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Abruzzo cycling, Part 4

National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio & Molise 68 miles / 6,200 feet / 5.25 hours


Anversa degli Abruzzi and Monti Mariscani
Anversa degli Abruzzi just visible on the other side of the Rome-Pescara autostrada with the Marsicani mountains in the distance

When researching and designing all my Abruzzo bike rides I thought that this one might end up being too long with too much climbing because such are the mountains here that there are no shortcuts if the goal is a loop rather than a much less interesting out-and-back ride.

You never really know what a route will be like in practice until you’re actually on the bike pedaling and I’ve learned not to trust route mapping websites when it comes to cumulative climbing calculations.


Cocullo Abruzzo with the mountains behind
Looking back on Cocullo from half way up the first climb

Anyhow, Abruzzo cycling Part 4 turned out to be one of the very best 5+ hour rides I’ve ever done and it would suit those cyclists who aren’t averse to some hills but don’t want the entire ride to be dominated by a monster climb like Blockhaus.


The coffee shop in Anversa degli Abruzzi
The coffee shop in the main piazza in Anversa degli Abruzzi

This loop has it all, breathtaking views, quiet roads and some very scenic and interesting towns and villages along the route.

It was so much better than I was expecting that I returned a week later in the car so I could spend more time exploring without having to use up 5 full hours sitting on the bike.




Anversa degli Abruzzi
Anversa degli Abruzzi viewed from the southern approach as you finish the loop

Route:

Anversa degli Abruzzi - Cocullo - Olmo di Bobbi - Ortona dei Marsi - San Sebastiano dei Marsi - Bisegna - Pescasseroli - Opi - Villetta Barrea - Passo Monte Godi - Scanno - Anversa degli Abruzzi


Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Cocullo, Abruzzo
Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Cocullo

Where exactly is this ride?

Most of the route is in the north-eastern section of the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio & Molise contained within the Province of L’Aquila. This was established as Italy’s first National Park exactly 100 years ago and is located right in the middle of the narrowest section of the Italian peninsula, equidistant from both coastlines.


map of the abruzzo mountains around scanno and pescasseroli
The starting point, Anversa degli Abruzzi, is top center and the direction of travel is anti-clockwise

It may look like a remote area on the map, and it certainly feels like one when you’re on the bike, but in fact the starting point for this loop is very close to the Cocullo exit on the Rome to Pescara autostrada which means it is easily reachable. Sulmona, Pescocostanzo and the Maiella massif are all quite close to this part of southern Abruzzo.


Profile of the first climb up to Valico di Olmo di Bobbi

The Route

This is a ride best done anti-clockwise, preferably with the starting point at Anversa degli Abruzzi which is just a couple of miles south of the Cocullo autostrada exit. At almost 2,000 feet Anversa has the lowest elevation of the entire circuit which means that getting back to the starting point allows you to finish with an exhilarating 19 mile descent from the 5,350 feet Passo Monte Godi. I would always much rather finish a long ride with a nice descent and I design these loops with that in mind.


The breathtaking morning view of the valley and the Gran Sasso mountains from Valico di Olmo di Bobbi
The breathtaking morning view of the valley and the distant Gran Sasso mountains from Valico di Olmo di Bobbi

Another reason for the ant-clockwise direction is to enjoy the morning views of the Gran Sasso from near the top of the first climb. I wasn’t anticipating such dramatic scenery and it was a real surprise when coming round a bend to see those impressive peaks way off to the north.

It’s no bad thing to start the ride with an 8 mile gentle climb of 2,000 feet, especially if you start early when there’s a slight chill in the air. It’s a good warm-up with nothing more than a 5% gradient so you can enjoy the great scenery. Anversa itself is also a pleasant little town with a good coffee shop and plenty of parking.


early morning Abruzzo mountain views
The Abruzzo mountains are at their best in the early morning light

You pass through Cocullo very quickly. It’s much smaller than Anversa, no more than 200 people perhaps, and has some well-preserved medieval architecture including the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie which hosts the peculiar Festival of the Snakes every May, during which the statue of San Domenico is covered in live snakes on its procession through town.


