Saturday 28 November 2009

The 2009 Lost Boys Tour of Europe: the Sella Ronda

Me riding the Sella Ronda
(photo by Dr. Chef)

Thursday, August 13:  Having somewhat recovered after our “recovery” ride along the Weinstrasse, I was looking forward with great anticipation to the “Queen Stage” of our trip: the Sella Ronda.  I had read about this legendary route here at as well as getting a first-hand report on sections of it from my friend Will, who rode the Dolomite Marathon earlier in the year.

Although I had looked at a range of alternatives, including buses and trains, it was obvious that to get to the beginning fo this famous circuit we would need to charter a bus.  I arranged to do this but rather than a single large bus we had several minivans, which worked out quite well.  Of course, getting everyone out the door, group-photographed, bikes on racks and people in seats was a major undertaking.  On every trip there is always an issue of some kind and this trip was unique in that two bank cards and a credit card were lost.  On the plus side, there was only one crash, resulting in a bent handlebar, and a single flat tire during the entire trip.  Zeezu thinks we did this to him on purpose to slow him down on the Stelvio, when he discovered that European CO2 cartridges don’t necessarily work with U.S.-designed inflators...

Anyway, everyone was packed up and we headed off to our appointment with destiny on a beautiful sunny morning.  We drove up along a busy road, the S241, through the Valle d’Ega/Eggental, and it took us through several tunnels as the scenery became quite gorgeous.  My original plan had been to take the minivans up to Canazei and then after riding the Sella Ronda we would come back down this road to Bolzano, but it looked so unappealing as a cycling route that I was glad that I had gone to Plan B, which would bring us over the Nigrapass and down a very quiet secondary road back to Bolzano.

August 15 is Ferragosto, a religious holiday in Italy known in English as the Feast Day of the Assumption.  Before the Catholic Church co-opted it, the holiday was celebrated in the Roman Empire to honour the gods, particularly Diana, and mark the ripening of crops.  Italians are prone to take short holidays during Ferragosto and this was the big week for them.  Corey had explained that visitors come to Alte Adigo in huge numbers and the locals all leave then, and we were about to see this in action.

We climbed the Passo di Costalunga/Karerpass, which we would ride up from the other direction on our bikes, and I pointed out to everyone where the road branched off that would take us over the Nigrapass and back to town.  Soon we found ourselves in extremely heavy traffic, and the minivans crawled along through Vigo di Fasso, where we turned left on the road, S.48, that took us to Pozza di Fasso and Canazei.  It was only 47 kms from Bolzano to Canazei on excellent roads but it took us more than two hours for the trip.  I chatted with our driver, who had been a long-distance truck driver, and he pointed out the beautiful peaks around us.

Leaving Canazei

The traffic seemed to peter out in Canazei and our drivers let us out in a big parking lot that is used for tour buses.  The bicycles were unloaded and I got everyone together to go over the route once more since once we started climbing the group would break up and we would probably not see each other until Bolzano.  The route was simple: a big clockwise circle around the Sella group would bring us back to Canazei and then we would retrace our route over the Karerpass but then turn right on the road to the Nigrapass.  It would then be all downhill from there to Bolzano.

The first climb of the four on the Sella Ronda was the Passo di Sella.  It is 11.4 kms in length and averages 6.6 %, with a height gain of 758 m.  I found myself riding with three others from our group and we worked our way up steadily.  The road surface was good as we passed through some forest but the traffic was holiday-heavy.  Nonetheless, as we rode in single file the motorists were generally quite careful as they passed us.  We were all aiming for the summit of the Sella, which is at 2244 m ASL.  The road we were riding, the S.243, is marked as a yellow, or secondary, one and I was surprised how much traffic there was but this was obviously due to the time of year.  Without too much difficulty I rode a steady pace and we soon came to the top of the summit, which had the usual tourist kitsch shops and restaurants.  There were several big parking lots, full of visitors’ cars.  I was riding with Terry, one of our older stalwarts, and we could not find the summit sign so we just took photos in front of one of the shops.  The summit sign turned out to be a bit further down the road–at a lower altitude!

I stopped briefly in one of the parking lots to put on my windvest and arm warmers and it was here that we had our first view of the fabulous Sella massif.  The mountains are precisely what you think of when the Dolomites are mentioned.  It is a basically a large plateau and in winter you can actually ski around it using some of the ski lifts in the area.  The region is also one where Ladin, known as Romansch in Switzerland, is still spoken.

After enjoying our first unobstructed view of the Sella massif, we then dived down at high speed along the excellent roads towards our next goal, the Passo di Gardena/Grödner Joch.  I caught up to Janice at this point and we road along the quiet road carved into the edge of the massif.  The traffic had vanished; it seemed everyone wanted to just get to the top of the Passo di Sella.  It was also approaching lunchtime, something of great interest to everyone on holiday.

After descending about 400 m, we rode along a flat stretch, the Plan di Gralba, before beginning a gradual climb.  The climb is a gradual 6 kms, with an average gradient of only 4.2%.  After the obligatory summit sign photo (again, the sign was below the summit!), we rode towards the collection of buildings at the top.

