An Oregonian Climbs Italy
By Dave Campbell
Italy’s Dolomites are a special place. These mountains are simply stunning. Situated just south of Austria, they have only been part of Italy since World War II. The scenery is spectacular and the roads are nothing short of dramatic. Thankfully, amazing vistas temper the severity of the effort required to ascend these grandiose passes. Every climb offers a unique view of the towering spires and statuesque peaks with subtle and beautiful variations of color on these magnificent, seemingly architecturally inspired mountains.
The lower gradient of Passo Falzarego with the town of Cortina below.
I have traveled to the region three times and on each occasion Cortina d’Ampezzo (1204 meters), located 160 kilometers north of the Venice airport, has been my riding base camp. Excluding the southerly bus and car-laden descending road to Venezia, there are four options out of Cortina. The gentlest route, which features several kilometers of flat, travels north and crosses the mild Ampezzo Pass (1544 m) enroute to Dobiacco, or “Toblach” to the Germans and Austrians. To the northeast is Passo Tre Croci (1808 m), which gently descends to gorgeous Lake Misurina.
From there, the bravest can tackle one of the toughest climbs in all of Europe, the Tre Cime di Lavaredo (2320 m). First used in the 1968 Giro d’Italia and immortalized by Eddy Merckx — who cemented his first Grand Tour victory there — the climb is only seven and a half kilometers long but five of those are at an 18% grade. Passo Giau (2236 m), which was featured significantly during stage 17 of this year’s Giro, goes southwest at nearly a 10% average and splits off my most commonly used starter climb, Passo di Falzarego (2117 m).
From Cortina, the Falzarego climbs for 16.4 kilometers due east at an average of 5.6% and offers stunning views of the Tofana Rosa (pink stone Dolomite faces). Besides the panorama of the Ampezzo Valley and Cortina nestled below, it also has a quaint country roadside church and a few short tunnels bored right into the stone face.
Knowing how I like the region, an old triathlon friend sent me a map of a spur off this climb to take for some new and potentially very cool terrain. This tiny side road (Road 11) became my prime focus when I returned in June 2011 for a trip with my sweetheart, Kristina Lackner. Commonly used by hikers and reportedly offering dramatic views of the Cinque Torri (Five Towers) it didn’t seem too hard to find. I was told that these views could not be had from the Falzarego itself, further enticing us. On our first climb up Falzarego, enroute to the famous Sella Ronda (Passos Gardena, Pordoi, Sella, Campolongo), anticipating some sort of major signage that never materialized, we failed to notice the turn off.
Consulting with our cycling friends in Cortina, we were told to look for the cluster of tiny wooden signs pointing to Rifugio Averau and Rio Falzarego, located on a flat spot midway up the climb. By then we carried rather large seat packs full of our “town clothes” (climbing pants, flip flops, long underwear tops, wool socks, and warm hats) ready for a three-day trip that called for stays in valley hotels and of sampling the local cuisine. This ultra-light credit card and toothbrush approach called for washing cycling gear in the sink and drying it on the window sill overnight, but it is well worth it.
The plan was to ride Falzarego, Campolongo, and Gardena to the town of Santa Christina in the famous Val Gardena on day one, and Passos Pinei, Niger/Costalunga, and San Pellegrino on day two to loop around the Sasso Lungo and Rosen Garten Mountain groups. The final day we would descend from Falcade into Caprile, climb Passo Fedaia (Mount Marmola), including the Serrai di Sottoguda detour, and straggle back to Cortina over the mighty Giau. The extra special climb, on the hard to find Road 11, with its reportedly awe-inspiring views, seemed a fitting way to begin this rigorous journey.
Reminscent of the MASH camp sign, only miniaturized and in Italian, we found the multi-destination sign board and turned onto what could only be called a bike path, never more than three meters wide. It dropped down immediately before twisting away, it was no wonder we missed it the first time. Within 150 meters it crossed the River Falzarego on a tiny bridge, and a sign detailed what lay ahead: three kilometers at 15% grade. As we crossed the bridge, the ascent began almost immediately and snaked through a dense and well-shaded forest. The only other people we saw on the trail were hikers, most carrying walking sticks or ski poles. The pedestrians took a moment to size us up and several seemed to deem us worthy of the attempt and gave us a cheer or a shout. There were no other cyclists in sight.
The vast majority of the climb required frequent standing, even with a 34/27 gear to maintain momentum and accelerate out of the steep and multiple corners. There was never more than a 100-meter view immediately ahead and my one sudden encounter with a jeep lead me to let out a whoop or two of warning in the particularly blind corners in case someone was coming down. Not to worry, though, the only other people we encountered past that point were a large group of hikers from the Czech Republic, and they strung out all the way to the summit. The trees finally gave way to a rocky, barren summit, and our Czech friends, seeing us smile at our accomplishment, broke into applause for our efforts.
Beyond a gate and a short gravel road lay Rifugio Cinque Torri (2137 m), a typical Dolomiti Café with postcards and snacks. Our friends informed us that it was the end of the road for bicycles, and to reach the Rifugio Averau (2413 m) required another kilometer of steep hiking on the trails etched into the rocky face beyond. In fact, a number of jeeps were parked there and in the evening a ski lift takes adventurous diners on a chairlift to a lovely mountain bar ristorante I remembered visiting in 2003.
Following the mandatory photo opportunities, thanks to the Czech hiking party, we began the descent back to the road to Passo Falzarego. It was a white-knuckle affair with the narrow, twisting, and quite dark path mandating our speed to be kept way down. Again, the lonely nature of the route kept it quite safe and although some scree on the path made it occasionally tricky, the detour and indeed the side adventure was complete. We continued on to the summit of Falzarego and then the Val Gardena. Our three-day trip saw us log about 27,000 feet of total climbing and summit some ten odd passes to complete our big loop. Indeed, Road 11 was the perfect introduction to that weekend-long adventure.
So, should you find yourself on the Italian routes of the Dolomites region, give Road 11 a try, the scenery is well worth the effort.
Dave Campbell is a high school science and health teacher and cross-country coach in Newport, Ore. He is also a Bicycle Paper trivia columnist.