My day off had done me the world of good. I didn’t feel any back pain as I got out of bed, my saddle sores and chafing felt healed, and I had a lot more energy in general. Since starting this route I had felt generally fatigued and would find myself out of breath easily, so it felt amazing to wake up fresh and full of energy like this.
After breakfast, I loaded up my bike outside the hotel. While doing this I was passed by an older gentleman who was also staying at the hotel, who was loading up his touring e-bike and that of his friends nearby. Being another cycle tourer, I smiled and said hello, but was roundly ignored apart from a strange look he gave me – the kind of look where he thought there was something very wrong with me – before walking on by. It looks like my theory a few days previously on the lack of camaraderie between European cycle tourers was very much correct!
With the bike loaded, I pedalled out of town and was immediately thrown into the inevitable morning climb up a steep tarmac road. This road, which led all the way to the top of the Falzarego Pass, was quite busy and this led to a few impatient maneuvers from the local Italian drivers and the throngs of German and Austrian tourists who were eager to get past me. One overtake on a blind corner was particularly notable as the oncoming car had to come to an absolute stop to avoid a collision. Apart from the traffic, however, this was a beautiful climb, allowing me a clear view of the rugged, cloud swept peaks on the far side of the valley.
After a few kilometres of ascending this busy road, the Trans-Dolomiti diverted onto a gravel track. This wasted no time in pitching upwards at a ridiculous gradient. Knowing how fragile my back was, and that I was in no rush today, I got off and started pushing immediately. Even pushing ended up being a struggle here though, as the gradient hit 29% at one point. My feet would slip back through the loose gravel with each step I took up this ridiculous hill!
When I emerged back onto the tarmac and more gradual gradient of the Falzarego climb everything felt easy again. I glided up the gentle slope, enjoying the view of the grey cliffs and pillars of the Dolomites that I was starting to close in on once more.
Soon enough I reached the turn off for the Cinque Torri (Five Towers). At this point I came across an armoured military vehicle with two separate cabs running on caterpillar treads, with a huge cannon hitched to the rear cab. This was stuck trying to do a three point turn and was soon causing a traffic jam. After managing to slip by it, I began the long single lane tarmac climb up to the Cinque Torri Rifugio.
This single lane tarmac road rose steeply through a thick coniferous forest, so thick that the sun rarely reached me as I spent the next hour ascending through the forest’s long shadows.
Along the way there was total silence, apart from a fighter jet that would do occasional flybys. Each time this flew overhead, the noise would echo across the hillside with a resounding boom which felt so much louder due to the total silence preceding it.
Upon reaching the Rifugio I found out why there was an armoured vehicle dragging a cannon up the mountain and why a fighter jet was flying low overhead. It turned out that the Italian military were holding a huge drill on the mountain with over a hundred troops, helicopters, a fighter jet and numerous other vehicles involved.
I grabbed a quick double espresso at the Rifugio before continuing upwards, pushing my bicycle up the steep gravel track to where the military were holding their drill. Thankfully the path to the top of the next hill (where Rifugio Scoiattoli was located) was clear and I was able to sit back above this Rifugio and watch the military finish off their drills.
After the military finished their drills, I pushed all the way up the final hill, up to Rifugio Averau at 2,413 metres, the highest point of my Trans-Dolomiti cycle. Again, I was amazed at the steepness of these tracks as I hauled my bicycle up the steep, gravel slopes step by step. I would frequently stop to catch my breath and turn around and take in the magnificent view of the rock pillars of Cinque Torri. The views up here in the Dolomites were truly one of a kind.
After reaching Averau, I took a long break to wolf down some cookies while I soaked up the vertiginous view. Up here I got talking to a French hiker from Montpellier and had a lovely chat about hiking and photography while he waited for his wife (who he cheekily bragged was much younger than him!) who was climbing a steeper nearby peak.
After a nice break, I hopped back on the bike again and checked my map. It was at this point that I was set to leave the Trans-Dolimiti behind temporarily, taking a shortcut off the mountain which led to the Falzarego pass.
One of the huge benefits of following these previously ridden and mapped out bikepacking routes is that you know the terrain is going to be mostly rideable and if not, it will at least be walkable. This was the case for the last two and a half days of riding. Now, however, I was leaving the known path behind and taking an unknown route down the mountain. Hiking path #441 as it turned out.
This hiking path wasted no time in testing my mettle, disappearing as a narrow track across a steep scree slope, like shallow scar cut into the mountain. I knew that if I fell off the side, me and my bike would continue rolling for some time. So I swallowed my pride and pushed my bike along the track, at one point meeting two German-speaking women hiking towards me.
