First week of August myself and 9 bici-almeria veterans set of from LHR to Innsbruck for our trip to the Italian Dolomites. After many years of visiting the great cycling regions of France and Spain, and having ridden a good number of the classic climbs – it was with great excitement and a little trepidation that welcomed me over the Brenner pass into Italy. My god those mountains are impressive. More like sheer cliffs than the stylised mountain shapes that a five-year-old might draw.
Innsbruck airport itself beautifully previewed the week ahead, seemingly trapped in an improbable alpine valley, only reached by air via the most amazing descent and banking down a valley, towering rock on either side as we approached the runway. The view from the pilot’s seat must have been awesome! Then it was just busy motorway journey over the border to Bolzano where we based ourselves for our week in Italy’s greatest cycling region.
I expected it to be hot, Bolzano is only 250m above sea level and in the bottom of the Adige valley. However I have now been informed by many locals that the last 3 weeks have been the hottest ever in the Dolomites! Nice timing for a group of pasty white Englishmen! Opening the doors of our hire cars on arrival at the hotel on the outskirts of the city was like stepping into a furnace, the heat of a summer’s day had baked all around to a whoppung 37.9°C – even the endless orchards of apples that surrounded us must have been nearly baked.
One of the most interesting hours of any bike trip is the opening of bike boxes/bags and tentatively discovering whether the airline have made the first 24 hours of the trip a quest for bike repairs. Fortunately this was not the case and after a few kms on the roads nearby we had supper and planned for our first ride the next day.
Our first ride was a simple and easy ride north from Bolzano to Merano and then up the Val Passiria – in Almeria I am totally in control of route planning, no road is an unknown. From the outset here in Italy it was pot luck whether the routes I had planned on RidewithGPS.com would be any good. The convoluted urban roads of Bolzano and a 3km stretch of dug-up road on the way out of town was, to say the least, an auspicious start. Then as we left the city behind the road wound its way up the eastern edge of the Adige valley towards Merano, all the while the vast rocky cliffs flanked us to our right and also not far across the valley – their partners looked down from the east. Merano was a delight, beautifully maintained flower-beds, cobbled streets, enchanting squares (and as we discover on a later day – a brewery that looked like somewhere that would be a place to visit in future) – it had the feel of a regency spa town – and later on we rode past buildings that showed us that it indeed had it’s own ‘Thermes’! After coffee we headed up the Val Passiria – although a very busy road, it climbed gently up a more open Alpine valley, cows munching on verdant pastures replaced the vines and orchards of lower down the valley. We turned back after 50km and after lunch in Merano took a different road back. Here we struck gold with route planning. A wide, quiet road through row upon row of apple trees bursting with ripe fruit of all colours. The town of Lana was particularly stunning. The baroque onion-domed church amazing against the azurri sky! These towers I have always associated with eastern Europe would be common place in the Dolomites!
Day two of riding saw us head into the Dolomites for real, an hour and half drive up to Canazei – in the company of what appeared to be most of Italy on holiday! – to start the ride of the day which would include Passo Sella, Passo Pordoi and Passo Fedaia. We started a few kms earlier than planned as we encountered the first of many seemingly pointless accidents between high-powered motors that appeared to have impacted at low-speed! Canazei was bustling with cyclist, walkers and holiday-makers, it was also still resplendent in pink from the visit of the Giro a few months before. The group split on the ride today, the stronger and more optimistic took the Sella first, then Pordoi and finally the monstrous Fedaia, the more conservative did Pordoi first then back up the Sella. Either way it was a big day in the sweltering heat. For me Pordoi is one of the climbs that symbolises the mystical nature of the Dolomites – when we were planning the trip this was one Passo that had to be done. So I decided to head up Pordoi first and then back down and tackle the Sella – eschewing Fedaia in light of all the climbing to come in the coming days. Pordoi did not disappoint, stiff hairpins straight out of Canazei and some serious gradients. Resisting the urge to stop and take in the views- I promised myself some good photo stops on the way back down. As the altimeter approached 2000m for the first time on the trip, the massive silhouette of the Marmolada peak and it’s glacier loomed to the south, towering over the Pordoi which had sneaked into view up on the horizon. We re-grouped at the top and the selection was made – some went to on down the Pordoi to tackle the Fedaia from Caprile, I decided on the lesser of two evils and descended back towards Canazei before taking the fork north up to Passo Sella. The view from the top of Sella is possibly the most iconic of the trip for me, it sums up the Dolomites. Towering blocks of rock, contrasting grey with a celestial blue sky. As I stood at the top and looked back on the magnificent Marmolada, little did I know the carnage that Fedaia was reaping onto the strongest riders in our group. Tales of zig-zagging up savage gradients, stopping as there was no choice, Garmin auto-pausing, no gears left, stall speed … all these were re-told at the coffee stop in Canazei as we met up before heading back to hotel. These epic tales were retold many times that evening as we sample some marvellous local wines at the delightful Enoteca Bacaro in the Old Town. There were some tired bodies after the traditional battering that Day 2 of a bici-almeria trip seems to dish out year after year.
