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Dolomites Take Two

08 August 2023

Words & Photos: Dave Mitchell & Ditte van der Meulen

Passo de San Nicolò

Canazei Ensconced

We motored from Ditte’s home town in the Netherlands through the flatlands of Germany to the Austrian border. We stayed the night in a small German farming village where the beer only came in half or one litre tankers. Austria came and went as we motored over the Brenner Pass into Italy, the greatest mountain biking country in all of Europe, except maybe Switzerland if you don't mind all the Ferraris and shooting ranges. Canazei in the heart of the mythical Dolomites was our final destination.

Local sheep, goats, donkeys and horses grazing in harmony

Val de Vaiolet

The alpine town of Canazei sits at 1465 m, comfortable in the knowledge that it is surrounded by a host of the most monolithic Dolomite peaks. We felt insignificant like ants below these ancient giants. On one side the Sella Group rises to 3152 m teaming up with the 3058 m Gran Vernel and the volcanic Crepa Neigra at 2534 m. The other side is dominated by the queen of the Dolomites, Marmolada at a lofty 3342 m, still showing its pearly white glacier where others have receded and all but disappeared while ever hopeful of another ice-age. Our apartment surrounded by tall trees only afforded glimpses of the mountains but it is was a nice cosy place to hang out, and a base from which to explore, eat, sleep and repeat.

Sassolungo short cut not

Map and lunch time

This part of northern Italy has a checkered history not unlike Italian politicians. In the early nineteen hundreds Austria picked the wrong side for WW1 and lost the top bit of the Dolomites and all who sailed upon her, to Italy. High altitude battles were fought and never won in the madness of tunnels and trenches well above the snow-line. Ironically the remaining relics have become a major tourist attraction along with tramping, climbing, skiing and biking - and that’s what the local economy now relishes, like a jar of pickled onions.

Heading to Passo de San Nicolò

Descent off Passo de San Nicolò

NZ First

Our first ride was rather interesting in this magical land of the spectacular. We biked from home on a wide gravelled cycle and foot path following the Torrente Avisio south, past the villages of Campitello di Fassa, Mazzin to Pozza di Fassa to hang a left east up the long Val San Nicolò. The road climbed slowly to the Baita Ciampie cafe then onto a gravelled farm track number 608. We wandered up the Valley admiring the views and chatting to the locals not understanding a word but enjoying a leisurely pedal. Alas all was about to go steeply up as we rode and pushed to the top of Passo de San Nicolò on dodgy single track and wet roots.

To Ref Maiga Contrin

Below the limestone buttress

A refugio of the same name appeared out from under our misted up riding glasses but we did not go there. It was packed to the gunnels, so we continued along the ridge to a solitary spot complete with magnificent vistas and soft green loungers to recline and munch. Our descent was through an open meadow full of wild flowers and camouflaged marmot burrows that could break an ankle if traveling on foot. We skirted the massive limestone buttress of Val Contrin on a white rock candy surface all the way down to the valley floor below and Malga Contrin. The ride out the valley followed a small stream on forestry farm road 602 reaching the village of Penia with a short river trail that connected us back home to Canazei for gelato and reflection.

Moody Val de Vaiolet

Ref De Vaiolet dwarfed

Lost in Space

Lost in space was the theme for the day as we became randomly disorientated on numerous occasions. It all started after our lift ride from Campitello di Fassa to Col Rodella as we tried to circumnavigate our way around the Sassolungo mountains. We dropped down a mix of single track and gravelled pathway to Passo Sella after mistakenly going halfway down a bike park run. Silly us. Eventually we found our way over Passo Duron and down Val Duron. There seemed to be a lot of dead trees around the place and an excessive amount of logging. We were later told that this was due to an insect killing the pines. They had flourished after a huge storm bought down loads of them and were now out of control, like teenagers. With gay abandon they were now busy infecting healthy trees. These infected trees are being logged, just like in South Park when they shot all the endangered deer to save them from extinction. We made it back alive so all’s well.


