Giro Delle Dolomiti - Italian Cycling Nirvana in South Tyrol

The Dolomites hold a special place in my memory. A camping holiday at the foot of Mount Marmolada, well over a decade ago, is one of the first family vacations that I can really recall. The craggy peaks, green valleys and glaciers of the Dolomite Mountains struck me with awe, even at the age of eight. I was sure that coming back to the region for this year’s Giro Delle Dolomiti stage race, would re-ignite my love of the place… it did!

The Dolomites and the Alto Adige are two mountain areas that sit in the South Tyrol region of Italy. SüdTirol has an interesting history; it used to be part of Austria, before it was claimed by Italy following the First World War. The loss of the region was a major blow to the Austrians, as it is an area that is rich in resources, fertile land, and has also always been a famed holiday destination, notably with Austrian royalty.

South Tyrol has also always been a fantastic place for outdoor pursuits. Its mild climate, mountains and valleys, make everything from road cycling to adventure racing very popular. It is a nirvana for anyone that wants to experience mountain sports at their best.

Earlier this year, I started talking with the South Tyrol Tourist Board about the opportunity to come to the Dolomites, with a group of riders from Team Wiggle. We talked through a few events, and the one that really caught my eye was the Giro Delle Dolomiti. Now in its 39th year, the event starts from the central city of Bolzano, and then fans out into different areas of South Tyrol; enabling you to see and experience the beauty and challenging riding that the region has to offer.

The event has a unique format, which was also attractive to the team. It has six stages, spread over seven days, with one rest day in the middle. Each stage is largely neutralised, and the 500 strong peloton rides together, taking in the scenery. However, during each stage there is also a timed segment, which varies in length and severity, but always featuring a notable climb! The lowest cumulative time at the end of the event, is the General Classification winner. This format provides a great mix of competition, as well as “guided riding”. Our five man Team Wiggle squad couldn’t wait to get exploring the mountains…

Benvenuto to Bolzano!

After an early morning flight out from the UK, and a long but hassle-free drive from Munich airport, we arrived in sunny South Tyrol on Saturday afternoon. We’d be staying in the beautiful little village of Adriana, 12 kilometres outside Bolzano, in the welcoming and comforting hospitality of the family run Gantkofel hotel. The hotel is one of the region’s 'Bike Hotels'; set amongst the apple orchards and vines of the Bolzano Valley, it proved to be a superb choice.

Saturday afternoon involved a spin down the riverside bike path to Bolzano, to sign on at the event HQ. Then, after a fantastic dinner back at the hotel comprising fusion dishes influenced by Italian and Austrian heritages, it was time for an early night.

Stage 1 - The Ramp Test!

The early night was in consideration of the fact that we had read we needed to be at the start in Bolzano (a 30 minute ride away), for an 8am depart each morning. Actually, on Sunday morning we found we had mis-read the documents... it was in fact a 7:30 depart now! After laughing about it with the organisers at the by then deserted venue, we were motor-paced by one of the race cars until we eventually caught up with the 500 strong peloton down the road! A brisk start!

The first stage involved a neutralised out-and-back along the valley floor, culminating in a detour up a brutal dead end climb, which was the timed segment for this stage. It might have only been 10 km long, but it had 1000 meters of vertical ascent in that distance; which meant an average grade of 10 percent! As the road ramped up, and we passed over the timing mat at the start of the segment, the 500 strong field exploded…

It was a sign of what was to come in every timed sector of the week; the field was soon spread out along the shaded climb, heading skyward from the valley floor. Split into small groups, we pushed on through the daunting pain that you always get when you hit your first Alpine climb on a trip, and knuckled down for the ride!

I crossed the finish line in 17th on the first stage; a placing that I was happy with in a 500 strong field, which contained Italian, Spanish, Norwegian and Columbian climbers who were so lean you could see every band of muscle in their legs, as they spun past you.

After Apfelstrudel and Apfelsaft, and a good hour admiring the view, we descended back down the climb and spun back along the idyllic bike path to the hotel. An afternoon of resting up by the pool was required!

Stage 2 - Into The Dolomites

Sunday's ride had given us a little taster of what was to come, but the real mountains arrived on day two.

Our route took us out of Bolzano to the North East, Dolomites bound. Before long we began the two hour climb up the Passo Nigra, taking in stunning views of the valley as we did so. After a relaxed feed stop at the top, the peloton then regrouped and headed down the mountain to the day's timed segment; a challenge that can only be described as "brutal".

