The Sellaronda Circuit

What better way to end six months in the Alps than with one of the classic road rides; The Sellaronda Circuit.

Looking west from the top of Passo Pordoi, with the Langkofel on the right

The Dolomites are a cluster of Mountains off of the main chain of the Alps, sitting in Northern Italy, about 45 minutes from home in Innsbruck. The word dolomite itself describes the rock [CaMg(CO3)2] which juts up from the emerald green pastures high into the sky; sheer faces of limestone hued with touches of pink and grey depending on the light. It’s a diverse area that has been at the forefront of multiple wars and territory battles over the years. Even now, the range sits at the boundary of three Italian provinces. We approached from south Tyrol; the German speaking part of Italy that belonged to Austria up until the first world war. Parking in Klausen just off the motorway, and at the bottom of a shady valley, there was no indication of the changes in geography we’d experience as we climbed up the valley.

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First up, a nice warm-up; pedalling away from the Adige river into the Gardena valley; a cluster of villages which has held onto the almost extinct language of Ladin. It’s a relative of Romansch, and it makes your eyes hurt trying to read it. As we approached the town of Selva Gardena at the foot of the Sella Massif, the narrow valley opened up into wide alpine pastures, lined with apple trees and other orchards. We pedalled onto the first ramps of our first pass as the deciduous horticulture gave way to alpine plants. The Giro d’Italia had passed through just a month before, and left in its wake miles of freshly surfaced roads, so smooth that it felt like you could coast uphill. After taking a while to warm up, I was surprised how quickly we summited the first hill. Passo Gardena done, four climbs to go.

 Passo Sella, Sellaronda circuit, The Dolomites

We zig-zagged slowly down the pass behind a queue of traffic; the roads jammed with those who have yet to be liberated from their transport boxes. We whizzed through the glitzy ski town of Corvara without even slowing down. The town was looking decidedly livelier than when Christa and I passed through during the shoulder season in June. It sits at the head of the Alta Badia valley, forming the second out of the four sides of our circle. We now had the small Passo Campolongo to wind our way up; the road taking a shallow gradient through meadows and golf courses. At just 1,800 meters, it wasn’t much to worry about, and the best part was cresting the ridge to see the Marmolada range opening up in front of us.

Tradition would dictate that following the descent into the town of Arabba, we’d head over Passo Pordoi; the third of the sellaronda passes. But my climb-hungry Austrian companion had other ideas in mind, and as such we began a long flowing descent through the Livinallongo del Col di Lana; a commune of villages perched precariously to the sides of the steep slopes. We cruised through unlit tunnels carved out of the rock and made a sharpish right turn onto the foot of climb three; Passo Fadaia. This one was quiet; Christoph had chosen this climb as some extra miles and extra vertical metres on top of an already big day. Away from the hustle of the main circus of mountain roads, we took a small detour through a damp and dripping gorge, emerging back into the sunlight for me to examine the face of the slopes I had to conquer. As I sat grinding away at my pedals, unable to rise out of my saddle to go harder, I looked over to see the chairlift next to us gliding silently up the hill. I’ve ridden through plenty of ski areas in my time, but normally the road takes a longer and more gentle route to the top than the lifts. Not this time; straight up.

Lago di Fedaia and the Marmolada in the background

All I can say is; it was worth it. A hairpin turn threw us into the open; from looking at my handlebars and wondering when the climb was going to end, I was now mystified by the huge alpine lake lapping at the edge of the Marmolada Glacier. From our height of 2200m, the rocks spiralled up and up, to the point where you couldn’t tell if the glistening white was cloud or snow. Three climbs completed, I needed sugar; as Bryan Alders always taught me, there’s no such thing as too much processed sugar, so I hastily consumed the only thing available to purchase at such altitudes; two cans of coke. Christoph, my enthusiastic Austrian companion should have taken this as a shot across the bows; a warning shot that me with sugar is a little bit faster than me without sugar!

Christoph takes a breather on the sellaronda loop

So down we went to the town of Canezei, the final of the four valleys we’d visit today. Again, another fancy ski resort that we didn’t have time to relax in. Another freshly paved road, too. And this time with numbered corners; we were heading up our forth climb, Passo Pordoi. Perhaps a little prior research would have been helpful though; as the numbers ticked up slowly starting from 1, I didn’t know how far I was counting. I knew one thing though, two cans of coke had me feeling great, and the steady 5% gradient was perfect to half-wheel the Kluge. For those unanointed, half-wheeling is the process of always riding half a wheel length ahead of your partner, thus making them feel like they need to speed up. I seem to do it subconsciously, but it always ends with the same result; hammer time! We ratcheted the pace several knots, and by the time we broke through the tree cover, we were overtaking the cars stuck in traffic jams, and speeding past other cyclists in a blur. With the top in sight, Christoph put the power down, and my reciprocal attack led to a sprint finish. Until my chain snapped. other than a bar-to-knee interface, I got off lightly: I found a friendly ‘touring’ orientated rider to borrow a chain tool from and we were back on the road in no time.

On the slopes of Passo Sella, looking south towards Passo Pordoi

This 10 minute delay was just enough for my legs to solidify, and as we cruised down to the base of the last climb, I knew I would be taking a more relaxed pace home. The Passo Sella, at only 6km was a breeze compared to the rest. We stopped for a couple photo breaks, and marvelled at the road as it squeezed between the Sella Massif on one side, and the Langkofel on the other. Stood on top of the world.

The Langkofel from atop Passo Sella, Sudtirol, Italy

We’d made it. Five passes, six hours in the saddle. Mind blowing scenery all day, and a riding buddy with whom I could keep perfect pace. Zipping up our jerseys in the fresh mountain air, we once again played tourist slalom on the snaking road back to the valley. The best way to finish a huge day of riding is a huge descent, and it took us another 45 minutes of downhill before we were back at the car. A ride that will live long in my memory.