MTB Bikepacking: the Big Ring of the Sibillini Mountains by bicycle
Like every year, at the end of August we wanted to celebrate Vero's birthday on our mountain bikes, so we started thinking about a two-days-itinerary in our area... and we ended up bikepacking cycling the Big Ring of the Sibillini Mountains (in Italian GAS, Grande Anello dei Sibillini) for 5 days on mountain bikes, with Nala, our one year and a half dog, and three bikers/friends, who patiently waited for us despite their better and trained condition. Here is how it went!
Why the Big Ring of the Sibillini Mountains in MTB?
As I wrote just above, the idea was to cycle, in a couple of days, an itinerary on the Venetian Dolomites. Than Davide, an old friend, author at Life in Travel and great MTB guide who helped organizing this year's Bike Days, came up with an idea while we were cycling with him between Switzerland and Piedmont to cycle on the panoramic trail of the Aletsch, on the Furggu Pass and the Stockalperweg. During those three days, we really enjoyed pedaling and eating... and we discussed possible ring itineraries for three to five days.
We also considered climbing the Mont Blanc on MTB. Once back home, the idea was to circumnavigate the highest mountain of the Alps, so we looked for some information. Two options: one with a lot of portage, the other with a lot of asphalt... none was convincing: the first because we prefer hiking without our bikes on the back (we prefer with our boots and without the bikes), the second because of Nala, our four-legged friend. Exhausted by the many choices we had, at dinner time, I said: "So be it... we'll go on the Sibillini mountains!".
No one reacted to my sentence as a joke, so four days after we were in Visso, ready to face the Big Ring of the Sibillini Mountains on our MTBs.
Everybody liked the idea right away, despite the distance, for many reasons: the weather would have been better than the Alps, Davide had never cycled on the Appennines before and we wanted to see the changes caused by the earthquakes during the last years and maybe help those territories and locals with our presence and tourist money (after our crossing of the Appennines in 2014 during our bicycle travel North to South of Italy). Once we fixed the destination, Davide called Maurizio and Alberto, cool and trained bikers from Bergamo who already cycled with us the climb to Piz Tri in Valcamonica.
Bikepacking MTB on the Big Ring of the Sibillini Mountains: the route
Our sources and inspiration
There are many alternatives to the route of the Big Ring of the Sibillini Mountains, which is mainly a nine days trekking route, signaled by white and red signposts (similar to the CAI ones, with a big G in the middle). Online you can find many alternatives for MTB and on-site, you can see many gravel roads suitable for MTB and bikepacking explorations. The route we cycled is 99% suitable for cycling (there are short sections where you must push the bike here and there) and it's a mix of tracks taken from the Sibillini Park website (take a look at it for the structures open and the red flag areas after the earthquakes) and from the Sibillini Bike Map website, where you can find many versions of the Ring and some daily routes in the area and on the Appennines.
Five days on the Big Ring
The Big Ring of the Sibillini Mountains on MTB is a circular route crossing all the National Park of the Sibillini Mountains and we suggest you cycling it clockwise. Personally, we decided to dedicate 5 days, drastically reducing the daily kilometers, to enjoy the days in the Park.Nonetheless, some legs have been pretty demanding and tiring. We think that with a low-medium training level, five days (ending the Ring with a half-day on the saddle allowed us to come back home by car in the evening) is the perfect time to pedal slowly, stop and enjoy the divine local products and admire the beautiful landscapes. The same route is doable in 3 days... to complete it in less time would mean denying the right attention to these places!
"Our" Big Ring of the Sibillini Mountains on MTB
The Big Ring of the Sibillini Mountains starts in Visso, main center on the itinerary, to rapidly climb to the Macereto Sanctuary and go on towards Fiastra. After cycling along the lakeshore, you climb again, touching the Northenest point in Podalla. Then you find Pintura di Bolognola and then keeping the elevation, in a continuous up and down, to the Amandola lodge, where you dive to Montefortino.The alternatives to climbing to Montemonaco or Isola S. Biagio are a lot, while from Altino the beautiful Harvester Path starts. The closing of many lodges in the mountains caused by the earthquakes forces us to climb down to Balzo for one night, to then climb up back towards Forca di Presta, reopened not so long ago. The beauty of Mount Vettore, dominating the Castelluccio plane accompanies us for many kilometers, reaching the Southern point of the itinerary near the Colle Le Cese lodge, closed and devastated by the earthquake. After crossing the street connecting Norcia to Castelluccio (SP477) you continue on the western peaks towards Castelluccio to then close the Ring with a beautiful crossing of the flocks and fast and fun descent to Visso.
