Dolomiti dreaming: Traversing Northern Italy by bike

VeloNews managing editor Chris Case would like to thank DuVine Cycling and Adventure Company for inviting him to join their Dolomites Journey, a seven-day cycling experience across Northern Italy, through the Alps and Dolomites mountains, into Slovenia, to the Mediterranean Sea and Trieste. Learn more at duvine.com.

A JOURNEY ISN’T ONLY about where you go, but where you’re taken. The best excursions bring you back in time, across the sweep of history, and into other worlds. They take you to places you never thought possible, both physically and mentally. They add as much life to your years as they do years to your life. And, of course, at their core, they’re about exploring and understanding a bit about parts unfamiliar, those wild and scenic spots on few to-do lists.

The DuVine Dolomites Journey starts near the village of Aprica, in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy, near the base of the infamous Passo Mortirolo in the Alps. We then climb over the gargantuan Passo dello Stelvio, skate through the Adige Valley to Bolzano, and climb into the heart of the Dolomites before escaping into Slovenia. Finally we zigzag across vineyards until plummeting to the edge of the Mediterranean Sea in Trieste.

Over seven days, the group, which includes guests from their mid sixties to their early thirties, from all walks of life (including one famous chef, Seamus Mullen), rides about 400 miles and gains approximately 45,000 feet in elevation. (Slight variations in skill levels lead to a few bonus miles and climbs for some; my Garmin has me at 425.1 miles and 48,841 feet.)

We cross through fundamentally different cultural enclaves, drastically different climatic conditions, through fragile ecosystems and urban landscapes, past the quaintest of villages and over some of the greatest, hardest, and most historic climbs in cycling history. Every inch of it by bike, point to point to point.

Physically, anyone of any fitness level would find the days both long and rewarding. Others even more so. The food each night? On average it’s spectacular and always plentiful. But this isn’t the Italian cuisine you’re most familiar with. The pasta is hidden by the prosciutto, the pizza margherita obscured by the piles of speck. There is a definitive Germanic influence to this part of Italy.

The characters in this story are real, though their names have been changed to protect their identities. (What happens on a DuVine trip stays on a DuVine trip.) The stories are real, and have never been embellished for effect. The places are most certainly real; you can’t improve upon what must be one of the most divine cycling arenas on Earth.

Let the journey begin.

Gavia
Gruesome weather on the Passo di Gavia. Photo: Chris Case | VeloNews.com

Day 1 || Aprica > Mortirolo > Passo Gavia > Bormio || 64.4 miles and 8,930 feet

Theme: Initiation

Quote of the day: “I’m not attacking, I just need to get warm.”

The pop of cycling cleats clicking into pedals signifies the official start of this wonderful journey. It’s a welcome note after the months of anticipating what for some is a dream come true. We are embarking into hallowed ground, dancing up and over and among some of the most famous climbs that cyclists have ever traversed, many because of their prominent roles in the history of the Giro d’Italia. Not that this means something to everyone. Most guests are here, generally, for the experience of riding through picturesque mountains in Italy. Others are here for the very specific experience of suffering on the same slopes that Coppi, Pantani, and Nibali have suffered on before.

Immediately, some of our respective cycling personas are revealed. We’re cyclists: There is a certain innate level of egoism to our sport. Maybe it lives in our bib shorts, however strange that may sound. When we don our chamois, we put on our uniform, and our character is revealed. Some have matching kits, socks, caps, and shoes. Others sport their favorite jersey from a charity ride. Some will take it easy from the gun; others can’t help but attack. In any case, we’re all here, together, riding through Italy’s majestic north, and we’re enamored with the thought.

After we reach the top of the Passo Mortirolo the group splits, with three guests (myself included) and one guide accepting the bonus challenge of the Passo di Gavia. It is a hearty one. It begins to rain as we drop down toward the town of Ponte di Legno, at the Gavia’s base. The poor weather continues to decline, which is perfectly appropriate for a spirited attack on this gruesome pass.

