Saturday, July 3 (141Km, 3228m)

We left La Villa at 8.45am under brilliant sunshine and with two goals for the day: to climb to Rifugio Auronzo on the Tre Cime di Lavaredo (2400m), and to deliver Chip to Calalzo train station by 4pm. From there, Chip would travel to Milan and catch a flight back to Boston on Sunday.

Passo Valparola (2190m) is a gentle climb with an average grade just above 5%. Today the scenery more than made up for the previous days' rainstorms: from the upper reaches of the pass, the view extended down Val Badia all the way to the border with Austria. For most of the ride I cycled with Chip and Bernie at a relaxed pace, worshipping Chip's Buddha of infinite smoothness. But a couple kilometers from the top I caught sight of two cyclists who had passed us earlier and who were evidently preparing for the Dolomite Marathon. Spurred by a sudden competitive urge, I switched my spiritual allegiance to Shiva, destroyer of knees, and powered up out of the saddle in the big chainring. I passed the two just before the last switchback, and found myself in a good position to take pictures of Bernie and Chip as they reached the summit.

From Passo Valparola the road descends to Passo Falzarego (2105m) and its stone chapel, and then winds down to Cortina d'Ampezzo (1250m) through a fir forest. Beautiful mountains—Lagazuoi, Tofana di Rozes, Cinque Torri—rise on either side of the road, their reddish-brown rocks prominent against the blueish-green vegetation. This area saw major combat between Italy and Austria in World War I, and holes on the cliffs mark the remains of artillery positions and other military tunnels from that time. Just above the town, the road makes a left turn, passes through a tunnel, and suddenly reveals magnificent views of Cortina's famous valley: Monte Cristallo, the Faloria group, and Antelao, the highest peak in the Dolomites, lay before us like a grand canvas.

We stopped in Cortina just long enough to mail some postcards before heading up to Passo Tre Croci (1809m). The climb is steep at first, but then it winds gradually through flower-strewn meadows and a larch forest, past the Monte Cristallo cable car station, and up to the pass. Conditions were perfect and I felt fine as I climbed out of the saddle in a smooth, high gear. I sat down on the grass at the top and waited for Chip and Bernie.

We felt we had sufficient time, so after a brief descent we turned left and climbed towards Misurina (1750m) and the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. Misurina (1750m) is a fantastic place, surrounded by high mountains that are mirrored in the dark waters of its lake. We stopped for pastries and soda, just in time to hear a local cyclist woo the waitress: "Lucky is the man who'll find you by his side." (!)

The climb to Rifugio Auronzo is both punitive and spectacular: except for one brief flat part, it consits of a long series of erratic hairpins, always above 15% grade, first through a fir forest and then across fields of scree. Jagged peaks stretched before us in every direction, and lakes and rivers glittered in the valleys as the clouds formed ever-changing patterns of light and shadow.

The Rifugio (2400m) serves delicious (if expensive) food, but we barely had time to enjoy it. I shoveled polenta, mushrooms, salad, cheese, and fruit into my mouth as quickly as I could. It was 2.20pm by the time we were ready to leave, and Calalzo train station was about 50Km away. We would need to make good time, and fortunately the grade was in our favor. I achieved 84Km/h on a ramp between two switchbacks above Misurina, and we sustained speeds above 40Km/h for much of the gradual descent to Auronzo, as Chip, Bernie, and I alternated pulls. We delivered Chip to Calalzo train station at 3.40pm, covering 50Km in an 1 hour 20 minutes at an average speed of about 38Km/h.

After saying goodbye to Chip, Bernie and I headed to Pieve di Cadore, where we treated ourselves to ice cream at the Gelateria al Centro. I used to come here for ice cream when I was a little kid, and neither it nor the piazza around it has really changed in twenty years. We sat on a bench and watched a group of young women play with their children. Then it was time to go again, first along the busy national road through the small towns of Tai and Venas, and then left, up a narrow provincial road to the village of Cibiana. One of Cibiana's distinctive features is its murals (called "murales" in the local dialect), created by the locals during the early 80s to serve as a tourist attraction and a sort of graphic history of slowly disappearing village life. We took a detour through narrow alleys to explore these artworks, some of them striking, and then pressed on along steep wooded switchbacks to the summit of Passo Cibiana (1530m).

On the far side of the pass, the one-lane road descends through a thick conifer forest. The trees glowed in the late afternoon light as Bernie and I coasted to Forno di Zoldo, where we stopped for the night at the Pensione Zoldana on the banks of the river. We had no problem putting away what was probably the most abundant meal of our entire trip.

1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |  9  |  10  |  11  >