trip report: biking through the italian alps
last sept I biked through the Italian alps, leaving near Venice, doing a circuit of the passes, and ending up in Bolzano. I figured I'd post some pics/info in case anyone else wants to try it. If you just want to read the biking part, skip past the Venice pics.
I started out in Venice, where the intrepid cyclist must contend not only with headwinds but treacherous currents and aggressive garbage scows:
This was the view out the window of my the hostel, L'Imbarcadero (highly recommended, run by this mid-20ís Iranian journalist who sought asylum in Italy and speaks English and Italian fluently):
I'll spare you too many Venice pictures, as they suffer from my garbage camera and incompetent photography. Here are just a couple of interesting things. Back in the days of yore, if you believed someone guilty of a crime in Venice, you would write your accusation on a piece of paper and stuff it into one of these mouths, which were all over the city.
The crime would be investigated, and the perpetrator punished. If he was found innocent, you as the accuser would receive the punishment he would have, had he been guilty. Napoleon destroyed these mouths when he conquered Venice, but missed two. This one is in the Duke's palace.
You can take a tour of dungeons of the Duke's palace (actually in the attic, with lead ceilings to keep it hot in the summer and cold in the winter). There they tortured prisoners by raising their arms behind their backs with this rope (blurry because it was prohibited to take pictures of it), within earshot of prisoners in nearby cells, that your howls might convince them of the wisdom of adopting a more flexible attitude toward cooperating with the state.
After the prisoner confessed, it was customary to treat him to gelato at one of the many gelaterias populating the avenues:
Venice is filled with florid ornaments that contrast fetchingly with the shambles of mouldering brick and wood that surround them:
If I recall correctly, after I took that photograph I was chased away by some official of the Italian coast guard, fearing to what nefarious ends I might employ this 17th century door-knocker technology.
Veniceís resident population is declining rapidly, and the scarcity of locals makes the city seem like a cross between Disney World and a museum whose curator is as inspired in his acquisitions as he is lackadaisical regarding their preservation. As the canals fill the streets, so the tourists flood the sidewalks amidst garish shops stocked with opera masks and colored glass ornaments, while overhead here and there an old lady peeps down from amongst the silent buildings. With no cars around, the chatter and slap of feet echo down every corridor, so that it is easy to get disoriented amidst the labyrinth of alleys even standing still.
La Traviata at La Feniche opera house (less blurry in real life). In apparent homage to its namesake (The Phoenix), this place burned down about ten years ago to rise from its ashes in the exact form of the original structure:
Since I wasnít about to lug my coat and tails through the alps, I ended up wearing my adidas track pants to the opera (my only other option being an overly revealing pair of spandex bib shorts). As I did not wish to diminish further the skeptical opinion the locals already have of the American tourist, I yielded to my patriotic tendencies and adopted the accent and demeanor of a chav from Liverpool for the evening. The Australian opera fan seated next to me, who having presumed correctly from my attire a profound ignorance of Italian and opera, not to mention common decency, took it upon himself to give me a play by play of the story between scenes. (There were no subtitles.) He declared it to be approximately the 190th best performance of La Traviata he had ever heard, out of about 200, so to keep in the spirit of things I applauded as contemptuously as possible.
a few other venice photos are here
After Venice I took a train to Casarsa (roughly 80km north), where I stayed with some relatives. This turned out to be perfect since itís easy to get to the Dolomites from there by bike. (If youíre looking for a similar starting point, they run a bed and breakfast, and speak great English.)
This was a last-minute trip, which proved the source of some comedy. I bought a used bike on Italian ebay classifieds about a week earlier and had it shipped to their address. (I had to pay via bank wire. Apparently credit cards are much less commonly used in Italy (and I suppose in Europe?) than in the US. One of my relatives helped with the wire and with communication, because the seller spoke not much English at all.)
The fact that the bike, a (supposedly) 05 De Rosa Merak with a Record group, came in a box stuffed with brand-new team Mapei kit serving as packaging material was... ominous. Here's a pic of it I took at the top of Tre Cimes (near Cortina) later in my trip:
It doesn't look terrible, right? Perhaps the true Euro cyclist will look askance at the mismatched wheels with aero spokes in the back, but one might suppose I could retain at least a shred of dignity as I watch middle-aged commuters in business suits sail past me on their mixtes?
