Hoists from afar On two wheels Zweiradberge

Transalp on the Großglockner route: beautiful alternative to Lago di Garda (all you need to know)

Five friends and I filled our backpacks, climbed on our bikes, and started our bike trip from Munich to Venice.

Almost exactly one month ago we departed in Munich to reach Venice seven days later. It’s not that it took 30 days instead. We’re back since a while. We’ve even done a 205km bike marathon. But I wanted to have the videos ready before writing up things. After all, they tell the story in a very compelling way.

Here’s the playlist if you want to watch all of them. Each video is about 5-6min in length. The total run-time is 35min. If you prefer to watch just one video, I recommend the seventh and final. That one also includes short throwbacks to the other episodes. I’ve embedded it separately below. As I don’t have pro tools at home and didn’t cut this to earn money with it: the first episode finishes with average editing skills. Being done with the seventh video, I’d do that better now.

I’ve already written in detail about the route. That was before we left. Then you ride and you figure which things worked well and which didn’t. If you were to follow our route in 2019, things that you want to consider are: traffic and steepness on the route, beauty to increase your level of anticipation, the situation of bike paths, how to enter Venice, where you’d find good gelato (important!), what we say on hotels and villages, how to make it easier (or more difficult), and where you can take a swim.

Traffic

Occasionally, we caught some heavy traffic. We couldn’t avoid traffic on the Großglockner. But I have to say: even though it was the peak of holiday season, I didn’t think that traffic was a problem. Yes, there were cars. But nothing excessive. Certainly no traffic jam that you read about in some horror stories. There were some annoying bits on other days.

  1. On the first day, traffic got nasty as we reached the Chiemsee. Before that, we followed a scenic route without many cars. The final 15km along the lake however were annoying. We didn’t see much of the lake anyways and there was almost no gap between cars ever. The bike path between Gmund and Chieming doesn’t accommodate road bikes. Next time, I’d take a tour through the Hinterland.
  2. The second day, traffic was a small issue after we crossed the A8 highway and before we reached Marquartstein to start the climb up to the Masererpass. Then things were sweet. The second section with heavy traffic included 10km between Erpfendorf and Waidring. There is no better alternative to that which I’m aware of.
  3. Entering Lienz from the Southern direction, we hit a lot of traffic. A bike lane exists for part of these 5km and I highly recommend to use it.
  4. The transition stage from Lienz to Cortina mostly runs over a protected bike route far from traffic. However, as you reach Toblach/Dobaccio, you need to switch on the street. A bike path exists, but the surface is gravel. That street has average traffic. Depends a bit on the time of the day as well. The street is rather wide though. No alternative.
  5. There is traffic on the Sella Ronda. Passo Pordoi was busier than the Großglockner. Since the street is wide also here, it’s still okay. We might have been a bit lucky also with the time, as it was the middle of the day. Too early for people to arrive, too late to return.
  6. More traffic than we had anticipated between Alleghe and Belluno. Things got very busy between Agordo and Peron. Note: there are two long tunnels on that road. At the first, the old street through the valley is accessible. Make use of it. Void of traffic, it’s pure enjoyment. At the second, the old street is locked with a gate to prevent people from exposing themselves to the risk of falling stones just to see a miraculously beautiful canyon. Over the next 500m, the risk is real. How do we know? We assessed the risk of an accident in the tunnel. It looked to be real, too.
  7. When we left Feltre, we wanted to avoid a lengthy detour. Hence, we followed the Western road that runs parallel to the Piave. There is no bridge for a very long time. In the original plan, we would have done that detour, but the guys wanted to reach Venice a bit earlier. That means: between Feltre and Quero you’ll have traffic. In our case, there was super very heavy traffic – but in the opposite direction. In our direction, it was a bit busy, but okay. Note that the street often has wide shoulders that work like a bike lane.
  8. After that, for the entirety of the long run through the flatland leading into Venice, we didn’t find any significant traffic whatsoever. The intensive route planning worked out. Quite an achievement given the population density.

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Steepness

By looking at the total parameters, we would classify this Transalp as an easy route. GPSies.com indicated around 12,000m elevation. We then measured not even 10,000m elevation. Two days together (day 3 and day 5) accounted for 50% of the climbing.

That doesn’t mean it was easy. Exactly for the fact that these two days are a big challenge. Since not all our group members are very experienced, we kept the other days light by design. There are opportunities to make them more difficult, if that’s what you’re looking for. There are fewer opportunities to make it easier. (See below.)

