A little under a year ago sixteen club members blissfully unaware of what they were letting themselves in for. They signed up to go on a trip to the Dolomites. Attracted by the motto of “Pedala forte, mangia bene” - meaning cycle hard, eat well. The sixteen looked forward to idyllic days basking in the sun as the road rose gently before them and returning sated at the end of the day to a good meal and copious wine. How did they fare? Below Ivan O’Brien puts the words together, Brendan Kenny the images and Diarmuid Donnelly gives an in-depth flavour of what a Dolomite mountain stage entails.


The Dolomites

The numbers were scary. 15,000 metres climbing in five days - all the major passes and climbs in the Dolomites, which we have seen in every Giro d'Italia, and the fearsome Maratona in the middle of it - 4,300 metres of climbing in only 135km. So there was a heady mix of fear and anticipation as sixteen Orwell Wheelers boarded the plane to Venice. For many of us it was our first cycling holiday, while others were grizzled veterans of the Alps and Pyrenees trips, Marmottes and Etapes. 

On arrival in Venice our bags, bikes and bus were mercifully all waiting for us, off we set. After an hour crossing the plains north of Venice the Dolomites, came into view and conversation stopped while we all looked out the windows at the spectacular peaks, lush valleys and mountain villages which got more widely separated as we headed further up. Signs became more Germanic as we hit the heart of the Sud Tirol towards Badia, the Ladin-speaking heartland of Dolomites cycling. 

Most of us hired bikes which were waiting for us, fitted and labelled with our names, in the local bike shop. New flashy Basso carbon frames, with Ultegra groupsets and, crucially, 30 sprockets on the rear, they were perfect for the challenges ahead.



Day One – Sellaronda & Fausto Coppi

First up was the route of the Sella Ronda, a popular sportive. With 1,700 metres of climbing in just under 70km, it introduced us to Campolongo, which became the prologue to many of the routes ahead, as well as the spectacular Passo Gardena (8.3km at an average of 6.6%: small beer compared to some of the beasts we took on later!) and Passo Pordoi. Monuments to Fausto Coppi (now bedecked with on Orwell cap, of course) and other legendary cyclists as well as really good cafes adorned the hilltops. Given that the weather was in the 30s, the first question was always whether there was a fountain available to refill our bottles at each one. Our guides, Andreas and Gunther, did a fantastic job of pacing the different groups, ensuring that we stopped at the right places for our coffee, pasta and photographs and warned us of the perils of descending with the myriad motorbikes, buses and cars we had to share the roads with. Many of us, myself included, had never seen anything like it, and were completely buzzed by the climbs, the descents, the scenery and the sheer number of bikes on the excellently-maintained roads.

Our hotel, the Melodia del Bosco (Melody of the Woods: fierce romantic altogether), is set up to deal with cycling groups. This included a fully equipped bike garage, fresh pasta on return from each spin, sauna and full laundry service (give them a bag of smelly bike gear in the evening, and it was back, fully laundered and neatly folded for the next morning: amazing!) became normal. Linda, the barmaid, quickly got on first name terms with much of the group and had all our room numbers down quickly - a little bit dangerous when all your drinks can just be put on the room!

Many of the group who were veterans of previous trips commented that this hotel was right up there with the best they had stayed in while wearing lycra; the rooms were spacious and comfortable, the food was top notch and plentiful. Our host Klaus Irsara was attentive and there was even a packed lunch waiting for us at our pre-breakfast time departure back to Dublin. The guides were excellent and as a group we would have no hesitation in recommending the hotel to similar groups of cyclists.



Day Two – What does 18% feel like?  

A monster breakfast and we were off on day two. Many of us tackled the longer route: 105km with 2,600 metres of climbing, with the fearsome Fedaia - the last 5km averaging nearly 11%, with the last 3km much sharper than that (see below for Diarmuid’s take on this beast). I thought I was going mad looking at Kev Farrell spinning beside me, clearly turning the pedals more quickly despite the bikes being identical: particularly while grinding up extended 13% grades, and leaving me for dead on the last stretch! A quick count of the sprockets showed that I had a 28 on the back instead of the 30 as expected: that had to change before the Maratona!

Friday evening everyone was buzzing about the next day. Those of us who had done the long spin wondered if we would pay for it the next morning, while others who had taken it slightly easier were planning their pacing carefully. Weather forecasts were pored over and we all had an early night.



Day Three – Maratona dles Dolomites

Saturday dawned and The Three Amigos (Tara, Conor and Derek) left at 7am, an hour before the rest of us. None had done anything approaching the difficulty of the Maratona before and they were determined to complete it at a sensible pace.

