The Dolomites are a cyclist’s playground – rugged peaks, legendary climbs and blessedly car-free roads. All you need is for the weather to be kind…

The bitter, verging on burnt, taste of a proper Italian espresso tingles on my tongue and I decide that I could quite happily stay here all day. As the dark liquid descends to my stomach and begins to thaw me from the inside out, I turn my attention to the hot chocolate that I’ve also ordered. This is even better, because the cup is big enough to cradle in my palms and warm fingers so stiff with cold that five minutes ago they were struggling to pull my brake levers
as we hurtled headlong towards hairpins. To be fair, a lack of braking ability wasn’t my only problem. I was shivering so badly on the descent that my arms were shaking almost uncontrollably and this in turn was being transmitted through the drops of the handlebars and threatening to wobble the front wheel out from under me.

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I take a sip of the sweet, thick hot chocolate and once more luxuriate in the warming shudder that spreads through my upper body. There’s not a bit of me or my clothing that isn’t soaked from the sleet we’ve just cycled through, but with the help of this haven of wooden benches and radiators I’m gradually starting to feel more human. Looking across the table, my ride mates, Phil and Jason, also seem to be emerging, slowly, from their hypothermic trances and we all crack smiles as plates of something toasted with melted cheese arrive. Comfort food. It’s at this point that photographer Paul puts down his camera and, looking quite earnestly for some sympathy, complains that as he got out of the car earlier (extricating himself momentarily from the Skoda’s heated seat and snugly climate-controlled interior) he stepped in a shallow puddle and has a slightly soggy sock.

In the beginning

The Dolomites are beautiful. Quite different to the Alps and not as high, but truly spectacular nonetheless. They are also riddled with great roads for cycling on, something that became evident as we pored over the map this morning at the hotel Melodia del Bosco. We had intended to set out on a long route soon after dawn (no one gets up earlier than her) but having driven 900 miles the previous day and then woken up to a thunderstorm rattling around the region’s rockfaces we decided to take a rain check. While setting up the bikes in the hotel’s convenient lock-up-cum-workshop the owner wandered over to chat to us and, after realising that it was just a matter of when, and not if, we went out, he fetched maps and set about helping us plot a route that would take in some, if not all of the climbs we had planned.

Eventually we settled on a course that would see us pedalling over a couple of warm-up climbs before heading up the mighty Passo Giau and descending to Cortina d’Ampezzo, which had been Stage 17’s finish in the 2012 Giro d’Italia. From Cortina the plan was then to press on over the Passo Tre Croci, past Lake Misurina, to the climb up to Tre Cime, a route that will feature
in the final throes of Stage 20 in the 2013 Giro.

By the numbers:

-1c at the top of Tre Cime

130 hairpins along the route

2,333 metres at highest point

11 number of hot drinks in first cafe

73kmh maximum speed reached

1 number of cyclists lost along route

Eventually the clouds seemed to grow a little less angry and the rain a little more intermittent, so we set off feeling rather under-dressed for the weather. The advantage of staying in Badia, rather than the larger Corvara where we’re heading, is that you get a bit of a leg stretch before any proper climbing starts, giving calves and glutes time to acclimatise. It wasn’t long before the first hairpins of the day began, however, and we found ourselves ascending under the wires of silent ski lifts, their empty chairs swaying overhead. The initial switchbacks of the Passo di Campolongo were actually surprisingly compact, weaving dizzyingly back and forth with barely a straight separating each corner, but once the initial scramble for altitude was over, the road eased to a lovely mellow meander towards the neighbouring valley.

It’s hard to remember precisely when the weather turned malevolent again, but it was about the same time that I began to recognise the road from a drive I’d done the year before in my other job as a scribbler for evo magazine (yes, as it happens, it was in a Ferrari – an FF, since you ask – and yes I am aware I’m a lucky so-and-so!) We had lovely weather that day but this time we were starting to long for thicker gloves and at the very least some knee warmers and overshoes. Then the descent to Arabba began.

With the added windchill from descending, we found ourselves in a horrid dilemma: slow down and we lengthened the time spent in the cold. Speed up, though, and the cold increased exponentially to the point where it seemed to be freezing the very marrow in your bones. Oh, and there was also the handlebar wobble to worry about. Eventually we got to Arabba and stumbled with a clattering of cleats and chattering of teeth into the Caffè Pasticceria Genziana.

Which is where we are now, enjoying a second round of hot chocolate and comforting Paul and his puddled plimsoll.

Back on the road

The elephant in the room, sitting at the table next door, being ignored by all of us, is that fact that we’ve got to get back on the bikes at some point. We can’t come all this way to Italy, traverse one mild col and hope to get a story out of it. At most I reckon I can squeeze about a thousand words and that’s probably pushing it (as I’m sure you’ll agree). Phil and Jason are both triathletes – Phil’s a national and world champion, riding for Team Corley Cycles, but he’d never tell you, and Jason’s got a 21min 10-mile TT to his name – so I try to convince them that they should be used to getting on the bike soaking wet and it’s really only me that’s suffering (and Paul, obviously). They don’t buy my theory, but the discovery of a hand drier in the lavatory lifts spirits as we take turns to trudge to the back of the café for a blissful blast of hot air.