Well, I had to replace the tires/pads, fair enough. It was perhaps mildly dispiriting to discover the rear wheel was a motley of overly loose/tight spokes with stripped nipples that made it impossible to true properly, and a hub that made a random clicking sound when rolled under weight, like a roulette wheel with most of the pins missing.
Yet other than that it, it seems ok? Well, let us take a closer look:
I feel a shiver run down my spine... dare we look closer still at that suspicious spot beneath the downtube braze-on?
I got a lesson in chemistry here, didn't realize aluminum could corrode like that. Apparently older Meraks have soft paint, and the minerals in whatever the prior owner had in his water bottles proved as corrosive to his moral character as it was to his frame, although his skill at matching colors appears unaffected:
Look! Good as new!
There was also bubbling on the top-tube cable guides from sweat dripping on them, but not of the "hm I wonder how many miles before that breaks in half" variety.
I had intended to bring the bike back with me to sell here at only a moderate loss after shipping. I ended up trashing the frame and bringing back the parts minus wheels. Here's a picture of the locals at a bike shop in neighboring San Martino marveling at this fine specimen of Italian craftsmanship:
It testified to the modest opinion the bike shop had of someone ignorant enough to purchase this monstrosity that they inquired, when swapping out the pedals (which seemed almost welded onto the cranks) for my eggbeaters, whether I knew that I needed "special shoes,Ē ones with cleats on the bottom.
Cristiano De Rosa helpfully responded to my emailed pictures by observing that the frame was dangerous to ride, difficult to repair, and out of warranty (but thanks for your business!). The seller scoffed at Mr. De Rosa's alarmism and the temerity of his presuming to opine on the condition of a De Rosa frame, which he himself piously affirmed to be in fine fettle. With all my gear I was over 200 pounds, which I suspect already exceeded the frame's weight limit.
With everything therefore in order, I was off from the bike shop in San Martino to the Dolomites to find out how many times round my roulette wheel would spin before it landed on catastrophic downtube failure.
San Martino is only slightly above sea level, and things started out flat, with the promise of more interesting terrain in the distance.
gps for day 1(you can see where I missed a turn)
I got a late start the first night, ended up a small town called Bresci. The older Italian generations (even hotel clerks) at least in these smaller towns tend either not to speak English, or at least not to admit to it. However if you approach them reading random Italian phrases out of a guidebook, they try to point you the right way, adopting the same air of benign paternalism with which one might attempt to redirect a mentally handicapped person wandering out into traffic.
I got by with a guidebook of stock phrases about costs, bike storage, and such. (Room rates were 30-40 euros other than Venice/Cortina. They all let me store the bike in the basement.) Aside from when I went to Venice and Cortina, I didn't plan my hotels in advance. This was the off-season and almost everywhere I went was practically deserted.
After Bresci, the mountains look a bit closer:
During the day I ate fruit, bread, and chocolate bars from shops like this:
I carried all my gear in a PAC messenger bag, which was comfortable, as long as I loaded it as top heavy as possible, so the weight was over my shoulders. Iíve got my U-lock attached to my saddle using a pair of hotel shower caps, in the traditional manner:
Iím wearing mountain SPDís, which came in handy when I managed to slingshot my camera off the elastic on the back pocket of my jersey and into a ravine, requiring some scrambling and bushwhacking to retrieve it. Luckily it had hit enough tree foliage on the way down that it still worked. The temperature was generally around 60 F during the day
At the end of day 2, I stayed in a hostel atop Staulanza Pass:
gps day 2
The hostel was a single room with about 40 beds, the other occupants being a pair of superannuated German hikeresses who snored like panzer tanks that had thrown their treads. If you can wake up a guy who just biked 75km that seemed perpetually uphill, your sinuses probably have military applications.
You know you're living the high life when the shower in your hotel room is coin operated (4 euros), and there are signs adjuring you not to wash your clothes in the sink and not to hang the clothes that you just washed in the sink out the window. (I washed my clothes in the shower the whole trip.)
About 90% of the traffic (until the last leg toward Bolzano) was motorcycles, which were whizzing by constantly, as if I had my own motorcade but they weren't bothering to wait for me to keep up.
On my way to Canazei the next day:
The reservoir at the top of Fedaia Pass. My map had no elevation info, which lent an element of suspense to every climb. When will it start? When will it end? Who knows? (Fedaia is about 2km above sea level):
This is the dam on the far side. (You can see snow in the mountains.):
After that, it's a quick descent into Alba, next to Canazei. More pics of days 1-3 here.
gps day 3
At this point, I started following the Dolomites route in the Lonely Planet guide (except I did it in reverse). Day 4 I did a loop of the four passes of the Sella group (Pordoi, Campolongo, Val Gardena, and Sella). Loops are great because you can leave most of your gear at the hotel.