The first stretch of the Maratona is the Sella Ronda - as we had already done this, a few of the more sensible riders (Stephen, Brendan, Padraig & James - who was taking antibiotics when he arrived and had to sit out the first couple of days) cut that out to leave a slightly less intimidating ride! John Kehoe's policy of riding within himself throughout and not taking extended stops meant he did long stretches on his own. We often caught him just as he was about to spin off down the next descent - it's a strategy that worked well as he was the only one in the group to complete the full set of routes for the week. Kudos, John!

After the Sella Ronda, we headed up Campolongo for the second time. We stopped for a fantastic meal watching mountain bikers scooting past us to a ski lift, which would take them to the top to spare them the climbing. We were made of sterner stuff! A quick descent then the "flat section before Giau"(pronounced j-owww. The clue is in the name), according to Rickard (who replaced Gunther after two days: we must have worn the poor man out asking about water!). For the avoidance of doubt, let me state now at there are no flat sections in the Dolomites. To these lads "flat" appears to mean "there are no 10% grades that last longer than 2km for the next bit". Just sayin' ... Then Giau. A 1,000m climb over 10km in the midday heat, we were told it had a hard bit at the beginning and a hard bit at the end. They seem to have forgotten about the hard bit in the middle, because this was a steady 10% slog for an hour or more with 29 switchbacks guarding the route to a ski station at an altitude of nearly 2,200 metres. This is regularly the highest point in the Giro. I was flying up it until corner number twenty when my body suddenly shouted "stop". A bad bonk, as I hadn't eaten or drunk enough over the previous few hours, threw my body into a state of panic for the rest of the trip.


Stephen with help from Johnny Cash sums it up as follows: 

“Passo Giau, I hate every inch of you.
You've beat me and have scarred me thru an' thru.
I’ll cycle up a wiser weaker man;
Motorbikes,  why can't you leave this land.

Passo Giau, what good do you think you do?
Do you think I'll be different when you're through?
You bent my heart and mind and you warp my soul,
And your stone roads turn my blood a little cold.

Passo Giau, may you rot and burn in hell.
May your ramps fall and may I live to tell.
May all the world forget you ever stood.
And may all the world regret you did no good”


While Diarmuid filmed (and edited) the struggles here



We regrouped and refuelled at the top, while the thunder got louder and more obvious from the mountains around us. The guides told us to get off the mountain NOW and head straight for home. If we hit problems, find a refugio and phone in for the van. Pretty scary stuff as we launched into a huge descent on roads that already had a sprinkling of rain. Also, we knew that the Three Amigos were at least an hour behind us at this stage, and without a guide. Just another 1000m climbing in the next 17km and we spun back towards the hotel, limping back in groups of ones, twos and threes. 

As we had started at the hotel, rather than the strict start of the Maratona, there was talk of heading to the actual finish line for completeness, so I let my Garmin lead me away from the hotel after getting back to La Villa, the next village up the valley. As it led me all the way up to Corvara and the early slopes of Campolongo for the third time that day I thought enough was enough, and headed back down the hill. 155km, 4,800m in one day. Just crazy. Following a drink and debrief, we headed for dinner. The Three Amigos had sent a message to say they were still moving and in fine spirits and the biggest cheer of the week was when we saw their Cheshire Cat grins through the window of the dining room as the light faded at 20:45. Everybody had completed the challenge they had set themselves, which felt just incredible. They had descended Giau in a downpour, cold and scared, but they made it. That we were lucky with the weather was made clear when Andreas showed us a picture later of the next mountain over that evening, when 15cm of hailstones had fallen, making the roads impassable for hours.


And on the Sabbath she rested 

Sunday was our day of rest, we all needed it. Nobody went near the bikes until mid-afternoon. It was Sella Ronda bike day, with a number of passes closed to motorised traffic - but it was also bucketing down, with thunder and lightning leading to pretty apocalyptic scenes. War stories were shared and bodies gradually recovered from the trials of the day before. And sure, how hard could tomorrow be after that?



Day Four : Tre Cime de Lavaredo 

Very! Most of us took on the long route: 125km, 3,700m climbing, capped by the fearsome Tre Cime climb, the last 4km of which average 13%. From the beautiful lake at the base of it, you could just make out a hut on a ridge halfway up a barren lump of rock. Most of us were crazy enough to take it on at whatever pace we could manage. The joy of seeing Raechel and Bronagh spinning up through the last couple of hairpins in the car park ("we don't normally go up that far," said Andreas, "we stop at the gate": he clearly hadn't met stubborn Orwell Wheelers before). Looking a lot more comfortable than many of us felt, was intense, and the views were worth the pain. They even justified the trip to the really lousy cafe below, which easily won the Grumpiest Waiters Award for the week. Rickardt ran us through the rest of the route: "Passo always means up, Deco". Then there was just the small matter of Falzarego (10km at 6%) followed immediately by Valparola (another 1.5km at 8%) before the spin home.


