Disclaimer: This story features dirtiness, despair, dampness, emotion, expensive taste, steep ramps, flat jokes, tastiness and a touch of humour. Set in the Dolomites, it is replete with snow, rain, 32% gradients and a little bit of… you’ll see. But once you’ve read it, you’ll be smarter and probably unbeatable in your next game of UNO.
The Design & Innovation Award sees us scoping out the bike industry’s most exciting products for the coming season. It’s a hectic 10 days of appraisals, exploring various trends in the industry, exposing empty marketing hype and making a case for the future. If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. That’s why we make it a priority to break up intense testing and deep discussions with something that resembles team building but also doubles as an experiment in celebration of our love for two wheels. The plan: 14 of us would each take a different bike and ride up to a remote mountain hut for an overnighter.
Where to start and where to finish
When it comes to where to start, there’s one simple answer: the Excelsior Dolomites Life Resort in San Vigilio. The long-running basecamp for the Design & Innovation Award, this dedicated sport hotel is on the fringes of Val Pederü in South Tyrol. If you’re wondering why the DI.A calls this place home, look no further than the rooftop infinity pool, its series of saunas, incredible dining, and the awe-inspiring views from bedrooms that belong inside an interior design magazine.
Start nominated, there are then two answers to the question of where to finish. The easy answer is at the Üćia de Fodara Vedla mountain hut at 1,980 metres above sea level. And the harder answer? Well, we’ll come to that later.
It was fun at first
Right up until we went to bed the night before our team building exercise, the weather gods seemed to be graciously on our side. Final checks made, weather apps refreshed, we were ready to hit the sack, sober and eager. We fell asleep like kids on Christmas Eve, hoping that tomorrow the sun would be shining and the skies clear. But reality hit hard the next day, as nothing short of apocalyptic weather lowered the stoke levels to the abyss as we made our final preparations.
Pale with apprehension, we take an obligatory pre-ride photo outside the hotel. An insta-worthy ‘fake news’ version of reality reminding us that humour can still be found in a downpour and among Germans. Everyone is present: the I-used-to-ride-downhill-World-Cups Robin on his step-through eMTB, enduro rippers Juli and adopted Whistler-ite Peter both on gravel bikes. This wild bike choice is a reflection of the free-for-all that happened moments earlier in the hotel garage. A kind of come-one, come-all, seek out a rig that’ll benefit you on the steep, loose uphill or go all-in for the rough downhill. So many different riding styles, so many different thoughts, but all out for one ride. Let’s go!
On your marks, set…
Riding through Pederü is usually an eye-spy of prettiness, with babbling brooks, glistening emerald-coloured lakes, and a world of long shadows cast from the imposing peaks above, the leggy pines that flank the road, and our own wheels. Not today. Today, the road is a roaring set of rapids, gushing with the water that’s falling from the sky and layered with a fierce headwind that halts our progress. Once our glasses have fogged up more than four times, they’re stashed in pockets, switched out for a rain shell and thicker gloves – neoprene, for the luckier ones.
The drumming of the rain drowns out our lame jokes, as we grind on metre by metre, while the hairpins wind upwards in a grotesque way that’s more dark comic book than welcoming tourist brochure. Even the ebikes can barely keep their front wheels down on this crazy steep incline.
What began as a team building exercise degenerates into a race of sorts – you know, the one based on ego rather than actual competition. Of course, it was evitable: We set off with intent, deliberately holding the speed above 25 km/h, the classic ebike FU. Guilty as charged, we French-lined the corners, and yep, there were too many ridiculous overtakes. But at this point, we’re still smiling and cracking bad jokes. So, we’re winning, right?
The unrelenting climb is fitting of a TV drama, and at this point if you were watching with closed captions they’d say something like ‘melancholic music plays’ – an apt reflection for the general suffering within the group. It’s a scene that could move you to tears. The competitive ego comes out in us once again as we start to push each other, one by one. The clans are set, ebike riders with panniers against those on hardtails against those on drop bar bikes.
Through the rain, up this crazy steep ramp, it couldn’t be more dramatic. There are flat tires, dying batteries, and power-killing thirsts. It’s a moment worthy of a film crew. When the ramp gets even steeper, we ditch the clans and stick together. A picture of team spirit: competitive but doused in a collective spirit. Looking around, I can’t tell if it’s tears or rain running down some faces. Another bad joke is cracked and we’re back where it matters. Belly laughing doesn’t make the climb and this weather any easier, but definitely more bearable. Those without motors stamp on the pedals like they’re in a bitter trance.
