Brutal Cycling in Beautiful Abruzzo

I’m a fan of symmetry and even numbers. I like bookends that match, months with thirty days, and I love that my half-birthday is on April Fool’s Day and that my mother’s birthday is my brother’s half-birthday… and vice-versa. Neat and tidy, even-Steven. Whoever he is.

When it was time to plan our return to Italy, retrieve our squirreled-away bicycles, and rejoin the open road, I knew it had to be on a certain day and to a certain place. Because symmetry. We left the USA on June 23rd, six months to the day we last rode our bicycles. Unfortunately, because of time zones, layovers, and the vagaries of utilizing hotel rewards points, we couldn’t check into the Rome Cavalieri hotel until the next night: six months and a day.  Drats. Nevertheless, just a few doors down from the very same room we boxed our bicycles up on December 26th, I anxiously reassembled our steel steeds and, after a brief tune-up from a local bike shop (who generously replaced a missing part with a used one they had lying around), soon had them ready to roll with new brake pads, chains, and cassettes. We pedaled out of Rome on June 27th, six months to the day we left that same hotel, sans bikes, on a train for Napoli.

This time there would be no trains.

Just as we never thought it would take nearly seven months to eventually cross Italy, we didn’t quite expect it to take five days to reach the Adriatic Sea from Rome. Despite my best efforts to ensure that the only thing that changed in our trip was the month — that our six-month detour could be harmlessly plucked and set aside like a single hibiscus from a bountiful shrub — I had forgotten a very important piece of equipment: our legs. And it was without those road-tested legs that we found ourselves wrestling our fully-loaded bikes up one of the Giro de Italia’s mountain stages.

We seldom pass a market without stopping.
We seldom pass a market without stopping, especially one that is “Not Just Fruit!”

I never heard of Abruzzo before last week. Tuscany, Umbria, Amalfi Coast, Rome, Napoli, Cinque Terre? Yes, of course. All of them and more. But Abruzzo… never heard of it. Allow me to enlighten. Abruzzo is a region in southern Italy that reaches from the crest of Monti Simbruini east of Rome (Lazio region) all the way across the country to the Adriatic Sea. It’s home to several regional parks, dozens of hilltop towns, winding rivers, turquoise lakes, and more mountains than I care to mention while the wound is so raw. Too soon. It’s also home to Barrea, where Kristin and I were reminded, for the umpteenth time, what a magical, wonderful world we live in.

Our route out of Rome first led through Rome. All roads as the saying goes. We soon made our way onto the backroads of Lazio, angling northeastward into a headwind that would accompany us all week. Our first climb brought us to the hilltop town of Tivoli, a town with a lovely name, perched atop a steep cliff, flanked by waterfalls, and covered in beige. So much beige. We set out with the plan of riding no more than 40 miles on our first day back on the bikes and stuck to the plan, having done plenty of climbing under a scorching sun. We stopped often for large bottles of acqua minerale, frizzante per favore and tried to hide in every bit of shade we could find as the thermometer on my sun-baked Garmin read 106.4° F.

With no campground to be found, and not about to wild-camp five hours before sunset, we happily pulled into a small guesthouse with a pizzeria on the ground floor. An Italian every-grandma showed us where to lock our bicycles in her personal garage and insisted on helping carry our panniers up the stairs to our room. It wasn’t camping, but it was great to be back in small-town Italy.

Kristin back in the saddle and making her way up our biggest mountain pass.
Kristin back in the saddle and making her way up the biggest mountain pass of the week.

The next few days rank as some of the most difficult cycling we’ve done on this tour, and arguably the toughest in Kristin’s life. Whereas I have a long and demented history of throwing my periodically unfit self at ill-conceived tests of endurance, Kristin prefers to wade in gradually. She can suffer with the best of them, I’ve seen her do it, but always with a gradual build-up.

We should have known our route was of questionable sanity when a group of road cyclists yelled, “No, No!” to us as we veered off a highway onto a narrow road leading up a steep hill. It climbed nearly 900 feet in 2 miles. Whose idea was this? Mine. While on a computer, in Florida. The descent into the town of Subiaco lifted our spirits. We sipped our espressos on plastic chairs while eyeing a collection of classic Alfa Romeos that had gathered in the parking lot. But the climbing soon continued, our first of three mountain passes. Cycling-themed graffiti covered the roads, encouraging slogans and designs aimed to inspire riders a fraction of my size, on bikes lighter than a single pannier. This was not a good sign.

Local flavor in Filettino, Italy.
Local flavor in Filettino, Italy.

Kristin was off and walking. Early and often. The heat, the hills, the headwind, and lack of conditioning were taking their toll. Yoga was no preparation for this kind of test. Too much too soon. I zoomed out the elevation profile on the GPS and saw, just beyond this mountain pass that Kristin barely survived, lay another major climb just a few miles beyond the descent. Her eyes begin to water at the news.

Bicycle touring, as we were quickly reminded, is a series of highs and lows. As is life. But, as you may have gathered from reading this blog over the past 15 months (wow!), the highs are higher and the lows are lower out on the road. And the changes can come quickly.

We reached the base of the next hill, again too early in the day for stealth camping without shade and low on water. Kristin was all but trembling with fear at the thought of another climb when we rounded a bend and encountered the sign for a campground. The campground was still under construction, having recently been revived after years of closure, and we were quite sad to hear that the restaurant advertised on the ages-old sign was not open. Nor was the snack bar and store. The teenage girl from reception approached our campsite a few minutes later, arms full of room-temperature bottles of Peroni. A gift to the tired cyclists who had just ascended 3,900 feet of climbing in 30 measly miles.

