Category Archives: Biking

San Pellegrino, Valle, Rolle, Brocon

Climbing Valle

Completely by accident, my exit from the Dolomites took me past some peaks I climbed last time, Cimon della Palla and Cima della Vezzana. However, because I was traveling by car and navigating with my phone, I don’t remember how I reached the Passo Rolle at their base. This time, on a bike, I understand the layout much better, even if I can’t climb them.

From above Moena, I rode up the gentle Passo San Pellegrino, where I stopped at a park to get water and look at a map of the nearby WWI front. The other side of the pass is much steeper and twistier, but I descended only partway before turning to climb the Passo Valle. This was a beautiful and little-used route, steeper on my way up, with distant views of Dolomitic peaks. There is little reason for this pass to exist, but thankfully while Italy may be a basket case in most ways, its Roman impulse to create infrastructure remains strong. Build it once, build it to last, and even occasional use will make it worthwhile in time.

From there I descended to the more popular Passo Rolle road, which was a gentler climb with much more traffic. I did not realize until I was almost at the summit that I had spent a couple days climbing there, including failing to find a supposed 5.4 route on the Cimon della Palla. The other side was much bigger, dropping through the tourist town of Siror to the valley below. Rather than going all the way down to Lago di Corlo on the main road, I took the big but not especially high Passo Brocon.

There was a lot of recent logging along this road, but very little traffic, as it only serves a small ski area and connects some small towns. I stopped for groceries in one of these, then found a place with a picnic table to camp and, once again, get rained on.

Giau and Fedaia

Town below Giau

For my first full day in the Dolomites I rode the Giau and Fedaia Passes. I had already seen one side of the latter on my previous trip, when I did the Marmolada and the WWI ferrata on the other side, but I wanted to see both sides, and check out the glacier after a recent serac collapse killed several hikers.

I seem to have climbed the east side of the Giau, as I found the other to be long, relentlessly steep, and crazily switchbacked. My braking hands were stiff by the time I reached the little town at its base, so I stopped to sit on a bench before descending the last bit to the Fedaia.

This time I took the hard side, which had some brutally steep pitches near the top of well over 10%. It was late enough in the day for the motorcyclists to start becoming annoying, so I barely stopped at the top. The odd dammed-at-both-ends lake was very low, and I think I spotted the site of the serac collapse on the right lobe of what used to be a much larger and continuous glacier.

I stopped in Canazei to get some patches for my air mattress, and talked with a Welshman who worked at the shop. I was perfectly positioned to also ride the famous Sella and Pordoi Passes, but I had had it with motorcycles, so I headed south a bit to some more obscure roads.

Austria to the Dolomites

Cortina from above

Austria has plenty of Alps, and roads into them, including some of the highest. But looking at my map, it seems that many of them are dead-ends, ending at the last town in a valley instead of continuing over a pass to the next. This makes sense from a road-building perspective, but is not ideal for touring. Fortunately the Italians aren’t so sensible: if there’s a saddle between two towns, they will put a road over it. Nowhere does this seem more prevalent than the Dolomites, but first I had to get there.

From the Ötztal, I rode down the Inn River to Innsbruck, then took the sensible Brenner Pass back to Italy. The Inn valley was a pleasant ride, with high cliffs on the north side near Innsbruck. The Austrian side of the Brenner Pass was gentle and somewhat dull, though at least the parallel autobahn soaked up much of the traffic. The Italian side had an unexpected and pleasant bike path, part of Sudtirol’s extensive network. I made it to Brixen for the night, where I checked into a campground. This let me recharge my batteries, but did not help with the rain, or the dozens of slugs covering everything when I woke up.

From Brixen I followed another bike path up the Rienz to Toblach, then over a sort of pass to Cortina d’Ampezzo. Above Toblach the scenery quickly transitioned to the Dolomites’ distinctive golden limestone cliffs, and I think I passed the famous Tre Cime. Cortina was a horrible tourist pit, so I bought some food, then headed up the Giau Pass to find a quiet place to camp.


Upper switchbacks

This was another serendipitous pass, found while scrolling around the map in the evening. The Timmelsjoch is a nonsensical pass between the much lower Reschen and Brenner Passes, connecting the Etsch and Inn valleys via the upper Passer and Ötz valleys (the latter home to the “Iceman” mummy, I believe). It was started as a Fascist showoff project, then abandoned and only completed well after the war. It has 18 tunnels on the Italian side, and serves no purpose but tourism. But that’s exactly what I’m here for, so… thank you Mister Mussolini?

