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Pale Riders: Big Ride Pale di San Martino

In-depth
31 May 2019
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A beautiful climb that features on Stage 19 of the Giro d'Italia. This article was originally published in Issue 82 of Cyclist Magazine

Words Mark Bailey Photography Patrik Lundin

Cyclists who explore the Pale di San Martino – the most secluded and southern range in the Italian Dolomites – owe a debt of gratitude to the Victorian writer Amelia Edwards.

A fiercely independent novelist, journalist, traveller and Egyptologist, Edwards ventured here when the mountains were still terra incognita to all but the local villagers and a few pioneering mountaineers.

Travelling side-saddle on a mule, wrapped in a long dress and lunching on hard-boiled eggs, the Englishwoman recorded her journey in Untrodden Peaks And Infrequent Valleys in 1873.

Entranced by the ‘shattered walls of Dolomite, all grey and sulphur-streaked, and touched with rusty red’ and the serrated peaks like ‘sheafs of splintered arrow-heads’, she declared, ‘I doubt if a more lonely, desolate and tremendous scene is to be found this side of the Andes.’

She observed sharp spires rising up like ‘sabre blades’, violent waterfalls thundering ‘like the roaring of the sea upon an ironbound coast’, and chains of forested mountains looming ‘like some strange petrified sea monster bristling all over with gigantic feelers’.

It was, she concluded, ‘a scene of savage grandeur unsurpassed’. This terrain has since been prised open by roads, ski pistes, hiking trails, tunnels and cable cars.

But the Pale di San Martino, whose needles and pinnacles gnaw at the skyline like the jaws of an alligator, retain the same raw allure first experienced by Edwards, whose book helped to unlock this landscape for tourists, skiers, hikers and – eventually – cyclists.

It just took us 135 years to catch up.

Located around 140km northwest of Venice and 150km northeast of Lake Garda, the Pale di San Martino serves up a treasure trove of hidden climbs and memorable vistas.

Although mountain towns such as San Martino di Castrozza swell in size from 500 to 20,000 people in the ski season, this is still a relatively unknown region for road cyclists, who traditionally head north to sample the Sella Ronda.

But its unique landscapes and vicious gradients make the Pale di San Martino an exciting new playground.

Mountains of the mind

When I arrive in the town of Transacqua at the southwest corner of the Pale di San Martino, it is night and the mountains appear as inky silhouettes beneath an amber moon.

Over a dinner of carpaccio, orzotto with sausage and walnuts, and a local cake stuffed with red berries, I examine the route for tomorrow’s ride: a 108km anticlockwise loop around the grey crown of the Pale di San Martino, with a total of 3,400m of climbing and four major ascents: Passo Cereda (1,361m), Passo San Pellegrino (1,918m), Passo Valles (2,033m) and Passo Rolle (1,989).

This is a journey for bikes, not mules. By morning everything is drenched in Prosecco-bright sunshine.

After a breakfast of oats, yoghurt and local honey (and a few Italian pastries), I meet my local guide, Massimo Debertolis, who rather worryingly happens to be the 2004 Mountain Bike Marathon World Champion.

The tattooed and earringed Debertolis has spent a lifetime training here.

We clip in and glide through Transacqua, whose pretty gardens and flower-festooned buildings have earned it an international ‘Comune Fiorito’ (Town in Bloom) award.

In Amelia Edwards’ era, the tracks here were so poor that she declared them to be as inaccessible for wheeled vehicles as the watery avenues of Venice.

Today we can happily roll through the entire route on a smooth carpet of tarmac. We pass houses painted pastel shades of mint, peach and lemon before commencing the opening 6.7km climb to Passo Cereda.

With an average gradient of 9%, this is no gentle start to the day. After just 2km we grind up switchbacks of 15-16%.

The pine trees cast a spider’s web of shadows over the road and, despite the heart-pumping effort, there’s a metallic chill in the air. Massimo says the snow here in winter can triple in depth within the space of a few hairpins.

We pass mountain meadows dotted with yellow flowers and chalets, which peer out over the valley towards the mountains beyond. It’s so eerily quiet I can hear the horses chewing the grass.