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When the rain eases, we pay up, collect our various garments from the radiators and splash off through the town. It’s actually stopped raining entirely as we turn left onto the SR48 and head along the Col di Lana, a road that turns out to have little elevation change but is balanced precipitously high up on the steep side of a valley, giving wonderful views to our right. After the rain there’s also a wonderful freshness to the mountain air, no doubt helped by the proliferation of pines lining the valley sides, and between the dark blanket of evergreens is a swathe of baize-like grass with a handful of small chocolate box chalets dotted across it. With legs spinning easily and mercifully little traffic, it’s all very pleasant.

We make a left turn in Pieve, heading up a narrow and extremely steep little climb for a few hundred metres, but we’re brought up short by a dirt track and piles of telegraph poles freshly hewn from the wild. Clearly something’s not right so we head back down to our previous slice of wider, flatter Italian black top and continue on our way, with rock faces now looming large to our left and small onion-topped church spires signalling the arrival of villages.

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We’re looking out for the SR203, which we eventually find the junction for on a hairpin bend, confusingly with the signs to Cortina pointing the other way. This leads gently downhill through trees, but there are still stunning views over vast green valleys. There’s a dramatic Tolkeinesque bridge spanning a gulley and then, just a little further on, the road splits again, this time the tarmac tilting slightly upwards as we begin the Col de Santa Lucia. To be honest, although I click down a couple of gears, enjoying that lovely tight, positive mechanical clunk of new Campag, it’s not a very steep incline and there’s still no need to slip out of the big ring as we climb at a decent pace.

The cloud has been gradually turning wispier and even the white fluff that now clings to the highest peaks is occasionally parting. As we round a big left hand bend with a balcony view over the Tyrol, Paul’s voice inevitably crackles over the radio and asks if we can stop and do some photos. Incredibly it’s now turning out to be a nice day so we shed our gossamer thin rain jackets and, as we know that we’ll have to do a few runs back and forth, we decide to have a sprint competition, with the loser paying a forfeit that will involve the half can of Veet hair removal cream that’s somewhere in the Skoda.

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As competitions go, it doesn’t last long as Jason’s rear derailleur snaps on the first run. Me and Phil are delighted, although obviously we show great concern once we have established it’s not some dastardly ruse to avoid baldness. He’s done a good job of it too, and it’s immediately obvious that as our group has the collective mechanical nous of a clumsy sea bass, he will be playing the role of directeur sportif from the comfort of the Skoda for the rest of the day, which is a shame, as the sun’s finally come out.

After the derailleur drama, Phil and I do a few more sprints and couple of runs through a wonderful open-sided tunnel for the benefit of Paul’s camera before continuing the relatively short distance to the bottom of the day’s main event: the Passo Giau. The Giau is typical of climbs in the area – relatively short for a mountain ascent at 9.9km, but also possessing a steeper average gradient than its French cousins of 9.3%. It might only be classed as a cat 1 rather than hors category climb, but with sections at 14% it’s a brute nonetheless. Our sprinting antics might have been a little hasty.

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With the sun now beating down and the Giau wasting no time on pleasantries, our final superfluous layers, including Phil’s hallucinogenic Zebra arm warmers, are soon discarded as we begin rounding one switchback after another. It’s amazing how quickly a bit of effort and a quickened heart rate can have you sweating and looking longingly at crystal clear mountain streams, when just a couple of hours ago we were colder than an Armstrong stare. The trees soon thin and as we rise out of our saddles and rock the handlebars around the hairpins, we begin to glimpse the distinctive Dolomite peak at the top of the pass. The ‘Pale Mountains’, as they were known until the 19th century, don’t quite have the romance of a classic snowy Alpine point, but our current goal – a great slab of grey, rising prominently like a rocky split tin loaf – is no less impressive.

As the trees and air thin, so the beauty of the climb blossoms around us, the road snaking through the open pastures. The writing on the road increases too – we are following in the tyre tracks of Basso, Scarponi, Rodriguez and Hesjedal. Back in the 2012 Giro there was pretty much status quo when they climbed the Passo Giau, a select group of GC contenders all watching each other as they took turns to set a fearsome pace and just occasionally put in little digs to test each other. It was extraordinary watching the contrast between the implacable Basso, seated, tapping out a rhythm, and the tall gangly frame of eventual winner Hesjedal.