After the climb comes the crash
We hit the top of the climb and roll wordlessly, shivering, across the plain to the Fodara Vedla mountain hut. There’s one final ramp, which is your’s and your’s alone to tackle. A squeal of brakes and the sound of wet hands high fiving break the silence as we arrive. We made it. No more jokes; the climb has taken too much out of us.
Inside the hut we head into the driest room where the boiler is and get out of our soaked clothes. It’s like the changing room of your local 5-a-side football team. Sweat, shoes strewn everywhere, and us on our knees sharing stories of the match. It’s a sight for the gods.
The freshly renovated pine-clad rooms smell better than any sauna until our wet socks are put up to hang on the radiators. We shower, then regroup in Fodara Vedla’s restaurant. Mulled wine to begin, then beer. Three trays of sausages are devoured without a word, leaving some salad and lonely cucumber slices for the two vegans among us. 14 beers take up more space on the table, moved aside for the heated game of UNO that’s about to happen. The usual rules, plus one: each time a 9 gets played, everyone puts their hand on the stack of cards. Whoever’s last has to have a shot of pine grappa. There’s an interlude while we tuck into our main course, but we lose count of how many times we play it over the course of the evening.
It doesn’t get any easier for the weakest players; now plied with grappa, they struggle even more to recognise when a 9 is played. Hands bang on the table, accompanying the evening’s soundtrack from the Bluetooth speaker. Whatever we went through earlier has now been forgotten.
Here’s where we should express a deep and heartfelt apology to the hikers in the hut, who we may or may not have inadvertently deprived of sleep, punctuating their dreams with ‘UNO!’, table hammering, laughter and clinking glasses.
Let’s rewind to the initial question of where to finish and unpick the more complicated answer: After how many shots and UNO flops, is it time to admit that you’ve lost? I know I shouldn’t name names but I direct this question at Felix.
But really, we’ve all gone past the point where we should have stopped. There’s too much of everything: beer, shots, 9s being missed, bad jokes, emotion, energy, and drunken noise. Outside, the rain turns to snow, while inside men turn into boys. And Isi, the only woman with us tonight, sits and smirks.
Great moments can’t be predicted
When we wake it feels like we’re in another world as we stare incredulously out the window the next morning. The rain has gone and fog lifted, leaving a storybook early winter landscape, complete with sun reflecting on the glistening white ground. It jolts us awake and we realise how close we’d come to missing this whole experience had it not been for the loud-mouthed optimists in our group who’d goaded us out of the 5-star Excelsior Dolomites Life Resort and into the storm the previous day. The weather-beaten guy running the mountain hut nods sagely and agrees that, yes, you’ve sometimes got to throw yourself at the beast in order to experience something incredible. We’re so used to using our smartphones as a crutch to stay in our comfort zones and being coddled by digital weather forecasts that appear to back up our decisions that we’re less and less likely to experience moments like this one. For want of a cliché, you’ve got to be in it to win it.
And hell, it paid off this time.
We clamber back in between the sheets after a hearty breakfast and chat about the previous day’s exploits, nursing our heads. While there’s a brotherly (and sisterly) bond between us, it’s more about waiting for the aspirin to kick in. We pay the bill for the delights of the previous night and get the bikes ready to roll. We squint at the sun and gulp in the fresh air. It’s the second time we have to wake up today and the first few metres feel like a marathon before gravity takes hold and we cruise down.
All downhill from here
Admittedly more post-party than party train, we’re rowdy enough on the way down the mountainside as we drift the hairpins and do a pretty poor job at keeping in our lanes. If you want the best line, you’ve got to claim it. Despite carrying a hangover, it’s a fun descent. Those same sections where we’d bonded in suffering yesterday are now the racetrack – this time, downhill. Gravel, MTB, eMTB, or step-through, everyone’s got a grin.
Back where it all began, we’re feeling human enough to high five. Bikes are washed, hugs are exchanged and we go back into the hotel. The whole episode took less than 24 hours but it has brought the team together. We’ve not only found our own limits, but also those of our colleagues. But the biggest takeaway – and something we can say with confidence – is who gives a damn what bike you bring to a ride, it’ll all work out as long as you’ve got the right crew.
Words: Julian Lemme Photos: Robin Schmitt, Julian Lemme