OK, so there aren’t any easy trails from Rabla, a little village north of Bolzano, IT near Austria, where we spent a week for the first time. I’d suggested that our last day there be a relative-rest day: a little walk for a picnic with time for packing and doing catch-up chores before and after lunch. Bill pulled out his map and plotted a relatively easy, 6-mile hike involving riding a nearby lift up to a trail that was basically a traverse to another lift. We’d take the second lift down, walk another mile or so to the grocery stores in this bigger village, and take the bus back with our loot.
Even the lower elevation terrain above Rabla was steep.
We’d expected the previous day’s hike on the less-steep side of the valley to be a fairly gentle family trail, but it was quite demanding. We dug deep and made a great cardio training activity out of it but the other couples our age that clearly had also anticipated more of a stroll were seriously distressed.
On another hike from Rabla, Bill wanted to head for the Zielspitz peak that would have been a 2-day’er for us, but we’d turn around far short of the peak. Definitely the trail less traveled, I noticed that our pace had slowed to less than one and a half miles per hour. It felt like we were barely moving on what was often more of an animal track than a trail. The only place in the area where we could speed-along at our 3+ mph pace was on the paved, riverside bike path, which should have been scenic but was boring. There seemed to be no middle ground in Rabla.
But it is never too steep for a strudel hut at a farm house.
Back in 2011, we stashed our bikes in Selva di Val Gardena for the winter a week earlier than planned and took a bus to Solda, which is near the classic, epic Stelvio pass. This year, Bill had calculated that our electric bikes, which were on their second season of touring, could make the last of the 3000’ climb to Solda IF he whacked the day down to 12 miles.
It was nerve-wracking to watch the projected remaining mileage on the gauge melt away to almost nothing though the more reliable “bars” reported that we had enough battery power to make it. Like the bars on a cell phone, except that these only go down, they kept us in touch with our power reserves. Bill’s estimate that we could climb about 900-1000’ per bar held true but without a lot to spare.
The look and feel of Solda in the non-Dolomite Italian Alps are so different than those of the villages in the Dolomite regions. We’ve spent most of our time in the Dolomites in the 3 villages of Val Gardena and they positively throb with good cheer and vigor. Charming chalet-styled buildings (even in the industrial parks) with flowers overflowing their boxes on almost every balcony; almost all of the car parking is out-of-sight underground; clerks and staff are occasionally in traditional dress and speak to each other in their regional language; and very fit local people charge around on foot and bikes during their off hours making the ambiance intense and upbeat. It’s always felt like a fantasyland but not delusional. Whole families are also hard at work hand raking hay on impossibly steep slopes that are ski runs in the winter and many are also engaged in the traditional industry of the valley, which is wood carving.
Solda, in contrast, is literally at the end of the road. There are no tour buses rolling through on the way to the dramatic passes beyond the villages like in the Dolomites. The hiking trails from Solda are difficult and a relatively high percentage of the few sharing our trails carried ropes or ice axes. It was more of an “all or nothing” destination, unlike in the Dolomites where there always seems to be a wide range in the difficulty of outings available.
There were incredible, distinctive, panoramas from the peaks above Solda.
The communities in places like Val Gardena seemed to have found the perfect blend of old and new: their Ladin language is the first of 3 or 4 languages they learn in school; they keep their traditional costumes and celebrations alive with frequent pageants and parades; and they are always adding new mountain bike events and courses on the slopes to keep tourists coming back. We delight in feeling welcome and included; we don’t have a sense of us vs them when in the Dolomites. (Amazingly, in Palm Springs, CA, locals will complain to directly to us about feeling invaded by the snowbirds when it is clear that we are two of those very snowbirds.)
Biking to Passo dello Stelvio from Solda was my peak event of our summer abroad. It is a legendary ride, a test of cycling prowess, a ride that gives you incredible ‘cred’ IF you do it right, which we did not. But I loved it anyway, without shame.
From above Solda: Just “Wow!
