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Maratona dles Dolomites

From issue 39 • Words by Colin O'Brien w/images from Freddy Planinscheck for Maratona dles Dolomites

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One day a year in the normally sleepy Ladin valleys of Italy’s far north, a gunshot sends more than 9,000 riders climbing out of the darkness, just before dawn breaks over the surrounding limestone peaks. Throughout the huge peloton, the atmosphere is electric. At the front, the pace is almost frightening. Bands line the roadside. At some turns the fans are five or six deep behind the hoardings. There are camera crews, photographers on motorbikes and helicopters overhead. It’s broadcast live on Italian television. It’s almost impossible to get an entry—more than 30,000 apply for the lottery—and in the excitement of it all during those first few kilometers, it’s all too easy to forget just what the hell you’ve signed yourself up for.

Passo di Campolongo (5.8 km at 6.1%)
Passo Pordoi (9.2 km at 6.9%)
Passo di Sella (5.5 km at 7.9%)
Passo di Gardena (5.8 km at 4.3%)
Passo di Campolongo (5.8 km at 6.1%, second crossing)
Passo di Giau (9.9 km at 9.3%)
Passo di Falzárego/Valparola (11.5 km at 5.8%)

This is the Maratona dles Dolomites, the queen of all gran fondos. It’s grueling, beautiful, fun, overwhelming, unforgettable. It’s breathtaking, both figuratively and literally. And for an amateur rider, there’s simply nothing else like it. In fact, the scale of it is probably enough to shock a lot of lower-level pros. There are three courses, none of them exactly easy. The shortest looks benign enough at first glance, just 55 kilometers. It still manages to pack in almost 1,800 meters of climbing. The medium route takes 106 kilometers, with 3,090 meters of elevation. And then there’s the Maratona proper, 138 kilometers of extraordinary, excruciating riding that climbs just short of 4,200 meters (13,780 feet).

Unlike the vast majority of such events, the Maratona isn’t designed to be simply a suffer-fest. It’s a celebration of cycling, of the Dolomites and of the area’s unique culture. It’s incredibly inclusive. Turn up and enjoy yourself, and you’ll fit right in.

The race’s patron, Michil Costa, is what the Italians call a personaggio, a character. His goal is to get people to connect with nature, to contemplate their place in it, and to appreciate not only its fragile beauty but also what that beauty can do for our own fragilities. Riding here might be tough on the legs, but it does wonders for a stressed-out mind.

The landscape of the Dolomites is so important and so inspiring that it’s protected by Unesco, and every year the Maratona has an environment-related theme. The official jerseys have a fourth pocket, on the side, for your trash. But because there will always be idiots who think it’s okay to toss their gel wrappers once they’re done, the day after the race several hundred volunteers walk the entire route picking up the pieces to make sure it’s left spotless. From start to finish, this is a race that’s done right.

And then there’s the history. It’s not an overstatement to say that without roads like these, there would be no Grand Tours—or at least not the kind worth watching. The Pyrénées, the Alps and the Dolomites are the backdrops for some of cycling’s most memorable moments and the theatres in which the sport’s greatest protagonists have given their most enthralling performances. The Dolomites have given birth to the stars of the Giro d’Italia, where its legends are written. For fans of Coppi, Bartali, Merckx or Pantani, the Maratona will be less a race than it is a pilgrimage.

We’d run out of space retelling every duel that these mountain passes have seen, but one in particular merits mention: a Giro stage that’s still spoken about, in hushed tones, almost 70 years later.

Falzárego is named after a myth about a despotic ruler who turned his back on his people and was turned to stone. In the local Ladin language, it means False King. But there’s nothing fallacious about the cycling royalty that have immortalized its slopes.

It was the scene of one of the most famous encounters between Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali at a decisive point in the 1946 Giro. The first corsa rosa after World War Two was an emotive affair, and probably most famous for Giordano Cottur’s heroic, defiant ride on stage 12 into the center of the divided city of Trieste, his home, even after the Giro’s organizers had bowed to the demands of terrorists and cancelled the day’s racing.

When normal racing resumed on stage 15, Italy’s two great champions, Coppi and Bartali, returned to outclassing all and sundry. The Piemontese took the day’s victory, the Tuscan took the maglia rosa. Then, something extraordinary happened. That night, the story goes, Bartali abandoned the race in a fit of rage after being told that the Italian cycling federation had decided to veto its riders’ participation in the upcoming Tour de Suisse. It was, by all accounts, a race that Bartali enjoyed, not least because he was being paid a lot of money to participate.

