Mountains everywhere. Surrounded. An alien land for a city dweller. Mesmerising. A child looking up to the heavens, agog. The only way out is to ride up and over. Bliss.
This is cycling in the Dolomites. Jaw dropping views at every twist, every turn. Waterfalls and snow-capped peaks, ribbons of tarmac with more hairpins than your grandmother. Cycling paradise.
The best cycling climbs and routes in the Dolomites
Here’s a list of the best climbs and cycling routes in the Dolomites and more than enough reasons why riding these mountains should be your next cycling holiday.
Length 24.3km | Average gradient 7.4% | Max gradient c.11%
The Passo dello Stelvio may not strictly be in the Dolomites yet it’s too famous a climb to ignore if you’re in the area and just a couple of hours drive away. A legendary climb with a gazillion hairpins, or 48 if you’re counting, as pictured at the top of the blog. The photos of this road look photoshopped so inconceivable is that somebody would build such a stupendous road.
This climb is all about the road, not the mountain. Tarmac scrawled across the mountain like a drunk man’s signature, no logic to the loops. I began the climb with an odd sensation. I was excited. A rare emotion in my battle hardened mind. Ahead, the fluffiest fox I’ve ever seen ran across the road.
I pushed my lowest gear reasonably hard, tempo pace nothing more, the knowledge of six more days climbing holding me back. The mild gradient is perfect for establishing a rhythm, for finding your ‘flow’, the inner-peace that comes with exertion, with discovery. I am awestruck. Swooping around hairpins, lungs and eyes wide open for very different reasons. What a climb.
The road is busy in the context of a remote mountain pass. Climbing on a weekend may not have been the best idea. The air is choked with diesel and the acrid notes of burning clutches. Cars piloted by nervous drivers crawl slowly and are not a worry. Platoons of motorcyclists pass close, too close, oblivious, focused on cornering, on their racing line, on chatting shit over their microphones.
I wonder if the drivers see the mountain they’re climbing. The cyclist sees all of course. When not staring at stem. Remember to look behind you for the view is all around.
Which side to climb? The classic side of the Stelvio is from Prato, you know the one with all the hairpins, but you’ll probably be based in Bormio, which is a lovely climb too. Fancy a double climb? Trouble is, the best climb for views is arguably the Umbrail Pass which has spectacular scenery but lacks the fame given it was only recently fully paved. Oh go on then, do all three! Each is a classic climb in its own right.
Note: If you fly into Innsbruck rather than Venice then you’ll be closer to the Stelvio Pass and you will need to drive over the famous pass to get to Bormio. This means you can unpack the bike and climb the classic side of the Stelvio on the way to your accommodation. Bonus.
Length 12.4km | Average gradient 10.5% | Max gradient 18%
European mountain passes are rarely steep. Long and gentle, an average 6-7% gradient. Enter the Mortirolo, 10.5% average with consistent stretches of Ouch My Knees Hurt. This is the offspring if Alpine climbs made love to Yorkshire climbs, a Hardknott-Huez bastard child. And it’s ugly, real ugly.
The view is scant, just as well given all you’ll see is your stem. Hence the lack of photos! The first two-thirds of this climb are hell if you’re foolish enough to attack. Guilty, I was sentenced accordingly. The odd sensation when a 9% gradient feels flat.
This is not a climb to enjoy, only suffer. The gradient forever changing, no rhythm, you stutter up the climb. Do yourself a favour and ride a compact gearset, the climb will be much more tolerable. My mid-compact lowest gear of 36-28 was a real grind.
Fortunately the gradient in the last third relents. The view at the summit is almost nonexistent. I’d call this climb a necessary unnecessary, one to tick off but not really enjoy, not compared to nearby beauties. Summit conquered there’s nothing to do but roll down the opposite side and head to the Passo Gavia.
Passo Gavia (from Ponte di Legno)
Length 17.3km | Average gradient 7.9% | Max gradient 16%
If the Stelvio is all about the road, the Gavia is all about the views. Spectacular. Many riders prefer this steeper climb to the gentler, busier Stelvio and I can see why. The average gradient is deceiving given the benign first 4kms. Legs warm, the road then sticks stubbornly to 10% yet you barely notice given the amazing views, an amphitheatre of rock, snow-capped peaks and lakes, winding roads here, there and everywhere.
Legs shaken by the earlier Mortirolo climb, the first two-thirds of the Gavia climb pass in a blur, a cauldron of heat. And then the world goes black, have I passed out? A tunnel. Plunged into darkness, the welcome cold of the black depths, you emerge into a seemingly colder world, a howling wind testing your determination to conquer this rock.
For some reason I decided to sprint to the summit. A slow motion awkward climber’s sprint that resembles the frantic last seconds of a hunt, you are the tired foal, limbs akimbo, still fighting for life despite the tiger snapping at your heels.
Tip: don’t underestimate the length of a mile when climbing a mountain. It’s more like ten. I finished with my lungs and throat burning, not to mention thighs, one of which decided to cramp. Don’t do that again my body warned.
