DASHED LINES [n.]
Undefined. Abstract. Impermanent. Hidden. Connected.
This trip started with an invite … to ride a mountain bike race. After meeting on our Looping the Ortler bikepacking trip last year, the folk at South Tirol emailed to ask if we wanted to ride the 25th Anniversary Edition of the Dolomiti Superbike – Italy’s biggest mountain bike event. Of course we did, but knowing there is no such thing as a free lunch, we waited for the catch before accepting.
…we would have to race on gravel bikes. Sweet. Fine by us.
Somewhat excited at the prospect, the Pannier #15KPHClub entered a group of four into the race (our first race) before investigating the best bikepacking route options to Villabassa/Niederdorf* from Innsbruck, the nearest major transport hub. As the Tirolean crow flies, 200km was the ideal distance for a two-day trip … including some famous road passes and Rough Stuff Alps routes (M65, M70, N48). On a practical level, this tour was about riding the same bike – loaded on a 220km route to get to the event, and then racing the mountain bike event once stripped of all the bikepacking bags and kit. This would show-off the capability, versatility and appeal of our Specialized Diverge ‘gravel’ / ‘adventure’ bikes, and the bike category in general. On an experience level, it was about journeying in the mountains: connecting two countries (Austria and Italy) in two days – crossing the border in the most stunning of alpine arenas at Pfitscherjoch / Passo di Vizze (2276m) – and incorporating the two extremes of bikepacking: from valley-bottom paved cycle paths to challenging alpine-singletrack hike-a-bikes.
Mild: Wild, as we coined it…
I settled on the name Dashed Lines, not just because we spent Saturday effectively dashing for the Dolomiti Superbike finish line, but because we followed, tested and crossed a series of significant dashed lines over our four days in the mountains: impermanent, soft rough-stuff tracks on our gravel bikepacking route; invisible, but incredibly physical national borders; and undefined boundaries of personal belief (call it nerves?) when it came to ‘racing’ bikes … and what a so-called gravel bike is capable of.
*all Tirolean places retain both their German and Italian names
Anna and Chris – friends from London and Sheffield, respectively – joined Dave and I on this trip. The four of us all met on the Tuesday night before Saturday’s race, for pizza in our start city of Innsbruck. All the bikes were out their boxes, semi-built and packed back in the room … complete with the classic ‘night-before’ piles of kit and supplies strewn on the floor and table. Setting off early on the Wednesday morning, we had two days to ride to Villabassa/Niederdorf – riding our 220km planned route through the Zillertal Alps, via Mayerhofen…
An architect in my former life, heading to Innsbruck for the first time had me seeking out the location of the Zaha Hadid designed funicular railway stations I’d seen on the design blogs back in 2007. The four stations – Congress, Lowenhaus, Alpenzoo and Hungerburg – were all designed to resemble icy glaciers, giving the impression that the nearby mountains are right in the heart of the city. At breakfast on our hostel balcony, we followed the funicular trains wind their way up into the Nordkette Mountains and could make out the other ‘station glaciers’ above us, so decided to get the last bit of faffing out the way, before making our way up to Hadid’s Hungerburg Station – a grand place to start the trip, overlooking the picturesque city in the morning sunshine, before descending some of the forest gravel tracks back down to the River Inn, and our route out of the city…
Classic mild gravel, farm-tracks and designated cycle paths led us quickly out of the city centre, following the quick-flowing white water of the River Inn, east, on our way up into the Zillertal Valley. According to the route we had plotted on Komoot, we had a 106km day ahead of us with 1900m+ of climbing. It wasn’t really until after Mayerhofen that the riding became really special, and the wild we were after. A hot chocolate in the hut at Schlegeisspeicher glacial reservoir signalled half of the climbing ticked off, and the start of the real rough-stuff ascent up to our overnight hut…
Our overnight hut perched high above us, silhouetted on the dusky horizon, in the Zillertal Alps (2276m) – at the Pfitscherjoch/Passo di Vizze col, at the border of Italy and Austria. This area of South Tirol, albeit an Italian province, is still a grand mix of Italian and Austrian/German – it was hard to know what the majority or preference was, until we heard from official sources that the first language is 70% German, 25% Italian … and then there is the region’s own language – Ladin – which makes up the last 5%.