With a dog in the National Park of the Sibillini Mountains
As anticipated, we faced this itinerary being six: five bikers and a dog, our Nala! Since the route crosses a National park, we wanted to be informed about the possibility to introduce a dog to the Sibillini Mountains and we used the page about dog introduction on the official website of the Park. Quoting the web page:
"In the majority of the territory of the Park, it is possible to introduce a dog, but in some areas high in the mountains, it is forbidden... IT IS FORBIDDEN to introduce dogs in Area A of the Park".
You can download the map with the different areas of the Park to this link. By confronting our itinerary with the areas of the Park we discovered that the Big Ring of the Sibillini Mountains doesn't enter the Area A of the Park, so our dog could enter the Park without any problem (I should say that this check happened after programming the itinerary, so it was our lucky day!).
On the very same page of the Park website you can read: "...in the Park, like on all the Italian territory, the dog must be ALWAYS taken on the LEASH"... well, we didn't respect this rule, leaving Nala free when possible and using the proper leash for the saddle when necessary!
We must underline that in the Park you can find (and I should say luckily!) some flocks of sheep which are controlled by shepherds but mostly by sheepdogs, big and beautiful Maremma-sheepdogs or Abruzzese-sheepdogs! Logically when we came near to a flock, these giants came to say "hi" by loudly barking, but getting off the bike, walking and keeping Nala at the leash nothing bad never happened... except some first sight love and some broken heart! These dogs were doing their job, barking and defending the flocks, but then came back to it, losing all interests in our presence, once we were far enough from their "competence area".
The lodges and our base points on the route
To guarantee some resting areas along the Big Ring of the Sibillini Mountains, the Park restored some lodges, but many of them are damaged by the earthquake and then closed. We suggest taking a look at the page dedicated to the Ring, which now reports: "Part of the lodges and accommodating structures on the Ring is condemned because of damages. The two lodges now opened are in Garulla and Tribbio".
On our itinerary we could find some hosting facilities in Visso, Fiastra, Bolognola, the Città di Amandola lodge, Montefortino, Isola San Biagio, Balzo and Castelluccio and personally we stayed in the Tribbio lodge in Fiastra (we suggest having lunch or dinner there!), in an apartment not far from Montefortino, at Balzo Camping (in a bungalow... pretty expensive compared to the others) and in Castelluccio, in one of the few structures still open after the earthquake.
The itinerary leg by leg
After all these pieces of information, hopefully useful, let's dive into the detailed itinerary, leg by leg. You can find the map, the altimetry, some technical data and the GPS tracks above in the dedicated area.
Visso-Fiastra | 29 km | 1130 m D+
Reaching Visso in the morning, when the sun wasn't close to putting light on its ruins, was heartbreaking. Barriers everywhere, collapsed rock walls here and there, houses and shops closed for good, centimeters of cracks on the few walls still standing, the city center inaccessible... There's another side of the coin, fortunately: the new houses close to the center, some shops open, cafes and restaurants trying to start again. This is far from normal, but there is hope to start again.
We leave our car at the parking near the "lake", where some container houses host the police, and where we will be coming back to pick it up in 5 days. The preparation is quick and after 10 A.M. we're riding... we cross the river Ussita and just before the Pasticceria Vissana we turn right on a narrow road, Via paolo da Visso: if a good beginning bodes well, it will be hard, for the next 5 days in the Sibillini Mountains! The road climbs up with crazy elevation gradients and asphalt gives space to gravel just before Rocca Castel San Giovanni, where you can enjoy the panoramic view on the city and, unfortunately, acknowledge more clearly the devastating power of the earthquake. Close to the village, on the left, a path enters the woods: at the beginning, it is fun and not too climby, but moreover, the muscles will have to work hard, to make the pedal turn!
Sometimes we have to get off the bike and push it, but overall we manage to climb! Around altitude 1000 meters, the woods open and we can see the beautiful panoramic views of the Sibillini Mountains: a nearly dry and not drinkable water source indicates the beginning of a pushing leg of this first day, after which we get over the hump. A big open field indicates the end of the hill, and on the opposite side of the field, just a few meters downhill, we can see the Macereto Sanctuary. The downhill path that brings us to this place of worship is fun but should be faced carefully, because its disconnected and rocky terrain. The last ramp before the Sanctuary is for professionals! This religious structure at 1000 meters above sea level is one of the greatest expressions of the Renaissance architecture of Marche.
