Montello – my favorite little cycling hill
What better thing to do on a clear fall day in northeastern Italy than hop on a road bike and head for the nearest hill? Leave the tedious flood plain surrounding my city of Treviso and go for the closest personal and geolographical relief?
In my case, it’s an elongated mound attached to the northern horizon like a limpet. This greenish limpet is called the Montello, which means “little hill”. “Little” is an understatement, considering the pretty big hills rising up behind it. When the air is free from pesky particulates, you can see the Dolomites standing tall beyond yet another range of foothills. I always look for those mountains in the paintings of Venetian masters. They were paid to bring Christ and the Madonna and an incredible multitude of saints to life, but couldn’t help adding those fantastical mirage-like backdrops to their work.
I pass the flagship store of the Pinarello bicycle makers on my way out of town. I have one of their creations and used to feel proud I was helping the local economy. Now it turns out world-famous Pinarello has been sold to a private equity firm. But I will always feel loyal to the brand because I’ve had so much fun tooling around on my low-end racing model.
I also liked the old man, the founder and ex-racer Giovanni Pinarello, who would hang out in his store and share his thoughts with customers in a strong local accent, using bicycle jargon when possible. He once poked my brother in the stomach with his cane and told him that he needed to put on the brakes when he got home. My brother used to be as thin as a rail but had expanded in his midriff after moving to Texas, and didn’t take kindly to this kind of comment about his eating habits. Mr. Pinarello was a trim octogenerian himself and a bit of a ladies’ man. When I bought my bike eight years ago, he told me that I’d have men coming after me. My exceptional new speed, of course, would allow me to stay ahead of any male who wanted to compete. Another time he told my husband that I had a good ‘frame’, as if I were a window or a loom, although I was swathed at that moment in a shapeless floor-length winter coat. Yet I didn’t mind being compared to a pair of glasses. I was just happy that anyone was taking my desire to ride a decent bike seriously.
Well, it was a strain for me to understand Mr Pinarello’s lingo. I’ve lived in Veneto for over ten years but have been lazy about picking up the accent or dialect. I thought standard Italian would be enough but I am sometimes stumped when dealing with older people and the populace in general after they’ve had a few glasses of wine. And now that a referendum on some sort of autonomy for this region won by a landslide a few weeks ago, maybe the time has come to take an accelerated course in Trevigiano. The best place to start would be a bar.
Venetian Timber Reserve
But let’s go back to my great day riding to my little hill, which was one of the Venetian Republic’s timber reserves for at least three centuries. The Serenissima guarded their trees with vigor. Although that fine example of forestry vanished when the Republic disintegrated after Napoleon’s arrival in the late 18th century, the Montello still has something special about it.
Getting to the Montello from Treviso
I take the Via Montello, which starts right outside the ringroad circling the historic center of Treviso. There can be a lot of traffic on this route for the first ten kilometres, depending on the time of day. Some stretches have cycling lanes which then end abruptly. I mostly stay on the road and make sure cars have to pass me rather than force me into the ditch. I could break a leg and become a cripple for life, whereas they might lose ten seconds of their time.
It’s amazing how all these close encounters with cars in the last few years have made me more daring. It’s just a question of habit!
After crossing the Via Postumia, a major thoroughfare, traffic gets sparser and the whole experience actually starts becoming pleasant. I pedal on and guzzle water, trying to stay focused as I get closer to Giavera, a town at the base of the Montello, to see the British War Cemetery.
Montello and WWI
Oct. 24th, 2017, was the 100th anniversary of the battle of Caporetto (Kobarid), in Slovenia, during WWI. The Italians suffered a horrific defeat there at the hands of the Austrians and Germans. ‘Caporetto’ was such a bloody massacre that it is a kind of old-fashioned Italian synonym for disaster. Hemingway, always looking for action, happened to be there. In between bouts of drinking, he wrote about the Austro-German Blitzkrieg and the chaotic Italian retreat in ‘A Farewell to Arms.’ The retreat ended hundreds of kilometres to the west, just across the Piave River.
The Montello on a map looks less like a mollusk than a kidney nestled in a sharp bend of the Piave. So the little hill was crisscrossed with trenches and became a crucial part of the Italian front, where British and French troops also fought in the last year of the war, from December 1917 to November 1918.
British War Cemetery
I cycled up the steep ramp to the cemetery. A man in a saffron-colored caftan was standing by his car and speaking on his phone in what sounded like Arabic in the empty parking lot across the street. This humble hill, just a lump of soil tucked away here between the sea and the Prosecco hills and the mountains, sees a number of foreigners these days. There are tourists from Germany and Great Britain and immigrants from all over who live in the many small villages in the province of Treviso.
