It had been a good 2.5 years since I had taken my Brompton to the Stelvio Bike Day. Still remembering the breathtaking experience of riding an alpine pass road with no motorized traffic around, I had since learned about a similar event at a no-less iconic mountain road: the Sella Ronda Bike Day in the Dolomites – on a ring road over four passes, all the way around the Sella group of mountains and totalling 1.980m of ascents.
Shuffling around some work-related obligations, it was at rather short notice that I decided to finally give it a go in 2018 – along with, as I would afterwards learn from the media, 24.000 other cyclists.
And so I found myself on Thursday evening, 21 June, boarding an ICE train from Berlin to Munich. There, I would meet my partner-in-crime (my brother, and his road bike) with whom, after a night in Munich, we would pick up a rental car and drive ourselves to Northern Italy.
The drive via Garmisch, Innsbruck and Brenner gradually built up the excitement: the mountains were getting higher, the landscape more pittoresque (well, minus the rather ugly motorways glued on to the sides of the valleys) and the roads more narrow.
We got to our hotel mid-afternoon, enough time to do a little shakedown ride down and back up the steep access road to the plateau we were staying at. While the environment was nothing but stunning, the scouting operation led to the understanding that the shortcut we had intended to use the next morning was closed due to massive construction work for a skiing slope. This would mean we would have to drive down to the valley after all.
After a relaxed evening over a delicious five-course dinner and watching a world cup soccer match on TV, the 6 a.m. alarm woke us up to a most formidable, crisp mountain morning.
We filled up on the breakfast buffet (almost a shame to not have more time to truly enjoy the spread; we corrected that the next morning) and drove ourselves into what had turned into a very busy valley; long queues of cars arriving and looking for a place to park. Compared to the town of Prad at the Stelvio event, the parking guidance signposting was less developed here, leaving it largely to a guessing game to find a spot to park. Such a pity we had not been able to start cycling directly from the hotel as originally planned. But after getting yelled at by a carabinieri, receiving conflicting information from the traffic guards and a bit of improvisation, we finally found a space on a parking lot and started to get ourselves ready.
We joined the masses of cyclists on the main road just at the east end of the town of Selva (Wolkenstein), and this is where the workout began. It was still rather chilly in the shade, and we were glad to carry a few extra layers – and these would come handy during all the descents of the day anyways. While I last time had packed all my belongings in a small backpack strapped to the rear rack, I this time had adapted my luggage strategy: with the weight being the same (relevant on uphills), I was hoping the generally rather unfavourable profile of the Brompton T-Bag (some compare it to “having the aerodynamic features of a bus”) could provide a welcome bit of extra air resistance on the downhills.
The atmosphere was relaxed, people were chatting joyfully and – as I had experienced in my previous “bike day” adventure – the Brompton turned out to be a great conversation starter to get chatting with others. Again, I was happy to see the great mix of participants, with a lot of children and even a family with kids in a trailer. Overall, the event felt to be even more dominated by Italian-speakers than on the Stelvio, and I very much like the joyful, open and relaxed attitude of Italian cyclists. As last time: absolutely splendid company, beyond any language barriers!
The first climb, 650m from 1.580m in the valley to the 2.230m top of the Sella pass, provides a great view on the iconic Langkofel and Plattkofel mountains. We took a few brief stops, but generally just pushed on at a gentle yet determined pace; my personally preferred speed was somewhere in the 7 km/h zone, almost exclusively using the lowest of my six gears. Half-way up, the local tourist office sold commemorative bike jerseys; given the rather steep 36 EUR price tag (while still featuring sponsor logos), I decided to pass.
After 1h 30min and uncounted hairpin turns, we eventually reached the top where crowds of cyclists took a little time-out to admire the landscape and celebrate their first achievement. Two cars, who apparently had not read the signs posted everywhere on all roads leading to the Sellaronda, tried to make their departure from a hotel up on the pass, only to soon learn that they would have no chance (nor permission) of driving anywhere before the afternoon.
So far, I had only spotted a handful of cyclists not on standard road or mountain bikes: a group had passed me on tandems. Up on the Sella pass, however, seeing a rider on a Pennyfarthing was an unexpected sight. Turned out he was an Italian long-distance cyclist on some mission for a cause. After he had finished his interview with Italian TV station RAI, I said hello and we took the opportunity to have our picture taken: “small wheels meet big wheel”.
With “celebrity selfies” out of the way, it was time for the first downhill section. As I wrote about in my Stelvio post, while the Brompton is rather well suited for riding up a mountain (especially in the six-gear variant, with -12% reduced gearing), riding down a mountain is a little iffy. It can be done, as many “Brompton alpinists” have proven, and it actually is a lot of fun, too. If only there weren’t this constant subconscious fear how even a small issue would most certainly escalate into a rather serious crash.
