Mountain biking in Sardinia

Sick of the clichéd mountain bike holidays, Dave Barter heads to the Italian island of Sardinia in search of rough and ready trails.

As a mountain biker it is all too tempting to seek out clichés when planning the annual holiday. UK trail centres, Utah, the Alps and the Canadian bike parks all spring to mind immediately. It is tempting to seek out miles of flowing way-marked singletrack – the pistes of the mountain biking world.

This year I decided it was time for a change, time to venture off-piste a little and seek out routes with a few less tyre tracks. Given the lack of UK summer I needed some sun as well, along with the odd sandy beach and spectacular surroundings thrown in for good measure.

I “eeny meeny miney mo’ed” around Europe until my finger landed on the east coast of Sardinia, specifically the Ogliastra region. Some deft internet searching produced a complete lack of documented mountain bike routes, yet Google Earth showed plenty of hills, valleys and gnarly bits. Sardinia has a fantastic weather record and some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe. I found a bed and breakfast – The Lemon House – run by an English couple in an uncluttered seaside village. My mind was made up and soon after Easyjet were a little richer.

My hosts were Peter and Annie who run the Lemon House situated in Lotzorai, which sits neatly sandwiched between sea and spectacular mountains – a perfect base for those wanting to indulge in a day’s outdoor pursuits followed by an early evening dip in the sea to cool off.

Peter knew Mauro Atzori, a local MTB guide, who organises trips during the summer, mainly for Italian bikers on holiday in the area. Mauro was leading a ride the next day, a quick phone call from Peter and we were in.

We awoke early, ate, stuffed our bikes into Peter’s van and drove up to the town of Baunei, spectacularly perched at 1,000ft overlooking a wild plain semi-tamed by the local farmers. There we met Mauro and four others who had ridden with him before; repeat customers, always a good sign.

The ride began typically, seven of us ambled out of Baunei in the morning sun, pointing at each others bikes, and sizing up the legs and ability that surrounded us. The fact that all conversation was in Italian was irrelevant. I hardly understood a word, but the meanings were definitely the same.  Somewhere in there I was ribbed for being too skinny, my scuffed frame was frowned upon and (worryingly) my baggy shorts were investigated, the Italians had all turned out in tight fitting Lycra road kit.

The first few miles saw us climb on empty roads that traversed the valley below. The group broadly stayed together as we made good time to our first venture off-road. Dusty doubletrack dragged us away from the Tarmac and occasionally pointed us towards the sun, impatient in its need to gain more altitude. I found myself tested on the steeper climbs as “competiveness” definitely does not recognise the language barrier and graciously I allowed my hosts to crest first, or so I told myself.

The terrain became harsher the further we ventured away from the road. Sardinia certainly has its share of loose rock which adds challenge to switchbacked ascents and descents. The ride was becoming increasingly more technical and physically demanding and I held no envy for Peter who felt every bump as he banged about on his fully rigid hybrid folder! However, I was starting to gain that splendid sense of isolation that underpins my reason for riding off-road. In the last hour we had not seen or heard a single soul. The only litter in evidence had been made and left by goats and we were now completely reliant upon Mauro to guide us through the maze of shepherd tracks and back to civilisation.

I was beginning to panic about water, two hours of riding in the sun had emptied by Camelback and the lizards were testament to the arid conditions. A sheepfold proved my saviour and we crowded around a water trough fed from natural spring below. Cooled and hydrated, we pedalled on for few more miles until Mauro stopped and announced the end of the doubletrack. My Italian is poor but I definitely heard the phrase “singletrack” and “eight kilometres”. Mauro pointed out a path twisting into the bushes and gleefully we sprinted off, ready to reap the reward promised by the previous climbs.

As it turned out, my Italian wasn’t as bad as I had thought. A narrow shepherd’s track ran us through mountainous terrain and then twisted down to a hair-raising descent on the Cala Luna beach. I don’t think I’ve ever ridden a track with so many and varied challenges littered along it. We swooped through trees on flat-packed twisting singletrack, barely maintained control on steep, loose rocky descents scattered with babies heads, gurned up rocky granny ring climbs and fought bushes, scree, large rocks and stream beds in our quest to make it down.

This trail was truly wild. The winter rains and lack of trail traffic hide any obvious lines. The rider is left on their own to negotiate any obstacles and make their own choices.  Somehow I found that gratifying, this trail was not patronising my skills in any way as man made lines often can. It was up to me to find my own way down it or just get off and walk. The trail was offering no help whatsoever delivering a reluctant nod as a rider conquers a challenging section.

