The Dolomites best short loop? - Mini Maratona
Arguably the best short loop in the dolomites, maybe you'll believe me by the end. This 55km ride circumnavigating the sella ronda of the Italian dolomites ticks off some of the most iconic climbs, views and switchbacks the area has to offer. With a cool 1759m of climbing, trust me when I say it packs a punch, it gives you plenty of sweet rewards for the effort. You'll be able to test yourself and your legs, or if like me you want to stop and take lots of photos there's endless options as well.
The days stats
55km : Distance ridden
1759m : Elevation gained
4 : Number of passes
1 : Ultimate switchback back shot
0 : potholes
Views : Full technicolour panoramas
7/10 : Epic Matt day scale
For all the other nitty gritty details heres my stava link to download the route or GPX files:
The set up
There aren't many places where food, sport and scenery collide in the perfect mix, Corvara is one of them. Starting out from here is therefore where I recommend you base yourself if possible. Access to this small picturesque village is either via one or more of the passes you'll be riding over on the loop, enjoy driving the scelectric tracks, or a drive in from the town of Brunico to the north, either way there aren't any other options unless you have a helicopter. As soon as you arrive on your pilgrimage it's easy to understand why this area still maintains much of its old world charm from it's inaccessibility and protected status. For this trip I decided to drive there so I could be flexible if the weather turned, to stay locally in Corvara so I could make the most of early morning rides and lastly so I could also do some hiking/climbing in the afternoons. Previously I've stayed in Brunico which offers lots more competitive options and prices for accommodation if you want to keep your budget tight but if you don't want the drive and want those added benefits you'll need to pay for them. Camping was my other option, and I have done this previously as well, but it's limited in the area due to the Unesco World Heritage status. There are a few sites further down the valley towards Brunico, with Camping Al Plan in Marebbe being one I can highly recommend.
Ride times, photos and direction of travel
This loop is aways great riding but if you want a closed roads or a minimal traffic ride I'd recommend either: an early morning/late afternoon ride in the summer; choosing one of the Passo Sella closed road days which are only open to electric vehicles (usually a Wednesday in the summer); riding midweek; riding on the dolomites bike day; picking this loop early summer or early autumn; or if you want true closed roads this route features as the first part on the Maratona dles dolomites sportive held annually in early July - it's a mad circus with all the other cyclists to contend with but an incredible experience. Whatever you choose, if it's your first or 50th trip, the views are always breathtaking and you'll quickly realise why I call it the best short loop in the dolomites, maybe even the world.
To capture those pristine golden light carless shots I'd recommend riding early in the morning or late in the afternoon. The route can be done either clockwise or counterclockwise, giving you stunning views and vistas either way but for my ride and that of the Maratona's its a clockwise rotation - possibly the best way, but I'll let you decide for yourself. There are so many photo stop spots, there are some easily missed and some which need a bit of timing but this ride gives you plenty of time and places to pull over safely and snap those memories and moments.
The beginning. Straight out of Corvara I hit the start of the first climb, snaking its way gently upwards from the village it helped to break in the legs easily, feeling effortless on the gradual inclines and butter smooth tarmac.
Direction: North to south
Average gradient: 5%
Max elevation: 1868m
Don't be fooled though as you'll soon find yourself touching sections of up to 9-10% and they were a reminder to me that this isn't going to be the easiest ride. Mostly though its a gentle average of 5%, ascending only 307m over 6.15km, giving plenty of time to warm up the legs and sharpen the mind for the next challenge, descending into Arabba. If you want some iconic snaps I'd recommend taking a shot looking back down the climb at one of the bends on the left in the above photo. Here are a few examples with varying edits, handy if you have some riding friends with you but it can also achieved using any camera with a timer, a rubber band or bull clip, a friendly passer by or carefully propped up on a fence post.
Once you've captured the moments and crested the top of your gentle warm up, as I alluded to, the fun really begins with the descent. This side of campolongo is tight and steep with multiple switchbacks which almost seem to sit on top of each other. Being so tightly packed these make for a technical thrill, heart in your throat and white knuckle ride all whilst handing from the tops of your handlebars. If you have time, or the courage, then take a quick glance before the next corner is thrown at you to appreciate the views down into the valley below. Don't forget to pack your nerves once you reach the final bends into Arabba though, there are a few tight corners and often some broken tarmac towards the bottom to negotiate before your safe. After this rush there isn't much let up though, as I soon found out, as you hit Arabba it's time to climb again, unless you need a coffee to dial up the stimulant level to 11. Arabba affords some cosy little cafe come diners and a few restaurants plus a bakery if this really is your morning breakfast stop or evening eye opener rest break stop, theres plenty of choice. Just don't forget you've only really just begun this ride.
The middle. By this time the legs my legs were warmed up, the adrenaline was flowing after the twisty descent to Arabba, and I was ready to tackle the longest and hardest climb of the loop. Passo Pordoi often features heavily in the Giro d'Italia, and it's no wonder why with a steady gradient and lengthy climb summiting at 2239m. The first third to half you'll mostly sit within the rift of the valley, slowly cutting your way up through the lower sections with longer drags and a few switchbacks leaving Arabba. There's always the option here to hitch a ride on one of the many cable cars up to the top but where's the fun in that, unless you have something with nobbly tyres and fully suspension, maybe for another time. As I completed the first third there was my first glimpse of the summit, way off into the distance it's possible to pick it out following the stitching line of the cable cars bobbling their way over the mountainside, distant but tangible.