There was a small problem however: going to the top wasn’t the plan for the day, though it was a possibility for the next day. I reviewed the itinerary, options, and issues with Bill and made a counter proposal. We’d press-on to the spartan, mid-pass hotel Bill had booked for the night; hope to check-in early; immediately plug in our bike batteries so they could feed while we ate lunch in the room; and then we’d bike to the pass without our load. Daily, outdoor picnics are practically an obligatory part of our lifestyle, but the pay-off of going to the pass would be worth sitting on the bed eating in our small, funky room.
Ortler: What an imposing mass of rock!
Doing Stelvio was on Bill’s bucket list but I was the one on Cloud 9 going up. I loved to once again feel the thrill of clawing up a steep mountain with the help of switchbacks. And this road was narrower than many we’d done, with the tight turns being technically challenging for me on my e-mountain bike that was a bit like steering a bronco. I studied and mimicked the motorcyclists who were also carefully carving the tight turns and was further elated by immediately refining my skill and steadiness. Even with the electric assist, we worked hard enough to enjoy a small sense of accomplishment along with the majesty of the journey.
Going to the pass was my visual-kinesthetic feast; being at the top was Bill’s magical moment. Somewhere along the way when my attention was riveted on the peaks and cutting the corners, Bill was being rocked inside. Something unexpectedly shifted deep within him and he was overwhelmed by a sense of liberation when we reached the summit. July 29th is a day we’ll both remember. We saw the same scenery and rode the same bikes and yet we had vastly different personal experiences.
Looking back on some of the ‘switches’.
Our hats go off to all that were riding Stelvio, however they did it. There were hundreds, perhaps a thousand or more, riders. A special cheer goes the unusually high percentage of women, more than any other pass we’d done. Instead of literally 1 or 2 women in the saddles, they had a presence that warmed this old lady’s heart.
Another shout-out goes out to the 6 to 8 stressed cyclotourists, almost all without panniers to save weight, that struggled to the pass with their gear strapped on their handlebars and below their saddles. And there was the man about our age who seemed to be totally detached from his body as he carried on—he flicked his tongue out with every pedal stroke.
The sports cars are always a presence on mountain passes and they were out in force on Stelvio: they were numerous and varied. The most amusing sight was watching a pair, a Lotus and Mustang, on their descent. The American muscle car was no match for the nimbleness of the Lotus, having to essentially come to a complete stop to make the curves. Soon, only the Mustang was in sight.
Blissed-out Bill at Passo dello Stelvio.
There could be no question that the draw was huge to do this, the second-highest paved pass in Europe. Only France's Isera, at 9,088’ (2,770 m), is higher. Yes, the difference is only about 40’. There are 48 numbered switchbacks on Stelvio but plenty more before the numbering begins to keep the drivers and riders entertained and the passengers terrified.
Having e-bikes, even on the descent, was a huge help in the bottlenecks because I could stop in my tracks rather than look for a good place to restart. I confidently advanced to hold my position after a motorcyclist and a roadie crowded in front of me when I had stayed back from a 3-car knot on a hairpin curve. As a cyclist in Europe, it’s ultimately safest to hold your position on the road and I did well that day because of the extra power available for maneuvering in any direction.
The Pursuit of New E-Bikes
Seefeld didn’t really happen as a hiking venue, it instead became a business one with a few short hikes sprinkled in. The hiking was sacrificed in hopes that we’d be able to pick-up our special-ordered Bulls bikes in Munich, which was a 2-3 hour train ride away. (Seefeld is one of the ski resort destinations for Müncheners).
The timing for an overall difficult situation was as good as it could have been given our itinerary for the summer was fixed by reservation deposits made months ago. Seefeld was our closest venue to Munich, there was good train service between the 2 and, inexplicably, we could not buy the bikes in Italy despite the company’s Italian website. Had we been staying in Germany for several weeks; the manufacturer would have delivered them to our door.
The festive scene at the top, at the Pass.
