Flowers on high take Umbria to the next level

By Graham Hutson

You don't need to look far to find a piece of Italy that beats Tuscany for cycling perfection. it's called Umbria, and it's next door.

Your first glimpse of the Piano Grande, high up in the Sibillini mountain range is guaranteed to stop you in your tracks. Pick the right time of year to cycle the 20km up to the vast plain, and it will take your breath away.

Here at more than 4,000ft above sea level, for two weeks in July, you will be greeted by a multicoloured patchwork sea of tiny flowers. Depending upon the precise moment you visit during that fortnight you will find wild crocuses, grape hyacinth, wild tulips, poppies, even orchids and fritillaries. The flowers are a curiosity of nature, a vision that lures visitors by the car and coach-load, selfie sticks at the ready. The plain can become a busy place in peak season.

The 16km sq Piano Grande is so enormous that the peaks forming its extremities can be obscured behind a haze. This is a world of its own, far cooler and more comfortable than the sweltering heat below and possessing a sizeable hill of its own, upon which sits the village of Castellucio di Norcia.

The August 2016 earthquake that destroyed villages in the vicinity did damage here. It’s a cruel twist that the very features that define the most beautiful parts of Umbria can also be so destructive.

Such is the nature of the Apennines. This ridge of mountains to the east of the region that contains the Piano Grande and the Sibillini range also happens to form part of the earthquake fault line that runs the length of the country. If the fault line wasn’t there, the mountains wouldn’t be either.

Umbria, the only region in Italy without a coast or a border with another country, lives under constant threat of earthquakes. In August, Amatrice in Lazio and Pescara del Tronto in Marche were devastated. Castelluccio di Norcia suffered damage but like the flowers surrounding it, the village will recover its beauty.

Norcia also suffered damage. This is where we stopped for coffee ahead of our climb up the Sibillini mountains, at a tiny cafe butted against the towering medieval town wall. When we heard of the earthquake our first thoughts were of the region we had visited and the people we met. You only meet nice people here.

Assisi

It is almost 20 years since an earthquake hit Assisi. On September 26 1997 the burial place of St Francis was shaken to the ground, the vaults of the upper Basilica of St Francis collapsed. Frescoes by Giotto and Cimabu were reduced to dust, and four men were killed, many tens more rescued from the rubble.

The Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi

The Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi

Assisi is one of the most beloved towns in Italy. The presence of the tomb of St Francis draws pilgrims from around the globe and in its time of need the people rallied around and donated around €25 each to rebuild Assisi. So many made these donations that the tiles bearing their names form a terracotta path, La Mattonata, which stretches from the Basilica di Santa Maria in the new town up the preposterously steep kilometre-or-so Via Beato Padre Ludovico da Casoria before joining a road into the old town. From here you can cycle up again, past the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi, and through the medieval town gates. Then onwards and ever up, along narrow and ancient streets with their souvenir and coffee shops, past the Roman temple of Minerva, built in 1539 and on to the Basilica di Santa Chiara which contains the remains of St Clare of Assisi, follower of St Francis. Here you will join busloads of tourists and pilgrims to shuffle around inside.

Cyclists are something of a rarity around Assisi old town, which could be down to the sharp inclines of the streets or the fact that shoals of tourists decant from coaches on a regular basis. Between coaches, the riding through the streets is pleasant, if hilly. When a coach party arrives, cycling becomes tricky. Far better to get off and walk. If you attempt to cycle into the Basilica of St Francis you might be persuaded to walk anyway, by armed guards.

There’s plenty of cycling to be done down the hill from the old town. This lowland area of Umbria is criss-crossed with cyclepaths that take you just about everywhere. When you do encounter a road, cars are seldom seen. These cycle paths carry you past olive groves and vineyards, which make up the bulk of Umbria’s industry these days.

It is while cycling around these sun-beaten lanes that you need to remember to have filled your water bottles. The odd copse and tree can be found to provide you with shade but for the most part you are cycling among flatlands. At times you long for a place to rest and feast.

One such place we discovered down a rural lane, thanks to our guide Carlos. The Nunzi family have produced olive oil here  for generations. The presses are dormant in July, but come autumn they will be running around the clock as farmers deliver their harvests. The hospitality of the local Umbrian population cannot be overstated - we were welcomed as family, led to a cool, shady dining room and presented with a traditional Italian spread of breads, oil, hams, melon and wine. It was all we could do to tear ourselves away for the cycle back to our hotel.

Lake Trasimeno

The roads around Lake Trasimeno are blissfully free of traffic

The roads around Lake Trasimeno are blissfully free of traffic

Umbria’s largest lake sits to the west of Perugia, nudging the border with Tuscany. It is 49 square miles in size and on its north shore in April 217 BC, the Roman army was defeated by Hannibal in the Second Punic War. He had invaded the country across the Alps and taken Italy by surprise and at Lake Trasimeno drove the defenders into the water. The lake has three islands, only one inhabited. The village on Isola Maggiore dates from the 14th century, as does the ruined Franciscan Monastery.

The views of the lake from the surrounding hills are uninterrupted save a tree or two and are not particularly challenging to reach by bike. It is no wonder that these hills with their secluded sideroads and torres peeking out through the trees have become a treasured retreat for those who shun the limelight. George Lucas is said to have a hillside castle here. Our route took us up through the tiny town of Tuoro Sul Trasimeno, and then wound into hills north of the lake, through hamlets and fields before dipping back down to the lake in a sensational sweeping descent.

Perugia

Umbria has only 800,000 inhabitants. This is a region five and a half times the size of London, which has 8.6 million. Umbria is rural, it is sleepy. Even the relatively lively Perugia, the capital with its 25,000 students, maintains an underlying serenity around its ancient city walls and centuries-old architecture. The dial is turned up for the jazz festival in early July but even then, when the evening temperatures can nudge the mid twenties, the mood is relaxed. The living is of course al fresco. In Perugia we drank at bars that perch atop the walls of the historic town like nests and ate pasta and steak in the bustling courtyard of La Rosetta restaurant.

