Road cycling the Dolomites of Italy is unlike cycling anywhere else in the world.
If you’re fit and can climb, you need to visit, end of story.
What’s so special about cycling the Dolomites?
1. The scenery
The UNESCO-protected scenery is mind-blowing. Vast limestone peaks rise up vertically around you, with the roads weaving their way through the steep-sided valleys flanked by towering turrets of rock.
The scenery here has an intensity we haven’t seen anywhere else we’ve ridden. It’s as if the mountains are on steroids. Yes the French and Italian Alps also have massive mountains, but here it feels like you could just spread out your arm and touch them. It’s almost otherworldly. No surprise then that the Dolomites are number 1 in our pick of the best places for cycling in Italy.
2. The climbs
Expect to suffer on many of the classic Dolomite climbs. While the distances of some of the climbs we’ve written about below might not sound earth-shattering, conquering a 2.7 km stretch of the Passo Fedaia with a 10-15% gradient will feel like a pretty huge feat while you’re struggling through it.
3. The heritage
The Dolomites mountains are also alive with road cycling heritage. The Giro d’Italia first visited in 1937 and has been back over 40 times. This is where famous Italian cyclists (names like Bartali, Coppi and Binda) created their reputations.
Unsurprisingly, the Dolomites are no undiscovered gem. The region is hugely popular with cyclists and each year there are two famous Dolomites cycling events: the Sella Ronda Bike Day (20,000 cyclists, closed roads) and Maratona dles Dolomites (July, 9,000 cyclists, closed roads).
Cycling the Dolomites on closed roads isn’t something we’ve had the opportunity to sample firsthand - but we would say that we think it would be fantastic. The narrow, twisting roads get very busy in the short summer months when the passes are open to cyclists, and biking in the Dolomites without cars would be amazing. There's more on the Sella Ronda Bike Day and Maratona dles Dolomites below.
Where are the Dolomites?
The Italian Dolomites are found in northern Italy. The border with Austria is to the north and the Venetian plain is to the south. The mountains – part of the Southern Limestone Alps – are spread across three Italian regions: Trentino, Veneto and Alto Adige. They are part of the provinces of Belluno, Bolzano, Trento, Udine and Pordenone.
The mountains cover an area of about 90 km north to south and 100 km east to west. They are made up of 15 different ranges, each of which is at around 3,000 metres high. In this guide we concentrate on a relatively small part of the Dolomites - the part that has been made famous to cyclists via the Giro d’Italia and the Maratona dles Dolomites.
The Dolomite Alps are not the Italian Alps
It’s worth mentioning that the Dolomites are separate to the Bormio region (with the famous Stelvio, Mortirolo and Gavia climbs). That region is 200km to the west of the Dolomites, in the Italian province of South Tyrol.
Confusingly, you’ll often come across people referring to the Stelvio, Mortirolo and Gavia as being in the Dolomites - but they’re not!
Read on to plan your Dolomites cycling holiday...
In this guide, you’ll find everything you need to plan an unforgettable Dolomites cycling holiday: detailed information on the best road rides in the Dolomites plus where to stay in the Dolomites, information on weather in the Dolomites and the best time to visit for cyclists plus Dolomites bike hire.
Read on and plan your next cycling holiday in the Dolomites.
“The most beautiful natural architecture worldwide”
Dolomites cycling climbs and routes
The first thing to say is, there really isn’t much flat terrain around here. If you look at a Dolomites road map, you’ll soon see that the mountains are so steep, and most of the valleys are so narrow, that there aren’t a huge number of roads to choose from. As such, road cycling in the Dolomites is not a good choice for beginners - or those that haven’t done much training!
We mentioned in the introduction that the scenery is quite different to other mountainous areas we’ve visited. Likewise, the names of the climbs have a rolling beauty that’s quite distinctive: there’s a lyrical, elegance to the Passo Campolongo, Passo Falzarego, Passo Valparola for example.
Dolomites cycling climbs
Finally, there’s the Fedaia, famous for its fearsome gradients.