Bill had been following the brands, models, and features of e-bikes for several years, anticipating that the day would soon come when I could no longer perform at the level needed to keep cyclotouring on a conventional bike. All of that interest and research was suddenly put into play one day in July 2018. It was then that we were reunited with our touring bikes that had been stored over the winter in the Alps and I promptly learned that I couldn’t power my bike up a hill. I’d had trouble hiking but being on my bike underscored my significant loss of athletic performance from anti-hypertensive drugs.
In the preceding month, I’d been able to press through my decreased cardiac output most of the time, but the lack of my ‘turbo’ power occasionally needed on the bike revealed the full extent of my deficits. Bill sprang into action: he knew exactly what he wanted in an e-bike, but we quickly learned that we could have little from his list of criteria. There was basically one e-bike available to us on our short time line that could be used for loaded touring, that could carry weight, and just barely.
These Katarga mountain bikes were relatively low-end but had the Bosch motor he had heard was the best. We reluctantly bought them to save our summer bike tour and with heavy hearts, shipped our custom touring bikes home for the last time. Had we weeks or a month to shop, we’d have gone to Munich and selected from the large inventories of the many e-bike dealers there, but we had a week until we’d be on the road.
Surprisingly, had I had my customary athletic capacity, the electric assist would have added little to our daily cycling range. Being more than 20 lbs heavier with low-end components and a motor that decreased one’s net power output when the motor was off, we couldn’t go much higher or farther than we could under our own power on better bikes. But, I could hardly breath sometimes, so they were a game changer for me. Bill was especially disappointed that their power wasn’t sufficient to put venues that were just out of reach for us within reach, like Stelvio.
We were taking a pause at Passo Sella with the tricked-out motos when I learned that we could be riding better bikes.
Basically, when standing on a street corner, or in this case, at Passo Sella on a day ride, Bill idly commented that he’d found the perfect e-bike for us online in the last week. Because of his strong desire to shop around for bikes in Munich and chat with sales reps, he planned to buy them or something similar in 2 years. He’d worked out a 3-week scenario with laying over in Munich on our way to the Alps from England, checking out the biggest dealers, then returning to Munich a month later to trade-in our original e-bikes and pick-up our newly ordered ones.
Having just survived the humiliation of being emphatically told by a Selva bike mechanic that we were riding regrettable bikes, I wasn’t keen on riding mine for 2 more years if Bill’s perfect bike was available now. We knew much of what wasn’t right about our bikes, but the mechanic sharpened our carefully buried pain.
I countered with “You can wait 2 years; I want mine NOW!” in a half-joking tone. Bill was on the defensive, backpedaling to explain why it HAD seemed to be logical to plan the bike purchase into our itinerary 2 years in advance. Knowing that I wasn’t really joking and that he didn’t want to be left pedaling his current bike while I was on the bike of his dreams, securing 2 new bikes was instantly the top priority on our calendar, which ushered in a string of frustrations.
Nothing Was Easy
We were so excited by the prospect of soon having the e-bikes we should have had all along, and yet nothing was easy about getting them. It was at the end of the model year and few were available. Contrary to the online information, they couldn’t be purchased in Italy or Austria, only in Germany. We couldn’t trade-in our old bikes whether buying in Germany, Austria or Italy; it was essentially impossible for us to sell them in Italy or in Seefeld; and even giving away our bikes anywhere proved difficult. And then there was the money.
The view from the best picnic spot on the trails above Seefeld, AT.
Travelers quickly learn that things they take for granted at home, like “Just pick up the phone and call” may not be simple, or even possible. Donating or selling the bikes would have been straightforward at home was hard in Seefeld, Austria or in Italy, and so was getting cash to the Munich bike shop.
The English-speaker at the bike shop explained that they were a small shop and could not absorb the 4% credit card fee, so took no credit cards, unlike the Italian sporting goods store from which we purchased our first e-bikes in 2018. We could get the needed 7,500 Euros in cash, but if the deal fell through, we’d be stuck with the pile of Euros in the last weeks of our time in Europe. When in England, the banks wouldn’t even break a 20-pound note unless we had an account, so it was easy to imagine the difficulties of exchanging a pile of Euros for dollars in Europe. We’d take an even bigger loss if we brought the Euros home to exchange. We intended to come back to Europe in 2020 but didn’t want to sit on that much foreign currency in case our return plans were foiled.