Cycling

Umbria will seduce you regardless of the transport you choose but to visit the region on a bicycle offers a particularly personal experience. By bike you can soak up the smells of the olive groves, the sound of the cicadas and feel the sun on your neck. This could all become a little intense in the midday sun but you’re usually not far from a cafe or taverna or even a water fountain in the town square.

The best thing about Umbria is the variety of terrain. From the rolling topography around Lake Trasimeno in the west to the flatlands with their punchy little inclines to the hilltop towns such as Assisi and Spello and the long mountain climbs of the Appenines, there is an adventure for every mood and ability. And because you’re in Italy, the best bit is the feast you can tuck into afterwards. You will most certainly have earned it.

Stay

The rambling hotel Borgo Brufa was our base, with its panoramic vistas across the valley to Perugia in the distance.

Getting there: We flew with Ryanair from Stansted to Perugia. 

Looking towards the sun going down over Perugia from the hotel Borgo Brufa

Looking towards the sun going down over Perugia from the hotel Borgo Brufa

Riding high with Millar in Mallorca

If you’re a fan of olive trees, Mallorca is the place to visit. No shortage of them on the cycle ride up Sa Calobra, the hillside is covered in them, and goats, there are plenty of goats. 

I’ve ridden this mountain before and the scenery wasn’t an overriding memory. It was more the effect of gravity on my ability to turn the pedals.

This time round it’s a more relaxed affair, a gentle spin, nothing too testing. I can talk, for one thing, which is refreshing. And I do, to David Millar, about olives, “the cockroach of the plant world, you can’t kill them.” And gardens. Did you know he was a gardener? 

You realise that there are really no secrets with Millar. He wears his heart and his history on his sleeve”

David Millar is a multi-faceted individual. His cycle racing pedigree is well-known and well documented. If you need to get up to speed he’s written two books which will tell you all you need to know. In a nutshell, he was a pro racer who doped, got caught, got banned for two years, returned clean, and was essentially forced to retire from pro racing by the people who ran the team he part-owned. 

Even before you meet him you realise that there are really no secrets with Millar. He wears his heart and his history on his sleeve. And quite a history it is. This is the man, lest we forget, whose behaviour Lance Armstrong once became so concerned about that he advised him to seek help. Lance Armstrong! 

Those were the bad old days. Millar has come clean both physically and metaphorically. He’s not proud of what he has done and has done his best to make amends, still is in fact, by mentoring the next generation of racers. You can’t help thinking he must be good at this, because they would look up to him. He carries a commanding presence, which has already been put to use as road captain at Garmin Sharp. That was then.

These days, along with the mentoring, he is full-pelt building Brand Millar and has put fingers in more pies than Sweeney Todd. He has Chapter 3 (Chpt:///) his exclusive clothing line with Castelli which features a capsule but expanding line of exceptionally well-appointed kit. 

Then there are the cycling breaks. He was approached by the Jumeirah Hotel in Port Soller who had a plan to attract cyclists during the quieter off-season periods in the spring and autumn. So the David Millar Ultimate Cycling Experience was born and here we are. “Living the dream,” Millar says. 

I heartily agree. What is there not to like about riding up a mountain chatting to a former professional cyclist about nothing in particular, with only the whisper of the breeze through the trees, occasional birdsong and the rumble of a Maserati Ghibli to puncture the silence? The Ghibli is there for us. There in case we get a puncture, or need some food, or just need a lift. 

That’s a tempting thought when you get up as far as the scree at the top of Sa Calobra, when the switchbacks come nine to the dozen and you think it really should be over by now and you look up and see these little dots crawling along the mountainside and realise, with a gulp, that they are cyclists and you’ve still got a long way to go. 

“Let’s see if I can get a selfie,” says Millar and he’s got his phone in one hand trying to get us both in shot. He is displaying no outward signs of fatigue whatsoever  (later, playing back footage from my seatcam, I discover he’s even been texting when he was following me up the lower slopes, sometimes with both hands. Before you react with horror, this was on a traffic-free road).

He got the selfie

He got the selfie

I’m trying desperately hard to conceal my suffering, even though I’ve already let myself down at least twice by commenting on the challenge this hill presents through a succession of profanities, to which I received no response. What could he have said? He’s finished 19 grand tours! Won ten stages! I should count myself lucky he didn’t just leave me there, propped up against an olive tree.

Did I mention the photographer? Little bloke on a scooter - in actual fact being driven by another little bloke on a scooter - who managed to be everywhere at once, like a pixie, or a wombat. You’d see him halfway up an embankment, and then you’d go round a corner and there he would be, standing in the middle of the road. Camera aimed and ready to fire.

We’ve turned the switchback and there he is, the photographer, crouched like a lost teddybear on the side of the road and Millar, clearly used to having his picture taken on a daily basis, is muttering something and slowing up. A cyclist appears from behind us and scuttles up the hill. 

“Let him go,” says Millar, trackstanding. “We need this shot.”

So we pedal in a slow but effortlessly stylish manner towards the photographer who lets off a salvo and then is back on his scooter, farting off up the hill in a cloud of two-stroke to position himself for another photo opportunity.

It doesn’t always go our way. The top of the climb where the road curls around and over itself is judged to provide another ideal location, but a cyclist is standing right there in shot, waiting for his mates to come rolling up. Will he move? No. Not for the photographer or for Millar. Even Anna, marketing manager of the Jumeirah has trouble sweet-talking the cyclist. Eventually he relents, for one shot only, but he’s not happy. 

In fairness the presence of the photographer and Anna and her assistant - who periodically emerges through the sunroof of the Ghibli to grab snaps of us - is not your standard Millar experience. They are there because we are there, the journos. As a rule it would just be a Maserati. 

But even that makes you feel incredibly smug. The best most of these cycle trips can usually muster for support is a beaten up VW Transporter.  It’s an added layer of luxury typical of the Jumeirah.

