Seeking Origins in Italy: Vaughn’s 1985 Airone x Cinelli Rampichino

In one of the most creative trip reports to grace this site, Vaughn Dice shares the story of acquiring a 1985 Airone x Cinelli Rampichino, the first Italian mountain bike, then taking the bike back to Italy for a tour on its original proving grounds. Read on for Vaughn’s lively retelling of his time retracing this bike’s origin story through the Piemonte Alps.

At first the tire would only rub the chainstay when climbing steep hills.  Then it happened no matter how little torque was applied to the pedals. When I finally extracted the rear wheel from the dropouts, the solid axle fell in two pieces to the ground, sending ball bearings bouncing off into the dirt.

I couldn’t be too upset – the axle had a good, long life of 38 years and had heroically delayed its expiration until right after completing a homecoming tour through the Piemonte Alps. The bike was a 1985 Airone/Cinelli Rampichino, the very first Italian MTB, and the trip would retrace its unique origin story through the scenic and mountainous country where it hailed from.

First, some context on what led me to the bike. A few years ago, while browsing a bicycle vendor’s vintage fleet, I noticed a model that looked very similar to the classic, first-generation mountain bikes that I love, yet wasn’t one I had previously encountered. Initially lured by its choice selection of equipment, including Bullmoose bars, massive Tommasini brake levers and a full Shimano Deerhead groupset, I found myself charmed by its endearing design, consisting of ‘Rampichino’ in classy cursive on the downtube and the logo of a spritely bird, keen for adventure. It basically chirped Fun Times – and in melodious Italian to boot. I bought it on the spot.

Things grew even more interesting thanks to an additional item accompanying the purchase: a March 1985 issue of Airone, an Italian periodical akin to National Geographic, containing a full introduction of the Rampichino and an announcement of its release. Inspired by the first wave of mountain bikes coming out of California, Airone staff commissioned a limited batch of similar bikes from Cinelli, eager to try this new and exciting form of cycling. Sales would be exclusive to readers of the magazine via the included order form; indeed, the copy I received was the same one used to purchase the bike new.

In the magazine feature, a pair of adventuresome cyclists take the bike on an epic, six-day shakedown ride through the Piemonte Alps near Cuneo. They climb renowned cycling passes, traverse rugged military roads, vault down rocky hiking trails and barrel across snowfields, all amidst spectacular mountain backdrops. The feeling of discovery throughout is palpable. A whole new world had opened up thanks to the latest developments in wide-range gearing, knobby tires and frame geometry. Sitting at home in Colorado, I found myself captivated by the incredible photos and immediately started dreaming of taking my own Rampichino on the same tour. It would be a devotional pilgrimage of sorts, one tantalizingly within reach thanks to family residing relatively nearby in Monza.

My first task was to plot a precise GPS track based on the included map, which only showed a rough overview of the route and lacked fine-grained detail. Next, my Italian brother-in-law helped to translate the original text, unlocking a wealth of information contained in the main article and stage descriptions. It felt a bit like blowing the dust off a long-lost manuscript and following ancient threads back through time to a hallowed treasure trove of legendary MTB riding. Moreover, I was equipped with a steed from the original brood, raring to return to its home trails after many years abroad.

The loop starts and ends in Pradleves, a small village nestled in the foothills about an hour’s ride from Cuneo. Once above Santuario di San Magno, it follows a historical military road network, La Strade delle Gardetta, developed to fortify Italy’s frontier with France, traveling through rugged alpine terrain and linking the surrounding mountain valleys. Along the way, interesting ruins, bunkers and other vestiges from this period invite further exploration.

After Passo della Gardetta, the route follows primitive mule track down into the next valley, establishing a common pattern of steep-but-rideable ascents followed by burly, technical footpath descents. On fully rigid bikes and especially if they are laden with gear, a fair amount of hike-a-bike will be necessary going down. Hey, great excuse to gaze at the wildflowers, dip your toes in the creek and commune with the marmots.

The second half of the loop centers around iconic Monviso, the highest peak in this section of the Alps. I had my closest look from the top of Colle Della Battagliola after a scenic double-track climb through bucolic grazing land, rich with the sound of cowbells – and aroma of cow patties. The next day’s ascent to Colle di Sampeyre offered smooth pavement and lenient grades, topping out with a summit ideal for a picnic lunch amidst panoramic views. A rowdy digestivo followed courtesy of Strada dei Cannoni, or road of cannons, which hugs the ridgeline between Val Maira and Val Varaita and offers scenic rewards for those traversing its oftentimes rugged and rocky surface. If a crucial bit of hardware hasn’t broken or rattled off your vintage MTB by the turnoff to San Damiano Macra, you’re doing something wrong.

For this trip, I kitted the Rampichino out with a full set of bikepacking bags sewn by my good friend Jay at Bags By Bird, providing ample room for camping gear, clothes, food and other sundry items. The route can also be ridden mostly unburdened, with the rider utilizing accommodations along the way; however, I enjoyed the flexibility my camp setup offered. At Rifugio Gardetta, I was able to pitch my tent free with the purchase of dinner and at Bivacco Carmagnola, an unstaffed mountain hut, I slept on one of the bunks and used my stove to cook hot meals and prepare morning coffee. There are also a fair amount of camping/RV parks where one can stay on the cheap when equipped with the proper gear.

It was a joy to experience a key piece of Italian MTB history and explore a region with so much beauty and interest. The Rampichino, fittingly enough, proved ever-capable across the varied terrain of its original stomping grounds. I certainly experienced mechanicals, including a loose headset, shifting issues and of course the impending broken rear axle, but I actually found inspiration in these episodes. Although the bike is starting to show cracks in its armor thanks to a well-traveled and knockabout life, its impressive grit and strong spirit continue unabated. I’d consider myself fortunate if I, so close in age, were able to display similar qualities despite the accruing years

Readers interested in the original 1985 Airone/Cinelli Rampichino route can find the GPS track and waypoints with brief descriptions here. Scans of the original Airone article are available in and Gallery and via this link. Finally, to delve further into the history of the region and perhaps kick-start planning a trip of your own, check out the Le Strade Della Gardetta webpage. Buona fortuna e buon viaggio!