Cycling in the Dolomites
Magnificent mountain biking above Cortina d'Ampezzo
Saturday 20 April 2013
For anyone growing up in the latter part of the 20th century, the name Cortina is synonymous with a brand of Ford motor car, rather than a chi‑chi Italian mountain resort. It might seem improbable but the car was indeed named after this rugged patch of land – so it's a little ironic that the most popular form of transport in the area these days seems to be the bicycle.
In fact, over the past three years, Cortina d'Ampezzo has seen a "phenomenal" growth in mountain biking and road cycling, according to Marianne Moretti of the resort's marketing department. There are now 13 "bike hotels" dotted around the town, where you won't be frowned upon as you walk through the lobby caked in dirt and dust, and where the facilities include bike storage, maintenance areas, catering designed for cyclist-sized appetites, and even massage treatments.
And once you're out in the mountains, you'll find a selection of eight "bike refuges" which welcome mountain bikers and offer instant access to scores of bike trails that vary from sinuous single-track to dusty fire roads. Best of all, many of those trails can be accessed by ski lift during the summer.
My first day's riding saw me taking the cable car from the centre of town with a mountain-bike guide, Fabio Bernardi, to hit the trails of the Faloria ski area. Fabio's claim that we'd be riding through some beautiful scenery was impossible to deny, with the Unesco-protected Dolomite mountains rising all around us.
We descended almost 450m along 6km of rubbly fire roads and forest single track to the Ristorante Rio Gere – and I didn't have to pedal strenuously once. From here we hopped on another ski lift for the ascent to Rifugio Son Forca at 2,218m.
This is one of Cortina's eight bike refuges, but we weren't staying here, which could mean only one thing: more downhill, most of it steep and exciting, taking us down the idyllic Val Padeon and Val Granda until we eventually returned along an easy riverside trail to my accommodation at the Des Alpes bike hotel, conveniently located beside the main cycle path into Cortina.
In all, we'd been riding for about two hours, three-quarters of which required little or no pedalling and lots of whooping and hollering.
The following afternoon I opted to ride in the spectacular Cinque Torri ski area a few kilometres west of town, taking the eponymous chairlift with my bike. At the top station I was finally forced to point my handlebars in the general direction of the sky for the short, steep and scrabbly climb on a rutted road to Rifugio Averau, where I'd be spending the night.
The words "mountain refuge" tend to conjure up images of smelly bunks and even smellier residents, so Rifugio Averau came as quite a surprise. Once I'd dropped my bike off in the secure lock-up, I was shown to a bunk room that was light, airy and had stunning mountain views. Things only got better in the restaurant.
Rifugio Averau is internationally renowned for the quality of its menu and wine list – and, of course, Italian menus are invariably pasta rich, which is ideal energy food for cyclists. I was surrounded by cheery hikers and fellow mountain-bikers, all as bright and clean as the rooms they were staying in – not a smelly sock or grubby beard in sight.
Awaking the following morning to clear blue skies and unforgettable mountain panoramas, I breakfasted in style, and then set off on Route 11 (one of the region's 16 marked trails). My notebook contains words scribbled on dusty, crumpled pages that include, in order of descent, "glorious Alpine scenery", "rooty, pine-scented woodland trails", "sunny forest glades", "wild-flower meadows and tumbling streams".
Kilometre after kilometre of single track rolled beneath my tyres as I whizzed through this sublime scenery. Even when it started to rain it fell as a light, sun-speckled afternoon shower that simply served to refresh and invigorate me on the final leg of the epic 12km, 1,190m descent.
I had travelled from the sun-baked summit of Mount Averau to the busy streets of Cortina. All that was now left for me to do was pull up beside a café, order a cold beer and reflect on whether this might just be the best downhill ride I've ever done.
The Italian Dolomites are reachable from Venice Treviso on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com); Innsbruck on easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com); and Verona on BA, easyJet, and Monarch (0871 940 5040; flymonarch.com).
Staying and cycling there
Bike Hotel Des Alpes (00 39 0436 862 021; www.desalpescortina.it). Doubles from €106, including breakfast.
Rifugio Averau (00 39 0436 4660; lagazuoi5torri.dolomiti.org). Dorm beds from €60 per person, half board.
The resort also has a bike and skills park (cortinabikepark.it). It reopens in June.
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