Mild climate, plenty of sun, dolce vita–that´s the saying in South Tyrol. But as I watched the water cascade off Tobi´s jacket and join the stream now flowing at our feet, I couldn´t help but shake my head at our luck. The realization was setting in that the seven-day forecast of rain might be true even though the region, typically has over 300 days of sunshine a year.
As myself and my friends Sarah and Tobi pushed our bike up the soggy trail, we snapped back from our dreary thoughts with laughter as Sarah remarked, “it might be wet, but at least we are skipping the crowds”; Laughing at her hardy attempt to lighten the mood, we found ourselves quickly resetting the tempo for the days ahead. After all, rain or shine, we were in the mountains for a week of bike packing and mountain adventures, and finding enjoyment over suffering is always a little easier with laughter.
The idea for the week was simple; no cars, no worries. With a route that we coined as the Gravel Bike, Multisport Sella Ronda; the essence of the trip was to experience one of the Dolomite´s famous regions by relatively fair means. So, instead of going by car from valley to valley each day to fit in one guidebook activity after another, we would wander hut to hut on two wheels. Thus, transforming biking into as much of the experience as the Via Feratta´s and hiking along the way. Ultimately, we hoped to slow down and find a deeper enjoyment in the landscape and our time outdoors.
As I shared my idea of a Slow Travel trip with my Allgäu based friends Sarah and her husband Tobi – who both already supplement bike travel and commuting into their daily lives – they simply replied, “yes, we´re in.”
Gathering at the bottom of the Seiser Alm gondola, the three of us marked the start of our trip with a blind eye and optimism, ignoring the grey clouds brewing overhead in the unusually empty parking lot. A mere 850 meters higher, though, in the ski village of Compatsch, mother nature could no longer be ignored, as we rushed to take shelter and pull on jackets while a torrent of rain and hail passed over us.
When the downpour turned to a drizzle, we pointed our bikes east across the Seiser Alm´s grassy plateau. And with little more for company than a few wet hikers and the distant sound of cowbells, we made an easy peddle through the ski resort with the Plattkofel towering in front of us.
As the road turned to trail and steepened, our loaded bikes began to spin and sputter, and no amount of determination could keep us from pushing the last few hundred meters to Plattkoffelhütte. Our persistence paid off, though, and as we crested the hill, the wood hut appeared along with sunshine. The reward brought us back outside for a short hike to watch the sunset over the Schlern before settling into a heaping of warm polenta with fresh mushrooms, tea, and planning for the day to come.
The unpredictability of long-term mountain weather and planning trips weeks or months in advance can make traveling by car alluring. But instead of thinking about where to drive each day to forego the weather, we sat down nightly to adjust what we could achieve out the door, with our only fixed plan being the next accommodation.
Sarah explains, “the lack of a car provides a feeling of independence and freedom, you don´t have to drive to a starting point, you walk out into nature and immediately start cycling. The bike is both a means of transportation and part of the experience at the same time.”
Waking up for morning coffee with the sun coming over the Marmolada was experience enough, but with the hut´s location being able to easily hike around the Langkofel massif to the Oskar Schuster Via Ferrata ignited our feeling of Dolce Vita.
After circumnavigating the mountain and ascending into a rocky cirque at 2.400 meters, we crossed a snowfield and began climbing on wet rock into the clouds. The route wove through gullies in sections as we clipped and unclipped following ladders and cables. While in others, it became more of a secured rock climb as we smeared our feet on steep slabs that left you feeling exposed to the vertical relief. Reaching the summit at 2.969 meters, hands icy from cold rock and the steel cable, we found a moment of mental relief as we took in the sights in front of us. The clouds had shuttered around the mountains, leaving only the distant Tierser Alp showing in a perfectly grey frame and the valley floor dotted in patches of sunlight. The spectacle led us back to the Plattkofelhütte for the night.
Part of bike touring always seems to involve strategic packing and a well-organized system of bags, gear, and weight.