As a back-up, Bill contacted our bank to increase our daily withdrawal amount from an ATM. And he again spent hours and hours researching the fine points of international money wire transfers with several institutions, discovering by trial and error that the rules change with the increasing amounts of money.
The take home lesson for all is BRING YOUR PHONE CHIP FROM HOME when you travel internationally in case you need a lot more cash than anticipated. Only because Bill thought to load his US chip into his phone while on Skype with our bank, was he able to receive the needed security code by SMS. Had he not done that, he wouldn’t have been able to wire money from 2 different US financial institutions or have raised our withdrawal limit. It was a very sobering reality, especially if the need for more funds had been because of an emergency.
The similar look belies the wildly different feel of the Katarga mountain e-bike & the Bulls trekking e-bike.
Midway on the train ride to Munich to claim our prepaid bikes, we received a call from the bike shop on a bad connection saying “No, no, the third payment you wired has not arrived, the payment we thought was yours was someone else’s.” We were down to sort of a “he said/she said” over 4,000 Euros and were flummoxed. There was nothing to do but wait until we arrived in Munich. Our bank said the funds were deposited in their Munich bank almost a week before; the bike shop owner’s belief was that the funds had not yet arrived.
We transferred to a local Munich rail line, made the short walk to the bike shop, and walked through the door with falsely confident smiles. Amazingly, our money had appeared in their bank account 40 minutes before. “Really?” We’ll never know the true story, though we have our own theories. The formal introduction to our bikes and final cash payment went like nothing happened and we left an hour later with our bikes under our bottoms.
We immediately loved them! They were the touring bikes we wanted instead of mountain bikes retrofitted for touring we had settled for: they came with back racks, fenders, and integrated front and rear lights like proper German bikes. The handlebars were sized for our hands to be about shoulder width apart instead of the much wider position now the rage for mountain bikes.
The grips had little landing pads for our palms instead of the standard tube shape, which was delightful. When on heavy gravel, we’ll miss the balloon tires of our mountain e-bikes, but we immediately loved the tighter turning radius of the new bikes for close encounters with moving objects and others. The new bikes were sleeker, a tad lighter, and had 50% more battery power. We were told that those extra watts wouldn’t result in 50% more performance, though we weren’t certain why.
Back To Seefeld, AT
In keeping with the roller coaster ride, our train trip back to the Seefeld had its own glitch. The train was packed and in the first cars with places designated for bikes, the passengers wouldn’t budge to let us park our bikes. Running with the bikes towards the end of the very long train, a conductor on the platform assured us that there was yet another bike wagon and we should keep going. When the train departed 4 minutes early, Bill instantly knew that we’d gone too far. They’d lined up trains with 3 different destinations on the same track, not the 2 that we’d smugly ascertained.
Fortunately, Bill’s earlier study of the train options put him instantly at ease. If we couldn’t exit our car and hop on the trailing train going on to Seefeld, we could bike there. The 10 miles was more than we’d choose to do 2 hours before bedtime, but it was certainly do-able, even without our better pedals and seats
“Got ‘em!” Lunch a few blocks from the Munich bike shop.
The last step in the month-long, new-bike saga would be completed the next morning. We’d ride our original bikes from our ski resort town Seefeld to the asylum-seeker home on the outskirts of a nearby working-class village and drop-them off with all of their kit, including the original seats, pedals and chargers that Bill had hauled on his bike for the last month.
The final detail would be mailing a package to our hostess in Selva. That would relieve Bill of carrying the new set of original pedals, saddles, and the second battery charger. We desperately needed the space in his back-rack overflow bag for our daily grocery shopping when we were traveling between hiking venues. Then, it would all be history. We would shift our focus to getting to know our new Bulls e-bikes.
