Riding the Sella Ronda in the Dolomite Alps

One day on two wheels, traversing a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Written by
Gerhard Czerner
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Silenced, eyes and mouth wide open in amazement; I am standing here and cannot believe it. I am trying to take in what I am seeing. Vertical walls that literally touch the sky. The rocks across from me resemble the towers of some giant cathedral. It does not matter in which direction I look, the panorama is breath-taking and has me completely spellbound. Existence itself is reduced to nothing more than this overwhelming visual experience.

Lost within the euphoria of imagery, I begin to hear a faint voice. It is only after I concentrate fully on the voice, that the scenery in my mind changes. Our eternally optimistic guide, Klaus, is standing there in front of me and, as it turns out, happens to be the source of the voice I have been hearing. “Don't we want to get going? We still have a ways to go?”, he friendly inquires with a smile and then gestures toward the trail ahead of us.

"The rocks across from me resemble the towers of some giant cathedral. It does not matter in which direction I look, the panorama is breath-taking and has me completely spellbound."

Oh, ah, yeah right, that's why we are here, aren't we. I am still trying to get my thoughts together. I am traveling the Sella Ronda in South Tyrol on mountain bike. The mountains which have virtually entranced me are known as the Sella peaks and the Langkofel. Slowly, I find my way back to reality. Hello Earth! Hello Klaus! Yes, please, I do want to keep going!

Right in the heart of the Dolomite Alps, our morning began with a fantastic breakfast at the Hotel “Melodia del Bosco” in Alta Badia. Together with his sister, Klaus runs a very familial business which is tailor-made to the wishes and demands of cyclists. This morning those gathered outside were cyclists from every category imaginable. There were racing bike cyclists just heading out, a small group of pedelecs being equipped with freshly charged batteries and other mountain bikers getting ready to peel rubber on some of the Alta Badia trails and then there was us. Caroline and I are heading to the Sella Ronda along with Klaus. Here in the hotel, there are maps, information and guides available for every program.

Even for the Sella Ronda, a guide is highly recommendable. Throughout the day we will ride numerous trails which cannot be found on any map, Klaus promises. Endless variations for all skill levels imaginable which are then tailored to each group and thus create a truly unique experience. Financially, there is also no reason to skip out on professional know-how. It only costs 10€ more for a guided tour than when you just purchase a map. Tips and ideas for additional tours as well as information about the country and its people is also included at no extra charge.

We choose to go clockwise around the Sellastock because it is possible to make better use of the lifts in this direction and we do not have to conquer too many inclines. It is also possible to connect more skillfully demanding trails in this direction. However, both directions are possible, it all depends on your own willpower. We had more the feeling that, for cyclists, virtually anything is possible here. Most of the lifts will happily transport bikes. Bike trails were purposefully built parallel to hiking trails so as to ensure that both the interests of the cyclists and the hikers are respected. Once a year, the entire Sella Ronda gets cut off from vehicle traffic and is reserved solely for cyclists. On “Sella Ronda Bike Day” the motto is: No noise, no traffic, only 56km, four passes and approximately 22,000 cyclists!

Maybe it is because of this that bicycling has such a very long tradition here. The Passo Pordoi has already been the highlight of the Giro dÍtalia 13 times which is considered to be the second most important stage cycling race in the world. It is also here on top that the monument of Fausto Coppi, Italian triple champion in cycling, stands. The Maratona dles Dolomites has also been listed as one of the most important events of the region since 1987. In 2015, more than 9,300 cyclists took part.

The four passes of the Sella Ronda, with their infamous names of Passo Campolongo, Passo Pordoi, Passo Sella und Passo Gardena, are also part of our program today. However, contrary to how the marathon participants did it, we will be taking advantage of the one or the other lift going uphill. In the beginning, however, Klaus has a little something extra in store for us. We are taking the gondola in La Villa up to the Piz La Ila which does not actually belong to the Ronda. The view towards the Sellastock is magnificent in the morning light. This is where we stand for the first time this morning speechless and amazed.

