Finale Ligure. A tale of pesto, gelato, and the Mecca of enduro

They call it the Enduro Capital of the World. 

Kimmi Runner

Already it had our attention captured with such a bold, daring statement such as this. After all, there are taller mountains certainly. There are picturesque views that one can only see upon two wheels available on every continent in some way, shape or form. Having just come off of our new n.spire enduro saddle launch at Eurobike, we packed our bags and headed due South to see if Finale Ligure, Italy really lived up to its reputation.

The drive from Friedrichshafen, Germany to Finale Ligure was breathtaking as we wound our way down through the Swiss Alps. The recent rains made for plenty of waterfalls, bright white vertical lines that seemed to glow against the gray and charcoal colored backdrop of the Alps’ rocky slopes. Every little Alps village we passed through looked like a postcard. We had to refrain from stopping for photos every five minutes, otherwise a 6 hour drive could have easily turned into a 16 hour one. Somewhere between Lake Como and Finale, the sun set lazily over the Italian countryside, casting oranges and reds on small Italian farmhouses.

 

After some slightly stomach-churning time spent on tiny, winding, guardrail-free mountain roads in the dark, we made it to a small-town Bed and Breakfast seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We booked the Inn on Booking’s website, which brings us to suggestion #1: Use VRBO instead of Booking. Though it was beautiful, clean and cozy, it was over a 30 minute drive from town and trails, despite Booking’s claim to only be 8 km away. Whereas a mere 5 minute search on VRBO yielded a number of rooms for under 40 Euro/night in the heart of town. Nonetheless after a good night’s sleep and a few espressos, we got our first official daylight views of the surroundings. Rolling green mountains flecked with the occasional cream and terracotta colored villas, and the sound of chickens waking up.

The drive into Finale was nothing short of stunning, as we meandered through the heart of the mountain forests. We learned from our local Italian friend, Eric, that the current Mayor of Finale is a big-time mountain biker, and put a lot of hard work into having a huge trail network system built all over these mountains to drive up tourism. Our jaws dropped when we heard that the system included over 70 trails. It was clear that a mere 4 days here would barely scratch the surface. We saw at least a handful of shuttle vans headed up to the top of the mountain as we were coming down, all full of bikes. Finale has up to 60 shuttles going up and down the mountains on most days with good weather (which is most days ending in “y” out there). It was decided that we would perhaps shuttle on our last morning so we could get 2 runs in before we had to leave for the airport. “Only 2?” we asked with puzzled looks.

“The shortest runs down the mountain are around 30 minutes, most take close to a full hour. Welcome to Finale Ligure!”

Nevermind the questions lurking in the back of our minds to the tune of, “If the downhills are 30 minutes plus, what does that make the climbs up? And we AREN’T planning to shuttle the first three days?” We weren’t sure what to expect, but we imagined much pasta would be in order.

Eric had a friend in Milan who pointed us towards The Ultimate Bike Shop for all bike rental needs and these guys did not disappoint. We swapped out the demo Intense Spider’s stock saddle for Smanie’s new n.spire enduro saddle, excited to put it to the test on what we were coming to believe would truly be some of the world’s best trails.

Day 1

20.6 miles, 4.4K elevation gain, just shy of 4 hours. (https://www.strava.com/activities/1166183346 )

It would be more realistic to state upfront that you gain almost all of those 4,422ft in the first 12 miles pedaling from town up to the top of the mountain. However we did take a wrong turn or two and wound up with a few extra miles of steep, loose, rocky ascending and mild bush-whacking and thorn-slapping. Suggestion #2: Take a full hydration pack when riding anywhere in Finale. Our 1 water bottle ran out quickly and we had to mooch water to make it to the top. Suggestion #3: Always carry a trail map (available at all bike shops), even if you don’t speak or read Italian, chances are you’ll be able to find another human being along the way who is more than happy to help.

We finally made it up to the top to quite a welcome sight: a Bar/Ristorante where a number of fellow mountain bikers were enjoying some well-earned rest after that long ascent. After topping off our water bottles, scarfing down some fresh pastries, and massive amounts of sparkling water, we took in the beautiful views of the ocean, and the town of Finale tucked in against it, far off in the distance.

