The prospect of 9 days cycling in the Dolomites, averaging over 6 hours in the saddle each day and pushing the pedals up more than 18,000 metres of some of the most challenging climbs in the world might not be everyone’s idea of fun. For me it was a bucket-list challenge and an opportunity that may never come again.
With my 65th birthday fast approaching, I decided it was now or never. Doing it with a bunch of regular cycling buddies would ensure the trip was both enjoyable and memorable. With all of them being much younger it also meant there was someone there to push me, literally, if it became necessary. Yes, it has happened at times in the past. It was also the perfect excuse to purchase a new bike!!!
Although it is difficult in Australia to truly prepare for riding the mountains of Europe, we did our best as a group in the preceding 3 months. Relatively short early morning rides before work combined with 150km+ weekend adventures added up to an average of 300km per week leading up to the big event. However, we were still well undercooked; perhaps medium rare but practised in running repairs!
There was excitement and trepidation as I few flew from London to Milan where we were to all meet up the following morning. The itinerary had been planned to perfection except that I landed at the wrong airport! My non-existent Italian and all the Euros in my wallet secured a car and driver to fix the problem. What was not repairing however was the beginning of a cold picked up in London. A sleepless night of continuous coughing did not bode well for the coming challenge. It was time to double down on my Nuzest Good Green Stuff!
Whilst the first few days were a struggle with the weather being cold and wet and me trying to shake what was by then a rather nasty chest infection, they were still enjoyable and satisfying; spectacular scenery, challenging climbs, fast descents and plenty of time to also enjoy the Italian Alpine village culture, food and wine.
Day 1 was described as a “warm-up and shake-out” to get the legs moving and help with jetlag. The gentle 90km circumnavigation of Lake di Iseo from our hotel at Paratico at an average of 32-38km per hour on the flat certainly woke us up. What was not expected was the impromptu diversionary climb up Vigolo Bivio Parzanica; a short 7km of continuous climbing at an average of 8%. Whilst longer and steeper than anything around Sydney, it proved to be the baby of the tour.
From there it was on to Bormeo where we stayed for 3 nights and enjoyed some of the regions challenging but spectacular climbs. Unfortunately, the famous Stelvio and Garvia were closed due to heavy snow and avalanches. One rider from the USA, not part of our group, decided to ignore the warning signs only to be medevac’d out by helicopter.
There was one climb we did manage however, which will be forever etched in all our memories; Mortirolo (Death Mountain!). 11.5km at an average of 11% and over 1800m of continuous climbing, this mountain has been described by many professionals as the most difficult of any tour. Although averaging 11%, many sections were 15%-20%. The climb was relentless and the near freezing conditions did not help. Nor did the demoralising fact that there were many riders seemingly ascending with ease; one was Alberto Contador, and another was a very grey older gent in his 70’s on an E-bike.
Getting to the top was one thing but surviving the tricky descent was another; one mistake and it was curtains; over the cliff you go. Thank God for disc brakes and definite justification for the new bike purchase.
After Bormeo we headed to Fiera, 5 hours’ drive away and our base for the next 4 nights. This was the heart of the tour; long climbs, steep descents, magnificent scenery and great weather to at last warm the bones. We encountered everything from the need to carry our bikes over rocks and debris where the road had been washed away by severe flooding to being held up for hours by flocks of sheep as local shepherds with the aid of their barking dogs moved stock down the mountain. One of the team was even attacked by a donkey who clearly did not like cyclists!
The climbs were long and tough but thoroughly worth it; the most memorable being the famous Passo Rollo; memorable for its length more than its difficulty. At 23 kilometres it was the longest climb many of us had ever done; but just one of two climbs that day for a total of 2800 metres.
This was also Giro d’Italia territory and we were privileged to watch the peloton accompanied by the cascade of cameramen on roaring motorcycles, police vehicles with sirens and horns, and an endless number of support vehicles with dozens of spare bikes precariously mounted on top. This diversion was also a great excuse to sample yet again a well needed shot of caffeine at a local village café.
Each evening of this tour was also an opportunity to sample local fare at the many small cafes and restaurants in the region. Venison was the common theme, and it came in every way possible from carpaccio to pasta topping and grilled steaks. For the vegans and vegetarians, mushrooms and tomatoes were dominant. You could tell they did not come from Woolworths or Coles. The flavours of locally grown produce were noticeably different and delicious; real nutrition for a change!
Indeed, food intake during the tour was important. Burning at least 6000 calories each day required a much higher energy intake than normal and recovery each night was critical. My own regime commenced every morning with a shake of or Nuzest Clean Lean Protein mixed with a serve (or two) of Good Green Stuff as well as a sturdy breakfast. During the ride I relied more on Clean Lean Protein bars for a balanced energy source but did resort to the odd burst from energy gels when the going was tough. At the end of the day of course another Clean lean Protein shake was routine for recovery. Our final day’s riding took us to our next hotel at Follina – Prosecco country. Although a relatively short 90km, it was a brutal start; straight up for 8 kilometres at an average of 9% to summit the Passo Cereda. This was followed by a colourful and enjoyable ride through small villages and rolling valley roads before our final climb of the tour to the top of Passo San Boldo. This pass is called the “100 days road” because it was built in World War I by prisoners of war, local elderly, women and children from nearby villages to transport much needed artillery, food and munitions. It consists of a series of tunnels and switchbacks unique in the world and which we were lucky enough to descend as part of the final 16 kilometres to Follina, the finishing line after 9 days straight in the mountains of Northern Italy – a truly magical part of the world.
And, no, there was no need for a push by anyone. #Poweredbynuzest proudly carried these old bones the whole way. The only question now is “what’s next?”
FOOTNOTE: The tour was organised by Daniel and Tara Brickell of Chameleon Bike Adventures (www.chameleonbikeadventures.com). Dan is an outstanding mechanic and ex pro rider who knows this part of Italy like the back of his hand. His wife Tara is an accomplished Ironman competitor and very strong cyclist. Together they led us through an amazing 9 days of some of the best cycling any of us had ever encountered. With all accommodation and meals organised, and a support vehicle on hand, the trip was casual and social with some serious cycling in between.