The UNESCO committee which listed the Dolomite Alps in 2009 as a serial World Heritage site definitely did not have a tough choice in deciding for this worldly significant one-of-a-kind natural site. We ourselves are, at least, wholly and completely convinced of it.

This early in the morning, the trails further towards Passo Campolongo are completely deserted. And, even as we continue on towards Arabba, we rarely come across any other cyclists. The gondola brings us from here up to 2,478m high Porto Vecovo. The summit station is directly across from Marmolata which, with its altitude of 3,343m, has the highest peak in the Dolomite Alps. The view towards the majestic glacier is so mesmerizing that we cannot convince ourselves to look away no matter how hard we try. The wind howls fiercely up here. Feeling the chill, we put on our windbreakers. A hot cup of coffee would definitely do the trick right now, but unfortunately during the summertime everything up here shuts down.

"The UNESCO committee which listed the Dolomite Alps in 2009 as a serial World Heritage site definitely did not have a tough choice in deciding for this worldly significant one-of-a-kind natural site."

Klaus encourages us by telling us that there are enough chances for such detours on Passo Pordoi. So, we tear ourselves away from the view and try to concentrate on the downhill. This is not as easy as it might seem. The view keeps calling us back like some type of mystical siren. However, our concentration is direly needed after we have passed the short distance of the Forststrasse. The trail is only so wide and, at the wrong moment, a tumble down towards the valley would be unpreventable. A few inclines help raise our body temperature so that by the time we reach the pass, we have already put away our jackets.

So far, we have rarely run into any other people, contrary to up here on the pass. We get in line behind a long queue of cyclists. Not to grab some food, but rather to get a picture with the famous “Passo Pordoi” sign. It is surely a good ten minutes before we are up. Even we want to take home that irrefutable proof that we were here. The creativity knows no limits as far as motifs are concerned. Some people hold their bikes up in the air, while others let themselves hang down from the sign. Various poses are tried out, handstands are done, kisses are given, laughs are had, faces are made and all of it is caught on film. What is happening around that sticker riddled sign is an attraction in itself.

Hunger is calling and we sit down on a small terrace. The view couldn't be better. We can see directly towards the highest point of the road where entire swarms of motorcyclists, automobile and motorhome drivers fight over the few parking spots available. All of this while racing bikes, e-bikes and a few mountain bikes make their way between them. People from all walks of life are there. A colorful mix of languages can be heard coming from the souvenir stand behind us. Fitting to the cosmopolitan scenery around us, the menu is also an exciting mix of typical traditional Tyrolean specialties blended together with Italian influences. Many of the products such as cheese, ham and wine are from local farmers. Of course, to round it all off, we have to have an espresso. This really gets our engines revving and we are ready for the next downhill run.

The combination of trails is fantastic. Along with nature trails, there are also trails made specifically for cyclists while others were just optimized. This means that the larger stones have been removed, the trail route has been adapted accordingly and crossings have been installed where there are fences. The paths created do not have the character of baby smooth crusher dust tracks, like you often find in bike parks today. Of course, there are also berms and some jumps every once in a while, but the natural characteristic of the ground has been maintained as much as possible. This way you almost always have the feeling you are traveling a natural trail, just slightly modified for cyclists. This concept is much appreciated as we make our way downhill from Passo Sella. Every inch is a blast. It is double the fun to be able to enjoy such a tour in a unique surrounding as in the Dolomite Alps.

At Passo Gardena, the last pass of today's tour, we take another break to take in the astonishing sunset. The sky turns red and along with it the fissured rock faces all around us. Traffic on the trail is virtually nonexistent and the peace and quiet of the evening reigns over all. Each one of us just stands there alone with our thoughts allowing ourselves to be mesmerized. We take every bit of the moment in. We consume it. After the sun has disappeared over the horizon, we again hear that friendly familiar voice: “Dinner is waiting for you at the hotel, are you all ready?”

Ah yeah, thanks Klaus, let's go.

All images by Martin Bissig.
















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Author Bio

Gerhard Czerner

Gerhard Czerner is a passionate mountain biker, traveler, and author. With a love for nature and adventure, he guides and trains enthusiasts while sharing his experiences on his website and through his Instagram.

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