We survived the Alps

We caught a train for the last leg of our journey from Bergamo to the Como area. My family was ready to host us at anytime, and really… Warm shower, delicious dinner, dry bed or setting up our already wet leaking tent in the rain, and preparing for an extra day of wet rainy riding… We may seem a bit crazy for embarking on this wild long journey, but we aren’t that crazy. We do, occasionally, value things like dry clothes and feeling in our extremities.

We arrived at the Cantu-Cermenate station, and my family was waiting for us. We were staying with my mom’s cousin Roberto and his family. Thankfully Roberto and his son Paolo speak some English, but for the rest of the family we communicated through extremely limited Italian, hand motions and smiles.

We went one morning with Roberto to visit Scaria, the village my grandfather grew up in. Small winding roads through lush forests lead up to this tiny village in the mountains that surround Lake Como. My grandfather grew up in a house that still belongs in the family. It felt like a piece of paradise: nestled in the forest and equipped with a flowing tap of crisp delicious spring water. My grandfather emigrated to South Africa sometime in his early twenties, and traveling through Italy makes me feel connected to him and his history. Visiting the home he grew up in was really special. I have fond childhood memories in South Africa of walking through forests with him picking mushrooms for fungi pasta, something that he had first learned as a child with his father in Scaria.

While relaxing near Como, Alex and I were musing on a plan for the next week before meeting up with Steph and Thomas in Trieste. We were planning on burning off the thousands of delicious calories we had been fed at my family’s place by cycling across the plains, maybe stopping in Venice, while making our way east to Trieste. Roberto was shocked. How could we come to Italy and not visit the Dolomites?

I am starting to realize that the key to adventure is committing yourself 100% to a completely ludicrous idea before you sort out the details. If you sort out the details first, it becomes rather obvious that you should probably stay in your pjamas and make cookies. So naturally we committed 100% to cycling three of the “quatro passo,” part of the famous Sella Ring in the Italian Dolomites, by buying train tickets that would give us five days of burning thighs in the great Alps. We embarked to cycle up thousands of meters of elevation in one of the most famous mountain ranges in the world. Just for comparison, one of the passes is often the highest peak cycled in the Giro d’Italia (the Tour of Italy).

It felt like we were embarking on a great adventure from our regular adventure. An adventure within an adventure. The real test of thigh glory.

An adventure in an adventure

We hopped on our trains and travelled towards the Austrian border. We made it to Bolzano three hours late, after missing one train, and being yelled at twice — a day in the life of traveling with a bicycle. Arriving in Bolzano, we realized we had crossed some invisible northern divider. The girls next to us on the train were speaking… German?

We took off in the little remaining daylight, and travelled up the valley towards Ortisei, an old Alpine town turned ski town. We did not make it to Ortisei as planned, but set up camp as the light faded, feeling confident that we would make up the distance the next day.

We woke up early feeling invigorated. Well, honestly, I think the invigoration was nervous energy for the looming mountains that lay up ahead. We cycled towards Ortisei. We cycled uphill towards Ortisei. We cycled uphill towards Ortisei on a road that had sign posts warning trucks of the greater-than-15% incline. If you have ever ridden a bicycle and think going uphill is easy, I encourage you to add 35kg of weight to your bicycle. It is not easy! We gained 1000 meters of elevation through picture perfect meadows covered in wildflowers and past houses complete with classic Alpine pastel shutters before arriving in the old town of Ortisei. My supposedly thunderous thighs felt very wobbly as we caught glimpses of intimidating mountain peaks through the brief breaks in the clouds.

We ate lunch and set out for Passo Gardena. It was long, hard, and exhausting. We travelled from 262m to 2,136m in one day at a very steep incline. The weather managed to clear towards the top of the pass, and the views were breathtaking. The Dolomites are a series of mountains defined by their enormous jagged peaks, and sheer vertical rock faces. Cycling over Passo Gardena, we were surrounded by some of the most spectacular mountain landscapes I have ever seen. The peaks are broken into tall spires that form a wall around the long, steep road that snakes back and forth towards the top of the pass. Although there were moments of utter desperation, we arrived at the top of the snowy pass with massive smiles and a feeling of real accomplishment: we survived.

 

Roberto making pollenta

Roberto making polenta

Cristina (right) and her sister Gabriella at the fountain in Scaria, circa 2001

Cristina (right) and her sister Gabriella at the fountain in Scaria, circa 2001

Alex and Cristina at the fountain in 2015

Alex and Cristina at the fountain in 2015

Passo Gardena

Passo Gardena

On top of the pass

On top of the pass

 

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