Several departed from their steeds on the way down, however the Italians are a tough race and they quickly remounted with a smile, waving off any concern. I was glad to survive. We regrouped at a natural arch, S’Arcada S’Architieddu Lupiri. Well, I say regrouped, the first arrivals were hustled into hiding behind a gorse bush in an apparent attempt to humiliate those lagging behind into a belief that the gap was even further.

The Italians are definitely tough, but I had concerns over their sense of humour. Jokes over, Mauro gave another pep talk. I didn’t understand it at all, but the faces around me increased in their gravity. In hindsight, I think he was warning us that the trail became steeper, rockier and much more challenging than anything we had ridden so far. I had the camera and was picked out for special attention, a few minutes and many hand gestures later I realised that I was being sent down first to take photos on a strategically placed corner. The others preened whilst I did my best to represent Great Britain, pulling off a passable impression of someone who knew his way round a mountain bike.

As soon as they were out of sight, I just held on, as the rocks unceremoniously shoved me around the trail in some weird form of bike-based rodeo. I reached the corner, threw the bike to the ground in relief and snapped the others on their way down. Beach views proved a distraction, as I realised that Mauro had steered us down towards a bay fringed with golden sands, crystal clear water and many a scantily clad distraction.

Peter and I slapped each other on the back. We’d hung out with native bikers and survived. They’d tried to unsettle us with their dry, dusty, rocky deserted trails and we’d come through. All we had to do now was to get through a short boat trip without turning green and our reputation would be sealed. Sadly this was not the case for one of our companions. He’d had a nasty fall on the rocky descent and opened up a large fissure just below the knee. The beach first aider took one look and called in a medi-boat, and we later learnt that he’d been takes to hospital by helicopter for stitches. Just as he was leaving we were asked by a council representative to pay a single euro as a “beach tax”. I coughed up willingly having seen the service provided.

We loaded bikes onto the boat and kicked back drinking Coke and watching the sunbathers busily doing nothing in the afternoon heat.

How many of us have had those rides where we think we’re at the end only to be told that we’re merely half way round? Well, that’s exactly how Peter and I felt as the boat pulled into a small beach and our companions began to unload bikes. The panic set in as they furiously gesticulated at us to get a move on and before we knew it we were back on Terra-firma waving goodbye to our boat.

I looked accusingly at Peter. Mauro had told Peter on the phone that we’d be getting the boat from Cala Luna, Peter had wrongly assumed we’d be coming back to Santa Maria Navarrese, the seaside town below the village of Baunei at 500m where our ride started.

It turns out that this beach really was half-way. We were to eat a long lunch in a seaside restaurant and then ride a long climb through a wild valley to a point a few miles above our start point. Peter and I exchanged glances and remembered half made promises to wives about meeting them shortly after lunch. We concocted our excuses and sat down at a table with our comrades ready to dash down some pasta and quickly retreat from the beach.

They clearly had no such plans illustrated by a large carafe of wine, an order for starters and long debate about which main course would be the largest. I must say that I enjoyed the relaxed attitude of the Italian riders. They knew they had all day to get round, they knew the weather wouldn’t break and they knew that they’d worked hard to get down to this beach. In fact I felt a tinge of envy as I wondered why all of my UK based rides seemed to be a mission to get the loop over as quickly as possible.

Sadly, the clock dragged Peter and I away. We paid our share, shook hands, swore a lifetime of friendship, gathered up our bikes and struggled up the boulder littered path that led from the beach. Peter knew the way back, a ten kilometre climb up a rough dirt track nestled in the depths of a spectacular rift valley. I can’t remember if the climb was hard or not as my senses were continuously diverted from left to right as spectacular rock formations dragged my eyes towards them. Eventually we reached a plateau a few kilometres from our parked van and descended down switchbacks swathed in the glow of early evening light.

As I coasted towards the van I began to reflect upon the day’s ride. It’s a cliché, but mountain bike rides share a common language regardless of location. Smooth tracks provide the vowels, lumpy bits the consonants. Sentences are punctuated with incidents ranging from crashes to mechanicals and each chapter often starts and finishes at an eating place. The Italians certainly spoke a dialect of mountain bike that we could understand, it was definitely hotter and richer in scenery than many of the UK rides I have undertaken but the trail diction was considerably more primitive.

My decision to venture off piste had been entirely vindicated. Sardinia provided a ride that felt wild and undiscovered, littered with variety, challenge and contrast. It’s definitely a place that will drag me back, and next time, maybe I’ll stay for the wine.

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