Road Cycling in The Dolomites – by Emma
If you’re pondering your first road cycling trip in the mountains, or perhaps you only have one week available and hope to cram in as much as you can, why not consider the Dolomites, in Northern Italy?
We’ve been cycling in the mountains for our summer holidays for eleven years now. Like many keen cyclists, we were inspired by the magnificent climbs we’d seen on TV whist watching coverage of the Tour de France. It was during the time when Lance Armstrong was dominating the pro-peloton, and seeing the buzz on L’Alpe d’Huez triggered our first trip to the French Alps in July 2004.
Back then, TV coverage of cycling was not as extensive as it is now. So I guess France was the country that sprang to mind when choosing our first col-bagging adventure. France is such a beautiful country, with awe inspiring scenery, so perfect for cycling. Since 2004 we have made several trips to the Northern Alps, as well as visiting Pyrenees and the Southern Alps. However, Europe offers so many wonderful locations to ride, and the spectacular mountain range of the Italian Dolomites is certainly one of them. If you are planning first cycling trip to the mountains abroad, the Dolomites should not be overlooked.
So, where do I start with my quest to tell you how great the Dolomites are for road cycling?
Scenery Just a handful of words are needed to sum up the beauty of this mountain range: spectacular, dramatic, magnetising. The magnificent spires of limestone will transfix you. You will see skylines of such beauty, it’s easy to understand why it’s so popular with climbers and hikers as well as cyclists.
Tre Cime Lavarado
Location The Dolomites are located in North Eastern Italy, quite close to the border with Austria, and they spread across the provinces of Trentino Alto-Adige, Belluno, Bolzano and Trento. We’ve been lucky enough to have visited the area several times since 2006, and our chosen base has always been the mountain village of Arabba. It’s a popular ski resort in winter and a perfect base in summer for those who love the outdoors. In recent years, we have chosen to drive, taking the Eurotunnel, and then travelling through France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria, over the course of two days. However, Arabba is easily reached by air, with flights available to Venice and Treviso. The transfer from both airports is approximately three hours. We have friends who have managed the journey by car in one full day, but I suspect that journey is not for the faint-hearted!
Riding from the Door It was by sheer chance that we found the village of Arabba, by a random internet search. We’d typed in “biking Dolomites” and this linked us to a motor-biking website and we soon learnt that motor-bikers love switchbacks just as much as road-cyclists do! The website had detailed Arabba and how it was within easy reach of the Sella Ronda and Passo Giau. This was great as it gave us the names of some of the main passes in the area. Grant knew of the Sella Ronda from following the Giro d’Italia in magazines, but the Giau was a new name for us.
Arabba provides a superb base for riding, not requiring extensive route planning or the need to drive out, with the main road passes being clearly signed. Read on for details of some of the excellent routes available.
This beautiful village is situated at the bottom of the Pordoi Pass. This location opens up a host of ride options.
Ride 1 – The Sella Ronda
Head straight up the Pordoi Pass and you are immediately on the Sella Ronda. This is a wonderful climb, lots of switchbacks, never far until the next one and never too steep, all the way up to number 33! It can be busy at the summit as a cable car runs up to the Sass Pordoi, a fabulous plateau, worth a visit if you fancy doing something off the bike.
To reach the next pass on the Sella Ronda, you descend down a little way, but not as far as Canazei. The right turn for Passo Sella is clearly signed. This is a truly beautiful piece of road, the vertical rock surrounds you and it’s hard not to keep gazing upwards as you wind your way up to the summit. There is a rifugio at the top and not an awful lot of room for vehicles. The descent off the Sella to the start of the Gardena Pass is fairly short but you do need to watch out for the right turn (again, this is signed). This takes you onto the shorter, easier side of the Gardena. The summit of this climb also offers stunning panoramas, whichever way you look. To complete the Sella Ronda loop simply descend to Corvara, a fast, sweeping descent, great for the speed demons amongst you (unlike me)! Corvara is a busy, well catered for resort town, with lots of accommodation, eateries, shops etc. There is a well stocked bike shop called Break Out, apparently the only Rapha stockist in Italy. There are at least two bakeries, both offering very tempting selections of cakes, tried and tested! We can definitely recommend the apple cake! To finish the Sella Ronda loop, you must ascend the Campolongo taking you out of Corvara, the shortest climb on this classic route. Once you’ve cracked that one, you can whizz back down to Arabba, with 31 miles on the clock.Campolongo Pass – looking back to Corvara
For a longer ride, substitute the Campolongo for the longer climb of the Val Parola, by heading to the town of La Villa instead, when you leave Corvara. From the summit of the Val Parola you simply descend the Passo Falzarego, and return to Arabba, for a ride that’s a little over 50 miles.