- Distance: 9km
- Elevation: 600m
- Epic rating:
- Distance: 5km
- Elevation: 370m
- Epic rating:
- Distance: 9km
- Elevation: 640m
- Epic rating:
- Distance: 6km
- Elevation: 350m
- Epic rating:
- Distance: 10km
- Elevation: 900m
- Epic rating:
Passo Valparola (via Passo Falzarego)
- Distance: 12km
- Elevation: 660m
- Epic rating:
- Distance: 12km
- Elevation: 1,070m
- Epic rating:
Dolomites cycling routes
We would suggest giving the Sella Ronda route a go as it covers four of the most famous passes in a neat loop.
Taking on the Maratona loop is a more audacious challenge, and if you’re based somewhere convenient, you could always split the loop over two days.
Finally, we also really enjoyed this loop of Passo della Erbe and the Funes Valley, but haven’t yet had a chance to write a full guide to it. Once you’re away from the main SS244 at San Martino, it’s a stunning ride and much less known than other roads in the area. We found it beautifully quiet when we rode it.
Dolomites bike day
The Dolomites Bike Day is a newer event than the better known Sella Ronda Bike Day and Maratona dles Dolomites. It takes place in mid June and, like the Sella Ronda Bike Day, it is a non-competitive bike event that's free of charge. There's no requirement to register and the roads are traffic free until early afternoon. The 51km route takes you over the Passo Campolongo, Passo Falzarego and Passo Vaparola.
Sella Ronda Bike Day
This is the biggest Dolomites cycling event on the amateur calendar. Each year, at the end of June, the roads are closed to traffic and more than 20,000 riders take on the Sella Ronda route. The Sella Ronda Bike Day takes in the four passes of Campolongo, Pordoi, Sella and Gardena.
Maratona dles Dolomites
The Maratona dles Dolomites comes a month later, in July each year. It attracts around 9,000 cyclists and there are three courses, from 55-138km. There’s a week-long lead up to the event with many riders arriving early for parties and training. Read our Cyclist's FAQs about the Maratons dles Dolomites for lots more info.
Best places to stay in the Dolomites (for cyclists)
To be absolutely honest, we really struggled when it came to finding somewhere nice to stay in the Dolomites.
The main reason for this was probably that we left it too late (we were booking in January for our visit in July) and we were looking for somewhere quite big - a self-catering chalet with four bedrooms. As a result, we ended up staying in the little village of Santa Cristina Val Gardena. The accommodation was fine but the location was not ideal. As a result, and unusually for us, we aren’t sharing the details of where we stayed in this guide.
Where we would stay if we visited again
If we were to visit again, we would base ourselves in one of the Dolomites bike hotels in Corvara. Corvara is a decent sized town at the bottom of the Passo Gardena, and on the loop of the Sella Ronda.
In terms of the kind of accommodation you can expect to stay in, our experience was that it’s more rustic Alpine chalet than boutique hotel. Set your expectations accordingly and you won’t be disappointed.
A final point to note: while the core area of the Dolomites looks relatively small on a map, it takes ages to get anywhere by car/public transport due to the fact there are no flat/straight roads. So picking the right location is really important when it comes to the Dolomites - more so than many other destinations.
Our advice is to focus on the routes you want to ride and make sure you’re going to be able to access them relatively easily from your accommodation - otherwise you’ll run the risk of not doing the rides you wanted or having to drive to the start of the route.
Bike hire in the Dolomites
If you’re looking to hire a road bike in the Dolomites, you should be able to find what you’re looking for. However, be aware that there aren’t loads of hire shops so if you’re visiting at a busy time of year or for the Maratona or Sella Ronda bike day, you’ll definitely need to book ahead. It's also worth noting that the shops are scattered throughout the towns of the Dolomites, so if you want to hire, bear that in mind when deciding where to stay (it’s always much easier if your bike hire is close to where you’re staying).
While we haven’t done an exhaustive study, we felt hire prices here were quite expensive compared to many destinations. That’s probably due to the fact there isn’t an oversupply of shops that offer it.
We hired a bike from Ski Adolf and were pleased with both the bike and service.
A final point: if you’re looking at the websites for some of the operators below, it may look at first glance as if they’re just a ski hire company. Look a bit closer: most of them offer ski hire in winter and bike hire in summer. The information you’re looking for should be somewhere there - or you can of course always drop them an email. They may also offer Dolomites bike tours.
This information is offered as an indicative guide only: we periodically update it but prices, services and bike brands may change. Please let us know if you find anything that is incorrect.