Cycling in the Dolomites
Appetisers conquered, onto the main course. A Google image search for cycling in the Dolomites says more than I ever can, which is quite something given no picture does justice to this magical land. If God a) existed and b) built roads for cyclists, then he’d choose the Dolomites, home to some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Europe.
Nothing I’ve seen cycling in the Alps compares to the Dolomites. Forget about pilgrimages to famous Tour de France climbs, Ventoux, Huez and Galibier. They have nothing on riding in the Dolomites. The only roads I’ve ridden of equal merit are the splendid single track lanes on the Isle of Skye.
Sella Ronda | Passo di Campolongo, Gardena, Sella, and Pordoi
The Sella Ronda cycling route is Oh My God beautiful. The diversity of landscapes and roads ensure the mere 32 miles of this loop fly by. One minute you’re climbing, the next descending, and repeat. This is the equivalent of a BMX track for road cyclists, a playful loop created by the top Scalextric engineer.
The climbs? I didn’t find any challenging as such, just enjoyable, short by Apline standard, some gradients in the low double digits. Perhaps I was suffering unknowingly given how distracted I was by the views. I probably gave my neck muscles more of a workout than my legs!
Sella Ronda clockwise or anti-clockwise? That’s the big question if you can’t ride both. I chose clockwise, which is the route for the Maratona sportive and also gives you the most gradual of climbs out of the town of Corvara up the Campolongo. I don’t think it matters much, as both routes are stunning. Just be sure to look behind you lots!
Maratona climbs | Passo Valparoloa, Giau and Falzerego
Of equal beauty is the remainder of the famous Maratona dles Dolomites route, which in addition to the Sella Ronda above, also tours many other beautiful passes in the region.
The climbs here combine the dolomite rock sculptures of the Sella Ronda with distant views of towering mountain ranges. Breathtaking.
The descent of the Valparola towards Andraz is the best I’ve ridden. Fast and twisting without being too technical. Slicing through corners like a pro, momentum on your side, you could descend forever. Brilliant.
It’s rare for me to smile yet alone holler out loud. The cycling routes in the Dolomites really are that joyous.
Monte Zoncolan (from Ovaro)
Length 10.5km | Average gradient 11.5% | Max gradient 20% (for 1km!)
Oh boy. And I thought the Mortirolo climb was a beast. If the devil built roads he’d build the Zoncolan from Ovaro. A 20% gradient for a kilometre! This is a wall. There are few hairpin corners to retreat to, this is all out war.
Sun beating down, temperatures in the mid 30s. Cruel. There is nothing to do on this climb but grovel up, snaking left and right as you weave in a bid to lessen the gradient. Again, think compact chainset. I really enjoyed this climb despite wondering if it was worth the 5 hour round trip just to ride for an hour.
Oh boy was it worth it, plus the drive to the climb is incredible too, passing through several more beautiful mountain passes. The gradient is severe but fairly consistent, which gives you a rhythm, a place to find zen, a chance for your muscles and breathing to settle.
Pace tempo once more, the legend of this climb prevented me riding harder than I could and should have. A sprint finish revealed legs far too fresh, all that was left was to punish them with a climb from the other side.
The Zoncolan climb from Sutrio is a very different beast, much longer with a gradual gradient on open roads until the single track lane and a final wall of 20% at the summit. A brilliant day on the bike.
Passo delle Erbe Würzjoch
Length 27km | Average gradient 7.2% | Max gradient 16%
Back in the Dolomites and to one of the most underrated climbs in the region, or so they say. The Passo delle Erbe is more of a typical Alpine climb, long and steady like a solid marriage.
Perhaps this is why it didn’t quite float my boat. Or perhaps I was too tired to enjoy the stunning view of the Funes Valley. Even the joy of escaping the traffic and hitting a single track road could not rouse me from my stupor. A puncture near the summit confirmed that yes, this was not to be my day. Especially when said poorly repaired puncture caused my tyre to deform. Luckily it didn’t blow again on the careful descent.
There is one joy to this ride. After climbing up the wondrous Passo Gardena anti-clockwise on the Sella Ronda, you can enjoy a 40 minute – yes, 40 minute – descent. This is Christmas, birthday, pancake day and Easter all rolled into one. Joy. The road can be quite busy as it’s one of the main thoroughfares, even when I was tackling this after a 6:43am start from Corvara.
Cycling holiday over, I returned home exhilarated. Such cycling tours usually leave me tired physically and mentally yet the beauty of these roads transcended such fatigue and somehow took my passion for riding a bike to new levels. Incredible.
Go. Go now!
More images from cycling in the Dolomites
Stopping to take a photograph is not really my thing as I much prefer to enjoy the moment. Yet I felt compelled to capture the landscapes, if only to prove to myself that they do actually exist. Consquently nearly all of my images were taken whilst moving on the bike. No picture can do this land justice, especially from a cheap phone, but hopefully these will inspire you to see the views with your own eyes. Clicking on the Strava links above will show which images were from which rides.