At an altitude of about 1500m, it was a bit of drive to get to Arabba. The navigation system’s calculation of almost two hours’ travel time for the mere 88km from Feltre, an average speed of just over 40km/h, had made me suspicious already. The Hymer took switchback after switchback, higher and higher into the rugged Dolomites, in a strike. It was one of the most scenic drives to date.
The first night we parked under the ski lift of Passo Campolongo, at about 1800m. If I knew anything about high altitude training at all, I could have maximised the training impact but it was enough to know that just sleeping high up in the mountains would count towards improved performance somehow. Why else would people spend loads of money on altitude tents?
The next morning we drove the 5km down to the township of Arabba and stopped at the information centre for a good chat with the friendly lady there who was all too happy to provide valuable information and good maps. On her recommendation we parked the Hymer near the closed and partly dismantled ski lift that had signs for “No Parking for Motorhomes”, and got ready for a ride that would become one of the best rides ever: The Marmolada! Marmolada is not actually the name of the pass but rather the name of the mountain group with the highest peak the Punta Penįa at 3343m.
The pass from the Eastern village of Caprile is called Fedaia and goes only up to 2056m. That’s the route we took, which meant the ride started with lots and lots of most beautiful and scenic descending along wide valley. We had to loose some altitude to Caprile at 1071m. A right turn at the beginning of the township, a sign pointing out the direction, there was no danger of missing it or getting lost.
The climb started gently. We picked up another cyclist from Germany. It wasn’t his Focus bike, nor the Gore apparel. I’m not sure why I recognise German cyclists but a friendly reply to my cheerful Guten Tag confirmed my hunch.
There was a bridge up high between steep rock walls that built a narrow canyon, and the creek rushed over rocks deep below. We stopped for photos. The German cyclist caught up.
Through the tunnel we rode and through another little mountain village. There were ski lifts and billboards inviting to stay in a hotel here or at a camp ground there, somewhere near by, and then there were more cyclists up the road behind a long bend.
When we closed in and overtook the tail end of the group, I told Alberto to go and wait for me at the top. It was about 6km to go and there was plenty of company for me on the road. He set off and I watched him picking up one after the next white dot along the climb.
That’s when it got steeper. Tom Danielson apparently said about Passo Fedaia that it was like they had rolled asphalt straight down the mountain. A great description! There were indeed no switchbacks. My legs felt fresh, and I had a rhythm, something rare for this kind of gradient. To my surprise I also started closing in on other riders in white bib and jersey. Italians from the same team or club, older cyclists, smiling knowingly as I passed, Bravo! shouts of encouragement from some.
Sweat started dripping off my nose. Beanie and gloves came off earlier. I regretted wearing my warm cycling jacket and three quarter bibs rather than arm and knee warmers and a gillett. Short of stripping down to my skin, there was nothing else I could take off to make my climb more comfortable.
The number of times I thought I was overdressed during this ride? Twice! The number of times I thought I was underdressed during this ride? At least four times. There was only one time I was convinced I was dressed right and that was right at the beginning of the ride in Arabba when I was freezing cold and shivering and thought I’d never feel warm again in my life.
Oh well, I’m still learning and on the Passo Fedaia I learnt that I not only looked like an inexperienced tourist. It’s usually cold or at least cool up at 2000m and most experienced riders carry a lightweight wind breaker in their pocket for the descend. A gillett and arm warmers plus beanie work well, too, and later I even started taking an undershirt with me in the pocket, which I can then put on under my sweaty jersey so my upper body is nice and dry for the descend.
Even without being overdressed the body usually heats up on the ascent. My legs fatigued. My cadence dropped to 50rpm. There was no rhythm anymore, just slow grinding and even that hurt. The gradient didn’t ease. The road went straight up the mountain, no switchback in sight. Sweat dripped. My jacket, now completely unzipped, felt heavy on my shoulders like a wet blanket. I spotted more white dots up the road but I wasn’t closing in on them anymore, their cadence as low as mine.
45rpm, my head willing my legs to turn over. 11%, 12% – I hadn’t seen any lower numbers for I couldn’t remember how long. My fingers jerked the gear lever in wane hope that a 28 tooth cog had miraculously appeared on my cassette. My head started spinning, cold shivers ran down my arms, the heat was unbearable. The symptoms were clear, I had to stop and cool down my overheated body.
A refugio, a ski lift and a house at the end of the straight, only 200m up the road, a bench in the shade of a closed cafe, that’s were I aimed. I felt defeated. The pass seemed still so far away. I had no idea how far it was to the top. The jacket came off and I sat there gazing down the road, the cool breeze drying my undershirt. Alberto would come back down and pick me up and we would have to descend back down to Caprile and return to Arabba the way we came, tail between legs. That’s what I thought in those moments.
But then I spotted some of the Italians I had overtaken earlier, coming up the steep part, one by one, some in pairs, some zig zagging and all going the same slow speed and labouring cadence that I had climbed. A little chill ran through my body. The crisp mountain air cooled me down quickly. They were doing it tougher than I had done. One of the older guys rolled up to my bench, upper body hunched over handlebars, unable to get a word out. Troppo caldo I said, pointing at my wet jacket on the bench. He bobbed his head in agreement.
The German cyclist pushed pass in determination. Inspired I shoved my arms back into my clammy jacket. It was time to go. Andiamos I said to my tired Italian buddy, hoping it meant “Let’s go!” and was Italian and not Spanish or Portuguese. He didn’t move.
The German cyclist became my target, my motivator, my focus. All I needed to do was copy him! Follow! Grind! Persevere! Time didn’t matter. I wanted to make it to the top. And then all of the sudden I spotted Alberto’s lime green jacket flying down the road towards me. He slowed, camera in hand, yelled something that sounded like “Almost there!” How? Where? The German cyclist now next to me, then on my wheel and then the Col sign indeed. I couldn’t believe that this was it, that I had made it, that I had been so close to the top when I stopped.
Later I looked at the graph from the Garmin. I blew up after 10.2km of climbing and at a point where the road had been a constant 11.1% average gradient for 2.8km. There were only 2.4km at 10.7% average gradient to go at that point but the pass is behind a bend so it was hard to judge from that point, which probably played a role in me stopping. The entire climb is 12.9km at an average gradient of 7.6% but the toughest stretch is the last 5.7km at approximately 10.9%. It’s a tough tough climb, the toughest I had done to that day.
The views were incredible, out of this world. We chatted with the German cyclist for a while, then the Italian group that was still waiting for their last few battlers to reach the top, all piling on clothes and stuffing bars into their mouths. I started feeling cold in my wet jacket.
We stopped for lunch half way down the other side of the Fedaia at a little quiet Inn with views of the Gran Vernel, one of the peaks of the Marmolada group, before climbing up the Passo Podoi and descend back into Arabba for the finish of our 57km loop, the best ever. Until the Sella Ronda two days later…