The rain thundered down heavily all night, waking me up at points due to its intensity. So, sure enough, when I emerged from the Rifugio in the morning it was into a different world than the sun-baked hillside of the previous evening. Instead heavy fog now obscured all around me apart from the Rifugio itself, the structure of now sodden wood alone, an island in a sea of clouds, seemingly cut adrift from the world up here above 2,300 metres.
After a continental breakfast and coffee, I loaded my bicycle and began pushing up some steep singletrack. The Schlüterhütte soon vanished from view behind me, swallowed up by the drifting clouds.
At the top of this hill, a huge syringe materialized from the nothingness. Amazingly, I wasn’t seeing things and this was just an art installation by a Spanish artist. Why it ended up here on this remote hillside, I have no idea.
From the top of this hill, I was able to start cycling again. For the next twenty minutes, I followed some rough singletrack which swept along like a rollercoaster through the clouds. Occasionally, the clouds would part briefly allowing me a view down to meadows and alpine huts far below me before the clouds would sweep in, hiding everything from view again
At points the track got quite steep and loose and I had to get off and walk my bike down these sections. I never like walking descents, but my rear seatpack meant that I couldn’t get my weight back over the saddle which made these steep descents much trickier than they would be on a regular, unloaded mountain bike. Moreover, being alone up here in these mountains, still a good ride from the nearest road meant I was a bit more risk-averse than usual when it came to these descents.
Down out of the higher mountains and onto smoother gravel tracks now, I cruised through beautiful meadows, at one point seeing a chunky marmot running away upon hearing me and hiding under an alpine hut. I continued along, sweeping through the clouds until finally I lost enough elevation to be dropped out of this mist-filled world and could see the village of Longiaru far below.
I swept downhill steeply, down hairpin after hairpin, past wonderful, quirky wooden carvings all the way down to the village of Longiaru. Being a Sunday everything was closed, but I had expected this and had enough food with me to get me through the day and a night of wild camping all going well.
From Longiaru I descended along the road, at one point passing two other bikepackers climbing against me. I wasn’t sure on the etiquette for stopping to talk with other cycle tourers or bikepackers here in continental Western Europe. On my big overland trips, it would have been rude not to stop for a chat, but Western Europe was different. Cycle touring was so popular here that stopping to chat was a rarity and sometimes people wouldn’t even respond to a hello, or a wave; instead they would look at you confused as if the camaraderie was non-existent.
I was new to the whole bikepacking scene but being a smaller subset I wasn’t sure if I should stop or not when I saw these two. Considering I was already speeding down a tarmac hill, I settled on a friendly wave, which they returned without any strange and confused looks.
After some further tarmac descending, I reached a little river track, which made for some tranquil cycling all the way to the next village of Piccolino.
From the ski village of Piccolino, the Trans-Dolomiti route followed a trail high up the steep river valley, meanwhile the busy main road stuck to the base of the valley. When I arrived at the start of this trail, I found a sign stating that it was closed. Not one to let things like this stop me, I continued until I came across some barriers stating that this track really was closed! The barriers had been pushed aside though, and this surely had to be for a reason, so stubbornly I continued on. A bit further on, I came across some boulders which had been placed across the trail, just in case anyone hadn’t got the message that the trail was closed!
I believe a common trait amongst nearly all cycle travellers is the unwillingness to turn around and retrace your steps. This instinct was in full effect, so I rounded the boulders and forged on up the trail, climbing up into the higher reaches of the steep valley.
I didn’t get too far before I found out why the trail had been closed. There were over 100 fallen trees across the track! These had all collapsed from the steep hillside above, falling onto the path below and crushing the wooden safety barriers beneath.
Fortunately, however, someone had done a great job of clearing a path through most of these. So I ducked and jumped off my bike, making slow progress but progress nonetheless. I was hoping that there wouldn’t be an impassable landslide at some point, but thankfully it didn’t come to pass, and even at the worst blockage, I was still able to lift my bicycle over the largest fallen tree.
It was a great little adventure, and I enjoyed forging on along this little used path, following the tiniest of tracks through the thousands of fallen pine needles as I ducked under the 100+ fallen trees, the mountain having done its best to return the track to nature.
At the end of the trail, I was deposited onto a tarmac road and began a sustained climb towards Fanes national park. As with most climbs in the Dolomites it was quite gruelling, but nowhere near as steep as the off-road climbs here.
As I neared Fanes National Park, more of those ubiquitous stark grey pillars and cliffs of the Dolomites came into view, and I enjoyed slowly closing in on them, knowing that I was about to begin climbing right into their midst again.
