Cycling The Dolomites

 

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It’s more than three years since my last cycle tour to Puglia, the heel of Italy.  Two days after returning from the trip I was on the operating table having my left knee replaced.  This was the culmination of general cartilage deterioration and two arthroscopies over a number of years, which eventually left me with no other option than a TKR (Total Knee Replacement).  After some convalescence and work on the turbo trainer I got back on the road a few months later but it was clear that the rest of the year would be a hard work on the bike and certainly no long rides or tours for some time.

The following year we managed a two-centre biking holiday in Normandy which went well but later that summer the inevitable happened, when my right knee also started to show signs of deterioration and pain.  This is classic outcome for worn out knees, one goes then the other.  Such was the physical deterioration that my cycling almost stopped completely in 2017 until I converted the Trek 830 MTB to electric assistance – bingo, back on the road!

After a winter layoff, this year I’ve been back on the electric horse returning to familiar local rides of up to 50 miles.  Notwithstanding, the right knee can be sore and sometimes hurts if overdone, from which the conclusion is – take care, don’t overdo things, listen to the body and manage what remains of the right knee; although the TKR went well it too needs ongoing care.  Despite this success I’ve been wary of touring again, certainly the loaded, cycle-camping type.  As a result I decided to try out another supported cycle tour similar to that undertaken just prior to my knee operation in 2015, again in Italy but this time in the north – the Dolomites.

I was drawn to this region earlier this year after watching a climbing programme on TV located in the Dolomite Mountains.  The scenery is very different to the rest of the Alps due its geology, which happens to be a magnesium rich dolomitic limestone (I am a geologist after all) that erodes to characteristically form spectacular serrated mountain top terrain (see below).

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We went with the same company as before, Cycle Breaks, whose general organization and the tour itself turned out to be top notch but on this occasion I chose to hire an e-bike in order to provide some relief for my knees.  To help matters further our luggage was transported ahead to each night’s hotel stopover i.e. no need to carry heavy camping gear, though my wife and I both missed camping.  The principle route went from the capital of the so-called Italian Tyrol, Bolzano, south along the River Adige and across from Trento to Lake Garda and thence, after a 4-hour boat trip, to Verona, home of Romeo & Juliet and Italian opera at the Arena.  A subsequent 45-mile loop to Mantua south of Verona turned out to be a gem of a ride which completed the tour, except for an extra day to see the sights of Verona.

It came as a big surprise that the Italian Tyrol, the region north of Verona to the Austrian border, turned out to be predominantly German in nature – language, culture and architecture.  German was the main language throughout until we got close to Verona and the food was also mostly German style; it was fine but not what we went to Italy for!  It turns out that the region was annexed by Italy from Austria after WWI and clearly not much has changed since.  It is a beautiful area, rich in agriculture (wine and fruit), is popular with tourists (mainly from Germany & Austria) and it was not a surprise to discover it is the wealthiest region in Europe and one of the wealthiest in the world.  I’m pretty sure I know what football team they support when Germany are playing Italy and it’s not the Azzurri!

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Cycling the Dolomites route map

Much of the northern section of the route (see map above) consists of an excellent cycle path that closely follows the River Adige, which itself runs north-south within a deep gorge cut into the surrounding dolomite mountains.  Just south of Bolzano our ride first took an alternative route from the aforementioned cycle path via a higher pass that runs parallel to the Adige just to the west, before crossing the main path again about 18-miles to the south on our way to the overnight stop at the sleepy town of Ora.

Thereafter the ride does continue along the main Adige cycle path, which like everywhere else in this area was very well used by other cyclists.  Although it puts UK cycling and what cycle paths we have to shame, like the Avenue Vert in France, I do find such paths, even good ones, a little sterile as they bypass most towns and villages.  As a result it is usually necessary to turn off for refreshments and to see something more of the local area and culture.  It’s not a big deal but is perhaps a little ironic and in my opinion there’s nothing to beat a quiet country lane for cycling in the UK, France or Italy – except where greater safety is needed on main roads and in towns and cities.

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Tour bikes

Overall the cycle tour was excellent, except for one big exception – the bikeCycle Breaks arrange the tour via the local Austrian based group Eurobike, who provided the bikes, maps and local representative at the start.  Both bikes – my e-bike and my wife’s conventional bike – were both step through frames that overall bore more of a resemblance to a ‘Boris’ / shopping bike than for touring and were truly awful and uncomfortable to ride.  Both saddles were wide, plastic covered, foam filled and obviously cheap – the sort found on a very low-end bike sold at Halfords for an occasional shopping trip.  My tyres were also badly worn and I feared for punctures where we did encounter gravel tracks, which fortunately did not occur too often.

