One sunny day my friend Josh and I were drinking beers at Lake Merritt in Oakland, CA when we started chatting about how we wanted to do a big trip for the summer. I was taking time off in between jobs, and Josh religiously took some type of international trip every year, so it was the perfect opportunity. We wanted to adventure somewhere unfamiliar that was equally challenging and rewarding. So, after eagerly scrolling through the international routes on bikepacking.com we made our decision, bought tickets, and started to prep our matching Ritchey Timberwolves for the route which aptly dubbed ‘The Wolf’s Lair.’ The route takes place in Abruzzo, Italy, about 100 miles east of Rome, in the area best known as the ‘greenest region in Europe.’ Almost half of its territory is composed of national parks and protected nature preserves, which allows for a huge presence of wolves and brown bears, but that didn’t really deter us too much though. So, we packed up our bikes and flew out to Rome, ready to spend the next six days in the Italian countryside.
From Rome, we hopped on a whopping two car train littered with graffiti inside and out that took us straight to Abruzzo. Once we started pedaling we were forced to quickly adjust to riding fully loaded hardtails. The first night we stayed at a small campground that had its own little restaurant with surprisingly amazing pasta we immediately scarfed down.
The next morning, we packed up and descended into the town below the campgrounds to grab some espresso. Our jaws immediately dropped as we rode through the winding cobblestone streets where everywhere we looked was a sweeping million-dollar view. This would become par for the course during the entire tour, where after suffering climbing for hours we would be rewarded by rolling through gorgeous medieval hillside villages. Once we got our caffeine fix, we hopped back on our hardtails and resumed riding the gravel paths through the countryside. At the peak of one of our climbs we met a man who was off-roading as well and taking photos and we started to chat a bit. He shared with us how just a few miles west was the site of the Gran Sasso raid - where Hitler captured Mussolini back in 1943. As we parted ways, he shot some great photos of us bombing down the mountain which he emailed to us later. That night we were so exhausted we just collapsed to the side of the road, directly adjacent to a cow pie littered pasture where the sound of cowbells in the distance lulled us to sleep.
Every day became a routine - climb the double track hills in the middle of nowhere with no one to be seen for miles, then descend into another medieval hillside village. We found the villages were pretty sleepy and quiet as they usually only consisted of a church and maybe a restaurant - if we were lucky. Our saving grace were the public water fountains that seemed to appear almost haphazardly everywhere - either in town or randomly off the trail in one of the parks. We often didn’t go more than 10-15 miles without being in close proximity to one which was such a blessing. It wasn’t until day four when we found a town with an actual grocery store where we stocked up on all the olives, mushroom pate, artichokes and nuts we could fit in our bags.
Our fifth day was the most soul crushing day of all when the weather turned from the predicted scattered thunderstorms to brutal 95-degree heat. We climbed a total of 5,300ft in 40 miles, baking in the sun all day where the grade got to be as steep as 20%! This was the one time where we expected to have a water refill station half way through the climb, but nothing was to be found. After running around searching for no water in sight, we rationed our water and prayed to the Italian gods there would be e a functioning water fountain in the next town. Thankfully there was, and we celebrated by eating at the first pizzeria we saw and then followed it up with a fancy pasta restaurant because we were basically shells of humans at that point.
That night we camped on the side of the trail near the park entrance caddy-corner to a cemetery but were awakened that night by the familiar sounds of shepherds herding cattle into a pasture. We honestly saw more cattle than people the entire trip! Although the locals didn’t speak very much English and our Italian was quite limited, the few times we did chat they were always extremely kind and curious as to where we were headed.
The final day was smooth sailing. We descended almost 3,000ft down to L’Aquila where we started our journey and then back on a train to Rome. We reveled in the fact that it was the longest tour both Josh and I had ever done, and it couldn’t have gone any better than it did. Over the course of 200 miles, we climbed over 21,000ft with no flats, a few minor mechanicals, only heard a wolf howling in the distance one time, and we ate the most delicious pizza and pasta we’ve ever had. All in all, I highly recommend our methodology of finding the cheapest flights possible, getting out of the country, getting out of your comfort zone, eating all the foods as you go, risk getting eaten by wolves, and take yourself bike packing on some backroads. I promise you won’t be disappointed.