The Cento Anni Giro d’Italia was without a doubt one of the best in recent memory. It took in pretty much the finest that Italy has to offer. It did, however, pretty much neglect one integral part of what makes the Giro the Giro: the Dolomiti. Sure, the mountaintop finish on the Alpe di Siusi was excellent, but compared to what’s possible in this region – it was a woeful excuse for a Dolomiti stage.
Ashley and I didn’t ride the Sella Ronda at a traditional time. It was, to put it mildly, an unforgiving time of year at altitudes over 2000m: mid-April. Then again, we figured if the organizers of the Giro del Trentino were crazy enough to run the third stage through two of the four passes that make up the Sella Ring, then we should be able to do it too, right?
April’s Italian tune-up for the Giro, the Giro del Trentino, did not jilt the heavenly rocks of the Dolomiti nearly as badly as the Giro, in fact, the Giro del Trentino crossed both the Sella and Gardena passes in April – a time where pretty much everything along these high mountain roads is covered in ample amounts of snow. Sure, Spring is poking through here and there, and the first mountain flowers are itching to bloom, but Winter is still clinging to the mountains, and what’s that? A race crossing two 2000+ meter passes? That’s hardcore.
It doesn’t take much to draw me down to the Dolomiti. They’re the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen. We trained it down to Bolzano, met up with PEZ’s South Tirolean Texan, Corey Sar Fox, talked far too long, left far too late, and missed the race passing by a solid hour. I didn’t really care all that much though. Race or no race, a trip around the Sella Ronda is a story by itself. We left the car, (thanks be to Mr. Fox for the loan!) and started the first climb up to the Passo Gardena with only an inkling of an idea of the theater we were about to enter.
The Passo Gardena starts our four pass journey through the Dolomites.
Getting Started With The Passo Gardena
The climbing starts out moderately enough, just as most of the climbing is along this route – almost entirely in the 5-8% range. We climbed quickly out of the valley and at Plan de Gralba, the full extent of the Dolomites slowly began to unveil itself.
It’s one of those moments when that oft-used cliche, breathtaking, suddenly becomes entirely appropriate. I could feel my breath catching somewhere in my throat as I peered upward, left, right, all over, just trying to get some semblance of the magnitude. It’s not really possible. The only cure is finishing out the loop and leaving completely exhausted and filled up after gorging yourself on the climbs and visual feast for a number of hours. Even that’s not enough really, I prefer a monthly dose of Dolomites at this point.
The final section of the climb to Passo Gardena was closed and blocked off. As most riders have come to find, a closed road is truly one of those rare opportunities to ride freely – carte blanche to enjoy every centimeter of road. Our awed silence was broken intermittently by such ponderous thoughts as: wow, oh my god, I can’t believe this, have you ever seen anything like it? is this real? On and on.
The completely vacant roads, and the snow that covered everything sans the road, delivered that unquestionably perfect, some might call it spiritual, moment on a bike that only those most rarest of places and days put together just right can provide.
The Passo Gardena is visible for a fair ways before you actually pocket the summit. The beautifully engineered switchbacks take you ever closer until you’re at the top and then…it’s all downhill to the busy ski mecca of Corvara below. This is normally an enjoyable activity, descending that is, but this time, with that whole road closure thing, we entered a playground just for bike riders. 20+ switchbacks and 9 kilometers of meticulously engineered Dolomite roadway: I’ll let your imagination take care of the rest of this paragraph.
One climb down…
The Sibling That Just Doesn’t Live Up To Expectations
The second pass of the day, the Campolongo, is by far the weakest of the four greats – in my opinion of course. The 6k climb of the Campolongo is defined by skiing (that’s not quite fair to the Campolongo though, they’re all ski hubs). The business of skiing is everywhere you look as you climb out of Corvara up more switchbacks and over the top of the saddle.
The views back down to Corvara are nice, but as soon as I hit the first uphill pitch toward the pass, I was looking to get over and on to the Pordoi. Unfortunately, the climb drags oh so slowly onwards. I felt like an excited kid at Christmas who just opened a good present, but knows there’s better, but has to wait for his other 6 siblings to open presents before he gets his next turn. Really. Luckily, this is objectively a relatively short, quick climb, so no matter how impatient I was, it wasn’t all that bad.
The descent is another wonderful one – beautiful views, switchbacks, curves ad nauseam. This is one good reason to do the Ring counterclockwise, and not as I did: clockwise. It’s one of those rare situations where you can be riding and begin discussing with your riding companion (or yourself, it doesn’t really matter) the positives and negatives of the direction you chose. Oh the drama.
Most of the time, this next paragraph would start with something like: After losing far too many meters, we reached the bottom of the descent. I’m throwing that one out of the window. I’m going to go with: After losing just the right amount of meters, we arrived into Arabba. The town of Arabba welcomes you with its small mountain town arms, and beckoned us right into the local cafe for some victuals. And this is where I will digress for a moment. Do bear with me.
The view down to Arabba.
On to the Pordoi, but first…
A Language Of The Remote Dolomite Valleys
The first time we drove up to the Dolomites, we noticed three languages on the signs heading up the Gardena Valley and all along the Sella Ring. The first two were pretty obvious, German and Italian, but the third…we had no idea. It was an odd conglomeration of consonants, vowels, and umlauts. It looked a wee bit like German and a wee bit like Italian, but most definitely a language unto itself. We went home, asked around, did some research, and found that this was the ancient, Rhaeto-Romance language of Ladin.
