Mountain biking in the Dolomites

The Dolomites remains a hidden gem for mountain bikers, writes locally-based activity tour operator Daniel Sherlock.

The Dolomites, known worldwide for the many famous climbing and via ferrata routes, remains a hidden gem for mountain bikers, writes locally-based activity tour operator Daniel Sherlock.

The Italian Dolomites is a somewhat overlooked region for mountain biking - at least by many in the UK - but is full of fantastic possibilitiess. The sport's presence here is most definitely on the up.
 
The western part of the range, in particular, is home to a vast network of mountain bike trails. This area extends from the city of Trento in the southwest to Bolzano and Bressanone in the northwest, and across to the glacial peaks of the Marmolada and the Sella Massif in the east. The famous peaks hereabouts are well known for their sheer cliff faces, which often rise straight out of alpine meadows, but there are plentiful trails around them that aren't necessarily as steep or difficult to tackle as you might think.
 
On the trail, with views down to the Val di Fassa

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There are four prime areas in the western Dolomites for mountain biking: Sella Ronda in the heart of the region; the Alpe di Siusi to the northwest; Col Rodella to Val Duron, east of Sella Ronda; and finally the Baita alla Cascate, accessed from Pozza di Fassa a little further south.
 
Sella Ronda
The famous Sella Ronda Tour, a great challenge for cross country/all-mountain riders, follows the route of the Sella Ronda Hero race that takes place yearly. The race route takes you over four passes, completing a full circular tour of the Sella Massif, an iconic group of vertical-faced mountain peaks. Dubbed 'the world toughest single-day mountain bike marathon', the route is an über-challenging 84km with over 4,300 metres ascent.
 
The Sella Ronda Tour, which I'd highly recommend anyone to try - especially in the clockwise direction - takes full advantage of the area's ski-lifts, leaving just 730 metres ascent. The lifts offer a chance to chat with your riding buddies about the previous descent, and to take in your surroundings. From a scenery point of view the highlight is perhaps the ridge ride along from the top of the lift from Corvara towards Pralongia, where the views either side of the valley are breathtaking.
 
In terms of trail and riding highlights, the descent from Passo Pordoi is probably my favourite. It starts on open alpine meadow but soon enters the pine forests - where the singletrack is fast and flowing and a truly enjoyable technical challenge. The descent from Passo Gardena is also a really fun blast; while slightly less technical, it's stunning because for the main part you are descending on open pastures. To get the most from the Sella Ronda Tour I'd suggest using a trail bike or all-mountain bike, although it's possible to do it on a hardtail XC bike. Taking the descent with caution riders used to UK red-graded trails should have few problems, although the trails can get very steep.
 
A visit to the Dolomites wouldn't be complete without a tour of the Sella Ronda; however if you do just that you will only be scratching the surface of the mountain biking scene.
 
Alpe di Siusi
Tours normally set out from the town of Compatsch in the German-speaking region of the Italian Dolomites. The Alpe di Siusi tour is one of the lesser technical tours in the regio, mainly following mountain paths and roads with just a small section on tarmac. Double track is the key to this ride, however for me this is perfect, as this ride is more about enjoying the stunning scenery.
 
Riding in an anticlockwise direction, depart Compatsch and head southwest with the Sciliar peaks directly in front of you, heading upwards onto the high alpine pastures. This area contains Europe's most extensive high alpine pasturelands, and offers wonderful views of the peaks and towns below. The climbing, although there is a fair amount with a total ascent of around 1,200 metres, is mostly easy-going due to good surfaced trails. Heading up towards the ridge between Catinaccio Antermoia and Sasso Piatto you'll often see groups of people riding horses or in horse-drawn carriages in the busy summer periods. Further along is Rifugio Zallinger, a good place to stop for food and a rest at just over halfway round the tour and with the vast majority of the climbing done.
 
Already a long tour at 35km, this can be made into a epic one of over 50km for riders staying on the Val di Fassa side of the valley by adding the Alpi Siusi loop after Rifugio Sasso Piatto in the 'Col Rodella - Val Duron ride'.
 
Col Rodella - Val Duron
A short lift ride from Campitello takes you high into the mountains to Col Rodella, where you join a trail that leads along the bases of the southern face of the Sassolungo and Sassopiatto. The trail here undulates up and down but stays roughly at around 2,400 metres, offering some absolutely stunning views down into Val di Fassa. It's challenging, but flows fantastically well with short rocky sections offering a bit of a challenge to navigate through. There are two short sections to hike where there are stairs in the rock face, but this shouldn't deter a keen rider because the trail is an absolute blast leading to Rifugio Sasso Piatto. From there you take one of my favourite trails and follow the ridge west towards Passo Duron on singletrack. Staying high on the ridgeline but slowly descending, this trail is wonderful and offers some stunning views into the valleys either side. Once at the top of Val Duron you'll be heading downhill properly and this starts to get steep. The initial descent has many loose gravel sections and needs to be approached with care - but it's great fun.
 
Eventually you'll hit a mountain road, which you follow to Rifugio Micheluzzi where there's a stunning downhill trail hidden on the opposite side of the river. Push the bike across the small footbridge turning left, then over a small crest you enter into the woods where the trail starts. The steepness and the technical features of the trail are for me equivalent to a UK black-graded trail, although there is only one drop-off that is too big to be rolled (at least on a 26er trail bike). It's a cracking test of skills and a really good example of one of the areas enduro-style trails.
 