Though it is almost as big and impressive as the Stelvio, the Timmelsjoch sees only a fraction of its cyclist traffic. It was a long, chilly grind to the top, with views mostly obscured by clouds. I stopped in the sad summit museum, but since it was all in German and Italian, I didn’t learn much more than that the builders really wanted to emphasize that the pass was a symbol of peace, not nationalism.

The Austrian side had no tunnels, but featured an annoying climb partway down, and a toll booth that exempted cyclists. It was also incredibly touristy: my introduction to Austria was several towns with lots of boutique stores and no public fountains. Fortunately this meant there were plenty of bike shops, because my shifter cable had frayed nearly to breaking. Twenty minutes and twenty Euros later, I was back in business, tooling down the valley toward Innsbruck. I did not feel much like camping on a small lawn next to a bunch of RVs, so I found a quiet pullout for the night.


The Sud will rise again!

From my stealth campsite near Bormio I did the tourist thing and… biked the Stelvio Pass, a.k.a. Stilfserjoch. This is one of the Alps’ biggest passes, climbing 5000 feet on the Italian side and closer to 6000 on the Austro-Hungarian side. (Südtirol has technically been part of Italy for a bit over 100 years, but its residents are still adjusting to that change.) I had driven the pass last time, but only after riding it do I feel like I really crossed it. I was worried about the forecast, and while it was partly sunny on the climb, the upper descent was in the clouds, so I did not linger long. It was clear enough to glimpse the Ortler, which I climbed last time, but not to see the crazy upper switchbacks. Thanks to my early start, I got to climb largely without donor-cycles, but they were out in force on the descent. They ride like inconsiderate maniacs, using the whole road even when they probably shouldn’t, so I suspect this road prompts quite a few donations.

The second half of the day was completely different, but equally fine. I haven’t done a lot of detailed planning on this trip, so I was surprised to find an excellent bike path all the way down the Eisch to Meran, then up the Passer to Sankt Leonhard. It was incredibly popular, with a steady stream of locals and bike tourists the whole way, and a welcome relief from the traffic. Being on a human-powered touring bike and not hammering, I was passed more than I like. While some of those passing me were reasonably fit roadies, more were tourists on powerful rented e-bikes, with full suspension and fat downtubes to hold their batteries. They seem incredibly popular in Sudtirol, and seem perfect for seeing places with Europe’s density.

Catchup to Bormio

I am falling behind on writing, largely because I hate typing with my thumbs aided by Apple’s increasingly broken “artificially intelligent” autocorrect. But I have been doing plenty of riding, so here are some photos.

In brief, from Acquarossa I went over the Songta Maria pass to a branch of the Rhine, which I followed down to the main river at Reichenau. I then followed the Hinterrhein up to Thusis, where I stopped at another nice but costly Swiss campground. Most things were closed on Sunday, but the convenience store had a surprisingly good selection.

The next day I crossed the Spluga Pass, which follows the narrow canyon of the Hinterrhein, then climbs in switchbacks to a saddle, and descends via many more along the Liro. It was brutally hot down low, so from Chiavenna I followed the Mera back up into Switzerland, passing by some impressive peaks that looked to be made of good rock.

From a campground in that valley, I then climbed the Maloja Pass, then followed the high lakes and valleys through Saint Moritz, crossed several small passes through Livigno, then made a huge descent to Bormio. The stretch through Livigno was justifiably popular, and I was passed by many skinny Italians.

Money meets mountains

All this could have been yours

I really should not have let it bother me. My day from Fiesch over the Nufenen Pass was a mild and completely predictable version of what happens when money meets mountains, and Switzerland has plenty of both. It did not help that I had to defend myself against a thunderstorm at midnight, covering my gear with my rain jacket and huddling in my bivy. This worked as planned, and I survived with some discomfort and slightly damp things, but I would normally be living better on a bike or in my car. Because of my previous mission, I am traveling with the absolute minimum of gear for bike-packing and mountaineering, so when things get tough, I make up the gap with experience and suffering.

I lazed around much of the morning, waiting for my gear to dry and the weather to clear. There were lots of cyclists around, but none I wanted to talk to. There are two kinds of cyclists: adrenaline and endorphin junkies. I am the latter, but Fiesch has lots of gondolas, so the others were the former. They milled around the campground in their armor and full helmets, sometimes bouncing the suspension of their ridiculous downhill bikes, perhaps waiting for the trails to dry so they could go forth and shred. I was beneath their notice, and tried to ignore them in turn.