There’s contrast today too, between the irritating ease with which Phil seems to be dancing through the upper meadows and my heavy-legged grinding, head down, respiratory system straining like a Hoover with its bag full. Just to add that authentic race-day touch, Jason is getting into his new role of DS and is kindly shouting ‘encouragement’ over the radio…

Even through my lactic fog, however, I know that since we left the trees the temperature has dropped markedly and, when I wrench my eyes away from doggedly inspecting my Scuro’s headset cap, I can see clouds are rolling back in around us. The upside is that the mist brings with it a dampness that’s wonderfully cooling on tired leg muscles and helps me through the last few corners. At the summit there is a curious bicycle-shaped weather vane that Phil and I are just admiring when an enormous clap of thunder rolls around the mountains. Sleet attacks us once more, stinging bare arms and prompting
a hurried donning of jackets. The climate here really has got a sense of humour – making us climb in heat and then descend through the cold is not the way round anyone would choose.

Whatever the weather

Plunging down from the top of the Giau to Cortina is great fun, despite the weather. The roads are slippery but at least they’re consistently so, and as long as you brake in a straight(ish) line and don’t ask too much of the front tyre it’s possible to plummet fairly rapidly. Just like on the other side, the corners become more frequent when we reach the trees and I seem to be permanently leaning the bike one way then the other, straining to look as far through the corners as possible. There is absolutely no traffic around today, so the only thing to avoid is the spray from the wheel in front when following Phil.

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A short straight opens out ahead and I get up out of the saddle to crank over a few revolutions on the pedals, but my goose-pimpled legs have barely turned more than a couple of times when agonising spasms of cramp twitch up through my quads. The same thing befell Scarponi in almost exactly the same spot in the Giro while chasing the flying ex-mountain biker Hesjedal, and I try to slap the tension out of my legs like he did. But the cold seems to have got a vice-like grip on my contracted muscles and there’s nothing I can do but stop. Phil kindly waits and eventually the Skoda catches us up so I can attack a gel that Jason hands me through the window.

A couple of minutes later I gingerly clip back in and we set off again for Cortina d’Ampezzo. It’s a long descent, though, and Phil is now suffering from chills almost as chronic as this morning’s so as we turn right, back onto the SR48, and begin to see signs of habitation we start looking for shelter once more – and preferably somewhere with coffee and hot chocolate. We find it in the form of a bar under the hotel Beppe Sello and traipse in, soaked to the skin and once again chilled to the core by freezing rain.

As the warmth of the hospitality gradually starts to restore colour to our cheeks, I notice the maglia rosa hanging on the wall opposite and wander over to have a look. I’m just inspecting the signature – Ivan Basso from his win in 2010 – when the owner of the hotel emerges from behind the bar, takes the jersey off the wall and instructs me, with a mixture of Italian and gesturing, to put it on. I don’t really want to (for the reasons that Frank Strack detailed so succinctly in issue six – to wear the jersey you must have won the race) but I don’t seem to have a choice. However, as the pink fabric slides over my head I decide that it is nice just to put on a dry piece of clothing, and savouring the extra shred of warmth certainly makes it easier to smile for Paul while he takes a photo.

After the jersey has been restored to the wall, a discussion breaks out about what to do next. A brief inspection of the Garmins suggests that we’ve covered a fairly paltry 70km, but frankly neither Phil nor I have any desire to mount a third attempt at cryogenically preserving our extremities. It seems a bit pathetic but, with two more rides looming in the next two days, discretion seems the better part and all that.

Decision made, we head out to strap the bikes to the back of the Skoda as the rain lashes down, and then we set off to at least drive the final bit of the route and see what we’re missing. It turns out to be mostly uphill. The Passo Tre Croci is not picturesque or long, but it doesn’t half ramp up steeply as it leaves Cortina and it will certainly test the legs of Wiggins et al this year. There is then the briefest of respites as you turn left towards Lake Misurina, after which the dénouement of the ride appears to the right
in the form of a dead-end toll road.

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The Tre Cime di Lavaredo is the name of both the road and the trio of rocky pillars that stands guard at the top of this brutal finishing climb. With its final 4km averaging an excruciating 12%, it is truly fearsome. The gradient would have been punishing enough had we cycled up – and I’m cursing that the unseasonal weather has prevented us, because in other circumstances
I would have liked to have ridden up because it’s very beautiful – but to add to the misery we would have been battling our way through snow. Much as I admire Andy Hampsten for fighting over the Gavia in 1988 in similar conditions, I have no particular desire to recreate the scene.

We get out at the top, and although we don’t know it at the time, we’re shivering in almost the exact spot where the 2013 winner of the Giro will be decided. It’s too cold to hang around, though, and there’s the famous Rifugio Auronzo nearby – surely one more hot chocolate for the road wouldn’t hurt…?

How we got there

How to get there 

Cyclist caught a Stena Line (www.stenaline.co.uk) ferry from Dover to Calais and drove out to the Dolomites – but it’s a very long journey! If you want to fly your best bet is to get an EasyJet flight to Innsbruck across the border in Austria. From there it’s less than a two-hour drive to Alta Badia, where we stayed.

Accommodation

We stayed in the excellent three-star Melodia del Bosc (www.melodiadelbosco.it), which caters specifically for cyclists. As well as the bike store and workshop they can give you map and GPS data of specific routes. They also offer a laundry service for cycling gear (just in case you are unlucky enough to get weather like we had).

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