Rouleur explore: Journey to the centre of the mountain
At the foot of Monte Rosa, the second-highest mountain in the Alps, there’s a cycling paradise, waiting to be discovered. There are no great Alpine passes, but around Valsesia and Lake Orta the possibilities for cycling adventures are endless
This article was produced in association with Consorzio Monterosa Valsesia.
Every cyclist remembers the moment they took the stabilisers off their first bicycle. For me, it was on the driveway outside my house, my dad was pushing me uphill, holding the saddle tightly until the slope decreased, when he loosened his grip and set me free on the flat. My mum was there too, watching closely.
I wobbled left and right, wriggling uncontrollably, brushing up against the hedges, until I gave the pedals a few decisive pushes, upped my cadence, corrected the trajectory, and took off, beyond the gate. I was four years old.
I remember spending that first afternoon of my cycling life riding back and forth on the 200 metres of road just outside my house, beside the woods. I still associate cycling with thickets of beech and the smell of moss.
The valley of Valsesia in Italy, where I come from, is narrow and closed off by steep slopes and tall mountains. It’s a difficult school, whether you’re skiing, hiking, or cycling. That’s why it’s better to remove the training wheels early, if possible on a climb, because the environment is unforgiving.
The roads are rarely perfect, but every one of them has a good reason for it to be travelled. The Sesia river runs through the valley, fed by crystal clear water that flows from glaciers. It flows into deep gorges, crashing onto the rocks below after huge gushes, out into the void. After it gathers in quiet basins, fishermen search it for trout, and children play at skimming pebbles.
Day one: The journey to a jagged horizon
There’s a backpack by the door, filled with my camera and a selection of lenses. My alarm went off at 6:30am, and as I eat my breakfast, the light that pours into the kitchen turns the white tablecloth a rosy pink. At that moment, I’m sure of two things: that it will be a beautiful day, and that I love my job as a photographer. Even so, looking at Mattia, I envy him for a moment, because he’s the one who gets to ride.
We’re meeting the others at Lake Orta. To enjoy the climbs of Valsesia in all their glory, we’ve chosen to start from far away, making it a real journey of exploration, with a destination in front of us that is distant, but reachable, one that you can see on the horizon, rather than just following a line on a GPS screen.
We begin at agriturismo La Darbia, surrounded by vineyards and the beautiful aromas of traditional country cooking, with reflections of Monte Rosa glistening on the swimming pool.
Veronica, Mattia, and Emilio are getting ready to ride. I can hear the enthusiasm in their voices as they prepare to leave. In the shade of the forest, where the sun has yet to rise, the air is cold. Before setting off, we drink some coffee, under a wooden porch that’s been taken over by climbing plants, as we all stare at the road ahead.
We are not in Valsesia yet; the first climb we face is part of an exploratory prelude that serves to fire up the imagination. We’re heading to the Madonna del Sasso, above Alzo. From Darbia, we descend on the first hairpin bends. The sun is still low on the horizon, and in the shadows, the air is cold against bare skin. I don’t think any cyclist likes to start downhill.
On the contrary, if in recent years I have understood anything about what drives the desire to ride, to labour, bent over the bars, it’s that going uphill, or against the wind, are the situations when you feel most at home.
The beautiful central square of Orta is busy with locals going about their morning’s shopping as we leave it behind, crossing the lake by boat. Mattia would have preferred to circumnavigate it by bike, and I can see it in his eyes. However, last night I explained to him that it was impossible if we wanted to stay on schedule, complete the entire ride, and make time for photos.
“If it’s possible to cycle somewhere, and you’re sitting on a bicycle, I don’t see the point of not using it,” he said, trying one more time to convince me. Spoken like a true cyclist. “We have to get to Fobello before dark,” I replied.
“Okay, but it’s always better to go around. Always,” he kept muttering as he filled his bottles at the sink. He’s been my partner for seven years, and I won’t bother describing him physically, because I’m biased. I can however tell you that, over time, after some initial misunderstanding, I accepted my position in his hierarchy of priorities at roughly the same level as cycling and fishing. I finally understood, one day after we’d climbed the Col du Galibier and then to L’Alpe d’Huez. That evening, in the mountains, we’d eaten a char that he’d caught in the Romanche river. To love someone, you have to put yourself in their shoes, and cycle a lot together, I believe.
After a leisurely crossing of the lake, the first real efforts required of the legs are bizarre. For such a short climb, there are a lot of switchbacks. It’s just four kilometres from Alzo to the Sanctuary of Madonna del Sasso, and it gains just 260m in altitude. Built on top of a large stone overhang, the church is clearly visible even from a distance.
The road is a narrow strip of well-laid asphalt, illuminated in patches by the sun as it sneaks in over the tops of beech and chestnut trees. The 18th-century, Baroque-style complex, which marks the end of the first effort, boldly leans forward on a ledge of white granite, offering stunning views of Lake Orta below.
For centuries, that rock was used as a cut stone to be used for building, while the square, which we cross on our way to take in the panorama, was known as ‘the field of canvas’, because centuries ago it was where the women of the village would come to bleach and cure homemade canvas in the sun.
After a short stop, just time enough to look around and take some photos, we set off again towards Arola. In this second stretch, the climb south becomes steeper, and the sun begins to warm up. The riders begin to sweat. Another 500m elevation and we’ll officially be in Valsesia.
