trackers are turned on, athletes corralled, and then the race begins. With as much vertical as the Appenninica uses you can imagine most days begin with a climb, to shake things out, and up, and up, and up. Riders favorite saying during the 2021 running was “up, up, up” and with great reason. Climbers rejoice as the one constant in your day will be ascent. At times the vertical is dished out in manageable portions but more often than not it comes in a buffet of thousands of feet or meters at once. The week featured several climbs of over 1000 meters in one ascent; often beginning as rural pavement, transitioning into dirt or forest cobbled path, then eventually rough hewn but well loved singletrack before riders top out.
But fear not descenders and technical riders. What goes up must come down and singletrack descending is a fixture of the Appenninica as well. Part of what makes the race a truly global crowd pleaser is the volume of singletrack riding. No stage is without substantial time riding a tremendous variety of singletrack. High alpine meadows, clear and beautiful chestnut forests, and rugged technical descents through deep forests, centuries old ruins, towns, and villages all await – just bring good brakes.
At the finish line, riders can expect more than the usual post race nosh of soda and bars. Multiple pastas and sauces, fruits, focaccia breads, local meats and a daily wheel of Parmesan Reggiano tapped for the occasion fed riders as they arrived victorious. The finishers “recovery zone” was open as long as needed and created the perfect outdoor atmosphere; often in beautiful historic town centers, for riders to celebrate and relive the triumphs and tribulations of the day.
The week was extremely well paced and clearly honed well in a short 3 runnings.
Stage 1 – Individual TT featuring a long climb of around 1100 meters. The opening stage proved to be a perfect; if somewhat long, opener for the week. An 1100 meter road climb greeted riders before they begin a long and winding descent through singletrack, double track roads, and logging trails through chestnut forests. The host town of Poretta Terme is known for its global jazz festival, and certainly kicked off the week with a pop! German Felix Fritsch (r2MtnCrew) took the opening stage for the men in a surprise effort and Orbea Factory rider Virginia Cancellieri took the women’s jersey into the week.
Stage 2 – A traverse to the cliff side town of Lizzano, accruing enormous vertical total and sampling the first of many high alpine ridge tops. Riders experience what the week will be like, and some come face to face with the gravity of the daily routes. For the climbers in the field this is a fine opportunity to put in work and time on competition. Riders get their first taste of high mountain sunshine and brake burning descents. Fritsch narrowly retained the jersey over Marathon World champion Ilias Periklis who was favorited from the start while another German; Naima Madlen Deisner, brought out the climbing legs to take a noteworthy lead from Cancellieri in the women’s race.
Stage 3 – Another traverse from Lizzano to Fannano, riders access some of the same intersections of trail via different means, descending into the stunning town of Fannano where they will spend two nights. The stage began departing Lizzano towards riverside singletrack that shook up the race. Small groups formed as riders navigated the technical terrain before climbing out of the valley and onto road towards the Cimone Bike Park. Through berms and whoops to the second checkpoint of the day before ascending another long dirt climb and dropping steep technical terrain to the finish. The road climb centrally in the stage allowed riders a little more break than the mammoth stage 2. Periklis held his lead over Fritsch by a margin of seconds and Madlen experienced a flat tire opening the door for guest DMT factory rider Evelyn Sulzer to take the stage.
Stage 4 – A loop stage from Fannano, the “Pippo Yeah” Stage. This stage featured purpose built singletrack with genuinely epic climbs and descents, a singletrack riders delight where the bike handlers continually shine. Named for the downhill racing pioneer Pippo Mariani the stage brought steep and deep singletrack descents to the riders. The designer of the famous “black snake” downhill run at the Val di Sole bike park absolutely delivered in course design. The Pippo Yeah stage is the only continuously run stage in Appenninica MTB history and a day on the course showed riders why. Snaking through ancient ruins and across mountain plateaus the relatively short stage is full gas for rider’s delights. The stage was won by a storming Milton Ramos (Rockrider) whose singletrack prowess proved the best on the day. Madlen paid in almost ten minutes to Virginia Cancellieri who again took the stage as the German retained the lead.
