DISTANCE 86 miles (138km)
MAIN CLIMB Passo Giau
TOTAL CLIMB 4,190m
ACHTUNG! Watch out for the technical bits on some of those descents
Established in 1987 as part of the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Alta Badia Raiffeisen cycling club, when 166 riders set out to cover seven mountain passes in the heart of the Dolomites, it’s here that the legacy of the Maratona dles Dolomiti began. It wasn’t long before it evolved into the most prestigious and spectacular gran fondo event on the Italian calendar, with over 8,000 participants each year.
So is it for you? If inspired riding and a rewarding challenge is what you’re after, then probably. Cannondale brand manager and Britain’s top European sportive rider, Michael Cotty, covers the 138-kilometre circuit to find out what makes this event so special…
Start as you mean to go on
Departing from La Villa there really is little warm-up as you start the day on a gradual incline to the village of Corvara. As you exit, you’ll hit the foot of the first ascent, the Passo Campolongo. Climbing from 1,522m to 1,875m over 5.8 kilometres (with an average gradient of 6.1 per cent) you’ll need to ensure you’ve had an early breakfast or risk seeing it again as the climb kicks in.
The steepest sections come at the start, although this early into the ride, it shouldn’t pose too many problems. You’ll soon be cresting the summit and on to the short, four-kilometre drop into Arabba. It’s a fun descent and sets the scene for what’s to come throughout the day with a series of switchbacks on good tarmac. Just make sure you keep your eye on the road ahead and not the surrounding mountain range.
Hard on the brakes as you enter Arabba and a sharp right puts you immediately onto the Passo Pordoi. Longer and steeper — 9.2 kilometres at 6.9 per cent gradient — than the leg-warming Camplolongo, it’s reassuringly to be really making progress, with two passes in less than 23 kilometres!
The Passo Pordoi is not only the highest point on the course but also of the region, at 2,239m. As it winds out of Arabba, you’ll soon be looking down at the snaking road beneath as you reach the top. It’s made up of long, open switchbacks. As it’s exposed, it could be all the harder if the wind isn’t favourable.
The six-kilometre descent of the Pordoi is open at the top, with fast hairpins, and you can see the route ahead. You’ll enter tree-lined roads on good tarmac until you bear sharp right for the Passo Selle.
Third climb of the day and still less than 30 kilometres in! The Passo Selle starts steeply, and taking the right-hander from the descent of the Pordoi will rob you of speed and momentum from the start. Initially climbing through woodland, the short 5.5 kilometre ascent, with its 7.9 per cent average gradient, should not be underestimated.
It’s not a climb you’ll spin over, although the gradient eases towards the summit, apart from the steeper hairpins. Exercise caution at the start of the 5.4-kilometre descent of the Selle. Broken tarmac may mean having to change lines to avoid the worst sections. Fortunately, it’s only like this at the top, and turns into a fast-flowing descent with superb scenery, dropping down to 1,871m and onto climb numero quattro: the Passo Gardena.
Climbing to a peak of 2,121m over 5.8 kilometres, the Gardena actually has a short downhill section after two kilometres, which will certainly come as a welcome recovery point after the initial steeper part of the climb. With two kilometres to the summit the road steepens again, with long, open and exposed switch-backs. Time to soak up the scenery again!
Cresting the top, prepare for a beautiful descent. As you round the fast-flowing curves and the road unfolds below, you can see Corvara to the left in the distance. A fantastic nine-kilometre descent, which drops you back to 1,530m, will certainly have you smiling!
Running in circles
Back to Corvarra and a quick right-hand turn gives a sense of déjà-vu as you trace your earlier steps over the Campolongo for the second time and the descent to Arabba. This time it’s a left-hand turn (instead of right to the Pordoi) and a continued, gradual, rolling descent to Rucava at 1,311m, now with 81.2 kilometres covered.
