Dolomites 2015, Day 3

Well, that was an unintendedly long cliffhanger from the Day 2 write-up–my job got a bit all-consuming. Wonderful, but all-consuming.

Anyway, when I left off over a month ago, I was preparing for Sella Ronda day, and hoping that I would fare better with it than I had the previous year.

The weather was much more auspicious–a decent temperature, and more importantly, no insane wind. We got to the Serrai di Sottoguda, the path through the narrow gorge that is now a park, where last year I thought to myself “sign me up for next year.” This time I was prepared, though all I can say is that the pictures don’t even come close to doing it justice.

Serrai di Sottoguda

I wasn’t the only one stopping for photos

Many sections of the Serrai are double digit gradients, but you don’t notice–you’re too busy gawking and exclaiming over the beauty of it.

It’s Italy–there are shrines everywhere. I really love that.

But, nothing lasts forever (even if some climbs feel like it), and we eventually emerged onto the main road to start the Fedaia climb proper (as opposed to all of the other climbing we had done to get there, which apparently didn’t count.)

To my initial delight, the wind was not blowing like mad! I was able to stay on my bike without fear of suddenly being blown to the other side of the road, or even blown right over! But as I rode, I was noticing “this part is really hard, I don’t remember it being this hard… Oh right, I was walking this section last year.”

So the improved weather was a mixed blessing. I did what I knew I was capable of, ride the whole climb, but boy was that an even harder climb than I thought it was!

At any rate, as difficult as it was, it was an improvement on the previous year when I thought I was in over my head and didn’t know, given the wind conditions, whether I’d make it through the day. My mental state this year was also improved by the fact that the pass wasn’t freezing cold–last year I thought I’d never be warm again.

See how happy and not-cold I was at the top of the Fedaia! Shorts and short sleeves!

After some snacks–including the Tuscan tomatoes–I was feeling pretty chipper and ready to go. And this time I made sure to actually look at the lake and glacier on my way down.

Lago di Fedaia

Getting arty with the Ghiacciaio della Marmolada

At this point, I don’t have tons to add about the ride from last year’s two part write up. This year, we had lunch partway up the second climb (Passo Sella), instead of partway up the third (Passo Gardegna), which changed the rhythm of the day a little. But the day is still a magical experience of an incredibly hard climb, and then everything getting progressively easier from there, until you think you’re pretty awesome at this bicycling uphill thing.

The view behind me is pretty spectacular, but the food is the other direction. Notice which way most people are facing…

I rode different parts alone or with people than last year, which made the same ride new. The comradery up a climb when you find someone of a similar pace can be really special–yet being alone to look around and wonder at the beauty that surrounds you while riding at your own whim is also its own delightful experience.

From Passo Sella

“The Road goes ever on and on…”

Sella Ronda day is really special–it holds so much of why I love this trip and love cycling: challenge, fun, beauty, food, freedom, accomplishment, fellowship–the List goes ever on and on…

60 miles, 8,150 feet

60 miles, 8,150 feet

 

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Dolomites and Alps, Day 3, Part 2

(When we left off, our heroine was relaxing in the sun partway up the Passo Gardegna after a challenging morning on the bike that saw her tempted to pack it in…)

I’ll admit, it was pretty nice for a while to have no more difficult physical exertion than having to stand up and walk over to the food table a remarkable number of times. And when I could keep my eyes open, the view was pretty great.

More lunch view on Sella Ronda day

More lunch view on Sella Ronda day

Eventually we hefted ourselves and our full bellies back onto our bicycles to finish the ascent of the Passo Gardegna. I almost feel it was cheating to count this as a pass–the descent from the Passo Sella didn’t go down very far, and the total ascent up the Gardegna was less than 1,000′, with lunch and then a flat section in the middle. Really, it was like climbing a couple Seattle-area hills with an extended siesta in between. But hey, it’s called “Passo” so it goes in the book as the 3rd pass of 4 on the day.