As one can read from the panel in front of the structure (and on Wikipedia) about the foundation of the Sanctuary: "The tradition tells us that on August 12th, 1359, while transporting a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary with her Child from Loreto to the Reign of Naples, the donkeys stopped and stayed on their knees on the actual site of the Sanctuary, and didn't want to move, even if they were beaten and whipped. The peasants who came to help saw a divine sign in this, and decided to build a primitive church dedicated to the Virgin Mary to keep the statue safe". The main building, the octagon, has been damaged by the earthquake and has been secured to avoid further damages, but the suggestion of this place is intact. Also, the Guestroom and the Palace of the Guaite which served as hosting spaces, are momentarily inaccessible, and they will be for a while before being again available for the night (take a look at the website for more information, and updates about it).
We stop for a while, also to have something to eat, before starting again uphill. Once on the bike again, we leave right away the asphalt road to enter a trail in the field which goes up until a crossing, where we go left, towards the northern locality of Cupi (the lodge is inaccessible at the moment). After crossing a beautiful duricrust with some juniper, we quickly turn right to face a hard ascent which leads us to 1500 meters in Pian Terrena. We meet a shepherd, but as soon as we look north, we see a "wall" of dark and menacing clouds getting closer and closer, with lightning and thunders: pretty terrifying! There is no shelter, but the storm seems to pass by north and avoids us: we stop finding shelter in a courtyard of the lodge Efro or Ernesto (a small house with a porch in front where we can protect ourselves). The storm has passed, so we descent one last time towards Fiastra but as soon as we leave, we're again under the pouring rain... the red terrain paints our bikes and Nala, which now seems a big and long-red-furred fox. A trail cutting the main gravel road allows us to reach our destination: the lodge in Tribbio.
Fiastra too was hit by the earthquake: we notice that during a short walk to rest our legs, then we reach the castle ruins and the small church of Saint Paul, where there is a great view on the lake and on the valley.
The big room is only for us and during the dinner, our host Giancarlo, former mayor of the village, tells us about the terrible moments during the earthquake, and the following difficulties, making us shiver. The high-quality dinner is generous, and the next day weìre happy to start again even if we would have liked to stop for a few days.
Fiastra-Montefortino | 37 km | 1020 m D+
The distance between Fiastra and the namesake lake is short and we manage to avoid the main road to reach San Lorenzo al Lago. Here you can cycle on the bike and pedestrian lane along the east shore to then meet the main road again just before the crossing towards Podalla. We start climbing, good gain but on asphalt, still when the sun isn't too hot and we quickly reach the locality of the Abbey of Santa Croce. Before visiting it, though, we have a quick word with a local family who wants to chat and Nala gets attentions from a beautiful Alaskan Malamut... luckily there was a fence between them, otherwise today we would be carrying an entire pack of little dogs! We manage to climb a little bit and we stop again: a friendly old guy who moved here some years ago tells us some anecdote about the place, and makes his farewell with a Latin phrase perfect for today: "Per aspera, ad astra" - he says. Will we reach the stars only through labour and sweat!
Just after the locality of Podalla, the asphalt leaves the place to gravel, while the elevation gain stays the same, but never impossible. Around 1200 meters, after a beautiful plain, we reach the main road connecting Fiastra to the ski lift of Sassotetto. After a few turns, once passed the locality of Pintura del Ragnolo, we leave again the asphalt and we keep cycling on trails in the fields, a hard uphill.Another quick meeting with a flock and its sheepdogs gives us another dose of adrenaline and just after, before reaching the trail to Pizzo di Meta, we meet two bikers going downhill... they stop us: they recognized Vero and Nala and they introduce themselves. It's the guys from Capra Bike, experts of the Conero but deep knowers of these areas... they are on a one-day excursion and they are reaching their car: we envy them because they will be going downhill for a while! A picture together and we are on the saddle again... there's still a lot to pedal, for today!
We are on the asphalt now, until Pintura di Bolognola, in a narrow valley from which one can admire the peaks of Pizzo Tre Vescovi and Mount Priora (2333 m). Near the restaurant La Capanna, we turn left leaving again the asphalt and after a quick ascent, a long descent starts, giving us a sight on the hills of the Marches and at the Sibillini's feet. Around 1100 meters we begin a beautiful single trail leading to the Lodge Città di Amandola.We would have gladly stopped here to sleep, but dogs aren't welcome, so we just have a slice of crostata. The CAI 228 trail starts just below the Lodge and the first leg is technical. A pretty spectacular balcony on the Val d'Ambro, with some peaks of this part of the Sibillini Mountains as view, marks the end of the most demanding part of the day, and the descent continues until Capodivalle, where we climb again passing mount Rocca. A series of ravines and eroded rocks accompanies us before we leave the forest road and turn right on another beautiful single trail. The descent is steep and before we even notice, we reach the provincial road leading to Montefortino.
