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Here be dragons: Dolomites Big Ride

In-depth
21 Apr 2021
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With its towering rock fortresses and magical lakes, it’s no wonder the region around Monte Civetta has spawned myths of gods and monsters

Words: Mark Bailey Photography: Joe McGorty

Cycling towards the crest of the Passo Staulanza, on a circuit of the colossal 3,220m Monte Civetta in the Veneto Dolomites, something extraordinary happens. As we slice around a bend in the road, the emerald-green forest miraculously transforms into a sparkling world of white and silver.

It’s a bright summer’s day but an eerie combination of the slanting early-morning light and a gauze-thin mist has triggered an optical illusion that turns every pine tree, plant and patch of lichen various shades of ivory, alabaster and pearl. It’s a winter landscape without a single flake of snow or frost.

This phantasmagorical scene endures for half a kilometre before we turn another corner and the forest reverts to green and brown. Even my ride partner Andreas Pescoll, who is a local cyclist, has never witnessed such a spectacle. We’ve cycled from summer to winter and back again within the space of two hairpins.

The Monte Civetta region is a land of strange shapes and shifting shades. As mountaineer Reinhold Messner once said, ‘Each mountain in the Dolomites is like a piece of art.’

We cycle beneath twisted spires of rock that erupt out of the forest like razor-sharp fangs – a reminder that 250 million years ago this landscape was an underwater coral reef in the primordial ocean of Tethys.

The dolomite rock, named after the 18th century French geologist Déodat de Dolomieu, changes colour throughout our ride, from a soft pink at dawn to a pale white in the sunshine and then a deeper rose at dusk.

Striking rock-hewn architecture dominates the landscape. The northwest face of Monte Civetta, the formidable, turreted fortress around which we’re cycling, boasts a sheer drop of more than 1,000m, the largest in the Dolomites.

The nearby Monte Pelmo shelters a dazzling white glacial cirque, a giant, ice-sculpted bowl whose seat-like shape has earned it the name Caregon del Padreterno: the ‘Throne of the Almighty’.

 

Monte Civetta, around 150km north of Venice, also hides plenty of cycling treasures. Our loop of the mountain includes ascents of the 1,773m Passo Staulanza and 1,601m Passo Duran. Both passes have featured in the Giro d’Italia multiple times and offer ever-changing vistas of the Civetta.

The mountain has become a symbol of the Dolomites, but the origins of its name are not clear. Some claim it stems from the Latin word civitas, as its steep northwest face resembles the towering walls of an ancient city.

Monte Civetta also translates directly from Italian as ‘Owl Mountain’. In local legend the brooding peak is associated with the nocturnal bird of prey, which is regarded as a messenger of bad omens. Terrific.

Dragons and dinosaurs

Our journey begins in Caprile, a tiny village by the frothing Torrente Cordevole, where I meet Andreas and his colleague Matthias Thaler, who both work as guides for the road bike touring company Dolomite Mountains. Only one can ride today because the other has to drive the support van for our photographer.

After a brief discussion, Andreas wins the prize on the unimpeachable justification of having the slightly snazzier kit.

We decide to tackle the circuit in a clockwise direction to pack the two big climbs into the first part of the day. In the cool and bright morning air we spin past the Torrente Cordevole, which collects water from the slopes we’re about to climb and feeds it into Lake Agordo, just a few kilometres up the road.

From the outset we can glimpse the imposing walls of Monte Civetta, a magnet for battle-hardened climbers. Hidden among its crags and peaks lies the turquoise water of Lake Coldai.

 

Legend has it that this lake was home to a dragon with huge wings, a black tongue and fiery red eyes. Seeing the dragon fly was a sign of bad luck for the people of the valley, auguring imminent catastrophe.

With no evidence of any dragon activity today, we decide to crack on. After a few hundred metres we swing left, past thick black slabs of rock camouflaged with moss, to begin the climb to Passo Staulanza.

The mountain road rounds the northern flank of Monte Civetta and connects Val di Zoldo with Val Fiorentina. In the 15th century, when this was a prosperous steel region serving the armouries of Venice, the valleys echoed and glowed with forges, ovens and workshops. Today they harbour tranquil towns and ski resorts.