Cycling aficionados should be intimately familiar with what happened on this climb in 1988: Andy Hampsten’s bike sears skinny tire tracks in the snow-covered road, his face obscured by giant goggles and fluttering snowflakes. You must have seen the poster, and surely know the tale. Now it’s our turn to be like Andy.

By the time we reach the top, it’s 31.9 degrees and sleeting. The fog is thick, and scraggly rock outcroppings eerily loom on all sides. No, Andy didn’t have it this bad, we think. He had the luxury of riding in the snow, we tell ourselves. It’s all a lie, of course. We could never be like Andy. But it helps us feel tough. And hardmen never get cold.

We crack the top, snap some pics, and quickly turn our attention to getting down. I don five jackets and blaze the descent, cold to the core.

Our first day ends with supreme satisfaction, and very cold toes.

Food item of the day: Dinner by Chef Seamus including vegetables and more vegetables, fresh from the garden, and steak, fresh from the grassy fields.

 

The Stelvio never disappoints, and never seems to quit. Photo: Chris Case | VeloNews.com
The Stelvio never disappoints, and never seems to quit. Photo: Chris Case | VeloNews.com

Day 2 || Bormio > Passo dello Stelvio > Rabla || 57.5 miles and 5,709 feet

Theme: Camaraderie

Quote of the day: “I’m not attacking, I just want to get a good photo.”

We’ve bonded. We form small groups out of the gate. Today will be a milestone for many, climbing Passo dello Stelvio with the threat of snow scheduled for our arrival on top.

This climb, with its majestic switchbacks, never ceases to amaze. Never disappoints. Never seems to quit. An otherworldly vista is drawn before us, with grasses the color of seaweed surrounded by snowcapped peaks and low-hanging clouds giving the air a still, sinister quality.

I find myself riding most often with three men today: Tom is one of our DuVine guides, a veteran of 10 years leading trips around Europe, and someone who loves to look like he’s never ridden before. In his early 30s, he’s strong despite his hairy legs and droopy socks. Then there are Ricky and McGregor. We all like to hurt each other, if we can. We don’t like to lose. We punch it. I get in the habit of jumping ahead so I can stop to take photos. Then I find myself churning to regain the front of the pack. I stop again. Suddenly, I’m fairly certain I see Tom up ahead giving it gas despite the fact that I haven’t caught back on. So I go full-gas. It’s a hard chase, but eventually the small prize of a big Stelvio climb is mine.

(It’s the first sign that this week will be filled with imaginary finish lines atop summits and at town lines, dotted across our many miles.)

At the top, there are two things in abundance: camaraderie and minestrone. (Two bowls please!) As brains thaw and rider after rider enters the Albergo Tibet above the snaking scene of 48 switchbacks plummeting out of sight in the valley below, it dawns on each of us what we’ve done. And we share that sense of accomplishment with one another, hugging and connecting in many ways, tangible and not. These are the moments that we’ll say “changed our lives” when we think back on this trip. It’s not an embellishment. This place, the effort, the conditions, the history: together it takes on prominent cycling significance.

Photo: Chris Case | VeloNews.com
Photo: Chris Case | VeloNews.com

The terrain and temperature slowly transform as we descend to the Adige Valley. In the village of Prato dello Stelvio, we hop onto a bike path that Chef Seamus declares the most beautiful in the world. Wild mountains on every side, we flash through endless orchards of fresh orbs of ruddy red and fleshy green fruit. The eponymous river babbles nearby, and the apples are plucked from the trees and placed in our mouths as we ride by.

The path turns to dirt and, like clockwork, the antics ensue. Suddenly, Seamus and his brother (we’ll call him Rowdy Roddy Piper) go darting off like they are kids again. Around a bend, a tractor appears. Piper isn’t prepared to budge. Nor is the tractor. Inside him there is surely a desire to tackle the tractor to see what damage he can inflict, but Piper finally locks up his rear brake, skids some 40 feet before blowing a tire, and cackles his way to a stop. The man is slightly insane. Like Rowdy Roddy Piper.