Dolomites bike hire shop
Alta Badia Bike Rental
Via Colz Str. 60, The Villa, Alta Badia
Via Micura de Rü, 48, San Cassiano Alta Badia
They hire road bikes (and road e-bikes!). You can book online and have the option of also paying to hire a helmet, GPS and GoPro.
1 day - 56 euros
Via Dursan 108 39047 St. Christina di Val Gardena
They have carbon road bikes available to rent.
1 day - 48 euros
2 days - 88 euros
3 days - 123 euros
4 days - 155 euros
5 days - 183 euros
6 days - 209 euros
Additional day - 22 euros
Via Pecei 12
They offer road bikes with free delivery to your hotel. You can hire bike helmets at an extra charge.
1 day - 44 euros
Str. Col Alt, 61
Offer a range of road bikes with varying specifications. You can also hire a bike helmet and garmin.
Prices range from 47 to 99 euros per day.
Standard carbon frame
1 day - 47 euros
2 days - 92 euros
3 days - 135 euros
4 days - 170 euros
5 days - 200 euros
6 days - 229 euros
Premium road bike
1 day - 99 euros
2 days - 190 euros
3 days - 270 euros
4 days - 360 euros
5 days - 450 euros
6 days - 540 euros
Tips for hiring a bike in the Dolomites:
Undecided on whether to hire a bike or bring your own? Read this.
When to go
The best months for Dolomites cycling, from a weather perspective, are June to October (and if you can avoid the school holidays in July and August, so much the better). May could also be a good bet but statistically it’s the region’s wettest month, so if you do visit in May, pack some wet weather kit! Rain in the Dolomites falls mainly in spring and autumn.
As ever in the high mountains, remember that the weather can be unpredictable.
The towns you ride through in summer are all ski resorts come winter, so these months are best avoided for those on road bikes. The snow clears by the end of April, marking the transition back to clear roads and cyclists!
Temperatures increase but with this also comes rain. If you come at this time of year, expect lush green valleys and lots of wildflowers, but bring a jacket!
Temperatures should be warm and schools are out. The narrow roads that weave between the vertical peaks are busy with holidaymakers and local tourist traffic. You may also encounter rain, typically in the form of late afternoon thunderstorms. If you’d prefer quieter roads and have the flexibility, avoid these months.
These months offer a good chance for a late summer adventure, with some great autumn colours. The weather is often stable and clear, though there may be snowfall on the highest slopes when the weather is bad.
Snow starts to fall and resorts are moving into ski season. These months are best avoided by cyclists.
Source: https://www.dolomitemountains.com/ note these are based on the valley floor in Cortina d’Amezzo
Tips and articles
Check out our tips for cycling in the Dolomites here.
Cycling books about the Dolomites
A lot has been written about the Dolomites.
We are fans of Friedbe and Goding’s “Mountain High”, which includes write-ups on Passo Fedaia, Passo Giau and Passo Pordoi. You can read our review of Mountain High, here.
We also love browsing Michael Blann’s beautiful “Mountains” coffee table book. There is a section on the Dolomites and you could lose many an hour drooling over the photography and enjoying the stories.
For focus on the Giro d’Italia, Herbie Syke’s Maglia Rosa is the book for you. It’s a weighty tome, but the tales of the Giro really take you behind the scenes and the grainy photos of yesteryear’s cycling legends are incredibly evocative.
Dolomites cycling map
We bought a copy of the Dolomites cycling map sold by Cycling Dolomites. It’s nicely printed (though it’s not laminated so might not last that long if it’s destined for your back pocket), and helpfully includes details of where you can find water fountains. On the back of the map are climb profiles and it comes with five route cards showing the route of the Maratona dles Dolomites over the years. At the time of writing it cost 9,50 euros (plus postage if you have it sent to you).
If you like physical maps and having an overview of the whole area, you’ll like this - but (in our humble opinion), our route guides and GPX files are more useful!
How do you get to the Dolomites?
The closest international airport to the Dolomites is the one in Venice. From Venice to the Dolomites (Corvara to be precise), it’s just under 200km and a 3 hour drive. There are some public transport options, but you’ll need to have time.
Many people do what we did, which was fly into Venice airport, hire a car and then drive to the Dolomites. You could then drive on to Bormio, followed by the Italian Lakes, before heading home via the international airport in Milan. Of course, it’s just as feasible to follow this kind of tour in reverse.