Ride 2 – Passo Giau
Our favourite ride out of Arabba is probably Passo Giau. For this ride you leave the village in the direction of Passo Falzarego (the main Passos are well signed for). This will take you along the spectacular valley road, where you pass through various villages along the way, plus it gives you a nice warm up prior to the big climb! After passing through the village of Andraz, you will see a right turn, which points you in the direction of Passo Giau. This is a lovely, scenic road, that winds down towards the base of the Giau, at Selva di Cadore. After you’ve crossed the Pignazza Bridge, you are not far from the start of the climb, so look out for the left turn.
The Giau is such a magnificent climb, with more testing gradients than the Sella Ronda. It’s approximately 5 to 6 miles in length, with bend markers all the way to the top (29 in total). It’s nice to count them off as you work your way up through the switchbacks. I tend to think that this climb is in three parts; the first ten switchbacks are quite steep, probably the most challenging on the climb. The switchbacks up to bend 20 are not quite as brutal and they are quite close together, which helps you feel like you’re ticking them off quite quickly. Then for the final part, the switchbacks are shallower but depending on how you’re feeling at this point, it may not feel like it! The surrounding peaks and their beauty will keep your enthusiasm high.
Passo Giau – all smiles after conquering the 5th climb of the day
The views at the summit are worth every pedal stroke, not to mention the hot chocolate from the rifugio, which is always busy, full of cyclists, walkers and motor-bikers. For a ride of approximately 40 miles, you can simply do an “out and back”, returning to Arabba by riding back the way you came. Alternatively, for a bigger day on the bike, you can drop down the other side of the Giau, towards the village of Pocol. This would mean riding up the Falzarego Pass afterwards, which is long but never steep. The descent of the Falzarego, to return to Arabba, is an enjoyable one, with long stretches and hairpins which are not too tight. Look out for Il Castello d’Andraz, the remains of a medieval castle possibly dating back earlier than the year 1000, an eye-catching sight as you descend.
Beautiful scenery is guaranteed whichever way you choose to return from the Giau.
Ride 3 – Passo Falzarego (with optional extension onto the Sella Ronda)
The ascent of the Passo Falzarego starting from Arabba is another ride easily achieved in this area. You can choose to do an “out and back” for a shorter ride of approximately 27 miles. Or, when you reach the summit of the Falzarego, bear left and head to the Passo Valparola for a longer adventure. It’s definitely worth checking out the views towards Cortina d’Ampezzo first.
For the longer option, it’s just a short climb to the plateau where the Tre Sassi Fort War Museum is situated, and then along to the summit of the Valparola. At the rifugio last July we were greeted by a lovely little dog called Ramba, he was 17 years old, a little short-sighted but very friendly! From here you simply descend the Valparola, another amazing, sweeping descent with sections of smooth, fresh tarmac. You will pass through picturesque Armenterola, then the town of San Cassiano which has hosted World Cup ski events, and eventually to La Villa. From here you can ride to Corvara, which opens up even more ride options.
Valparola Pass and the Rifugio
You can choose to take on the Gardena, followed by Sella and Pordoi, descending back to Arabba. Alternatively, head straight out of Corvara, up the Passo Campolongo and then descend back to the heart of Arabba. This would be the shorter route option.
Ride 4 – Fedaia Pass (Marmolada)
The Fedaia (or Marmolada as it is often known) is also easily reachable from Arabba, and you can choose to ride it from either its super-tough approach via Malga Ciapela or opt for the easier ride, which entails riding up the Pordoi Pass, descending to the town of Canazei and climbing up via Alba Delba. This is definitely the shallower option.
