Words & Images: Jered Gruber
On New Year’s Eve, I posted a picture to Instagram and wrote about my favorite road of 2015, the Arthog. The idea behind the post was that that road made me happy. Sure, it’s beautiful; sure, it had some amazing elements. But it’s not the Stelvio, it’s not the Galibier, it’s just a tiny car-wide road in a quiet corner of Wales. You could say it’s insignificant, but for some reason, when I look at the pictures from that afternoon, I’m all smiles, dreaming up ways to get back there. A few minutes after posting that picture, the creative director at peloton, Tim Schamber, wrote: “You should put together a story on the roads that make you happy!” So here we go….
Ashley and I are on the road for 10 months of the year. We’re rarely in any one spot for more than a week or so and I can’t go without riding my bike for more than a couple days — so we ride in a lot of places. I’m also a photographer, and I think it’s fair to say that my passion for pictures lies in finding amazing places to ride bikes — if only for entirely selfish reasons. I guess the ultimate goal is to find those special few roads that just make me…happy.
I can’t quite put a reason to why the following roads resonate so much for me, but I think they come down to a few important elements:
- They all give me the feeling that the road is my own special bike path. Cars are rare and, in some cases, impossible to drive on these roads.
- The feeling of adventure. I’ve never ridden a single one of these roads and not felt like I had left the beaten path and was on a personal adventure. It doesn’t matter how many people have gone before me, these roads evoke a unique feeling.
- They also evoke a sense of wonder. I’ll say, “Wow!” I won’t stop talking about how blown away I am. I’ll use lots of superlatives. I’ll take a million pictures. And I’ll lie in bed late at night thinking about the next time I’ll see the road of my dreams.
I thought about this selection for far too long. I left out some roads that I dearly love, but I think this list of my 11 favorite roads is pretty okay…and in no particular order.
I almost didn’t ride this road. If it weren’t for the help of young Jack Brown on an out-of-the-blue ride in Wales this past summer, I wouldn’t be writing these words. It had already been a great day of riding. We were at least four hours into what would end up being close to a seven-hour day, and he mentioned a small turn-off coming up: “It’s a great road, you’ll like it.”
So we turned, the road shifted up three gears, and I frantically shifted down, down, down to accommodate the wall of a road. It’s a short climb, always double digits, twisting through woods and channeling between ever-present stone walls. That’s all nice, but then, as we neared the top, the trees fell away, the views opened up and there were lakes and mountains and a small road protected by low-lying walls on each side.
I lost my mind. This is, this is, oh my god, this is…wow!
A simple command — use some words to describe it — falls on deaf ears when I come up on one of these special roads. It’s probably the simplest test of all: “Have you lost the ability to express yourself in words?” Yes. You’ve found a good one. Carry on!
If you forced me to pick my favorite road, this would be it. I’d be lying though, because this isn’t actually a road. It’s a trail.
We have a lot of reasons to be grateful for having Igor Tavella of the Ustaria Posta in Badia in our lives, but this one little path might be the pinnacle. I could have ridden a lifetime in the Dolomites and never found this path. The climb starts right behind his family’s hotel and climbs the way most of the farm roads in the Dolomites do: narrowly, steeply and beautifully.
Just taking this road to the end of the pavement is worth the effort. It’s perfect, and even in the height of the summer when the nearby Sella Ronda is choked with buses, cars and cyclists, this little side road is vacant of activity and packed with all that’s good about riding in the Dolomites.
Near the top, there’s a small turn to the left. Don’t miss it or you’ll end up just finding beautiful dirt roads and open meadows and huge views. Stay focused. Enjoy the brief respite from the gradient, enjoy the classic farmhouse architecture of Südtirol, and then watch out — the road ends at a chapel. Dead end.
And this is where the fun starts!
My first time on this adventure, Igor just kept riding. He didn’t pause, he didn’t say anything, he didn’t look back encouragingly, he just rode straight into the grass. There’s no path, no semblance of any sort of anything to ride a bike on. He just kept going.
Right over the rise behind the chapel, a small dirt trail came into view and immediately plunged into a dark forest. The single track is smooth and fun for a few seconds, before going back into the open — and it’s perfect. The trail is perched along the mountainside between two forests, with huge views of the Dolomites to the left and a wall of single-track dirt directly in front of you.
Everything is alight in this moment: I’m going crazy about the view, trying to keep my front wheel on the ground, trying to keep moving forward and trying not to think about the searing pain rippling through my legs — all with both eyes not really looking at the dirt but at the divine panorama sweeping off to the left. I love it, because there’s so much happening at once. It’s a waterfall of emotions.
There’s a small bench on the right side of the path at the point where it’s prettiest. Whoever put that bench there knew what they were doing. It’s perfect. I always mean to stop, but I haven’t yet. I’ll do it this summer.
I didn’t make it up this section the first time, but I’ve got that little wall’s number now. It’s about 20 seconds of stiff pedaling, but after that the trail turns back into the woods — and carries on. It’s lovely in general, but that one little section is just…yeah, the words are gone again.
