A guide to riding South Tyrol: The magic beyond the famous climbs
Text and photography by Phil Gale.
The newer we are to cycling, the more we are blinded by the greatness of the most well-known roads. But the more we ride, the more we learn that certain mountain passes are not quite the same when ridden in real life as they are when raced by the greatest in our sport.
Through experience, we learn that many times it’s the unknown roads, the secret spots, the tucked-away, shady corners that offer the most amazing rides, because if they’re unknown to us, they tend to be unknown to campervan drivers and motorcycle riders.
That’s why when we were sent to Alta Badia, in the Dolomites of northern Italy, we worked hard to dig deeper under the surface, to find out where the locals choose to ride, sharing some of the secrets of this region.
Despite our preamble, some of you reading this may still feel a bit lost as to why we’d opt to bypass climbs such as the Pordoi, Sella, Gardena, and Giau for unknown backwaters. But it’s all part of the adventure. Don’t get us wrong: riding those roads for the first time was mesmerizing, but travelling via a tick-list is not how we roll – especially not in summer.
Experience has taught us that hunting out hidden, lesser-used roads gives a whole different experience. If there is one thing that we are sure about in Italy – the country where we live – it’s that asking a local their recommendation for anything almost always results in something unexpectedly brilliant. This trip was no different.
Our first questions went to local rider and hotel owner (some might argue the connoisseur of Ladin roads and culture) Klaus Irsara of the Hotel Melodia del Bosco. He was probably the first man in Alta Badia (or even Italy) to get gravel on his radar so if he couldn’t share the secrets, no one would.
Thirty minutes later we were brimming with unknown roads. A quick scan over Komoot and the plan was set. First up, the Passo delle Erbe/Würzjoch, which many argue is harder than the Giau, with a big loop on the other side and options to extend, add more climbs, see more valleys. We were in. We’d follow it up with sunset on the Valparola, a time when most motorcyclists would be well into their second beer.
For sunrise, the invitation to a gravel pass behind the hotel got our vote, and we’d round out the day with the deadend to Pederü – riding what Klaus described as their flattest route, with a casual 1,000 metres of elevation gain.
Interspersed in the mix would be some local delights. Who needs energy bars and gels when you have a host of local producers en route, with artisanal cheese, traditional bakeries, and a lunch of hearty Ladin delights? On this quiet Monday morning, smug in the knowledge that we’d picked the right side of the weekend for our trip, it felt the hidden side of Alta Badia was ours for the taking.
But much like the whispers of the locals, we’re only going to give some hints. It will be down to you to search out the full routes and results, because the hunt is part of the journey.
So, did it live up to our adventure-focused hype? Yes. OK, there was perhaps less of the grandeur and awe that comes from the major passes, but there was a distinct difference: the Alta Badia that we saw on our rides was so quiet you could have been left thinking we were there in the off-season and not late June. We got a different feel for the region – one with less motorbikes, less tourist-heavy hotspots, but a genuine taste of how it would feel to actually live in the region.
And, you know what, we even had a browse at the estate agent’s, which sadly priced us out but surely says a lot for Alta Badia. Is that not what we want from our travels: getting our fill of the hotspots in their full touristic glory, whilst at the same time knowing that you can touch the hidden gems that are often the exclusive reserve of the locals?
There is something wondrous about this region that sets it apart from other Alpine areas of Italy. The quasi-gothic influence of Germanic culture collides full force with the southern European flair of Bella Italia; cultures normally separated by high mountains. A truly unique place where barns and shrines line the climbs, making you feel that time has stood still, even more so when you get off of the beaten path.
It’s an area that is so much more than just the names of the major passes that criss-cross it. We’d certainly recommend that you take the time to scratch a little deeper under the surface. You’ll hopefully be as enthralled with the area as we are.
Where to ride
Passo delle Erbe/Würzjoch – Swing right once you start the descent and follow the loop to Lüsen/Luson then Sant’Andrea/St. Andrä. From the Dolomites through a high desert-esque Alpine region, then pastures and back. Hugging the side of the mountain and embracing the silence. The motorcycles could have been counted on one hand.
Up Miri to Antermoia/Untermoj – Then down through the tunnel on the Alta Badia side, carving through village after village on the mountainside, where you can get lost with the locals as they work hard bringing in the hay. First the left side, then cross the valley and skirt back along to San Vigilio. This is the ‘panoramica’. If time permits, head into Pederü – you won’t regret it. (It’s a toll road so even in August it should be pretty quiet).
The early-in-the-week sunset on Valparola – We don’t think we’ve ever seen such a quiet major pass.
Go on the hunt for cheese and dead ends above La Val.
Sunrise gravel on the Passo Juvel then head back via Longiarù.
Where to snack
Lüch da P’cëi, a collective of local producers offering you the ultimate mid-ride pick-me-up. The only downside is that you’ll need to have your bike bags with you because leaving their shop without taking any of the local delights with you is a tough thing to do.
Where to eat
Maso Runch. Bring your appetite. This is Ladin mountain food, meaning lots of cheese and butter. But don’t be put off. In the typical mountain style these delights actually sit light – Supersapiens approved. Their combination of sweet and savoury gives you something to really enjoy. We’d recommend tutres and cajincí, two dishes that we’d never experienced before.