Travel Gravel – 50:50 – the right tool for the job in the Italian Dolomites.

The Italian Dolomites are a world-famous destination for road cyclists, all vying for some kudos on the various stunningly beautiful road climbs which enmesh the region. So, with hundreds of kilometres of paved goodness on your doorstep, why would you even consider taking a gravel bike to ride there? Because a gravel bike is the perfect choice of course. Or so thought Olly, when his wife suggested they visit for their summer holiday. Did he make the right choice? Read on to find out….

When my wife Abby suggested we headed to the Italian Dolomites for our summer holiday this year, it felt like all my Christmases had come at once! But it also instantly gave me a quandary. The Dolomites were justifiably famous for their road climbs, but as with any died-in-the-wool gravel rider, my idea of cycling heaven lies on the gravel trail, not on a tarmac road shared with fast moving motorbikes and aspiring Formula1 drivers in their overpriced supercars. Luckily (amazingly?) she didn’t need any persuading when I suggested we take our gravel bikes and split our riding 50:50 between road and gravel. The vast majority of our gravel rides together at home are a mix of surfaces anyway, so she already realised that her gravel bike was 99% as good as a pure road bike on paved surfaces. So, we did some research and made some plans. Alta Badia, here we come.

Unfortunately, there is a downside of being married to a cycling journalist who is also a passionate gravel rider in his free time. Abby knew this and resigned herself to me documenting our holiday. “Just don’t spend all our holiday working” was her only comment. Luckily for me, she’s very tolerant and it does mean we always have a great library of images and video to enjoy in the depths of some future winter. Generally, when we go on holiday together, we book an apartment, rather than a hotel – partly for the freedom it gives us, but also because Abby is vegan and in many parts of the world telling restaurant staff that one of you is vegan will generate a grumpy face/raised eyebrows/look of incomprehension (delete as applicable). 

“If you look off to the right-hand side of the road when your get to San Cassiano, you’ll see a gravel trail which runs parallel to the road” said Klaus, the hotel’s owner, passionate cyclist and font of all knowledge when it comes to every trail (whether gravel or MTB) in the local area. We’d shown him our route idea for the day to make sure he approved and to see if he had any ideas for improvements. “The gravel climb is pretty steep, but the views at the top will be worth it and if the rain comes in early, there are some huts where you can find shelter. Rainstorms here normally only last 30 minutes or so anyway, but it’s definitely worth taking a jacket”  he continued.

We knew when we set off that morning that we only had a short window of decent weather before some heavy thunderstorms would be rolling through. If we looked south from the hotel it was all sweetness and joy, but if we looked north, it looked like something from a Hollywood disaster movie, with pitch black skies and towering clouds. Given our short window of opportunity, we decided to try one of the shorter routes Klaus had published on the hotel’s komoot profile. The  was a 30km route which headed south-east from the hotel, packing in some punchy climbing and promising spectacular views. 

Back home, if someone suggested going for a 30kms gravel ride, I would probably have made a slightly disparaging comment about how short it was, but we soon discovered that Dolomites distances aren’t the same as distances elsewhere. The Störes route packed in nearly 1000m of climbing into its diminutive length, but also the climbing was tough – repeated pitches of gradients steeper than 20% and all on gravel. As this was only day 2 of our holiday, I was a little worried that Abby would be put off by quite how hard it was, but luckily her dedication to a pre-holiday training regime (riding on a smart trainer at 6am in our garage in the middle of a bitterly cold winter anyone?) paid off. A combination of good fitness, decent bike handling skills and a dose of stubbornness were the perfect combination for the terrain.

Klaus was right about the weather. Luckily, we found some shelter as the first rainstorm arrived and the air temperature stayed surprisingly warm, but the final section of the ride back to the hotel saw the air temperature drop nearly 20 degrees C and the rain bounced off the floor. We made good use of the hotel’s sauna to warm up on our return to the hotel. The vast majority of the other riders at the hotel were riding on the road and had decided to sit-out the morning’s forecast poor weather and then do a shorter afternoon ride instead. It made us realise how much we would have missed out if we had just chosen to ride on the road. The views on our ride had been some of the most spectacular I’ve ever witnessed and the majority of the best ones were only accessible from the gravel trails.

Back at the start of our holiday, for our first ride, we had decided to warm ourselves up gently and head out on the road, taking in the Passo Furcia, a 1789m high pass located to the north of Badia, where we were staying. It was an ideal first day, if for no other reason than it started with a 15km downhill, but also because it was significantly less well known than the passes to the south of the region and that meant less traffic. Klaus was particularly keen that we should take the minor road that climbed from San Martino to Pieve di Marebbe on the return leg, due to amazing scenery and he wasn’t wrong – the super quiet backroad had views that looked like they were a painted Hollywood filmset backdrop, rather than real life, something we soon learned would be a daily occurrence.