We stopped for some water.  The sun was shining and we sat at a picnic table next to a restaurant.  Next to us was a young woman with a very nice Pinarello, but when I complimented her on it in Italian she looked shocked and said nothing.  Maybe my Italian was not as good as I had thought!

We rolled out and enjoyed a series of really superb hairpins.  I stopped to take some photos and Pinarello Girl rode by.  I soon followed but overtook her almost immediately. She was clearly a very cautious descender as she could not have been going more than 20 km/h downhill.  I, on the other hand, found the descent ideal and rapidly increased speed, roaring into the village of Corvara at 70 km/h and enjoying every second of it.  I caught up to Terry, Janice and Dr. Chef.  We decided to press on rather than have lunch in Corvara and headed along a new road, P.244, that took us towards the next pass, the Passo di Campolongo, which would be a climb of 307 m.

Climbing out of Corvara

This pass is also a fairly reasonable one, being 6 kms in length and averaging only 5%.  There was an initially steep part after coming out of Corvara but then it settled down to an unchanging grade so it was easy to set a rhythm.  Nearing the summit, we passed a restaurant where a group of our faster riders called out to us.  We debated staying for lunch but Dr. Chef thought we should press on up the last pass on the circuit rather than try to climb it with full stomaches.  We found the summit of the Campolongo at 1875 m ASL, but it was not terribly impressive.

What we thought was the last challenge of the Sella Ronda lay ahead: the Passo Pordoi.  Although not brutally steep, the pass, at 9.4 kms, is quite long.  The average grade is 6.8% and we would be gaining 638 m.  I rode with Terry and I began to feel tired.  The climbing we had already done and the lack of food were beginning to take their toll.  I tried to ride as steadily as possible but the road seemed to go on forever as we climbed through no less than 33 hairpins.  As I approached the summit I heard someone come from behind and Mariette, one of our better climbers, easily overtook me just before we reached the top.  It was with a sense of accomplishment that we had come to the highest point on the trip at 2289 m ASL.

Dr. Chef enjoys his reward

To celebrate, Terry, Dr. Chef, Janice and I sat down in the first restaurant and enjoyed excellent coffee before we wolfed down big slabs of pizza.  Putting on our warm gear again (cycling in the mountains is a constant put-it-on-take-it-off striptease), we rapidly rolled downhill and headed towards Canazei.  Unfortunately, the traffic had no disbursed since the morning and as we approached the town we were in stop-and-go traffic.  I noticed that a mountain biker simply rode towards the oncoming traffic and everyone shifted over a bit for him.  It looked dangerous to me but I thought as long as he was in front of us we could give it a try.  To my surprise we rapidly picked up speed and were able to get back the stopped cars pretty easily.  Nobody shook their fists at us but some motorists actually pointed out the best way we could take.  Nice to be in a cycling culture!

We rapidly reached Pozza di Fasso and began the ascent of the Passo di Costalunga.  There was some very heavy traffic as we came to Vigo di Fasso but most of it seemed to stay in the town.  The Costalunga has some nasty grades, hitting 10.4%, but after 6 kms it flattened out so that there was only 20 vertical meters in the last 4 kms before the summit at 1748 m ASL.  I had felt a bit tired on the climb but the flat part cheered me up and turning on the road towards the Passo Nigra I felt energized.  This was the last of our six passes for the day and it was actually lower than the Costalunga.  It would be followed by a 24 km drop into the valley below.

It turned out that several of the faster riders had ignored my route advice and taken the busy road back to Bolzano.  This was a real mistake.  Not only was that road quite unpleasant and, in spots, dangerous, but they missed what has to be one of the most beautiful roads I have ever cycled.

The Passo Nigra/Nigrapass is a bit odd in that it is not really a summit but another plateau.  I had expected that we would start descending immediately but in fact the road was fairly level, with some small rollers. We passed a small restaurant, where stopped to get organized, and then began the 24.4 km descent.  The first four kms average 6.8%, then it steepens noticeably.  Some long sections are over 10% as you approach the village of San Cipriano, after which the road is almost level for a while.  The scenery is absolutely stunning and there is no traffic at all.

Finally, with only seven kilometers left on the descent, it steepens up a great deal and soon you are hurtling down the road towards the river.  Turn left and you are on a bike path that sweeps you all the way back into Bolzano.

An impressive profile for a long day...

The Sella Ronda/Passo Nigra has to be one of the greatest cycling routes anywhere.  In his piece at, Jered Gruber said: "If I had one last ride to ride, I would ride here." and it is easy to understand why, particularly when the weather is as superb as it was for us.  Every June the Sella Ronda is closed completely to motorized traffic as everyone celebrates Bike Day.  Our own bike day was certainly worth celebration...we rode a distance of 125.7 km (78.15 miles), enjoying a climbing total of 3539 m (11,611 feet).


Groover said...

What a great report. Impressive riding and you share some great advice there, too. The photos are postcard perfect.

Sprocketboy said...

It really was an amazing day, one of those that you never want to end even when you are bone-tired. And the scenery is so terrific that every one of my photos came out beautifully. Something to daydream about over the winter--or summer, if you are in Oz!