As I closed in on the entrance to the national park, the heavens opened and torrential rain started plummeting from the sky. This kind of thunderous mountain rain is the kind you so rarely see in Ireland where we are used to a more lighter, but persistent, misery-inducing rain that sinks in for days at a time.
Knowing that this would be an intermittent burst of heavy rain, I sprinted hard to make it to a distant shelter which marked the entrance to the national park before I got too wet. I needn’t have tried, for within a minute, the sheer intensity of the rain ensured I was absolutely soaked to the skin and couldn’t really have gotten any wetter.
Nonetheless, I wanted to get out of the downpour, so I pedalled blindly onwards, barely able to see a thing through my glasses, until I reached the wooden shelter. Here I pulled up alongside a local road cyclist who had the same idea. The shelter itself was locked, so we had to stand close to it and use the overhanging roof to block the rain. Other than us, we also had to share our little shelter with a few cows who would take to nibbling the Italian cyclist’s bike on occasion.
I chatted away with the Italian cyclist here for a while. He lived nearby and regularly cycled up to the nearby Pederu guesthouse, situated at the end of the tarmac road leading into Fanes National Park. He stated that the Pederu guesthouse was almost like his paradise away from home, somewhere he could cycle to get away from it all and sit down in the sunshine with a drink and good food. It was a really nice sentiment, but I had a feeling there would be no outdoor eating or drinking in this inclement weather.
When he heard I was Irish, he looked at the water bottle in my bicycle’s bottle cage disapprovingly and immediately queried, “But where is the beer!?” There are some stereotypes you can never escape as an Irishman!
On a more flattering note, he also exclaimed his surprise when he noticed that my mountain bike did not have a battery attached. He told me it was very unusual to see mountain bikers around here without e-bikes beneath them, so he gave me a big thumbs up for tackling these steep hills without one. In fact, thinking about it, every single mountain bike I had seen over the previous day and a half was an e-bike. I guessed it made sense considering the steepness of the off-road trails here, but was still a surprise considering that the take-up of e-bikes in Ireland has been relatively low.
When the rain finally eased off, we both continued again, my new friend soon disappearing into the distance at a much faster pace. The rain would continue to fall sporadically as I climbed up through this narrow corridor of rock, winding up through the dripping wet forest at the base of the valley, up to the Pederu guesthouse.
As I reached the Pederu guesthouse, the clouds really swept in and I would be left battling heavier rain for the entirety of the day. Here the tarmac ended abruptly and I passed through a wooden gate, beginning a viciously steep, off-road climb up into the mountains.
This off-road climb would take me from 1,536 metres up to the Limo Pass at 2,172 metres, ascending over 600 metres in just six kilometres. Thankfully there was a short plain at the halfway point to break up those six kilometres of climbing, taking the edge off the ascent. Nonetheless, I was still amazed at the sustained steepness of these climbs. I had never seen anything like this in Europe before. In fact I think the roads of Borneo and Sulawesi are the only places where the roads matched those of the Dolomites for their aggressive steepness.
Up I continued through the rain, slipping and sliding over the wet gravel as I ascended higher and higher into the clouds. As I ascended further into the mountains, the rain fell heavier, a fog descended upon me and I found myself shivering despite wearing three layers, including a ski jacket.
Just like the previous day, the sustained steepness of the climbing took its toll on my lower back, and I had to get off and push on many occasions. By the time I reached the wooden chalet of Rifugio Fanes (at 2,060 metres, just 100 vertical metres shy of the Limo pass) I was soaked through, shivering and absolutely exhausted.
My original plan had been to grab a hot meal at this Rifugio, and then wild camp in a forest somewhere on the descent. Considering the bad weather though, this plan was quickly thrown aside. I knew that if I stepped inside the Rifugio that I wouldn’t have the fortitude to force myself back out into the cold rain again, so as comforting as the warm Rifugio looked, I pedalled right on by and pushed my bicycle up a loose, rocky trail for another fifteen minutes to the summit of the Limo Pass.
On the exposed, grassy, boulder-strewn slopes at the top of this pass, amongst the driving rain and a swirling wind, I assessed my options. I had a big descent ahead of me through this freezing weather. I was already shivering from the cold here due to the rain having permeated through every piece of clothing I had on. My lower back was in pain again, and the saddle sores from my King Alfred’s Way cycle three weeks previously had opened up again thanks to the chafing of my sopping wet cycling shorts.
I could have forced myself to wild camp in a saturated forest under the driving rain, but considering the poor state my body was in, and the fact the ski town of Cortina d’Ampezzo – with its affordable out-of-season accommodation – lay just twenty kilometres and 1,000 metres below me, I decided to aim for this.