The tidy walled graveyard, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is an uncommonly peaceful resting place. The men who are buried on this grassy hillside, some of whom died in the very last days before the armistice (November 4th in Italy), will always be remembered because they get a fair number of visitors, including me. I think about lives cut short and the horror of war and that sort of thing as I walk past the symmetrical rows of white stones embedded in green, green grass and spruced up with flowering plants. I study some of the stones and see that the men were mostly non-commissioned officers or privates. There were a few lieutenants. Some were decidedly Christian, some less so. Some were Jewish. All died for King and country. I always think that in a perfect world, politicians should be shut up alone in a war cemetery for a few hours to contemplate exactly why those markers are there.
But, as I said, the aesthetics of this particular spot mitigate the sadness of what happened. Someone also takes care good care of the olive and magnolia trees leading up to the entrance of this Anglo-Italian hanging garden.
The ‘prese’, good enough for a world championship
Well, it is now time to get some real exercise so I make my way down to the flat canal road that runs along the bottom of the rise, the Montello Riviera. That’s a pretty loaded name, but it really is a relaxing ride. Gazing at rushing water while racing along makes everything better. I weave in between mothers out with their strollers and couples with their dogs until the I reach the start of ‘presa’ number 10. ‘Presa’ comes from the verb ‘prendere’, i.e. ‘take’. The Venetians must have traced the original prese to get to their forest gold. The tracks were then modified when the Montello was privatized by the unified Italian state in the late 19th century.
There are 21 of these ‘prese’, which get steeper from east to west. So presa 1 is a piece of cake, whereas presa 16 has a nasty spot. They all go up to the central ridge and then curve down again towards another canal and the Piave river to the north. In some cases, the northern ascent is harder than the southern, or vice versa. So the number and variety of these prese, some of which are paved and others still gravel or dirt, are a boon to all sorts of cyclists looking for a series of short winding challenges. It’s encouraging to remember that the UCI Road World Championships took place here in 1985, with Tour de France champions Joop Zoetemelk and Greg Lemond coming in first and second respectively in the men’s road race. Maria Canins took silver in the women’s road race.
Although privatization was supposed to lead to extensive farming, it didn’t work everywhere. So many trees grew back, even after the ravages of the war. There aren’t that many houses on the hill itself, just a few restaurants. Going to fill up on food on the Montello is a thing to do on a weekend. The prices and portions are competitive. The best time to go up a presa is at 12.30 on a Sunday. Everyone will have parked their cars by then and be seated at a table, drinking an aperitivo and about to dig into a plate of polenta and meat on a spit. That’s the sort of food that sticks to your ribs.
Presa 10 and Santa Maria della Vittoria
I don’t get any of that, because I have to finish my tour. Now no. 10 has become my favorite training ascent. It starts out steepish (going up to 15% in the first two kilometres) but then becomes more forgiving. There are some slippery chestnut burrs on the road, and people in the forest, poking the leaves with sticks, looking for mushrooms. I’ve also seen hawks and brightly colored jays here from time to time. The Venetians helped to keep this place relatively wild because of their voracious appetite for wood to build ships in their ‘arsenale’. Ironically enough, the Montello ultimately benefited from all the planning for conquest in the Adriatic that went on during the mother city’s heyday.
I huff and puff my way along, then turn left when I reach the central ridge road and go up to the hamlet of Santa Maria Della Vittoria, the highest point at 371 metres above sea level. This proves that you don’t need high elevation to find a good climb. The Victory in the name of the cluster of houses refers, of course, to a battle in WWI. You also feel victorious because you’ve made it to the top and can have a snack, fill up your bottle at the fountain, and even use a bathroom put there specifically for cyclists, who are mostly men. It’s so clear that mostly men use the toilet that I would go in the bushes if there weren’t a monumental church right next door.
The fun part is the fast descent down the western edge of the hill, past more woods and fields and vineyards, towards Biadene. There is also some good wine produced here, which I’ve often drunk in local restaurants. Loredan Gasparini in Venegazzu’ (as well as Serafini Vidotto and Giusti, in Nervesa della Battaglia, on the eastern side of the Montello) make some tasty stuff. I do believe that if you’re going to kill brain cells, you might as well do it in style and not waste your time on some worthless vintage.
I make it home, bored to tears on the flats just before Treviso, but ultimately galvanized by all the endorphins I have activated. I have also breathed in a lot of car exhaust, which might shorten my life. But then, not cycling would shorten it too. And there is the evergreen allure of euphoria. It never hurts, ‘non guasta mai,’ as they say in Italian. Is there a local version of that saying? Guess I’ll have to do some research the next time I go out for an ‘ombra’ (glass of wine).