Why would any sane person spend a day of his summer holidays cycling 140 K with an ascent of 4400 metres in the middle of a roasting Italian summer. Halfway up the Passo de Giau the answer is startlingly obvious. No sane person would even dream of it. The gradient is 14 %, the sun is beating down, there is no breeze and there is no shade. Above you is wave after wave of switchbacks without seeming end. Below you...you do not care what is below you. It is  then you realize that you are a little mad. However you have come so far and you are not turning back.

Suddenly the first joy...the Garmin is now reading only 10%. Even better... a lovely mild headwind has sprung up. Thank God for light headwinds. The sign says 3 kilometres to the top. You are getting a second wind. The beautiful imposing mountains which you have not noticed during the last few kilometres rise up all around you. In less than half an hour you will be having that cup of coffee or that beer you have been aching for. Now it is beginning to make sense. You are through the worst part. There are a few more hills but nothing like the Giau.  Happy days. Everybody should try the Maratona route.

I had first heard about it a few years ago from some Donegal guys. We had just finished the Etape in the Pyrenees. The weather had been dreadful and we had just ascended the Tourmalet and the Hautacam. Over pints, the discussion moved on to what we should do next. I suggested easy walks along the Dodder. They discussed the Marmotte ( total assent 5400 metres ) and then the Maratona .They seemed to think that the Maratona would be more difficult despite  the  fact that  it is shorter and has less climbing. I had not heard of either before  but  both names stuck in my mind .  I completed  the Marmotte  a couple of years later  and now here we were in Italy  to try the Maratona .



There were five of us ..Sinead Kennedy, Ger Prendergast, Noel Finnegan and myself from Orwell and my brother Laurence. We had flown Aer Lingus into Venice on a Tuesday in late June and then hired a car which we drove to Corvara.  Sinead had found us a lovely hotel there called La Fontana, which I cannot recommend highly enough. We each had our own room and half board for less than 70 euro a night. The owner and staff were friendly and helpful, the rooms were spotless and the food delicious and satisfying.



We had arrived too late to pick up our hired bikes but collected them instead early next morning in Badia. The focus of our trip was the Maratona Route. The weather was forecast to be brilliant the whole time we were going to be there. We decided we would cycle the route on the next day, Thursday. Today, therefore, we wanted a spin but not too difficult.  We decided to cycle half of the Sellaronda. The hills started outside the cycle shop. We cycled back to Corvara, up the Campolongo (patches of 9 %) and into the lovely village of Arabba. Here we found a lovely Pizzeria which we visited a couple of times over the holiday and a fountain with beautiful cold mountain water for our Bidons.  Then up another sharp climb to Pordoi Col. I loved the Pordoi ..it is a real col  ..steep to get up it, a lovely restaurant on top and a steep descent. However today we reluctantly turned back near the top and headed home to keep our legs fresh for the big one tomorrow.


The Maratona 

Up at 0530 hrs, breakfast by 0600 hrs on the bikes and off by 0615 hrs. A beautiful morning, the huge vertical mountains towering over us as we stared the first climb of the day. This was the Campolongo, steep but steady and a lovely hairpin descent into Arabba. We followed yesterday’s training spin up to the top of Pordoi. It was becoming very warm and the descent into the valley was a joy. Valley? What valley?. We were hardly down before the next serious climb started, this time to the Passo Sella. We were cycling along on a 7% gradient when we had to take a sharp right up an even steeper hill. It was getting hotter and hotter but this is what we had trained for.  We were in a good rhythm and happy out. Plenty of water with electrolytes to replace the liquid we were losing in the heat. One more Col, the Gardena and then a beautiful descent back into Corvara. The route is basically a figure of eight with a small circle to start and the bigger circle thereafter. We had a second breakfast in Corvara and then set off again up the ubiquitous Campolongo and back into Arabba. Here our Garmins started arguing with each other and as we descended towards Andraz I had a terrible fear that we were going the wrong way and that I would have to climb all the way back up to get back on the correct route . Thankfully it was my Garmin that was wrong.