The following morning as we repacked our bikes to peddle to Passo Pordoi and the Biz Boé, I was reminded how streamlined the bags made packing while leaving our bikes agile and fun to ride. The handlebar bags took the brunt of our extra clothes and snacks; the seat bags fit climbing helmets, hut sacks, and toiletries; and the fork bags were left to take the weight of the Via Ferrata sets. Little remained for our backpacks other than extra layers and rain clothes. Our multisport approach required comprises though; approach shoes replaced cycling shoes, bike shorts replaced hiking clothing, and with just a few shirts, a change of pants, and a rain jacket, we rounded out the week´s necessities. As Tobi remarked, “concentrating on the essentials in terms of luggage makes the trip special and requires a certain commitment to bring it all to life”; A commitment and packing method that ensured we wouldn´t overlook the fresh smell of nature or open spaces.
Back on the bikes, we wound east along a popular dirt trail, enjoying the morning calm our head start provided before the hikers arrived by cable car from the valley below. The tranquility of the ride was punctuated by views over the Marmolada and interspersed adrenaline as we navigated rocks, steep hills, and a river crossing that put our handling and equipment to the test. With our backsides and bikes covered in mud, this cycling section either pinned us as brilliant or foolish. But as we greeted others, the smiles on our faces couldn´t hide our feelings of dolce vita and the quality of riding.
At the top of Passo Pordoi, after reloading our backpacks and locking our bikes, we ascended the tram into a cloud of white so thick little more was visible than our hands in front of our faces. The fog was reassurance that skipping the Via Ferrata we had planned for accessing the Rifugio Forcella Pordoi was the right decision for the afternoon. So instead, we settled into the hut and passed the afternoon with food, games, and the relaxed tempo of waiting out a storm.
So far, if we had learned anything, it was to have a little optimism, or maybe better said blind faith. The following day, as we descended on the tram, still having only imagined the views, our positivity was repaid with mostly clear skies and mild temperatures.
The initial idea for the day had been to navigate dirt trails around the Piz Boi to Wolkenstein, but the last rain had convinced us to take to the open roads and enjoy the hybrid nature of our gravel bikes.
Spinning down the 600 meters from Passo Pordoi to Arraba, we dodged the mud cakes flying off each other´s bikes and took the opportunity to air out our shirts and dry our damp jackets as we set into the hypnotic rhythm of rubber on asphalt. By the time we reached the top of Passo Gardena at 2.136 meters, our legs, and the traffic had both gotten heavy. After a brief foray of descending with the snake of taillights, it took little persuasion to reroute and enjoy the other side of our bikes´ hybridity. So, as the cars managed bumper-to-bumper sightseeing, we peddled off down a forested trail in the same direction without any worries of traffic or our pace.
As Sarah remarked, “our travel provided a luxury that allows you to perceive the landscape around you more intensely because you are traveling slower and therefore have more time to admire nature and its beauty.”
Coasting into our pension in Wolkenstein, we celebrated the days´ good fortune by washing the bouquet of huts, biking, and mountaineering off to better fit in with the other guests and then toasted the coming dry weather with homemade Schlutzkrapfen.
The celebration continued the following day as we hiked through the Naturpark Puez-Geisler, making a loop from Wolkenstein to the Stevia Hütte, continuing just below Montischela, before looping back around through Col Raiser. And although the 300 days of sunshine had not yet melted the snow from the peaks, we soaked in the view of towering walls, broad summits, and the deep valleys expanding around us. And we lounged in the sun in tee-shirts, enjoying a long alpine lunch followed up with overdue gelato absorbing the tempo of August in Italy and hiking in the Dolomites.
The following morning, as we fell into cadence on our bikes pointed towards Panidersattel, I remarked to Tobi, “how much lighter my bike always seem on the last day, no matter how heavy my legs feel.” He quipped back, “maybe you just got better at packing, which is good because next time it´s tents, sleeping bags, and climbing gear… and maybe an extra tee-shirt or two”; A proposal that, after a week of worry-free exploring, rolled through my mind aimlessly. The idea of what´s next would have to wait, though, for now, we still had the last few hours to savor as we peddled back to our starting point at Seiser Alm.
Text & images: Tristan Hobson
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