28 Minute Read

The Italian Job of 2022

Group of cyclists posing near the lake on the Passo Fedaia in the morning light

What is “The Italian Job”?

A few years ago, after visiting Girona, I ran across a bike shop in Barcelona named Velodrom, who, as it turns out, had recently just come back from doing an epic adventure in the Dolomites. I remember meeting the owner and him emphatically showing me some of the footage from the week before before it had been fully edited and uploaded to YouTube.

Fast forward to about a year ago in 2021 when my buddy and I were looking for a cycling adventure to do abroad somewhere. In our search, the “Italian Job”, as it was later to be called, came up. We booked it and set our sights on making it a reality in 2022.

In short, it was incredible. But also one of the most difficult weeks of my life.

The mileage for the week

The overall mileage for the week for me was around 340 miles or 750 kilometers, with 54,000 feet or 16,000 meters of climbing.

Yikes.

Some item recommendations

Since I flew out to Europe for this trip, first doing some solo riding in Nice, I definitely want to recommend a previous blog post where I’ve written about my tips on flying with your bike.

A few “new” items that I want to specifically point out that I used a lot on this trip (note that some of these are Amazon Affiliate links, which help encourage me to write more on this site):

Anyways, enough of that! Let’s get back to the Italian Job, shall we?

The Itinerary

Luckily the itinerary is up on their site, with plenty of details. Based on these, it seemed like the value for the trip was quite good. There are a lot of other companies in this space, and some of the more “enthusiast-minded” ones tend to also come with a lot of additional perks, some of which I personally find to be difficult to justify. Nice, but not always what I feel like I want included in my overall price.

I don’t want to write up too much duplicate information here, but the trip was “split” between two separate regions of Italy, the Italian Alps and the Dolomites.

The Italian Alps

Prior to this trip, I honestly thought most of northern Italy was all considered “the Dolomites.” Turns out that this isn’t the case, as the Dolomites are technically more east within this region, while the western part is actually part of the Alps. Yeah, the same ones you hear about in France and Switzerland.

Our trip started with a bus ride from Milan to the town of Bormio. It was wonderful driving back past Lake Como, which made me giddy to relive a little bit of my ride there back in 2019.

Day 1: Mortiolo and Gavia

We started off the first day of riding by splitting our start times into two groups. I went with the “faster” group, which, looking back on it, was a bit ambitious of me! We left the hotel we were staying at in Bormio and headed out. Extremely quickly, I’ll add, as the roads south of Bormio generally descend through a magnificent valley.

Passo del Mortiolo

A lot can be said about this one (I plan to write more about it later, so check back here for updates), but it’s where Marco Pantani made his debut as a cyclist for the ages in 1994. The whole climb is absolutely brutal and averages almost 11%, with one km of it being 18%. I found myself definitely grinding away in my 34x30 gear for what felt like forever.

It’s a generally unassuming climb that you’d likely miss if you weren’t looking for it. You start out in a village, make your way through some farm fields, and gradually up into some trees before reaching the top. Counting down the switchbacks definitely feels a lot like climbing Alpe d’Huez!

Passo Gavia

After descending and heading through the beautiful town of Ponte di Legno, which is built basically on top of a river, we started up the Gavia, heading through some trees, initially following that same river. I mis-read my elevation profile through here, so this one felt considerably longer than I expected it to be! We eventually lost sight of the town below and came across some lakes among what became a more and more barren landscape above tree line.

By the way, watch out for the tunnel most of the way up! It’s uphill and quite dark in there.

At the top of the climb, there are some signs for both the pass itself and the Giro d’Italia. Descending down the other side of this back into Bormio was incredible, being nearly all downhill through trees through some very quintessential Italian villages. I actually have some raw footage of this one!

Day 2: Stelvio, Umbrail, Stelvio (again)

This day was one of the more memorable days of the trip, as it started out with me actually riding with my buddy, who’s bike never made it to Italy due to some flight issues. He made it, of course, but he had to borrow another bike once he finally arrived, nearly 36 hours late. Thanks, Air Canada.

Passo dello Stelvio (from Bormio)

From this side, you start climbing pretty quickly outside of Bormio, with some longer, less steep switchback roads before reaching a waterfall that tumbles alongside the upper portion of the climb. It just goes on and on forever!

