The Hotel Tablé in Corvara described itself as bike-friendly and so it proves. The reception staff wave me on as I wheel my bike across the plush carpet to the elevator.
They are used to cyclists, who come to test themselves on the celebrated climbs of the Giro d’Italia (which passed nearby last week and concludes in Rome on May 27), or to take part in the Maratona dles Dolomites, one of Europe’s biggest amateur rides. But there’s more to the Dolomites than tarmac. I’ve come to try a new trip that uses the infrastructure of skiing and hiking — the lifts, the trails and the rifugios — to create off-road itineraries that take cyclists deep into the high mountains.
Over breakfast my friend Ben and I meet our guide André Mersa, who grew up in a village 2km up the Badia valley and who has the copper calves of someone who spends most of his summers in the saddle. We will start with a day’s loop around the fortress-like Sella massif, before heading off for four days’ riding, staying at a different mountain hut or small hotel each night.
With an “Okey dokey!” from André, we’re off. The 60km “Sellaronda” circuit is the area’s key attraction for skiers, and gondolas and chairlifts are draped around the mountain’s lower slopes. They carry us uphill, then we descend by bike, speeding over meadows and boulder-strewn slopes, dodging tree roots and clocking 4,500 vertical metres of downhill — more than I manage in a month of mountain biking in the UK. As someone who usually takes a perverse enjoyment in cycling up hills the hard way, using the lifts feels a bit like cheating. “Don’t worry,” André reassures me with a twinkle, “this is only our warm-up.”
The downhills have rigours of their own, though. When I collected my carbon fibre rental bike that morning, the shop manager, Rossano Targhetta, complained that there is no money in hiring out mountain bikes as they have an unfortunate tendency to break. “Skis are much simpler!” As if to prove his point, I’m back a few hours later, gesturing at a rattling rear wheel.
Grumbles about repairs aside, mountain biking is growing strongly and giving a new life to villages whose economies had relied heavily on skiing. “More and more people are cycling on the hiking trails here,” says Targhetta, and the advent of electrically assisted mountain bikes has opened the sport to even the most casual cyclist. At Targhetta’s store, rentals of “e-bikes” now outstrip conventional ones.
Bike wheel fixed, we drive 8km to the smart alpine town of San Cassiano for dinner at the Rosa Alpina hotel’s upscale pizzeria. Next door, and sadly closed this evening, is their two-Michelin-star restaurant. There’s no shortage of high-end eateries here — there are 25 Michelin-starred establishments in South Tyrol, including La Perla in Corvara, run by the eccentric Ernesto Costa (think cravat, lederhosen and running shoes). Our favourite proves to be the un-starred Ristorante da Aurelio, near Alleghe. On its cosy wooden benches we tuck into meltingly tender venison fillet with truffle and ricotta-filled anelloni pasta topped with hazelnut crumb.
On our second morning, we leave Corvara’s restaurants and chairlifts and begin our hut-to-hut tour through the mountains. “Huts” in the Dolomites vary from spartan mountain refuges to lodgings with the facilities of a three-star hotel — and our first rifugio, Utia de Börz, falls firmly into the comfort end of the spectrum. We’re glad of the added luxury of having our luggage transferred straight to reception — nothing deadens the joy of mountain biking more than a heavy pack. Over an Aperol spritz on the terrace, we peer up at the yawning face of the Sas de Putia, and watch hikers work their way up the pass below the peak. André explains that tomorrow we will follow a section of the Alta Via 1, the Dolomites’ best-known hiking route. The majority of trekking paths are theoretically open to mountain bikes, he explains, but you need to know which to aim for — some are too steep for bikes, others have sections of via ferrata (metal ladders, walkways and cables secured to the rock).
The following day, André’s local knowledge soon becomes evident, as he leads us down hidden cut-throughs and twisting forest trails in the Fanes Natural Park. A path climbs steeply through meadows, where families are out cutting hay in the midday glare.
“Are you not too hot?” André asks a woman who can’t be younger than 65. “If you can cycle up this hill, I can cut hay here!” she shoots back.
We climb steadily alongside a limestone stream, pausing at the head of the valley to refill our bottles from a spring. A herd of wide-eyed cows look on, jostling and clanging their bells. From here we have an unobstructed view of the final climb of the day, a leg-sapping drag up gravel trails to the high rifugio, the Lavarella, where we will spend the night. No chairlift this time, and no shade from the beating afternoon sun.
The next day takes us down to Alleghe, a pretty town on the shores of a cobalt blue lake. Waiting for us at the Hotel Alleghe is a silver-haired figure with blue-rimmed glasses, the 71-year-old hotel owner, Silvano Rudatis, who will guide us for the climax of our trip, a tour of a remote mountain plateau, the Pale di San Martino. Rudatis is also an e-bike advocate. “Once you ride an e-bike, you’ll never go back!” he assures us as he pours the beers in his hotel bar, plastered with a lifetime’s collection of skiing, climbing and cycling photos alongside vintage mountaineering equipment. My friend’s rear wheel has fallen victim to the unforgiving Dolomites descents and, with no time for a repair, he decides to try one of Rudatis’ battery-powered machines.
With thunderstorms forecast for the afternoon, Rudatis is impatient to get going: the high plateau is not a place to be caught out in bad weather. We pedal off, our guide bouncing along at the front on his fat-tyred e-bike, a miniature cow bell jingling from his handlebars. I soon discover the perils of being the group’s only non-e-biker — while the others glide effortlessly up the first big climb I’m left pedalling furiously, fruitlessly, in their wake. I’m glad of the gondola that carries us 1,000 metres up to the Rifugio Rosetta in the swirling mists of the Pale di San Martino.
We step out of the gondola into what feels like another world, 2,700 metres up in the clouds, a lunar expanse of the palest white Dolomite rock. Soon we are alone in the blank landscape, the only other sign of life the occasional alpine chough hovering in the murk.
The plateau is notorious for dense fog, Rudatis explains, and as we weave through the mists I understand the purpose of his cow bell. There are other hazards, too: ahead of us a section of old military road has been cut into the cliff, just a metre wide at points. As the first rumbles of thunder roll down from the peaks, I roll on to the ledge, trying and failing to ignore the yawning drop on my left. After a minute — maybe more — of intense concentration we reach the wide track beyond, grinning with relief. Now we can let the brakes go and descend freely, hurtling round hairpin after hairpin while the rain cascades down. We regroup in the lush valley bottom, with popping ears and glazed adrenalin smiles. It is, I think, the longest mountain bike descent of my life.
Back in the hotel Rudatis returns to his familiar position behind the bar. “You see, with an e-bike I am not tired!” he laughs as I slump on my stool. I muster the energy to tell him how lucky he is to have these mountains on his doorstep. “Everyone should see the Pale di San Martino at least once in their life,” he says. To which I would only add: you really need to cycle across it, too.
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