Man and Mountain: The Dolomites

For the launch of the Brevet collection, riders Neil Phillips, Will Linton, and photographer George Marshall travelled to Italy’s Dolomites to explore the area surrounding the Messner Mountain Museums – a six-site project created by Italian climber Reinhold Messner in dedication to man’s encounter with the mountains. Here, Neil Phillips recalls the steep passes, rough gravel paths, and freezing temperatures they encountered as they linked the high-altitude museums over three days.

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The plan was not about distance but to explore, letting the tracks and our instincts lead us to that which lay beyond the obvious. There was no itinerary, just a destination and a desire to do things differently. The Dolomites are steeped in cycling history – the Giau, the Stelvio, the Gavia – the passes that wind up, over and between the region’s famed limestone monoliths are paths well-trodden. But that’s not what we’d come for – it was the roads, paths and local sights that rarely come up in conversation that we craved and that formed the basis for the ride.

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One

Pozzale di Cadore to San Vigilio

Leaving Pozzale di Cadore, a one-time medieval stronghold, we took a local cycleway and wound through broadleaf trees on lanes hidden from view from the town below. Gaining altitude and passing the flowing lines of the 1956 Olympic ski jump in Cortina d’Ampezzo, paved roads soon gave way to forestry tracks, pastures, and shepherd’s huts. These initial kilometres gently set the scene for the three days ahead.

With the increasing elevation the challenge became not where to go but how to get there, and 30% gravel ramps forced us off the bikes and onto our feet. We had no plans, nowhere to stay, and nowhere to eat, but below in the valley the village of San Vigilio offered the prospect of food and temporary warmth. Snaking down a gravel descent we passed a small solitary barn. It was noted and would be our bed for the night.

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Two

San Vigilio to Bolzano

Waking at dawn with the mountains peering down on us the sun rose steadily. The barn had protected us from the wind but not the chill and the unanticipated temperature drop to just above freezing. It was a reminder to George and I to double check our sleeping plans for the forthcoming Transcontinental race*. Packing bivvies and roll mats we climbed narrow roads and gravel tracks skirting ski slopes and scree. Our first Messner Mountain Museum (MMM), Corones, was designed by the late Zaha Hadid. Perched on the summit plateau of Kronplatz at 2,275m, the sixth and most recent museum is dedicated to the art of mountaineering. In Messner’s words, ‘a 250-year-old contest between man and the mountain’. The final gravel approach to the summit was testament to Messner’s philosophy: averaging 10% and peaking at 20% the Falzarego pass was used in the 2008 and the 2010 Giro d’Italia, although undoubtedly not in its present state. We bedded down for the night at the roadside, on piles of fresh hay.

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Three

Bolzano to Pozzale di Cadore

After one of the best night’s sleep I’ve truthfully ever had we set off for Bolzano in search of breakfast and our third museum. The MMM Firmian is a renovated tenth-century castle overlooking the city. A blend of historic and modern architecture, Sigmundskron Castle houses an exhibition relating to ‘ man’s encounter with the mountain’. A striking memory from our visit was a quote on the front cover of a book about climbing the Eiger. The book attributed the deaths of 43 men to ‘an excess in courage’, something that stuck through the hard times of the Transcontinental.

A leisurely start of ice cream and cake set us up for the ride ahead. Two big mountain passes – the Gardena and the Valparola – stood between us and our end point back in Pozzale di Cadore. A tough, exhausting 155km route on and off road gifted us one last treat: a sky of purple and blue hues as the sun set behind Monte Cernera. A final push down through darkness back to Pozzale ended with beer with the locals – true mountain men.

The riders visited three Messner Mountain Museums all located in the South Tyrol in northern Italy – Corones at the summit of Mount Kronplatz, Firmian near Bozen and Ortles in Sulden.

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*Neil Phillips was the second rider to complete the Transcontinental race in 2016