What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Ride: Sella Ronda Bike Day

We think that the Sella Ronda, which encompasses Passo Sella, Pordoi, Campolongo and Gardena, is one of the finest 55km loops in the world. UNESCO agrees, proclaiming this region in Northern Italy to be a World Heritage Site. Once (now twice) a year they allow only bikes on these roads, PEZ and 18,000 other cyclists were there.

Today’s ride takes place here.

Although the Sella Ronda and some of its famed climbs have already been covered on PEZ (see HERE!), Bike Day casts things in a completely new light. The sixth running of this event took place on Sunday, July 3rd. The organizers claimed that over 18,000 cyclists participated. Local heroes like Gibo and Fondriest were also joined by ski stars like Denise Karbone. I didn’t see any of them, maybe they were hanging out in some VIP lounge. This year, another Bike Day will take place on the 18th of September. For those that plan to attend, I will offer some tips.

Two Birds One Stone
This summer, my daughter is working in a hotel in Wolkenstein, called Selva Gardena in Italian. She got a couple days off to visit us in Bolzano. Bringing her back this Sunday also happily coincided with Bike Day. So my starting point was quickly decided. There are a few places one can get on the ring, the most common ones are Canazei or Wolkenstein. Coming from Bolzano or from the north, Wolkenstein is more convenient. Cyclists from the south usually prefer Canazei.

Coming from Wolkenstein, Passo Sella is your first challenge.

Tip #1 (for those coming with cars): Parking Smart
Traffic is closed from 8:30am until 3:30pm, it is best to leave your car out of the limited zone because when traffic does open up, there will be 18,000 people (and many irate Italian drivers) trying to get the hell out of there all at once. For the Wolkenstein area, leave the car down by St. Cristina, at least or even further away. Same goes for Canazei. Even though you’ll ride a few more kilometers uphill in the beginning, it’s worth it.

Early in the morning, traffic still sparse.

The Sella
We got there around 8am and it was clear and sunny, but cold. I put on everything that I brought. And as irony would have it, the stuff you don’t bring is what you’ll miss the most. In my case, gloves and shoe covers. The first climb was the Sella. I settled into a light, easy spin and noted that most of these cyclists were pretty inexperienced, many were already suffering and huffing, yet they all seemed well-intentioned. In the first 3km, two people swerved into me and a kid on a mountain bike ran me off the road (hey, isn’t that supposed to be his territory?).

Summit Passo Sella.

Tip #2: Probably best to leave those high profile carbon wheels at home. As I was cresting the summit, I witnessed a guy on a new Dogma with Lightweights get blown over by an angry gust of wind. Please don’t tempt the cycling gods, they love to punish hubris!

The top of Passo Sella (2214 meters) was registering a parsimonious 3єC when I got there. Though still early in the day, the crowds were already starting to grow. Photo opportunities. Waiting for buddies to catch up. View gawkers. Roll up the arm warmers, zip that vest. Then fear: how are all these people going to handle this descent? The first 100 meters of pavement had been left grated, awaiting a fresh surface. Not only were there plenty of novices, there were just enough Hot Dogs to make for an interesting stew.

The descent off Passo Sella.

Tip #3: If the route says counter-clockwise, please ride the ring counter clockwise. For those few hundred that chose to ride clockwise, I’d like to ask, “WHAT THE F*CK WERE YOU THINKING?!?”

These signs make it clear: no littering and ride the right way.

Into this mix of inexperienced and “over” experienced, we had the pleasure of encountering a few cyclists climbing towards us head on. An abundant man with suffering lycra pants had been riding the brakes on his mountain bike for a few kilometers until the rear tire finally protested with a great explosion. Boom! Next mishap: the guy in front of me read the turn wrong, his leg now had an unbecoming rash courtesy of the guard rail (though it could have been worse). Amazingly enough, there were no other troubles after these two incidents, though I decided to give wide berth to guys with cycling related tattoos (i.e., chainrings and company logos like Columbus and Campagnolo).

The Pordoi
At the bottom of the descent, we met up with those that had come from Canazei, their numbers were much greater than ours. The climb up to the Pordoi was thick. Larger groups of cycling clubs were going up together. Matching kit. High spirits, though not very chatty. Naturally, I started mentally fixing people’s bikes – this happens when I ride behind others and there were lots of others today. I just lowered this guy’s saddle so his hips stop rocking up and down. Then I trued a very fit lady’s rear wheel. Afterwards, I put a drop of grease on the back of another cyclist’s pedals to stop the cleats from chirping. Brakes uncentered, got it.