Day Five : Passo del Erbe

The last day and the last spin. Passo del Erbe, either the long way or short way. "What are today's hills like Rickardt?"  "Steep". We have been warned. Only four of us headed for the long one. I turned back after the stop at the Banana Shop - the legs were not there, so I headed off down the road towards the majority who had decided to tackle just one mountain: 50km and 1,500 metres with tired limbs is a stiff challenge, and a coffee break after just 20km might sound silly until you have to climb the guts of 1,000 metres in that time! Kev also turned back with a sore knee leaving John and James to complete the big route.

An amazing trip. Thanks to Stephen Ryan for all his organisational skills, John Kehoe for planning a punishing itinerary and the whole group for a supportive and fun atmosphere throughout. One for the ages. If you are ever offered an opportunity to cycle in the Dolomites, jump at it.


The Images 

Brendan Kenny has put together a great summary of the trip from his go-pro capturing the thrills of the descent, the struggles of the ascent and the camaraderie at the heart of a great trip.


Anatomy of a climb – The Fedaia by Diarmuid Donnelly

Day two of our Dolomites cycling adventure, and having successfully conquered the Sella Ronda the previous day, we faced an interesting choice as we set out from Badia. We had the option of tackling the infamous Passo Fedaia, at the base of the Marmolada glacier, from the "easy" side or the "hard" side. As we pedalled over the Campolongo, opinion in the peloton was divided, some planning to opt for the easier approach, some for the harder approach and some, like myself, undecided. The town of Arraba was the decision point and encouraged by my mates John and Declan, with the now-immortal words "How hard could it be?" I set off with the hardy bunch towards Caprile.

After a long downhill stretch, we swung around to the start of the Fedaia climb. We detoured around a closed stretch of road through the charming village of Sorarù, then rejoined the main road and climbed a gentle couple of kilometers to the town of Sottoguda. At that point, we had completed 4km of the 12km climb without any undue stress. Unfortunately, we missed the turn that would have allowed us to pass through the Serrai di Sottoguda gorge, so we will have to go back and cover that ground some time. The climbing would much the same either way, and as soon as we crossed the bridge out of the town, the road started upward with attitude. Things were still good at that point, we pedalled on, passing through a tunnel before reaching Malga Ciapella. This is where the wheels started to come off, or at least almost stop turning.

The road ramped up to a gradient of 10% and that's pretty much the shallowest it would be until the summit, nearly 6km ahead. To make it more challenging, the next few kilometers would be in pretty much a straight line, with every meter that needed climbing clearly visible ahead. I put my head down and started slogging away, with a cadence that felt like 30rpm. The next time I looked up, my former mates had disappeared off into the distance ahead, leaving me to struggle on. Although there were words about this later, the reality was that everyone had to climb this passo at their own pace. My speed on this stretch was 6.7km/h - just short of stall speed. After an age, I approached the end of the straight stretch and saw that our guide had stopped to wait and was sitting on the wall reading his messages, updating his status, and probably writing his memoirs as well.

Having been overcome with jelly legs, I stopped briefly at a place with the unlikely name of Capanna Bill to stretch and eat a bar. That was a lifesaver. I was joined by Stephen, who had been ahead of me, but had stopped for a coffee without me noticing. Refreshed, we set off for the final 2km push to the summit, now facing stretches at 12-15%. Although steeper than the previous section, this part had the luxury of containing hairpin turns, which meant slight relief every so often as the gradient flattened out. It did have a kicker at the end of 18% though, so with one last effort I swung over the top and collapsed into the Refugio where the rest of the guys were sitting drinking coffee. To me it seemed like they had exerted themselves to the same extent that you might by heading up the Embankment and stopping for coffee in Blessington.

After a quick coffee and cake and a look at the Marmolada, we proceeded to the far end of the Lago Fedaia, as featured in the remake of the Italian Job. There we met up with Declan, who had overshot the summit, and with the others who had made the sensible choice and climbed Fedaia from the easier Canazei side.

At that point, the strain of the climb was forgotten and the relief and sense of accomplishment at having climbed the one of the toughest climbs in the Dolomites took over. And the polenta with sausage never tasted so good!