Day 3 of riding saw up head west from Bolzano up into the Trentino Alps – the climb of the day was the Passo Mendola – a mere pup at 1360m above the city but in the 38° heat it proved a decent test over 15km after a 10km drag up out of the city to the base of the climb. The last couple of bends were particularly tough, as it always is when you discover a perfectly good funicular runs up the to the top of the climb. A couple iof the group returned to the hotel to recover from their efforts of this climb and the previous day’s exertions. The rest of us took a memorable descent down from Mendola to the shores of Lago di Santa Giustina for lunch at Cles. What followed was another piece of inspired, if fortunate, route-planning. We discovered perhaps the greatest piece of cycle path on earth from Mollaro to Sabino down the Noce valley. Amazing and technical, one to ride again and again! Then we entered the Trento vineyard region, passing through hectare upon hectare of vines, nice labelled and the Teroldego Zone, then the Pinot Grigio Zone. As a former wine-professional I had learned about the trellised pergola vineyards, this was a joyous opportunity to see them for real – and there were plenty! Finally we joined the Trento-Bolzano cycle path along the banks of the Adige and sped wind-assisted back into town, all the time looking down at the river, full of grey silt washed down from those towering Dolomites above us.
Sunday was a wash-out, storms were forecast and it didn’t let us down. Plan was to head up to the Anterselva valley and ride from the bottom up to the Passo Stalle on the Austrian border. This would give a couple of us that are huge biathlon fans a chance to have a look around the Antholz Biathlon Centre. Well that was the plan … as we approached the foot of the valley and found somewhere to park up and get the bikes out, the first rumble of thunder entered the scene. As soon as I turned first people out of car park the first drop of rain landed on my forearm. By the time we reached a cafe 750m up the road, the heavens had opened, dramatic fork lightning surrounded us on all sides. Very soon it became apprent that there would be no riding today. In the 30 minutes we sat inside drinking coffee and sampling local delights – like apple strudel, apricot crumble tart and cheese and ham toasties – the temperature dropped from 25° to 12°C and the rain didn’t ease a bit!
