Mark with gravel bikes

The road beyond: a simple guide to bikepacking this summer

BY : MARK COHEN  • RIDE • 21.06.2023

None of us were accomplished Audaxers. Most had a couple thousand kilometres in the legs by the time we hit the Alps. Some had done multi-day rides. Others, a little gravel racing.  

But when we met outside ODLO’s head offices to ride for a week, it was to ebb against the only thing that plagues most trips – that even the best planned cycling holidays often start and stop in the same predictable loops. 

Four days later and twenty-three kilometres into the Passo San Marco – a 26.65km climb with a total elevation gain of +1895m first featured in the Giro d’Italia in 1986 – the weight of that decision sunk in. We’d left Zug with fresh legs and big appetites. On the “queen stage” – as that day would become known – we took on the San Marco and the Passo Culmine San Pietro in one push for a day consisting of +2904m of climbing. It was painful, soul-shattering, and beautiful.

When it rained (hard) on day one, we got to the bike hotel a little miserable – a state soon fixed by three orders of Rösti. When we rode around Lecco up two more passes and ended the day spent at a small osteria in the hills near our Airbnb, we drank it in. As each day passed, we found strength and settled into the pleasant rhythm of having nothing to do but get dressed and ride. Bliss. And pulling it off, with modest planning was, in the end, simple.   

Mark riding a bike

The route

  • Day 1: Zug to Hospental 
  • Day 2: Hospental to Bellinzona 
  • Day 3: Bellinzona to Dubino  
  • Day 4: Dubino to Lecco  
  • Day 5: Lecco to Lecco  
  • Day 6: Lecco to Cittiglio 
  • Day 7: Cittiglio to Lugano  

Total kms: 720km 

Elevation: +14,620m 

A route this difficult isn’t for everyone. We looked at options that kept us under 2000m elevation (for warmth) and led us into Italy to enjoy some food and drink. We sought out Grand Tour worthy climbs that weren’t household names. We scheduled stops in cool spots, like in Como at Sartoria Cyclista. We rode the roads of Giro legend Alfredo Binda. But every day we kept distances within reach. We passed through towns, cafés, and canyons. It took about 36 hours to do it all. But the scenery and company made it pass by quickly.  

Key learning: when planning, be realistic, but don’t be afraid to bite off a little extra. In difficulty, you find reserves you thought not possible. 

One of the passes

The passes

Oberalp  - Lukmanier  - San Bernadino  - Splugenpass  - Passo San Marco - Passo San Pietro - Valcava  - Tedesco - Cuivignone 

Bike packed with ODLO gear

The set up

The above is a very basic packing list. We stuck to it, but certainly could have carried less. Bring an extra battery if you ride SRAM, a rear light for tunnels, and anything else that makes the ride comfortable while keeping weight to a minimum. Bike bags carry a lot, and if you’re smart, you can cut down on weight by bringing only what you need, which, as a rule, is one of everything.  

Do you need two bibs, or can you wash and wear the same pair for days and save a couple grams? Scrutinise everything. The three most important pieces of kit are your shoes, bibs, and a good rain jacket. Our friends down the road at Specialized Switzerland supplied us with outstanding gravel shoes and a new helmet for the ride. (Many thanks for that). For descents and afternoon showers, a jacket is essential. We brought a prototype of the soon-to-be released Dual Dry cycling jacket, and it was perfect for rain and cutting wind. For bibs, we took the new ODLO cargos for a ride. The functionality of the cargo pocket is impossible to argue with; it also gives you the option of riding in a merino tee, which changed the feel of the ride from race to reconnaissance. A welcome shift.  

Key learning: after two days, the routine of waking, packing, and riding became automatic. But take a test ride first if you’ve not ridden with bags. When loaded, the weight of the bike changes completely, as will your pace.  


The payoff: 

With two small bags, some good kit, a credit card, and lot of will, point to point routes – be they micro adventures or longer – open up a lot of ride options. Road bike. Gravel bike. Whatever you have. Go beyond routine and explore. While the adventure is rewarding in and of itself, the experience of taking a bite out a big ride is an experience that won’t soon wash off.  

A huge thank you to Specialized Switzerland for generously providing high-quality gravel shoes and helmets to make this trip a success. 


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