The steep road folds back over itself like ribbons of pastry. We fight up a gritty 700m stretch at 10-12% before struggling over the top, where a few chalets and piles of logs mark the summit.

Massimo is wearing a bright orange kit so I can easily follow his line as he arrows down the other side. From up here the mountains on the horizon appear blue, like the waves of a distant ocean. To our left lie the southeastern tips of the Pale di San Martino, a UNESCO World Heritage site of twisted rock towers.

Riding the rollercoaster

Before arriving in Gosaldo we enjoy a rollercoaster-style 20% dip and the pace shoots up. A tiered waterfall runs through the town and white buildings with dark wooden eaves line the road.

At the sight of a cream-coloured church, we swing left and climb to the pass of Forcella Aurine.

From here we enjoy a stunning 14km descent in the direction of Agordo, where the eyewear company Luxottica, whose brands include Oakley and Ray-Ban, was founded by Leonardo Del Vecchio (now a billionaire) in 1961.

Massimo tells me Castelli is also close by and has an outlet store, which is why we see so many riders in Team Sky kit.

The road north from Agordo is busy with traffic and lined with several tunnels, but by swinging left just before Agordo, we can follow a chain of secondary roads and cycling tracks, past frothy rivers and overhanging cliffs, before rejoining the road later on.

This detour involves riding through a dark but traffic-free tunnel that we navigate using the torch on Massimo’s phone.

Our arrival in Cencenighe Agordino, around 40km into the route, marks the start of the 20km climb to Passo San Pellegrino.

This ascent involves 1,144m of climbing to a height of 1,918m.Although the average gradient is 6.3%, that figure is deceptive because there is a brutal 6km section at over 10%.

This is the first time we have ventured into higher altitude today and I can feel the lack of oxygen draining my body.

By the time we hit the steep segments I am reduced to simply stamping down on the pedals.

On the slow slog to the summit we pass the Rifugio Flora Alpina, which Vincenzo Nibali has used as a base for training on the Passo San Pellegrino for more than 10 years.

Although this region isn’t as well known as the northern Dolomites climbs, the Passo San Pellegrino has appeared in the Giro d’Italia several times, with the Colombian Julián Arredondo first to the top in 2014.

Massimo moves ahead and I see his orange jersey disappear around the bend. The road seems to last forever, as if some psychotic Italian workmen are cruelly laying more tarmac every time I turn a corner. 

My legs are flaming but I stubbornly push on to the summit, which is crowned with ski lifts and chalets.  I’m drenched with sweat but the wind soon leaves me shivering. We were planning to have lunch up here but the restaurants are closed.

There’s something quite depressing about riding back down a mountain you’ve just destroyed yourself climbing, but at least the exhilarating speeds prove how steep it must have been on the way up.

With disc brakes as hot as frying pans, I’m relieved when we arrive at the bottom of the climb, only to discover that we’ll have to immediately start climbing again up the lower flanks of the 2,033m Passo Valler before we will be able to find somewhere to eat.

The road is steep and the thick foliage feels oppressive, with dark moss clinging to every rock, and when we arrive at Pensione Dolomiti for lunch I can feel my legs shaking.

I drop a hydration tablet into my bottle and devour a banana before I’ve even made it inside. We refuel with salami focaccias and rich cakes topped with pistachios and honey.

Bring on the violins

Whether from the heat or the fact we have to start climbing again, when I get back on the bike I feel sharp jolts of cramp shoot up my thigh.

The climb is 7.3km in length, covering 638m of ascent, with a menacing average gradient of 8.7%. In places the gradients hit 10% again and I can feel my leg muscles twitching at the prospect.

A motorcyclist looks confused at the sight of me pedalling uphill while massaging my left thigh. Close to the summit the views open up to reveal a luxurious mountain meadow, framed by those unmistakeable grey teeth.

At 2,033m, this is the highest point of the ride. The altitude has sapped my energy but I’m nervous about pausing for too long in case I seize up and get abandoned by the side of the road like a conked-out Fiat 500.

The descent begins with a twisting, technical circuit of tight hairpin bends along slender roads guarded by wooden barriers. At the turn-off to Paneveggio we head south towards Passo Rolle and skirt the Foresta dei Violini.

The red Italian spruces here grow straight and tall on the slopes, which makes their wood the perfect density and consistency for musical instruments.

