The Maratona Of the Dolomites 2015
August 10th 2015
Report by Alan Paterson
Let’s start with some facts…
The Maratona is a race. It has a winner and is steeped in the traditions of Italian Gran Fondos. Planet X’s Jamie Burrow is the only person from the UK to have won it. He won it twice in 2009 and 2012. (I actually saw him on the podium that year, but didn’t know who he was.)
It is live on Italian TV and that involves a bunch of helicopters flying around all morning, filming everything along withTV crews on motor bikes.
It sells out rapidly and you usually only get an entry via the lottery (or through buying packages from affiliates, which is what I do.)
It gives you masses of free stuff. This year, I returned with a stylish top, matching gillet and bib shorts. They are made by Castelli and are to the same spec as the Garmin Cannondale kit. You can buy extra stuff too. My new Kask helmet is from the Maratona and I took the opportunity to stock up on branded bandanas.
It takes place in the beautiful Dolomites and takes over the region for the week before.
The whole route is on closed roads. (Completely closed!)
Finally, there are three routes, but the only one that counts is the 138 km one - The long route with approximately 4300m of climbing (Though my Garmin is suggesting 5100m.)
I’ll split this into two sections, pre-ride experiences and the ride itself.
As you all know, I’ve been training for this all year and have been getting giddy recently. I arrived in San Cassiano on Wednesday evening, having spent two days driving across Europe and found my hotel. I was on my own, which is fine but the only downside being the lack of opportunity to mention the war to anyone as I travelled across Germany.
I was staying in a half board 2 star hotel. It was perfect; a three course meal every evening plus as much salad as you could eat. You had a choice, but you had to make your choice in advance via a tick list. It was a bit of a gamble sometimes, translating the Italian into something that made sense.
On the Thursday, I went out for my big ride. I had decided to ride to Passo Fadaia which was a pass to the south of where I was staying. It is also called the Marmolada due to this being the name of the mountain towering over it. I subsequently discovered that it was also the scene of an epic Giro Stage in 1987. This was the one where Stephen Roche was abused by the Italian fans all the way up and half his team wouldn’t help. They were riding for Roberto Visentini. In the end, he had Robert Millar (In a different team) riding beside him to protect him from the fans. (and Chris Froome thinks he has it bad!)
I was blissfully unaware of all of this, but it was a tough old climb. Tougher than I expected, but it led to a gorgeous view. I also met my Italian friend, Thomas, here. I had asked him to take my picture and he decided to latch on to me. He had lost his party so we joined forces and rode back to Arabba together. This was useful as he pointed out the Coppi memorial at the top of Pordoi and also Gilberto Simeone’s bike from the 2011 Giro. It was cemented into stone, outdoors. It was all a bit weird, but still looked in good condition. It is worth saying that the Italians are absolutely mad for the Giro and Coppi is still seen as some sort of God.
Sadly, my Garmin got corrupted and I lost my route. I was not happy.
On Friday, I went for a little ride, nothing serious, but out in my Marmotte top and I decided to go to the Passo Erbe to the north. A tough ride again, but I decided it was pointless to come all this way and not enjoy a ride. I met a Dutchman at the top, wearing the exact same top. (He was a lot larger) I stupidly forgot to get a picture of us.
On the Thursday, I had stopped on the way back for Strudel in Corvara and got into conversation with a group. They were British/Dutch and with a tour package. We were discussing our particular chances and I gave a view on what I thought I would do. The woman in the group, told me that she thought that I should be going a lot faster given the shape I seemed to be in. I think this was meant to be a compliment, but it was deadpan and made me feel somewhat slow.
I chatted to loads of people. Despite, being on my own, I never felt alone. It’s the beauty of cycling, people just talk to you and they don’t mind being talked to.
It starts with an alarm at 4.30am. The hotel staff have got up early and put on breakfast. Everyone is ready, all full of anticipation and nerves. We shovel down some food and then go and get all our stuff ready. San Cassiano is a little up the valley so this allows for a gentle roll down the hill. There is a chance of rain later in the day so I have packed my flappy jacket and I put this on to ride down to the start. The race (ride) starts at 6.30am but I get there at 5.45am to get a good position. There are a couple of large pens which everyone crams into and I know that if you get there early you can get reasonably near the start of the pen.
This is useful, because at 6.30am when the gun goes off, we don’t move for 10 minutes until the 3000 or so in front have moved off. It’s then a very careful ride up a false flat into the central town of Corvara, where the first climb starts. This is a gentle climb, but snakes up the hill and can be quite tricky as you are in a massive peloton with people who can be unpredictable; that is both the novices and the faster riders who are trying to squeeze through gaps.
It really only settles down at the top of the first hill, Passo Campolongo and the first descent. These descents were amazing and were the best bit of the day. Each one was on closed roads and as long as you chose the correct line, it was fast and smooth. I would go past loads of people on the descents whilst keeping an eye for the fast ones zipping past me.