The Passo della Colma sits at 942m above sea level and marks the border between the provinces of Verbania and Vercelli. For me, more than anything, it’s the real crossing point between the lake and the mountains.
It’s a bit like a magic portal in some video game, taking you to the next level. The environment becomes harsher, and the altitude gain begins to make itself felt.
The uneven road makes the ride even more interesting, as you climb without interruption for eight kilometres at an average gradient of six per cent. There’s a short stretch of about 100m, right after the village of Arola, that’s a real bastard. Emilio and Mattia prefer to stand on the pedals and push harder gears; Veronica instead chooses to remain seated, with a more agile pedal stroke, until finally, they reach the pass. We put Lake Orta behind us and head on towards Monte Rosa and the Valsesia climbs.
Giro d’Italia. To photograph the race that day, I hung myself from a rock face, with a rope and harness, overlooking Varallo. The riders were like small, coloured dots, stretching and contracting, a writhing snake following the road.
A reptile in the sun, following a winding valley floor, between hills as green as the Amazon. I did say there was an echo of Jules Verne in Valsesia. ‘Twenty thousand kilometres under the mountains’, or ‘Journey to the centre of the mountain’ sound about right, don’t they?
The viewfinder of the camera excludes everything superfluous, and I can see a clear line drawn between the sky and the road, with a single cyclist in the middle. Emilio is riding on a dark line, and his thick white beard contrasts and connects with the clear sky, keeping the image in balance.
We cross the historic centre of Varallo, passing alongside the solemn staircase that connects the piazza to the luminous architecture of the Collegiate Church of San Gaudenzio. We leave the city behind us and enter the Val Mastallone, one of the three main valleys of Valsesia, which is particularly beautiful by bicycle in summertime, when the cool shade and mountain breezes are particularly welcome. At the bottom of the valley, water dominates, in every possible shade of blue.
In Valsesia, glaciers and alpine lakes feed the watercourses, which are an essential part of the landscape. The climb is magnificent, long but manageable, 17km but it only gains 426m. It’s autumn, and with half the leaves already turned to orange and yellow hues, it resembles a fairytale landscape.
From the road, which runs alongside the rushing Mastallone River, you can see fine sandy beaches, small churches, sheltered in the woods, and old stone bridges spanning the river. The Gula Bridge, suspended dramatically around 35m above the water, is ancient and provides frightening views. None of us knows exactly when the bridge was built; it could be Roman, or from the 18th century. Then we reach Fobello, where the surrounding wilderness becomes softer, and stately villas interrupt the primitive atmosphere that had accompanied every pedal stroke deeper in the valley.
Day 2: Suspended between past and future
The first time I tackled the Alpe di Mera climb I was with my father. I was 16 and had only been riding properly for a short time. Such a short time, in fact, that I thought it would be a great idea to get there by car to avoid the first 23 flat kilometres from my house.
On the first ramp after Scopello, where the real climb begins, my father was already zigzagging his way up to mitigate the gradient, while I violently trashed the handlebars, pulling and pushing with my arms, trying in vain to relieve my already stiff legs. It was one of the most ignorant climbs of my life.
With the right approach, however, the game changes. The imperfect asphalt caused by the winter snow becomes a fun little challenge, and even the worst of it is compensated for by the stillness that envelops this climb, it’s totally silent. Even since the 2021 Giro visited, it’s still not very popular. Which is a shame, because from the top, the views of Monte Rosa are priceless.
From Scopello, one of the most iconic climbs of Valsesia begins. It leads to the most remote villages on the southern slopes of Monte Rosa, the wildest places. A disjointed trail of Walser villages, made up of wood and stone houses with slate roofs, inhabited by genuine highland families. The men and women here, in this valley, are guardians of a language in which words taken from ancient German have been forged over time to form a pure dialect, Titsh.
It’s a strange old mountain road, 18km long, gaining 540m from Scopello to the top. Along it, near Riva Valdobbia, there’s the church of San Michele, with its enormous fresco of the Last Judgement. There are no numbers to mark the bends, it’s just a gentle ascent towards the village at the foot of Monte Rosa, to be enjoyed without numbers, times, or records to beat.
The climb from Mollia is a journey of admiration towards the Punta Gnifetti peak, with that huge, dark box, sat like a crown on the top, which is the Capanna Regina Margherita refuge, the highest in Europe.
Despite the impossibility of crossing into another valley – something we cyclists always hope for – the stillness and untouched beauty of the village, devoid of large buildings, or the architectural horrors that are all too often seen in the Alps, encourages you to explore the surroundings.
The sun is now low on the horizon, and as soon as the peak’s shadow shrouds the town, the air becomes crisp. One after the other, like children walking in single file, we return to the valley, with the bike riders speeding on without any need to pedal, surrounded by a comforting world that goes downhill at a gentle, pleasurable gradient. My advice is to ride, thinking about the infinite number of possible combinations and forgetting the obsession with crossing passes. Instead, remember the child inside all of us, the one who takes off the stabilisers and pedals up and down outside their house, marvelling at their ability to stay balanced on two wheels.
As a great painter said: “The bike embodies the myth of free man.” And Valsesia, I tell you, is an ancient land of freedom and rebellion.