The pass rises 775m over 14.36km at an average gradient of 5.4%. It most recently appeared in the Giro d’Italia of 2012, when the Italian Francesco Failli was first over the summit on a dramatic seventeenth stage won by Joaquim Rodriguez.

We ride through a short tunnel and then trace a pebble-choked river into a forested valley. Soaring pine trees tickle the sky above and throw shadows over the smooth tarmac. We cross a bridge, which overlooks a chain of neatly tiered waterfalls, and continue along the banks of the river. We then pass through another tunnel – dark enough to warrant lights – before emerging back into the forest.

 

Just 5km into the ride we hit a series of hairpins piled up on top of each other like the thick slabs of lasagne in the local trattorias. It’s the first real test of the day, with a few sections at 9%, and I’m soon out of the saddle.

We pass through the towns of Selva di Cadore – from where we can see the snow-encrusted Marmolada, which at 3,343m is the highest mountain in the Dolomites – and onto Pescul, which is lined with neat white-walled chalets with dark wooden shutters. We leave the last traces of civilisation behind as our next target looms ahead.

Mount Pelmo is a giant block of rock and ice that stands isolated from the surrounding landscape. Really it’s two peaks, the 3,168m Pelmo to the north and the smaller 2,990m Pelmetto to the south, and it shelters a wild and ancient landscape.

Dinosaur tracks have been found on the stratum of Pelmetto, and a 7,500-year-old skeleton of a Mesolithic hunter was found on a nearby plateau. On the opposite side of the mountain lies the throne-shaped glacial cirque of Caregon del Padreterno. Folklore claims that God, after creating so many giant mountains, chiselled Pelmo into the shape of a seat to have a rest.

Storming the fortress

As the road kicks up to 7%, I begin to understand how He must have felt. A cushioned throne would be welcome right now as I begin to feel queasy. The heart-pumping effort and cold mountain air has left me simultaneously sweating and shivering.

Fortunately the gradient drops and we’re in the middle of a pain-deflecting chat about Andreas’s football team Inter Milan when we witness the scenery magically transform into a world of white.

 

We battle on towards the summit, where we see a mountain refuge surrounded by jagged grey peaks, and hurry over the top to begin the descent, which drops 843m over 12.6km. With an average gradient of 6.7% and stretches at 11%, it’s a fast dash downhill.

The speed displayed on my bike computer’s screen leaps up as the road straightens near Mareson-Pecol and Fusine, yet still Andreas – a gifted rider with impressive results in the Maratona dles Dolomites – surges ahead.

We fly past a coughing blue Piaggio Ape, one of the tiny but ubiquitous three-wheeled Italian vans used by local farmers and which earn their evocative name (‘ape’ is Italian for bee) on account of their buzzing motors.

For most of the descent we’re accompanied by mesmerising views of the eastern flank of Monte Civetta. Its rocky ramparts were sculpted over time from mounds of compressed coral, molluscs and marine detritus, before tectonic activity and volcanic eruptions converted these strange formations from an underwater reef into the warped turrets that now line the horizon.

Clinging to the drops we hurtle past picnic areas, chalets surrounded by neat piles of firewood and curling ski pistes before descending into the Val di Zoldo, which is known as ‘the land of ice cream makers’ on account of the many local experts who have migrated to set up artisanal ice cream shops around the world.

At a sign for the ominously named town of Dont, we turn right and begin the second major climb of the day to the 1,601m crest of the Passo Duran. When the road kicks up to 14% in the opening half a kilometre I wish I’d obeyed the road sign.

I’m soon wheezing and rasping like the rusty green Piaggio Ape now crawling past me, and as I inch up the climb I find myself fixating on the thin fissures in the road surface. I imagine they must mirror the slowly shredding muscle fibres in my legs.

This climb, which passes the southern side of Monte Civetta, is much tougher than the first, with an average gradient of 8.2% and a total ascent of 671m over 8.16km. It also has a different character, with a narrower, more rustic road and dark walls of rock.

Despite my leg muscles burning and my wheels weaving all over the road, we soon arrive at the town of Gavaz, which presents a spectacular new view of Monte Civetta.

The mountain is believed to have first been climbed by the Italian hunter Simeone di Silvestro in 1855 but the steeper northwest face was first conquered by the Germans Emil Solleder and Gustl Lettenbauer in 1925. As the road becomes steeper, I wonder if crampons might be required.

