by Chris Leadbeater, The Telegraph, May 31, 2017
I’m a bit early. Not, admittedly, in terms of the morning – there is still time for a cappuccino on the terrace of Hotel Melodia del Bosco. Below, the Alta Badia valley flirts with the sunlight; above, the hard ridge of Mount Santa Croce forces itself on the skyline.
But I am definitely ahead of schedule in terms of cycling. Klaus Irsara checks the handle of the door to the ski room as we walk by. It is locked, but the symbolism of the gesture is not lost on either of us. “We won’t be using that for a few months,” he says, grinning – and leads me to the cycle garage at the rear of the property, with its space for 60 bikes, and its various spanners and maintenance tools. “Now,” he smiles, “it’s time for summer.”
It isn’t, really. Not quite. Outside, there is still snow on the brows of the loftier peaks, and a mild chill persists on the air. But if I want to take on the more unforgiving slopes of the Dolomites in the weather conditions experienced by the professionals of the Giro d’Italia, then the moment is now. Italy’s most eulogised two-wheeled sporting event is the dawn chorus of Europe’s major cycle races, embarking on its three weeks of struggle and strategy in May, before the country’s pistes have wholly shed their winter coats. While it may not have the cachet of its celebrated counterpart the Tour de France, it can arguably beat it for beauty of context, slipping across frosted vistas in the fifth month of the calendar where its Gallic sibling has to endure the cloying heat of Provence in July.
This year is an ideal one in which to seek its tyre tracks – 2017's race was the 100th Giro d’Italia. It first sallied forth in 1909 (six years after the initial Tour de France), and has pedalled tirelessly along rocky roads, rural lanes and Roman avenues ever since. Only the matter of two world wars has interrupted its progress – it was suspended from 1915 to 1918, and 1941 to 1945 – which explains why its three-figure milestone has arrived 108 years after it began. Its latest incarnation was a gripping affair too, with the leader’s pink jersey changing hands eight times over 21 stages.
It finished in Milan last weekend – but endured one of its most attritional days on stage 18 (May 25) – an 85-mile grind between the South Tyrolean villages of Moena and St Ulrich whose relative shortness belied its difficulty. This gruelling dash took on five Dolomite passes, three of them – the Passo Valparola, the Passo Pordoi, the Passo Gardena – key parts of the gradients and glories of Alta Badia. Clipping into my pedals in the central village of Corvara, I am entranced by the picturesque qualities of a Tyrolean valley which braids the area’s historical and cultural strands into something special.
The sign above Alta Badia’s door reads “Italy”, but the prevailing architecture – heavy-eaved chalets, slanting roofs and sturdy timber – sings of its Austro-Germanic past. Even the language spoken in this perfect pocket of the Dolomites is a merging of influences – Ladin takes a little from Italian and a syllable or two from German, but is its own master, most closely related to the Romansh tongue spoken in Switzerland.
This all adds up to an ethereal at-altitude enclave, some two hours and 110 miles north of Venice – where my only certainty is that the tarmac goes upwards.
Specifically, today, it will go upwards in the fierce form of the Sellaronda – a four-headed Cerberus of climbing that will demand I cycle a quartet of passes. Two of them are the aforementioned Pordoi (which hits a top level of 2,239m) and Gardena (2,121m) – which are fused into a circular loop by the Passo Campolongo (1,875m) and the Passo Sella (2,244m). Together, they are the heartbeat of Alta Badia. The Sellaronda can be tackled in winter as a downhill ski course, and in summer on a mountain bike, plunging down the same terrain. But I am planning to attempt it in its third, and surely most tiring version. Via road bike – 34 miles of effort and 1,800m of vertical ascent. I must be insane.
With Klaus alongside, I set off from Corvara to ride the route clockwise. Within five minutes my internal monologue is asking – “why I am doing this?” I have to remind myself – that cycling these roads is a rare opportunity to trace sporting greatness. The public cannot score a goal at Wembley, tumble over the try-line at Twickenham or pot a black at the Crucible. But you can, if you put muscle and mind to it, push yourself along the very asphalt that has underpinned Giro triumphs for Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx, Miguel Indurain, Gilberto Simoni, Vincenzo Nibali and 2017 champion Tom Dumoulin.
