Rough Stuff Cycling in the Alps

Writer and publisher Max Leonard reflects on his latest project, rediscovering a lost guide to the trails, tracks and romance of travelling the Alps by bike

After some years of writing about and cycling in the mountains I have come to regard a road or a track, even one crossing the most desolate and beautiful high landscapes, as something friendly. It indicates that somebody has passed before you, and passed somewhere intentionally – somebody probably on the way to somewhere warmer and more hospitable than where you are currently. A path is an invitation.

Guide books are similar. They are an invitation to follow in someone else’s footsteps, or wheeltracks, depending on the guide. And, in the case of Fred Wright’s Rough Stuff Cycling in the Alps, probably both.

I first found a mention on the internet of Fred’s book when I was researching one of my own, Bunker Research, a photobook about the World War II concrete bunkers on France’s Alpine border with Italy. This involved a lot of riding and hiking along unpaved military stradas, often at 2,000m altitude or more, which Fred had seemed to know about, and I became somewhat obsessed. 

Fred’s book was the original guide to adventuring by bike in the Alps. Gravel biking before gravel bikes – even mountain biking before mountain bikes, in some cases – and a very English yomp in the best possible way. But he only printed and self-published a hundred or so, and I could not find a copy anywhere. It was frustrating – and especially since I thought there would be many people fans of bikepacking and adventure touring who, like me, would appreciate the accumulated wisdom of a generations of cyclists who had pioneered riding and hike-a-biking in the high peaks. 

So, eventually, I decided to republish it. A friend lent me a copy and put me in touch with Fred himself, which led to a meeting in Ashford railway station and Fred, now 82, handing me albums of old photographs to scan. 

Suddenly, the careful descriptions in the book came alive. There he was, preserved in beautiful old film tones as a younger man, sometimes with a knapsack, always wearing a snazzy shirt, staring out of the lens, inviting us to come and join him. 

Perhaps I am getting old and grumpy, but for the first time I can see a generation after mine discovering the Alps. They are delighting in the same old stories that we did: stories of the glamorous Fausto Coppi breaking away on the fearsome Col d’Izoard, and of ice-cool Federico Bahamontes stopping on a climb in the Vercors Massif to eat an ice cream while he waited for his pursuers; or of Walter Bonatti in the Dolomites or Whymper on Mont Blanc.

And though I am perhaps getting old and grumpy I do not begrudge them, because the truth is I have loved those stories too. But I cannot tell them any more. I have told them enough and what were once distant peaks are now warm and familiar lowlands. Luckily, I am finding new stories, following in Fred’s footsteps as he opens up new landscapes and vistas before me. Thanks to his Rough Stuff Cycling in the Alps, we all can. 

The reprint is going well, and I am delighted there are so many wanting to walk his path. Now I can almost see him up there, at the top, holding his bike and looking back at us, showing us the way.

L’Eroica: The Tuscan Trials

Fuelled by wine and ribollita bean soup, Port heads to Tuscany and cycles 75km through the Chianti hills on a vintage bike

Just over 2,000 people live in the Tuscan town of Gaiole in Chianti, two hours southeast of Pisa. But for one weekend in early October every year, more than 7,000 people descend on the valley. Though they undoubtedly enjoy the coffee, pasta, wine and other local specialties, there is another reason they’ve travelled here.

The L’Eroica race, a cycle event where only bikes produced before 1987 are allowed, pulls a big crowd. It attracts those who subscribe to an analogue lifestyle which, over that one weekend, is defined by vintage bikes and woollen sportswear. There’s no lycra tops or modern carbon bikes to be seen; L’Eroica is all about going back in time, and that means hard work.


Celebrating two decades next year, L’Eroica was set up in 1997 by Giancarlo Brocci, a local Gaiole in Chianti villager who invited 92 cyclists to take to the area’s famous gravel roads. The race quickly turned into a movement, with participants from all over the world coming to Italy to test their strength and durability. And while each cyclist takes part for a different reason, the L’Eroica motto unites them: they all race for ‘the beauty of fatigue, and the thrill of the conquest’. Depending on your stamina and energy levels, there’s a variety of available routes: everything from 46km to 200km. If you choose the longest race, you leave Gaiole in Chianti at 7am and return roughly 12 hours later.

Along the way you face the hardship of steep hills, both up and down. Because the bikes are nearly years old and above, there are few reliable brakes and gears to hand. And therein lies the challenge: it’s not only your own fears you have to overcome, but also the limiting technology of the time. But, for some L’Eroica cyclists, that’s exactly the point.


I took part three years ago and only managed 46km, the shortest distance, but this time around I increased it to 75km… though in L’Eroica lingo that’s just the ‘short route’. At a minimum of 220m and maximum 762m altitude – and a 1,522m drop – it’s not an easy ride, especially if you’re an inexperienced cyclist like me.

As this is not a race per se, none of that matters. Instead, it’s a personal journey of tired thrills, to summarise the motto. Praying I wouldn’t suffer a puncture, I cycled alone and enjoyed the solitude of the ride, music in my ears and the Tuscan hills rolling around me. There’s a beautiful vineyard around most corners here, and when the sun hits the right spots it’s, surely, one of the most beautiful places on earth.

At the same time, though, it can be a very social experience. People end up chatting on the road, helping each other out with flat tyres and other mechanical problems. The rest stops are more than just opportunities to catch your breath, they offer the men and women of Gaiole in Chianti the chance to flaunt their local wares: try the bread dipped in red wine and sugar, or go for the traditional Nutella toast. Once the cyclists opting for the 46km range have turned off home, the next stop serves up big slabs of salami and red wine. And lastly, while laying in a sun-drenched meadow, you tuck into the Tuscan bean soup, ribollita, and more wine.