The next morning normal order was restored, skies were blue, breakfast taken early, bikes packed … however there was a sense of uneasiness in the air. Today was the big one – Passo dello Stelvio or Stilsferjoch. One of the cycling world’s truly iconic climbs – 48 hairpins from the Prato di Stelvio northern ascent, spread over a daunting 24.4 km at an average just under 8% – thas was serious. The Giro d’Italia has climbed this many, many times and each time it does it is Cima Coppi – the high point of the race – at 2760m above sea level. So we set off to get there nice and early, deliberately choosing Monday in the hope that it might be less busy in terms of petrolheads and motorbikes. Deciding to park up and have a 20km ride along the well-signed cycle park to the foot of the climb seemed a nice idea until the arrival of a 3km section of gravel meant a return to the busy main road. No bici-almeria trip is complete without a little dirt road (rambla) riding as all veterans will know! Personally I love it – Strade Bianche on my Bianchi!, but I understand it isn’t to everyone’s liking. So after a brief coffee stop it was onto the serious business of the Stelvio! It showed it’s teeth immediately but with a couple of exceptions at Tornante 38 and Tornante 4 the gradient was tough but steady. Again the ride was briefly interrupted by idiots in high-powered sports cards who had decided to collide head at a speed slow enough to avoid injury but doubtless keeping insurance firms, and the recovery truck happy – more of him later! So after the best part of two and tree quarter hours I reached the summit after enjoying the spectacle of a Lammergeier behind chased by a rampant flock of choughs! Any big mountain climb has a special feeling towards the top. The real legends have a deeply spiritual aura for anyone who rides a bike, Ventoux has it, the Tourmalet has it, the Galibier has it, for me LAgos de Covadonga had it on last year’s summer trip. Passo dello Stelvio has it in buckets. History, traditional, sheer brute force of nature – a place of sublime beauty and somewhere I would encourage all that like to ride to go while they can. After the obligatory fotos at the Cima Coppi memorial, which doubled as a Scarponi shrine this year, I rode gently back down the first 10 or so hairpins stopping to take some photos. However I couldn’t help but think how big the glacier that overhangs the Stelvio must have been 20 or 30 years ago, and more worryingly would it still be there for future cyclists to gaze at in awe in 25 years time. As the road corkscrewed ahead of me down the valley I had toiled up, I picked up speed and relaxed into the descent, passing bikes, buses and cars as I went. About halfway down I came up behind a row of motos following the tow truck that had retrieved one of the sports cars from the earlier prang. Every apex he pulled away from bikes and began to distance them so I passed them on a tight hairpin and got into his wake. Clearly this guy had done this descent many times before. The gap between us and the motos stretched out and I was quite gutted when he pulled aside 8km from the valley. A couple of us decided to have some fun on the return to the van by taking the cycle track and it’s exhilarating dirt track descents!
So our last day of riding came along – another drive, this time south to the legendary Monte Grappa. We decided to ride it from the north from Caupo as this was the Giro stage route this year. Good friend of bici-almeria Mauro had ridden from Vicenza to join us for today’s ride. He was there waiting for us at the cafe in Arten at 10am as agreed. Another long climb – 28km according to the book, with ramps of 15-18%. Monte Grappa was steep from the start, not dipping under 9% much over the first 6km – then we reached a wonderful forest section that seemed almost downhill at 5%! Not long before we met a couple of pretty savage short ramps and then a quite long section of fast downhill. This would have been welcome, except we all know we were coming back ‘down’ this way so the 10% descent would return the favour! As the summit approached and the view south over the plains all the way to the Adriatic beyond Venice – it became clear why comparisons are drawn between Grappa and Ventoux. Approaching from the south it must appear omnipresent and ominous to all. At the summit 1714m above sea level is the beautiful yet haunting memorial to thousands of Austrian and Italians that died in both World Wars. Many, many thousands are buried up here in the stark, white mausoleum that is perched atop this mighty mountain.
Yet another memorable trip with bici-almeria friends – one of the places I have always wanted to ride has been done and it did not disappoint. Obviously there are many famous climbs that could be added to the list. However the cycling is amazing even if the climbs are not so famous! Our last night meal was a return to the outstanding Gasthaus Fink in the old town of Bolzano – a place I would certainly return to and would recommend to anyone in the area to seek out. Amazing food, wine, service and amazing value.
So here are my highlights from the trip.
- The amazing network of cycle paths and in particular that section we discovered on the descent from Cles and Lago di Santa Giustina
- Wonderful, light fresh red wines of Trentino and Bolzano – my personal favourite was Cantina Bozen’s Santa Magdalena Classico Huck am Bach – delicious!
- Passo dello Stelvio – the spirituality of the climb (and the descent behind the tow truck!)
- The beautiful spa town of Merano – I would stay there if I ever go back to Trento-Alto Adige.
- Gasthaus Fink – as mentioned above – just what you need after a hard day in the saddle. Great food, value and service.
- Passo Pordoi – one of those climbs I have dreamed of riding, not sure why but it did not disappoint.
- Apples – I have never seen so many apples in my entire life.
- Antholz Biathlon Centre – although desolate, cold and wet – it still had sense of something special. I’d love to go when there is a event on!
- Monte Grappa – the sheer power of the Memorial at the top of the mountain.
- Street Pizza – best slice of pizza I have ever bought!