How can I even begin telling you about the week that I’ve just had?
We were cycling up Passo Gardena on Monday morning when I heard something….strange. It wasn’t a mechanical click, the kind that indicates your bicycle chain is skipping, or your shifting is off. It was a deep, guttural, and heavy-but-happy-chime; almost a repetitive clunking, really. I bated my breath and held tight, listening and assuming that I could identify the sound coming from my bicycle, or at least that I would recognize it as an ambient echo of the mountains. Was it my imagination? My brain clunking + ringing around in my head after 4 days of straight climbing in the heat of these mountains and valleys? Surely not.
As we rounded a hairpin, the answer was revealed ; standing just inches off the road in a patch of verdant green grass and tiny, brilliant wildflowers was the happiest, hungriest, friendliest and frankly most adorable cow I’ve ever seen. The pounded bell around his neck was producing the grounded ring as he chewed grass and he barely looked at us as we spun past. With every subsequent hairpin, more cows were ringing, chewing, and (I promise,) smiling.
That ringing was a sound that quickly became part and parcel to the experience of riding in the Italian Dolomites for me; the cowbells rang up from the valley floor beneath Passo dello Stelvio , from the hillsides as we had dinner in Fie allo Scilliar, and from somewhere in the forest when we stopped for water in the tiny towns along the Swiss border. And when we packed the car to head back to Tuscany, our week of babes-only riding coming to a close, we heard their bells again; distant, familiar, flat rings coming in through the windows and painting pictures of happy wagging tails, soft ears twitching. That was the sound of gelato. And hay. And fresh piney cheeses.
I know it sounds like a small thing, the cowbells; but something about them exemplifies everything about this place that fell in love with; the simple, wholesome, yet unexpected and completely exotic nuances that seem to only exist in fairy tales but make up the day to day here. Waking to cowbells and church bells in the morning, spreading fresh cheese on fresh bread for breakfast, spending the day spinning up pristine mountains covered with verdant green grass. The mountains here are straight, steep and dramatic. The air that fills the forests and blows over the endless, countless fields of wildflowers is fresh, earthy, and filled with the scents of snowmelt + juniper inviting you to breathe more deeply and at once sink into yourself. And while the point of the trip was always to ride in this place on our bikes, sinking a bit deeper into ourselves was what we really needed.
A girls’ cycling trip to the Dolomites was something that my dear friend Candice and I had hoped to do for years. So, when we were both granted entry into the coveted Maratona dles Dolomiti – one of the most coveted amateur fondos in Europe, and the only amateur cycling races televised in Italy – we knew it was time to go. Months ticked past, life flew on – her baby boy went from nursing to walking, my work and life hit the gas and flew into mania, our weekly Facetime catch ups became diluted into minutes amidst time zone changes, diaper changes, and sleepless nights. Before we knew it, our dream trip had arrived and we were ready for it. In need of it, perhaps more badly than we even knew. We spent a bit more than 6 days soaking it up and sinking in. We climbed pass after pass after pass, each one more stout than the next. The roads that wind to the summits in this place aren’t gradual or steady, they’re jumpy, twisty, and filled w/hairpins that reveal just where you’ve been, and where you’re going. And in the motions and paths of the mountains, you inevitably become less and less significant against the alpine granite faces, the chutes, and the glaciers and so do all the things you were thinking about before you began the ascent. In moments, you’ll believe that the hard, straightforward, unforgiving peaks aim to gobble you up, blow you over, or chill you with their raw elements. But I’m certain that I felt the terrain smile when I would finally crest the passes, shift down and pedal into the descent; waltzing down the flanks, deeply inhaling and exhaling in tune with each of its voluptuous curves. And so it went, this roller coaster of rudimentary realism:
Without the climb, we can’t appreciate the descent.
What are our concerns, our human binds in the face of these mountains? A mere nothing.
The peak is always within reach, if we just keep climbing.
We’d return feeling high as kites, and yet completely drained by the heat, the grade, the emotion of it all. So we’d recover by sitting in baths of hay meant to restore our weary bodies, eating dumplings, sausages, cheeses, and vegetables just picked on the tiny farms that sat perched in the folds of the peaks. We’d wander down to the river and sit in the chilly glacier run-off and chat, breathing in the pine air and listening to the distant cowbells.
I have a couple of favorite places in the world. You’ve already heard about most of them, but you’re just learning about this favorite place because I just learned about it. Was it the company? Was it the landscape? The freedom of just waking up to be with a good friend, on the bike, climbing mountains in a pristine place? Probably. Would this place be just as lovely if we had brought more friends? Ridden our bikes less? Or more? Absolutely.
If you happen to find yourself in this part of the world, particularly with a bicycle I have a few suggestions for you:
- Align your trip with the Maratona dles Dolomiti; one of the largest gran fondos in the world and certainly among the most impressive of the Italian amateur races. Put your name in the lottery and hold your breath. Then book your tickets.
- Settle into a simple, clean and welcoming pension, or indulge in a luxe experience. Either way, spend time in Corvara.
- Pause for lunch at La Perla. Even better, pause for dinner and explore their renown wine cellar.
- Put the Sella Ronda and Passo Giau on your to-ride list.
- Seek out the gelato “fatta a mano” at Hotel Table when your day of riding is done.
- Climb the Passo dello Stelvio. And then venture into Switzerland.
- Pencil in a few days of spa-going in Fie allo Sciliar. Specifically, have a restorative, traditional hay bath, and a massage.
- Gobble up the local cuisine. Try a Hugo. Eat the sausage. And try all the cheeses.
When we book our next trip (which is already in the works,) I plan to take my own advice all over again. I’ll unpack a few more details/inspirations from the trip in the weeks to come. But for now, I’m at home in Boulder, still hearing the cowbells ringing in my ears – joyfully. xo – L