For me, it’s the combination of all the above that makes L’Eroica a truly unique experience. We had sunshine and beautiful skies, which made for great views and helped when climbing up hills or holding on for dear life when speeding downhill. Racing down the last section into Gaiole in Chianti, six hours after I set out, was an exhilarating experience. No one else cared, I was just one of 7,000 riders, but I had challenged myself, and won.

Special thanks to Brooks, one of the sponsors behind L’Eroica 2016

Photography Paolo Martelli

Cycling Japan: Tour De Nippon

Papersky magazine founder Lucas Badtke-Berkow speaks with Conor Mahon about his Japan-based cycling club that places local culture at its centre

Bikes are parked against a wall while Tour de Nippon riders take a well-earned rest
Bikes are parked against a wall while Tour de Nippon riders take a well-earned rest

JAPAN WEEK: Lucas Badtke-Berkow came to Japan from the United States in 1993 and three years later he established Knee High Media Japan with his wife, Kaori Berkow. The publishing house was started in order to create a string of innovative print titles including children’s magazine Mammoth, MetroMin (the first free subway paper in Tokyo) and Papersky – a magazine celebrating travel and culture in Japan.

The tour passes through Kagoshima Prefecture in the southwestern tip of Kyushu island
The tour passes through Kagoshima Prefecture in the southwestern tip of Kyushu island

Papersky has built a unique interaction with its readership by hosting a series of activity-based clubs, one of the most popular being the Tour De Nippon – a series of cycle tours through rural Japan, which celebrate the local traditions, cuisine and industries that make up the many prefectures of the island nation. Here, Conor Mahon speaks with Badtke-Berkow to discuss Tour de Nippon, the bicycles you find in Japan and his love for the countryside.

What was your first experience of cycling in Japan?

My first bicycle ride in Japan was on a Mamachari. In Japanese ‘Mama’ means ‘mom’ and ‘chari’ means bicycle – they are ridden by everybody and are very cheap. The easy-to-use low frame, big wheels and capacity to carry loads of groceries or kids are the reason for their popularity. I see them as the bicycle version of a ’70’s Chevy.

Why did you start Tour de Nippon?

I started it as a way to create a ‘real’ community around our magazine, Papersky. I wanted to expand and to create something more than a travel magazine printed on paper. These tours offer a media where the readers can not only enjoy the content but also experience a ‘true’ version of Japan, one that I have come to love. Participants on our tours see this reality through the local people, places and foods that make Japan unique.

Tour de Nippon in Onomichi city
Tour de Nippon in Onomichi city

What benefits are there to seeing Japan by bike as opposed to train or tour bus?

I believe bicycles are the perfect way to travel. A bike will allow you to cover a large area in a single day and yet the place won’t fly past in a blur. You feel great after knowing that all the ground you covered was achieved by using your own energy. You get to feel the ‘air’ of these regions when you pass by small villages and towns as people cry out ‘Konichiwa’.

How would you describe the cycling culture in Japan? Are you experiencing a boom as we are here in the UK?

Yes, people here love their bicycles! We have all the popular road, mountain and cross bikes that you find in the UK, plus we have Keirin bicycles (track/fixed gear) and of course the beloved Mamacharis. For the Tour de Nippon we use mini velos, which are extremely fun to ride and spectacular to look at. The bicycles we use are easy to take on trains and planes but fast enough to easily cover the 40–50 km we cover on our routes.

How do Japan’s prefectures differ in terms of a cycling experience?

There are 47 different prefectures and each has its own local culture, vocabulary, food, customs, festivals and nature. Since the Edo period (1603–1868), each area has taken great pride in their local identity. If you just see Tokyo, it’s easy to miss the diverse local culture that remains in rural Japan. One important role that the Tour de Nippon tours plays, is to offer a window into these local cultures.

As far as natural terrain goes, some prefectures are extremely mountainous and cool, even in the summer. Some offer small seaside towns with stunning beaches and beautiful views of the coast, while others have sand dunes and active volcanoes, as well as tropical forests and quiet inland sea areas, which are mostly found in southern Japan.

“Japan continues to carry on customs dating back hundreds of years and we want to share that knowledge with our riders”

Members of the group sit down for a traditional lunch made of local cuisine during the tour
Members of the group sit down for a traditional lunch made of local cuisine during the tour

What’s the most challenging climb you’ve encountered on a tour and what route would you recommend for the seasoned cyclist?

Our tours in general are not too physically demanding. We spend an entire day taking in the cultures of different regions, so the tours are far from hardcore riding – you won’t see very much spandex.

We do try to offer a few steep hills during each ride, just to leave an impression. Many of the best climbs take us through mountains, the panoramic views are well worth the effort. Experienced cyclists appreciate that our tours offer a unique take on Japan and travel, but an element of physical challenge at the same time.

Sumo wrestler ornaments made by the group during a visit to Takamatsu
Sumo wrestler ornaments made by the group during a visit to Takamatsu

Your trips often include visits to sample local industry and meet craftspeople. Why do you feel this is an important aspect of Tour de Nippon?

Yes, we frequently visit local sake makers, breweries, farmers, artisans, potters, wood workers, and so on. Japan continues to carry on customs dating back hundreds of years and we want to share that knowledge with our riders. It’s extremely important for people to experience the beauty and history of these local industries first-hand. If our members are inspired to return or invest, then hopefully this will help these cultures to continue well into the future.

Click here to see videos of the Tour de Nippon

Photography KaO Nakanaka