This year?s Maratona dles Dolomites (or Dollys for short) took Tibet as its motif and was started at a chilly Alpine 6.30am by Jetsun Pema, the sister of the Dali Lama. There?s a different theme every year ? last year?s was ?Angels?, but it was a credit to the taste and decency of the organisers that Robbie never got a look-in, even in the pre-race music over the PA.

Last year I lost my Maratona virginity, and, as with other virginities, the first venture should probably be viewed as a learning experience to prepare you for the next, when you might manage things a little better and perhaps manage a more acceptable time.

Last year, I was paranoid about the possibility of bonking, so ate too much in the feed stations before encountering the third pass of the day, the mighty 2,244m Sella, where extreme indigestion took hold and I had little choice but to parp my way uncomfortably to the top like a wayward trombone in an out-of-tune marching band.

No such problems for me this time round; the Sella was a much healthier sort of breeze altogether and the vision of the Tibetan man who gonged me at the top, although bizarre, was undoubtedly real. The year before I?d briefly thought the group of angels singing Good Vibrations to be a well-organised hallucination.

An ill-considered eating schedule can have more spectacular effects though. For Pat O?Hare two years ago, severe indigestion led to a free helicopter ride from the Fausto Coppi monument at the top of the Pordoi, straight to the hospital in nearby Brunico. He?d overeaten much as I was to do the following year, but his pain manifested itself in his chest. When he heard the doctor who was looking him over with concern say ?sospetto infarto? into her radio he nearly actually did have a heart attack!

Ian Parr organised the entries for the 50 Cycling Weekly riders (from whom all the quotes below come) this year, but was cruelly struck down with food poisoning a couple of days before the big day and was so obviously bereft at the thought of not being able to take part in the highlight of his cycling year, that I nearly neglected to wind him up about it.

Ian?s first experience of the ride five years ago had seen him get a low start number to line up next to Gianni Bugno, Maurizio Fondriest and Damiano Cunego. As he said, ?Cycling is amazing. Can you imagine being a Sunday footballer and suddenly finding yourself playing with Pele, Maradona and Bobby Charlton??

With 8,500 or so riders, such experiences can?t be guaranteed, but as long as the weather holds and you?ve done at least a little preparation, an excellent event can be assured, whether you are just turned 15 like Riccardo Poli, the youngest rider this year, or like Walter Gazzeti, born two days before Christmas 1928 and knocking hard at the door of 80, the oldest.

There is plenty of time to check out the names of other riders while sweating up the many passes (they?re pinned on their backs with their race numbers) so, if you want to, you can greet people by name as they cruise past you. Winner of this year?s totally unofficial best name competition, was contributed by CW rider Toby Jackson. So, a big hello to you Freddie Ponce wherever you are.

THE ROUTES

There are three routes to choose from with varying grades of difficulty, and the choice of which can be made on the road, so if you are feeling particularly good or bad on the day, it can be accommodated, although obviously not if you are feeling as bad as Ian was, at least that is, until the cycling commode is perfected (I?m told early trials are not promising).

UNO

Joan Mitchell modestly describes herself as a ?10-mile round the block fair-weather cyclist?, who?d come along to keep husband Bob company and belatedly realised just before starting the 56km course that Maratona might translate as marathon (don?t be fooled by the distance, there?s 1,780m of climbing in the ?easy? route).

Joan not only got round, but obviously hugely enjoyed herself, despite coming over all emotional at the finish as she said, ?I don?t feel too bad about this, as later on, one of the lady 138km riders arrived at the same point and bawled her eyes out on her husband?s shoulder. Seems the amount you cry is proportionate to the distance

you ride.?

DUE

I did the middle course, 106km and a shade over 3,000m of vertical upnessness. It?s hard for me to describe how beautiful the surroundings are without coming over all purple prose and poetic in a very un-Cycling Weekly way (just think Heidi and add a bit) so I?ll hand over the descriptive duties to John Brown: ?The event is held in what must be one of the most beautiful and spectacular places in the world.

I followed the Alps part of the Tour de France last year and in my view there was nothing there to compare with the terrain in the Dolomites.?

The weather this year was stunning, although maybe a shade too hot (I?m saying this with guilt at my shocking ungratefulness, the ride has occasionally been conducted in falling snow!). I think the heat or sun might have been the reason for my funny half-hour immediately after completing the Falzarego, the final climb. I know I wasn?t dehydrated and I?d eaten more wisely this time, so was surprised to find myself descending what should have been the triumphal swoop down to Corvara, like I?d never ridden a bike before.

I consider myself a careful yet reasonably quick descender, but the uncontrollable shivering and inability to feel my feet made my downward progress a little stilted. This strangeness evaporated just before I struggled into the village of San Cassiano near the bottom of the valley, and I managed to finish riding hard, strong and in full possession of my extremities.

TRE

Some people are made of sterner stuff altogether and went the whole 138km and 4,190m of climbing, hog. The previous year, former world champion Maurizio Fondriest had declined to do the long route, describing the Passo Giau to me as ?too extreme?. I?ll probably do it one day, but it certainly shouldn?t be embarked upon lightly if the experiences of this year?s riders are any guide.

Tim Dalton of Liverpool Century freely acknowledges that he?s known to occasionally exaggerate for effect, so his stories of passing people who were weeping, vomiting and abandoning their bikes on the climb might need to be taken with a pinch of electrolyte replacement ? I don?t know, I wasn?t there. Simon Price was, and his: ?Passo Giau, what a bastard!? while short in length, speaks volumes. Or, similarly, ?Pain, pain, pain, pain, and then the Giau,? from Debbie Crone.

John Brown was a little more expansive: ?The Passo Giau, 9.9km at 9.3 per cent gradient was a monster. Although longer, Alpe d?Huez (13.8km at 7.9 per cent), which was in this year?s Etape, is in my view a much easier climb.?

Terry Redworth from Shrewsbury was apparently aiming to do the medium course, but ascribed his last-second decision to turn right instead of left, to ?a rush of blood to the head?. He eventually arrived at the finish weary, but very happy, in nine hours 17 minutes.

The winner of the real race that was taking place far, far ahead of all of us was Emanuele Negrini, who just pipped Raimondas Rumsas to win in four hours 23 minutes, but somehow I think Terry was the happier man.

A common theme from CW riders was the sense of international camaraderie, or, as Ron Stuart put it, ?the feeling of being involved in something big, with nations being together.?

Simon Jones seems to have conducted a high-altitude European languages course: ?I improved my German and Italian no end just sharing views on how much it hurt and how much we?d like to do it next year.?

From many riders: ?This or the Grand Départ in London next year? No contest, it?s this!?

How did the CW riders do as a team? Out of 139 teams from all over the world, team CW came in a creditable 18th. If you want to know more details of who did what (as long as you promise not to look at my time), all the information you might want can be found at the website: www.maratona.it.

WHAT TO RIDE

There are three routes to choose from ? Uno, Due and Tre ? with varying grades of difficulty. You can decide which route you want to take en route, meaning you can push on through and complete the Tre if you?re flying, or curtail your trip and take the Uno option if you?re struggling. Remember, though, that there is no real easy option. www.maratona.it.