From the "Passo" Gardegna

From the “Passo” Gardegna

More Passo Gardegna

More Passo Gardegna

The descent took us into the town of Corvara, where we stopped in at a little Pinarello-brand bike gallery/museum attached to a hotel/bar/cafe. They had one of Bradley Wiggins’ yellow Pinarello’s from the year he won the Tour de France, and other such historic bicycles and items from throughout the years. One of the bikes was Miguel Indurain’s fantastic hour record aero track bike (from before the UCI outlawed such cool space-agey bikes…) Andy leaned in to get a closer look at the monster gearing on it, and joked “sure, I could turn that gear over, no problem… On a downhill…” Then, continuing the jest, he pretended to be not impressed by Indurain and his bike… In being too slow to get a picture of the former, I managed to get a photo of the latter:

Meh! Andy is not impressed!

Meh! Andy is not impressed!

After we had been there for a little bit, the proprietor realized who was there–not some schmuck cyclist named Andy, but THE ANDY HAMPSTEN!!! In shock and apology and awe and delight, he dropped to his knees at Andy’s feet, torn between begging forgiveness and uttering effusive praise!

I love Italians!

A little later, we were sitting in the bar area, enjoying espressos and such, when the proprietor came up again, and deeply and sincerely thanked Andy for stopping by. He expressed how much he had always appreciated Andy, that he was a great champion, a “campionissime di bicicletta e gentilezza”–a great bicyclist and a great person. Which is all true.

View from our stop in Corvara

View from our stop in Corvara

So to recap, since lunch, we had bicycled a negligible amount uphill, hung out at the Passo Gardegna for a bit (it would be a shame to go by a rifugio and *not* get espresso…), rolled ourselves downhill into Corvara, and hung out some more, consuming more espresso, and enjoying more sunshine and great views. The day was suddenly about as easy and laid back of a day as I’ve had on a bike in a long time.

But, the more astute readers may also remember that we had only done 3 of the 4 passes–still remaining was the Passo Campolongo. (Cue ominous music…)

But in the most satisfying anticlimax ever, the Passo Campolongo was mild both in terms of elevation gain, and in terms of slope. I thought it was the easiest of the day, and I was laughing at times with the delight of biking uphill and it feeling easy! I didn’t set any land speed records up the Campolongo, but I had a lot of fun reveling in the delight of cycling up it.

Soon enough, we were regrouping at the top, and then just had 17 miles left to Alleghe (and showers! and beer! and dinner!), over the course of which we would drop from about 6,200′ to 3,200′.

If you are unsure what that means, it means FUN!!!!!

Somehow, I ended up behind Andy as we descended, and this is when the day went from wonderful to I-must-be-dreaming deliriously amazing. Not only is he skilled beyond my ability to even understand how much better than me he is (I can only analogize by thinking about how my beginning dance students don’t even have the experience to know how beginning they are and how much more is involved with getting to a barely competent level of professional ability, much less an exceptional level) (seriously, the pro level of ability is way higher than you think it is. If you’re pretty fast on a bike, and wondering if you could maybe hang with the pro’s on a stage of the Tour or something, just stop. They’re faster and better than you.), he was on a road he’s ridden countless times.

(Really. They’re way better. It’s not just being faster–it’s things like riding along at a good clip, and reaching down to grab a branch off the road and toss it aside so that it doesn’t impede the people behind you. Or riding no-hands down a winding descent, doing airplane arms, as I heard he’s done.) (And I’ve asked around–no one has seen Andy sweat. Or breathe hard. Including when he whizzed past some of the fast guys, going uphill past them like they were standing still, when they were at their limit. And he’s on the record as saying he’s not near his level of fitness he had as a pro.) (So seriously, people on the internet bike forums who like to speculate from the couch about being as good as a pro if they just trained a bit more. Stop it.)