A flatbed truck comes barreling around the corner looking like something out of Mad Max, bristling with lights and booms and people hanging off it”

Take the hotel itself. Even the lobby smells nice. It perches on the clifftop above the Port de Soller in such a random and haphazard manner it looks as if one of the Gods has lobbed a handful of Lego bricks. From the port it is an imposing presence, the white low-rises housing the 120 apartment-sized rooms dazzling in the sunlight. The fact this hotel sits on top of a cliff offers a clue to the difficulties faced in reaching it. The climb by bike is brutal. According to Strava some stretches tick up to 48 per cent. That’s more than the gradient of your average staircase. If I was driving that Maserati I’d be worried about burning the clutch out. 

When we make it up, as one always does eventually, the pampering can begin. Cyclists are provided with an undercover area to regroup in, baps and fruit and an ice bucket of beers awaits and then you can have a massage in the spa if you so wish, or take a dip in one of the two pools, or get totally and hopelessly lost on your way back up to your room, which will involve a good bit of climbing in itself since the rooms are linked by a sprawling stair-laden, tree covered walkway. You don’t actually mind getting lost - testament to the beauty of the place and the serenity it fosters within you. 

By the time you do eventually make it back to your room and have had a rain shower and chilled out on the balcony with the mountain view, you can get lost again on the way down to the sunset bar. As the name suggests, this offers breathtaking views of the sun dipping into the Mediterranean as you sit and drink it in. The restaurants are at the fussy end of the scale, the one in the main complex serving fish on anything but a plate. One of our group received his starter on a sawn-off log and a bed of what looked like gunpowder but tasted of nothing (I tasted it). The fact I can remember this and not what I had for my main gives you an idea of how forgettable the experience was. The tapas in the restaurant near the infinity pool was stunning, however and the sushi at the sunset bar amazing. 

This might tick a few cycling nutrition boxes these days, but there were a few things missing from the menus of all the restaurants - namely pasta and burger-based dishes, which are all I want to eat after a day’s cycling regardless of whether it is actually good for me. The Jumeirah has however suggested cyclists might be better accommodated in terms of stodge in future.

You need it to get around the hills here. Port de Soller is nestled at the base of the Tramuntana mountain range. On the sea side of it. To get anywhere you have to climb, and to get back you have to climb. It makes for spectacular views and riding but it does take it out of you, regardless of how fast you are going.

To reach Sa Calobra, for instance, you must first conquer Mallorca’s tallest mountain, the mighty Puig Major - a good hour or so of steady climbing right off the bat, and 10.2 miles from the port to the tunnel at the top. There’s not much chance of a warm up before you start climbing out of Port de Soller. 

Halfway up the “Big Pig” we hit a traffic jam. You know it’s going to be a long one when the drivers have turned their engines off. So we ride up the side of the cars and into a film production. Trucks and crew are shuffling around with rolls of cable and booms and lighting and cameras.

“There are easier ways to get up there,” says a man with some cables, pointing to Millar’s bike, gesturing up the mountain with a nod. “Just out for a ride,” replies Millar, as we restart the slow crawl upwards. “What are you filming?” he shouts over his shoulder. 

“Porno!” The crew member yells after us.

The scenery is so stunning up here among the pine trees that none of us actually questions the statement. Great backdrop for a moneyshot. But it turns out it was an ad for a new Ford. We know this because a little way further up, a flatbed truck comes barreling around the corner looking like something out of Mad Max, bristling with lights and booms and people hanging off it shouting “get out of the way!” and on the back is a brand new Ford, with someone pretending to drive it. And you can see both of his hands.

To cycle around Mallorca with David Millar and a Maserati is akin to knocking about with the popular kid at school. People stop and stare at the car, both cyclists and any and everyone else, and more than once I hear someone say “I think that was David Millar” as we ride past. That’s aside from the people he actually knows. One minute we’re descending down a high street, the next a man has launched himself from his cafe table and is shouting. On this occasion it is one of Millar’s pals from VCRC, the Girona cycle club he set up. Being of exceptional manners and upbringing we are all introduced before setting off again. 

David Millar in retirement is a contented man. His company is a charming delight to share and as he rides at your pace up a mountain so as not to make you feel bad it is often easy to forget that he could oh so easily take off and leave you in pieces. 

This, more than the Maserati and its boot full of Coca Cola and sandwiches and the five-star Jumeirah hotel, is what makes the David Millar Ultimate Cycling Experience what it is. 

We’re tackling the switchbacks on the backside of the Col de Soller, heading home from a 50-mile loop to the flatlands and the computer is reading 34 degrees. Millar is a switchback below, accompanying our pal Simon. 

“Graham!” he shouts up, pointing. “Check out that olive tree!”


CYCLING IN MALLORCA

The term ‘cycling mecca’ is a phrase as worn out as a UK road, but in the case of Mallorca is entirely appropriate.

Most cyclists visit the north of the island, in particular around the Tramuntana mountain range, where you will find the famous climbs of Sa Calobra and Puig Major. While not easy to cycle the roads are less severe than the Alps or Pyrenees.

The north of Mallorca is lush and green. Tiny bays await exploration and hillside towns pepper the landscape. Visit in April and the air is thick with the scent of lemon blossom.

The attraction of the Tramuntana range to cyclists, walkers and coach parties has inevitably led to congestion on the roads. You can blame the coaches for that. It can’t be easy manoeuvring a 50ft rectangle around a mountain switchback. Nevertheless tempers rarely boil over and cars, coaches and cyclists share the roads for the most part in harmony.

Mallorca is also fully aware of the benefits to the economy of cyclo-tourism and has resurfaced many of the mountain roads. This makes them glass-smooth and a luxury to cycle on. Other roads on the island, however, leave a lot to be desired, in particular in some parts of the northwest coastal road west of Valldemossa. They still compare favourably to the UK.

“Cyclists are good for the economy because they travel around and spread their spending,” says Xim Hernandez, our guide on the David Millar trip. “But some locals are becoming frustrated with the numbers and think there are now too many on the roads.”