While the summit of the Sella is a tiny thing with a bar and a gift shop, the Pordoi at 2239 meters is a complex of shops and ski lifts and parking and sprawl. Yet there were so many cyclists filling this up that I had to unclip even before reaching level ground and walk my bike to a free spot. Being a “journalist” gives one the license to stare, eavesdrop and photograph. Today, I have noted that some women really do buy pink road bikes and matching pink kit. Replica pro jerseys, especially Lampre and Liquigas, mean the wearer is Italian, unless it’s Gerolsteiner which means German. They seemed to be also loyal to their bike brands too (Canyon, Focus, Cube and Stevens). Lampre kit and a German bike probably means a South Tirolean.

Lots of cyclists filling up the summit.

Tip #4: Bring stuff to eat
The single most important key to climbing is proper fueling – eat and drink regularly. Fighting through the crowds to buy food on the summits is a pain. Better to wait for the towns like Arabba or Corvara, where you can ride into town (off the course) and get better service. I made myself a few slices of toast bread folded in half with Nutella, packed in aluminum foil. A perfect cycling snack.

The descent off Pordoi.

Due to greater numbers and more hairpins, the descent off the Pordoi was worse than the Sella, but astonishingly people settled into an orderly system. The slow ones held their lines better and the hammer heads were more patient in passing. I’m not sure why things changed, but my previous fears have faded away. Actually, this marks the point where I start to enjoy a wonderful day in the Dolomites. Though I’m sure there must have been some injured riders (ambulances were strategically positioned throughout the course), I did not see any accidents the whole day.

Arrival in the town of Arabba.

The descent off the Pordoi ends in the town of Arabba. Wurst, hamburgers and polenta were being grilled. An ambitious kid was selling bananas at 1 euro a go. Smart kid. Back by the church was a fountain where cyclists were filling their bottles. For some bizarre reason, lots of people were in a hurry. The climb up to Passo Campolongo isn’t that hard. In fact, none of these climbs are that hard. They are all pedalabile as they say here. The gradients stay around 7% which makes finding a rhythm pretty easy and very necessary.

Sausage and polenta for a light snack.

The descent off Campolongo (1875 meters) brings you into warmth and dense farm smells. I stopped in front of some cows and tried to get some cyclists whizzing by in the foreground. The shutter on my old digital camera just wasn’t quick enough. Ten tries and nothing – which really says something about my gear, because it was nearly impossible to NOT to get a shot on Bike Day with riders in it. Anyway, I’ve had to settle for a photo of just cows with a little blur of a tire in the lower left corner.

Just cows and a blurs.

After Campolongo, you find yourself in the town of Corvara. There, I found a bar and ate a prosciutto sandwich [pronounced pro SHOE toe, my mom says pro SKEW toe]. Riding the Sella Ronda counter clockwise is generally considered the easier direction, the Sella and Pordoi are certainly harder climbs from their other sides. However, Passo Gardena at 2121 meters is a deceptively challenging climb. There are less switchbacks and you’re more exposed to hearty gusts. Today was one of those days.

Everyone wants a photo with Carabinieri in full dress, even these local cops from Corvara.

The last few kilometers were hard. I took advantage of a strapping guy on a mountain bike to shield me from the wind. He turned, looked at me and said, “prego” gesturing to pass in front. So I did. Afterwards, I looked back and he was riding my pace but further back, obviously wanting to ride alone. Odd behavior for one participating in an event with 18,000 others.

The climb up to Passo Gardena.

Only Passo Gardena has new pavement, whereas most of the ring’s surface has suffered from a few too many winters and features lots of ruts and cracks. Roads are repaved in Italy for two reasons, either the Giro is passing through or elections are near and politicians need to show some results – we can assume that there must have been an election recently in Corvara.

Nearing the top of Gardena, looking out over my fellow cyclists.

This was my last climb and a few more observations had settled in. Namely. ONE: Road bikes held a slight attendance advantage over mountain bikes. Or maybe not, it was close. Though there was the usual strong showing of American bike brands, my informal survey indicated that Pinarello has become a very popular choice.

The summit of Gardena.

TWO: The majority of today’s riders fit neatly into the (highly profitable) marketing segment of 30 to 50. I did see a few children. The last one, here on the climb to Gardena, was with his father. As we passed them, the proud father announced that this was their last climb and all of us cheered with a chorus of “bravo, bravo, bravo” – the Italian language encourages redundancy.

The descent from Passo Gardena, made nice and easy with a newly paved road.

Lastly. The silence. Take away cars and motorcycles and it makes a great difference. But more importantly, make cyclists climb four passes totaling1800 meters in elevation, each suffering in their own pace, and the usual chatty, club riding Italians succumb to quietness. This is the essence and the beauty of Sella Ronda Bike Day where an unparalleled landscape is traversed by thousands in private quests, speechless.

The road home, back to Bolzano.

Maybe that mountain biker who wouldn’t let me wheel suck had it right. For additional information, please visit the Sella Ronda Bike Day website.

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