๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡น Cycling up Sella, Fedaia, Pordoi, Campolongo & Gardena

This the second of the two part coverage of my time in Italy. The first part can be accessed here, and it covers the famed climbs of Stelvio, Mortirolo and Gavia, together with Lake Cancano.

After five days in the saddle, the transfer to Canazei brought a welcome change in views. I love cold weather. Moving to a town where average temperatures fell from 22-25 down to 16-18 degrees Celsius was lovely. Day 5 in Gavia was mentally brutal for me but getting to Hotel Andreas was well worth the lengthy transfer. Like Alpen, where we spent our first three nights, Andreas exuded the same welcoming, cosy ambience that puts you in the holiday mood right away. With laundry done and a good long refreshing shower, the group went for a walk in town and then dinner,

It is hard to pick between Bormio and Canazei, but Canazei tips the scales for me because of its cooler temperature and a greater variety in its architecture and food. Close to the Austrian border, German influence is clear. Scenery wise, both are close but the iconic blocks forming the Dolomites and the closer proximity to the climbs add to the reasons why Canazei is my favourite place to be. I can see myself spending weeks for a holiday getaway in future. Definitely bringing my family here some day. On to the climbs!

Like the previous post, here’s a summary video and then the long read.


Day 6 – Sella

Pre Ride

  • Gavia was the most mentally draining day for me and I was glad that the group decided to take the first day in the Dolomites easy. It also helped thatย Canazei’s ambience recharged me mentally.
  • With a forecast for rain in the late morning, the group decided to bring forward the climb of Passo Sella. It is a relatively short climb both in distance and elevation.
  • The group also started out earlier, just before 7am to beat the forecasted rain and to make it back in time for breakfast, which the hotel graciously extended. Nothing motivates like being back in time for food.

Ride

  • With a distance of 11km and ascent of around 780m to an altitude of 2214m, the average gradient of 6.8% was welcome. There would be spikes of up to 17% but those are rare and very shortlived.
  • Just 2km after setting off, we reached the base and started the leisurely climb.
  • The first half of the climb was set in dense foliage, much denser than the early parts of Mortirolo and Gavia. The cold temperature did the trick for me. The climb just felt better to me though it was not very scenic yet.
  • And then, the second half came with stunning views of the Dolomites. I had to stop multiple times to take photos. It also helped that the scenic spots were flatter, which meant getting back on the bike was much easier.
  • The photos below speak for themselves. Giant rocky blocks emerging from pine trees surrounding resorts. Wow. I forgot I was climbing.
  • The second half of the climb whisked by without me knowing. The 3/4 mark had 16-17% spikes but the scenery carried me through. This was the only climb that I never bothered about how long more there was to climb. I don’t recall looking at my Wahoo Bolt either. It was like riding through a postcard. A whole stack of postcards.
  • Reached the top and the 360-degree views were awesome. The best of this trip. More photos. I did not want to descend. Got a hot chocolate and chips. More photos. Cheered team mates on. Photos again. Was last to descend, partly due to the scenery and also because I am terrible at descending.
  • Such an amazing climb. The most scenic ride I have so far.

Post Ride

  • Dodged the rain. Did laundry, had a warm bath and made it in time for breakfast. Special mention for Andreas’ scrambled eggs – done just right, semi liquid, I slurped two portions every breakfast. And, it comes with bacon.
  • We had the whole day ahead to explore the town. We went out in search for e-bikes as some team members wanted to give them a spin. Didn’t get any because all the e-bikes were MTBs and there were no road options. But we had German sausages and chips. We eventually got caught in the rain but no one cared.
  • I finally got my lip balm. My lips do not peel easily but the drier weather in Italy caused cracks by day 5. Still prefer non humid places though.
  • Canazei reminded me a little of Norway – my first European destination many years ago. Great weather, great outdoors, great people. But the food is definitely better than Norway, and a lot more affordable.

