It’s a bright dawn on a chilly early July morning in the Alpine village of La Villa, and I’m in the midst of nearly 6,000 cyclists—the clamor of which is loud enough through the valley below, louder even than the helicopter circling overhead—who are preparing to pedal as much as 86 miles along the roads of South Tyrol, Italy. I say along, but really it will mostly be up or down, as we tackle the Maratona dles Dolomites, the most breathtaking (literally) one-day amateur cycling event in Europe. There will be more than 14,000 feet of climbing, and the start line is already at 4,700 feet above sea level. The question you’re probably about to ask is, well, why would I sign up for this?
Until a few months ago, I did most of my riding on the seven-mile commute to work, usually while imagining a place in the pro peloton—as middle-aged leisure cyclists often do. Those dreams led to the urge to test myself, to see how I would cope with a pro-level event before I was, ahem, over the hill. The Maratona, with its international reputation for severity thanks to the mountain climbs you just don’t get anywhere other than the Alps, seemed the ultimate test.
From the testimony of others who had tackled this race—“A day of prolonged pain and suffering awaits,” said Cycling Weekly; “A truly fearful challenge,” wrote The Guardian; “Eight hours of beautiful agony,” recalled some guy on a forum—I knew I couldn’t just turn up and hope for the best. I enlisted a cycling coach, Oli Beckingsale, who rode for Great Britain at three Olympic Games, and made a plan, which mostly consisted of ramping up my mileage throughout the weeks leading up to the event and riding up southeast England’s (relatively puny) hills over and over again. Oli also gave me some invaluable advice about going downhill, which is something you don’t give much thought to when you’re preoccupied with climbing but is technically tricky and offers much opportunity for disaster. Brake before corners… press hard into the outside pedal… look ahead. That became my descending mantra. After four months and about 2,500 miles of training, I was as ready as I’d ever be.
I’m hardly the only one who has heeded the call of the Maratona this year: Even with COVID complicating matters, 31,000 riders applied for the entry drawing. That’s a far cry from the inaugural event in 1987, when just 166 pioneers toiled over 109 miles; today, the race has grown into one of the highlights of the Italian sporting calendar. It’s broadcast on national TV, and some of the world’s strongest amateurs turn up to compete, with the fastest finishing the longest of the three routes in around four and a half hours.
The competition may be real, but the vibe at the start line is nothing less than jolly. Masses of men and women in skin-tight cycling kits pose for beaming selfies with their carbon-framed road bikes. An orchestra of bleeps echoes as thousands of cycle computers are switched on, music blares (lots of Stevie Wonder, for some reason), and local dignitaries—including Italian soccer star Fabrizio Ravanelli, who’s riding today—give speeches about the art and importance of the event.
It’s not just the riders who’ve woken up at dawn to be at the start line, either: Spectators crowd behind the barriers for the first mile, all seeming delighted to be a part of the spectacle. Among the babble of languages, I overhear a cyclist say to a roadside friend, “I’ll be back in time for lunch… tomorrow!” A countdown begins, and the anticipation is palpable as the eccentric and indefatigable race director, Michil Costa, clad in traditional local trachten, leads the competitors out on a penny-farthing. The Maratona has begun.
To understand Italy’s passion for the Maratona, you have to understand Italy’s passion for cycling. The word “passion” comes from the Latin for “to suffer,” and suffering is integral to cycling— especially in races like this one. Throughout the 20th century, many of the country’s greatest sporting heroes were cyclists, such as Fausto Coppi (“Il Campionissimo”), Gino Bartali, and Marco Pantani, the peerless climber who dominated in the 1990s but whose career (and life) ended in drug-fueled tragedy. The Tour de France may be more famous, but the Giro d’Italia grand tour, held every May since 1909 (except during the two World Wars and the first year of the COVID pandemic), inspires more fervor.
“Cycling is often connected to politics and history,” John Foot, the author of Pedalare! Pedalare! A History of Italian Cycling, tells me. “The famous ‘Giro of rebirth’ in 1946 symbolized the end of the war and the new democratic nation. Cycling also inspired great epic stories and tragedies, which were told and retold.”
Even by Italian standards, the Maratona’s home of South Tyrol is a unique place, with its own traditions, dress, and language—the valleys around here speak in dialects of Ladin, a regional throwback to Latin—and the locals are particularly proud of this event. Schoolchildren fill goody bags for participants. Spectators by the thousands shout encouragement. Roadside musicians toot enormous alpenhorns, and volunteers hand out fortifying slabs of the Tyrolean buckwheat cake schwarzplententorte. The sense of togetherness is unmistakable.
