Calcium magnesium carbonate. CaMg(CO3)2.
This is the foundation of dreams. Dreams in the high mountains for all those who love a challenge, beauty and cultural complexity. Cycling paradise. An epic cycling holiday.
The Italian Dolomites are a geographical region of carbonate rocks shared between the provinces of Belluno, South Tyrol and Trentino. The region has been politically and culturally pulled and pushed over the centuries, never more so than in the 20th century with battle lines drawn and families and friendships within towns tested to, and beyond, limits in the highest stakes game of all. War.
Far away from the Alps of Stelvio and Gavia, we spent eight days cycling in, and getting to know, the Italian Dolomites and some of the people. There are more passes to cycle than you can shake a ski pole at but to simply go and ride Monte Grappa, Passos Sella Campolongo, Giau, Pordoi, Rolle, Valles, Falzarego, Valparola, Tre Cime di Lavaredo and the many others we rode would be to miss out on finding out a little about the stuff that make up the culture of the Dolomites.
Thus, rather than chasing from point to point, we stayed in two distinct locations. Feltre and Corvara. And from these we cycled a plenty (about 1,000km and 17,000m for those who like to tot up numbers) – ticking off all those passes and more – in the three provinces of the Dolomites, but immersed ourselves somewhat in the culture. In Italian style, we prepared for the trip by caffeine doping just outside Milan at our friends place, Rocket Espresso…more on that in another post soon.
Feltre welcomed us with blazing sunshine and temperatures around the thirties. A far cry from the history making ascent which was on our first ride. An arrival day loop taking in Croce d’Aune. The scene of Tullio Campagnolo’s, cycling history changing mechanical, when on November, 11, 1927, he couldn’t change out his wheel in a race due to frozen hands and fingers on wing nuts. There must be a better solution he thought. There was and we all benefit from it today. The quick release. Only one of us was riding Campagnolo, myself. It felt appropriate that my Campag front mech, once again, disagreed with my Rotor chainset and threw the chain just as I changed down at the very bottom of Croce d’Aune. Tullio, perhaps, doesn’t like Rotor…the others rode off.
Don’t be fooled by Feltre’s location which on the map seems to be away from the big mountains. The bigger tests. Oh no, we followed up Campag’s history with somewhat grander history of the great Monte Grappa, approaching via the brutal Monte Tomba. Grappa has too much blood on her slopes from both World Wars and a monument at the summit is a stark reminder of the waste of life we have seen too often. We simply had to ride the beast, in beautiful conditions, tasting cheese on the way up, focaccias on the way down and wonderful views all around, with small lakes and vertiginous drop offs, donkeys, hairpins and what a descent. How times have changed, how lucky we are!
With the Dolomites you often think you have topped it all. They are so awe inspiring. Then the next climb, or descent in this case, you get wowed by a road that has been cut into a wall, is technical enough to keep you awake but fun enough to fly down and the loop we stuck on the end of this big Grappa day, after some coffee and strudel, was just that. With the sun descending as gently as we did rapidly towards home, we had gone from amazing, to yells of joy and it was only day two
Another big day ahead the next day. Up to 2,000m twice this time for some of the group. Some took the option to take a shorter, still big, day and peeled off after the incredible lakeside early coffee and strudel stop (again). Blazing sunshine again. That was, until it wasn’t. Pretty soon it was golf ball size rain drops and lightning and thunder only a couple of seconds apart. This was approaching Passo Rolle and Valles and thus the wrong side of the valley to home. There is always a bailout option, for safety and comfort with us. But not today; we voted for a(nother) coffee pause and strudel and hoped for a break in the storm. 40 minutes or so later, a glimpse of blueish sky. The kind the UK sees. Grey. Pay up and off up the mountain up double figure gradients, all the while wondering if the thunder was closer or farther away. Up and over the both very tough Passo Rolle and Valles and down the other side without a hitch, but the chill on the descent got the better of us and another stop was called. Super thick hot chocolate and a wonderfully courteous host of the bar who brought out blankets for us to warm under. It got us defrosted enough to get home on a cracking power descent to fly home.
