I'm flying through the air. Surrounded by a gorgeous vista of alpine scenery, I'm about to face-plant into the side of an Italian mountain. Time momentarily stops. I ponder: "Am I really going to fall off my bike?" Despite the untimely accident within a field of wild edelweiss, this still has been one of the happiest adventures in my life.
Now here comes the face-plant...
How did this all happen?
One hungover Sunday morning I woke up feeling like death on a stick. My life was becoming sickly circular and I desired a drastic change. Mountains needed to be biked -literally. A crazy thought entered my water-depleted brain: what if I took on one of the most challenging mountain bike tours in the world?
The Dolomites in Northern Italy. How? I'm not quite sure, but they have a website. Read with me:
This trip is for strong, active and experienced mountain bikers in good physical condition who enjoy cycling, have a good spirit of adventure, positive attitude, and are prepared to and capable of biking an average of five to seven hours a day.
The Dolomite Mountains website showed fit bikers careening up trails framed by huge rocks that jetting out of the earth like giant monoliths.
One problem: the bike tour was only a month away. Accomplishing this feat would involve packing in six months of training into four short weeks. I'd seriously have to change my lifestyle--I don't think I could tackle this extreme bike tour on pure charm alone. The next thing I knew I was buying bike pants (to wear non-ironically) and hitting the steep hills of San Francisco for double-daily bike workouts.
Time to meet the Dolomite biking challenge...
The soothing sound of bike wheels silently rolling against pavement. Cowbells echo from passing farms. Drizzly and dramatic, Kraftwerk's Tour de France plays on automatic repeat in my brain. (Except with the word "Italy" replacing the word "France".)
I'm biking behind Andreas: my amiable guide, hero, and mentor. (Not only does he possess a wry wit but also uncanny Dolomite knowledge.) On skinny-wheeled, hyper-light road bikes we are executing the Loop of Cristallo (Giro del Cristallo). It's a fairly easy 40km ride with 12% grades at 2000-meter mountain passes. Keeping a steady pace, the rain spits as we pass trucks on the roadway.
We've departed from the town of Cortina d'Ampezzo. Located in the heart of the Dolomites, this alpine village is the type of place where a guy walks by in lederhosen-and no one bats an eye! When bells go off from Cortina's picturesque church, they chime happiness.
I take the opportunity to sprint up a steep grade in order to take in an amazing view of the three peaks that comprise Tre Cime di Lavaredo.
The Dolomites are truly special.
The dramatic rocky formations fountain from the lush green forest below. Quaint Italian villages and picturesque wooden-framed farmhouses dot the landscape. Comprised of limestone, the Dolomites are dramatically different in the appearance from the bordering Austrian and Swiss Alps. The panoramic view makes you feel like you are either on the roof of the world or transplanted to the bottom of a large, drained ocean. It's hard to be cynical in the Dolomites.
On the lip of Lake Misurina, we stop for the best tea and ham sandwiches. Back dropped by a snowy mountain peak spitting clouds, the air smells plain good. Mmmm! Ham and tea. Tea and ham. The burst of food makes me manically energetic. We bike on. Maybe the Dolomites aren't as intimidating as I initially thought?
Little did I know that tomorrow would be all uphill
Holy crap! My heart might explode like an artery-filled grenade. Andreas has taken me on a steep gravel ascent to get the blood pumping for the long journey ahead-5 1/2 hours straight up a mountain. We navigate a trail set alongside a ski run that was used in the 1956 Olympics. Blood circulates. Sweat pours. Is there even any oxygen left in my brain? I've run out of gears to downshift to.
Andreas dryly states the obvious: "This is why it's not for beginners."
While Tuscany is green circle Italian mountain biking, the Dolomites are pure black diamonds. A 39-degree incline stretches on for eternity. Missing the pedal, it slams into my shin-making me almost cry at the strategically placed pain. Trying to get my bike going on a steep gravel incline is as hard as starting a motorboat without gasoline. Still, I've never seen such jaw-dropping, incredible scenery. Through the haze of over-endurance, I find myself laughing uncontrollably like a kid at its beauty.
