Downhill vs cross-country in Finale Ligure, Italy

We compare disciplines on sun-baked Mediterranean trails

It's coming to that time of year when mountain bikers – especially those stuck in grey, rainy Britain – start thinking about heading further afield in search of sun-baked trails and new adventures.

But should you opt for a long-travel bike and make the most of chairlift-accessed downhill runs, or pack your trail bike in order to earn the descents via some lung-burning climbs?

Dan Milner compared the two disciplines in the Mediterranean resort of Finale Ligure to see if a good cross-country loop can match the buzz of a day of relentless gravity action.

All downhill from here

My calf muscles are already tight and we’re only on the third descent of the day. I’m used to long downhills, but I’m also used to stretching out my leg muscles in between with a bit of good old seat-up pedalling. I’m not complaining, though.

Ahead of me, Keith disappears around the next sweep in the trail and is lost in a cloud of dust. I give chase, dipping my riser bars left and then right to thread my front wheel through the gaps between the trees. Meanwhile, Greg is chasing my back tyre like a dog baying for blood. It’s all getting a bit out of control, and by the end of the day there would be spills.

We know that we’re riding by the seats of our pants, but we can’t help it; we’ve been meaning to hit Finale and try its notorious trails for a while, and finally we’re here. Our excitement is definitely getting the better of us.

I’d been hearing about Finale Ligure for a couple of years, but most of the hype had come from riders I know who are of the 6in-travel persuasion. So to me and most of the guys I ride with – a bunch of cross-country riders who like a good climb almost as much as a good descent – it would be interesting to see if Finale could deliver the smiles, even while riding 100mm- and 120mm-travel bikes.

The proof of the mountain bike pudding is in its riding, so we compared a day’s thrashing down Finale’s freeride trails with a day of ups and downs along one of its cross-country loops.

Sitting slap bang in the middle of the Italian Riviera, Finale Ligure seems an unlikely host for a grubby bike scene, but it's rapidly becoming one of Europe’s most worthy bike destinations. Trails have sprung up everywhere, knotting a web of singletrack across its coastal headlands and through the hinterland forests.

While the tourist office is doing what it can to encourage the swelling mountain bike scene and the euros it brings, the blossoming of local trails has more to do with hours spent tools-in-hand by conscientious local riders. Sure, there is the official trail map that shows a series of cross-country and freeride trails, but to ride the best of the best then you really need to tap into the local knowledge.

We teamed up with the shuttle company Just Ride Finale to show us around. It seems, according to Alessandro, our guide for the day and a born-and-bred Finale local, that no-one really knows who owns the mass of hillsides that rise to over 1,100 metres north of Finale – or if they do, no one really cares.

In direct contrast to the intensively developed ribbon of coastline that is the Italian Riviera, the hills inland are sparsely populated and, with little demand upon the land apart from the occasional olive grove, the mountain bikers have had an almost free rein to build trails anywhere they want.

Go with the flow

And build they have. But instead of the typical bermed, supercharged downhill creations you’d find at French resorts like Les Gets, the trail builders here have adapted ancient and redundant footpaths into a series of truly marvellous descents that flow like spilt mercury all the way to the sea. Picture the unlikely offspring from a marriage of technical cross-country singletrack and super-fast freeride descents and you’ll have Finale’s shuttle-fed trails in a nutshell.

Most of the trail work is undertaken by the people who run Finale’s assorted mountain bike guiding companies, and Alessandro is no stranger to the shovel and pickaxe. The trail we’re on is one of his creations, so he knows it like the back of his gloved hand. He stops at a junction to give us a choice of trail ahead.

“Here we can take the steep one, but it’s more for downhillers and it’s pretty gnarly, or we can keep on the flowing one,” he says, trying to be diplomatic about leading a group of body-armour-less riders for the day. We all know how to ride ‘gnarly’ stuff, but we’re unanimous in opting for the ‘flowing’ route, enjoying the opportunity to let the bike run.

There are certainly enough rock drops, mini-jumps and tight bends in the flowy trail to keep us on our cleated toes. At the bottom of the trail we burst out into sunshine where Lou, an ex-pat Swede and Alessandro’s partner, is waiting for us with their logoed-up Nissan Terrano and purpose-built bike trailer in tow, ready to haul us back up to the top for another dusty, grin-lubed descent.

For my group, the idea of car-shuttling is a new one. We love descents – as technical and as long as you can throw at us – but back home we like the feeling of earning our descents from a slog uphill beforehand. Weirdos, some might call us, but riding bikes uphill keeps you fit and allows you to drink pints of beer and remain belly-neutral. But as we all climb aboard the shuttle, we can’t help but smile at how easy it is. We’re almost feeling guilty … almost.

