This is the first of two blog posts covering my tour of the Dolomites, otherwise known as the Giro Dolomiti. This was a guided tour provided by the wonderful Ian and Julie from Pyrenees Multisport. They sorted out all of the accommodation, breakfast, dinner and routes as well as being available on the rides at critical moments (which I needed at one point, more on that later).
I was in good company on this trip, we had 4 Brits, 3 Aussies (including an 82-year-old and a former commonwealth games track sprinter) and an American (Ironman and ultra-marathon runner).
Before I go into each day, it's worth providing some pointers when attempting to cycle in this part of the world:
Italian drivers are the worst.
Italian motorcyclists are worse than the drivers (and are prone to falling over descending hairpin bends).
The road surface is much like the UK (in other words, terrible).
Every climb hurts, either because it's steep or the road surface is like the moon.
Be grateful for the oxygen, there is a lot less of it above 2000m.
This doesn't sound encouraging does it? Well, hopefully the rest of the blog post will convince you otherwise.
Day 1 - Passo Falzarego
After being transferred from Venice, we arrived at our base for the next 3 days - Alleghe. We were staying in a hotel right on a beautiful lake within the valley, surrounded by many peaks. We would be climbing most of these. As this was our first day, it was a "gentle" warm-up ride to get used to the area. We went on a 50 KM narrow loop up the Passo Falzarego and back down in an anti-clockwise fashion.
This ride only had a single climb, but at 19 KM long at a 6% average with rested legs, this was far from easy. There had been storms in this area recently and it showed, many of the trees were completely flattened and a lot of the lay-bys had stacks of logs piled high. The views however, were amazing. My photos don't really do this route justice.
Suffer score: 2/5
Day 2 - Passo Duran, Forcella Staulanza & Passo Giau
Today was a big day with 4 climbs totalling around 3000m in ascent. The first two had some steep sections, were both around the 12 KM mark and sapped energy from the legs. This was a problem because the third climb was the Passo Giau, a 10 KM climb averaging at 9%.
I started this climb with the gruppetto (my life, from now on) and managed OK to begin with, even slowly pulling away. I was still not quite in form and had to stop a few times. I managed the last few KM with my gruppetto buddy Rob and we both collapsed at the summit and drank a lot of coke between us. My legs were like jelly but the views were worth it (photos below: top left and bottom right).
I didn't make the last climb (which was the Passo Falzarego from another side anyway) due to being an idiot and getting into a panic when my rear tyre punctured and failed to seal (it's tubeless). I stuck a tube in and that punctured too and so I threw the bike in the van to get back to the hotel as I was just too tired.
Suffer score: 4/5
Day 3 - Passo Pordoi, Passo Sella, Passo Gardena & Passo Valparola
This was the last out-and-back ride in the Alleghe valley and didn't have any nasty climbs like yesterday but by now I was learning to respect them and pace accordingly. I was finding some form too, which is just as well as I accidentally missed lunch (I know, you can't take me anywhere).
The Pordoi was a bit of a slog and it took a while for the legs to wake up. When they finally did I managed to finally get some high cadence and change up the gears for the Sella and Gardena, which were "only" 5 KM a piece. The Valparola was tough (probably because I had skipped lunch) but I enjoyed being one of the first back to the hotel (this never happened again).
Suffer score: 3/5
Day 4 - Passo Fedaia & Passo Costalunga
This ride was our first point-to-point and we had to travel around 90 KM to get to the next base, Bolzano. As you will not be surprised to hear, you have to get over a few mountains to get there! The first climb, the Fedaia served up some suffering I had never experienced before. It is a deceptive ascent (13 KM at 7% average).
The start was fairly gentle, although the heat was still in the late twenties/early thirties like it had been most of the week which made things feel tough. After some nice twisting roads and heading through a tunnel, I saw a long straight road and some ski lifts, then my legs slowly stopped turning the pedals. The cadence was down, way way down. 12% for the next 4 KM, in pretty much a straight line, WHAT. I was looking for a reference point, the ski lift was all I had for now and each chair lift was going quicker than I was. I eventually saw some switch-backs and breathed some relief. I took these standing to rest my quads for a bit and then saw the 15% signs and swore a bit. Thankfully at the top, I was greeted by the support van and applause.
The Passo Costalunga barely registered in comparison at a gentle 5% average. The pizza at the restaurant on the summit felt like the best I'd ever had. Now for the easy bit, descending into Bolzano.
Nope, this ride would not give me an easy time. With still a fair way to go on the drop down the heavens opened and the hail and the wind battered me hard. It was such a shock, the rain jacket was not good enough to cope. Luckily I found a bus shelter and waited it out for 15-20 minutes before gingerly descending the rest of the way, soaked and shaken. I had to drag the rim brakes most of the way down and was glad to catch up with the gruppetto at the next bus shelter. I was grateful for the fancy hotel that awaited and enjoyed a few German beers in Bolzano.
Suffer score: 4/5
Day 5 - Passo Mendola & Passo Palade
Another point-to-point day and the legs were really starting to make themselves heard in the morning. On the flip side, I was feeling stronger and got into a great rhythm on the climbs. Both were long (14 and 12 KM) but gentle (6% and 4%) and the views along the way made you feel like a god in the heavens. The weather had improved from yesterday and the heat had meant the roads had dried up but it was a darker day with lots of clouds, we were not going to get away with a dry day again.
After the last descent, we were headed towards a small town (or even a village?) called Morter which is near the eastern base of the Stelvio. To get there we had to gradually go uphill for 30 KM. Most of this was on a dedicated bike path which was a delight for the most part (it even featured switch-backs!) Unfortunately the rain came back and then gradually got heavier and the ride turned into a bit of a slog. It doesn't take long to get bored on long straight narrow tarmac (at least it was smooth). I passed many commuters going the other way but there was not much company other than orchards and occasional industrial complexes.
Eventually, the road ran out and it was gravel through orchards. I wasn't in a great mood at this point being wet and tired and on my own (a gruppetto of one today). I eventually found the hotel and much like Bolzano, there was much more of a Swiss/Austrian look and feel to everything. I ordered a beer in German (better than my Italian but was responded to in English, still) and waited for dinner.
Suffer score: 1/5
Part II will be coming soon and involves 3 epic climbs which deserve a post of their own...