After several years of telling PEZ-Fans about Thomson Bike Tours’ trips chasing the big rides and races in Europe, it was time to experience one for myself. My arrival to cover the final week of the 2011 Giro coincided perfectly with their Giro KOM trip, and its promise of several days of climbing some big climbs.
You’ve probably seen the stories here before, and if you’re like me, have been salivating over the thought of doing some of the big rides that Thomson has become known for. As tour operators go, they’re unabashedly geared to the advanced rider, and Peter Thomson has prided himself on offering trips that focus on big rides in the high mountains, over lots of days – the kind that appeal to people who want to do a LOT of riding when they visit Europe.
The trips themselves are the destinations – you sign up to go to Europe and ride your bike. Secretly I wondered if I’d have the fitness to keep up, especially after my slower than usual start to the year, but as trip day drew near and my fitness was still far off, I resigned myself to settling in for some quality base miles climbing the high peaks of this year’s Giro, and enjoying the scenery of some roads I’d yet to travel.
This year’s GIRO KOM trip spanned 10 days (9 nights) and 8 full days of riding – it was just one of 5 KOM specific trips Thomson offers in 2011 (and that doesn’t include his Trans-Pyrenees, Trans-Alps, Trans-Swiss, and Trans-Dolomites trips). With this Giro one of the most mountainous in years, it only made sense to follow the RCS’ lead and make the most of both the Dolomite and Alps stages of the final week. Hilights of the trip included seeing 3 Giro stages live and riding 20 cols, several of which featured in the race – the Zoncolan, Giau, Fedaia, Finestre – and several which Giro fans will know from previous editions – San Pellegrino, Tre Croce, Pordoi, Sella, Gardena.
My last foray into the Dolomites was in 2007, when it rained every day I was there, but I was counting the days from early November when Peter announced his itinerary, and looking forward to knocking off a few more passes on my personal “been there, rode that” list.
Trust the signs – they rarely steer you wrong in Italy.
While my own duties to chase the race and a lost day due to United’s shoddy baggage transfers allowed for only a few days with Thomson, I was keen to get on with the riding even if most of it would be uphill on legs not quite ready.
I hooked up with the group in the northern Dolomite town of Auronzo di Cadore – their base for a couple of nights, and neatly situated between rides for the first couple of days. Reducing car transfer times while maximizing on-bike time is a big deal for Thomson, nobody wants to waste valuable holiday time stuck in a car – and after my cross country blast from Milan to Venice to retrieve my luggage – I could not have agreed more.
The beauty of the Dolomites is something you gotta see in person. Sure, you’ve seen the pics of the unique, rugged and spectacular mountain ranges in many a story here on PEZ, but seeing them with your own eyes is a whole different level, something I wholly endorse. Turning north from Venice, the landscape changes dramatically, the air turns to the kind they write deodorant jingles about, and the abrupt peaks of the Dolomites strike awe, and more than a little fear knowing the steep roads that lay ahead.
All questions are answered at the nightly riders’ meeting before dinner.
I pulled into the hotel just in time to coax a much needed negroni from the bell-hop cum barman, and join the tail end of Thomson’s nightly pre-ride meeting. Peter was at the front of a packed room of 30 guests, reviewing the next day’s ride map on a big screen (who says Powerpoint doesn’t have a place on your vacation?) This was the first time I’d seen a ride plan presented with this kind of detail, which included a route map, climb profiles, altitude distance and grade data, locations of lunch and rest stops, the all important race viewing tent for the day’s stage, and his own knowledge about the ride. I was impressed, and could see the group was too. I could also see that by removing some of the ‘unknowns’, Peter’s preparedness really allowed guests more time to relax and enjoy the holiday – and the riding. Nice touch.
The pre-Tour package I received via email contained more detailed ride info than I could have sourced myself.
This being my first impression of the company in action, I also noted how much laughing and joking filled the room. At 30 guests, this was the largest group I’d travelled with, and I’ve seen tour leaders lose it with much smaller groups, but Peter’s laid back personality, and genuine enjoyment of what he does set the perfect tone for everyone to make the most of what for many was the trip of a lifetime. So thorough was his prep, that questions were few, and quickly led to “when do we eat?” – another good sign.
In fact the prep was started a few weeks ago – when I received Peter’s detailed trip itinerary emailed to all guests shortly before the trip begins. At first I balked at the size of the attachments that threatened to clog my email account, but that was easily forgotten when I started pouring through pages of ride maps, detailed cue sheets, climb elevation profiles, pre-trip preparation info, details on how and where they’d see the racing so even the most clueless could stay on course, plus detailed maps for each of the 9 daily rides.
A lot of info – the most I’d seen provided by any Tour company I’ve travelled with – but again, all stuff that got me even more pumped to join this tour, and confirmed that I’d be in good hands on this well organized adventure.
Onto The Ride!
