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Abruzzo Cycling: the incomparable Blockhaus climb

Scafa - Roccamorice - Blockhaus - return: 38 miles / 6,500 feet / 4.25 hours

The view of the highest Maiella peaks from Rifugio Bruno Pomilio
After 3 hours on the bike this is the view on the final mile to the finish post after passing Rifugio Bruno Pomilio

6.00 a.m. It’s barely sunrise on a warm late August morning as I take my first pedal strokes on the deserted streets of Scafa at the foot of the Maiella massif. It’s the first day of my much anticipated month in the Abruzzo mountains and it may be a weekday but there’s no rush hour here, in fact no sign of life at all.

Dawn on the slopes below San Valentino in the Maiella foothills
Dawn at 6.20. am on the slopes below San Valentino in the Maiella foothills

I confess to feeling a little trepidation at the thought of the monster Blockhaus climb ahead of me but I put myself through a hard three month training program in the Tuscan summer heat to prepare for this ride and I think I’m ready for whatever the mountain throws at me.

San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore, Abruzzo
My local town of San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore, the first of only two towns you pass through on the way up to Blockhaus

A little over 4 hours later, back at base camp after a long exhilarating downhill return, I was able to reflect on what for me was the toughest and most beautiful bike ride I have ever done in 23 years of road cycling.

Mont Ventoux, France
The barren landscape at the top of Mont Ventoux taken 20 years ago, though I'm sure it hasn't changed since then

And I don’t make that claim lightly having gone on week long bike tours to the French Alps twice, the Italian Dolomites twice and suffered on Mont Ventoux at least 5 times, so with the lone exception of the Pyrenees I’ve climbed many of the classic peaks of the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia.

I’ve also climbed the obscure and remote 9,200 feet Sherman Pass in the California Sierra Nevada mountains as part of the grueling ‘Son of Death Ride'.

But I’ve never before done a single, uninterrupted climb of 6,500 feet, grinding away in my lowest gear for just over 3 hours and, as I doubt I’ll ever get myself in good enough shape to ride it again in the future with the same amount of enjoyment, I made sure I did the Blockhaus climb twice more during my month in San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore.

The monument to Eddie Merckx in Roccamorice
The monument to Eddie Merckx in Roccamorice as the winner of the inaugural Blockhaus stage in the Giro d'Italia in 1967

For those regular cyclists reading this who are wondering why the climb took me so long, let me just say that gravity and I are not the best of friends. At 6’2”, 190 pounds and riding a steel frame bike weighing another 23 pounds I don’t exactly fit the ideal cyclist profile and throw in 66 years of wear and tear, add a few rugby injuries and then my time of 3 hours on the ascent begins to look more reasonable.

The Morrone mountains in Abruzzo just after dawn
Soon after leaving Roccamorice the early morning views are dramatic

Anyhow, it’s not a question of how long it takes to reach the top because there is so much natural beauty and solitude to enjoy on the way up that I wouldn’t have wanted to go any faster even had I been physically capable of doing so.

Early morning views of the Maiella massif, Abruzzo
In the middle of the steepest 6 miles you are traveling so slowly that you have time to enjoy nature's beauty all around you

How does the Roccamorice route to Blockhaus measure up against some of the other very long classic climbs in the cycling world?

When I compare it to the Mont Ventoux route from Bedoin it’s impossible not to vote in favor of this climb up to Blockhaus. Most of the thrill of Ventoux comes from its legendary Tour de France history and although there is a unique and strange fascination with the barren landscape of the final third of the climb after Chalet Reynard, much of the Ventoux ride is in the woods, whereas almost all of this ride is out in the open with unobstructed jaw-dropping views.

On my way up lo Stelvio in the snow 18 years ago

The top of the Col de la Bonette, France
The top of the Col de la Bonette 21 years ago

In the Italian Alps the classic route up to the Passo dello Stelvio has its iconic 48 hairpin bends and snow banked up at the side of the road (at least when I did it both times in the month of June) but as you slowly ascend out of the valley the view remains much the same until you reach the top at 9,000 feet where for the first time you can see a sweeping panorama. The views up to Blockhaus on the other hand are both awe-inspiring and constantly changing.

The Col de la Bonette I believe stole the highest road in Europe crown from lo Stelvio and I remember being impressed by that climb 21 years ago, likewise the Col de la Madeleine but I don’t remember those rides well enough to make a valid comparison.

View of San Valentino and Roccamorice from the road up to Blockhaus
The view of San Valentino (center) and Roccamorice (foreground right) at 7.30 am. Away in the distance the Gran Sasso is barely visible in the heat haze at the top of the photo

My thoughts and advice on cycling in Abruzzo

The photographs included in this article of the Blockhaus climb via Roccamorice speak for themselves I think and I hope inspire other cyclists to emulate my experience. I've written several articles praising the beauty and tranquility of the Casentino and Pratomagno for cyclists and I don't retract a word, but I wrote those articles before I brought my bike to Abruzzo.

After a month here I have no hesitation in saying that Abruzzo has by far the best cycling terrain in Italy in terms of the scenery and lack of traffic. In addition it has the advantage of perhaps the most reliable summer weather for cycling in the entire Italian peninsula so I’m not sure why it remains largely undiscovered and unheralded by the cycling community generally.

mountain views on the road to Blockhaus, Abruzzo
Towards the end of the toughest section the views get even better and the antennas on la Maielletta become visible (top left)

I arrived in Abruzzo with a plan to also seek out some new cycling challenges once Blockhaus was accomplished but it proved to be no easy task creating scenic and challenging circuits in the rugged Abruzzo interior because most of the mountains present such formidable barriers that going around them is the often the only choice.

