Welcome comic relief awaited me near Passo Sella at the hotel.
Cyclotour 2015 - Part 1   July 2015          

Heading Up Passo Sella

Cycle of Fear
At the close of 2010, our 10 year streak of cyclotouring abroad for 9 months a year came to an abrupt end. It was a cataclysmic lifestyle change that resulted in only doing loaded touring 2 months a year.  Out went my perpetual conditioning for the sport and in came my annual, nearly year-long interval of performance anxiety. 

Each June departure for Europe since 2011 has been accompanied by crescendoing self doubt that only finds resolution the first day we are back on the bikes in early July. That is the day I learn whether or not I’ve still got what it takes to safely power my heavily ladened bike up the mountains after being off of it for 10 months.

Almost every July the first riding day is a grind up a mountain pass with no warm-up. Our Selva hostess kindly keeps our bikes all winter and being a typical Alps mountain village, there is no flat land save a few small parking lots. We always take a lap around 2 adjoining parking areas near our apartment, neither of which happens to be flat, to check the brakes and to listen for rubbing noises. Then it’s a brief downhill to the main road where we immediately begin 2-3 hours of climbing in close traffic.

Anxiety about controlling my heavy bike—a bike that I now am only in the presence of during the summer--surges through me as I rally to track a straight line. The handling of a loaded bike takes massively more strength and endurance than guiding an unloaded one and my greatest fear is not being able to hold a narrow course when averaging about 3 miles an hour on the grades.   

If we had the windy, narrow road to ourselves, I’d be fine. But sharing the road that is about a lane to a lane and a half wide, and lacks shoulders, with dozens of full-sized buses mixed-in with impatient car drivers puts the pressure on to be as perfect as I can be. With each passing year, I wonder when my advancing age will tip the balance towards failure.

A last look at Sassolungo from the Canazei side of Passo Sella.
In 2011, we returned to Europe after our first 7 month absence from cyclotouring and discovered that 6 weeks of daily exercise using the P90X DVD conditioning series had done wonders for our power on the bikes. We were thrilled with our first-day performance out of Vienna (that wasn’t over a pass) and the only thing missing was the endurance I needed in my arms for tracking a tight line on a sustained, steep climb. I still have nightmare-quality memories of rudely discovering that I dearly needed that endurance a few weeks later on a long, straight, uphill road with too much traffic and absolutely no opportunity to pull-off for a rest—it was “keep going or die".

Since that terrifying experience in 2011, I’d been searching for an off-season way to develop the endurance in my arms and upper body that I so desperately needed to avoid slipping into panic because my arms could no longer contain the wobbling of my front wheel at such slow speeds. Unfortunately, nothing I tried filled that conditioning niche.

Problem Solved
After 4 years of angst and quite by chance while on my old bike this spring, I discovered that I had found the perfect conditioning activity for my upper body issues, which was hiking with too-long trekking poles in a too-far-forward position. Unexpectedly, using overly long poles simulated the position I use on my road bike handle bars because my arms are almost always forward of my torso, like on a bike. Hiking for hours with the new poles a couple of times a week had given me the strength and endurance I needed, at least on an unloaded bike.

A new lunch perch just over the crest of Passo Sella on a stunning day.
I’d crossed my fingers since my April discovery in Albuquerque of my new shoulder and core endurance; I hoped that it was substantial enough to counter the forces generated on my heavier summer bike as well. 

This July, I immediately knew on our first riding day that indeed, my previously insufficient upper body endurance was now fantastic: I felt like a star. I’d never been so effective on a climb. Our increased hiking challenges had likely added power to my legs; our year-old ketogenic diet made the fuel delivery to my muscles more steady; and the improvement in my upper body conditioning from the poles completed the heightened performance transformation.  Getting older and yet getting better!

This July, I could ride farther between rest stops—of which there were almost 20 in a little over 2 hours of mountain grades. Bill immediately noticed that I had tighter control over my travel line and we both were amazed by how effortlessly and reliably I could restart on slopes, which is typically a second source of terror.

I vowed to anchor the stunning improvement in my performance and confidence to counter my annual cycle of self doubt—there was no need for that distraction—especially since there were likely double the number of vehicles on the pass road over previous years which had made the day even more difficult.