Stage 5 – The Queen Stage. Riders tackle a 100K route with more than 3600m of climbing. This route seems a tall order but after the initial climb to the alpine ski way riders visited the day prior the route becomes manageably paced. A long day but not to be feared. Riders traverse high mountain ridges from Fannano to the lakeside ski town of Cerreto Laghi. A stormy night gave way to a wicked morning as riders ascended a massive opening climb; experiencing nearly 30 degree Fahrenheit temperature swing along the way. A long descent into the first checkpoint at which many riders pull their day and week amid pouring rain. Others soldiered on as the organization pulled together a plan to shorten the day. Reports from media crew and motors described incredibly difficult conditions and increasingly unsafe terrain and weather. While some lead men arrived at the proper finish at the ski village of Cerreto Laghi more were held before the final mountain pas at 84k and the stage was called at this point. Riders were safely returned to the ski village by bus and warmed with emergency blankets and local spirits. The stage was taken by Dutch hard man Bart Classens who burst into virtual 3rd place with his win on the day. However Classens would assume second in GC as 5 of the top ten men, including Leading DMT Racing’s Ilias Perklis did not complete. In a display of German ruggedness Naima Madlen completed the stage and put in additional time; now a nearly insurmountable 40 minutes. After all what would a Queen stage be without a little drama.
Stage 6 – A bit of a break is provided to riders as they descend from Cerreto Laghi before climbing pavement to their final descent of a manageable day into Castelnovo ne’ Monti. The antecedent to the final day started on a delay as riders reeled and rested from a Queen stage for the ages. A straightforward climb and beautiful traverse to the final finish town awaited. With several riders out of the running and a deeply contracted GC list Felix Fritsch felt pressure only from Bart Classens, and the Dutchman still had nearly 30 minutes to overcome on the day. The women’s GC faired unchanged on the Queen but Naima Madlen still retained substantial lead and safety.
Stage 7 – The final stage rings around the Pietra Bismantova selecting rural singletrack and sending riders past thousands year old strongholds. Coined The Purgatory because of the history the Bismantova has as inspiration for the visual of Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Riders rallied to the start line one more time and shot out of the gates for a loop of Purgatory. A singletrack and gravel heavy stage promised few surprises though GC contenders would not soft pedal on the stage. Crowd favorite Italian Elia Taverna took a stage win after gunning the podium all week while Naima Madlen chose to reprise her stage winning ways one more day.
The rhythm of the stages was very well timed, and in our experience this is one of the hardest details to get right. Just as riders began to tire of one aspect of riding they were greeted with another. Aching legs from a thousand meter climb were refreshed with a level pedal before a long descent. The courses themselves are clearly well crafted and well supported. Ample on-course aid stations for the day’s duration allow riders to travel fairly light and always count on support during their day. These checkpoints were often in stunning scenes of their own – old town centers or roadside vistas were favorites of the week.
Couple prime cut courses with exceptional on-course aid, add in more than a helping of finish line foodstuffs and the Appenninica experiences fleshes out nicely. Each day was better than the last and also unique in its own right. IN retrospect there are no “easy” days. Winners finish times were well in the 20 hour range for the week and showing signs of wear and tear. There are no easy miles at Apenninica MTB but there is easy living. An exceptional team of volunteers and staff make the riders journey easy and memorable.
More pasta you say?
It’s no secret that many riders ride to eat. While the singletrack experience was the main course it would be a lost traveler who doesnt anticipate the weeks other “protagonist” was certainly the dining. And the Appenninica team don’t slow down in this regard. The meals themselves were tremendous quality and were locally prepared and served. Each race village brought their best and friendliest to the kitchen and then to the table. Local veterans groups in feathered hats and aproned Nonnas flocked to the service on various days. It was clear to the participants that the host villages truly had their interests and energies at heart; creating an incredible dining experience which put riders in touch with more than just trails and plates. For the race’s time in each region the participants became ‘locals’ for a day. This created a truly curated and enriching experience. Locals were quick to help with course directions, always cheering, out to celebrate and encourage riders as they passed through their parcels of Emilia Romagna.
The opportunity to share how food is a through line for the celebration of the Appeninica MTB race shouldn’t be missed. What made the local cheeses, meats, wines, and bountiful carbohydrates so special is the same thing that makes it special to the local Italians. The family dinner atmosphere where food and a bubbly red wine bring people together across language, age, or background. Whether Spanish, German, Dutch, Italian, or American tables regularly mixed up and allowed riders to meet and form lasting friendships. While this is a characteristic of all of the best stage races, Appenninica truly brings a depth to this element which our correspondent felt was the best he had ever experienced aside from the smallest of tour groups.
7 days traveling through the oldest mountains in Italy will bring even the least romantic rider a little bit of nostalgia. Perhaps that clouds the closing a little but after our experience in the third running of the event its the honest opinion of this correspondent that the Appenninca MTB Stage is the finest small-scale stage race he has done. Whether one attends for the challenging riding or the post race environment the courses and production are top notch. The organization ensures local flavor is rich and felt while maintaining a very dialed routine and consistent daily schedule. Information is available and schedules are adhered to. While a tough challenge awaits any rider who signs for the Appenninica MTB, the experience will be rich, flavorful, and deeply lasting among the best riding memories.
All photo credits to @TheOutdoorLab, Appenninica MTB, or the author