Anyway. As the road twisted its way around sharp hairpins, while sometimes simultaneously dropping precipitously down, Andy just flowed around the corners, smoothly, effortlessly, the picture of delight. I had to push myself a bit to keep up with his lollygagging his way down the mountain, but by just following his approaches to corners, trying to copy his body language, the descent became secure and full of ease for me too. (To an extent.)

I was going way faster than I could have gone on my own, yet felt like I was much more within my limits, taking on way less risk than I would have been (descending slower) on my own. I was essentially getting a private lesson on descending–from a winner of the Giro d’Italia!!!!–and felt like I was a better cyclist by the time I reached the bottom of the mountain.

As I’ve mentioned, I love descending, and am alarmed by descending. Getting to do such a fun descent, and feel that in the course of it, I became a safer, better descender, was almost too much awesomeness for one day to contain.

I finished the day feeling how I did at the start of the day–I’m ready to sign up for next year’s trip.

I also finished the day with more delicious food–are we detecting a theme here? The hotel’s restaurant was legitimately really good (Andy and Elaine reportedly have the hotel restaurant’s quality as their top criterion for picking tour hotels), but pretty much any food at all tastes amazing on days like we were doing. That we got to eat delicious, fresh, nutritive, flavorful, variety-filled food just made the constant “find more food” drumbeat in my brain all the more enjoyable of a quest.

At the end of the day, I had ridden about 60 miles (I forgot to turn my bike computer on until a few miles in, so the exact number is a mystery) and almost 8,900 feet of elevation gain. The only ride I’ve done with more elevation gain was 190 miles long…

day 3

Dolomites and Alps, Day 3, Part 1

Oh my… This day.

It will take more than one post to get through this day that felt like several days, several worlds.

Short version: up and down, literally and figuratively. Best of times, worst of times, best of times. So glad I didn’t wimp out on the ride like I really wanted to.

Long version: Day 3 was a really big day. We were doing the Sella Ronda, a four-pass circumnavigation of the Sella massif, a giant seat-like block of a mountain. The traditional route would be the Passo Pordoi, Passo Sella, Passo Gardegna, and Passo Campolongo. Instead of Pordoi, we started our loop with the Passo Fedaia, also known as the Marmolada, for the towering peak and glacier of the Marmolada looming over the pass. However you do it, you have 4 passes in an epic loop.

The beginning was innocuous enough, an easy warm up spin, gradually working our way upwards until we reached the most fabulous detour of the trip. Instead of staying on the main road all the way up the pass, we went on this old road that is now a park–the Riserva Naturale Serrai di Sottoguda–open only to hikers and bicyclists (and to a little “train” that drives people through).

Waiting for the little "train" to exit so we can enter the was-a-road-now-a-park

Waiting for the little “train” to exit so we can enter the was-a-road-now-a-park

The road/park wound its way through a narrow gorge–at times so narrow that the rock seemed to have been carved out to allow passage of the road, and nearly met above our heads. Crevices would open off to the side, revealing waterfalls, and each corner promised something wonderful around it. It was fabulous and breathtaking–and not only because we were going uphill. Just a few miles into the day’s ride, and I was thinking “I’m ready to sign up for next year’s trip.”

Eventually we had to rejoin the main road, and I tried not to be too disappointed about being back on a beautifully built road with occasional cars–it was only disappointing compared to where we had just been. And anyway, it was much more productive to spend my energy bicycling up the hill. Mountain. The Passo Fedaia is no joke–it is steep and tall.

I was just starting to enjoy my internal narrative of “I’m doing this, this is great” when I got high enough up that the surrounding hills no longer provided protection from the wind. Not only was the wind extremely strong, it was also gusty and unpredictable. You couldn’t just lean into it, because it would disappear, or suddenly buffet you from the opposite direction.

I felt that here was one of the places that my lack of experience on the bike really showed. Some of the people on the trip had been cycling for decades. Though I’m reasonably fit on the bike, I’ve only been bicycling for the last four years (excepting learning to ride as a kid). That’s a lot of decades that I don’t yet have in terms of bike handling experience and instincts.

