Sella Ronde — Disneyland for Cyclists

The Gruppo Sella is a monolith of coral and the most iconic feature of the landscape of the Dolomites.  From a distance, it looks like a mesa from Monument Valley placed smack on top of an Alpine mountain.  Unfortunately, you can’t get far enough away to see the whole thing unless you take a helicopter ride or hike up a nearby peak.  Instead, the view you get is as if you are a mouse looking at the feet of an elephant and your resulting impression is that this mountain is BIG.

For your viewing pleasure, there is a road that circumnavigates the Gruppo Sella.  Called the Sella Ronde, it climbs four passes — Passo Campolongo (1875m), Passo Gardena (2121m), Passo Sella (2244m), and Passo Pordoi (2239m).  Fortunately, for a four-pass loop, the ride isn’t that hard.  The mileage is short, about 34 miles, and the valleys are not very low so the total climbing is just under 6000′.

Ajax, Rudy, and I drove from Cortina over Passo Falzarego and parked the car 6 miles west of Arabba so we could have a short warmup before we started the official loop.

Our first pass was the Campolongo.  It has several switchbacks on the south side, which we climbed.

The top is flat and not that exciting, plus we already climbed it from the other side a few days ago, so I didn’t take the usual summit photo.  The descent into the ski village of Corvara was beautiful, expecially with the huge peaks behind.

From Corvara, we headed west up the Passo Gardena.  I’ve always wondered if “Gardena” means garden because Passo Gardena is so pastoral.  I think it doesn’t, because the German name is “Grödner” and I know garden is translated “Garten” as in “Kindergarten.”  Anyway, Passo Gardena is very beautiful.  Here is a view looking up the pass from Corvara.

From the climb, here is a view back into Corvara.  You can see there are many switchbacks.

And here we are at the top, Rudy, Ajax, and me.  Behind us you can see the descent towards the Passo Sella.

Here’s another view of the descent.  In the lower center part of the photo you can see the road.  This is a traverse around the mountain, and perhaps the only flat bit of the whole ride.

After the Gardena, we next climb the Sella.  Passo Sella is a big climb, about 1000m if you start from Ortisei in the valley.  On this ride, however, we start from the junction, which quite a bit higher.  Our total elevation gain for the Sella is maybe 400m.  That’s what’s so fun about this ride.  You get to summit four majestic climbs, stay high all day, and you can do so without too much climbing.

Here’s Ajax nearing the top of Passo Sella.  The background is Sasso Lungo.  It’s not part of Gruppo Sella, but it is beautiful and it is small enough you can get a good photo of it without requiring a helicopter as a camera accessory.

And here is Rudy rounding the bend just before the top of the pass.

Here is the three of us in the obligatory summit photo.  We’re posed with a photo of Italian world champion Francesco Moser.  (I believe the sign on the top of Gardena was Italian world champion Maurizio Fondriest.  I actually met both of these guys plus Gianni Motta one day in 2000 at the start of a bike race in Cles, where Fondriest has a bike shop.)

We enjoyed the view from the top of Sella for a while and got a soft drink and some water at the hotel refugio at the top.  I stayed in that hotel in 2000 and greatly enjoyed it.  The family was very friendly and it’s wonderful to enjoy the mountain experience from the top of a pass.

Here is Rudy starting down the Sella towards the Pordoi.

and Ajax and Rudy stopped on a turn, enjoying the view from a precipice…

Here is a photo of the massive cliff behind them.  This is part of the Gruppo Sella.  The photo was taken from the road with a wide-angle lens (19mm on FX), without the use of a helicopter (not in the budget).

We hammered up the Pordoi, our last pass of the day.  A Hammer Gel plus the soft drink we had on Sella gave me energy and I burned my last remaining match on this climb.  Here’s Ajax about to crest the summit.

And here’s a photo of Paul from Colorado, proudly sporting his Cicli Cortina jersey.  (Thanks Gigi!)  We met Paul on the Pordoi.  Apparently Paul has been reading this blog.  Piccolo mondo!  (Small world!)

And another one of mountain man Paul smiling after he conquered the Pordoi.

and Paul kindly took this photo of us at the Pordoi summit.

There is also a very nice hotel on top of the Pordoi.  I stayed here in 2007.  Across the street, there is a great souveneir shop where you can get all sorts of Alpine gifts, including T-shirts featuring the Pordoi.  In 2007, bought my cuckoo clock here (yay!) and some Murano glass jewelery (from Venice) for my wife.

From here, we headed east down the pass back to Arabba.  Here’s Ajax descending through a section of switchbacks.

We got back to the car feeling good.  Rudy decided to ride home from there, over the Falzarego.  He almost had me joining him, but Ajax pointed out I could go in the car with him and we could get a sandwich (and a beer) in Pocol on the way and meet Rudy at the hotel.  So Ajax and I hopped in the car.

After Ajax and I enjoyed our refreshment and the beautiful view in Pocol we got back on the road to Cortina.  We stopped at the view spot just above Cortina and Rudy caught us.  Here’s Rudy and Ajax reveling in the stories of the day.

We got back to the hotel, cleaned up, and went downstairs to find the hotel had a special appetizer reception.  It was an Italian religious holiday so we had great hors d’oeuvres before dinner.  (How do you say hors d’oeuvres in Italian?)

All in all it was a great day.  We were treated to perfect weather and the climbs were really beautiful, not too steep, and not too big considering we summited four famous climbs.  Yes, this loop, the Sella Ronde, is Cycling Disneyland.  I highly recommend you do this ride if you can.

If possible, you should do it on a weekday.  We did it on a Sunday.  These roads carry a lot of traffic.  Fortunately, the Italian drivers are VERY courteous to cyclists (it’s the national sport!), but if you do the ride on a weekday you’ll enjoy quieter roads with fewer cars, fewer tourist buses, and a lot fewer buzz rockets.

Ride Statistics:

  • distance: 46 miles (includes 12-mile out-and-back from where we parked the car to Arabba)
  • climbing: 6273′
  • 4 passes: Passo Campolongo (1875m), Passo Gardena (2121m), Passo Sella (2244m), Passo Pordoi (2239m)
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About bikealps

avid cyclist and photographer
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