Thyme Broomrape is 100% parasitic for all of its water & nutrients.
Dissenting Opinion
Amusingly, immediately after cresting a high plateau on a long hike from Selva a few days prior, I watched a man lecture his hiking companions about our "bad” trekking poles. They stopped barely out of earshot after passing us but his gestures told the story. He demonstrated the classic way to judge proper pole length and contrasted it with the length of ours, and then went on and on, probably hoping that we were learning from his exaggerated movements. Essentially all Europeans we’d seen used trekking poles in the Nordic walking or “pushing behind” position whereas we stumbled upon using a predominately “pulling” motion with the poles forward of us. Little did the man know that I was cross-training for cyclotouring.

Remembering Why
Along with the performance anxiety and self doubt that creeps into my being every spring is the nagging question “Is overseas cyclotouring still worth the trouble?” 

When we returned to Europe in 2011 for our first truncated 3 month holiday, we’d spent months stewing about whether it was worth the considerable  hassles for such a short time (by our distorted vacation standards). But I still vividly remember our first hours on the bikes that year outside of Vienna; I still remember answering the question with a resounding “Yes!” Every spring I replay those images and feelings to motivate myself to organize and pack for the trip without conflict. And in 2016, I’ll have the benefit of being able to revisit my images of significantly improved performance on Day #1 on my bike in 2015 to dissipate the annual cycle of anxiety.

We had an exquisite first riding day up to Passo Sella, the pass where we’d ended a week’s stay 2 weeks prior, the place where we scuttled from the bus to the hotel door in a snow flurry. We reminisced about the hikes we’d taken there when the trails and landmarks came into view towards the end of the big climb. Feeling more at home, we ducked into the hotel to use the restaurant toilets. Ten minutes later we crested the official summit and lingered to savor the stunning views, probably for the 20th time. It’s a magnificent, 360 degree view from a pass that one usually only gets from  a peak. We rode less than 10 minutes down the long descent and found a new perch for lunch and a new wildflower.

After lunch, it was down, down, down to Canazei situated on the valley floor, feeling the temperature rise from 70-ish at the top into the 80’s below. We reveled in the beauty of the peaks from a different angle at much lower Canazei while we enjoyed the convenience of a picnic table in the shade, refilled our water bottles, and ate a heavy snack. We hopped on a bike path down the valley only to discover that it had been moved to the other side of the river since our last visit several years ago. Better yet, it was now paved and lined with a series of enticing playgrounds. For the first time, we could safely ride down this valley looking up at the mountains instead of having a long, white-knuckle ride in heavy traffic.

The hard uphill finish for the day was a short, very hot ride up to Vigo di Fassa. But there we had a lovely apartment with 2 balconies waiting for us and we looked forward to a week of hiking. The revised forecast revealed that our attention should shift from fretting about a cold, wet, non-summer to avoiding heat stroke, but we welcomed the challenge.

I love seeing the fruits of determination and innovation; I love seeing people prevail; I love being inspired. Minutes before beginning our hot, hard pedal up to Vigo, I saw a man dart by on a recumbent bike with what looked like 2 spare wheels neatly loaded horizontally on the back. 

We only see 1 or 2 recumbents a year in Europe so they catch our eye, but the spare wheels demanded a second look. Serious distance riders sometimes carry spare tires in addition to spare tubes, but not wheels and besides, neither he nor his companion’s bike had touring bags lashed on. But he wasn’t carrying spare wheels: he was toting a wheel chair. His recumbent was hand-cranked and his motionless legs were strapped to the bike frame. Talk about not giving up AND being ready for anything with his handy wheelchair.

This crack was amusing & a bit baffling to climb.
Even more touching to me was seeing a 30-something man on the trail out of Vigo 2 days later. Like a similar-aged man we had seen the last 2 winters in Palm Springs, he had cerebral palsy, though worse. With each labored foot plant, this Italian man’s entire body gyrated like a spinning top about to tumble. And like in Palm Springs, a few foot steps behind was his devoted, gray-haired father. Both of these dads must have wrapped their lives around ensuring that their highly impaired sons had success in life and success on the trail.

Every step on this route in the Dolomites demanded concentration because of the persistently irregular surface, like at Palm Springs. Neither of the rocky trails are for the uninitiated and yet both men persisted, they both succeeded because of their determination and the dedication of their dads. 

The Italian dad signaled his son to step aside when it was time for us to pass and I looked the man in the eye and gave him my best smile and an enthusiastic  “Bravo, bravo.” My smile was reciprocated through his distorted face and he said “Thank you” in English—I was even more inspired.

Via Ferrata Masara From Vigo
I thought of the man with cerebral palsy often while we did our new via ferrata that day. I realized that the complete stop of the chair lift we had taken to begin our all day hike must have been to let the man off. There is no way he could have managed the snappy, precision response on his own and it probably took both the help of his dad and the attendant to hoist him out of the bucket seat. 

