Cycling in the Shadows of Giants

A taste of Italy's Dolomites through mountains, moments, and meals.

Written by
Evan Christenson
min read
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Great granite peaks wind up the sky and spire into the abyss. The Dolomites, so grand, so iconic, they ache under their own beauty. These mountains hold such might and prestige, flashing soft light and hard shadows, peeling and flaking and shooting away overhead as the sun rises until the sun sets, from now until forever. Riding in the Dolomites is like riding with an eagle always perched on your shoulder. The solid weight, the sharp talons, the gravity of the landscape, it all weighs on the consciousness. As we set off, leaving the bustling ski town of Cortina d’Ampezzo on a traverse over to Trentino, we know what we are doing is special. It’s a moment to acknowledge. The village buzzes with excitement this clear summer morning, and slamming one final espresso to help wake the legs up, we look up at the mountains and acknowledge this moment together. This place is…special.

Our route follows old World War I battle lines, tracing the frontier between Italy and Austria Hungary during the infamous war. Using the steep mountain passes, the jagged faces, the inclement and often dramatic weather to their advantage, the Italians were able to stave off a ruthless attack, and this theater is recognized now as one of the most brutal in all of 20th century combat. The drama of the surroundings is compounded knowing the ugly history as we set off. My girlfriend and I are setting out not out to win a war, we make no errant claims of such, but instead to experience something more dramatic than our simple life at home. We ride for self indulgence, for excitement, for the simple joy of wind and the freedom of motion. We are lucky to not have to fight wars, and lucky to use these same dramatic features to celebrate life rather than death. Italians loudly celebrate life after such a long spell under the thumb of fascism. Riding out of Cortina d’Ampezzo ladies fly laundry from windows, birds chirp, music is already being played loudly near the town square. We almost bump into a man on a bike carrying baguettes, and he snaps and yells and smiles and sings all at once. Village life here is serene.

Bo and I smile a lot as we ride on, shoes clipped in, ankles and shoulders rolling out the morning stiffness. We look off to our sides and crane our necks up at the peaks and smile a bit more. Bo has never ridden in the Dolomites, and my other time was cut short by an accident, so we eagerly look around and soak up the culture as best we can. We begin our morning with a long, steady and light climb up Passo Falzarego. The morning air is crisp. Old and rusty Fiat Panda’s rattle to life and clatter up the road. Motorcycles are already screaming up the switchbacks, and a line of red Ferrari’s stickered up for a rally go flying around the bend. We turn off onto a dirt double track, into the pine forest, and sigh and gather ourselves as the quiet settles into the trees. We breathe deep lungs full of crisp air, and ride through our own small clouds of vapor we exhale as we push deeper into the mountains. The pedaling becomes rhythmic. Small grouse run amongst the rocks, a hawk soars overhead, the trail gets tighter, more intimate, and we hunch our shoulders together and ride on. We settle into our own spaces and fly up the climb, and quickly grab our jackets and ride down the other side. The jackets flutter in the wind and our brakes scream with the morning dew. No time to waste though, it’s a long ride to Trentino, and there’s still plenty of coffee to be drunk in between.

"No time to waste though, it’s a long ride to Trentino, and there’s still plenty of coffee to be drunk in between."

We pedal over to Fedaia pass, along the smooth and fast asphalt, our tires buzzing in the wind and our smiles wide and teeth full of bugs. We jump on the lifts overlooking the Marmolade glacier, and giggle as the cables hum and pull us to the top of the world. We gladly pay the ten Euro fee to skip the several hour hike-a-bike, and giggle off the guilt about cheating. The lift sputters at the top and the doors clang open, and the cold air rushes in and we roll out and look around from our island in the sky and panic. The peaks are so sharp, so tall, so grand, and we feel in this moment so intensely small. Bo looks down at the world below, the valley we’ve come from and on the other side of the ridge, the valley we’re headed to, and she shakes her head. “We’re going all the way down there…?” I look at the singletrack swooping down the hill, the wood berms and the jumps and the riders flying down with their full face helmets and knee pads and laugh. We’re hilariously underprepared for it. I ride off and yell back “We’re definitely not taking the lift back down!” 