If you look closely you can see a couple of paragliders in the air here. Over one particular bluff they were as thick as gnats:
As you bike around it sounds like there are wind chimes everywhere because of the cow bells, which you can hear in this video.
A memorial to cycling legend Fausto Coppi at the top of Pordoi Pass, which zigzags 33 times down into the town of Arabba:
This day had some of the more impressive scenery:
This is Gardena pass:
I took some video meandering down it. (I taped my camera to my arm with medical bandage, which you can hear making a flapping sound. This video is actually from day 8, when I recrossed the Val Gardena pass to get to Selva.)
gps day 4 (battery died before I finished the loop)
Day five it rained in the morning, so I hung out at the otherwise empty hotel lobby using their wifi, where the genial front desk girl took it upon herself to serve me a free lunch and invite me on her facebook, then I went back up and down Fedaia to Caprile in the afternoon. I broke my first spoke at the top of Fedaia. I knew there was no bike shop in Caprile, but I figured I'd continue to Cortina anyway since I was already behind schedule, and I aspired to end my life as a smear on the most scenic stretch of pavement possible.
Fedaia from the opposite direction (you can see the road on the left):
Coming down Fedaia toward Caprile:
Just before Caprile (where I stopped because it was getting dark):
(no GPS day 5 or 6)
I used wifi at my hotel in Caprile to book a reservation at a hotel in Cortina, which is a bit glitzier than the other places I stayed. (I think it cost me 100 euros a night, although you should be able to do better than that if you plan more than a day in advance.) I found that most hotels have wifi, even in remoter areas, although some charge for it. It was worth it to bring a computer since I could webcam with people, research my route, reserve hotels, and make calls on Skype (since I had no phone).
Day six at the top of the Giau pass on the way to Cortina (info on all these passes is available here):
For some reason palaminos were all over the place in the Dolomites:
Descending into Cortina:
When I got there in the evening I rang up a local shop. It was near closing time, and the shop wasn't that close, so the ownerís son (who speaks good English) volunteered to drive to my hotel and pick me up with my bike in his van (which he had painted like a giant Hot Wheels matchbox car -- he had also painted his sisterís car like a Holstein cow, and showed me his collection of scooters he had painted in such liveries as that of the California Highway Patrol). His father fixed my wheel, and charged me almost nothing, probably out of pity.
Here they are in their shop:
To get the wheel true, some of the spokes had to be really loose and others really tight because of the stripped nipples, so this was not my last visit to his shop. These guys were really friendly, and if you ever go to Cortina I strongly suggest throwing a spanner into your spokes as an excuse to go there. (They are Cicli Cortina, ciclicortina[AT]libero.it.)
Apparently they do a roaring trade with yuppie American cycling tourists, some of whom I met in the shop cooing over souvenir cashmere sweaters and lamenting the fact that whichever support van one thinks is carrying the bag with her hairbrush, itís always in the other one.
Day seven, Tre Cimes loop in Cortina:
After stopping to relieve the supermarket of its stock of bananas, I headed for Tre Cimes:
About halfway it flattens out:
A mountain, a cow, a ballerina from Lorraine. There were some horses also but my rattletrap bicycle scared them all away:
I didnít see that much bike traffic on my whole trip. This was the only other guy on the way up to Tre Cimes (the pictureís crooked, I was on my bike):
Looking down from the top:
A spoke on the rear wheel falls off on the descent. Same guy fixed it, and after that the wheel was much improved, although half the spokes were now regular, half aero, lending the bike a certain bohemian flair. He just charged me for the cost of the spoke with no labor, even though when he got on the bike the rear wheel exploded and he had to rebuild it.
While in Cortina I listed my bike parts (minus frame) on eBay, so I could get rid of them before I left. (A few days later I would discover that eBay had helpfully closed my auction and deactivated my account because someone was trying to use it in Italy.)
gps day 7
Next day, on my way up the pass into Selva:
Selva is populated almost entirely by German speakers. All the Italian I didn't learn before my trip thus proved as useless as the few stray hiccups of Italian I had acquired upon arrival.