This kind of trail isn’t for everyone, but it’s my happy place.
I’ve always loved the cobbles. I still remember the first time I watched the Tour of Flanders on a VHS tape. I still remember the first time I read about the Koppenberg, saw the pictures, imagined what that must be like. I remember the feeling that it evoked in me. Wonder.
Many years later, I got a chance to visit Flanders for the first time. Minutes later, I was on my bike in search of the Koppenberg. I got lost, lost again, then happened to look over my shoulder — and there was no question what I was looking at. From the small cluster of houses at its base, it looked impossible. There’s this tiny string of rocks, seemingly placed one on top of the other, disappearing up the hillside into a trench between two fields.
I stood at the bottom and gawked at the stern test that lay before me. Then I started into it. I struggled against the rocks and the gradient and the eternally slick section at the steepest point. I got nervous — could I make it up this thing? But, through it all, I smiled as I fought the Koppenberg. It was an ugly effort, but I made it; and as I stood at the top and looked back down the cascade of cobblestones, I knew that we were going to be friends.
It was magic.
Then we spent more and more time in nearby Oudenaarde. I see it nearly every day each spring, and I still feel the same way. I love that climb. It’s an imposing, beautiful sight. The climb is tough, but it’s only 600 meters long, and the really hard part in the heart of the trench is only a fraction of that. It’s a climb that can be enjoyed because it’s not insanely long. And if one does have to put a foot down — as I have on a number of occasions — it’s not the worst walk in the world. You’ll be following in the footsteps of many, many great riders who have been forced to their feet on these cobbles.
I love the Koppenberg because I can close my eyes and see it from every angle and feel my way over each and every cobble. I love it because it makes me smile when I think about it. Again, this may not be for everyone, but if you love cobbles, the Koppenberg is a special spot.
Passo di Gavia
I can’t help it. This road. It’s everything a gigantic climb should be. It’s everything the Stelvio is not. It’s everything L’Alpe d’Huez could never be. The Gavia is one of the few legendary climbs that lives up to the hype and then graciously hands over extra presents and reasons to love her.
That road in the late afternoon, near the top of the Ponte di Legno side, with just the ever-present afternoon clouds, the mountains and their snow, the crunch of small stones beneath rubber, the trickle of water across the road, the feeling that if you sat up and rode no-handed, your wingspan would cover the width of the road — it all adds up to special.
And then, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can skip that late tunnel and brave the deplorable state of the old road with its rocks and barely passable surface. Take my heart, Gavia. Just take it.
In some ways, it pains me to include Switzerland on this list, because I have a hard time wrapping my head around Swiss prices. It bums me out how expensive a place like Grindelwald can be, because it takes paradise and turns it into an exclusive getaway. In general, Europe is an expensive place to be, but Grindelwald takes it over the top. So those are my practical reservations. But here’s the stone-cold fact: the Grosse Scheidegg is out of this world and worth the price of admission.
From the town of Grindelwald, it’s 11 kilometers at 9 percent to the summit. That’s a bit misleading though because the part of dreams doesn’t start until about 6.5 kilometers to go. Here, the road is barred to normal traffic (just the bus and local farm vehicles are permitted); here, the road gets really narrow; and here, the road gets steep. The road averages 11 percent to the top and every bit of it is beautiful. Superlative, superlative, blah, blah, blah. Trust me, it’s great.
It gets better though. It was only this past fall that we realized there was something even better than what I already considered a 10/10. At the top, there’s a small turn-off…and the road keeps going. It alternates between pavement and dirt and connects to the other side of the valley. This road — this is the stuff of gob-smack dreams. We didn’t have the time to explore everything we wanted to over there, but we will definitely be back.
It brings me to one of the most important tips for my bike-riding happiness: Don’t stop at the top of the climb. Keep going on that inevitable small dirt road to see where it goes. Every once in a while, something like what I’ve just described happens.
A friend of ours, Alé, told me about this climb a long time ago. He said something like, “Well, if you think this climb is nice, you should probably check out the Fauniera.” I dutifully noted the road and went straight back to Google to begin my research. I found good things. Three different ways up, all beautiful, all on forgotten little roads that clearly no one had any interest in using.
It was always in the back of my mind as a climb we needed to visit, but it wasn’t until this past year that it finally happened. We were driving from one project to another, and we came close to the start of the climb. I proposed that we take a few minutes and have a look at the road — just to see if it was as good as we imagined it might be. So we drove it as far as the spring snow would allow; and if I was interested before, I was obsessed now.
A couple of months later, we were back, armed with some of our best friends. On the fifth day of a trip south through the Alps with inGamba Tours, we finally got our chance to ride the Colle Fauniera. We rode up from Ponte Marmora, the northern side. It was a glorious two hours. I liked it so much, I lured inGamba’s Thomas into going down the east side (we’d get the northern and southern ways up by following the route), just to see how awesome that was. It was all great.