It’s as if the descent is sculpted out of the mountain by Michaelangelo himself. Italian artisanship abounds in the Dolomites, and the trail rails and rolls down the steep mountain face like a poem, a symphony, a sculpture, raising and screaming and crashing and crescendoing around and down, so far down, down into the valley miles below. We yell, we laugh, we stop for pictures, we run back up to do jumps over again. We kiss and look at the flowers and up at the mountains and the river below and the glacier and the colors of it all, the soft blue sky and the pearl white clouds and the sharp steel gray of the granite stabbing through it all. The descent is glorious. We can’t shut up. It’s one of the best descents of our whole lives. 

"The descent is glorious. We can’t shut up. It’s one of the best descents of our whole lives."

The clouds follow us down into the valley. Building the whole time we were riding, a heavy darkness descends upon us from above. We scramble back on our bikes and down the road trying to outrun it, but the sky swallows the world as we once knew it, and the rain begins shortly after. We’re tough we say to ourselves, saying it loudly, pushing ourselves on. But the rain starts falling harder, a pattering of the cobbles beneath us, collecting onto the roadway, falling harder, mixing with the spray of the cars, a mess of water, a fist and punch from God, falling even harder, tat-tat-tatering against the cold jackets stuck to our ears. My hands go numb. A little higher it even looks like snow. Maybe it is. My last time here it snowed in August. Geez that feels so unfair I think. We were just having fun! It’s summer! We run for shelter. A small roof juts into the sky, and an old man stands dry smoking a cigarette, confident in his shelter, mocking the sky with his meager shirt and sandals. 

Mauro puffs on his cigarette lazily as we race to share his shelter. He’s older, 60 maybe, with a long gray beard and gentle, beady eyes. He waves us in, gently moving out of the way, and laughs at our chaos and busy chatter as we clamber under the cover. We’re shivering, cold and soaked, totally caught off guard by the deluge that’s just slammed the brakes on our ride to Trentino. Mauro disappears into the building, and we worry we’ve disturbed his peace. But as we stand there shivering, he returns holding a tray with two cups of tea and a tin of sugar. He puts it on the ground and we sit over the steam and warm our shocked selves back up. We talk for a few minutes, telling him about our ride, about our naivety for Italy and love for this landscape, trying to articulate just how beautiful it all is. Mauro nods in agreement, excited by our excitement of his homeland, and waves us into his porch area. We sit in the chairs, taking off our rain shells, and he returns with a towel, a plate of bread, cheese, meat, sauces and fruits. More tea as well. Then two beers. We towel off and dive into the juicy meats, the soft bread, the pungent garlic sauce. We guzzle the beers and hold tight to the tea cups radiating warmth. He brings out a meat pie. Then a cherry pastry and ice cream. We eat until it hurts. The food is so good. Mauro chuckles while we groan. He’s satisfied to see us so full. 

We recognize the moment again, yet another on this long day, a moment to be cherished. We do these types of rides because in just one day five beautiful, intensely memorable moments can align.

"We’ve come to Italy to experience life a bit turned up. Better food, better people, better mountains than the same ones back home."

We’ve come to Italy to experience life a bit turned up. Better food, better people, better mountains than the same ones back home. Mauro says we can camp in his garden, or we’re welcome to sleep on his couch if we’d like. The rain is still falling outside, clattering against the tin roof, a staunchly angry white noise, and we’re really in no hurry to push on. Trentino can wait. We’re glad to turn one day of riding into two, because we’re sure it’ll still be amazing once we finally get there. We doze off, legs heavy from the long day of riding, hearts full from the beauty of it all. Mauro gives us the couch and turns the light off with a chuckle, amused by the serendipity of our evening together. Buona notte he adds, as if it even needs saying. A good night indeed. 
















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Author Bio

Evan Christenson

Evan Christenson is an obsessively curious person who can often be found with a camera, a tent, and a really heavy bicycle. He has bikepacked on four continents. Find more of his stories on his website or on his Instagram.

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