The Ladin weekly newspaper, La Usc Di Ladins, has a circulation of 3000.
Along with Friulian (spoken in the Friuli region of Italy) and Romansh (one of the four national languages of Switzerland), Ladin is all that remains of a language that once stretched from Switzerland to Slovenia. About 30,000 people speak one of the five Ladin dialects (each valley seems to have their own version). Ladin is protected and promoted in these high Dolomite valleys. Many children learn it as their first language, and then in school as well. Anyhow, my apologies for the short but aggressive diversion from the course. Back to Arabba, our lunch listening to two little children and their parents jumping between Ladin, German, and Italian, and then returning to business with the ascent of the Pordoi.
If this were in Austria proper, the three switchbacks to the guardrail in the top left corner would be replaced with 0 switchbacks and a straight stretch to the guardrail.
The Joy Of The Pordoi
It’s 9 kilometers to the top, 650 meters to climb, and 33 switchbacks to enjoy: pure bike riding heaven. The climb to the Pordoi is not even remotely hard with reasonable gearing (really, it’s perfect). The average gradient of 7% is just right to keep you moving upward at a quick enough rate so as not to get boring. I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out: easy gradients are nice and all, but if you’re trying to get to a certain elevation before nightfall, it does help to be aided with a friendly, but not too overly friendly (or correspondingly not too evil) incline.
The nearly innumerable switchbacks (if they weren’t marked at every turn) keep the views constantly changing, and even though you can see the pass far, far off in the distance, for once in my life, it didn’t bother me. Getting to the top of these climbs is almost a disappointment. You get to spend only so much time in Eden, and every time you check off a pass, you’re one step closer to leaving the euphoria behind, reaching the exit, and a reflective, quiet journey home.
It was pretty easy to miss the road signs.
It wasn’t hard to keep track of where the top of the pass was though.
The climb of the Pordoi in April is a snowy affair. The snow was easily twice our height at certain points, but the roads were perfectly dry, the sun shone brightly, and the warmth radiating down was enough to make me want to sit on the snowbank and look at the Sella Massif for awhile. It’s worth looking at.
The top of the Pordoi provides an even better panorama than the first two, but even this jaw-dropper of a view will be topped at the final pass: Sella. The descent off the Pordoi is another entertainer, but not nearly as fun and technical as the first two.
One more to go? That way? Yep.
The upper part of the enjoyable descent to the final climb of the day.
Saving (Arguably) The Best For Last
What’s next is the stuff of good dreams. The first part of the climb to the Passo Sella is one of the more word-stealing moments that I’ve ever encountered. The road isn’t all that great, the climb itself lacks the fun, easy switchbacks of Gardena and Pordoi, and is replaced by a relatively unimaginative ascent compared to the abstract designs created by the roads of the Gardena and Pordoi.
What the road lacks in fun, it more than makes up for in the absolute enormity of the giant grey teeth rising hundreds of meters above your tiny little self. It is utterly indescribable. The moment when you look up and feel like these peaks can’t possibly be real is almost unsettling. When you see a person between you and the peak in the distance, it’s hard not to think that your friend is riding in front of a green screen. This is the stuff of pictures, of movies, not of real life. But there it is, lunging for the sky, so vivid, so…wait, eyes on the road, just about ran off the road there.
If you want the good light, it’s best to get there before sundown. We’re not so good at that.
It’s like that.
The next few kilometers are more of the same, but the initial entrance into the Sella Theatre en route to the final pass of the day is truly special. The climb itself? Not my favorite. It’s only in the final 2k that the road goes curvy, opens up, and really lets on to the spectacular panorama – and when it does, it does it in, wait for it, here comes a superlative: incredible fashion. The last little bit to the top of the Sella is like all of my other overused superlatives, well, just that, one giant superlative.
We made the summit of the Passo Sella at twilight, as the last bits of sun struggled over the mountaintops and fell softly on anything within its grasp as only the last bit of sunlight can do. The Dolomites don’t need any extra help being beautiful, but being the the only two people atop one of the most beautiful passes on the planet on a cool late April evening? Just close your eyes and imagine.
I’m not normally a sign picture taker, but this was a pretty cool one.
Ashley’s Success Story: She drove the loop in October, declared it impossible, and most likely thought I was crazy. She rode it herself six months later.
Descending back down to Selva di Val Gardena and a very, very warm car.
The Passos Gardena, Campolongo, Pordoi, and Sella make up the famed Sella Ronda. You can access the loop easiest via Canazei or Selva di Val Gardena. I’ve always started in Selva di Val Gardena. Some say that the loop is best enjoyed in a counterclockwise direction. They might be right. I don’t think you can go wrong in either direction.
Basic Facts From Selva di Val Gardena:
61 km (38 miles)
2034 m of climbing (6712 feet)
Gardena 10k, 600m, 6%, max 11%
Campolongo 6k, 350m, 6% max 14%
Pordoi 9k, 650m, 7% max 13%
Sella 5k, 425m, 8% max 14%
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