“I don’t think you will be able to go this way by the bicycle,” the second of the women said, looking at me with concern and astonishment. At the point where I met her, I had to lower my bike down a large rock step. She saw me struggling and tried to drive home her point, “There is worse than this ahead. There are points where we had to climb using our hands.”
I thanked her for her concern and told her I would be careful. Just to make sure I had no other option, I also double checked my map to ensure there was no other way northwards off this mountain. All paths led in the wrong direction apart from another potential hiking path which involved a lot of backtracking. I had no way of knowing the terrain of that path, but I at least knew from satellite images that Hiking Path #441 should be manageable, so I decided to risk it and press on.
Not long after passing the women, I rounded a corner and the path started descending sharply out of view. I could see exactly what the women were talking about. The track descended straight down through a boulder-filled gully consisting of steep rock steps and loose rocks balanced precariously in between.
At this point, in a moment of good fortune, a German-speaking hiker passed me who also voiced his concerns about me getting the bike down here. We continued at the same pace, and thankfully he was able to help me out by letting me pass my bicycle down to him at two points where I had lower it down large rock steps.
I thanked him for helping me out, making my journey down far easier than it could have been. From the bottom of this gully, I had to drag my bicycle through some loose boulders and even walk it down a steep gravel track before I could hop back on. From here, I enjoyed a rapid descent along more gravel until the track narrowed into some beautiful singletrack which wound like a serpent all the way down to the Falzarego Pass, its tail depositing me in the corner of it’s bustling carpark.
Here I took the obligatory photo at the summit sign of the pass, that brief feeling of accomplishment that usually comes with summiting missing as I had descended down to this point, reversing the usual trend.
From here I threw myself into a flowing tarmac descent, my guilty feeling at having skipped a portion of the official Trans-Dolomiti route soon forgotten as I swept around hairpin after hairpin, through a long tunnel, flying through coniferous forest as I glided out of the higher reaches of the Dolomites.
In my younger days, and certainly on my world tour, I used to throw myself into these descents with raw abandon, racing trucks to the bottom, feeling a rush as I pulled out to overtake them as I careered wildly downhill until the road eventually flattened out and my adrenaline and heart rate started flattening out with it.
But here, maybe due to the fact that I had spent three days mostly in the midst of nature, away from any tarmac for hours at a time, I was a bit daunted by the trucks, cars and bikes flying around the corners of this hairy descent. Either way, I took the descent far easier than I usually would, less of an adrenaline rush and more of a joyful glee filling me as I descended instead.
From the base of this descent I traversed a lush valley, heading for the ski town of Arabba which had the cheapest hotel I could find in this region (€42) which I hoped would allow my back and saddle sores to recover before the last day of cycling back to Brixen-Bressanone. It was a shame that I would not get to use my camping gear on this trip, but I needed to do what was best for my body here.
This road was again, absolutely gorgeous and I enjoyed breathing all of this scenery in, remembering how fortunate I was to be here. My eyes, having been starved of scenery on this grand of a scale for so long kept gazing, as if trying to fill up on it, knowing the long droughts that might happen if borders close again if another more deadly variant arrives. I had to appreciate these moments as best as I could.
As I closed in on the last 200-metre climb to Arabba, a lean Italian road cyclist silently drifted past me, his tanned calves effortlessly gliding up the gradient. Always interested in pushing myself, I decided to tuck in behind him to see if I could keep pace. It was a struggle, and I ended up with ragged breathing, nearly hyperventilating. At one point the cyclist looked behind him, seemingly concerned about the desperate noises I was making. Finally, I reached the hotel at the top of the hill and broke away with a “Grazie, Caio”, which the cyclist responded to, smiling and waving back, perhaps just happy that the wheezing lunatic had left him alone.
I then proceeded to collapse over my handlebars in the hotel carpark and hyperventilate for several more minutes until my heart rate dropped down from 195 to something more reasonable. The hotel owner was potting plants nearby and gave me a similar look of concern as I struggled for air.
Finally, I could put a mask on and step inside. I was shown to a garage where I could put my bike and headed straight for a shower where I could clean out my saddle sores again.
Afterwards I headed to a nearby restaurant, fifty metres from the front door of the hotel and had two main courses (carbonara and fettuccine venison ragout) and a big glass of white wine, amazed at just how good the food was here in Italy. Literally thirty seconds from my hotel door, at the first restaurant I had found, there was amazing cuisine like this which matched anything I had eaten that year.
This meal rounded off another wonderful day of biking in the Dolomites. It was a shame to have shortcut the official route today, but I knew it was the right choice. An easier day of cycling, combined with my rest day in Cortina d’Ampezzo had left me feeling refreshed and I enjoyed this day of cycling a lot more because of it. Just one more day and 82 kilometres remained on the Trans-Dolomiti and I hoped to savour it as much as I could.