Top Ride: Passo Del Bocco
I’ve wanted to write this story for a long time, and now my mid-winter longing for a great ride finally got me off the pot and on the keyboard. I love riding in Italy, and I’ve been lucky to see most corners of the country in my travels there over the past 25 years, but one of my very favorite places to ride and be, in Italy, is the Ligurian Coast.
It’s a distinct place in cycling as home of la Primavera, the official end of winter epic ride from Milan to San Remo that marks the Classics season kick off every March. I’ve been to the race, seen stages of the Giro in the region (read about my Top Ride: Levanto here), and stayed for a couple weeks with la famiglia PEZ in 2010 – when I really had a chance to explore the endless valleys & mountains that separate the province of Liguria from the rest of the country. I met my favorite barista here, drank more than even my share of negronis, and have openly admitted that the mix of mountains and Ligurian coast will lure me back again.
The Ligurian Coast – looking east towards Sestri Levante – I could quite easily make this place home.
In 2011 we rented a house in Cavi di Lavagna, one of the endless towns / villages that populate the whole coast from the French border all they east to Livorno. The region is densely populated, but as long as you stay out of Genoa, it doesn’t feel crowded.
Our base was the home of Vincenzo and his family (VillaGiomi.com) who lived in the lower floor while renting out the 4 bedroom house up top to tourists like us. The house is in a prime location about 50 meters above the sea, and when we arrived, he’d just installed a brand new hot tub on his deck, tucked under an ancient olive tree and overlooking the coast from Sestri Levanto to Portofino. The views are spectacular. The house was excellent – comfortable rooms, modern baths, wifi, and secured private garage, and my favorite feature – the outdoor grill. Vincent was also an excellent host, personally taking us grocery shopping to show us around the local market, and letting us know how things worked – which was helpful since things (even supermarkets) operate differently in Italy.
The views from Vincenzo’s home can be yours – if it’s not booked already.
Cavi is about a 5-7 minute drive to Sestri Levanto – another gorgeous Ligurian seaside town that sits on a large promontory, and has a definite historic elegance to it. Here are all the shops, cafes, ristoranti, and other life essentials for a fine holiday.
And the region is no stranger to the bike racing and the Giro d’Italia. The race visits almost annually: I saw my first Giro stage finish in nearby Lavagna in 1994, that brutal 65km time trial of 2009 started here, and it was the on the 2011 3rd stage that finished in Rapallo when we lost Wouter Weylands on the descent of the Passo del Bocco.
In spite of the trajedy, the area remains an excellent place for riding, and one that stands out for me was a long day alone in 2010, when I pieced together an 85 km loop up the Passo del Bocco, along the ridge and over to the next valley where I connected with part of a stage route I’d first done in 1994 (and had been wanting to revisit ever since) that dropped me back to the seaside and Sestri Levante.
It was a Wednesday and the sun was shining. I remember it clearly because that’s market day in most of Italy, which meant Mrs. Pez would be at her leisure to hunt for treasure, leaving me about 3 hours to ride. Since she wasn’t used to driving a standard transmission, I drove the family into the nearby town, parked the car and seeing they were all set, unloaded my bike and set off to explore a new climb.
I’d been plotting the route for a few days, and instead of carrying a map, I simply photographed the map, in case I managed to get lost – which was the likely event.
A couple days before, I’d attempted the route but taken a wrong turn part way in and spent the next hour riding up a neighbouring valley. As with most rides that involve vacationing with family, I was on the clock, so didn’t make it all the way to the summit of whatever road that was, but the little local knowledge I did pick up ensured I would not make that wrong turn again.
Keep your eyes peeled for this arch – you can’t miss it. Go through and turn Right for Passo del Bocco.
A logical starting point is in Lavagna, and a logical time is about 10:00 AM after you’ve dropped your wife off for a day at the public mercato. The first part of the ride is a long 20km+ climb to the summit of Passo del Bocco, which is one of the many summit passes along the cost. The Apennine mountains along here top out as high as 2000 meters, but the highest roads are mostly at the 1000 meter mark – which makes for a fine climb, and unless you’re on some kind of KOM mission, who really needs more than that?
Point your bike away from the seaside on the main road next to the river, and look for the signs to Carasco, and then to Borgonovo. The ride takes you up a valley, along gentle slopes that run in the 3-5% range at the bottom, then ramping up to 10% in a few spots, but never anything that lasts for long. It’s peaceful, tranquil, relaxing – in only a way that Italy can be – until a crazed driver on a motorino comes screeching around a corner and almost takes you out. Fortunately there are so many of these roads, it’s easy to find a quiet one.
