Eating and Riding Italy’s TranSardinia Trail – Sam Rice

During the final weeks of October 2021, Bec and I teamed up with new friends, Tristan and Belén to ride Europe’s longest off-road mountain bike route: The TranSardinia Trail.

A lesser-known, 450-kilometre trail starting at Olbia (Italy) in the north and flowing south, the TranSardinia follows a crocheted masterpiece of natural forest trails, dusty shepherd tracks, and jagged mountain passes – eventually finishing in the city of Cagliari. With 13,000 metres of total climbing, stunning camp cooking, a broken derailleur, and some pretty gnarly descents down baby-head strewn trails, the TranSardinia Trail kicked all our asses… in the best possible way!

Boasting a whopping 75% off-road tour profile, our expectations for re-supply along the TranSardinia were low. That combined with the fact that both Tristan and I are keen cooks – and Bec and Belén keen eaters – meant our bags were exploding with fresh fruit and veggies, herbs and sundries.

We even had a trip menu planned, featuring porcini mushroom risotto with lemon pangrattato, fennel and orange salad, and an eggplant Rogan Josh.

But before we get deep into the ride and food, let me introduce you to Tristan and Belén. A real powerhouse couple,Tristan and Belén create content that inspires people to travel by bike. Their photography and immersive route documentation is among the best around, plus they’re really great humans too! Back in June 2020, after our world tour got paused due to COVID-19, Tristan and Belen reached out to us and invited us to feature in their book 50 ways to Cycle the World. We got on so well in the interview and subsequent podcast that we forged a friendship (in real life) and got to hatching a plan on when we could ride together — the TranSardinia was it!

Riding the TranSardinia Trail

Leaving Olbia, we quickly picked up an old pilgrim trail still used to reach Chiesa San Paolo di Monti. Prickly pear trees bursting with ripe fruit lined thirsty, scorched dirt roads. Loose gravel cracked under tyres and the sun beat down on us. Amid COVID-related travel restrictions, I hadn’t been on a multi-week bike tour since Nepal, almost 18 months prior and after a couple of punchy three hundred metre climbs, merely hours into the first day, boy, did I know it! But despite my questionable fitness levels, ‘that’ feeling was back and excitement coursed through my veins.

Little did we know a few obstacles were around the corner, that ended up changing the course of our trip, and route entirely.

As the sun began to rise on the second morning, we were awake and pushing almost immediately. A steep, narrow forest trail littered with sharp, furze thorn bushes would be our first challenge of the day. But keen to enjoy the descent that Komoot promised at Monte Candelattu, we pushed on. As the trail flowed left, a raw barbed wire fence, sewn to a line of boulders completely blocked our path. With no other alternative routes, we hauled our loaded bikes over the fence and began the climb 300m up to the stunning plateau of Punta Untulzu.

Bikes and fences aren’t the best of friends.

“Sam! Is it meant to look like that?” Belen asked me, pointing to her rear derailleur.

“No mate! You’ve got way too much slack in your chain,” I replied, staring at her sagging chain limping along the dusty trail. The rear mech’s clutch had seized, rendering it fairly useless. So, unless Belen fancied single speeding the remaining 420km, our options were to try and fix it on the trail, or find a local bike shop. Phones fired up and within minutes Tristan had a plan: return to Olbia, fix the mech and rejoin the TranSardinia in the next town.

We were first in line at the bike shop the next day. Through very broken Italian, Google translate and lots of pointing, the mechanic (eventually) diagnosed the problem. Clutch cover off, a spray of brake cleaner and a dab of grease and it’s shifting like new again. We rushed off to the train station, eager to make up for lost time. Oschiri is just a 24km road ride away from the TranSardinia route, so we began pedalling, full of enthusiasm once more.

Within 15kms the plague of the rear derailleur had returned – awesome! We weighed up our options once again: go back to Olbia or just continue?

After some deliberation, we decided to continue on. With Belen’s derailleur forcing her to effectively single speed for the rest of the trip, we knew the demands of the TranSardinia would be too much so we decided to hit the asphalt roads where the going was easier.