Most cyclists visit out of season - between March and May and September and November, and the weight of numbers on the roads can be something like that experienced on a sportive. Roadside coffee stops are buzzing. Popular locations include the viaduct on the Ma10 junction with the Sa Calobra turning, the garage / restaurant Coll de Sa Bataia just outside Lluc, the town square at Esporles, the cat caves at Campanet (provided you like cats), and the town square at Petra, but there are places to stop and eat everywhere.
A particularly stunning descent winds down through the gorge from the Sa Bataia garage at Lluc along the Ma2130 to Caimari. Trees line the switchbacks on the upper sections before the road straightens to lead you past sheer rock faces before you enter Caimari. Keep on the road through town and try the roadside barbecue restaurant just on the other side.

Jumeirah Port Soller offers accommodation for cyclists. Visit here for details.

Give your relationship the tandem test

JOSH BURROWS

For cyclists looking for an alternative holiday, two days aboard a bicycle made for two will teach you plenty about your other half

Of all the sayings in cycling, there is one that rings truer than most: “Wherever your relationship is going, you’ll get there faster on a tandem.”

Admittedly couples who like to tell you this tend to have passed the tandem test. Those who have endured less successful excursions on a bicycle made for two prefer to explain that riding a tandem is like going on a walking holiday...with your feet tied together.

There is, of course, only one way to find out which of these two camps your relationship belongs in. Willing to give it a try - and having spent the winter restoring a steel-framed machine dating to the mid 1990s - my fiancee and I booked our trains to the Hampshire side of the South Downs National Park.

The base for our two-day stay was a cosy self-catering maisonette at Inadown Farm - a riding stables just south of Alton. The accommodation seemed appropriate given that there are times when riding a tandem feels like taming a recalcitrant horse. The turning circle would make an oil tanker blush and bullying the bike up a hill is a practical lesson in GCSE physics. In layman’s terms this is because the advantage of having the power of two riders but the aerodynamics of one is far outweighed - literally - by the effort of dragging twice the mass.

Fortunately we had agreed on Hampshire because of the relatively flat terrain on offer. According to Peter Bird, a tandem builder who runs specialist tandem training courses, this was a wise decision. “It’s very nice riding in flat areas but the hills make it really interesting,” he explains. “But hills are not to be worried about. If it’s tough, you get off and walk - it’s not a killer. There’s no hill you can’t get up because the lowest gear is your feet.”

As luck would have it, our first proper stop-off, Hinton Ampner House and Gardens, was at the top of a particularly sharp incline. The Georgian-style manor was rebuilt in the 1960s to best drink in the views of the rolling Hampshire countryside as the land falls away down to the Solent. By the time we arrived, however, the only stuff we were drinking in was isotonic. Indeed, as we cycled through the carpark, we attracted at least as much attention as the house itself.

But curiosity like this is usually a pleasant byproduct of riding a tandem. Barely a coffee-stop or a map-check passed without strangers stopping to smile and quiz us. Can you take it easy on the back? (No, or at least if you do, you’ll have the rider on the front to answer to). Do you go super-quick down hills? (Yes, but only if the rider on the back trusts the pilot implicitly, unwaveringly and absolutely). Who is in control? (The ‘captain’ at the front, rendering the ‘stoker’ at the rear totally helpless - or totally carefree, depending on how you look at it).

The good times roll when the road is flat. With a gentle ribbon of tarmac stretching out in front of us (or in front of the pilot at least; the stoker having her view almost entirely obscured by my backside) 30mph was well within our capabilities. On a decent stretch of downhill, we were closer to 40mph and would have gone quicker still were it not for our farcically un-aerodynamic riding position and lack of trust in the tandem’s cornering.

Bird says: “I ask members of cycling clubs why they haven’t thought about riding tandems because they’re quicker than normal bikes. Nearly always the answer is because they can’t get their other half to come out and join in.”

He’s right, of course. But those refuseniks are missing out on the unique benefits of holidaying on a tandem. For most of the weekend we chose not to worry about speed or miles munched, and instead enjoyed taking the time to chat as starlings and swallows swooped alongside, occasionally racing us for a few dozen metres.

Conversation on solo bikes is only really possible when riding side-by-side - a formation that enrages many drivers despite being endorsed in the Highway Code. A sad way to look at things perhaps, but on a tandem, you are close enough to keep talking while narrow enough not to take up much road space.

Our longest day in the saddle (a very gentle 70km) was pleasantly interrupted by a trip to Hambledon Cricket Club, one of the oldest sporting institutions anywhere in the world, founded circa 1750, approximately 150 years before the modern bicycle was invented. These days Hambledon are a village outfit with a ground perched in the sunshine a few miles north of Waterlooville and a perfectly acceptable bar. There can be few more agreeable places to spend a Saturday afternoon, even if the spring chill gave us good reason to get our legs pumping when we set out for home.

If riding a tandem is a relationship test, the good news is that we’re planning our next trip already.

Two days of tandem touring, Hampshire
Day 1 - Alton to Inadown Farm, via East and West Meon (approx 50km)
Lunch - Cuppacheeno, West Meon. A well-hidden cafe behind the village stores, well-populated by cyclists and well-stocked with cake
Dinner - River Kwai, Alton. Cheap and cheerful Thai restaurant, popular with locals. 
Stay - Inadown Farm Holiday Homes. Cosy, compact and immaculately presented one-bed maisonettes, based at a riding stable a short taxi-ride from Alton.  (02392 468886)

Day 2 - Round-trip from Inadown Farm, via Hinton Ampner and Hambledon Cricket Club (approx 60km)
Lunch - Hinton Ampner Country House. Beautifully situated country house with an excellent cafe and gardens
Dinner - Madhuban Tandoori, Liss. Best curry house in the area - and after escorting a tandem over the South Downs, the extra naans are guilt-free.
Stay - Inadown Farm Holiday Homes.

Three tips for successful tandem cycling
Peter Bird runs Tandem Experience from Coalport in Shropshire. Every year he takes about 150 couples on training rides, a third of whom go on to buy a tandem. Here are three of his tips.

