Unexplored Girona

Bookwalters riding in Girona

Velo Veneto is very excited about our first trip outside of Italy. Join us in the Catalonia region of Spain this June! Of course, we called on local experts when building this trip; Ex-pro and Girona resident Craig Lewis will be our special guest, and our own Jamie Bookwalter has provided her advice as well. Here’s her take on why the area is such a great place!

One of the things I love most about Girona is that this place continues to hold surprises for me. Brent and I first began spending time here in 2010. I remember my first week here; I told my coach I was just going to be on the bike 4-6 hours every day because the riding was so alluring. The first time a person rides Spain’s equivalent of Highway 1 (GI-682) is not an experience they easily forget. It was easy to binge on riding; incredible views await around every single corner on every single road. Girona has a network of tiny mountain and country roads, seemingly to nowhere, I wonder why anybody bothered to pave. You might think that after a few years, the novelty of mountain-ocean-cliff-tiny-chapel-in-the-middle-of-it-all views could wear off. They don’t.

Brent’s job as a professional cyclist gives us the opportunity to live anywhere in Europe that is blessed with good weather and close to an airport. In fact, a lot of professional cyclists keep coming back here; the cycling community swells to over 80 pro-continental or pro-tour riders in the spring. Lance Armstrong famously lived here in the late 1990’s and I’ve had Catalans tell me he still lives here (nope, definitely not). We bought our car from Levi Leipheimer when he was retiring, who bought it from Chan McRae, when Chan was retiring. I think there is something about this city that draws cyclists in and keeps them here, and it’s not the weather or community alone. It has more to do with the fact that a person can live here for years and keep stumbling upon a road they still have yet to ride, a trail they have yet to hike, a new restaurant that just opened… the richness and depth of this place keeps us coming back. (That, and the fact that dealing with the bureaucracy here is like adopting a really crappy cat&emdash;you spend way too much time trying to get it to understand the litter box and it still craps in your house, you’re positive it doesn’t like you and sometimes you wish it would just disappear, but at some point you realize you’ve invested too much in the damn thing to give it up).

A few weeks ago, I was on a solo mountain bike ride in the hills behind our apartment, and I came across a chapel (Sant Joan de l’Ern) from the 13th century. The plaque next to it said the nuns that lived here all died in the Black Plague. It’s incredible to me that I can stumble upon a chapel built in the 13th century in what is basically my backyard after 5 years of spending weeks and months in Girona. (And it’s incredible that ANYTHING could be still around from the 13th century. At home in Western North Carolina, we give historic designation to houses built in the 1930’s. But I digress.)

Hiking in Girona
There’s a 1,500 foot drop on the left – maybe a bit scary!

Today, I hiked with a friend in a canyon near Castellfolit de la Roca, a short drive outside Girona. I’ve spent quite a bit of time riding near this area, but I had no idea this canyon existed. The walls of the canyon were so tall they blocked out much of the sunlight, and water in the river was crystal blue. We lunched at Sant Aniol chapel (built in the 11th century) and saw one person in 4 hours.

When we finally got back to the car, adventure craving sated, I noticed another sign: “3.5 hours to the peak of Bassegoda.” It seems a bit rude to leave that mountain unclimbed… This part of the world is something quite special, and while speaking Catalan will probably always elude me, I’m staying comfortably antsy exploring the back country each year, and continuing to fall in love with this place.

Ferocious fighting and the war of Vittorio Veneto

French troops at the Piave RIver

As Americans (most of us), we’re not used to seeing signs of wars gone by every day. But when we ride in Europe, every ride is a rolling history lesson about these great conflicts. This occasional series will lend more perspective to these monuments we see at home in the Veneto, deeper in the Dolomites and Alps, and throughout Europe.

Austro-Hungarian Territory in ItalyDecember 1917: Outnumbered and out-armed, the Italian units fought on, with hand grenades and stones against the Austrian and German artillery and trench mortars. The Austrians were so convinced of victory they had medals forged to commemorate their assured capture of Venice. But luck favored the Italians, and winter arrived with a vicious snowstorm just before Christmas. The deep snowfall gave a solid advantage to the Italians, and the tide began to turn. The Austrian and German forces took heavy causalities; Edwin Rommel, a then First Lieutenant in the German army, had his company reduced to 25 men. (Rommel would be awarded medals for his deeds during WWI, reached the rank of Field Marshal in WWII, and was forced to commit suicide in 1944 for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler.)

But the battle for Monte Grappa was not yet over. By late Spring 1918, the Austrians and Germans began once again to gain ground on the Italians. Finally, on June 15, the Austrian army made a final push on the lowlands near the Piave river below and across the Grappa massif. Most of the Italians on Grappa were 18 years old and no match for the heavily armed and professional Austrian army. However, once the fighting began, new elite assault troops from the Italian army arrived—the Arditi. This fighting force was so fierce and vicious that some historians believe the Arditi helped lay the foundations for fascism and the reign of Mussolini. The Austrians were routed, and the Arditi killed half the retreating Austrian men.

Five months later, resupplied Italian forces pushed the finial vestiges of the Austrian and German army off the mountain. At the same time, Italian and some allied divisions (aided by news of British and American victory in northern war fronts) finally forced surrender of the Austrian forces below on the Piave river.

Italy had come together as a nation and successfully defended itself, and this united front was emblemized by the Battle of Monte Grappa. All the forces defending Italy on Monte Grappa were Italian, and a huge percentage of the Italian men in the battles on Monte Grappa died. A military mausoleum was built on Monte Grappa in the 1930s and is dedicated to the soldiers on both sides that lost their lives. The remains of 22,910 soldiers are kept in niches within the memorial, many forgotten by time. But visitors are especially captivated by one niche&emdash;the remains labeled “Peter Pan.” This grave serves as a reminder of the young men who died on the mountain; men who will never grow old.