With such a long descent ahead of me, and considering the concerning rattling of my chattering teeth, I threw on a dry base layer and did my best to wring out as much water as I could from my gloves, cycling shirt and ski jacket. I also did my best to clear my glasses which were turning the world into a blurry mess. This wasn’t such an issue during the climb, but on a loose, hairy descent you really want your vision to be clear as can be!
I knew I had made the right choice not to wild camp just one kilometre into the descent. By that stage my hands were going numb and I was shivering violently again despite putting on the dry base layer just minutes previously. From that first kilometre, I knew this was going to be a brutal descent, but the thought of a hot shower, a heated room and a pizza at the end of it gave me the motivation to push on.
Down I went, struggling to see through the rain and my wet glasses as I attempted to take the best lines through the mess of loose gravel and rocks. It was a painfully slow process, one made worse by my numb hands and stinging saddle sores. The water and salt in my cycling shorts had tenderised me over the course of the day, and I now found it difficult to even sit down. So, instead I had to stand up for the majority of the descent on swollen feet while my calves, which felt like taut bungee cords, struggled under the strain, threatening to cramp the whole way down. All I could do was simply grit my teeth and count down the passing kilometres.
The rain thickened even further as the minutes passed by, until I was descending through a torrential downpour. I was desperately looking for a shelter, but after nearly ten kilometres, I had passed nothing of use. So, instead I cosied up to a sizeable tree – which protected me slightly from the rain – and danced around in a vain attempt to keep myself warm. I did have some more dry clothes in my bags, but I didn’t want to put those on and wet them too, just in case I couldn’t make it off the mountain and had to wild camp up here. Having a set of dry clothes to change into would prove invaluable in that situation.
I had hoped the rain would die off while I was sheltering under the tree, but it seemed it was down for the evening. So, I forced myself back on the bike and continued the painfully slow descent. Thankfully, I soon reached a two kilometre climb. I knew that this would warm me up, so I forced myself down into the saddle, roaring in agony as the raw, tender flesh molded around the sharp edges of my saddle. I gritted my teeth and pedalled hard, warming myself up as I flung myself into the climb.
From the top this climb, I just had eight kilometres of descending (and constant whinging!) remaining until I reached Cortina d’Ampezzo. This started with a descent through the slippery mud of a thick coniferous forest before I dropped onto a gravel track along the side of another steep river valley. Here the rain had turned the track into a series of streams. I splashed through these for the next thirty minutes, shivering madly, barely able to see through my glasses. I wanted to get to a warm hotel room as soon as possible, but had to keep holding my speed back due to my obstructed vision.
Over two hours after starting the descent, I arrived at a smooth, tarmac cycling track. Here, I could finally relax, for I no longer had to worry about crashing on the slick off-road descent due to my blurred vision.
At the bottom of this cycling track, I was deposited into the clean, charming pedestrian streets of Cortina d’Ampezzo. I looked very out of place here amongst the well-dressed Italians as I limped through the town on swollen feet while mud and water dripped behind me!
I quickly found a cheap hotel in the middle of the town, which looked unpretentious enough that they wouldn’t mind the trail of water I would leave between the front door and my room. Once I had paid up and locked my bicycle in the basement, I headed straight for my room, immediately throwing off my heavy, wet clothes and putting them in the shower before jumping in myself. The hot water felt amazing, bringing life back into my chilled body. With my body and clothes washed, I wrung out every piece of clothing, partly dried them using the towel stamping trick and hung them up to dry.
With this done I could finally lie down and take note of how my body felt. My back was incredibly stiff after the day’s effort and my saddle sores and chafing cuts were pretty severe thanks to having cycled in sopping wet clothes for the previous six hours.
I was now 100km into the 265km Trans-Dolomiti, with just 3,700m of the 9,400m of climbing completed. I would see how I felt in the morning but my initial feeling was that I had bitten off more than I could chew considering my back injury and my lack of cycling time since recovering. I had managed the King Alfred’s Way, but this was another kettle of fish. This was the fucking Dolomites! Coming here overweight, lacking fitness, still very much recovering from a herniated disc and with an arse not accustomed to hours in the saddle, I was asking for trouble. My mind always has a habit of telling my body it can do things it can’t or shouldn’t, and this was very much the case here.
I didn’t want to further damage my back or make this, what was supposed to be an enjoyable escape away from the hecticness of work, an exercise in pure hardship and misery. Therefore I decided that I would see how I felt in the morning. If my back was still in a bad way I would take the day off to recover and then take a road shortcut skipping part of the Trans-Dolomiti. It was sad to potentially fail in completing the full route, but I had to put my injury first and act sensibly for once!
That night I did my best to take my mind off the pain by getting a huge takeaway pizza, beer and coke and watching one of the weekend’s matches from the Rugby Championship. Needless to say I fell asleep very, very easily that night.