Hitting a pothole is one of the concerns. Luckily, these main routes in the alps are of rather good road quality, so with a reasonable amount of attention, and careful use of the entire road’s width wherever possible, this can be dealt with. The other, more serious issue would be a tire blowout. Dangerous on any kind of bike, riding 16-inch wheels would likely lead to a complete loss of control. This is amplified by the fact that the rim surface of a Brompton wheel is only about a third of that of a regular bicycle – i.e. any use of the rim brakes heats up the rims much faster.
With my somewhat reassuring experience and zero-failure history from the Stelvio ride to build on, I decided to focus as much as possible on choosing a good line, while breaking only when absolutely necessary – in brief, but strong, intervals. Some sources suggest that riding downhill without breaking also cools the rims due to “air cooling”; I’m not quite sure do I buy the implied physics behind that, but less braking is always good, I figure.
So I dashed down the southern side of the Sella pass, only occasionally interfering to keep the speed under 50 km/h (call me a wimp, but beyond that it just has too much of a daredevil feel to me). Everything seemed to go really well. Until, well, until I suddenly heard the whizzing sound of air exiting an inner tube. It came from the rear, luckily – a flat front tire being much more risky in regards to loosing control – and was not an explosive, but a slow failure. This meant I had enough time to apply full breaks, coming to a standstill just meters away from a terrace restaurant and (how lucky can one be?) one of the few bike mechanic service points on the route.
After putting the bike into the “repair position” (a rarely promoted feature of the Brompton, which, put up half-folded and upside down, turns into a mobile bike repair stand) and taking the rear wheel mechanics apart, the first view under the tire quickly told what had happened: apparently from air expanding under heat, the inner tube’s pressure had become so high that it had made dents into the rim tape where the spoke holes are covered and in one of those “pimples” that had developed on the inner tube, the tube’s rubber had failed (the rim tape, actually a rather hard plastic layer, was unharmed). In hindsight, this probably could have been avoided by lowering the air pressure in the tire before the downhill – a strategy I applied after the repair, for the rest of the tour.
This was the moment I figured that taking only one spare tube on an adventure like this might have been a bit risky. With three more passes ahead, anticipating that more flats may occur, I decided to not throw in a new tube quite yet. Instead, I fixed it with a patch. The bike mechanics from the nearby service tent kindly lent me some isolation tape to double-up the rim tape, and as I refilled the tyre, I carefully paid attention to stay well below the maximum 100psi pressure.
After a forced break of almost an hour, we were back on track. After two more turns of downhill, the road merged with that coming up from Canazei in the Fassa valley – bringing more cyclists up to the circle road that is the Sellaronda. From here on, it was all uphill again, now aiming to summit the Pordoi pass, at 2.240m. This meant another 440m of climbing, over a distance of 6km.
Mostly in forested areas, this climb was not quite as spectacular as the first (or I did not understand to look behind enough), but it was a joyful atmosphere and, after the excitement of the first downhill, an almost relaxing experience. I did not stop much, and after 50 minutes of pedalling reached the second pass of the tour – as usual, quite a crowd scene, with groups recollecting after doing the ride each in their own pace, and alpine selfies being taken abound.
After a short break, I once more checked the air pressure of my tires (not too hard, not too soft) and, with slight nervousness, indulged in the otherwise joyful experience of once again letting gravity do its thing. And what fun it was! The slope was reasonable, the curves wide, and the asphalt smooth. I stopped twice for a few minutes, to give the breaks a chance to cool off, but more importantly to take in the breathtakingly beautiful landscape. Or simply watch the endless stream of all kind of cyclists racing down the mountain. A road cyclists fell in a hairpin turn just in front of me, but luckily got away unharmed – seems he had taken too much speed into the turn. Nonetheless, a good reminder of the risks that come with this kind of fun.
As I proceeded down towards the half-way point of the tour, a village party at Arabba, I eventually noticed that my rear tire got softer. The immediate suspicion was that my patch from earlier probably did not like the heat (something I’d read about before, and the reason I would only ever start a tour like this with fresh, unpatched inner tubes). I pumped more air once, hoping to at least make it to the village, but soon after, about a kilometer from the village, I had to pull over and replace the inner tube. With my only spare tube, which was rather unsettling at this point.
The repair took me about 25 minutes, not so much for changing the tube, but because the Brompton’s gear mechanics are somewhat fiddly to get off and on. Not to mention the exhausting work of pumping up a tire to 60-70 PSI manually in the mid-day sun. The only other cyclist stopping to ask whether I need assistance – something I always do when seeing a cyclist with a mechanical – was, to my great joy, the only other Brompton rider I saw the entire day. At this point almost done with inflating the tire, we exchanged brief “Forza Brompton” shouts and he went his way. (On a side note, I do believe the Brompton Club Italy arranges a group ride for the Sellaronda Bike Day every year, but since they start from Canazei and hence would always be one pass ahead, I never got to see them.)
Finally reunited in Arabba, we got to fill up our water supplies at a fountain (interestingly, the Valgardena tourist office had earlier replied to my e-mail inquiry that there is no water supplies on the entire event; at Stelvio, there were water tanks provided along the road) and grab a bite. Then, after one more call at a service tent to use a proper pump with a pressure gauge, it was off to pass number three, the smallest one at 1.850m, i.e. a 250m climb from Arabba.