What we hadn’t quite banked on when we set off in the morning was that our ‘warm-up’ ride would be pretty warm indeed. Not only from a climbing perspective (the climb up to the pass itself had sustained sections of >10%), but also in air temperature. The long-term weather forecast in the run up to our holiday had made depressing viewing, with low temperatures and a high chance of thundery showers/rain forecast for most days. Luckily this proved to be impressively inaccurate and the sunshine soon burned through the early morning grey skies. The afternoon temperatures on Day 1 climbed into the mid-30s. I was as happy as a cold-blooded lizard sitting under a sun lamp, but my wife got pretty rapidly cooked and we made use of a roadside spring to re-fill our bottles and cool down super-heated muscles.

Of course, as we were riding gravel bikes, even though we were supposed to be road riding, I managed to sneak some gravel trails into our return route to the hotel. The entire region is covered with a network of logging roads, farms tracks, designated cycle tracks and old roads which have fallen into disrepair. Italy has a generally relaxed attitude to access and a generally tolerant population, so as long as you’re not riding on someone’s private land or heading through somewhere dangerous like a quarry or live forestry operation, most tracks are fair game. I had spotted this amazing riverside path on our descent down the valley in the morning and decided we should try it on our return visit. The small gaggle of roadies who had sat on our wheels to get a tow back up the valley must have been pretty surprised when their mobile windbreaks suddenly turned off onto a gravel trail, but our choice to deviate away from the road was the right one. Gravel heaven, with no traffic, a perfect surface and a drop in temperature thanks to some shady tree cover. Our decision to bring gravel bikes had really paid off.

Our plan had been to roughly alternate road days with gravel days. It wasn’t a rigid plan and I managed to shoehorn in some gravel sections even on the road days, but for our third ride we knew we were going to be road-based. As we had driven up the valley which led to our hotel on the first day, we spotted some signs warning that the road ahead would be closed and then later some publicity for the Dolomites Bike Day

We knew about the annual Sellaronda Bike Days, where a couple of times a year a road circuit which takes in the Giro d’Italia climbs of Passo Gardena, Passo Sella, Passo Pordoi and Passo Campolongo is closed to motorized traffic and so becomes cycling heaven, but we didn’t realise that there was a second smaller closed road day. Not only did we not know about it, but we’d managed to time our visit to neatly coincide with it. How’s that for being jammy!


Many European countries where cycling is popular will offer a closed-road sportive in order to bring in tourists, but the miraculous thing about the Dolomites Bike Day was how easy and non-commercial it was. You didn’t need to register in advance or sign on. There was no need to sign a disclaimer or display a number board. You didn’t have to sign your life away or agree to marketing emails for the next 200 years. All you had to do was to turn up. The roads were closed from 8.30am until 4.00pm and every single junction was marshalled by a variety of uniformed government employees – everyone from the forestry commission to the financial police seemed to have been called upon and were unbelievably friendly and helpful.

The entire day was like something from cycling nirvana. Thousands of cyclists of every age, size, gender and style happily sharing some of the most stunning roads in Europe. Birds tweeted, the sun shone, village squares had a carnival atmosphere to them and open-air stalls selling local produce and we got to ride 60kms of absolute perfect mountain roads, free from traffic. We had grins so big that our faces practically  hurt and my wife managed to tick off a bunch of Giro d’Italia climbs that she had been digitally climbing all winter, but now in perfect sunlit conditions. Absolute heaven .

The next day, as we sat in a grassy alpine meadow admiring the view and trying to refuel after the exertions we had just made, a couple of XC MTB riders appeared at the top of the same insanely steep climb we had just done.  “Where are you from?”said one of the mountain bikers as they unclipped from their pedals and gave us and our gravel bikes an unbelieving look. “Luckily I’ve got a 32-50 gear” said the second rider, glancing at our significantly less well-endowed gear choice. Both were on lightweight XC bikes and unlike the vast majority of the other riders we saw, they weren’t battery assisted. 

We had grovelled up the last section which topped 25% and had even resorted to hopping off and pushing our bikes on the final steepest section. “What does the route profile look like next?” asked one of the pair to the other “300m down. 600m up”came the reply.  “Oh good” said the first, in a totally deadpan manner. They clipped back in and set off, a plume of dust trailing in their wake. We would soon be following their route, but not until we had thoroughly soaked in the view from our impromptu picnic spot.  