Apparently, many of the world’s finest violins, cellos, pianos and guitars are made using the wood from this forest, which is part of the Paneveggio-Pale di San Martino nature park.

I can hear my own violin of self pity when I start the final climb to Passo Rolle. It’s a fairly straight 7km climb, with an average gradient of 6-7%, but the mileage is catching up with me.

However, every pedal revolution takes us closer to the most spectacular views in the region.

As we cross Passo Rolle and begin our descent, the peaks stretch out ahead like the battlements of an ice-encrusted fortress.

The panorama hasn’t changed since Amelia Edwards first laid eyes on it. On seeing the Cimon della Pala, the second-highest turret in the range, she remarked that ‘not the Matterhorn itself, for all its cruel look and tragic story, impresses one with such a sense of danger, and such a feeling of one’s own smallness and helplessness’.

With the climbing over, I can enjoy the 23km descent back to Transacqua. Metal nets line the road to hold back rockfalls, and rivers of scree slither down the mountains.

As if to enhance the drama of the scene we are hit with a short blast of ferocious mountain rain and I’m grateful for my disc brakes on the slippery roads.

At one point I find myself sandwiched in a train of Norwegian motorcyclists, with one in front and two behind. I slow down and move to the side to let them pass but they are as happy as I am to take it steady and enjoy the mountain views.

The rain stops and the bikers blast away, leaving me to savour the end of the ride in the crystal-clear, rain-freshened air.

On arriving in the town of San Martino di Castrozza, just a few kilometres before the end of our route, I turn a corner to see a stunning rainbow drenching the vast grey canvas of the Pale di San Martino in a riot of colour.

Not even a Victorian explorer could have hoped for a more lyrical end to this mountain adventure.

Rock and Rolle

Follow Cyclist’s route around the Pale di San Martino

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/82italy. From Transacqua head east on the SS347, over the Passo Cereda to Gosaldo.

Turn left on the SS347 towards Villa Sant Andrea, Forcella Aurine and Agordo. Before crossing the river into Agordo, turn left at Brugnach and follow the quieter roads and bike paths along the river before joining the SR203 north at Taibon.

At Listolade, turn left before the tunnel and take the safer path, before rejoining the SR203 and heading to Cencenighe Agordino. Go west on the SP346 to Falcade Alto, then north to Passo San Pellegrino.

Ride back down and join the SP81 west up the Passo Valles. Continue down until the turn off to Paneveggio, then take the SS50 south over the Passo Rolle and back to Transacqua.

The rider’s ride

Genesis Volare 931, £2,200 for frameset, £5,350 as built, genesisbikes.co.uk

The Volare 931 is an elegant, head-turning steel bike with clean lines and excellent all-weather durability.

Although I was initially nervous about riding a steel bike in steep mountains, this model has been shaped by the company’s experience racing in the pro peloton so it is no ponderous cruiser.

My version came with Dura-Ace components, Shimano RS700 wheels and a Pro Vibe alloy stem, seatpost and handlebars, and although the Volare isn’t in the same weight category as top-end carbon race bikes I never felt at a disadvantage on the climbs.

The beefy bottom bracket and ovalised down tube add stiffness, and the slender seatstays help reduce road-rattle for a smoother ride.

At the first sight of rain, I appreciated the 28mm tyres and, above all, the disc brakes, which enabled me to tackle a slippery descent with confidence.

How we did it

Travel

We flew to Venice, which is serviced by several airlines from around the UK, and hired a car for the two-hour drive to Transacqua. Transfers and bike shuttles are available through Happy Travels (happytravelsdolomiti.it).

Accommodation

We stayed at the Hotel Castel Pietra (hotelcastelpietra.it/en) in Transacqua, where prices range from €50-90pn. The hotel is run by a cyclist so offers secure bike storage, hearty breakfast buffets, laundry services and a spa for post-ride recovery and massages.

Information

Cyclist was supported by San Martino tourism (sanmartino.com), whose website has lots of info on bike hotels that offer services such as secure storage, pressure washers, ride itineraries and toolboxes. The site also lists bike tours in the region, including details on distances, times, elevation and directions, as well as more general info on the region’s sights, cuisine and activities.