It is said that the local alpine clubs established the first trails up to this point in the mid-1800’s when climbing/hiking/leisure-time were becoming more popular … before the military built the more established tracks in the late 1930s. The hut is now run by the fifth generation of the Volgger family, having been originally built in 1888 by their great-grandfather, Alois Rainer, who initially offered 28 beds.
Apart from the inter-war years, when taken over by the Italian Military, the hut has largely remained open since … offering incredible shelter in the most special of alpine arenas. Rebuilt in 2012, the Pfitscherjoch hut is a special, comfortable place to spend the night, and a great sight for tired eyes at the end of a long day. From a bikepacking perspective, they have a bike room for 30+ bikes, hot showers, great food and drink … and a lake for post/pre-ride swims. Not much more you could ask for.
The next day saw us ride from the hut, to Villabassa/Niederdorf – 110km (930m+) – following a great deal of the region’s fantastic cycling infrastructure, namely the Pustertal/Val Pusteria route…
1 // Adventure/Gravel/Mountain Bike
2 // Bikepacking Bags
3 // Suitable Road/Off-Road Tyres (38c+)
4 // Front & Rear Bike Lights
5 // Riding Shoes
6 // Riding Top
7 // Riding Socks
8 // Bib-Shorts (Cargo)
9 // Helmet
10 // Cap
11 // Navigation (Garmin eTrex)
12 // Phone
13 // Riding Gilet
14 // Riding Overshorts
15 // Hip Pack
16 // Camera/Batteries
17 // Sketchbook/Biros
18 // Battery Pack/Cables
19 // Spare AA/AAA Batteries
20 // Wallet
21 // Silk Liner
22 // Spare Riding Socks
23 // Wind/Waterproof Jacket
24 // Down/Insulated Jacket
25 // First-Aid Kit
26 // Gloves
27 // Off-The-Bike Trews
28 // Off-The-Bike Top
47 // Off-The-Bike Warm Socks
29 // Dry Bag(s)
30 // Washbag
31 // Towel
32 // Bottles
33 // Voile Straps
34 // Cable Ties
35 // Headtorch
36 // Spare Inners
37 // Lube
38 // Pump
39 // Multitool
40 // Levers & Spares (Tape/Links/Hanger/Boot/Patches)
41 // Bialetti Stovetop Pot
42 // Coffee Dripper
43 // Ground Coffee
44 // Mug
45 // Pot
46 // 3-in-1 Emergency Sachets (1pp)
48 // Apertif/Digestivo Flask
49 // Water Filter
50 // Knife & Spork
51 // Lighter
52 // Stove
53 // Gas Canister (230g)
…”that’s the fastest I’ve ever been on a bike … and … *laughs* … it was on a trip with Pannier” Anna
The Dolomiti Superbike is Italy’s biggest mountain bike event. Over 4200 riders, from 45 countries, take on one of two routes – 113km (3357m+) or 60km (1785m+) in the heart of the Dolomites. On first receiving the invite, I was super sceptical about riding the event on gravel bikes but upon checking the terrain stats – 70% gravel, 18% paved cycling trail, 10% asphalt, 2% singletrack – maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all, and maybe even more suitable than an XC mountain bike?! We’d find out…
The four of us spent Friday morning editing our bikes from bikepack-travel mode, to race mode – removing our Burra Burra bags, cradles and seatpack frames, lubing, fettling tyre pressures etc – in Hotel Adler‘s incredible disco-balled bike room. Previously a dancefloor, back bar, and party room, Christian has turned the space into the home for his impressive collection of bikes and cycling paraphernalia, and it’s well worth a stay and look-around(!)