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The wealthiest region in Italy and they can’t afford decent tyres!

However, in my case it was the electric motor / mechanism that badly let the bike down and, in my opinion actually made it dangerous and difficult to operate and ride.  The power assistance was provided via the bottom bracket / crank, which bore more of a resemblance to a meat grinder and sounded like one too.  Worst of all it incorporated a braking mechanism initiated by a short back pedalling movement, that was never less than severe and very abrupt when engaged, each time resulting in loss of control and almost falling off or nearly going over the handlebars!  Furthermore, this braking system made hill starts all but impossible with my bad knees.

I understand this mechanism is not fitted by law and we saw a lot of similar bikes on the trip, which for some unknown reason seem popular in Europe but I fail to see the attraction.  They can be summed up as difficult to use and most of all, dangerous.  It is possible that mine was not properly set-up, in which case shame on Eurobike.  I spoke to the mechanic when picking-up the bike and his comment was ‘yes they can be difficult and often cause a quick stop – I don’t like them’, so why hire them to clients then?

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In a word these gears were – rubbish!

To make matters worse the 8-speed Shimano Nexus hub gears were also awkward to operate effectively and often failed to engage.  After some careful experimentation, bearing in mind the aforementioned tendency to bring the bike to a sudden stop, I found that a very short back movement of the cranks would usually improve gear changing.  Notwithstanding, either the gears were worn out, not adjusted properly or just plain rubbish.  Personally I’d go for derailleurs, at least if they’re not right they can be easily adjusted and are generally reliable once set-up properly.

Finally, the all-important electrics on my e-bike.  If the monitor on the handlebars was correct (the trip mileage never worked throughout), the battery capacity and implied range was very good.  On our longest day from Verona to Mantua it indicated 58% power remaining after cycling 45-miles, which was consistent with other shorter but sometimes more hilly days.  Notwithstanding, it was industrial in size and weight, as was the charger that was needed at the end of each day’s ride.  Like my own e-bike, power assistance was only triggered when pedalling but in this case with just three settings available: Eco – Standard – High.  It was not great but OK and I certainly missed the thumb throttle on my bike which helps when pulling away and on hills.

When we last undertook a similar the Puglia tour in 2015, the navigation provided was some printed maps of a very general nature and a Mio Cyclo 300 SatNav.  The SatNav worked reasonably well at first, though the detail shown was poor but then the unit started to play-up.  Unless we strictly followed the given route it also struggled to deal with any deviation.  More significantly, towards the end of the tour the battery ran out early each day before reaching our destination.  Fortunately we had taken our own Michelin maps and an offline GPS app – more on that later – and did the same again this time.

On this occasion Cycle Breaks provided a general outline of the routes in a bespoke booklet, focusing mainly on in-town directions and also a series of GPS files with detailed routes which could be used on a smartphone with the free app Ride My GPSEurobike provided a km by km written booklet and a similar map booklet that fitted nicely on top of the bar bag (see example below).

italy eueobike map

Unfortunately there were problems:

  • Despite my best efforts I was unable to get the Ride My GPS app to work – it looked good when I installed the app and maps in the UK but that’s of no use if it doesn’t work ‘out the box’.
  • Both the Eurobike booklets initially provided were  in German, which I can read (a bit) and after two days we managed to get and English version of the guide book.
  • Although the map book was well produced there were times when the detail required was not enough.

Fortunately, as in Puglia we had our secret weapon, the free Maps.Me app.  Having previously downloaded the correct local maps for our trip, the app provides excellent map detail, including cycle tracks and will plot and re-plot a cycle route all the time in real time using GPS location offline without an internet connection.  After two trips it is clear to me that better navigation needs to be provided and riders need to be made aware of the Maps.Me app or something similar to get out of trouble when all else fails – and it always will!

All-in-all we really enjoyed the ride and the touring experiment can be considered a success i.e. could I still tour using an e-bike? Answer, yes.  We did about 175 miles over 5-days riding (my wife’s bike did have a working bike computer) over mixed but mostly flattish and rolling terrain.  I’m not convinced this would translate to full a blown cycle camping tour but it might if we used B&B or hostels and travelled with limited items to keep the weight down.  All being well, I certainly hope to try sometime.  Although a bit sore at times, both knees performed OK and I felt fit and well at the end, ready for more days cycling, rather than the plane home.  Although not available with Cycle Breaks, it was possible to extend the ride with Eurobike, either onwards to Venice or my preferred choice, starting in Austria and through the Alps before joining our route at Bolzano.

