Mountain Biking's World History Trail

Photographer finds salvation in a mountaintop monastery surrounded by singletrack

The 8,100-foot-high Grand St. Bernard Pass is steeped in history. Napoleon passed through here with 40,000 troops during his conquest of Europe in 1800, and earlier, it’s rumored, Hannibal infamously with his unlikely caravan of elephants. Whoever has previously traveled this high mountain pass, the effects of man’s eagerness to both trade and wage war have left such border crossings littered with ancient trails that today are ripe for riding.

Perched high on this remote, weather-beaten alpine pass that straddles the Swiss-Italian border is the perfect lodging, a monastery whose foundations date back a thousand years. It’s still run by monks, offering shelter to passing pilgrims. We swapped sandals for bike shoes and, basing ourselves in this most hospitable of budget hotel options, rode from the door in search of singletrack enlightenment in the steep mountainsides. It came, but not easily.

After all, each long, winding descent is paid for with a lung-punishing climb and plenty of hard work. Each trail we rode offered up a smörgåsbord of fun technical challenges—rock gardens, tight switchbacks and step-downs—that each brought us closer to salvation.

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