A swift left-hand turn off the valley floor, took us onto the Rifugio Gardeccia climb. This single track ramp has featured in past editions of the Tirreno Adriatico, and we'd been informed of its severity; we probably hadn't prepared ourselves fully for what was coming though...

Only 6.2 kilometres long, the climb gains 613 meters of elevation throughout its length. Those statistics are deceptive though, and due to a false flat in the middle of the climb, there are some segments that reach leg burning grades!

I went way too hard at the bottom, following Christoph Fuhrbach (a.k.a. "Sandals Man"), who had won stage one (yes he was wearing sandals and flat pedals?!), up the initial demanding ramps. It wasn't until about 3 kilometres in that I looked down at my Garmin, and spotted my heart rate; then looked down at my chainset and realised I was still in the big ring! I decided I needed to back it off a bit!

Those last 3 kilometres of the climb were incredibly "long". It was like someone was holding onto the back of my saddle. I paid for the early efforts, and reached the top in a leg burning crawl; hyperventilating in a collapsed heap after I rolled over the line. My effort was enough to get me 14th on the stage though, which moved me up to 14th on GC, too.

It wasn't until we had coasted back down into the valley, had lunch and a coffee, and then began the long descent back to Bolzano, that I began to feel normal again. The Dolomites had shown us their first real test!

Stage 3 - The Sellaronda

Selła is probably best known in the cycling world for its annual SellaRonda Hero event; reckoned to be one of the hardest one day mountain bike races in the world! The Sella Pass is also an incredible road climb though, and tops out at 2244 metres (higher than the Col du Tourmalet). We would need to scale its slopes before we attempted the third day's timed segment!

The road from Bolzano towards Sella started out deceptively gradual in its gradient, but before long we were climbing up from the river valley and deep into the Dolomites once again. The road pointed upwards for several hours, and when we rolled into the first feed stop of the day, there was talk of how we still had a good few hours more climbing to go before we would reach the timed segment!

The rumours were realised, and we continued to ascend until gone mid-day. We crossed over the Passo Sella, rolled down a short descent, then rose again on the Passo Pordoi. Then, a third climb, up to the Passo Campolongo. Eventually, we reached the road to the Passo Gardena Grödnerjoch: the timed segment for the day.

This final climb of the day was another real ramp of an ascent. Nine kilometres long, and with an average gradient of 6.6 percent, it was more of a prolonged leg sapper than the previous day, especially after the 4.5 hours of riding we'd already done.

I had made the decision to go at my own pace on this climb, and not try to follow wheels that I couldn't hold. It might have been a mistake, in all honesty, because before long I was riding solo up the ascent and had a job to hold the effort I might have sustained if I had a wheel to follow. I finished the stage in 21st, and dropped back to 17th on GC.

My result on the stage was a bit disappointing, but it did little to mar a stunning day of riding in the Dolomites. I love riding up mountains. I don't know what it is exactly, but the changing scenery from grazing pastures to hill covered slopes, then to open moonscapes, is incredibly captivating. That, and the physical challenge that goes hand-in-hand with it!

The Passo Sella was certainly a challenge, and the timed segment that followed even more so. I was still searching for my mountain goat rhythm, though; perhaps I'd find it for the Stelvio on the fourth stage!

Merano Rest Day

Wednesday brought a much needed rest day in the Giro Delle Dolomiti schedule. For me, it was a great opportunity to meet up with my sister, whose boyfriend's family are from just up the valley from Bolzano, in the smaller town of Merano.

We enjoyed a chilled day walking the cobbled streets, and catching up. Schnitzel, coffee and gelato all helped re-fuel some tired legs! 

Stage 4 - The Stelvio Pass!

If you haven't heard of the Passo Stelvio, then you clearly aren't a Top Gear fan, or a Alpine enthusiast! This road is truly legendary...

Stage 4 was easily the most anticipated of the Giro Delle Dolomiti, and began with an early wake-up call, and a 6am bus transfer from Bolzano to the foot of the Stelvio Pass. There would be no warm-up before this day's timed segment; as soon as we left town, we'd cross the timing mat and start the 24 kilometre ascent to the 2758 metre peak of the pass.

From the beep of the first timing chip, the front runners started mashing the pedals with full force. I stayed with the 15 strong group for the first 10 kilometres or so, then settled into my own, more sustainable rhythm. 1 hour and 27 minutes later, I crossed the line at the end of the 30+ hairpin ascent. Shattered!