The descent began by meandering its way down the spine of one of the peaks. It was fast, gritty, and went by far too quickly. What felt like instantaneously, the terrain changed and we proceeded to descend some tight, loose, rocky, technical singletrack that snaked its way down the mountain through the forest. To say it was a bit beefy would be an understatement. Instantly gone were the daydreams we had during the long climb of renting a hardtail XC bike vs the appropriately chosen Intense Spider.

We hit the next trail and Eric kindly warned us, ”Ok, so the locals say this is a difficult one, so just take your time and go your pace. It’s called ‘Roller Coaster’.”

In our minds, “So, wait. That last one WASN’T considered difficult?!” Suggestion #4 in Finale: Bring pads and a solid enduro helmet. Hell, bring a Full Face and goggles if you have ‘em!

Roller Coaster lived up to its name, naturally, with G-Outs/Compressions over 1 story tall over and over again, some with lips and drop-offs at the top. To say there was a fair amount of hike-a-biking would be an understatement for those of us perhaps more accustomed to lycra and 72 degree headtube angles. Nonetheless it was a good time. We were truly in awe of how long each of these trails was, and how well-maintained they all were.

We finished off the ride by taking a few wrong turns in search of more singletrack. And singletrack we happily found, however it quickly changed into more of an animal path that eventually found us hiking our way out through a resident’s vast olive tree-terraced garden.

After returning the bikes safely into the care of The Ultimate Bike Shop, we walked back to Final Borgo, the adorable picturesque mini-town where we were renting a room, (found on VRBO for 40 Euro/night) that centuries ago used to be a quite extravagant castle. We passed by shops, ristorantes, and bars (cafes) and found what we were looking for, which brings us to a very emphatically stated Suggestion #5: Always get fresh Italian Gelato after every ride in Finale! Bar Centrale is by far the best in Final Borgo.

We passed out promptly after a delicious dinner, anticipating what the next day’s ride would entail.

Day 2

36.5 miles, 5,675ft elevation gain, basically all day.

https://www.strava.com/activities/1167570044

https://www.strava.com/activities/1167849091

We decided something different was in order for day 2. We had only heard rumors of “24 Hours in Ligure”. Some say it could quite possibly be the toughest 24 hour MTB race in the world. Naturally, we wanted to scout out the course and decide for ourselves. We rode up an entirely different side of the mountain at a mellow pace, chatting candidly with a local on a new YT bike in DH attire. The relaxed pace was quite welcome, as we knew after this hour of climbing was done, we had planned to get a full day of “training” in, opting to do numerous laps around this course.

We stopped at the ristorante at the race’s Starting Line and asked them if the course was still marked and rideable to the public. We were told that aside from a couple of missing signs due to the course running through private property in a few spots, the course was still proudly marked. We topped off our water bottles (plural, as we learned from our mistake on Day 1 and pocketed an extra two) and headed off to see about this course. Once again, we were shocked to find the rumors to be proven accurate. This course was no joke. The basic gist of it was as follows: Tight, rocky/rooty singletrack though the forest for a few miles on one of those trails that you can’t figure out if it’s going up or down the mountain, then some brutally punchy climbs with no traction and rock gardens thrown into the mix, then a ripping fast descent that plants you on a perfectly groomed singletrack with panoramic vistas of the Italian coastline that screams to have its picture taken. Then some fireroad climbing for a few minutes, then back to even more brutal, loose, technical singletrack climbing with babyheads strewn about as if the course itself was mocking us, throwing every type of obstacle it could our way. Then we were rewarded with a fast, bermy, switchback-riddled descent that had us hooting and hollering at the tops of our lungs.

We were in heaven, grinning from ear-to-ear. This was going to prove to be an amazingly blissful sufferfest of epic proportions!

Two laps around the course had us pretty well spent, so we found a table at the starting line Ristorante and ordered fresh pasta to refuel. There’s just something overwhelmingly delicious about homemade Italian pasta.

After pasta was lazily enjoyed on the patio, we filled up our bottles and headed out for more. By our 4th lap we found ourselves unable to comprehend what it would be like attempting to navigate this kind of terrain sleep deprived at 4am. To any and all who have ever participated in 24 Hours in Ligure, we raise our cold IPAs in your direction!

