Meditations

Between Meals: Cycling the Italian Dolomites


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Vacant eyes obsessively track the road’s painted solid white line. Deep breaths repetitively inhale the increasingly sparse oxygen. Pedals turnover rhythmically up the unceasing ten degree incline. The landscape turns lunar when breaching 2,000 meters in altitude. Jagged white and pink rubble, fragments of the hard stone cragged Dolomite peaks, litters the formerly lush green alpine roadside. Ominously, deep dents from free falling stones released from the 1000 meter cliffs towering overhead pockmark the road.

Up and up, my bike progresses towards the famed Paso Gardena col in the heart of the Italian Dolomite mountain range. Fellow cyclists periodically form groups to suffer together, sweating, gasping and glowing. White noise of the jet stream passes overhead briskly. Deceiving silences of the tight winding switchbacks frequently give way to motorized roars from all directions.

Convoys of kitted out touring motorcycles swerve from behind, the clunk of their clutch launching them ahead brushing tightly by my left shoulder. Oncoming daredevil cars, steering wheels tightly gripped, desperately avoid the motorized and unmotorized two wheel masses. Lingering motor fuel fumes are quickly cleared by the sharp glacier fresh air. The last high performance calories of my mid-morning high octane gel pack burn off. My stomach aches. At this moment, amidst the drama and action, my motivation seesawing between stubborn progress and restful capitulation, there is only one question that matters. What’s for lunch? 

Head down, staring at the perpetually turning cranks, options tastily float across my mind. The favoured alpine starter of a robust clear beef broth with moorish cheese and cured bacon dumplings. Or yesterday’s fresh tagliatelle pesto di pomodori pasta in the the small medieval town square of Chiaso.  Lush and bold yet not brash tomatoes, sweet yet savoury, long and deep in flavour, boosted with mild dark purple olives of the north Mediterranean. Served with the prideful integrity of a proper al dente pasta.

Pasta is certainly on the mental chalk board and certainly not solitary. The standard of the region is three primary courses plus salad bar, dessert, cheese and coffee. So maybe a house rolled mini-gnocchi with the sauce of a Venetian white wine and the mythical regional miracle “grey cheese”. Crumbly grey cubes, inexplicably free from fat, blended with ground bread melting to a life-fulfilling tang.

While pondering lunch a professional rider from the elite BMC racing team casually zings past with silent efficiency and shallow breaths. An immaculate fitted out high tech team car paces from behind. BMC is a Swiss outfit of famed technical obsession and innovation. Awe turns to sympathy as a block of “substance” is handed for the athlete to gnaw on. Calibrated precisely to the peak performance calorie, nutrient and electrolyte for the upcoming Tour de France. The poor emaciated chap in spandex, while he may know athletic glory, today he will not glory in lunch.

Summiting over the col of Passo Gardena, pace rapidly accelerates with gravity turning from foe to friend. Big gears kick in as everyone hungrily bears down. It is common knowledge that there is only one four-star guesthouse on the decent. Only one venue capable of a reliable and satisfying meal worthy to reward four hours of morning cycling. Three stars are passable in a pinch and five only for those tricked by culinary trends and gimmicks. Whatever is on the menu today will be traditional, freshly prepared, locally sourced and soul satisfying. Not because it’s fashionable but because that’s how it has long been done.

The race is on for a table ahead. There are never enough daily specials to last the day. Always prepared to a tight inventory to clears stores and begin afresh tomorrow. Given today is a mild and dry day around the epic UNESCO expanse of Stella Ronda, many wheels are on the road, all undoubtedly now with lunch on their mind.

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Today’s guesthouse isn’t just four stars but a member of Vitalalpina – alpine hotels combining tradition, localism, freshness and health, along with sport and activity. A teutonic merger of body and mind. Today, as most days, I required the speckknodel kit suppe to start. The cured pork belly speck was tender and non-greasy, with subtle hay smoke, a sign of quality. The dumplings mostly filled of cheese not polenta or bread – delicious and of course highly nutritious. Ideal for a middle aged man in aggressive pursuit of athletic mediocrity.

Between courses I wonder why our roads are full of otherwise logical, professional and sensible men who decide to publicly torment themselves in spandex on a bike riding treacherous high alpine roads. Undoubtedly there is a metaphysical element, a pursuit of meaning and identity. Just as generations before members of the British Empire commandeered funds and boats for adventure. As did in more developed times the likes of Hemingway, leave the comforts of suburban origins, to actively chase life affirming risk by grabbing the proverbial bull by the horn. Big questions, unanswerable even, but what is certain is that for gourmands conscious of their mortality a morning of sport pre-absolves guilt and caloric damage of gluttony. Today we eat without fear.

 

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For primi another pasta. Tagliatelle as is preferred in much of Northern Italy over feebly slender spaghetti. A hearty and meaty dish of locally foraged mushrooms. Permissibly picked only on even numbered days. Served with a rich gravy sauce of slow braised mushrooms, a moreish dusting of fresh Grana Padano and saddled with rustic herbal rye bread. To drink, given the importance of hydration and electrolytes, a radler. One half beer and the other half fresh lemon juice cut with a perky local frizzante mineral water.

The bikers, and their motor enhanced guts, typically go for another course, secondi. Grilled fish, a steak or schnitzel. But no, as I finish up their last strands of pasta, whipping every last drop of precious gravy, there is only one possible conclusion. An espresso to sip over an unfolded map planning the afternoon’s route home.

The tiny espresso cup clatters down aboard the tiny espresso saucer unsettling the tiny espresso spoon. Up onto my head go a helmet and job done, on go my gloves.  Down goes the performance enhancing black caffeine infused nectar. Stiff legs stretch up to standing. Waddling back towards the road, legs mount over the bike and a full belly. Gliding off towards an afternoon climb up Passo Sella, an obvious question will soon come to mind.  What’s for dinner?

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