It has all that I look for in a climb: a lot of different sections, different feels, big views sometimes, close forest other times, tunnels, a few decaying stone buildings, lots of switchbacks, tiny road. It’s a blast. For me, it’s one of the rare big climbs that possesses no weak parts. A lot of the time on some of the huge passes you feel like half or even more of the climb is spent on getting to the awesome part. I hate that. I love climbs that are great from start to finish — this is one of those special ones…along with the Gavia.
I’ll always have Bram Schittecatte to thank for this road. I think there are more roads in Flanders than there are bricks in their buildings — and that’s saying something. Riding all of them would take a disciplined rider a lifetime, so it’s good to have a friend to help sort through the “musts” and the “mehs” before starting to search. Bram is very good at that.
On one of our earliest rides, he took me on this densely forested “road” that didn’t amount to much more than paved double-track with mud on the sides and in the middle. The Fortuinberg meanders its way up the steep Muziekbos hillside — and by “meanders” I mean it goes straight up, peaking at a 21-percent grade. In the final couple-hundred meters, the grade eases and the road goes into the earth — the floor of the forest gradually gets higher and higher, until it’s above your head. It’s fantastic; and if you ever ride with me in Flanders, there’s a 100-percent chance we’ll do this road.
It feels like my own personal bike path, and the road is a magnet for my riding. I always seem to end up coming back to Oudenaarde this way. It feels like there are dozens of ways home from the south, but none are half as enticing as the Fortuinberg.
Monte Sante Marie
I love dirt. I love the feeling that I get on dirt, the sensation of adventure that I crave, but without taking away my beloved road bike. What can I say? A mountain bike doesn’t feel a hundredth as good to me as my road bike.
Chianti is famous for its dirt roads, courtesy L’Eroica and the Strade Bianche, and Monte Sante Marie plays a crucial part in both events. In L’Eroica, it’s the hardest section of dirt, and at the Strade Bianche, it signifies the beginning of the race’s finale. It’s not decisive, but it does good work making it clear who’s in the running with still an hour of racing to go.
For a normal bike ride, it’s Tuscan perfection. The road rolls, winds, twists, climbs and descends across the sometimes green (depending on the time of year), sometimes brown hills that Tuscany is so famous for. It’s a perfect stretch of dirt road. I haven’t seen too many that are better, and fewer still that make me as happy to ride them.
The Valley of Rocks
This is another road that’s not actually a road, and unlike my other favorites, bikes aren’t even technically allowed on it — which I guess adds that little bit of extra to the adventure feel. This little section of pavement, just outside of Lynton, on the northern edge of Exmoor in southwest England, is part of the South West Coast Path. It’s a gorgeous footpath and generally not advisable (and 100-percent not allowed) for cyclists, but this one little section is just worth it.
It’s a paved walking path carved out of the rocky cliffs that fall into the crashing ocean below. It’s windy, it feels like you’re riding along the edge of the world, and it feels like this might be the most beautiful place on earth. It’s also probably advisable to play on this path at quiet times of the day — which is perfect, because the sunset there is worth seeing, and you won’t see another soul.
I probably wouldn’t rank this as a favorite if it weren’t for the rest of Exmoor though. I’m not going to go crazy for a path that takes two minutes to ride if the rest of my day wasn’t already a trip through the fantastic. The Valley of Rocks is the world’s best dessert after a day of feasting.
This might be my perfect road. It’s a short climb, but not too short. It’s tough, but not too tough. It’s just right for me. Cars cannot get on it because the road was closed some years back and blocked by very large, very immovable objects.
The road connects the town of Cismon del Grappa in the Valsugana with the Valcismon. It’s in Castelli’s backyard, and we’ve had way too much fun romping on this one and the countless roads of the southern tip of the Dolomites, which make the area around Feltre one of the best anywhere. It’s littered with little-used paved paths through the mountains. Huge climbs on tiny roads are everywhere. Monte Grappa is right next-door with its 10 different ways up, and my favorite way up Grappa — from Cismon — starts less than a kilometer from where the climb to Incino begins. In fact, I’ve struggled trying to make the call between Incino and the full climb of Monte Grappa.
In the end, the question is simple: which would I rather ride every day? That had an easy answer: Incino. Cismon is amazing, but there’s some serious energy necessary to enjoy a full climb up Monte Grappa. It’s at least a two-hour climb with a super-hard section early on with pitches in the mid-20-percent range. I love it and think it’s wonderful, but my absolute favorite roads are the ones I feel like I can ride again and again and again.
Incino is just that. Over its 2 kilometers, it has four switchbacks. The road is so narrow that if you come into the switchbacks too fast, you’ll have to brake — or risk running into the mountainside. The road is hewn directly out of the rocks of the mountainside; it forms half of a tunnel so, in a sense, you can ride beneath the mountain and stay dry if it rains. Or, more likely, you’ll get some much-appreciated shade and cooling in the heat of the summer.
As you climb through the section of road blown out of the mountain, on your right, there’s a sheer drop-off to the river below — with the road up Monte Grappa visible on the other side of the narrow canyon. It makes for a wonderful, intimate feel, before giving way to dense forest, some more switchbacks and, finally, the aging village of Incino.
I could spend a day just going up and down this climb. I’d never get bored.