While a great deal of attention is paid to the cyclists, the real stars of the show are the mountains. The Dolomites dominate Italy’s northeast provinces, along the borders with Austria and Switzerland; they’ve been here for 250 million years, and they’ll be here when we’re all too old to pedal to the store. Once part of a coral reef in the primordial ocean, their carboniferous rock faces retain a distinctive pale color, and their peaks are scarred and jagged, as if they’ve emerged victorious from an eons-long battle with the Earth itself. The land below them, meanwhile, is pure Sound of Music pastoral loveliness: wildflower-strewn meadows, pretty villages, lush forests.
As I begin to wage my own battle against the Alpine switchbacks, I reckon I’ll need every bit of encouragement and schwarzplententorte I can get. The wannabe winners set a ferocious pace through the village of Corvara, and straight away I’m forced to remind myself that I’m here for fun, not self-punishment. As the first hairpins wind upward, I’m granted a view of thousands of bicycles behind me making their way through the Alta Badia valley in the golden morning sun, and even though many of those bicycles won’t be behind me for long, it’s a glorious sight.
The route takes in seven iconic mountain passes, some of which have been the sites of famous battles between the pros in the Giro d’Italia, and I negotiate the first couple—Passo Campolongo and Passo Pordoi, with its bronze memorial to Fausto Coppi at the crest—with deceptive ease. The fourth, Passo Gardena, yields views I’ll never forget: The peaks of the Dolomites on either side seem at their most fearsome, especially the bared teeth of the Sassolungo Group to the west.
By the time I reach the top of Gardena, I’m desperately in need of sustenance from the volunteer-run food stalls: punchy espresso, carb-loaded gels and bars, plenty of schwarzplententorte, and the classic mini cans of Coca-Cola that cyclists refer to as “the red ambulance.”
The carefully calibrated nutrition plan I’d mapped out to correspond with the feed stations and what I could carry involves 2.5 ounces of carbs per hour, but as the mile count ticks up, and the road goes with it, I come to the realization that nothing, save many, many more hours of training, could have properly prepared me for this struggle. The course sends me plunging down terrifying descent after terrifying descent, only to present even more intimidating climbs straight after. I quickly simplify my nutrition plan to “don’t stop eating.” As I stand by the side of the road and stuff my face, old men with suncured skin and the legs of 20-year-olds glide past with expressionless ease.
Eventually, I reach the top of the meanest ascent of all, the Passo Giau, which gains more than half a mile of altitude in just six miles of distance. (Apparently, it was an unpaved mule track as recently as 1986; I pity the mules.) Sinister clouds gather like volcano smoke around the top, obscuring the panoramic view. My lungs and legs are burning. I stay at the feed station here longer than I should, and it requires every bit of fortitude I possess to get the pedals turning again.
On the home stretch back into La Villa, I’m anticipating the finish line, but the Maratona presents a cruel final twist: the Mür dl Giat, or Wall of the Cat, a short, nasty hill with a 19 percent maximum gradient that rears up threateningly right near the end. Many riders resort to pushing at this point, and I’m tempted to, but the sight of an old Italian nonna by the side of the road, cheering the racers on as if we were all her grandchildren, gives me just enough pep to make it to the top.
At last, after six and a half hours of suffering, smiling, and scenery, having consumed as much as I’d usually eat in a week and expended every bit of energy I could muster, I roll into the town of Corvara and the tents of the race village. Michil Costa, the race director, is there, welcoming the riders with a megaphone as they cross the finish line. The collective sense of jubilation and pride is evident among not only the participants but also the spectators. Later, I ask Costa what this event means to the people of Alta Badia.
“It has that special energy that unites the inhabitants,” he says. “When the Maratona comes along, spe- cial things happen. This is the real Maratona: the Maratona of volunteers that stimulates and communicates with each of the
participants. Sincere smiles and real hugs still work.”
Sitting on the balcony of my chalet-style hotel later that day, enjoying a mountain sunset with a pilsner in my hand, I find I have to agree. And I look forward to seeing it all work again next year.
This year’s Maratona dles Dolomites takes place July 3. For more information, visit maratona.it/en.