A lazy start

Arriving in Finale late the night before, we’ve started the day a little more lazily than is ideal, with a pick-up from the Florenz Hotel at 10am. The first shuttle is about half an hour of winding road up into the hills, and we squeeze two descents in before lunchtime – both down the same trail with a 10-minute shuttle in between.

Alessandro is really eager to take us to new spots with each successive shuttle, but I’m keen to ride the same trail a second time to get some photos at bends that I thought were particularly photogenic.

The first descent was so good that no one complains about the idea of a re-run, and by the bottom of it we’re all comparing how different it felt second time around; how we all let off the brakes a little more, how we all got in the air on a few more occasions, how the trickier sections flowed more easily.

Having ridden it once already didn’t stop Keith falling off, though. By the end of the day we’d all be feeling like freeride gods, looking for the most playful line we could find on every descent.

When compared with the relatively slow pace of a cross-country ride – usually with its single descent to the finish – the shuttle session afforded us so many metres of vertical that by the end of a single day we could feel how our riding had evolved and progressed. So we went right back up there for some more!

Lunch is a sandwich of mozzarella and tomato dripping with olive oil, eaten at a hill-top café next to Alessandro and Lou’s house. While we munch, our hosts fill us in on some of the details of their guiding venture and how the footpaths came to be in the first place.

Smothered by forest, the hills in the region are criss-crossed by footpaths originally used by chestnut gatherers. This is the reason that so many of the trails cut back and forth across the hillside rather than taking the shortest route from A to B, to enable the gatherers to maximise access to the chestnut trees.

Occasionally local riders will create a new trail – often a shortcut – between the existing footpaths, but more often than not, the original chestnut gatherers’ path needed merely cleaning up to make it into the writhing serpent of a descent it is now.

The afternoon starts with us testing a new trail Alessandro has recently cleared. We’re dropped among stout beech trees and begin by descending a fire road covered by a thick layer of fallen leaves. It’s as close to snowboarding in powder as you’ll ever get on a bike, and the spraying leaves encourage us to swing the bikes’ back ends about with the gusto of enthusiastic strippers looking for extra tips.

Tree-dodging track

The leafy and slightly slippery singletrack becomes earthy and grippy, eventually evolving into a dusty trail that cuts across open hillside before dropping back into the forest for more tree-dodging, swoopy singletrack. The trails in the hills have a distinct feel to them, not only in the way they sweep through the forest, but in the smells and colours around us – deciduous woodland and loamy-smelling soil prove quite different from the limestone rubble of tomorrow’s coastal cross-country trails.

No rain for more than three weeks means that each tyre leaves a cloud of dust in its wake, adding to the excitement of trying to see the trail while following another rider at full speed through it. Shafts of lazy autumn light slant through the raised dust to add to the atmosphere, making it feel, as Greg says, "like having the pages of an amazing bike calendar opening up in front of you as you ride".

Eventually we head up for the last descent of the day, a summit-to-sea drop of 1,100m that will run continuously downhill for more than 15km. After 40 minutes of flowing descent we drop down an ancient stone pathway and between the massively thick ramparts of Finale’s old centre to head to the beach for a well earned beer.

We’ve been out for eight hours, I’m dusty, and for the first time I can remember after a ride, not stinking of sweat, but I’m tired, both physically and mentally. Although I’ve not pedalled up hill, the fact that I’ve hardly sat on my seat all day long is something I can really feel in my legs.

The next morning we’re up earlier, keen to try one of Finale’s cross-country loops. As expected, my calves are tight as we set off through town in the wake of Jack, our Italian guide for the day. In summer he’s a mechanic on the pro downhill circuit and rides his Cannondale Prophet like someone who hangs out with a lot of downhillers.

That said, he’s happy to ride uphill – which is just as well, because it’s straight into a 300m climb, which winds its way past the Roman bridge and up to the ridge just to the east of Finale. The road becomes jeep track, which narrows into an amazing singletrack climb, punctuated with short sections of polished bedrock. Although the climb takes nearly an hour, it doesn’t feel like it thanks to its flowy feel.

Breaking out of the scrubby forest, we climb a section of red earthen 4x4 track that strikes out across a hillside scarred by previous forest fires. We’re all still buzzing from yesterday’s shuttle runs, but at the same time everyone seems happy to have their seatposts back up to full height and to be using some familiar muscles again.

At the top of the ridge we’re confronted by a spectacular view of the sea, a vista that accompanies us on most of the remainder of the loop. The trail becomes singletrack again, but in contrast to any we rode yesterday, here it is loose, with walnut-sized chunks of rock and gravel spitting out from under our tyres. It might as well have been a different country, and as we chase Jack’s back wheel ahead of us, we soon discover that the trail’s lack of sure-footedness commands a different style of riding.