I finally managed to get started around 10:00, rolling back through the ski village to the main road, a winding two-lane artery. It leads to the head of the valley, then splits into three passes, the Grimsel, Furka, and Nufenen. The Furka is the most important, and has a railway tunnel beneath it to remain open year-round. I was headed for the Nufenen, which crosses the Alps’ spine into a valley that is geographically and culturally Italy, but for some reason politically Switzerland. Near the junction, I was curious to pass what looked like an enormous ren-fair, though I did not dare stop for a $20 turkey leg.

The Nufenen Pass is not as steep as the Iseran, nor is it gentle like the Grand Saint Bernard, so I found myself comfortably in my lowest gear for long stretches. I saw several cyclists, mostly roadies passing me, but it was more popular among motorists. None were overtly rude, but they were playing with their expensive toys on a weekend, and so could not help but be annoying. I did notice one large “hoonigan” decal, the international term for “unrepentant douchebag with a loud car.” I was riding into a bad forecast, and the clouds over the pass looked threatening. I looked around for possible shelter as I crossed treeline, and saw few likely prospects. So I pushed on as best I could, switchbacking to the col left of a small dam and several large wind turbines.

Fortunately the weather held, and I reached the pass to find sports cars cooling off and a horde of tourists milling around a small pond. Not wanting to take chances, I immediately put on a layer and headed down, bombing the descent to Airolo. The signs were all in Italian, but the road was striped and in fairly good shape, a jarring contrast reflecting the area’s Italian/Swiss nature.

I had a late lunch in Airola while deciding what I do. Part of me wanted to turn around and head back over the famous Gotthard Pass, but that would be foolish given the weather. Instead I headed down-valley on the winding local road, catching glimpses of the Autostrada as it passed in and out of endless tunnels. My plan was to head down to Bellinzona and over the San Bernardino pass, but by the time I reached Biasco I was sick of low elevations and main roads. I had noticed a road going up the Brenno Valley to another pass (the Songta Maria), and decided to take that. I made it as far as Acquarossa, where I decided it felt Italian enough to just camp out of the way. I sheltered from the evening thunderstorm below a shallow rock overhang, then eventually drifted off.

Switzerland has been a hard place for me to love, with everything more expensive than it “should” be and highly regulated. Sometimes it lives up to its stereotype as Mountain Disneyland. The closest I’ve come is to recognize that the Swiss like to do things right and follow the rules, two precepts with which I tend to agree. Things worth doing are worth doing right, and recognizing that you are not exempt from general rules is the basis of moral behavior (see the golden rule or categorical imperative). If you want to camp in the Swiss way, there will be clean restrooms, hot showers, and a comfortable shelter in which to play board games or even complain about the Swiss on your phone. That will also cost $25 per night, but camping right isn’t cheap. My problem is that I think some things, like campsites and trail food, aren’t worth the effort and expense to do right, and I don’t get that choice here. But I can at least respect the other approach.

Wheelchair touring

Let’s do this

So, what do you do in the Alps with a broken toe, a stitched-up shin, and a movable ticket? Most people would fly home as soon as possible and convalesce, but I am not “most people.” Since I brought my inline wheelchair (i.e. bike), I decided to at least explore the paved portion of the Alps, which is still high and expansive.

Things were too swollen, bloody, and painful at first, so I spent four nights recovering in a hotel in Aosta. The orderly who discharged me from the hospital chose it as basically the closest place that was fairly cheap and had space at 8:00 PM on a Saturday. It turned out better than I had any right to expect, costing about $50/night for a clean room with a large bed. The owner was some variety of landed gentry who had traveled extensively in the western United States, so we got along well.

I went from sitting in bed with my leg elevated, to sitting next to Roman walls with my leg elevated. Walking was a painful chore, but I could get around town on my wheelchair well enough to buy food and sightsee a bit. Aosta is an old place, once named Augusta Praetoria Salassorum because Emperor Augustus killed and enslaved the Salassi, its former inhabitants. The city was strategically located at the junction of Grand and Petit Saint Bernard passes, two ancient routes through the Alps. The modern version has grown around and through the original Roman square fort, giving it the wonderful mish-mash character of places continuously inhabited through ages of civilization. The buildings range from stone to concrete and glass, the streets from narrow cobbles to striped asphalt.