Maximise your advantage
“When the roads are in your favour, you need to make the most of them. If you learn to do that, you ride faster than you would on a solo bike. Hills are never easy on a tandem but you should learn to ride slower and gear down. Overall, you’ll find that you’re about 20 per cent faster than a normal bike.

Share the work
“Riding together is an art. Tandems are most efficient when both riders are outputting the same, but that takes some time to learn. The temptation is for the person on the front to work harder, but he - and it is usually a he - won’t be able to sustain that.”

Take some training
“It’s not for everyone, but the largest sector of the tandem market is people who just like riding bikes - not necessarily tandem enthusiasts. Getting into it can be a nightmare. But there is training available to help people get the most out of their day out.”

Josh Burrows is a sports journalist at The Times. He also rides single-seat bikes, but they have to be of a certain age.

Riding in the shadow of giants on the Maratona

About half an hour into the climb I started to become suspicious. Where was the really nasty bit? Any minute now, that 11 per cent stretch of barren, shelterless torture would arrive. Just get it over with, I thought. 

The Passo de Giau had been looming omnipresent over my every waking hour since I agreed to undertake the Maratona dles Dolomites in the grey days of winter. Back then it had been a speck in the distance, a ghostly shape on the horizon of tooth-like peaks visible from the window of the Airbus as you approach Marco Polo airport in Venice. I couldn’t tell which peak it actually was, but I knew it was there. 

No one had a good word to say about the Giau, and the Maratona itself came with a veiled health warning from friends of friends who had attempted it. The event was widely accepted as at once the most beautiful and most brutal event on the amateur cycling calendar. “I think it’s quite tough,” said my friend Stuart, with a frown. This hasn’t done its reputation any harm at all - every year 40,000 hopefuls apply for 9,000 places. 

When you arrive at the mountain resort area of Alta Badia the reason for the cap on numbers is clear. This is ostensibly a ski area comprising a few villages along a valley strung together by a reasonably narrow, winding road, and while the purpose of the Maratona is to encourage visitors during the quieter summer months, any more participants, with the attendant families and transport they bring with them, would overwhelm the place. 

As it is, Alta Badia is teeming with cyclists. They are everywhere, to the extent that any other vehicle on the roads is reduced to their speed. But no one moans, mainly because traffic consists of either fellow cyclists in their cars, or people with a vested interest in them. One thing you learn about the Maratona, is that the entire population seems to get involved. 

The event was born over dinner 29 years ago, when the local cycling club decided to mark its tenth anniversary with a race. The inaugural 1987 event was attended by 166 competitors. A combination of stunning scenery and the fact the route covers seven of the most beautiful mountain passes in Italy ensured it soon garnered a following from well outside the area. You’re riding on roads that have seen their fair share of glory, too. The Pordoi, Sella and Campalongo have all featured in the Giro d’Italia on numerous occasions. As a fellow participant said: “There are no crap bits. Usually an event will go through an industrial estate or somewhere grotty to get to the next nice stage, but that doesn’t exist on the Maratona. It’s all amazing scenery.” 

Fast forward three decades and the Maratona dles Dolomites is considered by many to be the premier gran fondo of the year. As for popularity, not many events receive live TV coverage and are started by a helicopter with a whacking great speaker slung beneath it. Add hot air balloons, a priest to bless participants and a brass band and it’s almost a relief to be past the mayhem and rolling down the road. They’re a friendly bunch up here, all smiles and glad tidings and they line the road to cheer us on with drums and horns and anything they can make a noise with. This is a happy place unaffected by unemployment and where you can buy gnomes in the gift shops, where the people are at least tri-lingual, speaking Italian, German and - a dialect unique to them - Ladin. Most of them thankfully speak English, too. 

For many participants, the day itself forms only a small part of a full cycling holiday. They arrive in Alta Badia all through the preceding week, get a few miles riding in, acclimatise to the mountains, that sort of thing. By the time the race weekend has arrived they are gagging to get going and ripe for being sold to. Hence the Maratona village, where you can kit yourself out head to toe in limited edition Castelli kit - the brand’s head office is nearby and many staff live and ride in Alta Badia - as well as stock up on any extras you might need, from gels to a new Kask helmet. You can even get, should you wish, a new bike. 

My bike had been kindly loaned to me by Pinarello. A Dogma F8, pure pedigree, all the bells and whistles including Dura Ace Di2 groupset. At 10pm the night before the race I was sitting on the bed gazing adoringly at it leaning there against the wardrobe when something, we’ll call it instinct, told me to squeeze the rear tyre. It wasn’t so much flat as spongy, the consistency of a haribo. With only one tube on me, and reluctant to use it before I’d even set off, I bashed out a panicked text to Manolo, the man behind my trip and who had told me earlier in the day “they call me The Fixer.” I don’t think he was referring to flat tyres but if anyone could … 

Being friendly types, the hotel staff had left a track pump at reception that got enough air in my tyre to get me to the start where I was told a mechanic would be on hand. He wasn’t but would be “round the corner.” The helicopter boom echoed around the mountains, a cymbal crashed and a trombone honked and about a thousand riders jostled for position. The mechanic was not on the corner but at the corner after that I collared the support crew of InGamba cycle tours in the mistaken belief they were there to help everyone and pretty much forced them to put a new tube in. They didn’t notice the hair-thick strand of metal that had caused the flat in the first place and by the time I got to the foothills of the Pordoi I was deflated yet again, in every sense. I sprang off that bike and impressed even myself with the speed in which I changed the tube and found the offending sliver. 

The Maratona is a gran fondo, which means it is a race. It’s up to you how hard you ride, or not as the case may be. The upshot of this is that the standard of rider tends to be that of the energetic club rider. So the pace is brisk, riders in close proximity, especially on the initial ascents before the field has been given the chance to thin out. It’s an intimate form of riding that can leave you questioning personal hygiene levels. Is that smell coming from the cow dung at the side of the road? Is that the waft of goulash? 

