The Maratona dles Dolomites - An Epic Cycling Adventure in the Italian Alps
Joining 8,000+ cyclists for one of the most epic Italian mountain gran fondos, and enjoying the "humanite" of it all!
There are magnets that pull us through life. People, places, and narratives that we adorn with magical meaning, with or without intention, to give our reality a semblance of direction, a sense of purpose. The biggest beacons become our gods, our meccas and icons, shaping our finite lifelines into a semblance of destiny.
The Dolomites mountain range have always held this kind of power over me. I’ve dreamt of them for decades, their steep spires reaching beyond the clouds from the lush northern Italian countryside. How this love affair began, I cannot fully recollect - likely a coffee table book spilling over my 8-year-old lap, later enriched by the Giro d’Italia playing on the TV in the background of some lazy Tahoe summers, and finally cemented by fellow endurance warriors returning from epic adventures with jaw-gaping photos that felt oddly familiar. As a frequent dropback to my dreams, it was never a question of “if” I would visit the Dolomites, but simply “when”. Fate arrived to grant an entry into the Maratonas dles Dolomites cycling race this July, finally sealing the deal.
The Maratonas has everything one would hope for in a European cycling event. Epic climbs and descents on buttery smooth roads, distance options from 37km to 138km, and a reputation of being well organized, now that it is in its 40th annual race. Add to it the great Italian culture (and food!), and the one-of-a-kind love for life of the Italian people, one would be hard pressed to not have a near-religious experience here. 8,000+ other riders agree, making it a sell out event once more.
After a quick overnight in Slovenia (just a 45-minute detour), I arrived in Corvara, Italy, eager to try out my new Canyon Aeroad bike on some big mountains. My training for 2023 has been triathlon focused, so lots of time in the saddle meant there was no question as to if I could complete the 138km distance, or the 4500m/12,000’ of climbing. Add to it that this was a solo trip where I could go dirtbag, chill, and sleep in, there was no room for excuses. Then again, Mother Nature has a funny way of sprouting new excuses if you find yourself fresh out!
I checked into my hotel just as the skies filled with lightening and sheets of rain. Oh, yeah…the mountains have their own climate, don’t they? Sitting in the lobby, I met a few Canadian families who had arrived early for the race, and were already dealing with multiple hospital visits thanks to Mother Nature. One of their party had missed a mountain biking trail sign and went off a cliff, and had been air lifted to a hospital. Another of their party missed a step on a hike and broke her ankle, getting an ambulance ride to the very same hospital. Twenty-four hours in, and they were down two soldiers! The Dolomites are raw in both beauty and extremity.
The next day, the rain cleared up enough for me to go for a quick prep ride in Cortina d’Ampezzo the next valley over. The climbs were fantastic, zig-zagging at 7-14% pitches, and with weather changing so rapidly I was guaranteed to use every piece of gear I had. But as my electronic shifters blinked red and died, I realized I was missing one very important piece of gear…the charger cable! Wait, how often are you supposed to charge these things? I spun my way back down to town, stopping at every bike store along the way only to find out that this bike is so new, nobody carried the correct charging cable for the latest Dura-Ace Di2 groupset. Was I about to fixie gear the whole Maratonas?!?
Back at the hotel, I was out of options, and decided to just go rent any bike I could find in the 20 minutes before all the stores closed (race day was at 5am the next morning). But as the elevator opened, there was a young man who also had a brand new bike and the same Di2 shifters, and he gracefully lent me his cable. What an angel! He and his brother grew up in Vienna, and now lived in California, the flipside of my life journey. Then as we chatted, we figured out that his girlfriend was a new intern at adidas that I had just met the previous week! Such a small world.
The skies cleared on race day, as thousands of cyclists filled every street of this little town. We heard from the Mayor, the organizers, and the artists behind the “Humanite” theme that was everywhere, celebrating how togetherness, and events like these, were important healing venues. That spirit wasn’t a lightweight theme – you could see in the nods and teary eyes around me that this message went right to the soul. To see so many feel that gratitude was incredibly powerful, and a perfect way to kick us off.
As the gun fired and the rock band kicked in, the various starting lines converged and we powered right into the Sella Ronda loop, a 55km series of steep climbs and descents, and a favorite of the Canadian crew I met at the hotel. Everyone was moving quickly, largely due to the fact that the cutoff for the longer distances demanded a brisk pace. I was amazed at how proficient everyone was, holding their lines while 6-8 riders across on the roads. The climbs were steep, but with so much scenery to keep you occupied, it went by quickly.
As we passed through Corvara again (55km), the ranks thinned considerably, and those who remained could work together to pick up the pace. I climbed along with a one-legged cyclist for a bit, transfixed by his incredible power output. He’s pumping more watts than me, for sure! With one last climb and descent through the Selva Di Cadore, we set our eyes on the two big climbs of the day – the Passo Giau (2236m/7300’), and the Passo Valparola (2200m/7200’).
As I met and connected with more cyclists, I was thinking about my 17-year-old daughter, Sophie, who is convinced that everyone in the world is only two degrees of separation from me. Much like my angel with the charging cable I met yesterday, it feels like it only takes a few questions to find a common connection among our global tribe of endurance warriors, and the Maratona was no different. Chatting with a guy wearing a singlet from Santa Barbara, I find out he lives up the street from my in-laws. Another cyclist is here with a friend, and we find out his friend’s wife used to work with me at adidas. One more cyclist recognizes my voice from UTMB, where we had shared a few km’s in the dark. But perhaps this happens to all of us endurance athletes as we get older – as we enjoy more events together, sooner or later you just meet all the other mountain people.
The Passo Giau proved to be worthy of its reputation, a pitch that would easily take me 90+ minutes in my climb-iest gear. But I found inspiration in the paint on the road, left by Slovenians cheering on Primoz Roglic to his win at the Giro d’Italia just a few weeks before. At the top, I took a breather, and stretched my wrists for the long descent.
The Canyon Aeroad bike was a dream at high speeds, and I could easily sit at 65-80 kmph (40-55 mph). My aching quads shifted to my aching neck, a reminder that I had been out here for a good eight hours already. There was just one more little beast we had to tackle – the Mur dl Giat. This cruel checkpoint is just a few km’s from the finish, building up to a pitch of 19% that brings many cyclists to a walk. I had plenty left in the tank (a good sign of my fitness building up to the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in August), so I charged right up.
Crossing the finish in 8:17, I was drowned in “Humanite” once more. Happy faces, plenty of high fives and hugs, a live celebration of music and awards, and all the Italian pasta we could imagine. Best of all, the incredible volunteers could join us, after making us feel welcome every single km, and through all kinds of weather. The Maratona proved to be bucket list worthy from start to finish, and I expect I will return!
Two more big blocks of training, then onto the big “A” race of the season, the Ironman 70.3 World Champs. Everything feels on track, body and soul.
I hope this finds you well, and having an equally fun Summer!