Throughout this bike swapping saga, Bill repeatedly commented: “You’ve really compressed this process.” Indeed, I was relentless, like a trash compactor. Bill intended to buy new bikes in 2 years, and I responded with “How about today?” Bill envisioned a 3-week process in 2 years with at least 2 trips to Munich; I envisioned a single trip. When we started nailing down the timing details for picking the bikes up this summer in Munich, Bill envisioned 3 days and 2 nights in Munich; I proposed a same-day trip. Bill assumed we’d haul our pedals, cycling sandals, and special saddles to Munich; I suggested only helmets, cycling glasses, and gloves. The bike shop guy had expressed interest on the phone in buying our old bikes for himself but given the extra strain and stress of taking them on the train and the risk of him not buying them, we again compressed the plan to giving them away locally.
We kept ourselves nimble and efficient for the challenging day to Munich. We used our rain suits in Seefeld only but both in the morning and upon our return in the evening. We took lunch and dinner so we could just bath and go to bed when we finally got in close to 7 pm. We did take our prescription medications for the next day in case things went poorly. Fortunately, we didn’t need them but were comforted by having them with us at noon when we got the call regarding the missing transferred funds.
The Bulls definitely had daintier tires.
Bill routed us from Seefeld, AT over Brenner Pass and back into the Alps region of Italy to Mühlbach and Moos on roads and bike paths we hadn’t traveled for 3 or more years. We were fascinated by the changes and lack of changes in the accommodation for bikes.
The Italian authorities finally abandoned the truly horrible official bike route from Fortezza towards Brenner Pass that was a narrow, very steep, dirt track. We had to turn around and retreat to the highway some years ago when it was newly opened because it was totally unsuitable for non-mountain bikes loaded with gear. Each time in the area, we’d brave the heavy traffic rather than take the hideous, designated route.
Three years ago, the impossible course appeared to have been closed due to landslides, which wasn’t surprising given its precarious perch in some places. Much to our delight this summer, we rode on the new, proper, paved route that should have been the original one. (Ironically, we likely could have made it on the original track with our e-bikes.) We had to wonder if the years-long project to build a tunnel to bypass Brenner Pass hadn’t been the final push, perhaps to get cyclists like us off of the road and away from the heavy construction traffic.
In another area, Val Pusteria, there were wonderful multi-use paths where signs hadn’t even existed. “I remember when….” Bill used the German-text Bike Line touring guide books to get us through the area and later, his Garmin GPS maps. It was challenging at best, with lots of starts, stops, and retreats to make it through the area in those days. I wondered if we all had Bike Line to thank for these civilized routes: the sheer number of people following their instructions may have forced the local officials to make it safer for us all. The official route name “München - Venezia” (Munich to Venice) matched that of a Bike Line route book. And of course, now these routes are flooded with local day riders, not just cyclotourists doing all or part of the long-distance course
Black & Blue in Moos
“Maybe it’s time to go home” I laughingly said to Bill at dinner in Moos while showing him my latest scuffs, bruises, and the massive swelling on my right elbow and forearm. It had been a rough week for me.
One of a ‘bizillion” photos taken of Drei Zinnen; this was taken from our via ferrata approach.
I certainly hadn’t had time to aim for the boulder, but it was in hindsight, a better option than most because it cut down on the “g’s” (gravitational force) behind my stop. I was still taking inventory when Bill hollered “Are you alright? Do you need help?” My crisis manager was too busy scanning to answer right away: “Sharp focal-point pain right lower ribs; sharp pain on tip of right ASIS (anterior superior iliac spine) of pelvis; very painful right elbow; that’s it.” After the slightest wiggle to assess its effect on the pain feedback, I announced “Nothing is broken.”
I was able to roll up to standing on my own and once upright, quickly determined that I could make the long walk out. Some back muscles had gotten jerked around and my irritable right sacro-illiac joint was assessing how punishing it could be after the insult, but all was stable enough to hope that the several more hours of walking might actually be soothing to those areas.
