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Cycling Campo Imperatore

Abruzzo Cycling, Part 3 52 miles / 5,600 feet / 4.5 hours

Corno Grande and Campo Imperatore
The Corno Grande towering over Campo Imperatore and making the Rifugio di Lago Racollo seem tiny by comparison

Ofena - Castel del Monte - Campo Imperatore - Santo Stefano di Sessanio - Calascio - Castel del Monte - Ofena

Always searching for the road less traveled I designed this loop with weekend traffic in mind because on a gorgeous Sunday in mid-September there is never any shortage of people wanting to visit one of Italy's most spectacular national parks.

And so it turned out because for most of the ride I was able to appreciate the incredible beauty of the Gran Sasso on quiet roads. Only for a couple of miles on either side of the solitary restaurant in Campo Imperatore was there any traffic but it was the headwind that bothered me more because on that exposed alpine plain I could barely manage 13 mph.

Ofena, Abruzzo from the road above
Looking back down on Ofena from a little way into the first climb

I wisely brought my own food with me because Ristoro Mucciante was overflowing with day-trippers, most of them motorcyclists who love to rip up mountain roads everywhere in Italy on summer weekends and this park in particular attracts bikers from as far away as Rome when fine weather is forecast.

A recumbent motorbike with seating for two in the Gran Sasso
Fellow travelers on the deserted morning climb from Ofena. We stopped for a chat and and compared notes but he can keep his Mad Max machine, I much prefer my bike

As with all of my well-planned rides, the goal of this loop was to finish with a long descent because there's nothing better after a challenging ride than a 30 minute downhill finish on an open road with good visibility.

map of Campo Imperatore around Castel del Monte
The loop around the south-eastern section of Campo Imperatore starting and finishing in Ofena

Much better to end on an adrenalin filled high than limp wearily to the end of a steep climb which is how I remember most of the finishes on the organized bike tours I've done over the years. Maybe I should go into the bike tour business because the rides I've designed and written about in this section of my website are far better than those offered by most professional tour companies.

Castel del Monte, Abruzzo from the road above
This is now my favorite view of Castel del Monte but there are no bad views of this lovely Abruzzo town

Anyhow, this is why I chose to begin the ride in the sleepy town of Ofena where not a single thing was moving at 9.00. am when I parked the car at the side of the road and pedaled through town on the first climb of the day.

From Ofena to the peak at Valico di Capo la Serra is almost 15 miles with 3,600 feet of climbing, so even though the average grade is only about 4.6% it takes close to 2 hours to complete.

Campo Imperatore scenery in mid-September
A strange and very non-Italian landscape which can only really be appreciated on a bike at 18 mph

I chose not to start any earlier so that it would be pleasantly warm by the time I reached the higher elevations because most of this ride is above 4,500 feet.

The sheep mural in Castel del Monte, Abruzzo
The Castel del Monte mural depicting its centuries old history with sheep farming and the transumanza

Before reaching the top of the climb you pass through the famous town of Castel del Monte with its rich history and very atmospheric centro storico. In the central piazza there's a large fountain that serves as a focal point for the locals as well as several coffee bars and although the permanent population is stated to be only 430 people, in summer it seems significantly larger.

valico di capo la serra sign

The scenery on the climb up from Ofena looks very much like the usual Abruzzo countryside and does nothing to prepare you for the awesome if somewhat desolate spectacle of Campo Imperatore. I had been through here before but in a car not on a bike and the experience is very different.

Non cyclists don't know what they're missing because taking in this amazing scenery in absolute silence at a speed that gives you a full appreciation of the vastness of the landscape makes this a truly unforgettable ride. I would go even further and say that having done two tours of the French Alps and two tours also of the Italian Dolomites, road biking in the Abruzzo mountains beats them both for quiet roads and variety of scenery.

Ristoro Mucciante in Campo Imperatore
This is how Ristoro Mucciante looks on a late summer Sunday so plan accordingly

The only part of the climb that is even remotely steep is the short section as you pass above Castel del Monte and you are rewarded for your effort by some fabulous views of the town below you and all the way across the valley to Rocca Calascio in the distance.

You reach the peak at Valico di Capo la Serra only about 3 miles after passing through Castel del Monte and then it's a similar distance to Ristoro Mucciante where you turn left heading in the direction of the Corno Grande.

Campo Imperatore in late summer
Even with a little autumn color it is still an arid looking place that seems more like Mongolia or Tibet than a part of Italy

After all the time spent on the morning climb there's no rewarding descent just yet because Campo Imperatore is a high plateau and there's more uphill on this section. In fact with a strong headwind and another 1,000 feet of climbing the third hour on the bike makes for a tough 13 miles.

The scenery is very bleak here and a real contrast to both the Blockhaus climb and the ride across the Maiella. 'Little Tibet' is an apt nickname for Campo Imperatore and I am not drawn to return here as much as I am by the Maiella but it makes for a great day's cycling for those who have yet to experience the Gran Sasso.

For this loop I chose to go only about 5 miles farther before turning left on the road to Santo Stefano di Sessanio. The longer option would be to continue straight and then turn around at the Albergo Campo Imperatore before returning to this intersection, but the scenery on the extra mileage remains largely the same.

Campo Imperatore in late summer
An Italian Automobile Club using Campo Imperatore as a Sunday showground for their vintage cars

The road to Santo Stefano is a little over 8 miles and it starts to climb as you approach the southern edge of the plateau. I took a short break from pedaling when, as often happens on sunny weekends in Italy, a vintage auto club procession swept by me in a long line of lovingly maintained cars from the 1960s and 1970s (above photo).

Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo
The view back to Santo Stefano di Sessanio on the descent to Calascio

Finally, after over 3 hours on the bike, the first real descent arrives when you see the small medieval village of Santo Stefano a long way below you and below that the long valley leading from Popoli to l'Aquila. Santo Stefano is worth exploring if you've never been there before but for at least the last 3 years it has been undergoing a complete rebuild after a combination of abandonment and earthquake damage left it in a very bad state.

Rocca Calascio
Rocca Calascio

After Santo Stefano the descent continues for another 7 miles through Calascio and most of the way back to Castel del Monte. Seeing that it was a Sunday I skipped the out-and-back climb up to Rocca Calascio because I know from previous visits that the winding road up to the top can get very crowded at weekends.

However on a weekday it would be a nice addition to this loop and a worthwhile detour for those who have not yet been to the castle at the summit.

Castel del Monte, Abruzzo
Looking up at Castel del Monte on the final short ascent

The final climb of the day is a very short ride back up to Castel del Monte, a town that I've grown to like a lot over the years. There's probably no more than another 600 feet of climbing before you can refill your water bottles at the same fountain in town and then from there it's all downhill to the finish in Ofena.

Ofena, Abruzzo
The road less traveled. The final part of the descent back to Ofena

The distance from Castel del Monte to Ofena is just under 12 miles with a drop of 2,600 feet. There are plenty of long very straight sections with excellent visibility so it makes for a great descent and you can choose to pedal a bit or just sit up and enjoy half an hour of fun with almost no traffic.


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