Ortona dei Marsi
Ortona dei Marsi
The round tower at the top of Ortona dei Marsi
The round tower at the top of Ortona dei Marsi

As you climb up the winding road to Valico di Olmo di Bobbi there are some excellent views back down the valley to Cocullo and to Anversa and the many peaks of the Marsicani mountains which rise above 6,500 feet.

The real treat however is when rounding the bend at the top of the climb and seeing huge swathes of northern Abruzzo. This is a well-known punto panoramico and worth stopping for. A little further on is a very short tunnel that marks the start of the descent.


San Sebastiano dei Marsi road sign
This is Marsican brown bear country

However the 4 miles to Ortona dei Marsi is actually not much of descent because you are only dropping down to 3,500 feet.

It's a lovely medieval town however that's definitely worth a stop and right at the top there's an unusual round tower that was a 16th century addition to the existing ancient fortifications.



I was hoping to cover some distance quickly at this point but the next 8 miles through San Sebastiano dei Marsi to Bisegna have a gradual uphill bias and then you start to see the long poles at the side of the road for measuring snow depth, which in Italy always means that there is more climbing ahead.


Pescasseroli (left) and Opi (right)


After about 4 miles the road peaks somewhere above 5,000 feet and finally you are rewarded with a long fast downhill on mostly straight roads which includes a left turn onto the SS83.

You can really fly for almost 11 miles until reaching the town of Pescasseroli, probably the biggest town on the entire loop and not a sleepy backwater by any means.

The old center is very attractive and well cared for and at the weekend it's full of day trippers from Rome and elsewhere so most restaurants will be full if you arrive at lunchtime. Midweek in September it's still very much a bustling town but much less hectic and easier to get around so my advice would be to avoid Sunday lunchtime.


Lake Barrea with Villetta di Barrea and the mountains in the distance
Villetta di Barrea is the distant town above on the right. The final climb heads off between a gap in the mountains

After Pescasseroli you'll drop another 600 feet over the 10 miles to Villetta Barrea so this is also a quick section on the same SS83 road. On the way to Villetta Barrea you'll pass the small town of Opi set high up on a long flat plateau: there's very little to see from the main road so I briefly thought about making a detour but extra climbing was not what I was looking for on this loop so it will have to wait until my next trip to the National Park.


The profile of the final climb of the day

At Villetta Barrea you turn left towards Scanno and start the final climb of the day which covers about 9 miles and exactly 2,100 feet of climbing up to the Passo di Godi. Most of the climb consists of gradients between 3% and 5% so it is not particularly challenging except for the fact that some level of fatigue will have set in by this point. There are some good views of the lake but you will have to stop and look behind you to see them.


The Valico di Monte Godi sign at 1,630 meters altitude
The welcome sign at the peak which means that it's time for the thrilling 19 mile descent to the finish

The good news when you pass the Valico di Monte Godi sign is that the remaining 19 miles, over a quarter of the entire loop, is all downhill to the finish. From the top of the pass you drop 3400 feet with very little pedaling required and plenty of great scenery on the way so this more than makes up for all the climbing.

As any cyclist will tell you, there's nothing on a bike that compares to a long and well-earned downhill finish and this is one of the very best.


A courtyard in the center of Scanno
The center of Scanno

Half way into the descent is the town of Scanno which is quite famous in Italy for a variety of reasons that I have written about separately. With all the parking problems I've experienced there in the past it was nice for a change to go through Scanno on a bike and be able to stop anywhere without any hassle.


The classic view of the town of Scanno
The classic and much photographed view of Scanno

Once past Scanno you'll fly past Lago di Scanno followed by Lago di San Domenico and then the road will get narrower with tighter curves as it snakes its way through canyons surrounded by steep cliffs on either side. I love this short stretch to the finish in Anversa degli Abruzzo because of the scenery and the fact that you can use the full right hand lane because the cars on this twisty descent can't go any faster than a bike.


The southern approach road to Anversa degli Abruzzi snaking through a gorge
The final section of road snaking through a gorge on the way back to Anversa

There's one very short tunnel (below photo) to navigate before arriving back in Anversa and this is a bike ride that will have you fist pumping at the end at the sheer exhilaration of finishing a tough ride and having seen all the incredible sights that inland Abruzzo has to offer, especially if it's your first time here.


The narrow road and tunnel as you approach Anversa degli Abruzzi from the south

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