Once over those switchbacks, the road opens up significantly (while still heading upward of course) and actually reminded me a lot of the upper portion of the Col de la Croix de Fer that I did on another trip in 2019.

On this particular day, since we went down the Umbrail pass next, we didn’t technically ascend all the way to the top of the Stelvio from this direction. We came up and over it from the other direction later in the day.

Umbrail

While we didn’t go up this, it’s still a spectacular climb that a lot of people go out of their way to do. It was perhaps my favorite descent of the trip, as it winded down through narrow, smooth roads surrounded by giant pine trees into Switzerland.

At the base of it, you’re in another country, and get to ride through a border. It’s just so idyllic through there and legitimately feels very different than where you’ve been previously.

Passo dello Stelvio (from Trafoi)

After riding through green pastures and Swiss fields, and then passing one of the weirder museums I’ve ever seen, the ascent up this side of Stelvio is one for the history books. You follow a massive river for a while, looking way up at mountains that you eventually get on par with. This is the side with the iconic 46 switchbacks, and takes what feels like forever.

This is actually quite a busy road, as it’s a pass used for legitimate car and bus travel, and I found it to be really busy at the top with cars, busses, and a ton of motorcycles in addition to us cyclists.

About a third of the way up you find yourself passing the Hotel Bella Vista. Take note of this one, as you’ll see it fade smaller and smaller as you climb up this side of the Stelvio, eventually looking like a tiny Lego brick off in the distance at the bottom of the valley you just climbed.

Descending down the other side back to Bormio was a fun opportunity to relive the climb we ascended earlier in the day.

(Transfer) Day 3: Costalunga and Marmolada

This day started out like a few of the days on my recent Croatia trip. We got kitted up and then drove 3 hours from our hotel in Bormio out to the Dolomites, heading east.

When we got to the tiny town of Nova Levante, we had a quick coffee, then finished getting dressed and got on our bikes. This was a nice transfer though, as we didn’t have to pack up our bikes into their storage boxes. All of our stuff came with us quite easily and it was waiting for us that evening at a brand new hotel in Alleghe.

We ended up riding to our next hotel from this point, finally crossing into the infamous Dolomite mountains.

Passo Costalunga

Also known as the Karerpass, I found this climb to be pretty gradual, at least by comparison to what we had done previously. Perhaps it’s the beautiful Lago di Carezza that distracted me.

At the top, things started to look much more distinctively German, with road signs showing both Italian and German names. The interesting architecture honestly made me a bit giddy, as it reminded me of visiting Fantasyland in Disneyland!

Passo Marmolada

This one is also known as the Passo Fedaia, a pass that we would later revisit on our final day. It’s known for a beautiful lake at the top, and the views on the way up as you leave the beautiful architecture of Penia are incredible. The rock faces on the way up reminded me of El Capitan in Yosemite.

I remember taking my time up this one, but definitely felt like it wasn’t as difficult as our previous efforts. I think I was finally settling into a slower, endurance pace effort that I later had as my baseline for the rest of the trip.

Descending this one into Alleghe was fast. There’s a long, straight section of smooth tarmac that you could easily go well beyond 120 km/h on! But following the ski lifts through the valley on the other side was definitely a fun experience.

The Dolomites

If you’ve ever seen pictures of riding in the epic mountains of northern Italy, you’ve likely seen the Dolomites. They’re known for their giant limestone-rock walled mountains, some of which look surprisingly similar to the granite walls of Yosemite.

For a good portion of the year, most of these passes are snowed in and the area is known for skiing. During the other times of the year, it’s quite popular for road and bike touring. As of 2009, the entire area has been officially designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Day 4: Pordoi, Sella Ronda, Gardena, and Valparola

This is apparently THE ride to do when in the Dolomites, as it makes for an incredibly scenic loop that really showcases what the mountains have to offer. Most of it is at elevation, so it’ll definitely be tough if you’re not already acclimated.

Passo Pordoi

At the start of this one, we had some darker skies and even a few sprinkles, but the weather subsided. It was a fun climb, as you follow a ski lift that goes up to nearly the same place you’re going. The road has a fairly gradual ascent, too, doubling back over itself a lot, so just pay attention to the white building on the horizon and know that that’s where you’re going.