Our day had started as it meant to go on with a fast and sweeping gravel descent from a small hamlet high up on a steep sided glacial valley. A short flat section on tarmac came next, before we started on the first of many climbs planned in for the day. Again, the overall distance wasn’t great – but what the route lacked in distance, it made up for in severity. The first climb was nearly 15kms in length and gained us 1000m. If it had all been paved, that wouldn’t have been too big of a challenge, but today was a gravel day and that meant 10kms of the climb were off-road.

Klaus had given us a decent warning about the severity of the climbing - “It’s pretty tough” he said in an understated manner. I had my Wahoo set to show the profile of the climb and on one of my brief glances down I registered that the gradient was showing as 24%. The surface at this point was loose and inconsistent. In typical fashion this was also one of the most exposed parts of the climb too and the sun was beating down on our heads. Our tyres scrabbled for grip and I consciously slid my weight as far forward on the saddle as I could to keep the front end of my bike down, in an attempt to try and make the steering as predictable as possible. 

When I went back through my photo collection after the ride I was disappointed not to find anything that came even close to showing how steep the climbing was. Then I remembered how steep the climbing was and realised why I hadn’t also tried to ride one handed to capture an image of it…

Although Klaus had given us a pretty decent description of the route, he hadn’t managed to convey quite how spellbinding the scenery would be. Just before the final killer section of the climb was this flower-strewn alpine meadow. Complete with picture-postcard wooden huts and filled with the sounds of birds cheeping and bees buzzing around the flowers, it was like a scene out of a Heidi film

After a stop at a mountain top refuge for a restorative espresso and slice of apfelstrudel (and a slack-jawed ogle at the fact they had external power sockets set-up for the legions of e-MTBers who rode up to the refuge), we rode through yet more alpine meadows, chatted with some friendly goats and then descended for what seemed like hours, before reaching our hotel. The entire loop was only 42kms, but was spectacular almost beyond description. Flower-filled meadows, babbling brooks, chalky coloured singletrack, scent-filled pine forests and endless descents. It truly was a day to remember.

The final day dawned and despite our tired legs, Abby had her heart set on a road ride around the Selleronda circuit. To be honest this wasn’t my first choice. Unlike a few days previously, we would now be riding on open roads and that meant constant streams of motorbikes and fast-moving sportscars whizzing past our ears – not very high on my list of desires. But I also realised that she had spent all winter training in a freezing cold garage so that she would be fit enough to enjoy our holiday, so decided to bite my tongue and make the most of it.

The scenery was absolutely spectacular. Everywhere you looked were stunning peaks, many of them with caps of snow. The road surface too was pretty decent – long stretches had been recently resurfaced, which helped boost our confidence (and speeds) on the innumerable hairpins. The traffic in places was pretty grim. A stream of Porsche drivers screamed past way too close before we had even left the first village, which set me into a grumpy mood, but the climbing and the incredible scenery soon helped to refocus my mind.

I’m not going to lie about this, I was pretty glad when our loop of the Sellaronda was over. It was too busy, too noisy and it felt like we spent the majority of the ride breathing in pollution from vehicles or worrying about when someone was going to wipe me out in their desperate search for the “hero line” between two corners. The scenery was mind blowing and my wife had spent the last six months selling her soul to the gods of indoor trainers in order to be there, so that made it worth doing. But if I had a choice of a paved road pass full of car drivers or a gravel trail through an alpine meadow, with just bird song and cow bells for company, I think you know where you’ll find me…..

“Would you like me to take a photo of you instead?” asked the kindly American cyclist as we readied ourselves for a selfie in front of the Corvara sign. Despite my protestations, he wouldn’t take no for an answer and he ended up taking my favourite photo of the entire holiday. Somehow, he managed to capture everything that was great about our trip – the best company (although I might be slightly biased), stunning scenery, perfect weather and just the right choice of bike. He also managed to make us look happy without looking cheesy and reasonably athletic, without it looking too posed. Chapeaux to our fellow cyclotourist and I hope that the shot I took back of you brings back half as many good memories as your one does for us.

If you’d like to follow in Olly & Abby’s tyre prints, you can find a collection of their favourite routes (including Olly’s special extra loop for anyone with far too much energy for their own good) here:

Olly Townsend

Helps steer the good ship Gravel Union. He can normally be found riding inappropriately challenging trails on a drop bar bike or propping up a coffee shop bar somewhere.

You may also be interested in: