dolomites mtb mountain biking-24
dolomites mtb mountain biking-24

An exploration under the imposing peaks of the Dolomites reveals that the treasure is often below the tree line... 

From Dirt Issue 134 - April 2013

Words by Steve Jones. Photos by Steve Jones and Sterling Lorence

It seems fitting to talk openly about bikes and the environment they work in every so often, the high mountain places these pages frequently visit. We can gossip about the people in those locations, either homegrown or seasonally bloated examples of villages both old and new, speak of the food, the historic or hand built trail infrastructure, the complex geology. Or we could simply say remote, cold, beautiful, dangerous…and staggeringly wet.

You could argue that the Alps are largely easily accessible these days and not exactly remote. Chairlifts, dense populations, still…rainy, cold and windy all the same.

Last year I found myself in the Italian Dolomites or the ‘Pale Mountains’ are they are frequently described. Not an unfamiliar place for mountain bike, it’s had a World Cup here back in 1999 I think it was. More famously it has been the set for The Pink Panther and 007’s For Your Eyes Only. Ferrari’s are more popular than Fiat Panda’s; it’s a place awash with fur coat shops. It can be wild and wickedly expensive. Compared to say Fort William, Cortina has the same largely linear urban townscape itself and is about the same height of Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, except it sells ice cream all year round.>>

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[part title="Bikes In The Dolomites - Page 2..."]

dolomites mtb mountain biking-2
dolomites mtb mountain biking-2

So getting up to altitude on the first day we took in what most of us associate with riding bikes – sweeping singletrack, big piles of root and sketchy mud sections. Ripping through the Pinus Mugo on a brace of Rumblefish and Fuels from Trek we were only get fleeting glimpses of the towering peaks, and anyhow, there’s not much time to look as we skirt a wild river. It was a day in search of grip running a track that had many of the elements that we all search for. Having great bikes helped.

Day two was pure adventure, the views majestic, but we are reminded of the very clear and present dangers of mountain weather. With storms frequently far more violent than witnessed at low altitudes, one hits us square on and we’re caught in the eye said storm, many of us it seems with no place to hide. An air of tension builds but nowhere near as uptight as the mood of the weather. A couple of us reach a cave whilst two of our party catch a gap in a cliff only to have rocks shower from above narrowly missing them.

It’s been a two hour hike to this point beneath the commanding cliffs of Tofana. As the storm eases we cut back onto the trail, yet it disappoints massively in two wheel terms even though we have the tools and the environment. See, this is largely a hiking track, level and even though it has the occasional precipitous moment…well the waves just weren’t breaking dude. We cruise off the mountain down a fire road for lunch less than stoked.

The afternoon threatens but soon slips into disorder as the Frenchies we are with head for the hot tub and I head for the cliffs chasing the light and photos to give hope to these words. The evening light turns the mountains pink, the distinctive Dolomite edges ripping into the night sky, it’s a truly dreamlike horizon, whilst behind us a threatening wall of rock thousands of feet high and vertical turns dark and ominous. That’s where we’re heading the next day. I’m excited however about this journey into unknown territory. We arrive back after sunset as the party is in full flow for the French but photographer Sterling Lorence sets his clock for 5am to see what light the day brings. It’s a workout.

Morning dawns and we have to get off this mountain somehow. We take in some tracks, more challenging than the previous days, but again this is largely straight–line stuff. Passing the historic war battlements where the Italians fought for their country we ride the very trenches now preserved. It’s different, hardly flowing, a museum. At the bottom I’m faced with a horrendous fire road climb, something that doesn’t really bother me as I’m anticipating a real stunning piece of trail action from the pass back to town.

dolomites mtb mountain biking-20
dolomites mtb mountain biking-20

The track too begins in classic fashion – a loose chess game. But the ground is in a difficult mood, the limestone crabby, which you frequently find once above the protection of the tree line. It’s also a trail hewn by Vibram, walkers have a different objective to riding, a hiking trail has its own rhythm too, something I’ve tuned into many times whilst tramping in the Alps and Pyrenees. My pleasure, delight is simply to be in the mountains taking it all in at a slower speed, either that or be by the beach with bugger all to do. Yet for riding this trip made me realize the place to be is somewhere in between both, between sea and scarp slope. Walkers and riders co–exist on the same slopes yet flow does not often work for both.

So in search of flowing trails I’d pushed my bike to the pass full of hope. Untouched and unpopulated, believe me, the valley is gigantic, but we ride within detail and on this occasion the trail is tetchy under wheel and it’s not until we get back close to the tree line that there’s any real shouts of excitement as the crew rip through some proper dirt arcs. But it is an adventure. A couple walkers stop us and tell us the trail is out of bounds for VTT. I have to agree with them to be honest. Live and let live yes, but how often do you see walkers tramping up Pleney? The treasure as ever lies in the woods and as we descend the trail involves more dirt, increasing arcs, root and flowing technicality.

In Cortina we found beauty, but largely no flow. It must surely exist but in the places we went we found it in very small quantities. There will be high level adventure riding, certainly from point to point, yet for uplifted variety it has little to offer in comparison with Mediterranean flow on ancient trails or Swiss stuff such as Morgins on terrain that is managed and scraped of breakers. This will obviously come across as ungrateful. It’s not. I loved being in such a dramatic location but the lack of quality riding just made me a bit cranky and irritable.

2012 Trek Launch in Cortina D'Ampezzo, Italy
2012 Trek Launch in Cortina D'Ampezzo, Italy