We cruise just slightly slower to our day’s end in Rabla.

Food item of the day: Two bowls of salty minestrone while warming up atop the Stelvio

 

Our first glimpse of the heart of the Dolomites. Photo: Chris Case | VeloNews.com
Our first glimpse of the heart of the Dolomites. Photo: Chris Case | VeloNews.com

Day 3 || Rabla > Unnamed Big Climb > Bolzano > Unnamed Steep Climb > Ganischgerhof || 60.0 miles and 10,512 feet

Theme: Grinta

Quote of the day: “I’m not attacking, I’m just in the wrong gear.”

It’s amazing what a man can do to push himself. In this case, the man is Chef Seamus, our guest dignitary. On a giant crawl, in a lesser-known area of big, steep climbs around Bolzano, Seamus proves he has grinta, that quality reserved for cyclists (typically Italian, though not exclusively) who cannot and will not stop. Can’t. Won’t. Call it grit, determination, stubbornness. It is all of those things and more. Hopefully you know someone with grinta because the inspirational effect is contagious.

Why such fight? His story is long and winding, like this journey. Serious health issues, including rheumatoid arthritis, saw him nearly bedridden and depressed only six years ago. Painkillers were his nutrition of choice. Flash forward to today and he is supremely healthier, happier, and 65 pounds lighter. He rides as if he is a product of romance between Alberto Contador and Robert Förstemann, the proud owner of gigantic 74-centimeter thighs who you may have seen make toast by riding a trainer at 700 watts.

Photo: Chris Case | VeloNews.com
Photo: Chris Case | VeloNews.com

He churns and churns until he is toast, this chef. And then he comes back for more. It is electric.

We cross through Bolzano, scurrying through town squares, shops filled with glittering window displays and past café goers. Then we climb straight up into nowhere. This climb doesn’t have a name that I’m aware of. And it goes on. And it gets steep. And there aren’t many cars but there are plenty of smiles. We round a bend and it suddenly hits us.

Our first sighting of the Dolomites! Stunning, magical, otherworldly. It’s best to see their drama from a distance, to understand the scope of their relief before plunging into them tomorrow.

Food item of the day: Roadside picnic of chocolate cake, speck and potato, and Gazzosa lemon soda

 

The Karersee, not far from Bolzano. Photo: Chris Case | VeloNews.com
The Karersee, not far from Bolzano. Photo: Chris Case | VeloNews.com

Day 4 || Ganischgerhof > Passo Costalunga > Passo Pordoi > Passo Falzarego > Cortina d’Ampezzo || 60.7 miles and 8,110 feet

Theme: Time

Quote of the day: “I’m not attacking, I just can’t get into my small ring.”

For enthusiasts of the history of professional cycling, a ride through the heart of the Dolomites can be an emotional voyage. These roads are the stadiums of our sport. We don’t have a Fenway. There is no Wrigley Field. Instead, our sport’s history is, literally, written on the road. We have the Pordoi, the Falzarego, and other sinuous strips of buttery smooth pavement snaking into the mountains of Italy. They’re strewn with the names of champions and, sometimes, unrepeatable Italian phrases. And, yes, there are countless tributes to Il Pirata, the late and still revered Marco Pantani.

Passo Pordoi. Photo: Chris Case | VeloNews.com
Passo Pordoi. Photo: Chris Case | VeloNews.com

But that’s just one facet of the long and winding history of this place. South Tyrol (Südtirol in German or Alto Adige in Italian), to simplify, came to be in 1918 after the Italians annexed the province from the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I. The region is a time capsule.

Beside the white paint on the road that reads “Dai Dai Aru!” there is a memorial to Il Campionnisimo, Fausto Coppi. Above that are the remnants of tunnels blasted and carved into these jagged peaks, reminders of the battles that killed thousands of men during times of war.