This trip’s day 4 ride was a 70km circuit running counterclockwise from our second base in Alleghe to take in the 1601 meter Passo Duran & 1773 meter Passo Staulanza – two climbs I’d yet to ride but had heard good things about. This area of the Dolomites is riddled with amazing climbs and ride routes – many made famous by the Giro, and many more not.
Morning breaks from my room at the Sporthotel Europa in Alleghe.
When I opened the obligatory blackout shutters (those Euros do know how to keep a room dark at night), I was greeted with a tranquil view of a shadow shrouded lake, just waiting for the sun to rise over the local peaks – perfect conditions for the day ahead.
With an established reputation for lots of riding on their tours, Thomson also gets that the most important meal of the day is the first one. I arrived to an already bright and buzzing breakfast room ready to load up on another certifiably hearty breakfast with all the pre-req’d energy you’d want – whole grain cereals, fruits, baked goods (I can’t get enough of those chocolate stuffed Euro-croissants), cheeses and sliced cold cuts, plus some hot dishes like frittatas, and more. Being Italy, of course they served up the best coffee you’ll have anywhere.
Guests can save the hassles of travelling with their own bikes by renting one of the new Orbeas Peter has in his fleet.
Daily rides usually start between 8:00 – 9:00 AM, depending on the route, but always laid out at the previous evening’s group meeting. Another nice touch I noted was that Thomson’s tech staff have guests’ bikes neatly wiped down from yesterday, and lined up in pro-looking orderly fashion. That was a nice touch that was appreciated by all, and again something I’d not seen before on a tour.
Peter not only leads by example (ie: rides at the front), he also shoots helmet-cam video along the way.
Riders on Peter’s tours are usually sorted into groups based on fitness and ability, and the 30 guests on this trip were split into A, B, & C groups, with a Thomson Tours staff rider and a support van assigned to each group, I’d only been with the group for a day, I’d yet to meet everyone, so with several hours on the bike ahead, I figured I’d start with the A’s, then drop back to the following groups as the ride went on, allowing a chance to meet and ride with a bunch more of the guests.
Peter is an established rider – there’s no question he loves to ride his bike (and enviably started a business that allows him to do it more than should be legal for a ‘working man’), and he often leads the fast A group. Lucky for me, (and my lack of fitness) that the first 19km of today’s route was a gentle descent through one of the uncountable valleys of the region. The air was cool, the wind at our backs, and we were going downhill – a perfect start to what would be for me my biggest climbing day in over a year.
This also set a pace that was beyond chit chat levels, but I figured we’d have time to get acquainted once the climb of the Duran started. Wrong I was – as a couple of guys from the US East Coast hit the first ramp and accelerated – keen to test their legs on climbs you just can’t find back home – and who could blame ‘em. I’d have gone with them if I could have. Instead I settled into a more sensible tempo, looking forward to snapping photos for this story and waiting for the B’s to catch up.
Get used to seeing monuments to fallen warriors in almost every town.
The Passo Duran – 12.5 km long, gains 992 meters, and throws in five ramps above 10% – the steepest being the last at 13.5% coming around the 9km mark. On paper – not looking too bad, in reality – after my ride over the Passo Giau yesterday… a formidable foe.
I quickly settled into my lowest gear, which I’d later discover wasn’t low enough… and enjoyed the ride. The fast ride down the valley from Alleghe runs from one quaint Italian mountain village to the next, and the local population was already up and about their daily business. After a quick left turn in Agordo, it’s just a few hundred meters until the bustle is left behind, and ahead lay and hour’s worth of alpine meadows, jutting peaks, and a blue sky dotted with the odd white cloud. The road surface is great, and traffic is almost nil – and unlike other areas of the Dolomites, those roaring packs of motos were thankfully absent.
This climb was a bit tougher than I expected, but that was easily over-ruled by the beauty of the area. The local peaks are visible right from the start, but the views get better with each km climbed. It seemed fitting that the toughest ramp opened onto a horseshoe-shaped plateau that offered some much needed respite, and signaled the summit was not far off – and the welcome stopping point for snacks and water from the Thomson support van.
I should also mention that Thomson takes pride in his race-viewing setups, which include large tents, food, flat screen tvs, and locations staked out several nights in advance by staff members to secure the best spot near the top of a key climb, set-up the tents, and camp there overnight – often in very cold weather.
At 1605 meters, The Passo Duran isn’t nearly the highest peak in the area, but it does get you high enough to see the highest peaks. From the summit, it’s nothing but rugged Dolomite splendor in every direction. Those who’ve been here know the mountains are not like anywhere else, and if you’ve never been – you’ll only truly get it when you arrive and see for yourself. Don’t ask me to describe this place with any accuracy – you just gotta see it for yourself.
Peter loves to ride, and can usually be found leading the fast group.
As riders refuelled at the top, Peter offered some good local knowledge of the descent ahead (another benefit of having a rider leader who knows the area well). He mentioned that the bottom of the descent was quite technical, and the roads in rough shape, so caution was recommended. He also mentioned I’d know the place he was talking about when I saw the town signs for “Dont”. A fine reminder, as the rough road into Dont was indeed littered with frost heaves, errantly parked cars and blind driveways.