If you’re going to tackle this beautiful monster, although it is incredibly tough, the satisfaction you will feel from riding it from the Malga Ciapela side is fantastic! For the “monster” route, you should head out of Arabba in the direction of Passo Falzarego, look out for a right turn signing for the Fedaia / Marmolada. A nice, winding descent takes you to the tiny village of Digonera and then the climbing begins, but it’s not at its most difficult just yet!
It’s worth taking the detour up the Sottoguda Gorge (again this is signed for). There is a one Euro charge for this, payable at the kiosk. The gorge is very picturesque, and on a hot day, provides a welcome coolness as you ride up gradients between 10% and 15%. Once you pop out of the gorge road, you are well on your way to reaching the base of the Fedaia climb. The village of Malga Ciapela has shops and bars, so you can stock up on water if required. The metal sculptures that are for sale will catch your eye as you pass through.
Eventually, you will look up and see a very long ramp of a road, stretching upwards in front of you, and it seems to keep on going and going…….without switchbacks! This is unrelenting, and last July we rode it in temperatures above 30°C. The gradients are between 11% and 15%, and rarely do they dip below that. After what seems like an eternity, the final switchbacks swing into view; you are approaching the summit. A little respite finally comes in the form of a shallow hairpin. A rifugio will come into view, the lake, and of course the glorious site of the Marmolada glacier. It’s so striking, you’ll be glad you kept pushing those pedals. Spin along past Lago Fedaia, where there is another rifugio / bar, and it’s always busy! After you’ve marvelled at your feat of reaching the top, and taken in the grandeur of the glacier, you can either descend back the way you came, or take the sweeping descent down the other side to Canazei. The return to Arabba would be by climbing the Pordoi Pass. I would definitely recommend this, it’s a fabulous climb from both its sides and you will be rewarded with the descent afterwards, back to Arabba. A cake or ice cream is well deserved after this ride! You’ll have around forty miles on the clock with this option.
Lago Fedaia – Passo Fedaia
Looking for longer routes? As you’ve probably gathered it’s possible to string together lots of rides with this amazing network of mountain passes. If you’re after mileage in the arena of 70 to 80 miles, you won’t be disappointed.
Ride 5 – Tre Cime di Lavaredo
Suitable gearing is definitely advisable for this one! The scenery on this is magnificent, making a long day on the bike worth every minute. From Arabba, ride to and up the Falzarego Pass, descend into Cortina d’Ampezzo, a downhill of approximately 10 miles, which most cyclists will find good fun. We’ve found that the roads are generally kept in good shape in this area, frequently you will see repairs taking place, and the foliage that lines the roads being maintained. However, the Falzarego can be a busy through-route at times, and the surface had several areas with potholes and pitted areas to look out for.
Once in Cortina you’ll find yourself on a one-way system, follow signs for either Passo Tre Croci, Tre Cime di Lavarado or Lake Misurina. You will soon be on the right road, heading upwards of course. This is one of my favourite climbs, and the tranquility of the mountains will immerse you soon after leaving the hustle and bustle of Cortina. First you must tackle the Tre Croci, it has a few steep kicks, but it’s a really lovely road to climb. The sight of Monte Cristallo part way up, is breathtaking. Following the summit of the Tre Croci, you will reach Lake Misurina. This area is astoundingly beautiful with crystal clear water, surrounded by the mountains and those spectacular three monoliths that are the Tre Cime di Lavarado.
This is a busy tourist area and a handy spot to buy food and water. From here, the ride becomes as tough as it is beautiful, as you reach the barrier where motor vehicles must pay to enter (no charge for bicycles). You are now on the true Tre Cime climb, the switchbacks are steep and unrelenting. The first time I rode this back in 2007 they seemed to go on forever and I don’t think I’d ever ridden so slowly for such a long period of time! The landscape will keep you going, as you ride gradients that are consistently in excess of 15%. In the Dolomites, 10% can often be a welcome relief!