After four days I was getting bored, fat, and poor, so it was time to wheel farther afield. I chose to do an out-and-back up the Valgrisenche, one of several valleys climbing over 1000 meters above the Dora Baltea. I had visited its neighbor, the Valsavaranche, to climb Gran Paradiso on my previous trip. I was pathetically slow on the climb, only being able to partially use my right leg, but I figured out how to pedal comfortably, and reached the end of the valley at the far end of Lake Beauregard. I waited out some afternoon showers under an eave and in a bus shelter on the way down, then stealth camped on a tunnel bypass. Camping is “forbidden” basically everywhere in Europe, but the word means different things in different places. Suspecting that it meant precisely its dictionary definition in Switzerland – scan your passport, fill out form 1035D, pay CHF 200 – I was determined to save money where I could. This was better than my subsequent Swiss campgrounds, not flat, but quiet with cell service and a view of a crumbling medieval tower.

The next morning I descended back through Aosta, bought road food, then made the 6500-foot climb up the Grand Saint Bernard. With only one stretch of 10% grade, it was mercifully gentler than the Iseran. I was in no condition to pass anyone, or to hang with the cyclists who passed me, but I ground it out, stopping for a late lunch below the statue of Saint Bernard. A fifty-yard walk to look at the statue convinced me that I would not be hiking for awhile.

The descent to Martigny on the Swiss side was similarly long and gradual. There was plenty of daylight left, but I had had enough, so I found the nearest campground. It met my expectations: immaculate, full of polite people, and ridiculously expensive. Most were long-term campers in trailers with pop-out tents (a smart Euro setup), but they put me next to a German bike tourist. Unlike those I had met in South America, he was only out for a couple of weeks. He was friendly, though, and seemed interested in my travels.

The next day’s ride through the Rhône Valley was much less pleasant. The secondary road was more of a highway, and while long stretches had a striped bike lane, there were also tunnels. I am not sure what bikes are supposed to do: take a road around where possible, ride on the emergency sidewalk, or just ride through. I got honked at for doing the last once, so that was probably wrong. The valley is almost continuously developed, and traps heat and smog, giving a Los Angeles feel. I suppose the views are better, but I was glad to escape, climbing a couple thousand feet out the east end toward the Grimsel, Furka, and Neufenen Passes. Stopping in the tourist town of Fiesch set me up nicely to cross the Neufenen the next day.

Oulx to Courmayeur

This project starts and ends with two easy outliers: the Barre des Écrins and Piz Bernina. So after my warmup peak, I had a 100+-mile commute to reach the Mont Blanc summit mother lode. Choosing the best route is incredibly hard, since there are many roads linking the two places. Existing mapping programs are useless: the fastest car route follows controlled-access highways, which are closed to bikes and expensive. So-called “bike” routes from Google and are arbitrary, leading through towns and sometimes even on trails. The information is out there to write a program computing the minimum-wattage paved legal route, but no one has written it yet. I found it easier to just eyeball something and go for it.

The flattest route goes down to Turin, then up the Aosta Valley, but it is about 50 miles longer than going through the mountains, and hot and boring. The mountain route I chose goes over the Col de l’Iseran, famous as one of the biggest Hors Categorie climbs on the Tour de France. (To be fair, I think I went up the short side, only climbing about 4000 feet from Lanslevillard.) On either side of that, I had to climb the big side of the Col du Mont Cenis from Susa (~5000 feet), and the small side of the Col du Petit Saint Bernard.

I started as early as I could force myself from Oulx, my dread increasing as I coasted down the Dora Riparia, losing precious elevation. I saw only a few other cyclists on the long climb, a couple of commuters (!)on their way down, an older guy on a e-bike who drafted me for awhile, and a loaded tourist near the top. I climbed with the temperatures, so it remained warm but not unpleasant the whole way.

At the top, I stopped for a sad French ham sandwich (a bit of thin ham on a half baguette) and a tasty pain chcocolat. I continued past a long lake and some weird monuments including some elephants (did Hannibal pass this way?), then bombed the other, steeper side through a ski area. I stopped at a mini-mart to buy as much of the worst food as I could carry in my pockets, then set out up the Iseran.

The pass is long, but surprisingly steady and gentle. According to the signs for cyclists every kilometer, only one stretch reaches 10% grade, with most averaging 8% or less. I saw a few more cyclists on the lower part, but the crowds really only started at Bonneval. I must have seen around 100 cyclists on this stretch, alone and in pairs, and enjoyed the communal suffering despite being passed several times. I passed a fully loaded tourist walking the steep part near the top, but managed to grind it out in my lowest gear.