Mountainside springs like this provide crisp, tasty, clear water.
Mountainside springs like this provide crisp, tasty, clear water. Just don’t drink from the pools.

The next day, our first in Abruzzo, was even harder. I load up on fresh fruit and cold pizza in the cute little hilltop town of Filletino and prepare for another sun-baked mountain pass. I wait every mile or so for fifteen to twenty minutes, hand over some apricots or a handful of cherry tomatoes, and we continue on. Kristin spends the day fighting back tears and willing her legs to work to no avail. Her spirits rise on the descent into Capistrello and then fade just as soon as we realize we have another climb before us in order to reach the town of Avezzano where a bike shop points us to a friend’s motel on the outskirts of town.

Hilltop towns like Capistrello lose their charm after a long day in the saddle.
Hilltop towns like Capistrello lose their charm after a long day in the saddle.

The fourth day back on the bikes, some fifty miles short of where I thought we’d be at that time, wasn’t the most difficult, but it was the worst. A long approach to the day’s major mountain pass, a portion of this year’s Stage 8 course on the Giro de Italia, didn’t help restore Kristin’s strength, nor her confidence. Off and walking near the base of the climb, I finally had to resort to leapfrogging both bikes up the mountain on my own when finally, in a world of pint-sized Fiats and Citroens, a white pickup truck rounded the hairpin beneath us. I waved the driver over, a twenty-something guy with a Specialized S-Works mountain bike in the bed of his truck, and pantomimed that my tired wife needed a lift to the top of the mountain pass. He understood and nodded his agreement and less than two minutes later, I was back on my bike watching Kristin drive away in a stranger’s car, her bike and panniers strewn across the back of his pickup truck. But I wasn’t worried: mountain bikers are good people.

Rolling past the eastern end of Lake Barrea.
Rolling past the eastern end of Lake Barrea.

Free to enjoy the climb, I shifted into a stiffer gear and attacked the hill. My legs were back and I was in Italy, cycling one of the mountain passes on the Giro! Life is beautiful, indeed! And Kristin was safe (I hoped!) and relieved (I knew!). We had a marvelous lunch of capicola, provolone, and ham sandwiches together some eighty minutes later, a meal that would have taken place hours later had that pickup truck not have come cruising by.

We finished the final mountain pass on our route to the Adriatic in a campground in the hilltop town of Barrea where, on our walk back from dinner, we were treated to a view so exquisite that I almost had to pinch myself. The twinkling lights of several hillside villages shone in the twilight as the last rays of the sun speared the distant clouds, illuminating the mountain-ringed lake down below us. If I had seen a view so spectacular before, it was only on the cover of a glossy travel magazine. The photo below barely does it justice.

The view we encountered on the walk back to our tent after a lovely dinner in picturesque Barrea.
The view we encountered on the walk back to our tent after a lovely dinner in picturesque Barrea.

We reached the Adriatic on our fifth day after a 62 mile, primarily downhill, ride from Barrea to Fossacesia. Kristin rode like she had the nine months prior to our detour. She just had to knock the rust off. She would have preferred a chisel over the sledgehammer I handed her. We’re spending a couple nights at a campground on a cobble-strewn beach, resting up before following the coast southeastward. It’s not the wilderness we prefer, but it’s got a pool, a restaurant, WiFi and a market stocked with groceries. All within walking distance. The bicycles will not be ridden today. That’s a promise.

One of the best steak sandwiches I ever had (made!) while camping!
Campground Steak Sandwich: Sautee sliced onion, one red chili pepper and sliced olives in oil with salt & pepper. Add 2 tablespoons of tomato paste and mix. Set aside. Pan-fry a 1/4″ steak in olive oil, sprinkle with garlic powder, melt two slices of provolone on top. Serve on a hoagie roll topped with the sauteed vegetables. Absolutely delicious improv dinner from camp store groceries!

Special Thanks: Kristin and I would like to once again thank Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc., for their generous monthly sponsorship of our trip. We raise a glass of Limoncello in your honor!

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Doug Walsh

Writer, Traveler

Doug Walsh is a writer, traveler, cyclist, and gamer who spent two years traveling from Seattle to Singapore, the long way around, by bicycle and sea. He's the author of the upcoming novel "Tailwinds Past Florence."

  1. Doug and Kristin,
    I’m glad to be back on the bike again, even though it is yours! Your writing and photography are inspirational, as is your journey. I wish you both tailwinds and smiles as you cycle through the lands ahead of you. And yes, mountain bikers ARE good people.

    “She would have preferred a chisel over the sledgehammer I handed her”. Doug, you’re lucky she didn’t use it on you!

  2. The writing is wonderful! “The twinkling lights of several hillside villages shone in the twilight as the last rays of the sun speared the distant clouds, illuminating the mountain-ringed lake down below us.” I read this before seeing the photo. A blind person would have pictured in their mind what you wrote! It would have looked like the photo! Safe travels!

    1. Thank you kindly. I tried to capture the light in the photo and the scene in my words. Sometimes I succeed, but not always. Thanks for the complement.

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About Us

We're Doug & Kristin Walsh, a couple of Washingtonians who love to travel, both abroad and in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. We set off to travel the world in 2014, primarily by bicycle. We're back home now, but the travel bug continues to be fed every chance we get.

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