To spend the night we found an apartment right on the provincial road. The host is a biker who gives us a lot of suggestions for the next days. Unfortunately, the dinner in a beautiful tower isn't quite good as the other days... we'll be lucky next time!
Montefortino-Balzo | 28 km | 1010 m D+
Waking up we notice that Nala seems to limp: we did too much yesterday, or is it only our imagination? We try not to force her and end up avoiding the deviation to Montefortino, leaving the others to visit it. In reality, we choose to do so to have some advantage over the group, me being slow uphill. To reach Colle Regnone we take the road towards Sossasso: the ride is enjoyable, with not so much traffic and after the first group of houses gravel road takes the place to the normal road. Nala now seems to be back in the game, while I, tired, plod uphill. We are shocked to see the others from the group coming really fast!
We reach the small village of Colle Regnone and after entering the provincial road, we pass by Isola San Biagio. The zigzag road going up to the Lodge Sibilla lays under the namesake mountain, which will accompany our daily leg.
Another kilometer of light uphill brings us to the highest point of the climb: we decide to deviate a hundred meters to reach, on a turn, a great restaurant where a big and friendly woman prepares us a couple of sandwiches with ciauscolo (a typical cold cut from this area) and cheese. We sit outside and try to understand what happened to our adventure mates: we discover that they took a wrong turn and they split, climbing two different parts of the hill. Alberto comes first after visiting Montemonaco and coming on the asphalt. Davide and Maurizio took a pretty rough trail and manage to reach us after a while coming from our same direction.
Once everyone has properly eaten, we continue all together on a rocky single trail which leads us down to Tofe, on the banks of the river Aso. We climb up again crossing the river after a while. The asphalt helps us together with the shadow, but then the gravel road and the hot sun of the afternoon kill us.
Altino, luckily, isn't too far, and in its center, we find a fresh fountain where we can dip head and arms! From this little village, the Reapers Trail starts: it is a great track which, staying always on the peak in a never boring up and down, leads us between Banditello e Torrone mountains, reaching a beautiful clearing over Balzo, not far from the small church Santa Maria in Pantano. Here we are forced to leave the trail to climb down to Balzo, the only village where we can find a base for the night not too far from the track.
We split once again: Maurizio and Alberto climb down on a trail just in front of the Lodge Cupi (closed) in the locality of Colle, to dive into the canyon of the Fluvione river; the others, Nala and me included, climb down on the street, to avoid unpleasant surprises (the trail on the seismic map is indicated as not feasible, but a guy confirms its accessibility). The group is then reunited on the bridge leading beyond the river: Alberto and Maurizio confirm the beauty and feasibility of the trail!
Camping Vettore in Balzo is our base for tonight (some bungalows: not cheap but functional), and we reach it by going uphill... the daily leg was short, so there's time to rest, a good aperitif and a great dinner at the camping's restaurant.
Balzo-Castelluccio | 38 km | 1200 m D+
It's the most panoramic day... but also the longest one! Climbing back up to Astorara to the Reapers Trail is a mystery: our camping host thinks it's closed, at the bar someone confirms that it's open... we just have to ride and iscover the truth! The road is not busy at all and goes up in the woods.
The localities of Collefratta, Astorara, and Colleluce are pretty damaged and many buildings collapsed, but the road isn't interrupted. Not far from the river Fluvione crossing, way higher than yesterday, we leave the asphalt and take gravel uphill. We are surprised by the number of cars here, but soon we realize why: people dressed in costumes and with bow and arrows is walking. Curious, we stop and ask these people: it's a private party to celebrate some old battles. In a big field, medieval camping has been set up, with tents and tables: the drums roll and the battle starts. We keep riding, in order to stay safe.
Just after this, we enter the Reapers Trail once again... a beautiful track in the woods, at the base of Mount Vettore, dominating the horizon. Just after, the trail becomes road again, but some ravines interrupted the track. We manage to overcome some of them just by carrying the bike, but the third passage is pretty bad, so we have to be very careful crossing... but thanks to everybody's help, everyone can pass the interruptions and we can continue - being galvanized - to Fonte delle Cacere.