Direction: East to West
Average gradient: 9%
Max elevation: 2239m
The middle section felt like a bit of blur until I came across the weaving switchbacks after half way. These provided some welcome relief following the longer drags, breaking up the climb into a manageable rhythm with wide corners giving plenty of views up and down the valley and gentle gradients around each bend helping to keep momentum. Motivation was also upped with tempting glimpses of the summit every so often, though these became more fleeting as I neared the final third and upper parts of the Pordoi. Here though is where you can really begin to enjoy the valley's real hidden secret. As you look back down from where you've just ascended, a fluid rolling and pitching landscape emerges. Filled with green rippled fields, speckled with soft sandy coloured rocks and harshly contrasted by jagged toothy peaks far off into the distance, the Pordoi glides up to meet you almost effortlessly.
Once you reach this spot it all starts to make sense, or at least you're beginning to realise this really could be the best short loop in the dolomites. From here it's only a short 1km to the top where another cable car picks its way up to the plateau of the Sella Ronda, it's worth coming back to visit this hidden moonscape, meanwhile there are other sites to see, including an immortalised Wilier set into stone as a monument to all those who have conquered the climb during the Giro d'Italia. Although you won't be able to pull this one out like King Arthur or etch your name onto the plaque, you can rest easy knowing you are now amongst heroes and legends who have seen the top of Pordoi. Next it was time for me to tackle another short sharp twisty descent quickly being swallowed up into dense pine forrest before coming across the right hand turn onto the beginning of Passo Sella.
The sting in the middle. The toughest and shortest passo of the whole loop might not look like much but really is provides a sting in the tail, especially touching gradients of 12%.
Direction: South to North
Average gradient: 7.9%
Max elevation: 2244m
Switchbacks: 10, (1 of the best)
Here's where you'll either make it or break it. If you want to set a PB or drop another rider, this is the section to differentiate on. Or, if you know where to stop, the idea of any PB will evaporate once you see possibly the most photographed switchback in the dolomites, I know which camp I fell into that day. After a tough first two hairpins the silky smooth tarmac of the first 2kms gave an opportunity to warm up my legs in anticipation that the rest of the ascent wouldn't be plain sailing. After the third bend the climb really started to show its teeth. Edging upwards constantly in the shadow of the sella ronda and pine forrest tree line this section felt like a tough grind until I reached the upper third of the climb, the trees fell away opening up to the landscape dominating Sassolungo / Saslonch / Langkofel Group of peaks.
This is where it's easy to miss your switchback photo opportunity, though you've already ridden up it, as it's hidden in plain sight. Due to riding on the right hand side of the road you can easily miss the viewpoint on the clockwise ride or zip past too quickly if you're coming downhill on the counterclockwise route. The best suggestion I have would be keep on eye on your distance. Once you reach 4.7km up this climb you'll be roughly in line with the switchback down below and only have to hop over to the other side of the road to capture it.
From here it's easy to see why this road commands so much attention but can often be so easily missed. If you want there's always the option of riding back down and taking more shots on the switchback before heading upwards again, but to be honest you might just want to carry on because what's round the next few bends will blow you away again. As I approached the upper sections of the climb the road eased off. Here's where you'll probably either whizz over the top or again stop to capture more epic shots of your ride or merely stand and marvel at the landscapes around you.
There are plenty of places to snap a picture here and plenty of people to help you take one, so make a new friend and ask for that shot, you won't be disappointed. After your fill of photos and views its time to tackle the descent down the start of Passo Gardena. I found this the best part of the ride as there aren't many places to stop for photos and the road is wide and open so you can often take the racing line. Watch out for the few blind corners in the middle section. Of the times I've ridden up or down this section of the passo I've only really stopped at the same spot to capture the same photo every time, maybe habit or maybe it's a great view for some downhill action shots, either way its about one third of the way down from the top just before a right hand bend and looks back upwards to the rock formations, framing the rider and sky perfectly.
Overall the passo sella is probably my favourite part of the whole of this loop and more of my top five favourite climbs. If you want to experience it free of cars, and the continuous either loud drone or hum of motorbikes, then I suggest tackling it early morning or on one of the closed road days only for electric vehicles and bicycles (usually a Wednesday but check locally for more information).
The final ascent, with a wee bit down, a flat bit and then a bit more up. This climb was the fastest of the day and really was a climb of three halves. After descending Passo Sella there is a sharp right hand turn met with an instant harsh gradient onto the beginning of Passo Gardena. Before long I was spinning away in the little ring again and be wondering when the next third of this climb would come along.
Direction: West to East
Average gradient: 5.3%
Max elevation: 2121m
Thankfully the first segment is something of a quick affair with some gentle switchbacks and rolling countryside which eases off towards the end as it begins to flatten out and you round the bend onto a slight downhill. There are a few stop spots but its really the final bend before the flat section that commands the best views of where you've just come from and where your ride will culminate. After here it's either let your legs recover or put the hammer down, I naturally opted for the latter.
Easily touching speeds of 40-50kph on the 3.5km middle section was exhilarating under the shadow of the Sella Ronda scree fields at my side, don't be afraid to hit this section harder as you'll only have 3km more of ascent and then it's downhill all the way back to Corvara and the ride finish. There are a few great switchbacks in the final 2kms of this climb with plenty of opportunities for some last minute shots.
After speeding up to the summit I took some time to rest, head back to capture a few switchbacks and then grab a coffee at the top whilst looking down to Corvara. Afterwards it was a speedy descent with some technical tight bends, long straights and some traffic to negotiate but I already knew I'd be back. Enjoy this last foray before you reach the end, you might even begin to think as I did about doing it all over again counterclockwise, which could possibly be the second best short loop in the dolomites.