…after much discussion, most of us ended up leaving frame-bags on the bikes for the race, to carry any spares and supplies we’d need … it seemed the easier option, and would lighten jerseys. By 10.00am, bikes were stripped back and we were ready to head out on an initiation ride…
The main square in Villabassa – the event village – was bustling with mountain bikers, families and friends all enjoying the sunshine, as we wheeled our freshly stripped bikes towards race registration. I was swept with nerves; we were definitely one-in-a-thousand with our gravel bikes…
To settle nerves, and break ourselves in on our much lighter, speedier bikes, the four of us rode a 20km loop up to Lago di Braies/Pragser Wildsee – the nearby stunning alpine lake, for a drink and cold-water swim. Given the fairly straight-forward road access, and since featuring as the main location on Italian TV show “Un Passo dal Cielo” for the last 7-8 years … it is the most Instagrammed lake in the world. Apparently…
…so, we had very little choice but to take photos of the bikes, and let the Pannier Synchronised Diving Team out to play. For ice-bath pre-race-prep, not Instagram. Obviously. We couldn’t believe we were the only ones swimming; the Italians and Germans couldn’t believe we were swimming.
On the eve of the race, we spent time on some things I hadn’t thought about for a number of years: calming nerves, proper prep (race numbers on bike and jersey, and trying to eat properly)… but also making time to enjoy a social drink “Spritzing”, of course. Alarms set for 06.00am…
…I always enjoy riding someone else’s event and route, and the Dolomiti Superbike was no different: I spent pretty much all day lost in the Dolomites. Fantastic. Apart from knowing the overview stats, I hadn’t really looked at the details of the route because I spend most of my time planning and plotting other bikepacking routes, and was keen to treat this as a real escape. All I had was the beating sun to tell our rough direction and keep some sort of bearings. Highlights of the race route were definitely the two big climbs: Monte Elmo/Helm and Prato Piazza/Platzweise, as well as the long Lago di Landro gravel travel section…
…turns out our 650b/47c Diverge gravel bikes were ideal setups for both our mixed-terrain bikepacking tour, and the Dolomiti Superbike race. Climbing wise, there was no difference; we were probably quicker and nimbler on our bikes. Descending wise, there was little difference for the more confident riders. And, on the flat we had a great advantage. The bikes were fine for 100% of the race route, if a confident and experienced rider, off-tarmac. To put it into perspective, I’d say a gravel bike is probably 80% OK for someone new to off-road riding. Chris, an experienced Peak District mountain biker, saw the hardest wet/chunky singletrack trails as “the trails he rides at home” … so was fine on the most technical sections of the route. I, on the other hand, probably shouldered and ran with my bike for about 300-400m, out of the 113km. It wasn’t the capability of the bike – partly my confidence on technical downhill, but if I’m honest, mainly the mass of mountain bikers, I felt I was holding up, that put me off.
I’d probably say the riding position and comfort was the main difference between our drop-bar gravel bikes and hardtail / XC mountain bikes, over 113km. Riding the smaller wheelsets and larger volume Specialized Pathfinder/WTB Sendero tyres was still fun, and more than comfy/capable on all terrain, though. It was only the steepest of gravel climbs where I found I was spinning out, out the saddle. I think that would have been the same, on any rubber and bike.
Making it back to Villabassa/Niederdorf after 8/9 hours’ riding, we stayed to enjoy everyone else cross the finish line with Erdingers and pretzels in hand. One of my favourite traditions at the race involved Kurt (the president of the race) handing the last folk across the line huge jugs of beer, to toast their big day out, which they attempt to see-off in front of the crowd. Meanwhile, we tried to spray a bottle of aqua frizzante on the podium. Don’t try this at home, kids … it doesn’t work. At all.
Keep an eye on pannier.cc/bikepacking-tours-events for our South Tirol experiences in 2020 and beyond…
…the last folk across the line – ‘the lanterne rouge(s)’ – are handed huge jugs of beer by Kurt to toast their big day. Meanwhile, we tried to spray a bottle of aqua frizzante. Don’t try this at home, kids … it doesn’t work. At all.
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