Often the modern way is the former and when a cyclist considers a trip to the Dolomites he or she might think that they already know a great deal about what to expect. But, like many things in life, the area of the Dolomites is far more intricate, complex and nuanced than we who do not know it well would allow for. Fans of the Giro will know the famous road climbs. Keen Gran Fondisti (for this is what participants of a Gran Fondo are called) will know and possibly curse the climbs of the area’s most famous mass participation events.
But this is not what we are here for. We come for the second kind of a trip: one that we have no idea how it might be and, even better from my point of view, will change my preconceived ideas of a few things. Not only the area of the Dolomites but also the bikes that we are riding too. But I shall come to that shortly. First off I must explain what we are doing here in an usually warm valley in the midst of an usually warm Italian summer…
The purpose of this trip is twofold: firstly we will be riding the first part of a brand new route for a Rolling Dreamers tour that will be launched for 2023 but (and this is the second preconception busting part I mentioned earlier) we will be doing this on two brand new 3T models, the Ultra and the RaceMax Boost. For the last season I have ridden a RaceMax – across Norway, the four main Canary Islands and Florence to Rome multiple times, not to mention the single day rides of Nova Eroica, Strade Bianche etc – it’s fair to say I know this bike well. So I am keen to see how these two models compare to their only slightly older sibling.
The Ultra, in case you missed it, is aerodynamically optimised for 55-61mm WAM tyres and has a wider downtube near the front tyre. The design started with the tyre width and the whole bike was then built around that. This extra width better redirects the air coming off that bigger front tyre so it’s still aero. It also has a round seat post so you can fit a standard, dropper or suspension post. This bike is the result of feedback from RaceMax riders who wanted a more extreme gravel bike. And they got one. It is lively and reactive, I feel like when I got my first mountain bike in 1993; I want to ride it everywhere, exploring the limits of what it can do. It is stable and capable but still fast and makes me wish we could do some more extreme trails…
Matteo and Maurizio (henceforth referred to in my head as M&M) are also riding the new Ultras and are the organisers of our trip: Matteo of the Rolling Dreamers and Maurizio of Dolomitics; a combination of enthusiastic expert and knowledgable local.
They have planned a kind of behind-the-scenes view of the Dolomites and talking to Maurizio I feel a shared passion for aiding outsiders in a journey of discovery. As someone who has lived in Tuscany and led tours there for 13 years, I know what it’s like when new arrivals come with already-formed ideas in their head of what a place is like and how it will be. Certainly, on this trip they will show us what we expect from the Dolomites but also give us that surprise and insight that cannot be planned for if you aren’t shown where to look…
We begin in the Val di Fiemme at 4:30am. Yes, that is correct, half past four in the morning. I am told that there will be a sunrise in approximately an hour and a half and if, for the small matter of a few measly minutes of sleep, I miss this, I will regret it for the rest of my life. And I am also the trip photographer. So when my alarm rings I raise myself for the walk. On the way up to the Corno Bianco I am told this will be a possible activity for the tour but strictly optional and on request but when we arrive at the top as the light begins to increase I grudgingly admit to myself that I am glad I woke up early. In fact, I wonder if it shouldn’t be mandatory as I cannot imagine anyone would regret standing on a peaceful mountain top at dawn. It works like reset. There was everything that came before: the journey here, work and life stress and now everything that comes after.
But before what comes after is breakfast. If ever I have deserved a chocolate croissant it’s now, sandwiched between a fasted hike and a long bike ride. So I allow myself a couple. The first day in the Val di Fiemme is an introduction that makes an immediate impact: castles cling improbably to hilltops, the wooden houses that are typical of the area line the cycle path as we pedal into cycling paradise. Tinkling rivers with blue water run alongside us. The water fountains here have no on and off, no tap or spigot, they just run with clear and clean spring water all day long.
Our first stop is to embrace a grand old gentleman of the forest: he is over two hundred years old and goes by the name of El Pezo del Gazolin. This five metre thick spruce is a wonder to behold, somehow displaying a static gracefulness, towering over the rest of the forest. Not far away is the Cavalese waterfalls and despite the current heatwave that has Italy sweltering, the water still feels icy cold and Maurizio shows his Man of The Dolomites credentials wading through without a wince, his shoes thoughtfully hung on his handlebars.
For the second part of our ride we remain on the vast plateau, riding through the Passo Lavazze and onto the Oclini Pass which is dominated by the Corno Bianco and Corno Nero on either side. Each one provides its own backdrop simultaneously as we pedal along. This is the recurring theme here: improbable views, each one vast and more incredible than the last. I try my best to capture it, scrambling up hillsides to get in a good position before the others ride past. In my task
I am aided by my (not so secret) secret weapon: for this part of the ride I am on a RaceMax Boost – an ebike or e-gravel bike to be more precise. “Do you feel no shame!” I hear some of you shout, “call yourself a cyclist?!” Well, no and yes I’m cyclist!
The tide is turning towards acceptance of assisted pedalling and this new bike has shown me why. Not only is it lighter, the display is now clearer, showing the level of battery more effectively. I ride with the group with the minimum of assistance, my heart rate showing the same effort I would expect to expend on a regular bike but when it is needed, because of photographic need or perhaps just because I feel like it, I can get an extra bit of power to get ahead of, or catch up with, the group. Best of all, the bike still handles like a RaceMax because it is one, albeit with a battery in the frame and a motor in the rear hub. The extra 3 kilos is still less than my camera bag and seems a very small price to pay for the assistance and also, it’s a lot of fun. And isn’t that why we ride bikes after all?
The ride towards the Val di Fassa takes us through the Predazzo gorge. Bridges ancient and modern carry us as we criss-cross the river and arrive at the Stramentizzo dam. We stay deep in the forest and when we eventually emerge, the Pale di San Martino looms large on the horizon. Still 2 kms to go and then we are at the top for a lunch stop before the Luisa pass. This for me is the highlight of the day; I have ridden it from the other direction when Matteo and Maurizio were first considering the route of this tour and its winding white trails are a photographer’s dream with the ever present mountain backdrop. We spend a considerable amount of time here, riding back and forth, as the drone operators are also seemingly captivated by the surroundings.
Though I don’t know what lies ahead, I decide to go on to see if I can get myself in a good spot for a shot and then I find it. Paradise, in the form of a two up, two down house, nestled in its own mini valley, a clear stream running past. It doesn’t look real. The rest of the group arrive and as we stare, a lady emerges and waves. We approach the house and are greeted by her two dogs, one huge, one small. She has been mushroom picking and for a few glorious minutes we sit in her garden and chat about the house. Sure, come winter it’ll be a different story but at this moment, it is perfect.
One last loop ride awaits us on the final day. Once the tour is launched there will be an extra day to do the Sella Ronda loop, a legendary ride in the Dolomites and a must-do for any cyclist but our group have work commitments and so we must content ourselves to finish by riding the Latemar. A wide open sumptuous green space amidst steep rock faces with perfectly manicured gravel bike paths and trails. I pull out my phone to make a video, to talk to the camera but find myself at a loss for words. I have been to the Dolomites before and I thought I knew what to expect. But this is exactly what this trip and what the eventual tour will be about: showing people this place, revealing it to them from the perspective of a local and an expert. As someone who has done this for years in Tuscany it makes such a strong impression on me experiencing it from the other side. It is the best kind of surprise, one that makes a lasting impression and forever changes your perspective in a place.