We pass the village of Chiesa before the Civetta emerges in front of us again. It’s a quirk of this climb that the views are better during the ascent and descent than at the top, where trees block the view, so it’s worth savouring the journey, despite the leg-buckling pain.

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Coming round the mountain

At the start of the descent we dash straight into the jaws of the Civetta and are rewarded with the best views of the day. The surrounding landscape is striking enough, from meadows strewn with giant boulders to snaking rivers of scree, but the Civetta’s chiselled battlements dominate the skyline.

The mountain transforms with every bend in the road, one moment a stark grey wall, the next a cold, black silhouette, then a gleaming white fortress. As we race downhill, wisps of cloud begin to surround the Civetta’s peaks, as if wrapping the mountain in cotton wool for the next batch of visiting cyclists.

With 992m of descent, and six stretches at gradients of between 10-13%, our bikes are continually straining at the leash. We swirl through forests and past groups of sweat-soaked rock climbers eating lunch outside their campervans. Eventually we arrive in the valley town of Agordo, where we pause for beef and mozzarella focaccias washed down with cold lemonade.

The final segment of the ride, through a green valley from Agordo to Alleghe and onto Caprile, is a relatively busy route on bigger roads than we have enjoyed so far. Although our aim is to complete a clockwise 70km loop with 2,119m of climbing, we could, if we wished, turn around in Agordo and return the way we have come, tackling both climbs again in the opposite direction.

 

That would involve a longer 96km ride, with 3,500m of ascent, but given that Civetta looks completely different from every angle, it would make for a captivating journey.

With rain forecast and time catching up with us, we decide to continue through the valley to Lake Alleghe. As the roads are a bit busier here, we follow the cycling tracks that hug the side of the road and sidestep the car tunnels.

This route gives us a spectacular final view of the northern wall of Monte Civetta – the most photogenic side of the mountain. Mountaineers refer to this 4km-wide buttress of rock as the ‘wall of walls’ because of its huge vertical drop. We finish by spinning around the shores of Lake Alleghe, whose mirrored surface playfully reflects a rippling image of the walls of Monte Civetta.

The lake was formed in 1771 when the adjacent Monte Piz collapsed and created a devastating landslide that blocked the Cordevole river and created the basin in which Lake Alleghe now sits.

Legend claims that the mythical fire-breathing dragon was last seen flying here just before the fateful Monte Piz landslide. Today it’s only my quads and glutes that are flaming but Monte Civetta, at least, has been slain.

Veneto, vidi, vici


Come, see and conquer our route in the Dolomites

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/91dolomites. Starting in Caprile, head east on the SP20 towards Selva di Cadore. Turn right onto the SP251 and follow the road up and over Passo Staulanza, as far as the town of Dont. Head right on the SP347 through Gavaz to Passo Duran then continue down to Agordo.

Tracing the SR203 north, follow the side roads and cycling tracks wherever possible, and rejoin the main road near Cencenighe Agordino. Follow the SR203 north, past Lake Alleghe, to Caprile.

The rider’s ride


Genesis Volare 931, £2,200 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’s 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.

Buy the Genesis Volare 931 frameset now from Freewheel

How we did it


Travel

Cyclist flew with EasyJet from London Luton to Venice Marco Polo. Flights start at £30 each way, with bike luggage £45 per flight. We hired a car for the two-hour transfer to Caprile and all major rental companies serve the airport. Transfers and bike shuttles are also available through Dolomite Mountains (see below).

Check flights to Venice Marco Polo now on Skyscanner

Accommodation

We stayed at Hotel La Montanina in Caprile (hotelmontanina.com), a friendly, family-run hotel with a small spa and restaurant. Dolomite Mountains also recommends Hotel La Maison (allegheresort.it) and Hotel Adriana (hoteladriana.com) in Alleghe, just a few kilometres up the road.

Thanks

Cyclist was supported by Dolomite Mountains (dolomitemountains.com), which provided guiding services and a support van. The company arranges bespoke guided or self-guided road cycling packages, organises accommodation in bike-friendly hotels, and uses local guides such as Andreas and Matthias, who know all the best routes and climbs.

Dolomite Mountains offers three nights in a three-star hotel, half board, plus area maps and two guided days with a local English-speaking guide from €580 per person for a group of four.