Photos

Day 7 – Fedaia & Pordoi

Pre Ride

  • Longest day in the saddle. The rides in the Dolomites are not as challenging gradient wise as compared to the first half of the trip but they are longer. Most of them feel like rolling terrain at higher altitudes.
  • Today would be filled with small climbs and two larger ones – Fedaia and Pordoi.
  • Quick breakfast (scrambled eggs x2, of course) and we had a quick look over our bikes. Our mechanic and guides did a great job washing and tuning all the bikes up. I had a much needed change in brake pads. Then, off we went.

Ride

  • Fedaia was the first climb. 12.2km in distance with only 609m of climbing, topping off at 2057m. An average of 5%, which makes it one of the easiest climbs of the trip.
  • The first half of the climb is much gentler, resulting in the low average gradient. But the climb kicks up a notch in the second half, rising to 7-8% and spiking to up to 17% at some portions.
  • Being the conservative rider I am, I went extra easy on Fedaia because I was more concerned about Pordoi.
  • Fedaia is a beautiful climb but after being spoiled by Sella, my bar for scenic went up a notch.
  • At around the 80% mark of the climb, the group came to a slight clearing with a great view of the valley. Plenty of photos were taken. My accidental choice of wearing something fairly bright (yellow) combined well with the lush greenery, grey mountain tops and clear blue skies.
  • We cleared the last 20% quickly and came to the peak with the picture perfect Fedaia Lake. I am going to be using such adjectives fairly often with rides in the Dolomites. The group stopped for quite a long while for photos. It was worth every moment.
  • We even had a helicopter that did tight bank to land above a tunnel. Not sure why, there did not appear to be an emergency. Nice unscheduled mini airshow.
  • We cleared the plateau and descended. It was a long descent, from 2057m to 1073m, our lowest point in the Dolomites. It was fun at -7.6% with long stretches. Some of my team mates flew like rockets. I descended slightly less conservatively than usual. Practice helps.
  • We had a quick lunch at the base. I did not want to feel too full and only had fries. The temperatures at 1073m were not as cold. I wanted to get back to the cold.ย Off we went to Arabba to kick off the climb to Passo Pordoi.
  • I wasn’t expecting a climb to Arabba but what goes down must go up. There was a short, punchy climb right after lunch. Then we had a bit of a rolling descent for 4km before the climb to Arabba – a fairly short 3.7km climb but at 7.4% with around 276m of climbing. It was somewhat winding with 6 hairpins.
  • I kept things easy to save some energy for Pordoi. The most memorable part of this section was a seemingly never ending stream of Ferraris that were descending in the opposite direction. I lost count of how long the convoy was. It was definitely more than 30.
  • There was a rolling portion of around 9km before we entered Arabba. I decided against stopping for too long because the skies began to look gloomy. Filled up bottles and continued.
  • Pordoi was a very consistent climb unlike other climbs with portions that were markedly different in profile.
  • With a distance of around 9km rising from 1602m to 2239m, the climb held steady at 6.8% for almost its entire length.ย  Such consistency is extremely rare, and it made pacing a dream.
  • Pordoi was not exceptionally scenic. Much less so than Sella and Fedaia. It felt like a mixture of Gavia’s vast views mixed together with some cows like those witnessed at Stelvio. I did not feel the need to stop much for photos.
  • Hit the peak after a steady length of riding and was glad to make it through the longest day on the saddle. There were some good views of a grassy valley juxtaposed against the rocky mountains. Photos, another hot chocolate and down we went back to Canazei.

Post Ride

  • Had mixed feelings after this ride. Glad because the next day would be easier. But also sad as the trip was coming to an end. I was feeling good and felt I could ride for another week.
  • Some in the team began feeling the effects of the cold. Some had flu and a few came down with COVID. We had to socially distance and it dampened the mood.
  • Just four of us were left at the end of the day. We had an good steak which the restaurant combined into this giant meat platter that piqued the interest of another table.
  • We decided to keep the last day touristy – skip a second ascent of Pordoi and just enjoy the last two climbs of the trip – Campolongo and Gardena.