I had never biked before in wind conditions like that. I’ve biked into pretty obnoxious headwinds that slowed my progress to a crawl, and dealt with swirly, gusting wind. But I had never experienced wind of this strength and degree of unpredictability. And frankly, it was scary.

After being nearly blown over a couple times, and then blown such that I was traveling perpendicularly to the road, and it was just luck that no cars or bicyclists were coming down the mountain, I decided that my pride didn’t need to get me hurt. So I got off the bike and started walking. It was steep enough that I was barely going any slower walking anyway.

I had pulled a bit ahead of one rider, and as I walked, he pulled past me. The wind seemed to be a bit better, so I remounted, and had pulled up with him again, commiserating about the wind, when a gust blew me right into him, and we did a slow motion topple into the guardrail. Sigh. After all that effort the previous day not to be that idiot who crashed out someone else, I was that idiot.

Luckily, our bikes were both fine, as were we, and he was unreasonably good humored about the whole thing, and we proceeded up the mountain. I went back to walking for a while though…

At the top, it was freezing (maybe not literally, but at 6,700 feet, it was cold!), and the wind was howling through the pass. Thank goodness for the ubiquitous rifugio at the top of the pass! This is such a civilized establishment! Gerardo had our food set up in an enclosed porch area, and we also went inside for some espresso–and some heat.

From here, there was discussion about what to do–push on, despite the conditions? Take a shortcut back? Get in the van?

One rider opted to take a “shortcut” over the Passo Pordoi back to Alleghe, and Elaine volunteered to accompany her. One rider who wasn’t feeling well got a ride back down in the van of another tour company. For a moment I couldn’t believe I had let that opportunity slip out of my hands. I was really nervous about descending in those wind conditions, and was pretty shattered from the physical and mental effort of the climb, and wasn’t sure I could get through the rest of the day. As happens on a challenging ride sometimes, I was having to spend some time in my dark place.

But I also didn’t want to wimp out–though there was no pressure, I let the peer pressure keep me from dropping out. I also figured that I didn’t know the area as well as Andy did, and if he wasn’t concerned about the conditions ahead, I shouldn’t be either. (Though given our comparative skill levels, he had much less to worry about than I potentially did…)

At any rate, I continued on with the reduced group. I was so focused on staying on my bike as we rode along the lake at the top of the pass, and then started to descend, that I completely forgot to look up at the Marmolada glacier. Also, no photos–I was too cold and demoralized to take photos for a while.

As we descended, the conditions quickly improved. It was still windy, but less so, and without the gusts that had so unnerved me. The descent did not go down nearly as far as the climb up had gone, so that meant that when we started ascending to the 7,200′ Passo Sella, we had much less climbing to do than we had to the shorter Passo Fedaia. We were in the trees for much of the ascent, so well sheltered, and though it was a hard climb, with steep sections, it seemed shockingly easy after the Fedaia.

I caught Andy and a few other people at the top who were about to descend, so got a couple layers back on as quickly as I could, and went down with them. Then we started up the Passo Gardegna. This was out in the open, and by now, the cold cloudy day had turned sunny, and beautiful.

Moreover, I only had to make it partway up the Gardegna, and then there was promise of Gerardo with lunch laid out for us. Before I even knew it, I was there. There was a great little parking area where our guardian angel had set up a beautiful array of food in a spot slightly sheltered from the wind. I ate, lazed in the sun with my eyes sometimes closed, relaxed, ate some more, admired the view, ate some more, then ate some more… You get the idea.

View from lunch, partway up the Passo Gardegna

View from lunch, partway up the Passo Gardegna

More lunch view. The van with the bike wheels on top is Gerardo's vehicle of magic and happiness.

More lunch view. The van with the bike wheels on top is Gerardo’s vehicle of magic and happiness. This is a good photo to click to embiggen. (I think.)

I felt a new person, and it seemed a new day. So that is where the next post will pick up.