There’s nothing I like better on any ride than a well earned coffee stop, and since the refuge at the top of the Passo Duran was closed (apparently it’s much more popular in the winter), I took the opp to pop into this local bar at the exact bottom of the descent.
Here’s where I stopped for coffee in Dont – the road to Passo Duran can be seen just behind it.
Today was a rest day of the Giro, and as I passed a Radioshack rider going the opposite direction up the Duran, I wondered if he’d enjoyed a cup in the same bar…
My invite to join for a quick shot of espresso was unheeded by the other riders… keeners I thought who’d really yet to settle into the correct pace for these types of Italian rides. Their loss. But I was now left to climb the Passo Staulanza as a solo effort, which actually worked out well since I was under no pressure to keep the pace, and took some extra time to shoot more pics as I plodded my way to the top. I also knew the slower C group was still coming along behind, so I wasn’t really alone.
This building first caught my eye because of the faded and rustic paint, then I saw the unusual art fixture over the door.
A couple of kms up the climb I passed what looked to be the most inviting pizzeria in all of Italia. Regretfully I still had many miles to ride, so would have to return at a later date.
Further up the climb I came across a home improvement project that must be costing a fortune, and this being Italy, (the world leader in home improvement red tape) must surely be testing the developer’s patience.
I’d noticed that a lot of the valley roads here followed a pattern of travelling straight out of a town and up the valley side as far as the incline would allow, or until the valley closed into a saddle to lead through a pass, at which point the switchbacks would begin, usually signaling an obligatory increase in grade as well.
The architecture in these parts has a distinctly Austrian influence.
After I’d climbed through a series of pretty serious switchbacks I arrived at a plateau about 2/3 up the climb at Palafavera, which was fairly well developed recreation area for winter skiing and summer hiking. It was basically deserted this day, and as I hadn’t seen a “Staulanza” road sign in a while, I began wondering if I’d ventured off course. Eventually I found a map encased outside a building, a reaffirmed I was still on course.
It there’s one thing Italians love, it’s the female form, in whatever form that might take.
The weather in these days had been predictably uncertain, with sunny mornings turning to afternoon showers, so my eye was on the constantly changing cloud formations. The weather in the Dolomites can change quickly, as I’d seen yesterday, so carrying a light rain jacket is recommended. I was in luck though, as the clouds delivered only shadow, even if temps dropped considerably in the final kms to the summit.
The grades on the Staulanza are never that steep, but at 12.5km it is a decent climb, and taken after the Duran it will definitely put a dent in the legs. The summit is another quiet and lonely place, the closed refugio a reminder I’m here at the wrong time of the year (not!). But like this entire region, it’s peppered with hiking trails, that I’m sure would make for some great mtb riding.
The descent off the Staulanza is typical of the region – a fast mix of technical and straight bits, uneven road surfaces from the winter freezes and spring thaws, and winds that can blow you in a few directions.
But civilization is never far away, and the next town is just always within a few kms. As I descended into the town of Selva di Cadore, I spotted a beautiful vista from a small church and pulled over to inspect. I was impressed by the mural next to the front door, but actually more impressed when I looked the other way across the valley, and spotted a far-off church that looked strangely familiar.
Then I recognized that the previous day’s Giro stage descent of the Passo Giau went right by that church, and in fact it was not far from where I’d crashed. Well. At least I’d get a second chance to clear that turn without losing it.
From there the descent drops back to the next valley floor, where a left turn follows the river and a few short kms back to home base. The ride ended taking me around 4.5 hours – thanks mostly to my lack of fitness and excruciatingly slow climbing pace… faster riders could knock it out in closer to 3-3.5 hours no probs (but keep the photo stops to a minimum), while others took longer than me.
A hot shower and hot lunch at the hotel were followed by a much needed massage – and pretty standard feature at most European ‘sporthotels’… definitely the ticket.
The group seemed to bond more each day and as each ride was done and ticked off, the sense of shared suffering and shared experience made for increasingly louder banter at the group dinners – a sure sign that guests are having a good time. Most of the guests here were English speakers – from the US, Australia, and a couple from Canada, so making friends was pretty easy.
A Canadian sits down with 5 Aussies, and the line between riding buddies & drinking buddies becomes quickly blurred.
I really enjoyed my couple of days with the group, and it wasn’t without some regret that I said my goodbyes to some new friends as the next day’s ride rolled out. I was headed in the opposite direction to find the Giro’s stage 16 TT, but a big part of me wanted to stay and ride.
Peter Thomson – the man himself.
Thomson Bike Tours is definitely worth a look if you’re thinking about a well guided, serious riding trip to Europe, to see a big race, or conquer a bunch of big climbs that every fan of pro cycling knows.
Take a look for yourself:
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