Photos

Day 8 – Campolongo & Gardena

Pre Ride

  • Packed up and had breakfast. Last dose of great scrambled eggs and was sad to leave Andreas.
  • Hopped on the van to transfer to Arabba and met our guide there.
  • It was rather chilly and I was tempted to go for a jacket. Decided on the gillet instead because I expected to get warm quick with the climb of Campolongo taking place from the get go.

Ride

  • The climb to Passo Campolongo from Arabba was around 4.8km. Fairly short with only a 270m ascent to 1875m. This was a punchy climb at around 7%.
  • Everyone climbed steadily. We were well drilled by now. Knew what to expect and how to calibrate.
  • Before long we reached the peak. It is small climb and hence not very scenic. We took photos at the signages and then began the descent.
  • The descent to Corvara was very scenic. We took many stops and had many photos. The descent was long with sweeping views of the mountain range hovering over town. Not many descents compare to this. Umbrail was the best one so far, Stelvio a close second and then probably this. I took all the time to take in the scenery knowing that only one climb remained.
  • We had a break at the base to recharge. A nice cup of hot chocolate and a sandwich. Last climb left and we hit Passo Gardena right away.
  • Gardena is around 8.8km in length, rising from 1527m to 2121m. A climb of 594m that marks an average gradient of around 6.7%. Like Pordoi, Gardena is a very consistent climb. The road planners in the Dolomites did great work.
  • The climb was fairly straight for the first half with only around 3 hairpins. It ascended slowly out of the woods before emerging into the now very familiar vast view of the mountain range across the valley.
  • The hairpins kicked in thereafter, though still spaced fairly wide with an average of 400m between each hairpin. Wide enough and diverse enough that it did not feel like climbing stairs akin to Stelvio and Lake Cancano. Really like this mix of climbs.
  • I took my time on Gardena. Stopped a few times for photos and took in the views, knowing that I wouldn’t have the pleasure of embracing such for some time after this.
  • We got to the top fairly easily. Photos. Another hot chocolate for me. Plenty of cheers all round and a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
  • I think we did not really want to get off the peak but the clouds threatened and we felt our first drops of rain while still on a ride. Our guides wanted to avoid a rainy descent and we took off after more photos.
  • The descent had better views and we rolled downhill all the way to our transit hotel. A fitting way to end the final ride.

Post Ride

  • I was happy and relieved to make it through all 9 climbs in 8 days. Sad of course that the cycling portion of this trip was over. After a two year wait, this was a dream finally realised in full.
  • Got to my room, enjoyed a long bath and put the cycling gear away. It was time to explore on my feet.
  • I took a walk at a park near the hotel. Followed a route recommended by a team mate. It is amazing how this entire town has nearly no flat roads. The walk was very scenic as usual. Imagine if such scenery was the norm day to day. But maybe I would not appreciate it as much as I did.
  • Went back to the hotel for a team dinner. A celebration to the end of the trip. It was good to see most of the team again though there was some social distancing due to COVID.
  • Packed the bikes in the basement as a downpour swept the town. The ensuing fog ended the final night in the Dolomites with an air of mystique, just as it had begun.

Photos

Reflections

  • This has been the best cycling trip I have had so far. I went out of my comfort zone and enjoyed every single day on the bike, including mentally chastening days.
  • Itinerary pacing was good. The cadence was 2 tougher days followed by an easier day. This worked really well for me. I do have an itch to climb Stelvio and Pordoi from the opposite sides. I had skipped these having already ascended these climbs.
  • If I were to break the climbs down in terms of toughness, this would be how they line up. Similar names repeated in different order:
    • Mentally toughest (by feel) – Gavia, Mortirolo, Stelvio
    • Physically toughest (by Strava) – Stelvio, Gavia, Mortirolo
  • Scenery means a lot to me. There was no “non-scenic” climb. But if I were to rank them from most to least scenic – Sella, Stelvio, Fedaia, Campolongo, Gardena, Lake Cancano, Gavia, Pordoi, Mortirolo. Not surprising that the top few are mostly from the Dolomites.
  • This tour was basically two trips packed into one. First part was tougher but storied in racing history. Second part, the Dolomites, was much easier and more holiday-like. Both parts of the trip could have been expanded to a full individual trips given the presence of other climbs in the area.
  • Italy is a dream for any climbing enthusiast. It isdifficult to find a set of scenic and challenging climbs packed so closely together. I will return to cycle here again.
  • Massive kudos to the team and organisers for this memorable trip. Notably, Alvin from Shangrila Cycling Tours (SCT) together with John-Lee and Nikolas from Italy Bike Tours (IBT) for making this happen. They took really good care of us on and off the bike.

