The theme for the penultimate day is “Weary”. Everyone is feeling the slow chipping away strain of unaccustomed day on day exercise and it’s a lackluster start on the bus up the valley to where Andy the guide takes advantage of a wide expanse of snow to let us brush up on our double-gating technique. Our hands are too high, or too low, they don’t come back far enough, we stand too tall and move like stiff soldiers, so we pole up and down trying to do it right, creaking.
Lesson over it’s a few short kilometres to the lunch stop, most of them uphill. Only a few kilometres. It takes time. If you think pedaling up a col counting off the Km markers is soul destroying and laborious it’s nothing to the slow torment of trudging uphill on skis, well, at this beginner’s sluggish pace at least. It’s hard puffy work, not helped by everyone just being tired out. This is real cross country with herringbone steep ups and snowplough steep downs, and despite having more control than ever before I’m still having trouble getting my up-and-down only legs to go sideways enough for an effective snowplough, not helped by an unhealthy amount of Elvis Leg. There is high-speed crashing, sometimes into other people. Sorry. But I’m showing some improvement in that I now have the presence of mind to execute controlled crashing where it’s safe rather than wiping out on the steep bit ahead. This is progress, really it is. Still, downhills are done a little bit better each time and there is more gritty determination than pathetic wibble at the top, although getting to the bottom in one piece is still something of a surprise, and there are moments of unexpected skill that shock me so much that I train-wreck into the snow immediately afterwards. Old habits.
After lunch we loipe back the way we came and continue further along the valley, proceeding generally and steadily downwards past a succession of villages glinting postcard pretty in the sudden afternoon sun. After a long mostly incident free descent to a bridge with adjacent views there’s a gentle straight climb back up. For reasons unknown my race head kicks in, I step out of the twin tracks and start to jog up the piste. Longer strides, controlled effort breathing, hup hup hup, coordinated ski-poling, hup. It’s definitely not graceful, think duck on Viagra, and it’s certainly not fast but it shows that I can do a little more than just plod along, and more importantly it shows I want to do more than just plod along. Ahhh, I think the sport has got me. As I reach the summit all out of breath, light-headed, wobbly-kneed and stupidly happy I’m pretty sure that it has. Dammit. Five minutes later I crash on an icy corner and headbutt the snow.
For our last day on skis nature has pulled out all the stops to give us a good send off, clearing away the low grey cloud and snow of the last few days to make way for a fine azzurro sky. Lovely. We take the bus up the hill towards Cortina again but stop 3 kms short of the summit so we can earn our descent down the other side. There’s a reason I’ve wanted to come to the Dolomites for about half my life, and that reason is right there in front of me now. It is simply beautiful. The snow helps the picturesque, obviously, but the peaks sticking up above the frieze of forest are stunning. It’s a good place to be.
Once at the top of the descent at Anas we’re into Italy proper rather than the teutonic bit and the piste all the way down to Cortina follows a disused railway track so is of the steady shallow gradient you’d expect, which for the first few kilometres is sufficiently hard work thanks to the tacky snow. After the derelict Ospitale station the slope steepens just a degree or two to make travel easier and the loipe runs along the right hand side of the valley with gaps in the trees to the left offering tantalising glimpses of views. The true magnificence of the mountains is revealed like a pop-up book when the trail goes over the old railway bridges only to be instantly snatched away when we’re plunged into darkness skiing through the tunnels that punctuate the route. This produces involuntary giggling and all the crashing, all the aches, all the muttered sweary words to self trying to get legs to go where I want them to, all the feeling like a inadequate incompetent fool, all the out of element insecurity has been worth it just to be able to ski down this hill in one piece and to have the balance required to look up at the wonderful scenery. It feels like a privilege to be here, like cycling cross-country skiing can take you places other modes of transport can’t reach and you can see and experience special things. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Lunch in Cortina is a rushed affair as there’s a bus to catch back up the hill, which for cycling purposes looks like the better side of the mountain, with an amazing hairpin, but we exit the bus a few kilometres shy of the top once more before we’re allowed to enjoy the downhill. Descending towards home now we cross the Durrensee again, but this time it’s flooded in sunlight and simply stunning, not stopping at the café we head back to Dobbiaco the same way we did a few days ago but today there’s a reason to stop and look to the right to take in the famous Tre Cime peaks that were previously hidden in the cloud. My skiing this time is totally different to a few days ago, bits that previously had me nervous I am now happily gliding down, and whistling a tune to myself, I’m keen to go faster but double-poling steadily along prolongs the enjoyment of the moment. By the time we have to hand our hire kit back in I’m tired from a long day on the skis and my legs are pretty shattered because we’ve covered 32 kilometres. If you’d have told me that after I’d dribbled home on the Monday after a third that distance I would have laughed, or most probably cried.
I don’t usually get too excited about other sports, much as I may enjoy them they will always come a very distant second to my cycling, I have enough trouble being adequate at pedaling without some other sport coming along to make me merely mediocre at both. But despite my cynical reticence towards winter sports this week has gradually and surprisingly exposed that cross-country skiing is something I want to spend more time doing, embrace fully and develop a relationship with, because it’s as easy or as hard as you want to make it, a lot like cycling. I like that it’s skiing for the fit. I want to make it hard. I want to get better, smoother, faster, and effortless whilst giving it effort. As we were making a meal of it going up a hill a bloke coming the other way was standing up, downhill, gliding fast out of the loipe, all casually adjusting his bum-bag, I want to be like him. Apart from the bum-bag bit. We were frequently overtaken by people skating their way up and down the hill making it look easy, in that way which suggests that if it looks easy it probably isn’t. I want to be like them. And the proliferation of grey-haired old men constantly showing us a clean pair of skis suggests there’s no real reason to not bother trying because I’m too old to start, although doing it from primary school age is obviously an advantage.
Did I spend my first day back home watching biathlon on the internet with a deeper understanding of the effort and skill and technique involved? Yes. Did I shout at the screen because I was properly involved? Maybe. Am I looking at buying some rollerskis so I can practice between now and next Winter? Possibly. Will I go cross-country skiing next season? Most definitely.
Am I coming back here in the Summer with my bike? Of course I bloody well am.
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he’s not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he’s not doing either of those he’s pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he’s agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours doesn’t. He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.