Towards the top -amazing! A flat, grassy meadow with horses framed by the Dolomite Mountains -a meadow worthy of taking a fine nap. As we bike along the Fanes River, a piece of chocolate becomes the best piece of chocolate ever; a sip of water is nothing short of God's sweet nectar. Like life, you have to work for the good -it's a constant uphill battle. Then, the serene flatness of a meadow aligned by a peaceful stream. Enjoy it while you can because up ahead the ascent continues and it might even be harder than before.
And life will once again be hard.
It starts to feel like someone is constantly stabbing a fork into my thighs.
My legs are on fire. The mountain is breaking me like Cool Hand Luke after spending a night in the box. Andreas ignites a last burst of energy by taking a bike action of photo of me riding up the hill.
My brain says to keep peddling. My legs answer back with, "We're having no part of it!" I'm at a physical breaking point.
Still, there's nothing to do but peddle on
After 5 hours and 40 minutes we conquer 2,050 meters of pure Dolomite.
At the top, happy hikers, with nice lyrical Italian accents, enjoy delicious meals at the Rifugi. (An Italian mountain hut that smells like Christmas.) We lay our bikes against a wooden fence. On the porch of the Rifugi, I devour the best bowl of gnocchi known to humanity. My legs still feel like I'm climbing hills. I look off to the snowy glacier peak of Tofana. This gnocchi was worked for. This is the prize. This is my Giro d'Italia victory.
"I enjoyed watching you suffer a little bit," Andreas confesses with a smirk as we toast Hefe-Weissbier mixed with lemonade.
At night we stay at the Ucia de Fanes lodge. Situated between two mountains in a grassy valley, the only way to get to Ucia de Fanes is to either by hiking or biking up the mountain. Inside the bar, Italian mountain men drink beer and arm wrestle at a table. Under a canopy of various stuffed animal heads, the mountain men insist I snort snuff tobacco and sample homemade speck ham made from a pig they killed themselves. There's no getting around it. Tobacco goes up my nose. Speck into my mouth. (It's really good!)
More Beranti! More Schnapps!
Locals emerge with a host of homemade instruments: sticks with string, horns built from plumbing parts, a tuba with a Coca Cola barrel top, and something called the Violin of the Dead. Bloody brilliant! A guest pulls out an accordion. (How often does that happen?) Other instruments suddenly appear.
A spontaneous polka breaks out amongst everyone in the bar. I'm whisked to the floor and find myself polka dancing with a group of six Austrian nurses. Here we are on the rooftop of Italy. Does anyone in the world below know of this fun? We keep dancing madly to polka music while drinking more strong Italian beer. Tomorrow is an easy ride. Round and round go the Austrian nurses.
More Beranti! More Schnapps! More Austrian nurses! The mad dance of life!
A sweet goodbye to the six Austrian nurses.
The sun is shining. Then it's pure downhill as we zip past clusters of Italian farmhouses. A big drop to the green valley below leaves me cackling like I ride the special bus. The steeple of a church in a small Italian village appears in the horizon.
Peddling up a steep hill, I pass a cluster of Italian farm houses set in a lush field that's littered with edelweiss. Each day our bike ride has been completely different than the previous. Today offers a downhill trail through the woods that almost feels like skiing. My bike swooshes back-and-forth along the path. Hut houses with triangle wooden roofs. The wonderful smell of alpine wood burning.
Several times I uncontrollably say out loud, "Oh my God!"
Outside my hotel window, at Melodia Del Bosco, it's a virtual living postcard of panoramic imagery. Situated in the heart of the Alta Badia region, this family-run establishment is a special bike hotel that caters to cyclists. Here's the kicker: besides home cooked meals they also wash your dirty bike clothes each night. Unbelievable! You can always expect a warm welcome after a tiring day of cycling from the Irsara family. At dusk, I take the most wonderful bubble bath ever concocted. Laying in the hot tub, I relax my sore leg muscles, and stare at the lovely Dolomites. Ah, blessed bubble bath.
A German couple joins us for today's adventure. We're going to bike the famous Sella Ronda loop. For the eight-hour journey, we're going to take cable cars up and bicycle down from the top of ski runs; traversing across the mountaintops then down trails and grassy fields while squealing inside with delight. With the Austrian Alps in the distance, we're transplanted 2,500 meters up the mountain.