Still: the Großglockner is a hell of a climb. It has been a long time since I needed to take a break during a climb. I think the last time it happened was the Gavia in 2016. I stopped at the Stelvio also for a few seconds to fill up a water bottle. I stopped at some other climbs to wait for someone. But I didn’t need a break. At the Großglockner, I needed it. When the ramps went beyond 12%, it felt like eternity to find a spot of less steepness. My bike is old: the biggest (read: slowest) cog still has 30 teeth. I desperately wanted a cog with 32.

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The day after the Großglockner was mild in comparison. Yet, the day after was a false rest day: us who opted for the climb up to Lago di Misurina had shorter 12% ramps also on that mountain.

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Never as steep was anything on day five. But in crossing the Dolomites from Cortina to Canazei, there was almost no single flat kilometer. It’s a tricky stage to test your endurance at threshold. Oh, the super deep blue section on the left: I forgot to resume tracking when we continued, so for the first 700m down the Pordoi, my Garmin drew a straight line down a cliff.

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Beauty

I anticipated a beautiful route, but I think that reality exceeded my hopes and expectations. If at all, the Großglockner itself was less scenic and impressive than I had believed. On the contrary, the long descent from Passo di Fedaia to Belluno offered a wide range of spectacular mountain views.

I sense that the pictures speak for themselves. I’ve picked a few highlights. Not ugly, but also not deeply beautiful: the final flat stage to Venice. Treviso, were we had lunch, was really nice. For the rest it was just flat and that got boring soon after you lost the sight of the mountains. Still worth it for the finish running into Venice.

Bike paths

Quite a few to follow. In Bavaria, there are good bike paths parallel to many (but not all) countryside roads. In Austria, we had planned very carefully. The surface can switch from asphalt to gravel, in which case you return to the street. Bike paths and farmroads are awesome. You can stay next to each other and chat. Just also relax a bit. Have more eyes for the panorama.

  • Between Saalfelden and Zell, we could entirely avoid the busy main road by taking a mix of bike paths and minor farm roads.
  • From Bruck to Fusch – this is the first and basically flat section of the street leading up the Großglockner – a bike path protects you from traffic as well.
  • We had the longest section of bike path the day after: from Lienz to Toblach it’s 50km on a scenic path through nature. Then it’s gravel to Cortina, but if you ignore the Dolomites and take an easier route to Belluno: the surface changes to asphalt again South of Cortina. [Update: The bad weather which hit the Dolomites in early November 2018 heavily damaged parts of this bike path. Restoration works might take some time. For 2019, check in advance if the route is open.]
  • I’ve already mentioned the two tunnels South of Agordo. The first one has actually two bypasses. One is the old road, which we took. The other is a bike path, which is a bit more elevated and starts later. We saw local cyclists doing loops by using both alternatives.
  • In the same valley, we saw construction works for a new bike path that would cover the entire Cordevole valley from the Sella Ronda to the Piave. Based on the signs, parts of it should still open in 2018 – and it looked like works had progressed sufficiently. We might have been two weeks too early. [Update November 2018: Sadly, parts of this bike path have been destroyed by the storm that struck the Cordevole in early November.]
  • The most important bike path is the one that leads from Mestre into Venice. It starts at Mestre station and then runs South of the train line. In the mean-time, it’s fully developed. Lots of twists and slowing down, but safe. However, we entered Venice from the North. We hit that bike path basically just before the beginning of the dam to connect Venice with the mainland.

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Entering Venice by bike

Venice island is not very bike friendly. But it sucks to end in Mestre. That was unacceptable. If you end in Venice, it has to be Venice. The final 4km across the dam are majestic. I mean… the view is pretty uninspiring, as is the fact that you’re cycling next to a highway with three lanes in either direction. But you know that you’re approaching Venice. And that there is no way to go forward. Unless you turn around, the ride has to come to an end there.

It requires local knowledge. Yet. It’s actually possible. To some extent. Take a look at these maps. The first one shows the general approach that we used to enter Mestre. We came from the North and selected farm roads and minor countryside roads. I diligently had evaluated all of them with Google Street View. In Mestre, I avoided the center as much as possible. The long street running Southeast from Mestre to that green area – just before the dam – it’s a two-lane street that we found deserted. If you’re less lucky, there’s a good bike path right next to it. I think it’s the safest approach to avoid traffic from the North.