You know the top is near when you start to see lots of parked cars. The summit is essentially a car park and you can just keep riding until you run out of road! The grandeur of the Tre Cime will assure you it was worth the gruelling effort! Lake Auronzo can be seen below, the blue hue of the water is so striking from up above.
View from Tre Cime Lavarado, overlooking Lake Auronzo
This is basically an “out and back” ride. The Tre Croci descent is a favourite, not too technical and it flows nicely. Keeping your energy levels topped up is essential for this ride as the climb out of Cortina via the Falzarego may not be steep, but it sure is long, around 10 miles. Once you’ve reached the top of the Falzarego, it’s a nice descent followed by the valley road back to Arabba. This route should give you at least 75 miles, but is sure to leave you with that tired but happy glow!
Maratona dles Dolomites
Another excellent ride is to simply follow the route of the epic sportive the Maratona dles Dolomites, 84 stunning, mountainous miles. We rode this route ourselves last year and can definitely recommend it, go to the Dolomites 2015 menu if you want to read more about this, or go to www.maratona.it for the official sportive website.
Off the Bike
Off the bike, Arabba has a couple of good restaurants and a few bars, where coffee and hot chocolate are always on offer as well as alcoholic drinks. There are two mini-markets, a well stocked bakery (especially for its size), a fruit and veg shop, pharmacy, bank etc. The mini-markets tend to serve as gift shops as well, plus there are outdoor clothing / winter sports shops. Corvara is not far away if you have a car, and you will find more shops here than in Arabba, as well as plenty of places to eat and drink. Hot chocolate at the Hotel Villa Eden is highly recommended; try the Aztec which is flavoured with spices such as cinnamon, cloves and chilli.
Hot chocolate at Hotel Villa Eden
Bike-friendly accommodation in Arabba ranges from plush sport and wellness hotels, to chalet style apartments. The local estate agency in Arabba Home Service Arabba offers a good range of self-catering apartments, many of which are situated slightly above the village (but within walking distance), on the bottom slopes of the Pordoi Pass. Great views are guaranteed. Go to http://www.hsarabba.it for more information on self-catering accommodation.
It’s worth a quick visit to the Dogma Lounge in the Hotel La Perla in Corvara, where famous Pinarello bikes are on show. The collection has previously included Bradley Wiggins’ and Chris Froome’s Tour de France winning bikes, as well as other bicycle treasures from past decades and the latest designs in the Pinarello range. It is free to visit.
Bradley Wiggins’ Tour Winning Bike – Dogma Lounge
The cable car at the top of the Pordoi takes you onto the Sass Pordoi, for superb mountain views. This gives you a different perspective of the mountains, compared to the views you enjoy on the bike. For those who have a head for heights, rock climbing, hiking via the Via Ferratas are another way to explore the mountains. We’ve never braved this activity ourselves, but we have good friends who love doing this.
The town of Alleghe is not too far away, with it’s beautiful lake and balconies so prettily adorned with flowers. This area is perfect for a stroll and a coffee if you choose to have a day off the bike.
The Lake at Alleghe
There are many historical places of interest, such as the aforementioned Castello d’Andraz and Tre Sassi Fort War Museum. There is also an open air war museum in the Lagazuoi Cinque Torri area, where you can learn about how the First World War was fought in this area. The Dolomites is an area steeped in history, much of it tragic.
We’ve visited this wonderful area five times now, always in July. The weather can be very hot in the valleys, around 30°C but it can feel cooler if staying in more elevated towns such as Arabba, which is situated at around 1600m. Mountain storms are part and parcel of a holiday in the mountains, but thankfully nowadays with the Internet and Wifi, it’s easier to keep in touch with the forecast. We have found the area reasonably quiet during July, but it’s likely to be much busier during August.
Mountain Stream on the way to Passo Fedaia
From a language perspective, when we first visited in 2006, we heard very little English being spoken, with the majority of visitors being from Austria or Germany. The area was in fact part of Austria, prior to the First World War, hence German is spoken as much as Italian, alongside the local dialect of Ladin. You will frequently see signs, detailing place names in the three different languages. However, in recent years we have seen an increase in English visitors, but an Italian or German Phrase book is highly recommended!