One really good thing, was the numbers on our backs, which also had our names and a flag showing nationality. This was good for chatting as we went round and it also helped one chap shout “On your left Alan!!” as he shot past.
Podoi was next. This is a long climb and makes a beautiful photo of everyone snaking up the hill. Its long, not too steep but goes up about 700m in height. This, by the way, is my main calculation of progress. I was never really bothered about the distance to the top, I was more bothered about the height still to go and would break it down into 100m chunks in my head.
Over the Pordoi and another fabulous descent and onto the Sella and then the Gardena. At this point, I started looking at the scenery. It is amazing. The hills are immense and just incredible. The Dolomites is one of the most beautiful places you will ever visit.
At the start of the Sella, there is a band, comprising cowbells and some sort of rattling things. This includes a man with a giant cowbell strapped to his groin, which he rings by thrusting his hips backwards and forwards. They never stop. Quite how they keep this up for the hours it takes for everyone to go past is beyond me. There are these random sights all the way round. It’s all part of the atmosphere.
At the top of the fourth pass, Gardena, there is my favourite part of the day - the descent back into Corvara. I lose about 700m of height through some tight turns and some long straight roads. The roads are still closed so we descend at around 40mph on the straights. At no point, do I feel I am going too fast. This I think is testament to my Scott Foil (other bikes are available) which I think is the best handling bike, I’ve had. I point it at a corner and it just goes round it. I felt super confident, but I was careful to ride to my ability.
Once back in Corvara, we repeated the first climb of the day, this time with a little more room and then turning left away from Pordoi.
There was a cut-off of 11.40am to get to the medium/long split. If you are not there on time, there is a Police roadblock which forces you onto the medium route. No exceptions. This was always my target and I had written down the times that I needed to achieve on the way round.
It should be said in passing that on return to Corvara, this is the end of the short route. I was amazed at the number of people stopping having completed their ride. I am amazed as it was only 9.30am in the morning. If they were riding to my speed they would easily have been able to continue. Why would you have dragged yourself out of bed, waited around all that time and then finish by 9.30am? Weird.
I chatted to a few people as things thinned out. The most notable being Glen Saxton’s friend who caught me halfway up Giau. I did have to be polite and say after a few minutes that I was unable to keep talking and continue at this pace. He waved me a cheery goodbye and slipped slowly ahead.
The Giau was achieved without too much trouble (and in silence). If you were a spectator, you would hear very little. Nobody does much talking. You tend to spend your time in your own thoughts with the sounds of the wildlife and chains whirring.
It’s a little noisier at the top with another Feed station. They are dotted along the route and serve a variety of Energit products (big sponsor), water, Coca Cola, fruit, cakes and sandwiches. I tended to drink the coke, fill up with water on a couple of occasions. They are hectic, but they are huge so there is no real queues. Bizarrely, at the top of Giau there was also a stall offering cheese and Prosecco.
The descent of the Giau, showed the darker side. I saw at least three accidents, two quite serious. It was a fast technical descent, but with the thinning out of the riders, plenty of room to pick a line. It may have been a bit of tiredness setting in. This descent took us down the outskirts of Cortina D’Ampezzo but we turned west again for the final climb of the day. It’s a double header a bit like Glandon/Croix De Fer. The first pass, Falzerego, is where the medium route joins back. The second, Valparola, is about 100m higher and is the last big challenge. Once over that it is a speedy descent back into the valley.
Then we just had to negotiate the Maratona’s version of Jenkin Road. This is a short sharp climb they have added in recent years to give a bit of a spectacle to the finish. It’s about 20% and only takes a few minutes, but the route is lined with people cheering you on. I suppose in hindsight, it was fun.
Then it is a final 3km drag to the finish in Corvara. This is at the ice rink with the finish outside and lots of refreshments inside. Again they give you a voucher for some pasta, a pork chop or a sausage, a dessert and a drink. I just had some strudel and a beer.
I also got a medal and the option of a hat or 10 Euro for the return of my time chip. I opted for the hat.
Finally, the darker side of the Maratona… As I was heading outside to enjoy my food, I saw a sign for doping control. Fortunately, I hadn’t been on their list.
Final time was 7 hours 33 mins. I finished at quarter past two, a good ninety minutes better than last time and with a nice tan as evidence of the day.
I do think it is my best day ever on a bike. I felt strong all day. Sometimes I couldn’t go any faster, but I was never in any danger of having to stop. ...and the descents were so much fun. People said it had been very hot, but I hadn’t noticed it. I must have acclimatised.
In summary, the Marmotte is the tougher ride, but the Maratona is a far greater spectacle and starts from the moment you arrive until the point at which you leave.
If you ever get the chance, grab it, you won’t be disappointed,