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Made it – Me and Mrs G in Mantua

 Day-1 Redhill to Bolzano

A reasonably simple trip from nearby Gatwick to Verona and thence bus into town and train to Bolzano – we left home at 11.30 a.m. and got to the hotel just after 7.30 p.m. ; even after the UK’s recent heatwave we immediately noticed the temperature stepping out of the airport, which on most days turned out to be around 30C or more.  The short bus trip into Verona wasn’t easy at first, as the driver didn’t want to take our money and subsequently buying train tickets at Verona’s Porto Nouvo station at first looked a nightmare too.  However, faced with a potentially long wait at the ticket office a young man came to our assistance with the otherwise incomprehensible ticket machines and a few minutes and £26 lighter (good value compared with the UK) we were’ waiting on the platform for our train.  Even switching the platform number at the last moment didn’t stop us getting to Bolzano!

Day-2 Bolzano

I added an extra day at the start and end of the tour this time in order to look around, which turned out to be a good move.  Bolzano is the capital of the South Tyrol Italian region and it shows.  Set just above the confluence of the Adige, Talfer and Eisak river valleys, the town is attractive and wealthy looking, with far reaching views to the Dolomite Mountains, in particular the so-called Rosengarten (main photograph & below).

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The ‘must do’ here is the Archaeological Museum home of Ӧtzi or Iceman, a 5,000 year old hunter gatherer discovered embalmed and frozen in a glacier in 1991.  He was interesting, in particular the artefacts he had been carrying but as is so often the case nowadays, I thought it was l rather overplayed and frankly, he was poorly presented in a cold chamber viewed through a small window but was still worth a visit.

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Model of 5,000 year old Otzi or Iceman, not a local cyclist

However, a climb to the top of the Civic Museum across the road, provided excellent views of the surrounding mountains and is perhaps Bolzano’s best kept secret as nobody else was even in the museum.  As a geologist I should mention the Science & Natural History Museum which has good geology and rock displays that explain the Dolomites and related scenery through which we would cycle during the coming days.  For the very best views of the area however, a 20-minute trip on the Rittner-Renon cable car takes you to Soprabolzao, which at 1,221m provides wonderful views over the Dolomites and back down to Bolzano itself en route.

Day-3 Bolzano to Ora – approx. 25 miles 

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Looking back along the upper River Adige valley on the way to Eppan

Despite the notes provided by the tour operators, like most large towns exiting on a bike can be something of a challenge.  We fought our way through the traffic and all the other bikes in the centre before joining the cycle path south along the west bank of the River Eisack, which flows from the Brenner Pass in the Alps to the north.  Just out of town to the south another cycle path follows the Adige valley briefly northwest before diverging south again, this time climbing up towards the alpine areas of Eppan and Caldaro.

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Here the cycle path winds its way through mile-after-mile of vineyards and orchards and was pleasantly quieter than the main Adige cycle path which we would rejoin the following day.  Altogether this was a very enjoyable ride, culminating at the Bio Hotel in the quiet village of Ora in time for a swim just before sunset.

Day-4 Ora to Trento – approx. 32 miles

After retracing our steps to the Adige cycle track, we headed south surrounded by enormous and impressive dolomite rock walls that loomed over the valley to the east and west of the gorge.

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A quiet moment on the otherwise very busy Adige cycle path south of Ora

It was Saturday and the cycle track resembled something of the M25 for bikes!  Situated along the river valley the ride was flat and despite a brief stop for coffee and picking-up something for lunch, we soon reached our night’s stopover in the centre of Trento.

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Footbridge over the River Adige at Saint Michele north of Trento looking west
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Outside the uninspiring Hotel NH Trento

Designed by Renzo Piano, also the architect of London’s Shard building at London Bridge, the Hotel NH Trento was somewhat sterile and really nothing special, especially the food.  In contrast the rich architecture of main Piazza Duomo was well worth a visit, where we sampled their ice cream to finish the ride that day.

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On the other hand Trento’s Piazza Duomo is an architectural model

Day-5 Trento to Sirmieno – approx. 31miles 

Today’s ride consisted of three distinct parts.  The first section from Trento to just beyond Rovereto was much the same as the previous day i.e. following the Adige River on the same cycle track.

