I feel small and insignificant as my bike bounces roughly the gravel track tucked deep inside the steeply sided wooded gorge. I begin to wonder if this is a good idea. It’s only the first day, should I turn back and find some tarmac? Should I continue and hope I make it out the other side? What if my GPS is wrong? How will I get home? What if I break the bike? What if I lose something important? I stop to check just in case. Damn no tooth paste, it must have rattled out. O well at least the chamois cream is still there, that might be important in a few days time.
I think about the silly warnings, watch out they still have wild bears there, be careful Wild boars can be dangerous! I promised my mum I wouldn’t camp wild… just in case. None of these things worried me, not really, although I had been on edge for the past 24 hours since this new experience had started and now the doubts were increasing the further the gravel road progressed.
You must be thinking I’ve just been dropped deep in the wilderness. It’s not the wilderness, not by a long way, but none the less I feel quite a long way from home at the moment. In actual fact I am a fairly long way away. I’m making my way through the Triglavski National Park in Slovenia. I’m en route to Italy, for today at least. Then it’s Switzerland, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, France again and then the final ten mile ride home to Brighton. I’m less than 50miles into a 1100+ mile solo bike ride across Europe and I’ve already lost the tarmac and my tooth paste. ‘At least I haven’t lost my spare cycling shorts’ I tell myself. ‘O wait, I don’t have any spare cycling shorts!’ All I carry is the set of cycling kit I’m wearing, some items just case the weather gets bad, my tent and sleeping kit and a few light casual clothes.
This is an adventure, the adventure I’ve been craving. I’ve raced bikes for ten years, road, Mtb, cross, track, time trials, crits, stage races, 12hours, 24hours. I’ve raced all over the Uk, in Spain, in Canada, Austria, even South Africa but somehow this has become a bit too comfortable. I want to find something new and see more of the world. I’ve been inspired by people riding around the world and across continents. I’ve read stories of Wellington’s troops marching all over Europe to fight Napoleons armies, sleeping wherever they happen to stop, eating whatever they find, not knowing what the new day will bring. I like the idea, an escape from the modern world. So that’s why I find myself on the gravel road 1000 miles from home.
The previous day I arrived in Ljublijana the capital of Slovenia. I arrived at the airport, built my bike, disposed of my bike box and set off. My GPS has a pre-planned route uploaded, I have a pre-planned stay with a friend half way and a ferry ticket booked for the following Sunday, just over a week away. After a short ride from the airport and a night staying in Ljublijana, exploring the local culture and tasting the local beer I set out somewhat heavy headed on the journey. I crossed the plains north of the city and entered the foothills of the Dolomites which is where I found the gravel road. I ignored my doubts and pushed on. At least the gravel was making me work harder to sweat off the hangover! Finally the trees open out into a clearing. At the far end of the valley the mountains loomed. I couldn’t help but smile to myself at the view, that’s where I was heading, up into the cloud covered peaks and out the other side.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. My worries began to subside along with my hang over as I crossed the border into Italy. Much of the afternoon was spent on wide cycle paths running parallel to the road, a welcome relief from the hordes of motorbikes and campervans taking advantage of the fantastic sunny weekend. Eventually I reached my first planned stop, the small town of Tolmezzo, the gateway to the Dolomites. I was still struggling to find my routine though. It turns out stopping at 5pm in an Italian town when you are tired and hungry is a silly idea. Hardly anything is open and the chances of finding a decent meal are slim until at least 7pm. I entertained myself in a local super market before persuading a local restaurant to serve me dinner early.
The next task after dinner was still playing on my mind. The idea was to camp wild for most of the trip and again this was something new to me. I’ve camped out hundreds of times but suddenly when you know your camping somewhere you shouldn’t in a different country it becomes whole lot more interesting and tense! As I cruised out of Tolmezzo with my lights illuminating the road I scanned the verge for a suitable camping spot. The first mile proved fruitless, all gardens and factories. However just outside town I spotted a small wood. Quickly I turned off my lights and dived down an adjacent gravel track like a criminal on the run. I briefly pause to check that no one has spotted me before shuffling into the woods and finding suitable spot to setup camp for the night.
Surprisingly I managed a solid nights and after a hearty breakfast of cereal bars and bananas I was ready to hit the road. Today’s route took me through the heart of the Dolomites. I kicked the day off with an icon of the Giro D’ Italia, Monte Zoncolon. Fortunately for my legs I climbed the mountain from the eastern side. This is the main road up to the Zoncolon ski resort and is fairly wide and only around 8% gradient. As I climbed higher the view of the valley below opened up. The early morning sunshine shimmered on the river and a haze blurred the surrounding peaks. After about half an hour of climbing I reached the ski resort of Zoncolon. I cruised towards the descent and wondered why there was such a fuss about this climb, it seemed relatively easy to me. At that moment my GPS chirped that I was off course and should be turning left up what looked like some ones drive way. The driveway turned out to be a wall of a climb up to the real summit. The narrow road twisted upwards through the now green ski pistes. Some sections were so steep I had to weave up the road in order to keep forward momentum! Finally I reached the summit and took a few moments to enjoy the view and chat with a couple of Slovenians who had just conquered the tougher western slopes, a brutal 10km at an average of 11%!
