Dolomites and Alps, Day 4

A preview of the day's sights!

A preview of the day’s sights!

Short version: another four pass day, and extra smugness because I didn’t get covered in sheep shit!

Long version: one of the joys of being in Italy is the delicious food. One of the joys of bicycling is how fabulously tasty food tastes after a hard ride. One of the joys of cycling in Italy is… Well, you’ve figured it out, I’m sure.

Unfortunately, food was also one of the perils. I was burning calories at an unaccustomed rate, and my stomach was pretty fixated on GETTING THOSE CALORIES REPLACED NOW!!! So the gap between dinner (that usually lasted late into the evening) and breakfast felt amazingly long. And come breakfast, I was faced with a dilemma: eat a much larger breakfast than I was used to in order to calm my ravenous hunger and fuel up for the day’s ride, and then jump on my bike and potentially not feel so great; or, eat my usual small breakfast, be underfuelled, and then jump on my bike and potentially not feel so great.

Each day I decided to do the smart thing, and eat enough food at breakfast. But day 4 is when it caught up with me. For whatever reason, my breakfast refused to settle down in my stomach. And then we started biking up a mountain.

The schedule for the day was the Passo Giau, and the Passo Falzerego, with possibility for some extra-credit riding. One of my goals in my training was to arrive in good enough shape that I could handle all the riding, and even opt for some extra credit riding if I wanted to. This was my first chance–and my legs were tired (no surprise there), and if I couldn’t keep my breakfast down, I wasn’t going to be doing much riding at all.

The climb up the Giau started right away (to be fair, there were about two flat miles before we started uphill), and I managed to drop a lot of people from my front wheel fast. I was going backwards through the peleton, with leaden legs and a molten lead stomach.

On the plus side, it was a beautiful day, and a beautiful road. Except for the part where someone had spray-painted bad jokes on the road. (What do you call a deer without eyes? …a mile later… No ideer.) I was resigned to a pitiful crawl up the mountain side, swallowing my pride (except the idea of swallowing anything made me feel worse…)

And then, my stomach settled down, and my legs woke up. I felt fabulous! Next thing I knew, I was pedaling easily past some people that I had watched disappear off into the distance, exchanging a cheery remark as I went by, and then secretly wondering how they ended up so far behind me so quickly. Why didn’t they just come with?!?! It’s so easy to bicycle up a mountain!

The Giau ended up being this amazing experience where the further up the climb I got, the better I felt. My legs seemed to get less, not more tired, the air never felt like it was thinning out, and the switchbacks stretching out above me encouraged rather than oppressed me.

For the record, the Giau averages 10% grade for several miles, and tops out at 7,400 feet or so (our hotel was at 3,200)–it’s a hard climb. I had no business having as much fun on it as I did, or feeling like it got easier and easier as I went (it didn’t). But whatever delusions I was suffering, I’ll take it, because by the top I was in a great mood, and almost laughing at what child’s play it was to cycle up a mountain.

At the summit, there was the usual paradise of views (beautiful!!! seriously–no Photoshop harmed in the making of this?!?!), Gerardo (van with warm clothes in it! food! –what sort of silly person would have their stomach turn at the thought of food?!?), and a rifugio (warm! espresso!). So, pretty much all that is needed to be deliriously happy.

Proof that Ian and I made it up the Passo Giau!

Proof that Ian and I made it up the Passo Giau! That’s the rifugio in the background. I had a delicious espresso there.

At this point we had to commit to the original plan (descend, climb Passo Falzerego, and back down into Alleghe) or to the extra credit option (turn aside at Falzarego and descend into Corvara–where we had stopped at the bike gallery the day before–then up over Passo Campolongo, and then down into Alleghe). Why not wait to decide till we were at the Falzerego? Because we neded to let the hotel know how many people would be back for lunch, and how many wouldn’t. And keeping the people in the hotel kitchen happy with us was a cause I could get behind.

Since I was now feeling great, I signed up for the extra-credit option. After all, the day before, I had been enjoying how easy the Campolongo was, compared to other climbs we had done, and the descent from it into Alleghe was more fun than should be allowed, so why pass that opportunity up?