The top was cold, windy, and crowded, so I joined some other cyclists in the lee of a closed hotel to eat and layer up. Then I carefully made my way down the big side of the pass, through ski lifts into the spectacular Val d’Isère. Somewhere below Tignes, I turned onto a side road that climbs to join the Petit Saint Bernard route, avoiding a drop to Séez. This looked like a residential street on the map, but signs every kilometer proudly proclaimed it the final climb of a former Tour stage.

Feeling wrecked, I stopped at a campground to have a Coke and consider my options, but I was not about to pay $20 for a spot next to an RV, so I continued to the next town, grabbed more food, and found a flat pullout below the pass. I suppose I could have continued to Courmayeur, but I was hurting after 90 miles and 14,000 feet of climbing, and did not think it would save me a day. As it turned out, the hut I was hoping to hike to the next day is closed, so I get to sit around and write this, then do an early valley start tomorrow.

Bend area cycling

McKenzie Pass at peak snow

The greater Bend area has a wide variety of cycling, which I have been exploring based on recommendations, maps, and Strava segments. For pavement, there are many flat country roads in the plains to the east, hillier options to the west and south, and a couple of major paved climbs. For gravel and graded dirt, there are miles of National Forest roads of all types, as in much of the area between Lassen and Hood. Finally, there is a range of single-track, from the smooth trails north of Sisters to the bro-friendly manufactured downhill trails off the Mount Bachelor. However both roads and trails are in a transitional state now, and though the volcanic soil does not become terrible mud, the snowline can be sudden, and varies quite a bit based on aspect and rain shadow. Unfortunately, this same volcanic soil also turns into chain-destroying grit and powder that becomes progressively deeper over the dry summer.

McKenzie Pass

McKenzie Pass hut view

McKenzie Pass is an historic route over the Cascade crest near Sisters, south of the current Santiam Pass, between Mount Washington and North Sister. A similar route was used by Natives, with the road built as a toll road in the late 1800s and becoming public shortly thereafter. The pass features a stone lookout tower, built by the CCC and Forest Service back when they did that sort of thing. It is semi-famous among cyclists for being plowed but closed to cars in the late spring, at which point it is bordered by huge snowbanks. The local bike shop in Sisters, Eurosports, even has a pass conditions page and sells jerseys.

I have ridden the east side twice now, a steady, gentle climb of about 2000 feet from town, once in some unfortunate rain and the other time with clear skies on a weekend, dodging other cyclists on my way down. I was hoping to ride the whole pass, dropping 3000 feet to the junction with Highway 20 on the other side, but that is still being plowed as of May 23, and may not be clear in time. Since the pass is a short ride by itself, I added on a side-trip both times. The first time, I followed the good dirt forest road to Trout Creek Butte, which has an old lookout. Though the Butte is higher than the Pass, it is in the rain shadow, so the road was almost entirely dry to the summit. The second time, I tacked on some of paved Forest Road 11 near Black Butte, returning to town via Indian Ford Road.

Newberry Volcano

Newberry roads

The Newberry Volcanic Area, which I have written about previously, has a plethora of dirt roads and trails in addition to the main crater and highpoint. Many of these seem to be popular with OHVs, though, which churn the surface and make it unpleasantly soft for cycling. However, the major roads are more for cars, and therefore remain passable. The main area around the highpoint receives more precipitation than the surrounding area, which caused problems for me when a loop I intended ventured a bit too high. I ultimately exited to Highway 97 near La Pine, which has wide, safe shoulders but too many semis and speeding cars with loud A/T tires. The dirt roads north and east of the caldera are drier and quieter, but can be washboarded, loose, and dusty.

Lava Butte

Some history

Lava Butte is the perfect reddish cone to the west of 97 south of Bend. It is a deluxe Oregon peak: not only does it have a lookout, road, and cell service, but the road is paved and closed to cars, the lookout is manned and has an enclosed interpretive center beneath it, and the cell service is provided from somewhere else instead of unsightly nearby towers. In addition to its own recent lava field, Lava Butte has panoramic views of larger volcanoes in all directions, from Jefferson and possibly Hood around through the Sister and Diamond to Paulina. There are, of course, ridiculous Strava records both up and down the road, with which I did not try to compete.