Distance: 37.36km | Climbing: 2,252m – Click here for GPS Route
One of the good things about an expensive hotel is that you usually get a filling breakfast and good coffee. Knowing that I had a rather ridiculous amount of climbing ahead of me today, I loaded up on food and coffee until I could take no more. This was followed by a waddle down to the nearby boulangerie to buy some freshly baked chocolate croissants. I also picked up several packs of chocolate biscuits afterwards, my usual staple for a long day of cycling.
With food for the day taken care of, I showed up at the hotel’s reception desk with all my bags packed. Thankfully, it turned out that the owner had actually been offering me a lift to the bike rental place, and I wasn’t left standing there awkwardly.
This kind gesture made for a nice start to the day, as I was dropped right at the door of the bike rental shop. Here, I was given a KTM 29er hardtail which looked perfect for the job. I strapped both my seatpack and handlebar bag onto it and threw my pedals on before hitting the road a bit later than expected, at 10am. This would put me under a bit of pressure for the day as apparently my reservation for the night’s Refugio (a wooden hut in the mountains frequented by long-distance hikers who stay overnight) was only valid until 6 p.m. and getting there involved a staggering 2,250 metres of climbing, the majority of which would be off-road.
So, I wasted no time in loading up the Trans-Dolomiti gpx file on the Komoot app, attaching my phone to handlebars, and setting off down the river path south out of Brixen-Bressanone. I instantly felt relaxed here by the calm azure water of the Eisack river flowing gently alongside me as I cruised southwards.
After crossing the river on a wooden footbridge, I was soon thrust into the beginning of what would be a monstrous climb up into the Dolomites. Straight away I was out of breath as the gradient of the tarmac climb hit 10%. On the bright side I was able to take in the beauty of the small Italian villages I was passing through at a snail’s pace, seeing all the wonderful chalets and churches in detail.
After some considerable effort I reached a barrier which marked the beginning of the off-road climbing. Here, the track got even steeper, with the addition of loose gravel to contend with. Up and up I climbed through a heavily forested river valley full of wild flowers. Despite it now being past 11 a.m., the valley was so deep that it was still cast in shadow. The cold of the previous night still lay undisturbed here in the depths of the valley, and with the chill radiating from the nearby river, it felt like a change in climate zones.
The going was so steep that I needed to take a long break to catch my breath with every 100 vertical metres gained. These breaks were then punctuated with even more breaks each time I passed a particularly beautiful spot.
In the valley I was climbing up, there was just enough space for the river and a narrow, gravel track, wedged in side by side. The river was my constant companion as I battled upwards. When the gradient was manageable, the river would flow gently and smoothly alongside me, mirroring how relaxed I was. But the moment the gradient pitched upwards, the river would flow faster, gushing noisily as rapids formed. And then when the track pitched up to 20%, the river would rage beside me, matching my ragged breathing and the battle I was fighting.
Eventually, after a sweaty battle I emerged from the track onto a road, and collapsed against a wooden fence, cursing every one of those extra kilos I had put on since my back injury had forced me to stop all forms of exercise.
All morning I had been hidden deep within the confines of a thick coniferous forest, but after a few more kilometres of climbing, I finally emerged. In front of me the first bare rock pinnacles of the Dolomites rose starkly, their dark grey rock standing out brilliantly against the blue sky. Despite how out of breath and fatigued I was already due to my terrible state of fitness, it was all immediately forgotten at that one sight.
From there the views continued to astound as I wound higher and higher along another tarmac road, right towards the base of these bare peaks.
Upon reaching the base of these peaks, the route took a turn down a steep, gravelly track through more coniferous forest. As I reached the bottom of this descent the trees peeled away to my left to reveal another magnificent, wider vista of these peaks with green meadows leading up to them. I was only half-way through my first day in the Dolomites and even if my back injury put a stop to my journey right then, I could have travelled back home a happy man. These views were nothing short of incredible. I couldn’t help but smile widely as I cycled beneath these majestic peaks.
After descending into the green meadows, I reached a little church where I could refill my bottles yet again. I wasn’t sure how frequent water sources were on this route, so I was using every opportunity I could find to stock up.
From the church, I started into my second big climb of the day, another brutal affair averaging 10%. My body was in no state for this level of continuous climbing, but I had chosen to take on one of the steepest, hilliest bikepacking routes in Europe, so there was no point in complaining!
By the time I had finally emerged from the forest and reached the bare, sun-scorched slopes at the 2,000 metre mark, my back had packed in. I had simply pushed myself too hard today. Each pedal stroke at this gradient was now sending shooting pains up my lower back, so I had no choice but to get off and push, knowing that four more days of this intensity still lay ahead of me.
I had only been back on the bike for three months since my injury and neither had the fitness nor the back strength built up for a route like this. I knew this before I left home, but I was just so eager to go off on another adventure that I decided to risk it. My fears had proven true, so now I just had to do my best to manage the situation. On the positive side, I had still managed to pedal up 2,000 vertical metres before I had to get off and push, which meant that I might still have some hope of completing the full Trans-Dolomiti route if I could carefully manage the injury.
For the last forty-five minutes of the day, I pushed and dragged my bike up the steep track to the Schlüterhütte, taking constant breaks. The gradient hit 20% regularly, and even pushing my bike became a struggle at these points in my exhausted state.
Finally, I rounded a corner to see the welcoming sight of the wooden chalet sitting at 2,306 metres above sea level. I pushed the last few metres to the door, arriving at 5:30 p.m. cutting it fairly tight. If I had faced any mechanicals or punctures, I might have arrived past the 6 p.m. cut-off and found my room taken.
I had never stayed at a Rifugio before, so I was looking forward to an interesting evening. There were two showers in the hut to accommodate the 40+ hikers that were all arriving at the same time (as it turned out, being a Saturday night, every single bed in the chalet seemed to be booked out in advance meaning that I had made the right choice making a reservation a few days previously). This led to a lengthy queue and despite showers being limited to five minutes to help speed up the process, some Italians had gamed the system by buying two shower tokens and getting their friends to wait outside and put the second one in when their five minutes were up!
That evening, everyone sat down at dinner for the same time as seems to be the custom in many of these Rifugios. A great meal followed, with everyone crowded around the small number of tables. It was here that I regretted not being able to converse properly in German, for this is the language the majority of tables were speaking in. It seemed I was the only non-German/Italian staying there that evening.
Nonetheless, I focused on the great drink and food, enjoying a great draught beer, a ham omelette and roast schnitzel with chips, making for a great end to what had been a wonderful day on the bike.
As I went to bed that night, I could hear rain thundering against the window panes of my room and the wind howling outside. Due to this change in weather, I knew the next day would be a different story, but for now I was completely content at having experienced such a pleasurable day of cycling through gorgeous scenery in perfect sunshine. Whatever the next four days had in store, the long journey out here had been worth it for this first day of cycling alone.