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Rocks & Reflections: Learning Lessons in the Alps

From issue 98 • Words & images by Paolo Ciaberta

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The Alps are like an open-air school, with no classrooms or teachers but a place where you can still learn theory and practice. The theory comes in thoughts that arrive as light as the air you breathe, and the practice comes with physical and sensory experiences. I realize that every time I climb alpine peaks I participate in a different lesson, each one important because it reveals something new about me and the friends I’m cycling with. The latest lessons came on a loop through the Maritime Alps on the border between Italy and France, mostly ridden on gravel roads, where the higher we climbed the more rugged, steep and beautiful became our journey.

LESSON 1: I have to admit, I really don’t like riding on certain roads in the mountains, those water-soaked dirt roads that leave rocks stuck to the ground or those roads thick with dust that are a continuous jolt when you pedal over them. Such roads can leave a mixture of sweat and dust that burns your eyes, when an implacable sun reaches every corner of your body, bringing shortness of breath and grimaces of fatigue.

rocks and reflections

Maybe my bike handling isn’t good, maybe my bike isn’t right, but because of all those vibrations I can’t even think; the fact is, I really don’t like certain roads. So, in the end, why do I find myself climbing them? Perhaps through recklessness, perhaps to have stories to tell or photos to shoot? I repeat those questions to myself like a mantra when I pedal or push my bike on foot up those wretched climbs that give no mercy to those who try to face them without a motor.

The answers can be somewhat trivial, but as is often the case trivial answers come later, when you’re in bed or a sleeping bag exhausted, when you are too tired to fall asleep. To reach certain “peaks” the roads are not there for you, they are not there to be fun; on the contrary, they are there to let you know that the suffering on the ascent is proportional to the enjoyment at the summit.

rocks and reflections
rocks and reflections
rocks and reflections
rocks and reflections
rocks and reflections
rocks and reflections
rocks and reflections

Accepting to ride even the roads that I don’t like and that I don’t enjoy is what I have learned from riding this loop through the Maritime Alps: one quarter on the Via del Sale, one quarter on the Alta Via dei Monti Liguri, one quarter in Italy and one quarter in France—but always a lot of beauty, the beauty of which you never get tired.

LESSON 2: It’s not you who climbs the mountain, it’s the mountain that hovers over you in absolute silence; without your noticing, it takes your measurements, reads inside you and with all her austere honesty gives you answers that sometimes you may not like, tells details about your character, body, training, mental stamina and a lot of other things. But they’re never complacent answers. That’s okay with me, because I hate complacent answers.

LESSON 3: When you travel alone you are sensitive to the rustling of the leaves, the creaking of the trees and the sounds of burbling water as your thoughts flow copiously, often full of fascinating ideas. You have no distractions and every single decision depends on you—what direction to take, where to take a photo, where to repair a tire, where to stop for a snack….

In contrast, when you travel in a group, the chatter and clatter take over, and the school-trip effect is almost inevitably created. I love to travel alone, but for two or three days, because sharing wins over everything, a good shared situation can be worth double the fun.

So, this nice gravel trip through the Maritime Alps with old friends provided healthy fatigue, beautiful landscapes and big laughs. If the mountain offers life lessons, bikepacking offers emotions, gravel offers freedom and the bicycle puts wind in your face. An ancient Japanese adage says: “He who climbs Mount Fuji once is a wise man. He who climbs it twice is a fool.”

There is a pinch of madness and at the same time a pinch of wisdom in climbing certain rocky peaks by bike; you have to endure suffering, but at the same time with your gaze turned upward, because looking just for downhills you risk ending up always and only at the bottom.

The Maritime Alps Loop

Start from Chalet Le Marmotte (reached by car on the France-Italy border); distance: 143km (83km gravel, 55km tarmac); elevation gain: 4,500 meters (almost 15,000 feet).

From issue 98, buy it here.