We'd made a holiday of it, arriving early to acclimatise, as had many others and, having seen the previous week how fast some of these Continentals could climb, not to mention descend, I was worried that the start would be hectic. The Marmotte starts with an eyeballs- out, elbows-out race to the bottom of the first col - a bit hectic for a weak woman. Would this be the same?
The Dolomites are in Northern Italy. They're part of the south-eastern Alps, very new mountains which rise sheer and jagged. The rock is pale and takes on the colour of the light in an entrancing manner which is impossible to capture on film - no mass-produced prints can do them justice. The Dolomites are to the Alps as the Lake District is to Scotland - ie the area is compact and attracts motorists, some of whom do a bit of walking. Thus these mountains are more trafficked than the Alps at the same time of year. We went late June/early July which ensures the passes are open but the traffic is minimal.
The accommodation is luxurious by British standards and expensive by French standards - inevitable as its close to home for wealthy Germans and a popular area with them. We paid from L18 for a double room without breakfast at the top of San Boldo to L36 for a double room with breakfast in Cortina, the St Tropez of the area. Everywhere our bikes were garaged with great care until the last night at the International Motel by Lake Como where the lad indicated an unprotected courtyard - so we quietly took the machines to our room. Strangely, there aren't any Youth Hostels in the Dolomites, we were in the Motel because the first hostel on our route was full - if you get the chance to go, book the Domaso hostel, its in a superb location.
Getting to the Dolomites - isn't easy. No wonder we were the only Brits. We'd taken the Bolero coach with its convenient, CTC- designed cycle trailer to Cavallino near Venice. The coach was more luxurious than the Sporting Tours version I'd experienced in '93 but humans aren't meant to sleep with their legs lower than their torso and, despite the opportunity to walk around on board, we had painful swollen ankles after 20 hours; the Sporting Tours policy of overnight hotel stops is more civilised.
From Cavallino, after an afternoon on the local transport - bus and boat - to see Venice, we'd cycled to the Dolomites. Anyone getting off the coach at Cavallino with a bike should equip themselves with better maps than our Touring Club of Italy 1:200 000 as the apparently detailed network of roads shown are busy. We could see quieter, more minor roads but daren't use them without better information. So it was fifty miles of flat through the rural, though populous, North Italian plain and then the San Boldo Pass with its 18 numbered hairpins - a bit like Alpe d'Huez but five of the top six are inside tunnels! Luckily there are a couple of sets of traffic lights.
Pass Storming is a favourite occupation and, in addition to the Marathon there are two Permanent rides organised by the Societa Ciclistica Raiffeisen. We'd entered the Super Dolomite Ride which meant collecting stamps at the top of 27 of 38 designated cols or refuges. This is easier than it sounds as there's no time limit and all the cols, no matter how remote, have bar/restaurants for skiers in winter and walkers/cyclists in summer. Even on our rough stuff day, when we ascended to over 2,000m on stony tracks, we had the choice of two mountain huts for sandwiches before descending the steepest paved road in Europe (a walking job for both of us) to the Refugio Pederu (lost hut!) for dessert. Its a tough riding area and in the end we collected only 19 of the designated stamps plus 5 extra we just happened to do. But it was fun - we always stopped for a beer when getting a stamp. Francis is designing a Col Collectors Card for AUK - no award, just a card to carry as an excuse for calling at bars on mountains!
Back to the Marathon - the riders who had been bashing round the Sella Ring all week began at my pace - 10kph up the first col. Of course, commencing on the climb helped to keep the proceedings orderly. It was the weirdest slow-motion start I've ever experienced. This stately wind up the staircase of the Gardena Pass must rate as the high point of anyone's cycling career, no matter what else they have achieved. It was a magnificent sight, though daunting - British and French and even American randonneurs are all ages, and come in all shapes and sizes, but the Europa Cup Series is a Teutonic baby and they are tall, lean, muscled, and worst of all, young.
Such was the wind-up for this event that, for once, Francis and I decided we would have to ride separately from the word go. He wanted photos and I wanted to finish. We didn't have to worry, we could opt to ride the 50km or 100km event rather than the 200 at any time during the day (we'd have to if the broom waggon thought we were too slow!) there was the same lovely Italian training top and barbecue at the finish no matter what distance we rode - but having come so far I wanted the full monte.
It was quiet enough on top to hear the marmots whistling - helpers' cars having been banned from this part of the course. Riders stopped at the Gardena summit to cape up but, having surveyed the course, I left them to it - there is very little descent before the Sella Pass. Here I ignored the feed station and gingerly descended to Canazei.
We hadn't explored the next col, the Fedaia Pass, but guessed from the map that it was a gradual climb and so it was, with superb views over the Marmolada snowfield. I was waved to walking pace on top for my first control - a cross in a box on the number pinned to my bottom. This proved I had taken the first 100km circuit instead of just the 50km Sella Ring. I could feel the felt tip pen but there was no easy way to check it had made its mark and I worried about it. The descent was steep and I later learned Francis had a blow-out here.
The climb back over the Campolongo to the halfway point was tough and there was a fatality under a blanket at the summit with young para medics standing around looking shocked. These Continental randonnees are contested more seriously than the British versions - we have time trials for bloodletting!
I went into the second half at 11.50, anyone later than 13.30 at this point would not have been allowed to continue so I hadn't stopped for refreshment or, more importantly, to answer the call of nature, since the start. I took to the woods part way up - and received a most interesting offer from a lad who followed me.
Again we had double cols, the Valparola and Falzarego with another food stop - this time I took advantage and found the food excellent - bananas, cake, raisin bread, muesli bars, coca cola and fruit juice. Then a descent to Pocol (where, 50 minutes later, Francis was to have his second high-speed puncture - the plastic rim tape melted!) followed by another gradual ascent, the Giau. We had surveyed this col from the south, with full touring gear, the previous week and both thought the ascent on the event, from the north, was the most picturesque - lovely alpine meadows and sparse pine forests. Francis would have his third flat here but he bought a new tube, tore the cardboard wrapper into strips and lined the rim - no more problems!
The midday heat had set in and I survived only by dipping my cap in fountains and streams along the route and letting it drip down my neck - pressing the peak to my forehead from time to time. Somewhere, at the exit of a tunnel, there was a second body, this time alive and strapped on a stretcher, being loaded into an ambulance. It all became a bit of a blur at this point. There was another food stop and just before it a control and another cross on my bottom.
The final climb, a repeat of the Campolongo, was spoilt in part (like the Alpe d'Huez in the Marmotte) by helpers' cars buzzing back and forth - up till then, these machines hadn't been very much in evidence. I was delayed by a puncture on the descent, then it was a fast run to Pederaces for an (unscheduled) climb to the finish and free beer, barbecued polenta and pork, and a worried wait for Francis who had spent the last third of the ride fighting off the broom waggon after coping with blowouts on two of the descents.
We returned westwards, three days over the Stelvio Pass and along the west shore of Lake Como. Again more detailed maps were needed - we'd bought 1:25 000 and 1:50 000 maps of the Dolomites, which are excellent, but couldn't find similar scales for the rest of North Italy (I've since discovered Stanfords, the world's largest map and travel bookshop, tel: 0171 836 1915, which has detailed maps of practically everywhere.).
Like most people we were captivated by Lake Como and the Bolero coach stop here would make an excellent start for an Alpine tour but, for our col-collecting Dolomite trip, we found the schedule rather demanding. We had realised that in order to ride the Stelvio it would be necessary to forgo a rest day after the Marathon and this would be tough - it was!
In 1995 we hope to ride through the same area in more relaxed fashion with the Sporting Tours eastern Raid Alpine.