Only when Ben, Andy and I had regrouped at the top, did we ride up the small gravel road from where the tarmac finishes, and take in what we'd just ridden up. This road is a work of engineering art.

A quick descent back down to our start town, and a refuelling lunch, and it was back to Bolzano to rest up and try and recover for another day.

Stage 5 - The Ultimo Valley Blunder

By the time Friday morning dawned, our Team Wiggle legs were beginning to feel the week's efforts. Another 140+ kilometres beckoned though, including an 18 kilometre timed segment.

From Bolzano, we headed up the valley, back past our hotel, towards Merano. The gradual gradients didn't last long, and soon we hung a left and began our ascent through Lana and up into the beautifully scenic Ultimo Valley.

Stage 5's timed segment was different from the trend for the week: although it was uphill, the first 10 kilometres were more of a false flat, with very gradual gradients, before a sudden ramp at the end. The profile made tactics rather difficult, as the objective of most riders would be to sit in a group for the flatter section, so that they could be sucked along; then aim to attack on the ramp. Unfortunately, in a classic Game Theory of The Breakaway situation, if everyone sits in and doesn't contribute, this approach doesn't work...

The climb up to the start of the timed segment was long in itself, and the peloton ended up being split into small groups. I found myself behind the group of front runners, but positioned close to the main GC contenders who had formed a secondary group. As we approached the timing mat though, it was clear that there were some riders in this second group that wouldn't be willing to work on the front. I found myself drifting ahead of the pack, keen not to be the only worker in a small group of GC rivals. Then, in a moment of uncertainty, I crossed the starting mat with one other well-placed GC rider; we realised we'd have to churn out the flattish 10 kilometre stretch between just the two of us.

We worked well together for a while, but eventually I cracked and dropped the wheel. I was concerned about blowing up too early before we reached the climb proper. After that, there wasn't much left for it, apart from to ride as hard and fast as I could; along the remains of the flatter section, and then up the leg burning 16 percent gradients of the climb.

I finished the climb in a bit of a state, and frustrated that I had probably made a huge tactical blunder by not staying with a larger group. There wasn't a lot of point in dwelling on it though, and we took in the stunning scenery of the mountain lake that was our lunch spot for the day, then the exhilaration of the descent all the way back down to the Bolzano valley.

In the end, it turned out my blunder wasn't too bad. I had placed 21st on the stage, and only moved down to 17th on GC. Just one more stage to play for...

A photo posted by Tim Wiggins (@tim_wiggins1) on

Stage 6 - The Final Sprint!

The final stage of the 2015 Giro Delle Dolomiti started as almost every other had; we were welcomed by blue skies and a warm wind, on our gentle spin down the cycle path to Bolzano. Today would be a chilled day for the most part, riding out and back along the valley floor in a processional style.

The timed segment came early in the stage, after just 16 kilometres of riding. It was a "short" climb too, at just 1.4 kilometres long. As predicted, it went guns out from the moment we crossed the timing mat. I gave it everything, and hung on for 10th place on the stage, my best result for the week. It was also enough to move me up a place to 16th on GC, as they totted up the final times.

The rest of the day was spent spinning and chatting in the sunshine, reflecting on what had been an undeniably fantastic week of bike riding and sight seeing!

My final statistics for the week, at the end of Stage 6:
  • 16th on General Classification, out of 670 riders
  • 5th in Age Category
  • 860 kilometres ridden
  • 35.5 hours moving time
  • 13,139 metres elevation climbed

Grazie SüdTirol!

As we sat down to our final gourmet meal at the Gantkofel hotel, we looked back at what a superb week we'd had in South Tyrol.

It was quite easily the best week of bike riding that I've had, ever.

The beautiful scenery, the challenging climbs, the exquisite food, the faultless organisation of the event: everything went to plan, and I couldn't think of a single moment that I hadn't enjoyed (even the Stelvio had a beautiful reward at the end!).

South Tyrol showed us why is it such a fantastic region to visit, and why historically it has been recognised as a jewel within the Alpine crown. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it as a region to visit, whether you're a serious road cyclist or a casual recreational cyclist; this place has it all.

Grazie SüdTirol!   Grazie Giro Delle Dolomiti!   Grazie Italia!   Sei Fantastico! 

I'll be coming back very soon! 

Have a read of my team mates' blogs on the Wiggle site here


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