Soaring mountains or bottomless lakes? Want to take a spin on the bike or switch off and relax? When it comes to active holidays, certain places do it better than others and South Tyrol’s Valdaora-Olang has all the threads to weave an unforgettable time – providing you untangle your bike choice first. Out on a ride, we discovered a region full of beautiful contradictions and penned the nuptials between gravel and hybrid bikes.

If you are looking for a peerless sense of tranquility, you can’t go wrong with a visit to South-Tyrol’s Valdaora-Olang, tucked in the heart of the Fanes-Senes-Braies Nature Park with just 3,200 residents. With picture-perfect landscapes, oh-so-silent forests and lush green meadows encircled by imposing mountains and distinctive Dolomite peaks, this German-speaking Italian spot is crying out to be explored. Like the theory of yin and yang that explains how seemingly opposite forces unite harmoniously, that’s the impression you get here in Valdaora-Olang – pitching sport alongside relaxation, vertical altitude metres against all the descending, heaven and earth. Without overselling this, it’s a magical holiday destination.

Lago di Braies – the myths, the legends and Instagram

According to textbooks, the Lago di Braies, or the Pragser Wildsee in German, is a reservoir dam sat at 1,500 metres above sea level formed by a mudslide many years ago. The legend, however, speaks of savages that scoured the mountainside for gold and precious stones. When local shepherds tried to steal their booty, the savages opened the underground springs to bury their wealth, letting the water level rise to form this lake. They say that you can take a boat to the underworld through a secret gateway allegedly found at the southern end of the lake in the shadow of the 3,000 metre tall Croda del Becco. These days, especially in the height of summer, the lake has become something of a magnet for treasure-seekers, families and, well, Instagrammers. While access for cars is strictly limited, bikes are the ideal choice for exploring – ride up here early to beat the rush or come in the late afternoon as the sun starts to dip and the shadows get longer. These are the best moments of the day to get first-hand experience of what you’ve seen under the lustworthy #lagodibraies hashtag.

Reaching for the sky – an unconventional bike tour

Sure, there are a multitude of ways to explore the picturebook landscape around Valdaora-Olang, but nothing beats a bicycle. What sort, you say? The choice is yours. With the Valparola and the route of the Maratona dles Dolomites on its doorstep, there’s no shortage of slick tarmac to get your roadie heart racing. The local climb – the Passo Furcia – is another big draw and you can extend the ride nicely by adding on a jaunt up the one-way road of Pederü. If airtime, gnar and shred are more your lexicon, the trails around Kronplatz should be your first stop. And for the rest of us, those who don’t ride at either end of the spectrum? We settled on a regular ride with a twist: a hybrid of gravel riders and eMTBers. Could an analogue-meets-digital hybrid work? Like everything else we’d discovered in Valdaora-Olang, we wondered if this ride would provide further confirmation of how seemingly contradictory elements can make a happy marriage.

The gravel-eMTB mixed team

Where – if not in this magnificent landscape – can you make the supposedly impossible possible? By bringing together gravel and eMTBs, so-called leisure riders with watt-obsessed road riders, riders in their 20s with those who are just entering retirement, we knew it would rely on the right choice of wheels: some take ebikes, others take gravel bikes and a route that goes up and up to Brunst Alm.

For those who joined us on this ride, this mélange reflected cycling culture in its purest and most uncontaminated form – a group of individuals united simply to embrace the sheer love of riding. Here is where we saw the trekking revolution unravel in full glory.

Gravel versus and emountainbike – go side-by-side in Valdaora-Olang

For gravel and eMTB, Brunico-Bruneck is the ideal starting point for the joint ride, which naturally begins with a quick aperitivo. (Aperol Spritz is clearly the drink of choice for our ride crew.) There’s 1,200 metres of climbing ahead, but no sense of competition or time restrictions – this ride is all about pleasure. Instead of having our eyes fixated on the bike computer watching the kilometres go by, our gaze is up – readily looking this way and that, taking in the beauty that surrounds us. We not only pique the curiosity of a Shetland pony and a donkey, who watch us eagerly, but also of people we pass who are keen to chat. Up high, with these extraordinary views, we come across farmers with free-range chickens and other animals, choosing to bring up their stock in harmony with nature. We later discover that this area is known lovingly as the Beverly Hills of Valdaora-Olang – it fits.

Postcards from our ride

EMTB and gravel: different concepts, one unified goal.

Once we’re on the climb, it’s clear that we’re onto a winner: the gravel bikes (with a fairly aggressive tread) ascend the rough access road with ease, so do the eMTBs. By halfway, as the forest continues to churn out hairpins as if on a conveyor belt, those on the eMTBs are embracing their assisted ride, but at the same time looking at those riding under their own power with awe. After two hours, we break the tree line and the sky opens up in front of us – we’ve reached the Brunst Alm and the sense of effort is replaced by wonder at the view over the Valdaora-Olang Dolomites: the Cima dei Colli Alti, the Munt de Fora, the Punta Tre Dita and the Pizzo delle Pietre are easy to spot. From here, you can continue onto Lago di Braies or stop for a bite of local South Tyrolean delicacies at the mountain hut. After a few photos to capture proof of just how well this gravel–eMTB hybrid has worked, we choose to keep pedalling before we lose the sun.

We’re true believers in active breaks and Valdaora-Olang gives plenty of opportunities for just that. From multi-generational holidays with your offspring to teaming up with friends, whether you’re brand new to biking or a life-long cyclist, Valdaora-Olang comes with all the right characteristics – provided you’re on the bikes suited to your riding styles. Once you’ve got your choice of wheels dialled in, it is a generous host, laying on a feast of activities for all tastes, including routes over road passes that let you hammer out high watts or leisurely loops that let young, fatigued or less-trained legs simply chill out. Instead of blowing hot and cold over what you want from a holiday, let Valdaora-Olang be that magical spot where exciting contradictions can come together.

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Words: Susanne Feddersen Photos: Robin Schmitt