It's a sprint, not a Maratona...

The Cycling Plus editor chooses the 'easy option' at Maratona dles Dolomites. Still moans...

“Well done, mate! Love the magazine. Good luck on the Giau!” On the whole cyclists are a smashing bunch, aren’t we? I’m one-and-a-half climbs into the 2016 Maratona Dles Dolomites, dragging my pathetically under-trained arse up the Passo Pordoi (9.2km at an average of 5.9%) and, spotting my Cycling Plus kit, a fellow member of the 935-strong British contingent (more than 10% of the field) here in this stunning bit of Italy is bellowing encouragement as he glides past me.

Of course, I shouted my thanks back to Chris – I think that was the name printed on his number, he was going much faster than me and I was having trouble focusing… But I didn’t have the heart/balls to correct him. The Passo Giau, you see, comes at around 87km of the full Maratona route. That’s a 138km killer of a course that takes in nine Dolomite passes – well, eight actually but the Campolongo is tackled twice – and is widely acknowledged as being one of the world’s toughest sportives and a bucket-list must. And the 9.9km, 9.3% Giau is the event’s toughest climb.

Cycling Plus magazine's editor Rob 'enjoying' himself...
Cycling Plus magazine's editor Rob 'enjoying' himself...

Even as Chris – we’ll stick with that name – gave my spirits a lift, I knew I wouldn’t even get a sniff of the Gaiu. Those of you who’ve ridden the Maratona, or checked the course maps, will know that only the long route uses it. Opt for the six-pass, 106km, 3130m middle course and you miss it… But I wasn’t doing that one. Nope, I, the editor of Britain’s Best Selling Cycling Magazine had, dear reader, opted for the Classic route.

Maratona dles Dolomites Classic

Gardena Pass
Gardena Pass

Classic, of course, means something like definitive, the highest quality, outstanding… Or in the case of the Maratona Dles Dolomites the 55km route! I know, I know on paper it looks like I wimped out. In reality, though, I, I, I… okay I wimped out. Sort of. Sure, 55km isn’t a long ride but before you mock me too much it still involved four damned big passes – Campolongo, Pordoi, Sella and Gardena – and a total 1780m of climbing. Not bad for just over 30 miles!

But why did I opt for the ‘Classic’? Surely, heading to exotic locations for big rides is all about taking on huge challenges, pushing yourself to the limit, suffering… Well, if that’s your thing, then yes, go knock yourself out – you’ll get all of this with bells on at the Maratona Dles Dolomites.

A gran fondo with bells on...
A gran fondo with bells on...

For the 30th edition of this brilliant event, though, I thought it might be worth trying to actually enjoy the thing! For a number of boring reasons [or excuses as they’re really known] my riding has been sporadic this year so I knew I was in no great shape and would absolutely hate either of the longer routes. I’ve come away from too many events – I’m looking at you in particular Marmotte – a broken, despondent cyclist, questioning whether I actually liked riding a bike.

Sella Pass is one of the stunning highlights of Maratona dles Dolomites: Sella Pass is one of the stunning highlights of Maratona dles Dolomites
Sella Pass is one of the stunning highlights of Maratona dles Dolomites: Sella Pass is one of the stunning highlights of Maratona dles Dolomites

By going short, I thought, I’d get to achieve a little something and maybe, just maybe come away with more than mild dehydration and a story about being sick in the broom wagon. And you know what, I did. Sure, I bitched and moaned as I struggled up those passes and, yes, I’m afraid I did swear at the bloke who cut across me in his desperation to get to a feed station, but I had a good time in them there hills.

Stunning scenery, super singing, weird weathermen

Just in case you didn't know you'd been climbing...
Just in case you didn't know you'd been climbing...

Of course, it’s pretty easy to have fun when you’re in such a stunning place. Yes, it was a bit overcast and cloud obscured the view at the top of the climbs but the Alta Badia region is simply breathtaking. As you might expect it’s a ski resort in winter but in summer it’s the perfect playground for roadies, mountain bikers, hill walkers and climbers.

The Maratona plays a huge part – it’s a closed-road Gran Fondo and it’s one hell of an event. Brilliantly organised – albeit with one of the longest pre-event press conferences I’ve ever attended that included singing (lovely) and a weatherman berating us for using cars (confusing) – there are few rides with a similar atmosphere.

Lining up at the start you do feel, just a little bit, as if you’re part of a pro race. For starters, Italian Gran Fondo riders take it all rather seriously – it is a race after all – and a number of recently retired pros and professional-looking squads pack out the front of the ‘grid’. It’s televised too, so camera-wielding helicopters buzz overhead as you wait for the off.

Mountains? A piece of...
Mountains? A piece of...

The excitement doesn’t end once the gun goes either, especially if you’ve managed to blag a media place in the front pen. Those serious Italians really motor from the get-go. Get stuck on the racing side of the road – as slow old me did – and it’s pant-wettingly frightening. And, I think, I learned some Italian swear words.

The route starts just outside (and finishes in) the ski resort of Corvara and even at six in the morning the streets were full of cheering people. You start climbing – reasonably gently – right from the start and, truth be told you don’t really stop until the end of any of the courses.

Climb, descend, repeat

Insert 'the horn' joke here...
Insert 'the horn' joke here...

There ain’t a lot of flat. In fact, the Classic is pretty much climb pass, descend pass, climb pass, descend pass, climb pass, descend pass, climb pass, descend pass, stop. The climbing I can take or leave, although there is definitely something to be said for ascending with 9000 other like-minded souls.

It’s something common to all of these big events – the massed peloton flowing upwards at different speeds, the majority of riders seemingly in a meditative state, staring at the back wheel, backside or number of the rider in front, little being said and just the whirr of chain on cassette and heavy breathing as a soundtrack. It’s a great opportunity not to think… There’s scenery for sure, but be honest do you really notice it when you’re climbing? I know I don’t!

Unlike the descents – then you really need your wits about you as head hard into hairpins with riders either side. Was that bloke in head-to-toe Astana kit, including Specializedhelmet, shoes and bike, really there? Or a figment of my imagination? And did the tiny mole trying to cross the road make it to the other side? Whatever, you’ll arrive at the bottom smiling.

The beauty of the Classic, for me, was that I got to sample the Maratona experience in a bite-sized chunk and didn’t come away feeling ruined/an abject failure/in a mini-bus with other drop-outs (Marmotte again…). I’d enjoyed an intense 3.5 hours, and to make things better, as I settled into my second finisher’s beer I realised that a colleague undertaking the full ride – ad man Adrian – would still be on the bike for another five hours…

Find out more about the Maratona dles Dolomites by clicking here

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Rob Spedding

Editor-in-Chief, Cycling Plus, Cycling Plus Magazine
Editor-in-chief Rob has been pedalling Cycling Plus since 2007. His first proper road bikes were a Raleigh Sprint in the early 1980s and then a Trek 1000 in 1999. A former competitive runner, Rob has repeatedly threatened to become a competitive cyclist in every discipline from time-trailling to hill climbing to bike polo. We're still waiting.
  • Discipline: Road. Mainly commuting but with the occasional mountainous sportive that he'll complain about/fail to complete. Enjoys cake stops. Will never, ever do another triathlon after a bad experience in open water.
  • Preferred Terrain: Gently undulated roads – he's more of a rouleur. Likes gravel.
  • Current Bikes: BMC Alpenchallenge, Viner Perfecta, BMC Granfondo GF0, anything shiny that Warren Rossiter will allow him to ride
  • Dream Bike: Bianchi Specialissima, Raleigh Banana
  • Beer of Choice: Innis and Gunn Original
  • Location: Bath, UK

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