“I always say the roads here are not so steep,” comments Klaus – a man born amid these mountains, who has run his hotel as a dedicated summer haven for cyclists since 2010 – as we inch up the Campolongo. “But if you do not live here,” he adds with a laugh, “then it is always steep.” I try to summon a gurgle of similar amusement, and fail. And yet, as my legs adjust to the burden, and I locate a rhythm, the pass extends a cautious welcome – and I find I have time to admire my surroundings. Ski lifts, snoozing in shoulder-season indolence, drape their cables across the firmament. Golf Club Alta Badia, suddenly there at the kerbside, strikes a note of incongruity in its bunkers and fairways. A marmot – that over-sized squirrel of the Alps – scampers up a bank. Before I know it, we are at the top. Then we are dropping again, jettisonning our hard-won height with rapid extravagance – into the village of Arabba, with its lovely pale church. And then we rise once more, the Pordoi probing my fortitude as the Sellaronda’s longest climb (going clockwise). Near the peak, my calves are aching, but the appearance of the snowline gives a mental boost. I am nearly there. My first reward at the summit is a monument which emphasises what I have achieved – Simoni’s bike from his 2003 Giro victory enthroned on a chunk of Dolomite limestone, above a plaque which names the first rider to crest the Pordoi every year it has featured in the race (and each occasion when it was the Giro’s highest point). My second is a big bowl of spaghetti bolognese and a thick slab of apple strudel, wolfed down at the adjacent Hotel Ristorante Savoia, another Germanic-Italian collision that helps me refuel.
None of this is as tough as it sounds. Indeed, with decent fitness, anyone can do it – and many do. Aside from the career cyclists of the Giro, these passes are also scaled annually by the hugely competitive amateurs of the Maratona race (July 2; maratona.it) – and the plodders of the Dolomites Bike Day (slated for June 18; dolomitesbikeday.it) and the Sellaronda Bike Day (June 25; sellarondabikeday.com). The latter two, free to enter and open to all who want to ride without the pressure of the clock, on closed highways, are part of Alta Badia’s ever keener embrace of cycling. There are guided bike days too (until July 16 this year) – and e-bikes can also be hired by those who doubt their own resilience.
Some might say that such motorised devices are cheating; others that they are common sense. Battling, post-lunch, with the snake-coil curves which defines the Passo Sella, I am starting to side with the second opinion – although this time, my prize, as the last arc unravels, is a feast of visual magnificence. “The Sella is my favourite of the four passes,” Klaus says, with a happy sigh. It is easy to see why. In the distance, the Marmolada, the tallest mountain in the Dolomites, rears to 3,343m, wearing a crown of snow in regal defiance of spring. Below, the village of Canazei twinkles in its narrow valley. Behind, Sassolungo, a mighty coxcomb of rock, answers the Marmolada with 3,181m of mimicry.
With such inspiration in my memory banks, the Passo Gardena is a comparative doddle – a cheery wave from a pair of children heading home to the Hotel Chalet Gerard, skipping up the angle like goats in smart school shoes; three more marmots watching me curiously from under a sign which tells drivers to “Respect” their presence; a meandering descent through the hamlet of Colfosco, and back into Corvara, that feels like a tickertape parade.
I drift into the sleep of a thousand men, awake refreshed, and decide that, astonishingly, I want to do more. The Passo Valparola (2192m) awaits just beyond the hotel – and the temptation is too much, even if my legs protest. Up through the town of San Cassiano, and tiny Armentarola, the snow still clotted on the pass’s upper reaches, its broad corners luxuriating in their setting, wrapped in dunes of white, sunshine dancing on the powder. The final turns are painful, but I put aside any complaints once I arrive on the rooftop. There, positioned above a sharp drop, is a totem of just how literally the First World War intruded on the Giro d’Italia. The Forte Tre Sassi was built by Austrian forces between 1897 and 1901 (in a period when the border was further south than in the present day) – and was smashed by Italian bombs in 1915. Reconstructed as a museum in 2003, it pays tribute to campaigns waged amid ice and rain. I descend back into the valley reminded that if battle can be fought in these elevated places, then cycling them is simplicity itself.
The simplest way to Alta Badia is to fly to Venice Marco Polo, which is served by British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com ) from Heathrow, Gatwick and London City, and by easyJet (0330 365 5000; easyjet.com ) from Bristol, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Luton and Manchester. Hire cars for the onward drive into the Dolomites are readily available here. You could also fly into Innsbruck, in Austria (BA from Heathrow; easyJet from Gatwick).
Hotel Melodia del Bosco (0039 0471 839 620; melodiadelbosco.it ), in Badia, offers a range of stay-and-cycle packages – such as a seven-night “Dolomites Road Bike Week” which includes half-board accommodation and four guided rides. From €565 per person. Three-night “Road Bike Short Stays” cost from €201 per person (half board).
Bike Top Badia, in Badia (0039 0471 839 685; skitop.it ), hires out road bikes for €41 a day (€149 for four days), and e-bikes for €49 a day (€170 for four days).
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