At Selva, I showed up too late to ask for advice at the tourist office (which at any rate appear universally to be staffed by teenage girls of principal assets only tangentially related to the promotion of tourism), so I walked into a hotel and asked the proprietor what it cost. (At this time of year the hotels are all empty, and every hotel proprietor I met had a look of foreboding in his eyes, although this could just have been because I looked like a vagabond capable of eating twice the room rateís worth of mueslix at the complimentary breakfast buffet.) The guy said 60 euros, so I asked if he could recommend a cheaper hotel. This question seemed to leave him displeased [perhaps not entirely for the fact that it was directed to him by a sweaty and unshaven vagrant in skin-hugging bike tights]. However, the gentlemanís father cheerfully gave me a room for 40 euros, which fact appeared to further to darken his offspringís patently Germanic gloom. Amongst northern Italians, generosity of spirit appears to be a matrilineal attribute. Later when I asked the son about using the wifi, he gave me a beady-eyed glare, asked me "you are this man?" while waving my passport in my face as if I were wanted by INTERPOL, then quoted a fee high enough to launch his own internet satellite network.
I got my revenge at breakfast, continually buzzing back and forth from my table to the buffet like a hundred and sixty pound hummingbird devouring its weight in nectar, until a waitress hurried over to confide that her employer had decreed the buffet be closed a half hour early, and was indeed himself assisting in its removal before I could go back for another round. Saddened to discover we had descended to such underhanded tactics, I raided the cold cuts and was out the door with half a cowís worth of roast beef sandwiches before he could cop wise. There is something to be said for spending a single night in each hotel, as I suspect that after another 24 hours I would have ended up as a cryptic entry on the Selvan police blotter.
gps day 8
Day nine, Selva to Bolzano through Fie. Ran into some traffic:
My guide book recommended a route from Selva to Fie through Saltria, which is a little village that when I asked a person where it was, he pointed doubtfully in the opposite direction from the last person, although everyone agreed it was a bad idea to ride a road bike there. It turned out to be up a dirt trail populated by dour teutonic hikers trudging along one after the other as if in some sort of wilderness funeral procession whose mood even the freestyle drum solo of my rolling beat-box could not lighten. I took the opportunity to shout a hearty greeting to each successive group of mourners solely for the purpose of watching them gawk as if I had just violated an obscure statute of the Geneva Conventions.
Meandering through Saltria (even with slicks my traction was superlative thanks to my 30 pounds of luggage and U-lock):
You can see the road isnít that bad:
Fie. A lot of the churches looked vaguely Russian in this area:
Descending into Bolzano. The whole route is along a winding cliff:
If you look closely you can see a couple cows grazing up there:
gps day 9
In Bolzano, I had the bike parts stripped/packed at a local shop. I attempted to communicate the problem with the frame by pointing to the corrosion and making a throat cutting gesture for clarity. Who knows, they may well have slapped another coat of scarlet nail-polish over the cankerous lesions on the downtube and sold it to the next starry-eyed imbecile to toddle out of International Arrivals.
Wandering around Bolzano I saw the (apparently) famous 5000-year-old frozen ice man, contorted ever since his demise in a pose suggestive of interpretive dance so ineptly conceived as to have proven fatal. Beneath the electric lights, his moist and blackened corpse resembles a humanoid eclair melting in the sun. Tourists come from far and wide to wait in line for a few seconds' peek into his eternal refrigerator, while a recorded tour solemnly attests to the profound implications of this sideshow for the evolution of the modern pastry.
Afterward I stopped briefly by Verona on my way to Paris for the flight back. For a view of the skyline I went up the Lamberti tower, obtaining for my efforts this photographic masterwork:
The admission to the tower was 6 euros, but my outdated guidebook said it was supposed to be two. I offered the guy at the desk two euros, which he looked at scornfully, and then pointed to a sign that said 6 euros. Then he looked up at me, and his hand slid slowly from the 6 euro price down to the 4.50 student price, then he stared doubtfully at the greasy cardboard hobo box of bike parts I was carting around like Little Red Riding Hood on her way to visit her grandmother the bicycle mechanic, and he took my 2 euros, made the universal gesture for "nobody saw nothing" and waved me through the gate. (Iím not kidding.)