Then, as one does, he hit the town with some friends. When he woke up the next morning, news that the federation’s president had backtracked on the decision—probably after realizing that upsetting the country’s biggest sporting hero wasn’t the best career move—added an extra kick to his hangover. Demands met, Bartali was back in the Giro, regardless of how bad the headache was.

Stage 16 was a beautiful brute: 203 kilometers from Auronzo di Cadore on the Austrian border to Bassano del Grappa in the heart of Veneto. Perhaps smelling weakness—or the wine—from his great rival, Coppi attacked at the base of Falzárego, the first big climb of the day. There were 150 kilometers to go, and everything to play for….

Earlier in the Giro, Coppi had been written off when stomach pains had all but crippled him, but here, in the Dolomites, on the race’s biggest stage, he was reborn. He rode like a man possessed. Bartali couldn’t keep up and by the summit of the False King he was more than 90 seconds behind his rival. By the next peak, he’d lost another minute, and by the time the race entered its final 40 kilometers, he was more than five minutes back.

In the end, the wily old Bartali managed to cobble together a scruffy alliance of friends and foes to claw back enough time from the dogged Coppi, who won the day by 72 seconds, and keep him in the pink jersey. When the race arrived in Milan four days later, Bartali won by 47 seconds what turned out to be his final Giro victory, but a message had been sent on the ascent to Falzárego. His time at the top was over. It was Coppi’s turn to be the next campionissimo.

These mountains are full of such stories. The Passo Pordoi has hosted the Giro 37 times since 1940, and seen generations of stars shine on its slopes from Bartali, Coppi and Hugo Koblet to Laurent Fignon, Claudio Chiappucci and Miguel Induráin. The Ladin valleys, the looming majesty of the Marmolada, and the jagged, craggy faces of the Gruppo del Sella are as woven into the history of cycling as those winding, breathtaking roads are entwined in the mountains.

The Passo di Giau is no less famous, or infamous, depending on how much you like long, 10-percent climbs. It’s set the Giro alight on many occasions, most recently in 2012 when Joaquim Rodríguez and Ryder Hesjedal were battling for the maglia rosa. Every summer, it’s also the centerpiece of the Maratona’s longest course.

It’s been described as a sting in the race’s tail. Whoever started that rumor is a master in understatement. It’s the penultimate climb of the day, and generally the one that riders are most worried about. The average gradient is around 9.5 percent, kicking now and then up to 15 percent, and it rises more than 920 meters (just over 3,000 feet) in a little under 10 kilometers. For the serious climber, it’s a chance to have some fun. The gradient is steady and the surface good. But arrive at it underprepared or overcooked, and it’s like taking a shot to the chest.

At the top, you’ll be 2,236 meters (7,336 feet) above sea level, surrounded by snow and rock and little else. You’ll also be staring at an incredibly fun, and fast, descent into Pocol, one that’s made all the more entertaining, and perhaps a little sketchier, by the fact that you’re hurtling down the mountain with so many other cyclists. And after that? There’s just the small matter of the 11.5 kilometers to the top of Falzárego and the Passo Valparola, in the tracks of Coppi and Bartali, and not so terribly far away from a well-earned beer and bowl of pasta at the finish.

Worth noting.
If there’s a downside to the Maratona, it’s trying to get a start. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the most over-subscribed events on the European amateur calendar, and before you tackle the mighty Giau you’ll first have to get lucky in a lottery. Most years, less than a third of those who apply are successful. If you don’t want to leave it to chance, there are some ways around the sweepstake. Some tour companies—such as California-based inGamba Tours—have a small number of guaranteed entries for their guests each year. Alternatively, you can get a race number by booking a package with a local hotel. The Hotel La Perla is run by the Costa family, which also organizes the event, and is one of the most luxurious, and idiosyncratic, hotels in the country. The rooms are unique, the service genuine and friendly, and when you’re done with your ride there’s always a professional mechanic on hand to take care of your precious wheels. You can even kick back with a coffee—or something stronger—in the hotel’s Pinarello Lounge, where you’ll find some historic bikes and usually a few fellow cyclists hanging around the TV watching the day’s events in the pros’ world.

From issue 39. Buy it here.