Even if you didn’t know any of that, this place could still bring tears to your eyes: The spectacular scenery seems a creation of Hollywood. The peaks’ jagged spires defy what you know a mountain to be. Mist shrouded vertical columns of pink and grey stop us in our pedal strokes, repeatedly. While climbs take a while, the descents take a while longer. With every corner comes a better view, a more majestic view, a more ridiculous, jaw-gaping, stupefying view. Usually it’s followed by a “holy shit,” or some such description.

Food item of the day: A perfect, rustic margherita pizza amid the glitz of Cortina

 

While we occassionally rode hard and bombed descents, there were many moments when the scenery stopped us in our tracks. Photo: Chris Case | VeloNews.com
While we occasionally rode hard and bombed descents, there were many moments when the scenery stopped us in our tracks. Photo: Chris Case | VeloNews.com

Day 5 || Cortina d’Ampezzo > Passo Tre Croci > Sella Ciampigotto > Ovaro || 55.8 miles and 5,610 feet

Theme: Solitude

Quote of the day: “I’m not attacking, I just have to pee.”

A convoluted ribbon of grey snakes upward out of sight, one white line to either side. Here there’s no need for a center stripe, or lines of different color, or, god forbid, raised reflectors. And the switchbacks. Mmm. How I love them so.

I don’t love pavement, mind you. A broiling hot parking lot on a summer’s day is a wretched place to be. But if you have to make a road, make it like they do in the Dolomites. And if you can, make it with as many stylish switchbacks as possible. Make it like Sella Ciampigotto.

Like a sailor tacking his way across the sea, a switchback gives a cyclist a second (and third, and fourth…) chance to see where they’ve just been. It takes her higher with a strategy of efficiency rather than an assault of angle. Hairpins are beautiful from above, practical from below, and elegant in their engineering. Dare I say seductive. They cry, “Go faster, ride harder, corner to your heart’s content.” They are where fans gather, when there are racers throwing down.

The seductive curves of Sella Ciampigotto. Photo: Chris Case | VeloNews.com
The seductive curves of Sella Ciampigotto. Photo: Chris Case | VeloNews.com

But there’s no racing today. The Eastern Dolomites are wilder and more remote than the heart of the range. The climbs on tap, the Tre Croci and Ciampigotto, are not on anyone’s top-10 must-do lists (unlike the Stelvio and Gavia, Pordoi and Falzarego, for example.) But they are special for that very reason. We’re here because someone with intimate knowledge of this web of roads knows better than us or the Internet. They did their homework, and we’re the benefactor.

Places like this always have me asking: What is life like here? What do people do here? How quiet must life be in this old part of the world? It makes me a bit sad to realize I’ll never know.

Food item of the day: That cold, crisp German beer enjoyed at our lodge in Ovaro while sitting in the warm sun, daydreaming about riding Monte Zoncolan in the morning.

 

The author attacking Monte Zoncolan. Photo: Richard Banfield
The author attacking Monte Zoncolan. Photo: Richard Banfield

Day 6 || Ovaro > Monte Zoncolan > Medana, Slovenia || 77.2 miles and 6,660 feet

Theme: Rewards

Quote of the day: “I’m not attacking, I just want to go faster.”

If it isn’t the Mortirolo, than the hardest climb in Italy surely is Monte Zoncolan. With only 10 minutes spinning the legs before hitting its slopes, the few who have chosen this bonus climb soon understand why. The stats: 10 kilometers at an average gradient of 11.5 percent, or thereabouts. (The last 8K average over 15 percent.) Sustained pitches of 18 percent. A maximum gradient of 22 percent. Numbers: They never do justice to a climb.

Twice a winner on its slopes, Gilberto Simoni perfectly described the torture: “It’s like a slow execution; the easiest part of the Zoncolan is harder than the most difficult at the Tour.”

While other climbs eventually relent, Zoncolan only gets steeper. While rounding a bend on other roads often brings relief, every switchback on Zoncolan brings turmoil. Unceasing, unrelenting. Vicious even. But more rewarding because of it.

