Dancing in the Dolomites

The Maratona of the Dolomites is held, as the title suggests, in the Dolomite mountains in Northern Italy. This year is was very hot. Whilst this was great news for tan lines it made for a tortuous race day. Here Matt Haigh a local time trial specialist and Maratona veteran gives you his lowdown of the week.

Day Zero: Thursday 2nd July Chris, Nick & Matt set off very early for the 29th edition of Maratona Dles Dolomites. Negotiating operation stack diversions around Ashford was extremely difficult even at that time of day and a later than planned Eurotunnel shuttle was inevitable and set us back a few hours. Even with relay driving and stopping only for fuel it was about 11pm local time when we arrived in our base at Chalet Haus Valentin, in Pedraces, Altia Badia, Italy (about 20 NW of Contina). Fortunately the Colletts Mountain Holidays staff soon had a hot meal on the table for us, and a beer from the honesty bar to wash it down before unloading bikes indoors.

Operation stack was insane.

Day One: Friday 3rd July, Chris’s research had thrown up a route over the Fedaia Pass including a few climbs that we had not done on previous trips to the region, but at 65m and over 8000ft of climbing it was a bit ambitious for the first day to acclimatise to the 30C+ temperature and the Dolomite gradients. The option of putting bikes back on the rack and driving over to Arraba to cut 12m off the distance was soon discounted as being just too darn soft and after an early breakfast we set off up the valley, through Corvara and over the Campalongo, climbing and stopping on top of the Pordoi for first of many coffees that day.

The Fedaia pass rises to about 2200m and has a a 2km-long reservoir with a cobbled-surface dam to cycle between the hotels and bars at either side. Either we were especially hungry or the panini’s here were the best of the whole trip!

The guy in the blue. Sandwich specialist.

The descent however wasn’t without its drama’s and after dropping fast for about 10km on a particularly steep section of road Chris’s rear tube overheated and burst at about 50mph. Unnerving. The deep-section rims were so hot that we couldn’t touch them! Fortunately no skin kissed tarmac and we were able to make our way onwards without further problems.

A few spots of rain saw us into a lovely restaurant in Arraba who served some excellent apple cake which was both easy on the eye and generously served. The downpour was seen off and the honesty bar sought out.

 Day Two: We agreed that day one had been over-ambitious and to compensate Nick & Matt set off to climb the much nearer Valporola and Falzarego, two passes separated by just about 1.5km of steep wide road. Chris meanwhile headed off to find tubes and to get a bike mechanic to look at his clunky bottom-bracket. We headed into the rider sign on where the rumours were confirmed that leg shaving, even among the elderly, was rife and average waist sizes were quite low. 

Day Three: The Maratona Dles Dolomites is a closed road cyclo-sportive using a figure-of eight route, with at least 9000 riders (we saw race numbers up to 11000) starting in La Villa at 06:30, we were dressed up with extra clothing that we would jettison after a couple of climbs as the day warmed up. Its hard to believe that the start pens were filling from 05:15am and the road up through La Villa is thronged with supporters at this crazily early time of day. We were well positioned for our start from the “Pinarello” pen and we crossed the start line approx 20mins after the elite riders and lady-rider groups. As we passed the start line, the local bishop sprinkled us with holy water from his position in a hot-air balloon moored over the start whilst television helicopters hovered above giving a sensation somewhere between being on a grand tour or the set of a Vietnam war movie! Meanwhile crowds lined the roads, and groups entertained riders with music, costumes and cracking bull-whips over the heads of spectators. It took the Campalongo and the Pordoi to before the roads became a little less crowded. With it being hotter than in previous years I drank more than ever and stopped to fill up at every opportunity. The ride becomes a series of gruelling climbs and scary descents with fantastically well-organised feed-stations at strategic locations with hundreds of eager volunteers filling every type of drink bottle and shoving a range of food, bars and gels at you. Always each climb starts with low heart rate as riders have just finished a long descent; that coupled with the heat and the gradient make progress hard.

 Our scribe tearing up another climb!

The entry is made up of 30+ nations with Dutch, Belgian, German, British alongside the majority of Italians, its fun to read the competitors names off their race numbers, the long foreign names sounding like the famous pro’s you’ve never heard of. During the ride you pass and repass riders who are faster on either the up’s or the down’s, and as long as you continue to catch riders there is always a constant stream of them ahead. Some riders struggle to climb but make up for it by coming past on the descents at obscene speeds. There were just a few times when we heard the sirens of the medical units, saw the flag-waving marshals pointing out an incident and a couple of unfortunate riders who had over-done a corner being attended to, a reminder to continue to ride safe. We’d climbed several of the passes on our “practice rides”, but we’d avoided the biggest climb that is the legendary Giau and we reached that at the hottest part of the day, it’s the longest and steepest of all the climbs, and after that its all about survival to the finish. The last section after the Falzarego and Valparola is mainly downhill but with tired legs even the drags felt hard, the organisers have introduced a new cobbled “wall” section just a few km’s from the finish, very steep and narrow, it caught out a few of the riders whofell and held up the hill at times. Once past that the last drag up the valley to the finish in Corvara seemed easy knowing the end was so close. Once through the finish, the medals, the hats, and that first drink it's off to the ice-stadium to push through the crowds for some hot food and a beer drinks whislt trying to find the people you started the race with. With all that done lovely 5m free-wheel down the valley to the chalet was bliss as was the ensuing beer or two. It’s a fantastically well organised event, a superb route and this year again great weather. (we have had snow in past years!),

Still looking fresh!

Day Four: The extra climb. It's become traditional to take an extra day to climb a near-ish stage of Giro or Tour and this year it was Monte Zoncolan; a gruelling summit finish on a number of Giro’s including this years edition. 

Whose idea was this?

It's an un-relenting grind and surprisingly considering how little traffic it gets it's got three illuminated tunnels near the summit. There’s a shop at the top selling tee-shirts and hoodies but you cant get a drink – madness! Frankly it is terrifying to think people race up this beast.

If you have never tried a big European sportive this might just be the one. It is a toughy but there are of course many more on offer which might not involve quite as many hills!


Chris Armishaw is heading out to the US for an independent 3000-mile cross-continent ride, TRANSAM3000. @chrisarmishaw

Nick Hobbs is now back at his work at Blackmore Apparel. @billythegerbil

Matt Haigh continues to ride every day that he can and will be preparing for 2016 quite soon, with his impending retirement! @witchnut