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Cycling Across The Dolomites

This year marks the 100th edition of the Giro d’Italia, Zain Hirani channels his inner Tour winner on a bespoke cycle ride across the Dolomites

With a whole world outside your window, and so little time in which to explore it, I have long believed that life is too short to go to the same place twice. I might just be ready to admit I was wrong. Hotel La Perla, in collaboration with Pinarello and InGamba, has created a Leading Bike experience in the heart of the Dolomites, the scene of countless battles, victories and defeats in the Giro d’Italia.

This year, the Giro celebrates its 100th edition. It first visited the Dolomites in 1937 with a 62km team time trial, but it’s the individual battles through the decades that have left memorable scars on this vast and dominant mountain range. Tours have been won and lost amid snow-covered peaks, sometimes in temperatures as low as -100°F.

This is my first visit to the Dolomites and we quickly leave the built-up vicinity of Venice airport as we head towards Alta Badia. It was an early start and my head is lolling to the rhythmic motion of the car journey. As the car twists and winds its way through the mountains, we come face-to-face with the dramatic landscape. The jagged mountain range resembles the bottom teeth of the jaw of a beast: surely that top jaw is going to close down and the beast will swallow me up as I attempt to conquer these ranges on two wheels over the next three days.

As I am constantly reminded every time I want to buy a new bike, it’s the engine, not the bike that makes the biggest difference.

For a bike nut and a cycling enthusiast, this is a dream; riding in an iconic setting on what to me is a bike more beautiful than any Monet or Picasso. The opportunity to cycle in the Dolomites on a Pinarello Dogma F8 – the bike chosen by Team Sky and ridden to Tour de France victory by Chris Froome – is one I have been excited about for weeks. For those like me who believe the devil is in the detail, the Dogma F8 is fully kitted-out with Zipp wheels and a SRAM RED eTap groupset. All you have to bring are your shoes and pedals – you’ll probably want your own helmet too. You can even bring your saddle, but you also have a choice between the Fizik Arione or Antares. With a final touch of personalisation, the bikes are branded with your name and national flag, giving that professional feel to the experience.  

Arriving at Hotel la Perla, we are greeted and shown to our rooms, and after being setup on our bikes, our itinerary is simple; eat, sleep, ride, repeat. The hotel is situated in Corvara, surrounded by a mountain range of unsurpassed beauty. The area is most popular for its winter sports, but in the spring and summer months, it has historically offered activities such as hiking, climbing and trail running. Paragliders can be seen throwing themselves from a nearby mountain, disappearing from view as they drift behind another. In an effort to further diversify and to capitalise on the increasing popularity of cycling, the area is becoming a hub for cycling experiences. What Hotel la Perla, InGamba tours and Pinarello have created is the ultimate experience. My measurements were sent in advance and all that is left to do is fit my pedals and make a few minor adjustments, done by a team of mechanics, each of whom have earned their stripes by serving the professional peloton. 

Dinner on the first night is in the hotel’s Michelin-star restaurant: perhaps not the ideal preparation for a long day in the saddle, but a treat and a delicious meal nonetheless. The private dining room offers a delightful culinary experience, and a window into the kitchen gives us a glimpse of an efficient kitchen reminiscent of a well-oiled cycling team. Cycling really is in the blood here. The Costa family who own the hotel are keen cyclists and you can find a fine collection of modern and classic bikes in the Pinarello Lounge, including a Penny Farthing still frequently used by one of three brothers now running the hotel.

My bikes at home are all set up with Shimano groupsets, so I’m a little nervous about switching to SRAM. It takes all of five minutes to get used to, and the electronic shifting is a delight. We set off at a gentle pace and on the first short climb, I decide to test my legs to see how they are feeling. I’m quickly reeled back by one of our guides, Nate, who advises me to conserve my energy. The feeling of trepidation returns. He wasn’t wrong; while the distance on the first day was not excessive, the climbing was, and I needed something in the tank for the next day when we were to tackle the brutal Passo Fedaia; a 14km climb averaging 7.5 per cent gradient.

This climb gave me the lasting memory of this trip, one that will stay with me for many years. As we approached the climb, I saw our second guide a few hundred yards ahead and thought “catch him and take his wheel”. A great plan: I would be taking the wheel of Eros Poli, Mario Cipollini’s lead-out man in the 1990s and gold medallist at the 1984 Summer Olympics. I was trying to catch an Olympic champion. 

I have age on my side; I was born on the last day of those games, which makes what happens next somewhat embarrassing and very humbling. Eros toys with me as if I were a cat chasing a ball of string. Every time I get near him, he steps on the gas, increasing the distance between us just enough to encourage me to try once more. As we approach the hairpins near the top, I have blown out and my Garmin is furiously beeping, telling me my heart rate is too high. 

In the Dolomites, there are few flats: you are either going up or down. I like climbing; whether it’s the feeling of breaking through the pain or the sense of accomplishment at the summit, I find something enjoyable about grinding up a mountain. It is an absolute joy (and luxury) to not worry about carrying food, tools, inner tubes and a waterproof with me. With the InGamba team comes a support vehicle fully kitted out with spare bottles, food, mechanics, windbreakers, tyres, wheels and even bikes.

The experience doesn’t stop on the road. I return to the hotel exhausted, marvelling at how the riders at the Giro do this over 21 days with only two rest days. Then it’s time for my rub-down with the soigneur while the mechanics clean my bike in preparation for the next day’s riding. I feel thoroughly spoiled on leaving Hotel La Perla.

The whole experience is something special, formed by a partnership of shared values and built on a mutual love of cycling. Even without the cycling experience, Hotel La Perla is a wonderful place to stay in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. The staff seem more like a family and are happy to adopt you without giving you the awkward feeling of being a weird and distant second cousin. InGamba is a highly professional and well-oiled machine bringing the feel of the professional peloton to the experience with its team of guides, mechanics and soigneurs.

Finally, Pinarello: what can I say? The fact that three months after this experience Pinarello was sold to LVMH is testament to how much of a luxury it is to ride the Dogma F8: the perfect partner for an adventure across the Dolomites. 

Hotel La Perla’s Leading Bike package gives cyclists a taste of the pro life, including custom-made InGamba kit and a Pinarello Dogma F8 bike with SRAM RED eTap and Zipp wheels, measured to fit each cyclist, a daily guided ride with team car for support, a professional mechanic on hand, and a Pro Tour soigneur. 

The brand new ‘Dolomites Bike Day’ has just been announcedfor Alta Badia on Sunday 18th June 2017.  A non-competitive, free event, cyclists will make their way around a 51km circuit, taking in the Giro mountain passes of Campolongo, Falzarego and Valparola just a few weeks after the world’s greatest cyclists have competed there.  

For more information, visit www.altabadia.org/en. Rooms at La Perla start from £366 per person. For more details, visit www.hotel-laperla.it/en