A final note on getting to the Dolomites: check out flying via the smaller airports of Innsbruck, Verona and Treviso just in case they work better for you. In particular, Innsbruck is only just over the border in Austria - but if you do take this option and hire a car, make sure the terms of your rental agreement allow you to cross the border!
Evening in the Dolomites
Don’t miss seeing the evening in the Dolomites. At the end of a sunny day, the evening sun catches the imposing faces of the mountains and paints them in a pink, rosy hue. It’s quite spectacular.
Language in the Dolomites
There is a real mix of ethnic groups and language in the area. It’s quite common to see signs in Italian, German and sometimes Ladin too. There’s more information on the reasons for this below.
Many of the towns, and sometimes even the mountains, have two names, one in Italian and one in German. Confusingly, they’re usually very different names! For example Corvara is the Italian name, but you may also see it referred to as Kurfar. Likewise it’s Val Gardena in Italian or Gröden in German. We stick with the Italian names in our guides, but it’s worth knowing about this quirk!
History of the Dolomites
250 million years ago the Dolomites were part of a coral reef - similar to what you’d see if you were diving in the Maldives or the islands of Polynesia. Later, tectonic movements pushed together the areas of today’s Africa and Europe with violent volcanic eruptions and folding that uplifted the area. The sea withdrew exposing the sea bed and the Dolomites emerged. The Ice Age took its hold and sharpened the valleys with glaciers 1,500 metres thick covering the area.
If you look carefully at the rock, in many areas, you can see the horizontal layers of limestone, heavily stratified and folded.These are thick layers of seaweed, coral and tiny organisms that lived in the ancient seas.
The name “Dolomites” comes from the rock’s first official scholar, the French geologist Deodat-Guy-Sylvain-Tancre de Gratet de Dolomieu. He sent samples to Switzerland for classification in 1789. The verdict was that the rock was of an unknown composition and warranted its naming after the “founder”.
Until the First World War, much of the area was Austrian. During the war, the area was a theatre of battle and on the Marmolada there are traces of old trenches. The war resulted in Italy’s annexation of regions in which Italians and Austrians had previously lived together under the Austrian flag: on 10 September 1919 the people that lived here officially changed from being Austrian citizens to Italian citizens.
The Ladin influence
You’ll see the Ladin influence in everything from the food to the architecture - steep slatted roofs and wooden chalets.
The Ladin language was the major language of the mountains for centuries. It’s still officially spoken by 30,000 people of the four valleys: the Sella, the Val Badia, Val Gardena, the Val di Fassa, the Valle di Livinallongo and the Valle d’Ampezzo.
There’s been a bit of a revival of Ladin recently, and in La Villa in Val Badia, the population is trilingual and even the youngest children speak Italian, German and Ladin. If you want to get a taste of the local culture, don’t miss the Gardena folk festival on the first Sunday in August, with a parade, local bands and the traditional costumes of the various towns. The costumers reflect the Tyrolean influence of the inhabitants.
Legends of the Dolomites
The Dolomites are known to some as the “Monti Pallidi”. This means “the pale rocks”. Legend has it that in ancient times, the dolomitic rocks were the same colour as the Alps, with flower meadows, lakes and forests.
Then one day the King’s son married the moon princess - but unfortunately the King’s son couldn’t stand the intense moon light and the princess couldn’t stand the shadowy woods, so they were destined to be kept apart.
One day the prince ran into a magical gnome who offered to sort things out. He wove moonlight around the Dolomites so that the princess could come down from the moon to live in the Dolomites with the prince.
From then on the Dolomites were named Monti Pallidi and people say the white edelweiss flowers in the meadows are the princess’ gifts from the moon.
There's more on legends of the Dolomites here.
Other useful information
If you’re not too pushed for time, while you’re in this part of the world you might like to take a day trip to Treviso, which is home to industry names including Pinarello, Sidi, Campagnolo, Selle Italia and Fizik.
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Want to take in the Stelvio (and nearby Gavia and Mortirolo) while you’re in the region? Here’s our in-depth guide to the incredible Stelvio region that’s only a couple of hours away from the Dolomites.
Want to check out some other destinations? Search by the month you want to travel or cycling destination you want to visit, here.