I regretted not seeing him again so as to say in Italian that he was an inspiration to me. And I wondered how far he could go with his exhausting, inefficient gait though the man in Palm Springs was doing similar distances to us. I was sad knowing that he couldn’t do via ferrata’s like we were doing, despite his abundance of determination, because of the strength, flexibility, and coordination demands. But like in coping with our own disappointing limitations, I remembered that it’s not where you get to that matters, it’s that you are pushing on your own edges that matters. “Bravo.” 

On Towards Cortina d'Ampezzo
A harsh reality set-in on our second biking day when we pedaled almost all of the way up to Passo San Pellegrino: neither of us felt like stars on that ride. We both wobbled too frequently and wondered why. I finally concluded that it was because of slightly but consistently steeper grades, that we must have lacked the specific conditioning for that level of sustained, intense effort.  A shortage of level terrain meant that I hadn’t recalibrated my “inclinometer" for the season but even in relative terms, I could see that the grades were steeper than on the road to Passo Sella. 

We stumbled upon these WWI Italian trenches; across the road the next day we saw the Austrian counterparts.
Just after saying to myself “I don’t think I could do a 10% grade today” a sign indicating 14% grades ahead appeared. Already a bit discouraged, I vowed to focus on taking it as it came, knowing that one way or another, I’d get up the hill like I always do. Fortunately, there were only 2 short bumps that were significantly steeper and we agreed that they weren’t close to 14%. My roughly calibrated mini carpenter’s level only registered 10%, which seemed about right to both of us.

After a full day off the bikes 2/3’s of the way up the pass, we resumed the climb and I was anxious to begin calibrating my inclinometer. The wicked, long descent down 15-18% grades exhausted our arms and was useless for calibrating my device but we had a second climb at the end of the day with some flat areas around a lake. I was stunned to finally conclude that the 14% grade sign 2 days before had been right—maybe we were stars (by our standards) after all. Much of the easier parts of the climb to Passo San Pellegrino had been closer to 10% than we had realized—no wonder we wobbled.

Wisely, Bill had scheduled us to do the big pass over 3 days, taking advantage of a lone 2 star hotel on the route for a full day off the bikes. The layover served the dual purpose of easing our bodies into riding again and of exploring the area on foot. That was just fine with my right knee that felt the stress of the steepest grades. We enjoyed a short hike the afternoon we arrived and a longer hike the next day that was supposed to have been a relative-rest day.

Maserati & Cortina host the "Coppa d'Oro" rally featuring vintage cars from the 20's on.
Cortina d’Ampezzo
Cortina: you either love it or hate it. We met a pair of younger American cyclotourists a few years ago that hated it, that couldn’t wait to get out of town because of the moneyed people. We, on the other hand, love Cortina.

Cortina was our very first introduction to the Dolomites. It was where we fell in love with the amazing, massive peaks that dwarfed and surrounded us. It is where we eventually did our first via ferrata without a guide. It is where we discovered our first bit of “rails to trails” bike path in Europe. It was where we came to depend upon its unique-to-the-mountains “one stop shopping” market from which we could replace camping gear, buy specialized equipment, and choose from a much bigger selection of groceries.

But Cortina is expensive. Cortina is the only place in the Dolomites where seemingly idle rich Italians swarm to be conspicuously idle. In Cortina, you see women wearing massive pearl necklaces together with high-heeled, high-fashion tennis shoes; furs coats and $1000 garments in the windows; and thin, wrinkled bodies overly tanned to the point of being sort of an odd orange color that come out to promenade in the late afternoons and evenings (never in the mornings). And it seems that very expensive but casual wear in taupe are what the women with second homes in Cortina use to distinguish themselves from the local people and the throngs in technical wear for biking or hiking. 

Cortina is in an absolutely stunning setting. And like everywhere in the Dolomites, we remember that we are indebted to those willing to flaunt their wealth, especially in the winter ski season. It’s the people that compete to book rooms and apartments at twice the summer rate that subsidize our holidays. Rather than be repelled by the ostentatious wealth, we are grateful that those with money to burn pick-up part of our share of the tab for the infrastructure that makes the Dolomites such an accessible playground for us.