More Giau-ness

More Giau-ness

After another great descent, we started up the Falzerego, which was a laid back sort of ascent. The slope wasn’t that steep, there were even flattish sections, the landscape was open, allowing for admiration of the changing view as you gained altitude. It was also a fun ascent because Ian (usually one of the first, if not the first, up most of the climbs so far) declared he was starting his rest day a day early, and would ride up with me–at my glacially slow tempo, apparently… He then spent a lot of the ascent complaining that I was going too fast… At any rate, it was fun riding together, even if Ian can’t decide whether I bike too slow or too fast for his taste.

At Passo Falzerego

At Passo Falzerego

What I didn’t know is that from the Falzerego, we didn’t descend straight into Corvara, but instead continued up a negligible amount to the Passo Valparola. Though it wasn’t very far uphill, it was another thing called Passo, so (once we ascended the Campolongo) it would be the second four-pass day in a row. And though it wasn’t far, it was into a headwind (just so unfair when you’re going uphill). And then we descended into a headwind. And then we rode further into La Villa and Badia into a headwind.

By now I was a little sick of wind.

But then we stopped for lunch at a place whose chef was a cyclist and a friend of our guide Ricardo (another awesome part of the Cinghiale team, even though I haven’t mentioned him so far). Unfortunately, we were too late for lunch, and he had already left. So instead we “settled” for some snacks that the kitchen could throw together for us. In Italy, what that means is that they bring you out a luxurious spread of fresh veggies, salad, cheeses, meats, and breads (and of course, the ubiquitous olive oil and balsalmic vinegar), and as you’re gleefully devouring the food, apologize for not having anything better to feed you.

Have I mentioned how much I love Italy? And the food there?

From there we retraced a bit of our route, and then continued on into Corvara. Since we had turned around, the annoying headwind was now a tailwind. Wind is awesome!

Andy was riding behind me for part of this, and as we were pushing along, I start hearing a plaintive cry behind me “Are we there yet? This is uphill–who made me eat that big lunch?” I pointed out that this whole thing was his idea.

Once in Corvara (not that far from our lunch stop) Andy stopped the group, and pointed out a few different places we could go if we wished–a cafe for espresso, a chocolate shop, etc–and suggested taking some time to explore the town a little, and let lunch settle before setting off up the Campolongo. At this point, I was starting to hear the siren call of a shower, and being not in bicycle clothes, as were a couple others, so Ian, myself, and two other guys ended up continuing on instead of stopping.

We took it easy up the Campolongo, and again I enjoyed just how effortless it could be to bag a mountain pass. Then I got elected to lead the descent down, a couple of the others not being as sure of the way (one was the guy who wasn’t feeling well the day before, so he hadn’t ridden this way before).

This was the descent I had followed Andy down, and it was so fun to get to go down it again, knowing that I could go for it–great road surface, well-banked corners, all that one could desire. A couple times we went by large herds of sheep up on the slope of the hill next to us–one sheep kicked a branch down towards me right as I rode by, and I’m pretty sure it was with malicious intent…

Back at the hotel, and after a shower I joined a few other folks downstairs for a beer, relaxed, enjoyed the sense of accomplishment for the day, and waited for the rest of the group to come in. And then the day got even better.

As the people who had lingered in Corvara with Andy came in, their stunned looks foretold the tragic tale they would tell. The herds of sheep on the hill that we rode by? They were being herded on the road when the later group rode by (and through). And with sheep… Come sheep byproducts…

Apparently the road was covered with sheep excreta, and pretty soon, so were their bikes. I guess the stuff is messy. And slippery. All things that I wouldn’t know, because I didn’t have to ride through it. Nor did I have to spend a good amount of time washing it off of my bike. Or digging it out of my brakes and gears.

Not that those of us who missed the sheep shit were smug or anything.

It was an awesome day.

Final numbers on the day–61 miles, 8,700 feet elevation gain, 0 sheep turds ridden through.

day 4

day 4 profile

(Side note: it wasn’t until after this day’s ride that, looking at the map, I realized that the latter part of the descent into Alleghe from the Campolongo is the same road we climbed up on the the first day’s ride. Things look very different on the way up versus on the way down. And when you’re really jetlagged…)

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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.