The decent that followed was awesome. I did feel pity for the poor cyclists toiling up the 11% slopes but this was far outweighed by the thrill and adrenaline of the decent! Next up was a long dragging climb up to Sella de Razo. I gently wound my way uphill for what felt like hours. In actual fact it was hours as by the time I reached the top it was past midday and my stomach was beginning to feel empty. I stopped at a small road refuge to enjoy a bowl of pasta surrounded by the impressive rock formations that typify the Dolomites. Lunch was digested as I sped down the silky smooth hairpins of Sella Campigotto before launching in to the pretty Lake side town of Arunzo. Arunzo is a town I had visited a few years previously and was one of the reasons for wanting to ride across the Dolomites. It is nestled in a steep sided valley next to an incredibly light blue lake. The beauty and scale of the dolomites is incredible and Arunzo sums it up nicely.
The rest of the day got a little lumpy. The Dolomites don’t do valley roads; you climb up one side, descend the other then head straight back up again. I was heading straight through the heart and the big climbs were coming. It started with the Passo Tre Coci, the road that climbs from Arunzo into the next valley of Cortina. A fine drizzle had started but I reminded myself it wasn’t so bad, when the Giro D’Italia visited these roads in May they finished at the summit of Tre Chimney d’ Laverado in a blizzard!
The next climb was the Passo Falzarego, the first point over 2000m altitude. Originally I was planning to stop after this climb but the endurance magic was beginning to kick in. Endurance magic is a funny thing. You can feel terrible all day, your legs will be blocked and muscles aching when for some unexplained mysterious reason something clicks and you become a super-efficient cycling machine! This happened to me on the Falzarego, one minute I was feeling a bit tired and sluggish then the next minute the climbs felt effortless. All my worries disappeared, I knew I could ride home, I knew I’d find somewhere to sleep and most importantly I knew I didn’t want to be anywhere else other than riding my bike up the mysterious cloud covered passes. The Falzarego passed in no time and before I knew it I was half way up Passo Pordoi. The Pordoi was breath taking. As I climbed higher and higher the late evening sunshine began to break through the thinning cloud highlighting the rock formations above me. I crested the 2239m pass as dusk, my body was loving the effort and my mind was captivated by the beauty of the surroundings as I plummeted down to the base of the final mountain of the day the 2224m Passo Sella. I started climbing as the night drew in. The Sella is dominated by the huge granite cliffs that tower overhead. As I climbed the dwindling light backlit the cliff face casting a huge dark shadow over me. I pushed on upwards aware that my fuel reserves were running low. Most passes have a restaurant or refuge at the top so this was now all the motivation I needed to push on. Sure enough as a breached the treeline I could see a building lighting up the sky above me. Ten minutes later I staggered through the door and explained in my best Italian that I would like some food. To my dismay the kitchen was shut but after some pleading and the saddest most disappointed hungry face I could muster the waiter relented and I heard the microwave door slam and purr into life. Four minutes later I was presented with a shrivelled lasagne!
I can’t say it was the best meal I’ve ever eaten but its all fuel and I must have been close to the high altitude speed eating record. I was obviously delaying closing time so I paid for my lasagne and picked up 2 bars of chocolate, 2 bags of Haribo and a massive bag of crisps to keep me going. I descended the Passo Sella in the rain with a large bag of crisps stuffed up my rain coat, which I figured would help keep me warm! As I descended onto the next valley the rain began to intensify. The dark clouds were looming ahead as a massive storm approached. I began to worry a little, it was 10pm, I was soaked and I needed shelter. I had spotted a few picnic sites on the climb which made great camp sites so desperately searched for another as I descended. Luck was not on my side and there were no suitable camp sites. As I rolled into town the rain started getting heavier. I had to make a decision fast, do I carry on, do I bail into a hotel or do I just camp on the first flat spot I find. Just as these decisions were running through my mind I passed an abandoned wood shed. A big, dry, warm and more importantly empty wood shed. Bingo! Brakes on, lights off, stealth mode activated, into shed, wet clothes off, sleeping kit out, eat crisps, brush teeth, bed! I can tell you this; there is nothing more satisfying than watching a crazy electric storm out the door or a shed whilst snug in a sleeping bag knowing you’ve just ridden 140miles across the Dolomites!
