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Hell to Heaven

23rd August 2016

I consider myself very fortunate. I have a fantastic career doing a job I thoroughly enjoy. Of course there are difficult moments and hard times but they are a worthwhile sacrifice. There are still a few challenges left to explore in my work. Some relate to business or creative objectives I have not yet achieved. One is of a more physical nature. So with that in mind, I decided in 2015 that I would combine my passion for photography with my passion for cycling during a two week trip through the Dolomites.

Preparation started a few months before the trip. The plan was for to ride for 11 days with one days rest, averaging around 100km distance and 2,000m climbing each day. The general plan for our tour was to cross the Austrian and Italian Dolomites, starting off in the Tirol, a region I wanted to get to know as it was exactly half way between the birthplaces of my Austrian grandmother and my Italian great-great-grandfather. It is also a region that has a long history for cycling fanatics were many heroes were made and ambitions shattered. There was going to be very limited room for equipment and my large DSLR was going to be out of the question on my light carbon racing bike. The first thing I needed to do was find an appropriate camera. It had to take great images, be compact and very quick to use. The Panasonic Lumix GM5 fitted the bill – and fitted inside the tiny camera pouch on my bike.

Our van was loaded with with 9 bikes packed in boxes and the rest of the baggage required for camping. A 12 hour drive to Insbruck was uneventful and we timed our arrival to meet the other riders at the local station. Our first night was spend in Hell – Camping Hell, named after the family that owned it. After quickly unpacking and assembling our bikes and pitching our pop-up tents, we sat down to have a look at some maps to decide the route of day one in the saddle. Then and early night which was slightly disturbed by the violent thunder claps and lightening storm – very fitting, considering the name of our location!

Day 1. Sun 14th June. Gagering to Fusch, Austria. 121km. 2,166m.

Our first day riding went smoothly with only a broken chain – which our mechanic Shane fixed within minutes. Shane was also the organiser of our trip. His bike shop, Cytek in Stroud, has long been a magnet for enthusiastic roadies, keen to join his annual alpine trips. He thinks it’s because of the stunning mountains that riders queue up to join – but everyone knows it is because of his wife Jo. Jo is really in charge and apart from driving the van, finding campsites and doing all the shopping, she’s also a fantastic cook.

Day 2. Mon 15th June. Fusch to Waidach via the Grossglocknerstrasse, Austria. 86km. 2,900m.

The forecast was rain and although we started the ride dry, it soon progressed from drizzle to  downpour. The clouds and mist gave us little chance to take in the view but supplied me with my favourite atmospheric conditions. Shane riding in the rain with snow all around, heading to a menacing tunnel through the top of the Grossglockner mountain. Keeping the rain off my camera was a challenge as very little remained out of water’s reach. Rain isn’t unusual for riders attempting this ride. Charly Gaul made a name for himself aged only 18 when he won a stage of the Tour of Austria in 1952 by an impressive 5 minutes. He was later know for performing well when weather was poor. The pass was built in 1930 and soon became an attraction for motorists. Today, nearly 20,000 cyclists make their way across this private road. When a few years ago the owners wanted to cash up on its popularity and charge each rider five euros, there was an uproar and they were persuaded to reverse their decision. Our reward for reaching the top was a bowl of famous beef goulash at the cafe perched on the side of the road.

Day 3. Tue 16th June. Waidach to Oberdrauberg, Austria. 100km. 1,700m.

The rain continued and I timed it to around 12 hours non-stop during the night and into the next day, making photography nearly impossible. We’d also decided to amend our route and avoid any big ascends as there is always a risk of snow, ice and cold at the top of many mountains. The alternative circular route was largely along a fast, flat valley, creating horizontal rain as we sped along. Drying out was a challenge that night and demonstrated the limitations of camping in small tents.

Day 4. Wed 17th June. Oberdrauberg, Austria to Cima Sappada, Italy via Monte Zoncolan. 100km. 4,000m.

The day’s beautiful ride takes in several ‘minor’ climbs along the way through long avalange shelters, steeply descending switchbacks and across the border where a cafe served hot chocolate the consistency of treacle. Everyone was enjoying the change in weather as the sun warmed us to a cosy 30ºc. However, nothing could prepare anyone for the impressive Monte Zoncolan. The first part of the way up was beautiful with a steady gradient of around 8%. Manageable and enjoyable. Then we reached the ski station and everything changed. My cycle computer showed me later that the gradient for this section was over 24%. I was somewhat relieved to discover this as it was a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why my lungs and legs were suffering so much. As we descended, we realised that we’d gone up the easy side and all felt lucky that we had. Monte Zoncolan made quite a late appearance in the Giro di Italia. It wasn’t until 2003 that our part of the route from Sutrio was plotted for stage 12. That was also the stage that Marco Pantani infamously attacked and lost to Gilberto Simoni.

Day 5. Thu 18th June. Cima Sappada to Andraz, Italy. 104km. 2,270m.

The striking peaks of the Dolomites were all around us during day 5. I was now getting into a good routine and felt comfortable on the bike with getting my pacing just right. The previous day was tough so a little less climbing was welcome and meant, perhaps, more pictures. As it turned out, I managed to shoot some of the most iconic pictures of the trip. My technique of riding ahead and waiting for the others worked well as I managed to get shots of everyone on our trip. Their patient cooperation in slowing down enough for me to get ahead is duly noted! The weather continued to be good with blue skies and just enough clouds to give it some texture.