Our club mate Stephen Ryan had warned me that the Passo Giau was the toughest climb he had ever undertaken. The name had lurked in the back of my subconscious as a result. We were climbing steadily and checking, the number of kilometres already cycled, I felt that we must have started the climb already. It was not too bad. Then the inevitable .. another sharp turn and the climbing started in earnest.

The Passo Giau is slightly shorter than the Alp D’Huez but with a higher average gradient The sun was beating down. There was no wind. There was no shelter. The hairpins disappeared from view into the sky. There were very few other cyclists. On all the other climbs we had been buzzed by interminable pelotons of motorcyclists. But not here, this was the end of the world.

Slowly slowly I pedalled myself along. I was going to get to the top but when? The sweat was rolling off me in little streams. The Garmin said 14% then 15%. The temperature registered 36%. There was the odd clump of trees creating shadow for 50 metres or so. I would slow down as much as I could without falling off to get the transient benefit of the shade.  With about three  kilometres to go I noticed a slight change. All the stamina gained from training spins on the Sally Gap, the Shay Elliott, the Slieveman kicked in. I was getting a second wind. This could be done! Almost before I knew it I was scrambling off the bike, half walking, half falling into the large restaurant on top of the Giau and sucking down coffee and coca cola and water and devouring much needed sandwiches. Stephen had mentioned that the waiter in this restaurant had been very rude two years earlier ..well Stephen, he is still working there .

According to the map we had one steeper hill to climb. However the back was broken and we set off in good spirits. Again, however the climb was difficult and we were glad to reach the top of Falzarego. Then the final surprise ..a short downhill and another steep climb  to the Valparola! There was a bus parked near us that was due to go back towards La Villa and Corvara and  I was shocked to see one of my companions wheel his bike over to the bus. I do not know whether he was joking or not but we did have to drag him away. In fact the last climb was very short and we then had a marvellous descent into La Villa. Almost there ..a 11 kilometre medium climb brought us back to Corvara and welcome pint(s) of cold beer.


Day 3

We were all happy to do a recovery spin. Again the weather was fantastic but too hot. We cycled the Sella route in reverse, stopping in our favourite pizzeria in Arabba and taking the now very familiar Campolongo back home.


Day 4

Are there any flat routes in the Dolomites? No. However, for our last day, we created a route that involved a lot of climbing in the morning, the Passo Furcia but then a flatter trip through a nature park to Pederoa. We had a lovely lunch there and then a descent of 3% back into the beautiful town of San Virgilio. They were holding a gathering of ecologists in large open air arena. Beside it there were farmers protesting at the fact that wolves were now roaming the countryside and they had very stark photos of cattle and sheep torn apart by the wolves. We didn’t take sides and we continued on with a lovely spin to end our trip.


Overall impression

I loved the Dolomites. They are a group of very steep sheer mountains with green forests on the lower slopes. The hotel was lovely .The people were friendly and helpful. The roads were generally in good condition though one could see evidence of the effect of the hard winters on some of them. There was a fair bit of traffic, but generally well behaved. I have never seen as many motor bikes and when one came along it was followed by twenty or thirty others. Car enthusiasts also seem attracted to the Dolomites. We saw various sub cultures of Porsches, BMW sport cars and MGB sport cars drivers on their annual jamborees.

If you are looking for very hilly terrain to cycle you will be happy here. However, it is not for the fainthearted or for those who merely wish to go on an easy spin.

Verdict : Highly Recommended .



Day 1 – Dolomites orientation spin - https://www.strava.com/activities/2481928337

Day 2 - Maratona 2019 route - https://www.strava.com/activities/2485269887

Day 3 – Gardena, Sella, Pordoi & Campolongo - https://www.strava.com/activities/2487370675

Day 4 – Furcia, Pederoa - https://www.strava.com/activities/2489803177