For Sale: Gently Used 05 De Rosa Merak -- Needs TLC
After an all night ride in a train to Paris, packed in a sleeping compartment with a bunch of boisterous Algerians, all of whom appeared to snore at the resonant frequency of the train carriage, I arrived in Paris to stay a night with my charming cousin and her boyfriend in an apartment the size of one of those giant refrigerators by which Hollywood implies the wealth of Wall Street tycoons and the precocity of serial killers. As a change of pace, I spent the next day darting about like a barn swallow through the traffic on her boyfriendís brakesless fixie, which vehicle paled aside his own, self-constructed, piece de resistance. Here he is racing it in some sort of communist party bicycle race we attended, demonstrating a degree of souplesse that would be the envy of any 16-year-old ballerina:
His task was complicated by the overenthusiastic reactions of onlookers, one of whom registered his approval by insisting the fellow stop for a toke on his joint. It was important not to follow him too closely because cars and pedestrians nearby would gawk and not pay attention to the road (and I was reveling in the zen of a hipster for whom skid-stopping is at best a theoretical possibility).
Aspirers to le maillot jaune at the same race (its finish line spangled with actual hammers and sickles, as one sees in the US primarily in political cartoons):
Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains! And gears. And brakes.
Powered by the indefatiguable will of the proletariat:
The Great Communist Bicycle Race of the People, blocked by the Angrily Honking White Delivery Van of Capitalist Oppression:
Accidental photo featuring a subject of historical relevance:
Here we see one of the principal delights of Paris, available on almost any street corner at a most reasonable price:
What a pity that similar programs providing low-cost public access to city-owned bicycles like this one are not as popular in the US.
Awesome trip report. Thnx for sharing!
Thanks so much for making my day- you had me laughing so hard I cried a couple of times there!
wow, amazing picturesss!!
I skied in that area in 1998 and did the Sella Runde. I was recently wondering what it would be like to ride it and thanks to your story and pictures, I think I need to add that to my bucket list!
Sounds like an excellent trip! Thank you for sharing it with us.
If the servers here still exist, scholars will be pondering your commentary a hundred years from now. And where was the La Traviata on your life list? Bravo!
Last edited by Mapei; 07-08-2011 at 12:03 AM.
Mapie is a conventional looking former Hollywood bon viveur, now leading a quiet life in a house made of wood by an isolated beach. He has cultivated a taste for culture, and is a celebrated raconteur amongst his local associates, who are artists, actors, and other leftfield/eccentric types. I imagine he has a telescope, and an unusual sculpture outside his front door. He is also a beach comber. The Rydster.
Absolutely remarkable tale....great pics and some brilliant writing. Thanks for sharing
Congrats to you on your fortitude for such a trip! It would be beyond my capabilities...
NOW, back to the ballerina in the mountains....
Fantastic trip report, thanks for taking the time to write an awesome commentary! I really enjoyed reading it. How dare Mr. DeRosa have the temerity to suggest that his own creation is no longer safe to ride!
Stunning scenery. Trip of a lifetime. Thank you so much for the report.
Road Bike Mike
Amazing trip. Awesome report.
Tell/show us more about the ballerina!
Congrats! The Dolomiti is in my list.
Twenty years ago I did a solo all over Europe. One branch was Munich-Merano (very close to Bolzano), through the Timmelsjoch. I was planning to do the Dolomiti after that, but changed plans and headed south to Toscana.
Very well done!! Great trip, great pics!
I used to live in Switzerland, also with awesome views
Agreed. I found it completely fascinating. Great stuff!!
Originally Posted by Mapei
My first thought, upon seeing the damage to the bike was "He rode that thing all around the Dolomites ?. Was he nuts ?". The answer is yes, you were nuts and damned lucky to have survived not having that frame disintegrate on a fast downhill.
ON THE OTHER HAND, the bike survived, you survived and with amazing memories and that's pretty much all that matters.
I am, as BTW, finding it far fetched that the lovely young lay in the white tank top is a "ballerina" Dancer of some sort possible, but way too much body mass and upper body mass especially, to be a professional ballerina who are generally anorexic to the extreme and have NO breasts to speak of, which obviously this young lass has in abundance. Not that it matters at all, if she told you she's a ballerina and you want to believe she's a ballerina, that's just fine.
And what in hell made you want to go see an opera ?. I work in the theater business (stagehand) and the maxim is "LIfe is short, Opera is long". Too much to see in Venice to be sitting in a theater seat for 4 hrs. or possibly roaming Gelato shop to Gelato shop to determine which is finest.
Great trip report, BTW
Last edited by Steve B.; 07-09-2011 at 02:17 PM.
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