Staying Warm in Italy’s Dolomites
Wait! Don’t put that winter active wear away just yet. If you’re planning a trip to Italy’s Dolomites during the summer, you might just need it.
Italy is a long peninsula that experiences true seasons and isn’t always under the Tuscan sun. The top of the boot often experiences drastically different weather than the heel. It’s akin to when tourists arrive in San Francisco expecting the beach weather they saw on The O.C., but instead they’re greeted with fog and rain and have to purchase one of those overpriced sweatshirts at Fisherman’s Wharf.
There is often this misconception about “sunny Italy” being, well, warm all the time.
Well, this time I was that tourist. My first trip to the Dolomites was in July. I was coming from Tuscany, where the sweat levels of midday cycling were like a hot yoga class. Friends warned me that it would be “cooler” in the mountains, but as I was packing my bag in 90-something-degree heat in a house with no air conditioning, I could barely bring myself to handle anything wool, let alone entertain the idea of putting it on my body. So I compromised by bringing one pair of lightweight cycling tights, one long-sleeved jersey, a lightweight fleece vest and an insulated rain jacket (to wear as a jacket, not for cycling).
My “Partner in Climb” (PiC) and I planned a week of challenging mountain pass rides. Since I was new to this type of riding, I didn’t understand that you’re always either climbing or descending, and thus you’re either hot and sweating or chilled by the cold mountain air as it whips across your swiftly descending body. There really isn’t a whole lot of in between. And, as I discovered, there’s a specific wardrobe system for this type of riding.
You wear as little clothing as possible while climbing to allow for easier respiration and perspiration. And then, before you descend, you pile on the layers. This typically includes arm warmers (which may have just been rolled down to the wrists while climbing), a lightweight water-repellent windbreaker designed to be rolled into your jersey pocket, something under your helmet (skullcap or headband) and/or tights over your shorts. What I found to be most important, however, was gloves. Nothing gets colder quicker when you’re zooming down successive switchbacks than those exposed digits. I learned that the trick was a two-glove system: one pair of normal gloves (cycling-specific is optional) layered over a pair of surgical gloves! I know, it seems crazy, but they really keep the wind out better than anything else.
What I didn’t know about riding in the Dolomites specifically is that there is basically a party to celebrate the passing from one costume change to the other–every time it happens. The Dolomites are essentially one giant, year-round playground for adults (and kids too!) in the great outdoors, as well as a popular training ground for professional cyclists (on this first trip, Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali and his team passed me going down a mountain that I was cycling up!). There are rifugi (the singular is rifugio–Italian for “shelter” or “refuge”) at the top of each mountain pass that offer all types of refreshment–from hot soup and coffee to cold beers and Cokes, and always, always apple strudel.
At the rifugi, you can purchase a Dolomites Passport, which you can stamp at each pass with its unique rubber stamp. The passport is about five euros and the stamps are gratis–your legs already paid the price by getting you there. I documented each conquered pass with a photo next to the respective signs denoting the elevation–for the benefit of my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter followers, of course. They seemed most impressed, however, by the fact that with each subsequent photo, I was wearing more clothing. As the day wore on, I pulled out the tights and the fleece vest and borrowed the double glove combo from my PiC, who runs hot thanks to the Spanish blood pulsing through her veins. And then I donned even one more article of clothing, thanks to the kindness of mountain strangers…
Just like we had at the summits of the first two passes, we decided to stop for a moment at the top of the third, Passo Pordoi, to have some refreshments before our descent. We started chatting with the friendly barista, Norberto. Norberto asked us what our pleasure would be and, being the cold-blooded, caffeine-sensitive individual that I am (sorry, espresso), I ordered a hot chocolate. It was at least the third one of the day.
As we chatted, we glanced outside to see the clouds rolling in and threatening rain. My PiC layered on a pair of thick arm warmers and unfurled the fancy windbreaker from her jersey pocket. Norberto turned to me: “Dov’è il tuo impermeabile?” (“Where is your rain jacket?”). I shook my head, saying I wasn’t worried about a little rain. He asked if I would like to borrow his, but I assured him I was tough. He insisted, rushing into a back room and returning with a white jacket, which he handed to me ceremoniously, affirming that we would pass through again and that he knew I was good for it.
Reuniting with our bikes parked outside, we suited up for the descent. But I struggled with the zipper of Norberto’s jacket, unable to get it to budge. After a minute of difficulty, Norberto came to the rescue once more, this time handing me his sister’s blue rain jacket and even zipping it for me (just to be sure) before giving us both Italian cheek kisses and bidding us “alla prossima” (“until next time”). Flying down this third descent as the rain picked up, I was eternally grateful for Norberto’s generosity.
When I came back to the US for the winter holidays, my family asked me for a list of highlights from my season in Europe. Without stopping to think, I immediately listed my first day cycling in the Dolomites at the top. I’m eagerly awaiting my return to the Dolomites next summer, but this time I’m arriving prepared–as long as I’m properly attired, it’s my favorite place to ride.