What went right

  • Training. I was reliant on Zwift, which helped me to get just enough fitness to complete the climbs. Zwift’s Uber Pretzel and Four Horsemen routes were great to simulate back to back climbs with net elevation gain of over 2,000m per ride. I also tried Ven-Top to get a feel of a long climb. This was a good simulation for Stelvio. I was very far away from the fitness levels of 2016-2018 (3.4w/kg) but 2.2w/kg was still good enough to get through Italy fairly comfortably.
  • Conservative approach. It is hard not to adopt this approach when facing numerous unknowns. especially – how would I react to cycling 8 days in a row, with 9 climbs and at fairly high altitudes. It is easy on hindsight to say I could have pushed harder, but not blowing up was the priority and that certainly helped. A conservative approach also allowed me to get stronger as the days went by.
  • Stretching. Hamstrings, quads, glutes and lower back were stretched regularly. Besides relieving strain, my legs felt nimble throughout the 8 days. Zero cramps.
  • Gearing and wheels. 34 small chain ring and 34 large sprocket worked wonders. Yes I went slowly but I lasted throughout. I brought the Roval Alpinist CLX and they worked great. Not as light as my Extralites but definitely a better climber than my Enves. Descends well too. A longer term review of the wheelset will be up in a month or two.
  • Spare brake pads. I was in two minds prior to the trip but the decision to bring a spare set paid off. My pads were worn by day 5. I brake a lot as I am not confident on the descents. 9 climbs = 9 descents. Definitely will bring a set of spare brake pads for such trips again.

What could have been better

  • Weight and fitness. I went into the trip at 74kg, 6kg heavier than in Taiwan. Close to a whole bike’s worth of weight. I was definitely on the heavy side and it was telling on the steeper climbs especially at Mortirolo and Gavia. Getting back to 66-68kg is a priority. For fitness, well I did what I could but I need to change up my routine. Only in my final month did I try to push boundaries with climbing via Zwift. Before that it was all base. Too much base.
  • Riding out of the saddle. Still weak at this for years. I will have to make this a priority to improve. Long days climbing in the saddle will definitely benefit from being able to stand and pedal for more than 10s.
  • Overpacking. First long multiday event and I packed close to 40kg (bike included). Packed way too many clothes because I did not see the benefits of doing laundry until this trip. I could have shed more than half of the clothes I brought.
  • Recovery. This was tough because we rode the very day we landed. I think I managed time zone adjustment fine. I did not feel sleep deprived on any of the days, but my body battery was low and I knew I was not fresh. Maybe flying in a day earlier to get adjusted and more sleep might help.

Looking ahead

  • Changing training. I am going to continue climbing on Zwift and not bother with climbs outdoors. Nothing in Singapore really helps with climbing. I could loop Mount Faber all day or return to Pepys to do my 30x loops, but all that will not help because the climbs in Singapore are short and there is no way to practice sustained climbs. Alpe du Zwift and Ven-Top are the only options via Zwift. The other option would be power focused intervals. Of course, I would still go outdoors but that will be for base.
  • Diet. I am also going to continue my attempt at weight loss. Minimally 68kg. This would be a healthy climbing weight for me as I am 179cm in height.
  • More climbing trips. I am eyeing Spain and France for Europe, and Thailand for ASEAN. I also want to return to Italy and Taiwan. Korea and Japan are also on the list though those are not climbing focused.
  • Bring the family along. I would love to bring my wife and daughter along. E-bike and trailer is an option. A family did that on Stelvio!

Thank you for sharing this journey with me and I hope to have more trips to share soon. Till then!

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