In The Peaks
Misses & Near Misses
Our "high end" Cortina experience of course wasn't in the shops but in the peaks, peaks that weren't available to us last year because of lingering ice and a succession of storms. This summer, we took on a via ferrata with a particularly long, slow descent and a monster hike up a lift line and on to a 9,000’ saddle. Both were stunning, both were delightful, and both nearly resulted in us walking hours longer than planned because of missing or nearly missing our public transportation back to Cortina.

Beginning our steep descent that would only moderate at the tiny green patch in the lower right corner.
Missed Bus
The monster hike into the peaks known as Gruppo del Sorapiss was another bucket list event for Bill. Over the years, he’d strategized about tackling the area from several different points but all were beyond our hiking range. This year however, it was quite within our ability. We were pleased to reach the high point, our possible turn-around, after 6 hours and we enjoyed lunch on a tiny, stunning saddle.

Bill had 4 different return options and while eating, we agreed to take the long way down. The topographic map indicated a very steep initial descent followed by a long, gradual finish to the bus stop at a lower pass. We assumed that we’d fly along on a smooth, wide trail once about half of the way back, but we were dead wrong. Practically every step of the way of what we expected to be a “stroller’s path” was tip-toeing around roots and rocks in rain-soaked dirt. In addition, the little lake on the way had attracted hundreds of Sunday afternoon walkers who formed an almost uninterrupted single-file procession back to the road. 

We did our best to politely speed past the visitors as we could on the narrow trail, visitors who were largely relaxed day trippers from the cities. We knew that if we missed the single bus down off the mountain that we might be trying to hitch a ride from them so we didn’t want to offend despite our sense of time pressure. 

Going as fast as we could through the crowd for more than an hour, we began losing hope that we’d make the bus. When Manuela, an English-speaking young Italian woman with a good pace wanted to visit, I yielded. It wasn’t a due-or-die situation that day and we consider engaging with interested strangers a high priority.

Indeed, we missed our bus by about 15 minutes but luckily, Manuela’s group of 10 in 3 cars found room for us and gave us a lift on their way back to Venice. We were prepared to walk back to Cortina but also knew that we’d be more willing than usual to stick out our thumbs to hail a ride—somewhere close to 100% of the cars on the road at that time would be fellow tourists.

Near Miss
Incredibly, we again found ourselves under the gun 2 days later when descending from the Formenton via ferrata on Tofana. We underestimated the time needed for the route from Bill’s guide book description, so we were in no hurry, until the end.

A small underground WWI structure below our difficult descent from the peak.
The heavy fog and clouds made for interesting views and the thin air from being over 10,000’ much of the time slowed us and our brains. Then there were the many WWI structure remnants to inspect and ponder. We took far more photos the first hours of the outing than we often do in a week.

The initial descent was treacherously slow going and we heavily relied on our trekking poles to keep from tumbling off the loose face. A fall could continue for thousands of feet. Once we were on firmer ground, Bill began fretting as to whether we were on the right trail or not. There seemed to be no other way but the now more dense fog made it hard to see options. The good news was that we were on the trail, the bad news was that his uncertainty about the trail had been due to us being far less along the return route than he assumed.

Like a few days before, we were suddenly doing a forced-march effort for several hours to make the last run of the cable car at 5:00. We knew we had enough energy and hours of daylight to walk off the mountain, but it wasn’t what we wanted to do. And hey, we’d already invested over $25 in those return tickets.

Unlike the prior hike from Cortina, the trail surface and our safety on it only got better and better as we sped along alone on the trail. When we were about 15 minutes from the lift, the trail forked and there was no sign. We gambled on the shorter, ‘straight up’ route, hoping it would save us precious minutes.

But the closer we got to the lift station plateau, the more dense the fog became. We split-up for a few minutes hoping one of us would find a sign or other people. I was horrified that the cables I followed were to a closed chair lift station, not the cable car,  and Bill was horrified that our routes didn’t reconnect us sooner. With 10 minutes to spare, we found each other. The slight hum of the motor and then Bill’s glimpse of the station guided us in. Suddenly, the hours of rushing and the frantic search for the lift was over and we calmly waited to be allowed in the ancient cable car for the first of 2 segments down off the mountain and out of the all-day fog.

A Month To Go
We left Cortina with several lessons learned about timing our big outings and with 4 weeks remaining of our 7 week bike tour through the Dolomites. A week's stay at a new hiking venue for us, Sappada, and then another week at the familiar Misurina/Tre Cime area would reveal if we'd need more "lessons" to get our timing right on the trails. We also had our eye on the weather, hoping to dodge the forecast heavy rains when we pedaled over the next pass and then bracing ourselves for the next heat wave.