Passo Campolongo, it turned out, was to be my favourite. Not so much for its rather steep (yet short) climb out of Arabba, but due to a very gentle, well-paved, downhill section all the way from its top to the village of Corvara. This road, with only a few tight turns in between, could be ridden with almost no breaking at all and provided great views to enjoy while riding.
All off a sudden, finishing this ride with no more spare tubes on hand seemed more likely again! This was the pure joy I’d been searching for.
We did not even stop at Corvara, instead moving ahead to the final, and maybe most challenging ascent of the day. The gradient not being significantly different from the previous ones, this was due to two factors: First of all, obviously, the fact that this was the fourth uphill section of the day; having been on the road for over six hours by this time clearly showed its effect. Secondly, and this was to be the bigger challenge, the road was only closed from motorized traffic until 3.30 p.m. At half past three sharp, myself not even half way up the final 597m climb to the pass at 2.119m, long queues of cars and motorcycles started to spread their exhaust fumes and noise.
All of a sudden, it became so apparent just how lovely an experience it had been to ride the Sellaronda road without combustion engines around. And, already being tired, this did not add to the motivation.
There is no reason to hide the truth: I was struggling big times. With tired legs and arms, constant overtaking from loud motor cycles and smelly sports cars (apparently the main demographics driving this road), it was only the strong desire to really do this entire loop despite all its challenges that kept me going: one hairpin turn at a time, sometimes pushing the bike for a few hundred metres in between (which barely makes a difference in speed, but activates different muscles for a change) and compassionately cheering each other on between the few cyclists still on the road. I also may have consumed an entire 150g bar of milk chocolate on the last 2km and tested close to all benches spread out on little pull-outs along the road.
Even greater was the joy to truly make it, after 1.5h of struggle, to the final pass, Passo Gardena (Grödnerjoch). This had been a great effort by my standards (and with 130m more than the Stelvio, the most climbing I’d ever done on a bicycle in one day), and I had consciously made it more difficult than necessary by choosing a 16-inch folding bike. But here I stood – after a total of 1.980m of climbing – and all that remained was a long and easy downhill back to our car. And in case of another flat, the reopened road would at least have allowed me to get picked up from the roadside – I don’t see myself having fixed another flat that day.
But there was no need to worry. With the air pressure now properly adjusted, the absence of time pressure allowing for extended breaks for cooling the rims and admiring the landscape, and a comparatively easy descent, I 40min later pulled in at the parking lot in Selva and turned off my GPS at 60km and 8h 52min total. And we were still plenty early to pay the fancy spa of our hotel an extended visit before dinner.
This was my second alpine “bike day” adventure. Again blessed by perfect weather conditions, this turned out to be slightly more challenging than I expected. While I somehow had thought that doing four shorter climbs with downhill sections in between would break up the otherwise almost similar amount of ascent meters into easier parts, the opposite was the case. Mechanical concerns aside, the final climb in particular turned this into a more taxing experience than the Stelvio where, once the climbing work is done in one chunk, the remainder is a sheer endless joy ride back to the start.
I also found that the Stelvio event was slightly better organised, from traffic signage and parking arrangements in the valley, to the arranged water supply and free apples, to the fact that the road closure is long enough to ensure everybody can finish their ride before it is reopened. And both the bike day jerseys as well as the professional photographs were more reasonably priced at the Stelvio. Those critical comments aside, the Sellaronda Bike Day is an extremely well-organized event, with a very positive spirit (in people as well as signage and communications); it is absolutely amazing that days like these are arranged, and it is more than obvious that a lot of effort and work goes into welcoming tens of thousands of cyclists into an area for one day. Maybe also the fact that the Sellaronda extends over three Italian provinces adds to the organisational challenges?
Here’s what I would do different next time – my “lessons learned”:
- Take more than one spare tube, just for the peace of mind; with 16 inch tires, chances are almost zero that anyone can help out with an extra.
- Reduce the tire pressure before any long downhills, to avoid blowouts from too high pressure as the rims heat up the air within.
- Start earlier – with the road reopened at 3.30pm, an army of drivers and motorists who had to wait out all day make for very busy road traffic; while the roads are only closed off at 8.30am officially, I am pretty sure that starting the ride before that will be on an almost empty road regardless. If I ever did this again, I would aim to set out around 7am.
- Avoid having to find a parking spot; this is something we had covered, only torpedoed by the unforeseen construction work on our shortcut (and of course, starting earlier would reduce this issue significantly).
And what would I not do different?
- Stay in a local hotel the nights before and after the event (we really liked the Sporthotel Monte Pana, including their absolutely fabulous kitchen)
- Have friendly conversations with others
- Apply plenty of sun protection
- Bring wind-proof clothing for the downhill parts
- Carry more quick energy sources than I believe I will need
…and most importantly: Enjoy the day to the fullest! Want to try it yourself? The next Sellaronda Bike Day is on 22 June 2019, and it gets my fullest recommendation.