Passo Sella

After a quick descent down the other side of the Pordoi, you’re rudely interrupted by a turn off that takes you quickly back up again. You’re nestled in trees through here, looking up at the rock faces that you saw some of at the top of the Pordoi. The views definitely get just as nice towards the top of the Passo Sella, and once you’re at the top, you’re in one of the most dramatic viewsheds of the Dolomites.

Passo Gardena

I particularly liked the Passo Gardena, as the views through what looks like an alpine valley are very expansive and open. It’s almost like you’re in a totally different basin of the region, with rock formations that somehow feel familiar but very different than what you’ve seen previously.

Descending from here into the Costadedoi region is fun, and, as more buildings come into view, starts to look a bit more Germanic-Italian.

Passo Valparola and Falzarego

Leaving town, we were promised some of the “most incredible views of the trip” according to our guide. It’s hard to gauge this, of course, but the climb up Valparola had some expansive views. From the north, this climb has some very sun-exposed stretches of road, along with, in my experience, at least one bee who seemed immediately angry with me when I stopped for a photo.

Looking back over where you just came up is quite a treat, as some of the switchbacks through this region are a bit longer, showing more terrain for some truly epic photos.

After reaching the top of the Passo Valparola, you actually immediately descend a bit to another pass, the Passo Falzarego. This was fun, as we ended up coming back up this climb the following day. And I do mean fun, because the descent from up here back down to the hotel in Alleghe was seriously another world-class descent. And I got to bomb down it twice!

Day 5: Giau, Tre Croci, Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Falzarego

This was our “Queen Stage” day, with over 80 miles and about 12k feet of climbing! Truly a day I won’t forget.

Passo Giau

This one was tough. This particular morning was made easier for me, however, as there was a classic car event going on, meaning that almost 100 different and very unique cars were driving down the road as we were climbing up it.

This climb was extremely beautiful, green all the way to the top, even once we exited the trees. Climbing up through a valley and following a river was amazing, and the road definitely had several extended sections of 10% or more.

As we climbed, we watched some kind of cement operation going on in the valley above the trees. A cement truck would fill a large “bucket” that then was connected to a helicopter via a tow cable. Then the helicopter took it way up to the top of one of the mountains above us and would come back for another batch. At one point, I was passing this “loading zone” as the helicopter took off, which just about blew me off the road! I literally had to stop on the opposite side of the road before potentially riding right into a ditch!

Tre Croci

A lot of this one was rolling, and I was actually kind of surprised when I saw the sign for the pass. We had been wandering through some longer switchbacks through some trees, slowed down by a lot of construction for what looked like lodges or general stores of some kind. It was through here, too, that I saw a road sign showing me that Venezia was one direction and Austria was the other. Fun stuff.

Oh and watch out if riding through Cortina. For whatever reason, we saw a lot of hostile drivers through this town, as we passed through it more than once. No idea why!

Tre Cime di Lavaredo

So this climb is really just an out and back (or out and up, in this case), and is absolutely not easy. It appears to start out innocently enough, but kicks up pretty seriously for a bit, rewarding you with a beautiful view out over the Lago di Misurina. It’s a sign of the greater climb to come.

Beautiful shot of limestone mountains behind the Locanda Al Lago at Lago Misurina

Beyond the lake, the climb is incredible. But also incredibly difficult. If you do this one, you better be ready for it! I found it to be absolutely brutal, especially with the many miles already in my legs at this point of the trip.

The whole area is part of a separate national park that requires a separate entrance fee, but luckily for you, you’re on a bike! So you can just ride on through to the killer grades. And yeah, they are killer. The stats say something like 8% if you start from the toll booth and only count it to the summit sign, but the last portion to the top was basically a constant 12-14% if my Karoo computer has anything to say for it.

The views at the top really make you feel like you’re on top of the world! And that you’ve conquered a small portion of it. I felt so, so accomplished when I finally rolled up to the outpost at the top, looking out beyond into what was likely Austria in the distance.

Bring disc brakes for the way down if you can!

Cyclist descending down the Tre Cime di Lavaredo climb with Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the background

Passo Falzarego

Bonus! We actually came back to Alleghe via the Passo Falzarego, which is the climb we “descended to” the day prior. The group decided to paceline nearly the whole segment from Tre Cime to Cortina, and luckily I was able to hang on, checking off the miles to the base of the climb rather quickly.