Trying to scrub some speed too late, an eroded V-shaped rut has me on my side with Jez on top of me – who was, until then, giving chase. We decide to control the pace a little, a decision that proves impeccably timed as we drop into the final steep, stepped descent back to sea level. We skip down it, concentrating hard to not lock up the front wheel on the loose chunks of limestone, and then are suddenly spat out of the trail right opposite the waves of the Mediterranean.

We’re all buzzing from the singletrack we just cleaned, and grab a bite to eat to take a moment to reflect on the loop. We’re on the same bikes as yesterday, but our two rides were worlds apart. Today was all about sea views, open headlands, tight switchbacks, bulging thigh muscles and white limestone – all the ingredients for the kind of cross-country ride you dream of finding on a Mediterranean hillside. It was about savouring every moment of the ride.

Sit and wave

As we sit and watch the waves crashing on the sand, we discuss the merits of each day’s riding. Last night we could hardly sleep for the adrenalin coursing through our veins, a direct result of thousands of metres of fluid descents; tonight, sleep would be easier – riding uphill has that effect. Today’s descent felt short, at least when compared with yesterday’s experiences, but the reward of a rideable techy climb had to be worked into the equation too.

We agree that none of us is about to sell our Enduro or Trek Fuel or Marin Mount Vision for a big freeride bike, and as another plate of paninis arrives we banter anecdotes from the two days’ riding. We’d had the best of both worlds; if there’s a way of combining both, that would be perfect. Maybe a shuttle-up to start and then ride down and up and down again to finish at the sea. If it’s possible, then Finale is the place to make it happen.

How to ride Finale Ligure

About Finale

The area around Finale Ligure, on the coast in north-west Italy, offers you testing downhills, everything a freerider could possibly dream of and some cracking cross-country riding. On top of all that, the resort itself is on the beach, meaning that it's a good location for anyone with non-mountain biking partners too – the prospect of sand, sun and ice creams is infinitely more attractive than the cow fields, rain and sandwiches that trips with riders usually offer. It's a small town with narrow, steep streets, but bike shops selling spare parts are plentiful.

Getting there

EasyJet and Ryanair fly to Nice airport (1.5 hour transfer) and Genova (1 hour transfer) respectively.

When to go and where to stay

Summer months are excessively hot, especially for cross-country loops. Finale is best in the autumn and spring when temperatures are around 20-28°C, but winter can be a reliable long-weekend option. The southern climate, terrain and soil type mean that mud is not usually an issue, although trails are slippery immediately after rain (but “only for one day and then they are super grippy”, we were told).

There are plenty of hotels to stay in. Try the Florenz Hotel, a three-star converted monastery, for an authentic Italian feel. It starts at €32 B&B per person per night. It has secure bike storage, a bike workshop area, as well as a swimming pool.

Finding the trails

There's a small bikepark located among the main road from Finale, but if you’re a veteran rider, you probably wouldn’t find enough to keep you there for a whole day. The free map that’s available everywhere in Finale shows a number of cross-country trails that are waymarked by dabs of red paint. Depending on your fitness, these vary between 1-4 hour loops.

For the freeride trails you will almost certainly need a guide to make the most of your trip, although a book of trails called The Blue Book is available locally, which covers cross-country and some of the freeride trails. Just Ride Finale operate outside of the summer months and specialise in small groups of up to five riders. This makes the pace quicker, with fewer mechanical hitches and less waiting around.

They like people to book as a group if possible to match riders’ abilities and gear the rides in the direction of people’s wants and needs. They can tailor riding towards full-on downhill trails or more flowy singletrack, too. Prices start at €350 per person (for a group of five) for three days’ riding and accommodation. This includes airport transfers to and from either Nice or Genova. Just Ride Finale can arrange cross-country guiding if you want that – just contact Lou or Alessandro.

On the downhill side of things, there are two tracks in the direction of Isasco – DH Varigotti and DH Donne – which are famous for their views of the sea, flow and speed. Heading towards Piano dei Corsi, you'll discover a purpose-built race track known as O Neviere which boasts some of the finest riding that the area has to offer, mixing a berm- and jump-filled canyon with snaking forest singletrack. There's another run called Madonna della Guardia which starts in Passo del Melogno and has some nice sections that add variety to the riding.

Bike setup and clothing

The trails vary between grippy, singletrack and loose limestone chippings on the cross-country loops, so throw on some wider tyres to do the job. A windproof is handy if you’re heading to the cross-country trails, because you’ll be open to the breeze when you get to the top. If you looking for some gravity action, a full-face helmet and body armour (including spine protector) are highly recommended.

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