Sassolungo loop instructions

Sassolungo loop cutlery


With our 'Mountain Bike Tour Ufficiali' map in hand we set off to explore the Val de Dona area. In our ignorance we had mistakingly interpreted the contour spacing as 20 meters like NZ Topo maps. They were actually 100 m, which became apparent as soon as we hit the climb. The very steep sections were concrete two track with a rock abyss between, good traction prevailed but better balance was required. Beyond the tree line we climbed into a wide U shape farming valley with spectacular open tops. We continued past Rifugio Dona to the top of Passo delle Ciaresole where we ran into a local mountain biker. We enquired about cycling routes and were pointed in some interesting directions, he commented that we had come up the steepest track in all of Val Di Fassa.

Passo delle Ciaresole

Passo delle Ciaresole return

A local crib or bach

As it transpired he had ridden every ridable track in the Dolomites and carried up many that were not, alas our Italian English translations were limited so a full transfer of data was out of the question. Roll on the Babel Fish interpreter. We headed back down to the refugio to refuel. There is nothing like a quenching radler after conquering a farm track so steep that water can not run off fast enough and gets overtaken by gravity. The wild raspberries, blueberries, loganberries and strawberries in stand-your-spoon-up farm made yogurt along with apple strudel and cream went down a treat at Rifugio Dona. Filled with happiness, we plummeted home.

Rifugio Dona thirsty

Rifugio Dona hungry

Val Mozoni

When is a road not a road? When it’s a steep riverbed full of loose rocks. The ride up to the cheese makers at Malga Monzoni was pretty cruisey and fun but the next stage to Rifugio Vallaccia left a lot to be desired. Don't get me wrong. The rifugio was very beautiful and the view superb from our lunch spot. We walked a bit up the trail and discovered limestone and wild flowers and more spires and steeples to ogle at and the descent was great back to the first rifugio. Ditte even managed to buy a quarter round of excellent cheese. So apart from the grovel up all was good.

Rifugio Vallaccia

Rifugio Vallaccia tin man

WW1 B & H

We zipped back up Valle Contrin to Rifugio Contrin, hid the bikes and continued on foot climbing steeply up a loose bouldery track to Punta Penia to hopefully discover some WW1 relics. We found loads of rusting barbwire among alpine flowers and a sea of ancient tin cans below the Bivacco Dal Bianco military tunnel at well over 2700 meters- one of the many century posts along this mountainous front line. We had almost climbed to the ridge-top of Marmolada. Home was all downhill.

Lunch at the Bivacco Dal Bianco military tunnel

Bike after the hike

WW1 & 2 German Memorial

Latemar Loop

From Predazzo we took the lift up to Passo Feudo on a stunning blue bird morning. Track maintenance closures veered us onto some very cool sections of single track and we just kept going. A rocky descent and balcony trail lead us onto forestry roads where logging work blocked our way. No probs as we circumnavigated our way around the lumberjacks to Passo Carezza and onto a steep trail back to our start point. An excellent ride with lots of rocks and roots.

Tuning the cow bells

Latemar Loop rocky ST

Latemar Loop exit rocky ST


We crammed in a tramp from Passo Pordoi after a free bus ride from Canazei. It was a climb to the very top of Piz Boè at 3125 m for the most amazing 360 degree view the world has ever known. And yes someone has perched a restaurant at the top end of this universe. There was rarefied air, less gravity and loads of happy trampers. This would be the closest we ever got to the top of Aoraki/Mt Cook in Italy and a great place for lunch. Tired legs descending though.

Standing on 3125 m rocky ground

Back at the snow

Nearing Passo Pordoi

Our Canazei stay was over and we were all packed up and headed for Pieve di Cadore with Cortina d’Ampezzo just up the road and the Reinhold Messner Mountain Museum just up a distant mountain.
Ciao baby.


Dogs bath