But going around them can often mean too much climbing and too many hours on the bike. Out-and-back routes are easier to design and provide more certainty with regard to distance and cumulative elevation but are much less interesting to me than an anello.

The Maiella's big mountain peaks
After the big Maiella peaks come into view but these are for hikers only

The challenge was to find itineraries that took about 5 hours to complete that included interesting towns, scenic climbs, mostly quiet roads and somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 feet of cumulative climbing. Of the six mountain loops I designed, four of them turned out to be really great bike rides and I’ll write about these in future articles.

A word of caution or advice for those unfamiliar with Abruzzo who might like to cycle here. There are no easy rides in and around the Maiella massif and knowing that in advance I made sure that prior to my arrival in Abruzzo my 12 week training program peaked with a final month total in July of 620 miles and 66,000 feet of climbing. The Abruzzo interior is not too dissimilar from the Apuan Alps north of Lucca or the Pratomagno massif north-east of Florence in that you can expect to average 100 feet of climbing for every mile traveled.

The view below Refugio Bruno Pomilio towards Chalet Mirastelle
The 8.30 am view back towards Mamma Rosa and Chalet Mirastelle on the alternative Passo Lanciano route

Most of my Abruzzo cycling was in fairly remote areas where often thirty minutes or more would elapse before even seeing a passing car so equipment failure is not something you want to experience when you are on your own and perhaps also without a cell phone signal. My bike may not be the lightest but it has a great set of wheels (Fulcrum Racing 3) with strong spokes and I always use Continental Gator Hardshell tires and as a result haven’t had a puncture in over three years.

Although water is always plentiful in Italy, with every mountain village having a central fountain providing clean cold water, food and nutrition can be a problem because many of these small remote villages nowadays don’t even have a coffee shop. Knowing Italy pretty well after 10 years I anticipated this situation and came up with my own recipe for a power bar and stuffed my pockets with these before every ride. Packed with slow burning calories they never let me down even on 5-6 hour rides and taste so much better than commercial bars (recipe to follow).

Refugio Bruno Pomilio sign on the Maiella
2,068 meters is the top so there's another 1.5 miles and 288 feet of climbing still to go when you pass this sign

Regarding other equipment, I don't bother with GPS mapping devices because I've always found road signs to be plentiful in Italy and I write down the names of the villages I want to go through and worst case I simply ask a local for directions.

My final piece of advice would be to cycle in the Abruzzo mountains in the warmer summer months and to start each ride soon after dawn. I never felt the need to carry even a single item of extra clothing or a rain jacket, wearing only a short sleeve cycling jersey, and the temperature was ideal even up above 5,000 feet for the entire month from late August to late September.

The ride up to Blockhaus via Roccamorice

You can split this ride into two distinct parts. The first 7 miles, from the turning off Strada Regionale 5 through San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore and Roccamorice, is a gentle climb of mostly 4%- 5% gradients with even a flat portion and a little downhill just before Roccamorice. After Roccamorice everything changes including the scenery because even though it has been very pleasant up to this point, everything beyond is other-worldly especially in the early morning sunlight.

Rifugio Bruno Pomilio on the Maiella, Abruzzo
The car park and coffee shop at Rifugio Bruno Pomilio with the Adriatic and the Abruzzo coastline in the distance

The gradient also changes because the next 12 miles include 5,000 feet of climbing with an average gradient of 8%. These final 12 miles alone are steeper than the entire Stelvio or Mont Ventoux and you’ve already had to climb 1,500 feet just to get to this point.

The Blockhaus sign at the top of the climb on the Maiella
When you finally reach this sign you will experience feelings of relief, accomplishment and exhilaration

A mile or so after Roccamorice there is a 6 mile section of unrelenting 8.5%-12% gradients where you will be found out if you haven't trained properly for this climb. You will spend a lot of time in this section because forward momentum is barely above stalling speed but it is also a place of stillness, solitude and beauty, especially at sunrise. However, it's difficult to restart on these gradients if you get off the bike to take photos so perhaps don't do what I did and instead take them on the descent.

I didn't see a single person, car or other cyclist for almost 2 hours after leaving Roccamorice, only the sound of farm animals and the tinkling of bells around their necks, and that experience is worth any amount of suffering because driving up in a car is not even close to the same experience and walking takes far too long. This is why I ride a bike - for moments like these.

The view from Blockhaus in the Maiella
The final yards with the finish visible ahead on the center-right of the photo

Once you are through this difficult part you know mentally that you will make it to the top and your confidence returns and as you emerge from a short but very dark section through the woods you begin to see the antennas high up above you that mark Rifugio Bruno Pomilio.

There is still plenty of cycling left with 1,300 feet and almost 4 miles after the right turn onto the huge wide road at Mamma Rosa that connects to Passo Lanciano. This is one of those rides that never seems to end because at the Refugio where everyone has to park their cars this ride is still not finished. You need to continue along the paved path past all the hikers for another 1.5 miles until finally you reach the Blockhaus sign.

All that remains is a truly fantastic and very long downhill that has excellent visibility and a good road surface. Many people seem to prefer descending via Passo Lanciano to Lettomanoppello and some also like that route for the ascent too. I tried the climb once during my month and found the very straight road boring and the views much less interesting and as I no longer find it fun to descend at over 40 mph I much prefer the Roccamorice route in both directions.

The climb profile in meters and kilometers:


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