We left Feltre with yet more tragic history and more wonderful hospitality. And the sun was back. A rolling ride out around the markets and vineyards to the engineering marvel of Passo San Boldo; built with blood and sweat of women, children and donkeys early last century. On the way stopping in on Roberta’s vineyard outlooking restaurant, with her pride in “the best bread in the world!” and her adoration for my home town of Barcelona was such a contrast to the massive riding of Grappa, Rolle and of what was to come in Corvara. Oh, and fresh pasta lunch atop San Boldo.
Corvara. This is, perhaps, what most people think of when you mention the Dolomites mountains. The beauty of having four days in Feltre and four in Corvara, is the variety of riding; tough and big mountains as well as some rolling hills, leading into 4 days of massive mountains with nary a valley to ride. Either up. Or down. Corvara is the heart of the famous Sella Ronda, starting point for Falzarego, Valparola and the Queen ride for us over to the fairy tale like, brutally steep, Tre Cime di Lavaredo and back over Passo Giau.
We were welcomed to Corvara, with clockwork precision that one expects from this part of Italy, with the biggest crack of thunder of the week as we pulled up outside the wonderful Posta Zirm hotel. And even bigger rain drops than on Passo Rolle.
The change in culture is noticeable as soon as one arrives. Ladino language spoken and on signs, preserving the language and the culture, more Germanic influences and when you speak to people with a family history here – as we did for the whole stay, with the generational family owners of our hotel – you learn of the flux of the cultures that have and go on here; from Italian, Ladino, German, Austrian and within and beyond families and friends within villages, especially in tough times of the last century. Again, how lucky we are, to simply enjoy these mountains.
So, the riding. It rained. Heavily. Thunder storms rang strong. Day one in Corvara we trimmed to only have three passes, mainly for safety, but typically it was beautiful sunshine that afternoon. Surely a good omen of the next day.
Indeed, bright sunshine at breakfast. And the first climb up Falzarego. Sadly, or perhaps not for that epic sense and for some nice photography, the heavens opened and the tough Passo Fedaia was made tougher by the rain, the sheep allowing an excuse for a respite. It stopped for lunch in the restaurant up top, then started again for the descent and for Pordoi and Campolongo. Typical.
Fair to say, the epic was put into the trip on this ride. Shooting from the van and huddled in the gutters in the rain, while prepping hot coffee as well was a joy. We all got wet – the riders far more than the support – but that epic we won’t forget. (Shooting while driving and chasing these fast riders, on mountain descents, in the wet…not recommended, but some nice results and a bit of fun).
But finally. That was the last of it. No more rain. And not too hot. Perfect to assault 150km or so to Tre Cime di Lavaredo via Cortina d’Ampezzo and back over Passo Giau and Campolongo again. Cortina is ok in comparison to Corvara, but then we love Corvara. But we wanted a coffee, so a quickie before off to the paradise of Tre Cime. An incredible, beautiful, brutally steep dead end climb. Formerly the border between Italy and Austria, now between the Italian provinces of Belluno and South Tyrol – yet more evidence of that fluxing history and why there is such a want to preserve the Ladino culture. Words, nor photographs do Tre Cime justice. You have to be there. Feel it. Maybe suffer up, it to really get it. It’s amazing.
And as before, when you think the Dolomites has thrown all it’s wow at you, you go back towards Corvara via Passo Giau. More rideable than Tre Cime, and thus you can soak up the theatre of dolomite rocks towering above you, almost like a giant natural amphitheatre. The road is the play, and you are simply a minor character in that days performance. It’s spectacular. Another long day, beautiful and long. The descent off the top, one of the best. Fast, a bit technical, but fast.
Seven hard amazing days done. Tired legs, tired bodies. How could we muster the energy to ride another 1,700m? Well it was only 50 odd km. And it was the Sella Ronda. Our closing day ride, knowing how stunning it would be, we had all the energy to spin out and enjoy one of the best 50km rides you can do.
The Dolomites are made up of more than CaMg(CO3)2. It’s the history and the people who have lived that history and create it today. To the Dolomites and the people of the areas; grazie, giulan, thank you! We will be back in 2017 with more friends to be wowed.
If you are interested in our 2017 Dolomites trip, drop us a line now. We are building our 2017 calendar and this trip is definitely in there!. firstname.lastname@example.org