The next morning dawned brightly. The storm had burned itself out and rained for most of the night. I breakfasted on chocolate and cereal bars before setting out for the most anticipated day of the trip. Today was Stelvio day. Passo Stelvio is the road I was most excited about riding. It’s one of the highest passes in the Alps, been voted the best driving road in Europe and is iconic in the Giro D’ Italian. My day started downhill. I barely pedalled for the first 25miles into Bolzano, a perfect way to save some energy. Unfortunately my GPS file for this particular day had become corrupted, not a major problem overall as I was mainly riding up one valley, however Italian towns seem to struggle with logical layouts. I wasted half an hour cycling in circles in Bolzano before find in the correct way out. The 15 miles to Mezano was simple enough however once more the town itself was a nightmare! Had my GPS been working correctly I would have known that I didn’t even need to go into Mezano! I finally found the road towards Stelvio though and pushed on. I reached Prato Stelvio, the town at the base of the climb around 3pm. By this point I was very hungry having ridden for just under 6 hours already, so took the opportunity to take a quick pit stop at a petrol station. An ice cream, a bottle of coke, a Zipvit Caffiene gel and 2 bags of Haribo later I was feeling suitably fuelled to take on the Stelvio.
The 2 hours spent climbing were some of the best hours of my life. I timed it to perfection; the previous day’s storm had dumped snow on the highest peaks and left the air fresh. The late afternoon sun cast long shadows and shone intensely into my eyes. The dandelion seeds on the road side were being released by the wind and glowed as they floated across the road. It was as if I was cycling up the mountain pass towards the gates of heaven such was the perfection of the conditions. As I climbed higher the thin air began to take effect. On the lower hairpin bends I liked to accelerated into the corner and rail it to carry speed and momentum into the next pitch. The higher I climbed the harder this became. Every time I stood to accelerate the lack of oxygen made its self-known, forcing me to sit and spin to recover. Eventually I settled into a plodding rhythm mentally ticking off each of the 48 hairpins as I crept toward the top. Finally I made it 2758m of altitude, the highest point of my trip. I celebrated with a hotdog and the essential photos next to the Cima Copi sign before wrapping up for the long descent. Little did I know at the time but the Stelvio was to my last moments of summer, Autumn was closing in, and closing in fast.
Stelvio was not the end on my day. After a quick Pizza stop in Bormeo I headed up hill again to the small province of Livigno. I climbed in the dark and the temperature dropped dramatically. As I climbed higher it dropped further and once more I began to worry about a place to sleep. It was 2 degrees as I rode into Livigno. There were no obvious camp sites and once again the pre bed questions started do I carry on, do I bail into a hotel or do I just camp on the first flat spot I find? There were far too many people around for camping; the hotels were closed as it was near midnight so that left only one option, carry on. So on I pedalled. I was cold and knew it wouldn’t get any warmer descending into Swizerland. Maybe I should turn back? No I’ll carry on. There are so many questions to ask yourself in such a situation, no one knows where I am and I won’t be found until morning if it all goes wrong? I had just convinced myself that I really needed to stop and get warm as I cycled along the edge of Lake Livigno. As I was thinking this I passed a water processing plant, a water processing plant with a nice flat, raised bank in front of it. The kind of spot that a cold tired cyclist could bivi for the night, perfect!
I woke early after a warm if a little breathless night’s sleep due to the altitude. The early morning sun was still hidden behind the surrounding mountains as I packed my gear and ate some food. I set off towards Switzerland as the sun crested the nearby peaks. That view is one I’ll never forget, the silhouetted mountains reflecting off the lake while waves of mist danced on the surface. Words and pictures can’t quite capture it but it’s still stored crystal clear in my mind, even now.
It’s at this point that I have to admit that I didn’t ride the whole way home as I so boldly claim. There is a long narrow single lane tunnel through the mountain that separates Livigno and Switzerland and despite my protests the Swiss lady the toll booth would NOT let me ride. Rules are rules and the Swiss will not break them! Reluctantly I had to catch the small shuttle bus for 1 mile through the tunnel. After that journey, piloted by a crazy Italian driver, I realised why they wouldn’t let me cycle. Italy has a contender for the world rally championships judging by the speed the mini bus travelled through the tunnel. We took each corner so fast that my bike, which was hanging off the back via its front wheel, swung out wildly and rebounded off the walls of the tunnel! Thankfully it survived and I was able to continue my descent to Zernez once out the other side.
The tiny mountain town of Zernez marked the start of my last high pass, the Fuella Pass. I savoured my last uphill, my body was now used to the grind of the climb and the thrill of the descent. Swiss mountains are easier than Italian mountains. The roads are smoother, the gradient shallower and the corners wider. The Fuella pass was over in no time and rewarded me with one of the best descents of the trip, a wide flowing grippy race track. I pushed hard in the corners and span flat out on the straights, it was ace!
The rest of the day should have been an easy downhill blast to Zurich where I had arranged to stay with a friend. Mother Nature had other plans. As I reached Davos, the town at the base of Fuella Pass, it began to rain. It then rained for the rest of the day! To make the situation worse the wind picked up and blew into my face all the way into Zurich. It was a tough day and I was glad to finally have a warm shower and a real bed at its end. I slept well, content that I had made the half-way point and had conquered the hardest roads of the trip.