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En route to Lake Garda

At this point things changed rapidly after we turned west through the town of Mori and subsequently encountered steep climbs before suddenly turning a corner and looking out from high above towards Lake Garda.  The Al Fortino café on the corner is a must stop location for cyclists, which provides stunning views whilst eating and drinking outside.

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View looking south to Lake Garda from the Al Fortino cafe

A rapid descent from the café down the long, straight hill outside is good fun and leads to Lake Garda.  Thereafter we followed the water’s edge to the hustle and bustle of the ferry terminal at Riva del Garda.

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Heading south after a stopover on Lake Garda

After sorting out the tickets, another ice cream and a short wait, it’s a relaxing 4-hour boat trip to the southern end of Lake Garda at Sirmieno enjoying the warm late afternoon sun, whilst stopping off at numerous lakeside towns along the way.  Located at the end of an isthmus, Sirmeone is itself a spectacular setting and worthy of a waterside evening meal.

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Gin & tonic on Lake Garda + sunset – next stop Sirmieone

Day-6 Sirmieno to Verona – approx. 31 miles

At first the route from the hotel picks its way south along the landward end of the isthmus before turning east and entering a long stretch of quiet roads that wind their way through extensive vineyards.  After Sommacapagna everything changes, as the ride approaches and finally enters the city of Verona over the next 10 km, inevitably encountering more industrial and built-up areas.  Fortunately shortly after crossing the A22 autostrada the road runs straight to the hotel’s front door soon thereafter, albeit whilst dicing with the unpredictable Italian drivers.

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Passing Castello di Ponti sol Micio en route to Verona

Day-7 Verona to Mantua – approx. 45 miles

As the proposed directions to Mantua first backtracked to Sommacapagna via a quite unattractive area, we considered taking a more direct route, which with hindsight would have been a big mistake.  After therefore returning to Sommacapagna, the quiet country roads thereafter meandered through mile after mile of attractive vineyards with an occasional hill just to test the legs.  The reward for taking this route only became clear when we reached the town of Vallegio sul Mincio, swept downhill into the river valley, crossed a substantial old Roman bridge and looked down upon the River Mincio.  The view below was breathtakingly beautiful, as the wide river flowed over a weir located adjacent to a small group of colourful old buildings.  After taking it all in we rode down to the buildings to investigate further.

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Borghetto village by the weir on the Mincio River at Valeggio

Thereafter the route took a combination of paths and country lanes that tracked either along the River Mincio or across its adjacent floodplain.  Along the way we came across massive water management infrastructure related to the river, before finally encountering the placid lakes that surround Mantua and rolled into town.

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Crossing the lake into Mantua

Mantua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  A walled city surrounded by three lakes, with a rich collection of Renaissance architecture that turned out to be a fitting end to the cycling trip itself, except for a 50 minute train ride with the bikes back to Verona.

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The Clock Tower (c1472) which shows Moon phases etc at Piazza delle Erbe in Mantua
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East Rider! On the train back to Verona – good bike space but getting the e-bike on board required all my available strength

Day-8 Verona

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Castello San Pietro & Roman Theatre below (Archeology Museum inside) by the River Adige)
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View over Verona from the top of Castello San Pietro

With cycling finished this was an extra day of traditional sightseeing of this ancient and fascinating city.  The principal attraction is the Arena, a Colloseum-like Roman amphitheatre but in much better condition than the one in Rome and is still being actively used for opera and other musical concerts.  Just strolling through the streets is enjoyable but the Erbe Piazza and Archeological Museum, by the Porto Pietra are other highlights worth visiting.

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The Verona Arena outside………….
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………and inside, getting ready for a concert that night
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Ammonites abound in the limestone used to build the Arena!

Day-9 Verona – Redhill

Time to go home!  You know it’s been a good trip when you want to continue and after 175 miles of cycling we were ready to continue.  Despite this it was proof, for now, that I could still complete a cycling tour which was significant for me and at least holds the prospect of more touring in the future, using an e-bike, of course.  We shall see?

STATS – MAPS – STUFF

Tour: 12th to 20th September 2018, 9-days

Total Mileage: approx. 175 miles

Navigation:

Maps: Michelin 1:200,000 Map 355 & Eurobike mapbook

Apps: Maps.Me & Ride my GPS

Accommodation:

Bolzano – Parkhotel Luna Monschein

Ora – Bio Hotel Kaufmann

Trento – Hotel NH Trento

Verona – Hotel San Marco

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