The roadside is dotted with signs featuring famous cyclists, from Moser to Saronni, Hinault to Indurain. I play a game: Who will be next? If I die upon its slopes, will I too get a sign? Anything to distract me from this satisfying pain.

We all reach the top, scattered between 45 minutes to an hour and a half. All the fearful talk the previous day vanishes like the evaporating sweat on our brows. First to the top, I snap photos of my compatriots’ pain faces then drop down the mountain to the last sign before the top: Fausto Coppi. I call out his name, “Fausto!” Thank you for your inspiration today.

Our ride today is bifurcated. Zoncolan is falling away behind us, and the rolling terrain leading to Slovenia before us. But between here and there is a surprise treat.

One of our group suffers a puncture on the precipitous descent. It takes a while to change the tube, and in that time we discover we’re waiting beside a child’s playland high on the shoulder of Zoncolan. And, yes, you guessed it: There is a slip-and-slide.

Chef Seamus getting aero on Monte Zoncolan. Photo: Andy Wong
Chef Seamus getting aero on Monte Zoncolan. Photo: Andy Wong

The fake grass surface and inner tubes are there for the taking. We take them. We slide. We laugh. We practice our aero tuck. And then the moment is over. We remount our bikes and descend from paradise in the mountain sun.

As we enter the hill country of northeast Italy, near the border with Slovenia, it becomes apparent that the group has some snap left in its legs. And like that, we enter a new dimension of this journey. We’re repeatedly smashing each other. Some begin to race Piaggio Ape, three-wheeled glorified golf carts with moped engines.

For 50 miles, our eyes scan the horizon for that next town line, the next prize. Is it a sustainable pace? Absolutely, for there’s another town line up there in the distance.

Food item of the day: The 18-course meal (or thereabouts) at Aleks Klinec’s restaurant is more a festival. The owner and chef was born Yugoslavian, his father Italian, his grandfather Austro-Hungarian. Yet each grew up and lived in the same house.

 

Day 7 || Medana, Slovenia > Trieste, Italy || 49.0 miles and 3,310 feet of gain

Theme: Boundaries

Quote of the day: “I’m not attacking, you’re just getting tired.”

We gather outside our hotel (which is actually a sort of castle which dates from 1774) more quietly this morning. It could be that fatigue is settling over the group. I suspect instead that people are a bit sad at the realization that this journey has an end, and it comes after our short ride today. We set off together, with Trieste as our final destination, and three coveted international borders as the prizes along the way.

It doesn’t take long for the group to get feisty — and for new players to come to the fore on this rolling terrain. We’ll call him Doc. He shoots off ahead of the group, not because he sees a town line or an international border, but because he smells one. I rocket out of the group to join him. There’s a split in the road. Doc and I go left. I hear the yells from behind as the group continues to the right. “Doc!” I scream. Doc is now bombing down a hill cackling at the top of his lungs, loving every minute of his move, his mistake, and at missing his chance for glory.

We’re now a bit lost, so Doc mischievously laughs some more. We spend the next few minutes trying to be found. Or is it trying to stay lost, far from home? In any case, our digression is too short and we’re back together again. The group is now on red alert.

No one wants it to end. When would we see each other again? Maybe never. Perhaps someday. But would it be as good? We’re now cruising in formation like a WorldTour team. Well, maybe a development team at best. Still, the routine was just becoming comfortable and now it will all soon be lost.

One more long sweeping descent from the plateau above Trieste and we’re back to bustling civilization. Weaving through cars and pedestrians is a foreign feeling, and shocking after so many serene days. The fairy tale ends on the wharf, by the sea and the monolithic cruise ships scattered in the port. There’s a small table, a tablecloth covered in bright yellow lemons, 12 wine glasses, and one bottle of Prosecco.

So this is how our journey ends.

Food item of the day: The Prosecco on the Trieste wharf was perfection, mostly for the moment. But the cone filled with extra dark chocolate and mint chocolate chip gelato that evening ranks among the best I’ve ever had. We’ll call it a tie.

For more information on DuVine’s Journeys, visit here.