Day 6. Fri 19th June. Arraba to Soccampo via Passo di Gardena, Italy. 100km. 2,352m.

The fantastic roads on our trip were particularly noticeable on day 6. Good roads make fast descends and the along curvaceous switch-backs a real thrill. Long and tiring climbs are the burden we must endure but the rewards are pure joy! For half of our crew, middle age seems to do little to diminish the desire to push ourselves for that prize. Riding with others helps to soak up the pain and it allows us to share the experience. I could see a picture opportunity when we started to ascend the Passo di Gardena. The blue sky, jagged mountains and Shane climbing out of the saddle summed up this ride and further on, joined by Nick and Graham. I’d been suffering with knee pain (as it turned out, nothing serious and easily sorted with some physio) but it made walking very uncomfortable. Fortunately, the next day was a rest day. A chance to relax at the campsite’s restaurant, L’insonnia, where a large plate of spaghetti was followed by polenta with sweetmeat, salad and very nice red wine.

Day 7. Sun 21st June. Soccampo to Cialini via Sveseri, Italy. 127km. 3,393m.

After a day off with some riders leaving and new ones joining, it was time for day 7 back on the bike. As most of the route was new to us, it meant that there were occasions where the map, Garmin or satnav had to be consulted. Sometimes it took all three, plus a call to Jo to work out where to go. Eventually, with the aid of several coffees, the route was decided and we continued on another long day of quiet roads and beautiful scenery.

Day 8. Mon 22nd June. Cialini to Vigo Rendena via Trento, Stenico and Monte Bondone, Italy. 109km. 2,549m.

The route took us along some busy main roads but for that we travelled quickly. One unfortunate turn down a steep descent took us to the entrance of a tunnel. Many of the tunnels do not allow cyclists. Even if they do, they’re often a hairy experience with little or no light and traffic forced to pass very closely. On this occasion, we had to turn back and we pondered on how many other cyclists had tried the same route. Descending into Trento was very familiar. We’d been there on a previous trip and visited the stunning Castello in the town centre. I was now keen for a coffee but consensus amongst the group was to continue up the long climb to Monte Bondone. As we’d all adopted varying paces and separated out over several miles, I felt no guilt when I stopped at a fantastic roadside cafe. Sure enough, within 15 minutes others had joined me, relieved to break up the hot day with a quick beer, coffee and home-made cakes.

Day 9. Tue 23rd June. Vigo Rendena to Breno via Madonna di Campiglio and Passo di Gavia, Italy. 132km. 4,000m.

Mikel Landa won stage 15 of the Giro d’Italia in 2015, finishing at the top of the Madonna di Campiglio, working with his Astana team mates to take on the reigning Contador and beating him by 5 seconds. Our race to the top was more muted and restrained for the simple reason that we had to climb the notorious Passo di Gavia next. The Gavia is steeped in tales of extreme weather, WW1 battles and sporting dramas. Our ascend could not have been better with the hot weather bringing out a group of classic Ferraris and Jaguars – their pace not much faster than ours as they gingerly made their way up the 15 narrow hairpin bends. Arriving at the barren and rocky summit really does feel a like major achievement. The fantastic descent is worth a memory too. We came down early evening with a straight, quick and unchallenging road. The evening meal was a very delicious pizza, served at the Breno campsite.

Day 10. Wed 24th June. Breno to Breno via Passo della Stelvio, Italy. 58km. 2,137m.

My last opportunity to attempt this ride was scuppered by a tummy bug. This was in 2008. 7 years later and I was determined to cycle to the top. I was in a world of my own, fully focused on the task ahead so it was not surprising that I didn’t see any of the others of our group until nearer the summit. Europe’s 2nd highest paved pass at 2,770 meters – high enough to deprive an aching body of a few essential percentages of oxygen. It took 2,000 labourers 5 years to dig the pass in 1820 but it wasn’t until 1953 before it was included into the Giro d’Italia. Looking up at the switchbacks is frightening. Looking down them from the top is stunning and worth a selfie!

Day 11. Thu 25th June. Breno to Borno via Passo del Mortirolo, Italy. 131km. 2,590m.

Arriving at the top of the Mortirolo, most of us decided that it was unlikely that we’d ever do this  climb again. The unrelenting steepness and the very uninteresting views of pine trees all around made this the one to tick off and forget! The pictures I took that day were of the ride along the length of the spine of the mountain and the well deserved gelato bought in the afternoon. Some days are just hard and frustrating and after nearly two weeks, everyone was feeling the strain. I too had to throw a wobbly which was eventually made good by Jo finding an exquisite campsite and cooking a fantastic meal.

Day 12. Borno to Portese via Passo Crocco Domini and Lago d’Iro, Italy. 127km. 2,172m.

Our final day started well. A good nights sleep and a hearty breakfast of porridge and strong coffee got everyone ready for a final push to the south. The last long climb rewarded us by being more gentle in its steepness but providing us with all the familiar views of beautiful mountains and meadows. The single puncture on the entire trip had to be had on this day – remarkable, if you consider that our combined 18 wheels rode over 22,000km. To finish and to proove the cycling gods were with us, we were treated to a night on the shores of Lago di Garda on site called Camping Heaven!