Getting going again uphill amid hundreds of riders was a bit of a challenge but it wasn’t long before the rest stop, where the true difference between gran fondos and sportives was laid out before me. Sickly gels played second fiddle to ham and cheese bagels, chocolate wafers, cubed-up pecan pie and lashings of Coca Cola. If there was a medal for stopping at each rest stop and sampling every piece of food, I’d have won it. 

It was while tucking into a bagel at another such stop when I received the cheery text. The fact that I had summited the Passo Valparola, the final climb and it was all downhill from there save a punchy little 19 per cent hill near the end should have brought with it a feeling of intense relief. But for me it meant only one thing - that I had somehow taken a wrong turn, missed the Giau altogether and climbed the Valparola from the other side. I wanted to go back but I was told the temperature was now 45 degrees on the Giau. You could probably fry the proverbial egg on the road. Besides it was 2pm, no time to go back down and climb two mountains. I had, essentially, ballsed it up quite royally. The remainder of my ride was an exercise in self control. Emotions were swinging wildly from fury to fatigue. I had come to do the full, 80 mile Maratona, not the 65 mile version. Even Manolo’s soothing tones over a beer at the finish and his reminder that I had still ridden up six mountains only served to lighten my mood briefly. Begrudging acceptance eventually crept in but it wasn’t until the next day when I realised exactly what opportunity the wrong turn had presented. 

The next day when, with a happy heart, I wheeled the Dogma back out of the hotel for another day’s riding. In hindsight I could have done the Giau then but I was already at the top of Passo Gardena before I realised that. So I did another three mountains instead. Another full day of fine riding around some of the most stunning alpine scenery in Europe that I probably wouldn’t have had the legs to do in other circumstances. The weather was amazing, other riders were in abundance and the drivers were still respectful. 

As for the Giau, well, it’s not as if it’s going anywhere, is it? 

Travel and accomodation.
Graham Hutson stayed at the Hotel Mezdi in Colfosco - a three star family run hotel located on the road up to the Passo Gardena. Staff speak good English and along with most hotels in Alta Badia allow bikes to be stored in rooms. Spa facilities and a swimming pool are available. 

Travel was by easyJet from Southend to Venice Marco Polo. The transfer from Venice to Alta Badia takes 2.5-3 hours and can be arranged through the hotel. 

Pro tours and camels: cycling in Dubai

“BUILT FROM THE DESERT BUT YOU’D NEVER GUESS / SOME SAY IT’S ARTIFICIAL, MORE OFFICIAL ARTISTS / YOU CAN’T DENY THE PARTIES OVER HERE ARE HOT.” 

Or something like that. 

The re-written lyrics to Empire State of Mind that are being sung at the opening ceremony to the Dubai Tour are about as inspiring as Dubai is modest, but there’s no denying the conviction: 
“Let’s hear it for Dooooobaaayye” they sing. Somewhere, Jay-Z shivers. 

The tour is a big deal, and a lot of effort has gone into the ceremony in the gardens of the West Inn hotel on Mina Seyahi Beach Resort, including giant blow-up cycling jerseys tethered to the lawn, amid which the Arabian elite has just been mingling with the cycling profession. This is the culmination of weeks of publicity and preparation, tenderising the public to the arrival of the cycle race with blanket advertising on public transport and billboards. 

The launch is a glitzy, spotlight-illuminated affair featuring dancers, stunt bikers and singing. Vittorio Brumotti is there, welded to his bike, pogoing it around the stage while a giant face - his - appears on an even bigger TV screen at the back of the stage saying something with an Italian accent over a slide show of Dubai aerial shots. 
 
“Let’s hear it for Dooooobaaayye.” 

Then along come the teams, sauntering up to the stage in single file. When you look at the race season as a whole, the Middle Eastern tours are treated more as a chance to fine-tune team tactics in the sun before the horrors that are the spring classics. That’s why the big guns will be locked away for the most part, safely protected in the peloton. An injury now could cost dearly for the rest of the season. 

A week of cycle racing across deserts and around impossible-looking skyscrapers awaits. This, the third Dubai Tour, serves a dual purpose - to put the place on the pro cycling map and show visitors there’s more to Dubai than pricey restaurants and tall buildings. It also brings Dubai in line with neighbouring Qatar and Oman, which are already well established on the early season tour circuit. The Dubai Tour is getting bigger every year. This time it crosses to neighbouring emirates for the first time. 

Encouraging cycle tourism is an ambitious goal for this part of the world. The desert isn’t the first place you would imagine riding a bike even if you had to. Get out of the city, which you must to ride for any length of time, and there’s not much more than sand dunes. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean taking a bike to Dubai should be dismissed out of hand. You’re unlikely to get your bike stolen for one thing - crime is almost zero, and if you need proof that there are places to ride, you only need to look at the size of the cycling community in the emirate. The Dubai Cycling Community facebook page has 4,000 members. The Velovixens women-only cycle club has 574 members. Coffee stops such as the Cycle Hub in Motor City serve as bike shops and cafes rolled into one and serving a full menu of food and a strip of bike shops is growing along the Sheikh Zayed Road. These shops regularly sell bikes for upwards of AED20,000 (£3,752). Giant cycles are expecting to sell around 20,000 frames in 2016 alone. 

“Like a car, a bike is a status symbol, so if you drive a high-end car, you want to put a high-end bike on it, whether you’re a beginner or not, right?” says my guide for the week, who has asked not to be named. She adds it’s not unusual to see a Ferrari, Porsche or Lamborghini with a bike rack on it. A lot of the people riding these bikes are new to cycling, which can make the group rides, with turnouts in their hundreds, quite a nerve-wracking affair. This is partly why the cyclists have been given their own circuit. 

Two, in fact. The first is an 8.3km former camel racing track in the middle of Dubai called Nad Al Sheba which is now the District One Cycling & Running Track and the other is Al Qudra. Imagine Richmond park, only bigger, much bigger. Then take out the trees and the dog walkers and the hills and the deer and the grass and the water and anything green and make it sunny. Really, really sunny. And 25 degrees hot. And this is only January. 