Bearing left, the road rises for the 2.3km climb of the Colle Santa Lucia. It’s a good way of getting the legs back into climbing mode after the best part of 20km descending, but with a 7.5 per cent average gradient you’ll certainly know it’s there. However, you can soak up the stunning view of the snow-capped 3,343m Marmolada to the right. It’s worth coming to the Dolomites just for that view!
Another short descent and you’ll hit the day’s hardest climb, one that the pros covered on stage 15 of the Giro last year, en route to Tre Cime Di Lavaredo.
Passing through Selva di Cadore you’ll pick up a left-hand sign to the Passo Giau. There’s no doubt that on paper this is a tough climb; I can confirm that it’s every bit as hard as the route profile suggests. The start of the 9.9 kilometre climb is steep as you ride through woodland while traversing the Codalonga river. The only sections to recover on are the slightly flatter, bridged parts across the river.
Early on in the climb you pass a road sign indicating that there are 29 bends to the summit — I never did quite work out if it was a good or a bad thing to know this, but focusing on each bend as the signs counted up did help to take my mind off things.
Emerging from the forest the road slackens off just a touch, but being more exposed it can be windy which may hinder tired legs.
Although steep at an average of 9.3 per cent, it’s nice that the gradient doesn’t change dramatically at any point. This means that your pace can remain relatively constant, even if it may be a constant grind!
Now let gravity lead the way, plunging from 2,236m to 1,535m to Pocol in little over 10 kilometres. The descent is a real treat. Although the tarmac to begin with is a little rough, the initial open curves soon transition into a series of short, fast hairpin switch-backs as you pass two 10 per cent gradient signs. But try not to get carried away, as it’s at the steepest part of the descent that it gets technical — and if you’re going too fast how will you enjoy the spectacular scenery?
Downhill from here?
There’s a slight rise before the T-junction and left-hand turn to the start of the Passo Falzarego. Starting gradually, it’s a beautiful climb to end the day, passing through woodland at a gradual gradient of around three per cent. After a couple of kilometres the road flattens out and you can really start to nudge it along, feeling like you’re really making good progress on the 10.3-kilometre climb.
As the road emerges you’ll be blessed with truly stunning views from all angles, and as the gradient remains gradual you’ve got time to look up and enjoy it instead of staring at your stem or the rider in front! The summit of the Passo Falzarego comes after 117.7 kilometres, but it’s not quite over yet. Bear right to join the Passo Valparola, where you’ll climb for another 1.2 kilometres to the real summit, at 2,200m.
The descent can only be described with a four-letter word, and one that begins with F at that. FAST! The plunge down to La Villa on the 14-kilometre descent will be over in minutes. With long straights and gradual curves you’ll be clocking over 80kph with ease. As you enter La Villa you’re once again on familiar tarmac as you track the final five kilometres back up to Corvara for the finish, and no doubt a well deserved gelato!
THE RIGHT GEAR
Riding in the Dolomites may be a totally new and exciting challenge for you, so make sure you think about your equipment and gear selection in advance so you get the most out of your trip.
There’s not a lot of flat terrain and you’ll often be pointing skywards, a 34/50 compact chainset, triple or 29-tooth rear sprocket are all welcome additions to keep the legs turning, and don’t think it’s just us mere mortals that need them, many of the top pros in the Giro d’ Italia decided to use a 34-tooth small chainring when they hit the Dolomites, including eventual race winner Danillo Di Luca.
Flying to either Venice or Verona gives a transfer time of around three hours to get to the heart of the Maratona dles Dolomiti course. Innsbruck is another option but, although slightly closer, flights are less frequent. Both British Airways and EasyJet offer good, low cost connections that can be as little as £125 return if you’re flexible on travel dates and times.
EAGER FOR MORE?
If you’re keen to find out more about riding in the Dolomites, and in particular the Maratona dles Dolomiti course, then visit www.cyclefilm.com for details and a full-length video of the entire route, or try the official website of the event at www.maratona.it.