Cycling Extravaganza, Part I – Maratona dles Dolomites

The Maratona dles Dolomites, one of Europe’s premier cycling events, took place this past Sunday and, as always, didn’t disappoint when it comes to competition and spectacle. One look at event photos and it’s easy to understand why over 30,000 hopefuls apply for one of the coveted 9,000 spots.

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How can you concentrate on the road with this scenery?

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These fields were made for running, twirling, and singing sweet songs.

The Alta Badia region looks almost too postcard-perfect to be real. Snow-capped peaks, wildflower covered pastures, and chalet-style tiny villages connected by narrow ribbons of black top switchbacks make the area a cyclist’s dream. It’s also equally alluring for trekkers and runners, and of course, skiers in winter.

While it’s hard not to catch cycling fever while here, I consider myself lucky to be merely a supporter and spectator. Flying down a curve at 40 mph while dodging dozens of other wheels may look exhilarating, but it’s not for the faint of heart (meaning: me.) That is especially true this year when temperatures soared to above 85 degrees F – uncharacteristic for the normally mild, high-altitude event.

Being a fly on the granite wall while my husband and his friends – an increasingly large group of fellow riders – gives me an opportunity to soak up the event’s essence and magic, while keeping my heart in its proper place.

Here are a few observations, meant to be both practical and inspirational, for future participants and dreamers:

If you are an American, you have a good shot at getting accepted. Maratona organizers make a point to promote diversity in country origin. This year, 125 riders from American participated (“With my husband Matt coming in #3 among countrymen,” says the proud wife.)

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We have multiple photos of this guy we thought was my husband. Even worse, we cheered so loudly for him…until we realized he wasn’t “ours.” More original outfits, please.

If you do get accepted, bring friends (as long as they are close friends who can share a room.) Accommodation in the small alpine villages is at a premium during the event with every room packed with riders. Adding to the space scarcity is the hassle of getting to the area. The few roads leading in are jammed with cars, tractors, and cyclists for days leading to the event. So the reality becomes, the place is packed, but only with participants –  leaving the course and finish line pretty much spectator free. I’ve never had trouble walking right up to the final curve and having a front row seat for the action. Sure it’s great for me, but I know the riders wouldn’t mind having a larger cheering section.

You come to show your skill, but don’t be afraid to show your personality as well. Anyone who has watched from the sidelines as a sea of gray helmets and black kits with red and white accents whirl by can appreciate the use of color. Now is the time for showing off flair. Your supporters will spot you sooner and cheer longer (maybe even louder,) and your photos will look more crisp and distinctive. And, if you’re riding with friends, considering designing a custom kit for the event – it makes an excellent souvenir.

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Masses of anticipation at the starting gate. photo credit: Maurice Lemieux.

Set yourself up for having a great experience. The Maratona offers three circuits for riders: a long course (138 km), middle course (106 km) and a short course (55 km.) Unless you are a rockstar rider, consider going for the short or medium option. Riding 85 miles in these mountains in this altitude (2,236 meters at top) is a challenge for most – including people who grew up here. If you are traveling a distance to participant, chances are you will want to enjoy the area’s pleasures including great food and wine, you’ll be off your normal schedule, and you’ll be dealing with a rental bike, unknown roads, etc. Remember, this is supposed to be fun, choose a course that is challenging while still allowing you to enjoy the trip.

Train long, plan in advance. Even if you are going for the short course, you are spending ample resources to make this happen so let it be an opportunity to fuel and advance your riding game.

And, as I stated above, competition doesn’t begin on the course when it comes to the Maratona. It begins with booking a room. The charm of the area – no high-rise resorts, few big conference centers – means the quaint, tiny hotels and guest houses fill up fast (many with 3-5 night minimums.)

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Everybody is ready for a post-race beer, including the spectators.

Prepare, prepare, prepare, then get ready to improvise. Anyone who has participated in a big destination event, be it a marathon or century ride, knows that you have to prepare more than you might at home. You also have to be willing to wing it from time to time.

Matt has been training for months for this event, is in the best shape of his life, and has a new Pinarello bike to boot. Plus, we’ve been living in the area for two months. It should have been his best Maratona to date – and it was time-wise, but not when it comes to stress. Two days before the event, when he was taking cover during a mid-ride storm, wind blew his bike over and damaged the derailleur. In a panic, he rode to the area’s biggest bike shop 15-km away, hoping for the best. They were able to pull the part from a similar bike in the showroom, so it worked out but not without a few stomach knots looping around themselves.

Too late to get intimated!

Too late to get intimated!

Then on the morning of the race, about 45 minutes prior to the start, near-disaster (ok, let’s keep this in perspective) a cycling issue struck. As our village was miles from the start, a friend drove our riders closer. Matt had to remove his wheel to fit the bike in the car. Getting out, he noticed the lug nut holding the tire in place (for lack of a more technical explanation, if there is one) was missing. Seeing all of his effort speeding down the drain, he ran around the parking lot like a crazy person asking if anyone had a spare. Miraculously he found one and got to the start on time. I doubt he will ever travel without a spare again (who knew?)

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My man coming into the finish!

Take care of yourself. Even without this year’s crazy heat, the Maratona is a tough, tough ride. This year one of our friends, who has participated in the event before and knew what to expect, had to be taken out in an ambulance on the last pass. He was suffering with a severe case of dehydration and wasn’t able to finish. It happens, even to the best, most prepared riders. Take precautions, drink lots of water, and most importantly, listen to your body and know when to stop or ask for help.

Connect with a place on a new level. Participating in an event like the Maratona during a vacation is an incredible way to experience and explore a destination on a deeper level. If you are an avid cyclist at home, this gives you the opportunity to push beyond your comfort zone, challenge yourself, and meet like-minded travelers.

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Are you ready for total immersion?

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Only one way to go.