Biking down a ski run is scary at first. With suspension set to loose, the key to downhill trail riding is looking straight ahead and not at the terrain directly below. Concentration is crucial. Keeping a constant grip on the breaks is needed. For technique, I extend my legs and arms while shifting my weight back to avoid flying over the handlebars.
Keep up German couple!
Andrea puts us to the test. He takes us on a real tooth-chipper of a rocky path. Big Dolomite boulders dot the narrow, muddy route laced with thick tree roots that's set alongside a steep drop off. Several times I practically lose it on some rocks or almost flip over my handlebars. When the terrain gets too hairy we carry our bikes down the black diamond head-splitter. Once into the open field, I boost to the group, "I did good. I only wiped out once!"
Then the horse smells the Bolognese.....
Nice pasta awaits.
Breaking from the pack, I sprint uphill along the same route used by the famous Giro d'Italia bike race. (In-your-face, German couple.) Whoosh. At the 2235-meter summit of Passo Pordoi, I'm now legendary cyclist Fausto Coppi. (Il Campionissimo.) I envision the cheering crowds as I pass the souvenir shops, restaurants, and buses full of tourists with cameras. At lunch we drink refreshing apple scholay (apple cider and sparkling water) and enjoy more hearty pasta. This is what it's all about: hard biking with breaks to eat delicious Italian food while witnessing a panoramic extravaganza on the senses. Battle scars now map my legs. While eating, an abundance of ambulances whiz by on the roadway heading up the mountain.
Andreas sardonically explains: "The motorcyclists hate the bikers. The bikers hate the hikers. Everyone hates everyone."
More pasta. More ambulances.
The cable car takes us up to 2,950-meter mark at Sass Pordoi. ("The Panoramic Terrace of the Dolomites.") After executing further tough terrain I start to get a little cocky. Come'on German couple! You're holding me up. I'm from America. You can ride along with me.......if you can keep up! I'M MAD WITH POWER!
I floor it down a field of non-ironic edelweiss set in a peaceful meadow; like you'd see in the movie Sound of Music. (Am I humming the theme song to Heidi?) I whirl past Andreas. Throwing my head back, I emit a huge belly laugh. One month of training and look at me go. Perhaps I'm the greatest natural downhill mountain biker in the history of the game? Clearly I've got this mastered!
Sky, grass, sky, grass, Dolomites, grass, German couple, grass, sky, Dolomites......
On the easiest, wide-open meadow I've hit a loose piece of gravel. Now I'm flying off my bike head-over-ass style. Thoughts go through my head. Will I ever play the violin again? Did I leave the iron on in my house!? Will I have to eat all my food out of a straw!!? Thud! Once the rolling stops, I immediately jump up and blurt, "I'm all right!" (For some reason I don't want to ruin everyone's day.) Blood gushes from my appendages. (Did I break my arm? Is this what a broken arm feels like?) Pain shoots from my fingertips to the top of my head. An elderly Italian couple stares in horror. Where are my six Austrian nurses?
"Sit down and put some water on it," Andreas advises as he pulls out bandages from his first aid kit. (This explains all the ambulances.) Is there anything for a bruised ego? I'm not so Mr-Big-and-Clever now.
"The best thing is to do is just get back on the bike," Andreas calmly recommends while patching me up.
True. At the top of the mountain there's only one way down. When you fall off a horse you just get back on. (Except the horse isn't soaring down an Italian mountain at ridiculous speeds on loose gravel.)
So, I get back on my bike and continue down the mountain with white-grip knuckles on my breaks. I bike for the rest of the day, wincing in pain, while the German couple constantly has to wait for me now at the bottom. A precautionary trip to the Italian hospital follows. I've officially been christened a hardened Dolomite biker-with the battle scars to prove it. What's a little pain when I've had one of the most amazing adventures in my life set amongst dramatic and beautiful landscape? I proudly wear my battle scars and leave Italy both hooked on the Dolomites and biking. Arrivederci Dolomites--we shall meet again.
I will soon shave my legs.