Charming Italian villages full of curious locals, sfogliatelle and espresso bars became our sanctuaries over the next two days, offering a dynamic to the route we hadn’t planned for, but thoroughly enjoyed. The open road gave us time; time to talk more, share more and bond as a group. It also gave us time to talk about food and what we’d be eating at camp that night…

Eating the TranSardinia Trail

We were developing a good rhythm as a team by now. Tristan the shepherd was happy leading the way and guiding his flock. Bec, our cafe connoisseur and Belen, our chief logistics officer, planned our camp and water spots. Each night at camp we’d split up into our couples, get the tents up and then all attention turned to food.

As the sun gently set, casting its warm light on the patchwork stone floor of a church courtyard, I nestled my bike against a small ledge and began to cook. Shaving lemon rind, finely dicing carrot and ripping leftover ciabatta – a porcini mushroom risotto, with a lemon, garlic and rosemary pangrattato was on the menu.

Incredible campsites and delicious meals became a theme of our trip. The following night, we pitched our tents at a deserted picnic spot. As the girls washed in the plentiful water fountains and Belen braided Bec’s hair, I perched on a stone picnic table and got to work. Onion, garlic and fresh ginger caramelised in the pot. Whole cumin seeds, coriander and garam masala brought the flavour as eggplant skins charred, roasting in the pan.

A good camp kitchen relies heavily on herbs and spices. I carry mine in old 35mm camera film canisters, which store easily inside my pot. For this meal, I found a good pilau rice mix adds an aromatic depth needed to compliment the roasted eggplant.

The Bikepacking Gods Do Exist!

Descending out of Orgosolo, we rejoined the TranSardinia down a beautifully bumpy and treacherous section of loose trail. Sharp limestone rocks erupt from the trail like razor blades and the sound of brake pads squealing against red-hot rotors fills the air. Some sections are super shreddable and my voluminous 2.8″ tyres provide the right amount of float to smooth out the lumps. Other sections are just downright dangerous and forced some of us to push.

By the time we reached the bottom of the trail, Belen’s derailleur had decided to start working again – HOORAY! Perhaps bone-shaker valley did it some good? Either way, not wanting to tempt fate we asked no questions and rode on. Finally, our luck had turned and from here on the TranSardinia just got better and better!

Foresta di Montes bathed us in its thousand hectares of Autumnal holm oaks as we enjoyed its meandering hiking paths. The deep forest canopy provided much-needed shade, before revealing Novo San Giovanni – a giant limestone rock formation, reminiscent of the sandstone buttes in Monument Valley.

We were really making progress: Belen’s derailleur was back in action, the group dynamic was at an all-time high and as we approached our final two days together, a mix of feelings started to percolate. We’d only really just found our rhythm; only just let our collective guards down, exposing our true selves to one another – silly accents and tent farts included.

As we started the climb to Monti dei Sette Fratelli, the feelings melted away. The TranSardinia treated us to 45km of sheer mountain biking bliss. A mix of unforgivingly steep dirt climbs up goat trails and wheel-dragging descents down fast-flowing desert double track was pure joy. The floor, carpeted with moving debris ranging from fist-sized rocks to head-sized boulders gave my DynaPlug a workout as we plugged punctures left, right and centre.

The sun began to fade and dark clouds swarmed above us. We’d made it to the top of the climb now, but with rain fast approaching – we didn’t have anywhere to pitch our tents. Tristan and I ventured off in full scout mode, searching for anything remotely flat. Deep tree roots and torn up 4×4 paths made things tough, but in the distance, I spotted a light. A Refugio, perhaps? I charged towards it and as the trail widened, a sea of flickering lights danced on the floor below me. We’d made it: the bioluminescent dance party down there was Cagliari, giving us a warm welcome!

The tents flew up at lightning pace. Tristan and Belen resembled an F1 pitstop crew: fast, efficient and precise. Bec and I were the complete opposite, as we continually stopped to look at the pretty lights and somehow managed to pitch our tent in cow dung. Classic!

Rain poured as we retreated into the tents, pausing to bathe in the rhythmic sound as it beaded on taut tent outers. Thirty minutes passed – no let up. Through tent fabric, conversations flowed and all attention once again turned to food.

“Hey guys! I’ve got an idea – do you want to come over to ours for dinner?” Belen called out with a smile. “Hell yeah, we do.We’ll bring the dark chocolate!” Bec replied and we clambered into their two-person tent. Laughter filled the nylon walls as we reflected on our trip highlights, passing around a giant pot of garlic fried rice and the remaining squares of dark chocolate.

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