Dolomites Bike Day

20130624-101742.jpg We’d seen signs in towns and at turns off to passes featuring cheery cartoon figures made of hearts in a chain that might have been worms but might not have, European event advertising is funny that way. They announced “Bike Day.” At our refugio MC looked it up, “Oh, obviously you have to do it. It’s an omen that bike day is tomorrow.”

See, Bike Day in the Dolomites isn’t like bike day in other places. Dolomites bike day is where the relevant municipalities close down the roads linking four incredible mountain passes from 8am to 3pm to create a loop open only to cyclists. The organizers chime in with the helpful suggestion that one ride anti-clockwise. That’s it. There’s no registration or fee, you show up whatever time you like, you ride as much or as little as you care to (or, um, can), no one keeps time and no one cares the slightest what kind of bicycle you are on. My back of the envelope calculation was that there would be ten thousand feet of climbing in 75k from where I was starting. I’d been sick for a week, had done no hill work for months, and only had a polo shirt, baggies, and hiking shoes. For the inevitable thunderstorms there was Margaret’s sized extra tiny parka. I’d been operating according to the principle that, while on honeymoon, there’d be no death pedals or days in a row without, you know, food or water or washing. We’d made it three in this lovely part of Italy. It wasn’t obvious that Bike Day would fit with the program, therefore it was absolutely going to be a good day.

The incomparable Dolomites: cracked still right angled greys alternately against bright blue and mercurial clouds. The ride plot turns out to be simple. Climb steep switchbacks for an hour or so to a famous pass, corkscrew down for about fifteen minutes to an equally well known valley, do it four times. We’re an uneasy but joyful blend of rolling carnival, wobbly parade, and Cat V and Cat II race. Think a few thousand riders. 85% of the wheels I see are carbon fiber race machines, aero rims so deep as to make spokes barely relevant, integrated seatposts, dark sunglass riders from Germany, Austria, of course, Italy, sinews straining in the whir, murmuring in clipped conversation, Sky Cannondale Garmin, er, US Postal Service jerseys, Marco Pantani look alikes outnumbered but only barely by muscular Teutonic triathletes—how can I tell? UCI illegal sleeveless jerseys and amusing descending—with SRM meters. Then there’s 10 percent on fancy mountain bikes, folks who I speculate are in the area on trail holiday but couldn’t pass up this chance for clear roads, 26 inch wheels, shiny Scotts and Specializeds with shocks locked out, euro style Alps chic enduro packs, lycra. Then there’s the rest of us, a motley freakshow of recumbents, vintage crap steel Fishers and Nishikis, touring fahrrads, city bikes we used to call hybrids. I pass a guy on a Tern folder and we greet each other enthusiastically, hours later I’ll see a father/daughter tandem also on a Bike Friday, she’s taking in the splendor. They’re in good cheer. I’ll see a unicycle. Basically, it’s an enormous A+ international first class Fred-athlon.

Ten minutes into the steep pitches I hear a group coming from behind, I dig in to make their catch not so embarrassing, when they pass me a chubby Jens Voigt impersonator pulls alongside to say, “respect!” And then they inch away, all Campy record and white shorts. Then I’m passed by a mountain biker pulling a kid carrier, which is alarming and depressing until I notice the electric assist. Passo Sella isn’t so bad and my sensation of foreboding over the possibility of falling over spent eases a bit. Alas, by near the top of the next one, the Pordoi, the day is a gauzy impressionistic haze, I’ve ridden as if I’m fit for this sort of thing and used up all the facade of pop and fakey motozoom I could pretend.

Snowy edges, narrow through the trees, gondola cables pointing the way and uniform roofs far below. A half hour of rain pellets, no guard rails, six euros for a sandwich, fruit and espresso from a hut efficiently serving a clacking queue in six languages. That the landscapes are transcendent is deductive. The third pass is mercifully easier, and then the last is who shut off the lights survival. The switchbacks are gamely numbered, but since I don’t know how many there are in total, it just makes me angry enough to laugh that numbers are sequential. There, dizzy and nauseous through another massive crowd, I pull on that jacket and confusedly and surprised and sad that it’s over rocket coast back to pizza and beer.

Happy bike day. Here’s a silent video of a different edition over the same roads sixty years ago.