Here’s the scene of my wrong turn a few days earlier – seems my sign-reading skills aren’t quite so good.
My pace had me climbing for around an hour+, but I was not pushing it. Nor should you – this is one of those rides that are better experienced with just you and your bike – no need for a lot of huffing, puffing, or riding in zones that make your handlebar mounted devices start to beep at you.
As you climb out of the valley, the frequency and number of small towns starts to drop which adds a bit of the ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’ element – but seeing as you are in Italy, this nothing to be alarmed about.
I’m always struck by the old, abandoned stone houses that dot the land in rural Italia. Maybe it’s the imaginary ghosts of people who once built this place and made their lives there. Being a dedicated urbanite, it might just be the wonder of what must have been a life so different from my own that I can’t even imagine it. Whatever it is, these old farmhouses make fascinating sights along the climb.
Once you past Borgonovo, the grade softens to a steady 5-6%. As the roads winds up the valley side, the views become grander, and it’s not long till you reach the villagio of Montemoggio. It’s a great place to stop, I found a tiny café guarded by an ancient lady who only stared in silence when I spoke to her. Soon enough, a middle aged man I assumed was her son appeared from the back and made my espresso. I assumed the lady didn’t like my presence, and shuffled away, leaving me alone to sip the coffee. The whole place was quiet.
You just rode up this valley, and that’s the Ligurian Coast in the distance.
Montemoggio is perched on a corner of the mountain that makes you wonder who and why they every thought this was a good place to settle. Maybe it was the views, which are vast and grand, and stretch all the way to the sea some 20-30km south.
Another thing I love about riding in rural Italy is that even the smallest of hamlets seem to have their own cemetery. Unlike back home, these are the historical tributes to generations of families. Photos of the interred adorn gravestones and mausoleums. Perhaps a sign of the times though, is that few of these monuments seem to contain anyone born in modern times. Italy’s younger population is moving to the cities, and it seems these remote villages are on their way out too.
The cemetery at Montemoggio.
The summit is still a few kms and several switchbacks away, but most of the climbing is done, and now the road essentially follows the ridgeline. It’s quiet up here, not much action save for the odd moto-tourist.
Not knowing exactly how long this loop was going to take, it was with some relief that I finally hit the top and snapped off my archival shot of the sign. We’re right on the border of neighboring province Emilia-Romagna, and there’s an intersection here, that goes three ways – my route veers south onto Strada 49 to continue along the ridge and even do a bit more climbing to top out just over the 1000m mark.
Looking down on Montemoggio from the switchbacks above.
Just ahead though is one of the all time rocking descents (of which there are plenty in this country). The road narrows, another valley view opens showing the way back to the sea, and the road twists, turns, dips and dives for several kms. The only caution was the many blind turns, and seeing as I was riding solo – I’m sorry to report that no personal speed records were broken.
This was also that portion of the ride where I was at my furthest point from home, and noticed I might not make it back at the appointed hour. My mood began to shift to a new purpose and my legs turned with renewed energy.
The next valley over, and my way back home.
About 10km down the road comes the town of Varese Ligure – a clean, beautifully restored town that’s worthy of a lunch at least. I only had time for an espresso shot and a coke reload, though, due to my ticking clock.
The mountain view from somewhere near the top.
Pulling out of town onto route 523 finally reconnected me to the Giro corsa I’d ridden 16 years earlier – which had stuck with me as a top ride also. This next section marks the return loop back to the coast, and takes in one small climb before breaking views of the seaside, and a long 10km descent down some more fantastic roads.
But first the road flattens, and on this day a strong headwind added a new dimension to my efforts, at least it was a warm wind.
When I finally made it in the door, Mrs. Pez advised me they’d given up waiting and taxi’d back home, so I needed to ride back to Lavanga and get the car. No worries – I got to enjoy a little more time with my bike, and still made it back for a celebratory negroni.
The riding really is endless, food fantastic, negronis plentiful… I know this can be said about almost the whole country, but for me the mix of mountains and sea make Liguria special. The riding here is anything but flat (but that too is nearby), and the classic loops form the coast include a long climb, traverse to the next valley, and long descent back – a perfect recipe. I fully recommend a stay in the area.