After we said goodbye to the 24 Hour course, there was still the promise of another epic downhill back into town. We caught up to a group from New Zealand and followed their line down a fast, rocky, fun, and of course long descent back into town. Next stop, naturally, was more gelato.

We woke up on Day 3 with tight legs, sure that an extra espresso was in order to get our bodies ready for yet another day of Finale’s finest.

Day 3

21.8 miles, 4,446ft of elevation, 3:15

We opted out of fireroad climbing in favor of the much gentler, yet longer road climb up the mountain. We stopped counting the shuttle vans full of bikes passing us by, as the number got too high to keep track of. We managed to get a few sideways looks from each ones’ passengers however. The road was gorgeous, meandering through, seemingly, a number of different ecosystems. We stopped in a small village halfway up and picked a few fresh figs and scarfed them down quickly, as halfway through the process we began getting yelled at irately in Italian from the farmer who owned the property. We jumped back on our bikes and sped away before we could get caught.

We finally reached the top of the almost 12 mile climb. It was an old abandoned NATO Base, surrounded by churning windmills, overlooking the mountain range and coastline. A few fellow mountain bikers fresh off the shuttle showed us a good “warm up downhill” that we opted to take, that dumped us perfectly onto the planned route down the mountain, and what turned out to be Stage 5 of the Enduro World Series, Finale course. It was split into three segments, each separated by the main fireroad, and each over 10 minutes long. It was never-ending bliss! Fast, tight, bermy, super fun forest singletrack that went on so long, our arms were shaking and aching halfway through each section, and our cheeks were sore from far too much smiling.

Alas, our favorite gelato bar was closed. The owner told us that she hadn’t had a day off since June, due to the European Summer Holiday season. After eating the most delicious pesto spaghetti on the planet (a true statement, as pesto originated in the region of Finale), we meandered through Finalborgo’s town square and found ourselves awe-struck in front of the Basilica di San Biagio, a Catholic church that took over 300 years to complete!

The history in this little town is absolutely phenomenal. Alas, it was time for sleep, as we had one last morning to ride in Finale Ligure before we said farewell.

Day 4 we woke up early, opting out of shuttling in favor of putting ourselves through one last torturous climb. It did not disappoint as we made our way up the same road we drove down on our arrival day. Once again, the smell of all of the variety of flora in the surrounding forest filled our lungs, and they rejoiced once again to be able to inhale such fresh air. Our plan was to ascend the road (longer mileage, but faster than the fireroad climb up) to the summit ristorante/bar, then take a different route down the mountain than we did the first day. The options of downhills in this area is astounding. If flowy forest berms are your thing, there’s at least 10 trails for that. If drops, rocks, and chunk is your cup of tea, there are plenty of those. If steep, loose, sketchy stuff is your thing….. you get the idea.

 

We peeled off on a “short cut” fireroad, knowing it cut a few miles of road climbing off. However after climbing a few more miles on the fireroad, time was running out, we had to get the bikes returned, and begin the 2.5 hour drive back to Milan so we could catch our flight in time. We made the impossibly torturous, but right, decision that Eric would press on, as he was a fast technical descender and could make quick work of it, and we would turn around and head back to the bike shop to take care of business before saying goodbye. It seemed strangely apt that the riding in Finale would end so abruptly and leave us begging for more, as though it were a live ‘Game of Thrones’ season finale.

We returned the bikes and said our farewells to our awesome LBS of the week, packed the car, and took our leave with an overwhelming number of unforgettable memories. We had seen mountains meet the sea in the most spectacular way. We felt Italian mountain pavement beneath our beefy 2.4s, we had eaten a variety of authentically homemade Italian food, sipped Italian espresso, met amazingly warm locals, and got to be a part of their beautiful community for a few days. We hooted, we hollered, and we smiled so much, our dentists will undoubtedly find dirt in our teeth on our next visits. But most importantly we got to put the n.spire up against hours and hours of technical trail riding, thus answering the questions we came here to answer. We tip our helmets to you, Finale Ligure, and give you more than fair permission to hold the title of “Enduro Capital of the World.” Continue to wear it proudly, and know that Smanie will certainly return.

Caio.

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