Cars are banned on the cycle track at Al Qudra

Cars are banned on the cycle track at Al Qudra

AL QUDRA
 
“THEY WERE HAVING PROBLEMS AFTER THEY BUILT THIS WITH THE DESERT TRYING TO RECLAIM THE TRACK,” SAYS MY GUIDE. “SO THEY MOVED THE DESERT.” 

Indeed they have. In typical Dubai style, the landscape has been manipulated. A good few hundred yards either side of the cycle track is flat where the dunes have been pushed back although a battle against the march of nature is a constant one - you can see the first indications of the dunes creeping back. 

Al Qudra is an extraordinary place to cycle. It reminds you of one of those eighties video games where the technology doesn’t exist to add landscape so you just get a path winding into the distance and a few 3D triangles to indicate hills. This does nothing to deter the thousands of cyclists who come out to Al Qudra at the weekend to ride on the 135km of flawless, glass-smooth track. It’s particularly good for time trial training, apparently. “Zad’s, the little coffee shop at the track can look like a ski cafe on weekend mornings,” says my guide, “hundreds of cyclists clattering about in their cleats and chatting.” 

Aside from rolling desert, Al Quadra does have one or two sights - there is ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed’s ranch off to the left on the brow of a rise, where if you are out on the track early enough you will hear the bassline whump of one of his legendary - and exclusive - parties. Shortly after this there is the solar power station, where the sun’s rays are bounced off enormous radar dishes and concentrated into a laser point for the energy to be harnessed and help keep the lights on in Dubai. All very James Bond. Then there is nature. Herds of Arabian Oryx walk these dunes and if you get broadsided by one of them you’ll know about it. 

There are no real hills to speak of but that means there is wind. This becomes stronger as the day progresses with the warm air from the desert meeting the cool breeze off the sea. At its worst this can create enormous dust storms that reduce visibility to zero, penetrate the clothes and every orifice. “Get stuck in one of them and you just have to battle through it,” says my guide’s husband, who also does not wish to be named. When that happens you’re not going to find much shelter, especially not from the little open-sided gazebos that punctuate the routes, or the ghaff, which are about the only trees that grow in the desert and are protected by law to such an extent that they can’t be moved, so the cycle track is built around them. 

The thought of suffering a mechanical in such an environment might be enough to put some off riding this far out, but the track staff have thought of this. They have erected phone masts out here to ensure good reception and they have a rescue quad bike on standby to come out and pick you up. Secluded you might be, out of reach you’re not. Although you’re never far away from never getting out alive: “Keep going in that direction,” says my guide’s husband pointing at the horizon. “and you’ll end up in Saudi.” They found a car that had got lost out there once, he says. Two skeletons sitting in it. 
Al Qudra and Nad Al Sheba are soon to be linked by a 17km cyclepath known as The Stick, which is more or less finished, save a couple of stretches where landowners are stopping the path being built. “They’ll come round,” says my guide, “all that land was gifted to them by Sheikh Mohammed anyway, and he wants a cycle path.” Sheikh Mohammed, or Sheikh Mo, as he is widely and affectionately known, is at the core of Dubai’s drive to encourage cycling. It’s no coincidence that Al Qudra runs close to his ranch - he uses the cyclepath himself. 

There is an unintended consequence of all this safe cycling: “We’ve got riders in our club who have never experienced actually riding on a road,” explains my guide. This she says is fine when those riders are still in Dubai, but it’s when they travel home to cycle in the UK and are forced to tackle the terrors of British traffic that they struggle. 

It is of course possible to cycle on Dubai’s side streets but you won’t get far, because cycles are banned from the main roads that feed them and also from pavements. The other option is to pack the bike up and head out to ride some of the rural roads, such as around Al Madam.

Villages around Al Madam have a surprising amount of vegetation

Villages around Al Madam have a surprising amount of vegetation

AL MADAM
 
CYCLING IN THE COUNTRYSIDE AROUND DUBAI IS BEST DONE IN A GROUP WITH A SUPPORT CAR, BECAUSE IT ISN’T COUNTRYSIDE IN THE TRADITIONAL SENSE OF THE WORD - THIS IS SERIOUS DESERT, PROPER MIDDLE EAST.

There are hamlets, little clusters of flat single storey houses and the odd mansion belonging to a sheikh, sitting there on a hill, but get through them and it’s mile after mile of desert. Not quite as featureless as Al Qudra because you’re close to some mountains at Alfaya here, part of the ridge that runs along the eastern edge of the peninsular. Follow these mountains north and you’ll eventually reach the mighty Jebel Jais, a 20-mile climb averaging 5 per cent that winds to the top of one of the region’s highest peaks. They are still building the mountain pass so you’ll get so far and have to turn back, although the descent through sheer-sided canyons is a joy. You’d be in Oman here but it’s the biggest accessible climb near Dubai. 

Back on the plain, we’ve actually left the emirate of Dubai and crossed to Sharjah. Markers line the road to indicate the depth of water in times of flooding. “It rains about six days of the year. The water runs off the mountains and floods this whole area,” says my guide’s husband. “It’s gone in a couple of hours.” This used to be quite a liberal place when the British colonials were around but they left and Sharjah needed to borrow some money. Saudi Arabia gave it to them on the proviso that they behaved themselves, so now it’s strict. 

People come to the desert to play and party, and all around us is evidence of that. Tyre tracks criss-cross the dunes where the locals have gone off-roading and in places the sand is strewn with litter, everything from plastic drink bottles to abandoned tents. It looks like Southend seafront after a bank holiday. Litter is such a big issue that the authorities send out teams to pick it up, but this just means people now leave it for them to clear. 