Monte Grappa and WWI

WW1 Ossuary on Monte Grappa - c. Gruber Images

As Americans (most of us), we’re not used to seeing signs of wars gone by every day. But when we ride in Europe, every ride is a rolling history lesson about these great conflicts. This occasional series will lend more perspective to these monuments we see at home in the Veneto, deeper in the Dolomites and Alps, and throughout Europe.

It’s not hard to miss the stone walls half-buried in the ground on Monte Grappa. The upper reaches are often misty, and tentacles of green vegetation creep around the walls’ edges, looking for more footing in the crumbling stone. There is no easy way up the 1776 meters (5825 feet) Monte Grappa on a bike; many of roads are steep enough that a cyclist might begin to doubt the informative graffiti spray painted on the roads: “20% seems too weak; surely these stretches are 30%!” Therefore, most cyclists are cross eyed by the time they reach the top of Grappa. They tend to quickly grab some food and a descent down out of the fog. If one is blessed with fine weather, the views are astounding and heady, and the eyes can pass over the disintegrating stones at one’s feet without a thought.

Trench on Monte Grappa c. Jamie BookwalterThe stone walls, however are thorny vestiges of horrors of trench warfare in World War 1. It was under, around, and within these walls that tens of thousands of soldiers died on this mountain between 1917 and 1918. Three battles were fought on this massif in the Great War, resulting in the deaths of 84,000 soldiers, including 29,000 Italians.

The first war of Monte Grappa began after heavy losses in Caporetto in modern day Slovenia, in which an army of 350,000 Italians “ceased to exist.” Fifty thousand soldiers died and the rest went missing or were captured; the battles on Monte Grappa proved to be a decisive last stand for the Italian army, and a key route into Italy’s interior. By the middle of November 1917, the front line of the Austrian-Hungary offensive into Italy was on the northern edge of the mountain. The fighting was fierce and winter weather and fog intensified the chaos. At one point, the trenches on the northwest cols changed hands seven times in 24 hours. By December 1917, the Austrians controlled much of the summit, and Venice could be seen from the peaks Austria-Hungary controlled. As, German troops arrived to support the Austrians, things looked grim for the Italians.

The Austrians and Germans were on the verge of taking the entire mountain, a pivotal key that would unlock and open the rest of Italy for easy attack. One Austrian officer described Italy as “hanging onto southwestern edge of Grappa like a man to a window ledge.”

Next: Ferocious fighting and the war of Vittorio Veneto

Benvenuto Jamie Bookwalter!

Jamie Dinkins Bookwalter

As we enter our 30th year (don’t feel a day over 29!), we will be both looking back at the past and towards an exciting future. Part of that future is bringing in new people to show you great rides in new places. Some of these people, like the amazing Jamie Bookwalter, will also grace the pages of our website from time to time with their words, sharing stories about the places we ride.

So without further ado, we’d like to introduce Jamie Bookwalter. Jamie lives part time in Asheville, NC, and Girona, Spain. She studied the European Woodwasp in graduate school, and holds a M.S. in Forestry from University of Georgia. She raced professionally as a mountain biker for four years, and raced two years on the road for the Colavita professional cycling team. She has traveled extensively in Europe with the US national team, as bike guide, and as a tourist. Her husband, Brent Bookwalter, is a seven-year veteran of BMC racing team, and she has cheered him on at all three grand tours.

You can follow Jamie on Twitter and you can ride with her on select Velo Veneto trips and at their fall event in North Carolina, The Bookwalter Binge.

Look for her first post this weekend, and join us in welcoming her to the Velo Veneto family!

Je Suis Charlie

Je Suis Charlie

One of the most enjoyable parts of Velo Veneto specifically, and cycling travel in general, is the variety. Most people think of the variety of roads, views, climbs, or races. For me, though, the variety of people, opinions, and worldviews is simply fascinating.

Throughout our history, we have had riders from many, many countries and every continent, race, religious background, political view, and any other difference you can think of. Every one of these people has added something – not only to the group they ride with, but to Velo Veneto as a whole.

And through all these years, differences, and dinner table discussions, the discourse has always remained civilized. So the violence at Charlie Hebdo today is very disturbing. No one should have to live in fear after expressing an opinion. No one should lose a father, mother, sister, brother, son, daughter, loved one, or friend because of an opinion. There is simply no excuse for this violence. So today we stand with Charlie Hebdo – Je Suis Charlie.

But we must also be on the watch for other curbs on journalistic opinion. Though our minds are on violence today, journalists also feel threatened when advertisers pressure for favorable coverage. Publications feel the heat from the politically powerful to promote or bury stories, or advance a particular opinion. Industry titans, and wanna-be titans, use a combination of the above to affect the narrative about products, services, and legislation.

Yet the fourth estate, whether it be the storied New York Times or niche publications like VeloNews or Cyclingnews, is critical to the ability of the public at large to gather information, see from a variety of perspectives, and hear other opinions – all important elements in the process of forming our own ideas and opinions. When the thoughts, ideas, and words of journalists are threatened in any means, we all become poorer for it.

So today, while we stand with Charlie Hebdo, we also stand with anyone resisting pressure on free thought and expression. The richness of the Velo Veneto experience is not only in the variety of roads and mountains, but in the ideas and beliefs of our guests and those who influence them.