“Is this fun?”, asked my brother Adam, as we cycled around another winding bend high into the mountains above Lake Garda.
The gruelling ascent had left us sweaty, fatigued and saddle sore – and unsure of our sanity in voluntarily signing up for this painful outdoor adventure.
But we were not alone in our two-wheeled mission to explore the wilder side of Italy’s biggest lake.
The northern section of Lake Garda is somewhat of a Mecca for mountain bikers.
With hundreds of miles of world class trails heading into the craggy peaks that surround the water, the local tourist board claims it is the “best bike resort in Europe”.
And, on reflection, it’s difficult to disagree.
Mental exhaustion, aching muscles and sharp pains every time you sit down are a small price to pay for the real joys of Lake Garda cycling.
The previous day we’d dipped our toes into this exciting world of biking brilliance.
We spent three hours in glorious sunshine pedalling along the flat, waymarked riverside cycle path from Riva Del Garda to Dro – a relaxing afternoon out through glorious scenery.
This had whet our appetite and now we were determined to turn the adventure rating up.
Starting in Riva Del Garda again – a majestic spot encircled by towering rock faces – we set off along a cliffside path with fear-inducing sheer drops and stunning views down to the blue water.
Our route passed through olive groves, vine-lined terraces and quaint agricultural plots before a final slog uphill brought us to Lake Ledro.
The sunny mountain lake, which felt like a smaller, quieter version of Garda, was a great location for a well-earned lunch.
We downed water and scoffed sandwiches while watching fish dart about in the clear, shimmering water.
But our lazy break couldn’t last forever – we had an important decision to make.
Did we bail out here and take a leisurely downhill ride back to Riva Del Garda? Or go for the hardcore option and continue to the lofty Rifugio Pernici?
Suckers for punishment we chose the latter, turning our day’s route into a 40km epic with a whopping 1,600m ascent.
We pedalled through sleepy villages, where stacks of chopped wood were piled outside the houses and lushly forested mountains provided a real Alpine feel.
It was enjoyable, manageable cycling. Yet after reaching Lenzumo the tough gradient went up several notches.
Progress was slow. Sweat poured. Legs seized up. Doubts surfaced.
Had we bitten off more than we could chew? Why were we putting ourselves through this?
But as we tackled the final climb on a dusty, rocky track and reached the 1,600m high mountain hut, the sense of achievement welled up inside.
We’d taken on a challenge, journeyed outside our comfort zone and pulled through.
It felt fantastic.
We sipped on celebratory ice-cold drinks from the friendly staff at the refuge, wallowing in our pride at having made it to the top.
The day’s work however wasn’t quite over – 12km and a descent equivalent to one a half times the height of Scafell Pike lay between us and our destination.
We walked the first section, lacking the technical skills to take on the steep, bumpy path, but soon we were whizzing downhill at top speed, grinning like kids having the time of their lives.
The descent was a blur of fresh air in our faces, pangs of fear and adrenalin as we sped around corners and glimpses of lake views you dream of when stuck in the city.
And not even a nasty crash, which left me with bloody grazes, could spoil the exciting climax to our mountain biking experience.
Back in Riva Del Garda, we headed to the beautiful beach for a dip in the lake – a post-adventure ritual for us – and the cold, refreshing water seemed to have a healing power over our aches and bruises.
As we emerged from Lake Garda, Adam turned to me with a mischievous expression.
“You know what, today was bloody fun”, he said.