We are being given plenty of room by passing traffic, either because of the enormous American pickup truck my guide is driving slowly behind us or because drivers around here are extra cautious. They seem in no rush anyway - things are so laidback here that we overtake a JCB trundling along the road and we are only doing 20mph. Before long we pass the workmen it is presumably heading to join. They stop and stare, looking slightly bewildered. We wave, they wave back. There’s no such thing as a minimum wage here and it can actually be cheaper to employ labourers than buy machinery, which is why there are men standing by the roadside doing nothing but waving red flags. Cheaper than a bollard. Although when you’ve come from the slums of India it’s probably not a bad way of life. 

The camels seem to have it better. There are plenty of them out here. “They stink, they smell, they spit and they kick,” says my guide’s husband as one at the side of the road looks our way and curls its lip. “So you’re better off keeping out of their way.” This is easy to do until we round a bend and they are being herded along the roadside, spilling into the road ahead of us. Thankfully the herdsman, behind the wheel of a Toyota pickup and honking his horn continually, seems to have things under control. Camels have an aloof way of looking down on you which could have something to do with them all being owned by Sheikh Mohammed. Another reason they are best avoided. 

Much of the final stage was viewed via the wing mirror

Much of the final stage was viewed via the wing mirror

THE DUBAI TOUR
 
“MARK CAVENDISH HAS A PROBLEM,” CRACKLES THE VOICE AT THE OTHER END OF THE RACE RADIO AND THE PELOTON HASN’T EVEN SET OFF YET.

Cavendish has had a problem all week. He shouted at his teammate Mark Renshaw on camera earlier. He won last year’s Dubai Tour but this one is looking increasingly like Marcel Kittel’s. This could have something to do with Cav’s mood. 

We’re sitting in static convoy, police outriders up front, the road ahead cleared of traffic, waiting for the peloton to appear over the little hillock from the race village, where they have been generally milling around and signing things and standing on stage waving at the crowd. 

Today is the final stage of the tour - the Business Bay stage that winds around the streets and palm-lined avenues of Dubai before a climax sprint finish in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Today is also Team Wiggins rider Chris Latham’s birthday. “I’m going to try and get in the break,” he said when asked on stage of his plans for the day. “Then I’m gonna see what birds are knocking about in that bar later.” Judging by the lack of uproar among the Emirati in attendance it’s quite possible they didn’t know what on earth he was saying. 

“Chris is on Tinder if anyone’s interested,” added Sir Bradley Wiggins. 

That was earlier, before Cav fixed his problem and before the peloton swept onto the Sheikh Zayed Road. If you go to enough cycle stage races it quickly becomes apparent that it is probably the one spectator sport that is best watched at home on the TV. Stand at the side of the road and you get a split second glimpse at best. You can hang around at the start or the finish or both but again you won’t see much. Even in a car actually driving with the race, which we are doing, you don’t get to see a lot because you can’t really have a procession of cars getting in the way of 122 riders. Being in a car is still the best way to experience a race first hand, however. In the thick of it, amongst the action. We slow down at one point and ride alongside the break, long enough to get a few seconds of video, then we drop back to the main peloton so we can see them through the rear window before speeding off to get out of their way and wait for them at a nominated spot, all the time race radio crackling into life, the lady at the other end calmly advising the cars to “allow the peloton more space” or inform us of the riders who are doing anything interesting. 

This stage probably wins by a long chalk in the scenery stakes. Stage one was across desert to the somewhat sparse seaside resort of Fujairah, which has a coral reef upon which manta rays are sometimes seen. In anticipation of the expected hordes of tourists they have built a lot of hotels and have big plans for a marina. They seem to have forgotten everything else except the mosque, which is enormous. 

Stage two had a glamorous finish outside Atlantis on the Palm but stage three was another desert odyssey to finish at the Hatta Dam in the mountains that border Oman. So not much in the way of roadside crowds, not out there, and not really at the stage finishes. Even the Atlantis finish line had more dignitaries than fans in attendance. The reason for this is that while there are a lot of people who cycle in Dubai, and who cycle for exercise and leisure, only a small proportion of them seem to be pro-cycling fans, and most of them are at work. Which doesn’t leave many inclined to get out and bang the finish line boards. 

The biggest crowds, oddly enough, are through the old town among the bazaars and souks on stage four, where they stand obediently at the edge of the road without a crowd control barrier in sight. For them the Dubai Tour is a true spectacle, which while heartening, does fall wide of the mark in terms of the target audience Dubai is aiming for. 

Dubai is obsessed with being the best. It’s like the kid at school with all the toys screaming “look at me!” It has the tallest building, the longest artificial ski slope, it was going to build a copy of the Taj Mahal bigger than the original one until Mumbai complained that it could divert tourism. It is a vulgar display of wealth and superficiality on a grandiose scale but Dubai is also a place of contradiction. Ask any expat who lives there and they will tell you they love it. They love the sense of community and the standard of living and the fact it’s an outpost of progress and modernity in the Middle East. And they all love sheikh Mohammed. The expat reality of Dubai is normality, the sort of village life people in the UK aspire to, but with sun. Not everybody drives a Bentley. 

But the people who promote Dubai can’t help themselves.The tour is billed the Most Powerful Race, which could be correct in terms of the speeds reached on the flat courses, but it skims over one key point - Dubai doesn’t have any mountains. Oman does, so does Qatar. One thing Dubai does have is enginuity and the seeming ability to create anything, to achieve the impossible. They pull islands out of the sea, why can’t they build a mountain? 

In Dubai anything is possible. This is a city built quite literally on sand, but it isn’t going anywhere. The cycling, too, is here to stay. The authorities are encouraging it and with tourism now making up 80 per cent of the economy, cycling is a seam worth tapping. 

To give cyclists a reason to visit, there is a full calendar of events, from sportives to triathlons and Iron Man competitions. 

“Like people come here from all over the world for the golf, they would like to make that the same for cycling,” said one of the Eleana, one of the tour PRs. 

However unrealistic this might seem, you know they will make it happen. 

Graham Hutson travelled to Dubai on Emirates airlines and stayed at the Meridien Mina Seyahi hotel. He rode a Giant Propel while he was there: The Bike of the Tour. 

This article first appeared on www.thetimes.co.uk/onyourbike on February  15 2016