Just after we reach the road leading to Forca di Presta, just reopened. One kilometer on asphalt and we reach the crossing place, where a small bar awaits us: beer and sandwich with porchetta are a well-deserved prize!
It's saturday, so there are a lot of car parked: the majority belongs to excursionists who came here to face the trail to Lake Pilato, below Mount Vettore. We take the gravel road in the opposite direction and the route offers us a beautiful view on the Castelluccio Plain, on Mount Vettore and on the valley of Tronto.
In a panoramic viewpoint, one can see Arquata del Tronto, Amatrice, Mounts of the Laga and some peaks of the Gran Sasso. The road becomes then a fun trail leading to the Lodge Colle Le Cese (closed): from here it takes nothing to Forca Canapine, but we continue on the trail in the middle of the fields, towards Lodge Perugia and the road uphill from Norcia to Castelluccio.
We looki like children in a playground: fun is contagious. Another kiosk means another beer, this time a handmade one, double malt, just to treat us! Fortunately it's five of us, so the tasting doesn't put too much weight on the legs, also because afterwards the climb is very tough!We turn around Mount Ventosola and all the western peak on the Castelluccio Plain. The lights and shadows created by the clouds on the plain give us evocative views on this Big Ring of the Sibillini Mountains, which is carving a place in our hearts!
A name, a certainty: Colle Tosto!
To turn around it, we are forced to push our bikes for some meters, but once on top of it, we can peacefully enjoy the panorama above Norcia, which from here looks like a small dot far away!A last crossing leads us to a white gravel road which descends to Castelluccio di Norcia, in the middle of the plain. This village is a group of ruins today: two years passed, but it seems that the earthquake was yesterday... nothing or too little has been done, and only the luckiest without damages can continue with some hope. The others must invent some pop-up shops in the streets... just a few have the opportunity to settle in some containers which give the impression to be stable, and while we walk in the village, we see that the center is completely closed: a red area.
We are hosted by one of the two structures still open, and for dinner we must try the lentils soup, while outside the temperature drops and it starts raining.
Castelluccio-Visso | 25 km | 600 m D+
Our last day: short, easy, melancholic. We wake up with a grey sky, but we're not afraid. We hurry to have our breakfast, we say goodbye to the many paragliding enthusiasts and we leave. We decided to climb the mountain passing on an alternative road, in Val Canatra.In the beginning, the road is flat and easy, but just after passing the Val Canatra source, the elevation gain is tough, becoming soon prohibitive. We push our bikes in the last part of the path, which is very slippery because of the humidity of the previous evening, and we join the road when we are at 1700 meters.
The effort though is well paid by the following fun moment... we soon reach the highest point of this route of the Big Ring of the Sibillini Mountains, reaching altitude 1800 meters near Monte delle Rose. The uphills (a few) and downhills (a lot) are the best: we cross big fields with many panoramic views on all the Sibillini Mountains.The last climb to the feet of Monte Cavolese is an easy thing and the fog climbing up from the valley does not bother us... it's a suggestive set! The final descent towards Visso is a long and pleasant gravel road which can be cut by some single trails.
We finally reach the village after midday and we manage to put everything on the cars just before a natural shower pours on us... a lucky ending, perfect to celebrate these beautiful 5 days on the Big Ring of the Sibillini Mountains, our bikepacking MTB adventure.
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ITA - Ho 33 anni e sono piemontese, anche se da qualche anno vivo e lavoro in Lombardia. Dopo un inizio da totale inesperto in questo campo, mi sono avvicinato al mondo dei cicloviaggi e della bicicletta sempre più. Oggi posso definirmi "cicloviaggiatore", e assieme all'altra mia passione - il videomaking - non mi fermerei mai! Cyclo ergo sum, pedalo quindi sono, per cercare di capire perché andare in bici sia così bello, terapeutico, ricco... E ogni volta che provo a capirlo, non ce la faccio, e sono costretto a ripartire sui pedali!
ENG - I'm from Piedmont and I'm 33 years old, I have been living and working in Lombardy for a few years. After a start without any competence in this field, I then approached the bicycle world more and more. Today I can call myself a bicycle traveller and videomaker who would never ever stop. Cyclo ergo sum, I cycle therefore I am. I ride my bike trying to understand why it is so beautiful, rich, therapeutic. And every time I try, I do not understand it. So I must leave again...
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