Once back at the apartment, I was in no hurry to inspect my wounds. It was sort of “If I don’t look, maybe they won’t be there” self-deception. We ate dinner and only after stalling a bit to take my shower, did I actually, reluctantly look at and palpate my injures. Only a little scuffing of the skin occurred because I had on 4 layers to fend off the icy wind, but the bruising and swelling all around my elbow portended disrupted sleep for a night or 2 and extreme caution to avoid banging it on anything for days. The causes of the sharp pain in both my ribs and pelvis left no marks and were barely tender at all by then. Indeed, I had been lucky.
This is called “airy” in via ferrata parlance. At least Barb stayed on her feet when it mattered.
Two days before the fall onto the boulder, I had tumbled backwards while peeing on a slope on the same mountain. I was carefully out-of-sight in a limestone sink hole, so didn’t go far, but I got scuffed-up. My left elbow was still swollen and scratched, I had a small knot on my head, and a few scratches from the thistle-like plants on my bum.
Three days before that, I had unwittingly severely injured the ulnar nerve on my left hand on our first big riding day on our new e-bikes. A week on, and the last 2 fingers on that hand were still numb. We were optimistic that they’d fully recover, though it was taking a disturbing amount of time for the nerve to improve. The injury that typically recovers in hours or a few days would take over a month to resolve, perhaps requiring some regrowth.
Ironically, the boulder-wrap day was the same day that I announced: “I have felt well all day”. I hadn’t kept a daily journal about my sense of wellness but that easily could have been the first day in about 15 years that I could say that. So, even though my body’s contact with the world in the last week had left too many marks, I was delighted that my chronic ailments on the inside were finally significantly improving, so much so that they were evident through the freshest mishaps.
Wrapping Up in Selva
Being in Selva is always a sentimental time. We’ve been going there for 15 years and for the last 9, we stay twice: once each when we are dropping off and picking up our bikes. It’s always our last venue for play in Europe, after that, we are rewinding our way back home over several days. We make our time in Selva a mix of doing something new, repeating classic walks and epic hikes, and reflecting in a way to create satisfying closure.
Were it not for the rain, there would have been 30 or more cyclists, motorcyclists, and other tourists milling at Passo Sella.
Doing our own “Sella Ronda Bike Day” on our new Bulls e-bikes did happen; it was the second of 2 on the “something new” list. The official event now occurs once in the early summer and once just after we leave in the fall, which is when the police close the roads connecting 4 mountain passes to all traffic until 3:30. Years ago when this 40 mile, 6,400’ gain event was sponsored once a year, we did the entire ride on our touring bikes and several years we did a couple of the passes. Unfortunately, it no longer fits with our itinerary.
The traffic should have been menacing on our much-anticipated, Sella Ronda day but the storms forecast for 4:00 pm started with drizzle at 11:30. Our “surely it will pass” prediction was wrong, and the other joy-ride drivers and riders apparently went home.
There was a sun break while cresting Passo Pordoi around 2 pm but we were in our rain suits most of the day. We were disappointed not to be able to take photos of the stunning scenery to share, but we were otherwise indifferent to the rain because we were positively enthralled with our new e-bikes.
Bill’s much anticipated Sella Ronda delivered the fun ride he wanted, and it cemented our love affair with our new e-bikes. Compared with our first pair, the batteries on these babies were advertised as 50% larger but the dealers cautioned that we wouldn’t get a 50% increase in range. The mumbo-jumbo explanation left us scratching our heads, which is a too-common experience when talking shop with bike people.
Barb & her trophy Bulls e-bike finishing the Sella Ronda.
The numbers were thrilling for our future itinerary: these new e-bikes would allow us to ride the entire Stelvio pass route, from Prato allo Stelvio in the valley to the Pass. It was an exciting prospect and returning to Stelvio moved from the “In a year or 2” category to being on the schedule for next year. It was an incredible high with which to wrap-up our summer overseas, one that cancelled-out any glumness from riding in the rain for hours.
The SW In Our Sights
It would be another whirlwind, 2-week stay at home and then we’d be on the road in our trailer to the SW again for the winter. Our mail ordered ultralight camping gear and vacuum sealer for dehydrated food were waiting for us and we were anxious to dive into our pile of new toys.