Alternatively you can carry on down the mountain road and use the opportunity to enjoy the scenery as you descend Val Duron back into Campitello.
 
Baita Alla Cascate
A straightforward there-and-back ride on opposite sides of the valley's river. Begin at the village of Pozza di Fassa and head up Val San Nicolo. Initially the ascent starts on tarmac (the ride can be shortened taking the road up to a car park higher in the valley), but this soon ends and the trail becomes loose and rocky. You ascend the Valley surrounded by the ridgelines of the Colac and Monzoni, which stay snowy well into June and sometimes July. The trail passes through a wide-open valley dotted with quaint wooden alpine huts called Baite, mostly privately owned - but some offer a place to grab a drink and some food.
 
Arriving at Baita Alla Cascate there's a short sharp final uphill onto another wide alpine meadow where there are fields of wild flowers during the summer months. The scenery is stunning and only adds to the sense of achievement at reaching the top of the valley, plus the food is great and the waterfall is a wonderful backdrop even if you just stay and have a beer. The descent follows the same path down for a short section before cutting off to the left where there are some nice sections in the forest.
 
For riders wanting more, there's a thin trail that leads up to the very crest to Passo San Nicolo’ which is a steep push up but well worth it if you want to make up a longer day of riding. From Passo San Nicolo’ there is a fantastic natural trail that leads down Val Contrin. Starting as a cracking technical descent made up of loose soil single-track on pastureland, there's a lower rocky section to tackle before you reach a wider forest road. You'll descend into Alba, where there's a cycle path that runs by the side of the Avisio river that leads you back to Pozza and the start of the ride. Another variation is to add in a loop up to Malga Monzoni, which will have you ascending on forestry roads and back via forest paths and some short sections of single track.

Bike Parks
In Val di Fassa, in the heart of the western Dolomites, there are two closely linked bike parks that have been constantly evolving over the last five years.

Bike Park Buffaure offers some classic natural style downhill trails descending through the dense woodland into the village of Pozza di Fassa. The Furious Line is my trail of choice, as it's more open and fast flowing, where the Z-Line is exactly like it sounds, extremely steep and full of switchbacks. The Furious Line is natural trail with large roots and prolonged rock gardens, however the trail never becomes too much to handle on a 160mm enduro bike for an advanced rider and is an absolute blast on a full downhill bike. With over 600 metres of vertical drop and a track distance of 2.9km the descents are long and incredibly good fun.
 
Bike Park Belvedere is serviced with two uplifts, which is perfect to allow longer full runs, or the chance to session the upper trails and lower trails individually. The upper trails are open and packed full of flat-out berms, kickers, tabletop and gap jumps including my personal favourite Double U - at 2.7km long and with 450m descent this offers the perfect balance of speed, big berms and fun jumps with loamy soil and amazing views of the Sella Towers, Col Rodella and more.
 
The lower trails are a more demanding challenge, with steep rocky freeride lines descending through the pine woodland. Loose rocks and roots litter the lower trails and add to this skinny jumps, drops and the Parabola, a wickedly steep S-curved section of northshore, the trails offer a serious challenge to all but the most seasoned dowhillers. While the upper sections are rideable on a 160mm enduro bike, the lower sections are far steeper and are best tackled on a freeride or full downhill bike.

TOP 5 EXPERIENCES

1. The Sella Ronda Hero Race

The region really comes to life with a full weekend of racing action, normally in the last weekend of June, with thousands of international racers flooding into the valleys. They're here to take part in the Sella Ronda Hero mountain bike race, and also the Sella Ronda Bike Day which is a festival of road cycling that follows a similar route on road over the same four passes with all the roads closed exclusively for cyclists.

2. Val di Fassa Bike Race

Another race event, normally taking place on the second weekend of September and also part of the UCI mountain bike marathon world series. Attracts international riders and hobbyists alike.

3. Tour of Sasso Piatto and Sasso Lungo

An alternative mountain bike tour, with two variations for easier trails or more extreme trails, that will push the limits of the fittest and most skilled riders.

4. The Latemar Tour

Taking you around the Latemar, this is a wonderfully scenic tour including a route round the iconic Lake Carezza a famous spot for photographers and walkers.

5. The Avisio River Tour

Starting out from Canazei at 1465 metres, this route takes you through the villages along the Avisio river which is fed from the glacier on the Marmolada. A mix of gravel roads and tarmac pass through Val di Fassa and in to Val di Fiemme, finally arriving at Molina some 48km away. An easier ride that's enjoyable for families with a bus ride back (available from any of the villages en-route) you can enjoy the slow gradual descent and take in all the scenery.

WHEN TO VISIT

Best times to go:

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The bike parks and Sella Ronda Tour are open from the third weekend in June, when the Sella Ronda race is held, through to the end of September. Most other tours can be done from mid June through to late October, although many of the facilities, including the lifts and some rifugi, are closed from the end of September in preparation for the winter season.
 
In August it can get busy on some of the most popular trails and paths, plus the Italian summer sun can be very strong. If you can avoid this time it may be favourable, but it's not absolutely necessary - you'll just have to pay more attention to other path users if doing the natural trail tours I've described.
 
I'd advise anyone coming to make sure they bring plenty of layers because, while the sun can be very intense, you'll likely be riding at considerable altitude - over 2,000 metres for lots of rides - so the temperature can change greatly through the course of the day.  Also don't forget sunglasses and sun protection, both essential at all times.

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