I remember the climb itself feeling a bit long, but was nothing compared to what we had done previously in the day. It was pretty cool seeing a place in the middle of the Italian Dolomites and thinking to myself “oh, yeah, I know this place.”

Day 6: Sunrise on Fedaia

This was, by far, the most unique experience of the week!

We got up well before sunrise and were on our bikes at 4:30am. Oof. But we got some incredible photos from our photographer on the way up, and some more once we finally made it to the top. And it was worth it, despite how difficult this final day was.

The Fedaia was the climb where we first entered the Dolomites on our transfer day, and one that I didn’t realize was so steep when we were first descending it towards our hotel. It actually was quite similar in difficulty to Tre Cime from the day before!

I knew that this was my last day of riding for a while, so I made sure to make it all the way to the top without stopping, chugging away out of the saddle for more than I think I’d like to admit. When finally at the top, I had an incredible feeling of accomplishment, as I had just completed the Italian Job!

Coming down was incredibly beautiful in the morning light as it reflected off the Dolomite rocks and lingering fog. I had to be careful to not push my legs too much more at this point, as I basically had nothing left in the tank after this intense week of riding. Besides, I had to get back to pack up the bike and head out to Venice before heading home!

My Overall Review of the Week

In an effort to not draw this out too much longer (I get so chatty here!), I have a couple overall thoughts from the week.

Velodrom runs a tight ship

They have really put together an amazing trip with this one. From trucking our stuff around from place to place and providing SAG every day, to having extra gear and snacks on hand (I consumed so much CocaCola that week), to just generally being a fun crew to ride with. With the price point provided, I definitely found a lot of value throughout the entire trip.

Even with my buddy not having his bike arrive with him, he somehow had his choice of two separate bikes to borrow. I’m so glad that Velodrom was prepared (and willing) to assist in a situation as odd as this was!

Despite not being able to communicate with everyone very well because most everyone were native Spanish speakers, I never felt too excluded, either.

Check them out on Instagram, by the way. They’re super active and are a lot of fun to keep up with!

Having a dedicated Photographer is Awesome

I first experienced this on another trip in 2019, and even then, we only had a professional photographer follow us around for one day of the week in France. Having Jose follow us each day allowed him to capture a lot of the most epic shots of the week, without us having to worry about missing out in capturing the moment ourselves.

He also has an active Instagram, too. Check him out!

Don’t overestimate yourself

This is a seriously big week of riding. Make sure you’ve trained for it. And know that this is more of a marathon than a sprint. Don’t go blowing your legs up on the Stelvio on day two, leaving yourself nothing but pain and misery for the rest of the week.

Be ready for managing your food intake

This point really requires a separate blog post on its own. The sheer amount of calories you need for days in the saddle like these is obscene. I’ve never been one to really need the 60-100 grams of carbs per hour that I hear pros talking about on their training days, but it’s because I’m not regularly riding like I was on these days.

Seriously, you have to force yourself to eat. And then you also have to deal with your stomach being grumpy about it. Pros actually train themselves to handle these kinds of influxes of food during the race season, and I totally get it now.

Even with all the advances made in bar and gel technology (check out Maurten if you’re not already familiar with them), apparently it’s recommended to start by eating the more solid items first, then gravitating towards the gels later in the day. This is even if the two options provide the same number of carbs.

Europe eats Late

You probably know this, but dinner doesn’t seem to start until 7pm in most European countries. This, along with people generally taking more time at dinner, means that you may not finish dinner until 11pm. I know several of us in the group felt frustrated by this (it’s not just a US thing, as a lot of them were from Ecuador), so sometimes people would come back from a ride and search out food before getting the actual, provided-for dinner.

Every dinner was included in terms of cost, by the way. And I definitely felt well taken care of when it came to my meals.

Enjoy yourself

Don’t take this kind of event too seriously! Just enjoy it. It’s so, so, so incredibly beautiful out there, take all of the photos, enjoy all of the stops, and be present for all of what the Dolomites have to offer. Yes, you have to keep moving to make it through all of the miles for the day, but rely on your training and make smart decisions.

Final Question: Would I do this again?

Oh yeah, in a heartbeat. And if you’re up to the challenge, you should, too. Serious kudos out to the Velodrom staff for coordinating and managing the whole week for us!

If you see him before I do, say hello to Javi for me!

Cyclist from Velodrom.cc riding near Lago di Carezza in the Italian Dolomites
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