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However, you then have exactly one chance to enter the bike path from Mestre Station to Venice. You will follow the monorail through two large roundabouts. After the second, you seem to find yourself on the ramp up the highway into Venice. Well, it doesn’t just seem so. At the very end of that, a sign indicates that bikes are not allowed beyond that point. There’s a small gap in the road-side guardrail that allows you to access the bike path. And you’re safe.

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The only thing is: in Venice itself, the bike is not allowed beyond the first island (Piazzale Roma). You can push it (not cycle) to the train station (but not further). You can park it in the San Marco garage and allegedly also in the public garage next door. (San Marco has some, yet limited space, but offer online reservations.) You could use one of the hotels on that first island and hope that they allow you to take it on the rooms. We were in touch with a hotel (Arlecchino) just off the first island. They and the hotel next door (Olimpia) belong to the same owners. They do offer bike parking in a shielded area in the locked courtyard of one of the hotels. Olimpia is more expensive. Arlecchino is your budget option. Well… for Venice standards, anyways. There is space for about ten bikes if you lock all of them together. If you have to share with people you don’t know: roughly six. Bikes will get wet if it rains. Note: technically you walk 50m into the forbidden zone. Apparently, there’s a third hotel still outside the forbidden zone to offer bike storage close-by (Santa Chiara).

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Here’s a final remark on taking the bikes all the way into Venice. You might continue by bike to somewhere else. If not, inevitably, you will leave the island by regional train. Some of them have very limited space for bikes. (We found that the first one to Verona at a human time, departing shortly after 8, had lots of spaces for bikes. The second one, departing two hours later, didn’t.) Even those that have ample space might run out of it soon during high season. Already in Mestre, train staff had to prevent some people from entering the trains. But if you take the train from Venice itself, there’s not much competition for your bike.

Gelato in Venice

I keep that short: Gelato in Venice is crap. Go to Grom, which you find at the train station and then at some locations in the city. We’ve tried three more gelaterias and intentionally avoided further eight. I would not recommend any. It’s a disgrace for Italy’s gelato reputation. Most shops check several indications of bad gelato. I know a thing or two about good ice cream. (Have a look at my recommendations for good gelato sources in Milan and Lombardy. Which I need to update soon thanks to many new entrants.) Avoid it. Or go with Grom. That’s not excellent, but at least it’s good.

On our route, we found the best gelato in a very random village on the final day. In Cornuda, Brotto Cavallino offers gelato (and granita) of superior quality (but with bad service). Don’t be irritated by the Tripadvisor ratings here.

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Hotels and villages

Last year, we were really happy with most of the hotels. But booking for bigger groups is a bit more difficult. We usually book via a third-party website to facilitate our management of properties. Then we make reservations which include the possibility of free reservations. Typically, we prepare for two group sizes: (a) the number of people we aim for and (b) one person less.

  1. At the Chiemsee, we wanted to stay on the Western lake side to enjoy a sunset view. That was a nice idea, but there are fewer hotels. Ours (Oberwirt) was comfortable and the staff was super friendly, but the street was quite noisy. In one of our rooms, the WiFi didn’t work. The mobile network is crap as well in Chieming and therefore no alternative. If you can, just avoid the top floor.
  2. In Zell, the choice of hotels is abundant. At a lower price level, we made a good choice with Hotel Traube. The restaurant offered good food and the breakfast had some less stereotypical options. IKEA provided the furnishing and noise can be a small problem here (it’s right in the center), too, but the comfort level is high.
  3. The Goldener Fisch in Lienz was one of our most exciting hotels. Our impression suffered from the rooms. They were comfortable, big, new, and awesome. Yet, we had rooms in the top floor and therefore just roof windows. One floor lower, our assessment couldn’t have been any better. The bike garage offered some tools and a pump. This was one of our two top picks.
  4. Cortina, unlike Zell, is a difficult place to find a good hotel for a big group. There are many, but many have aged quite a bit. The better ones book out fast. In our hotel of choice (Columbia), we had already stayed three years ago. It’s quite a bit outside of center. We had a room for three and one for four. They were too cramped and left almost no space to move. It would pay to take more smaller rooms. The breakfast had improved a lot, however. Internet improved a bit. Ask for a room with a view towards East. They have an overnight laundry service.
  5. On the other side of the Dolomites, it’s not much easier to find a hotel. The problem is: there are dozens, but almost none of them offers rooms on third-party websites. I didn’t want to bother with calling hotels individually. Just to hear that likely they have reserved all their rooms for returning summer guests anyways. (Quite common in that area.) We took a hotel in Campitello di Fassa (Garni Aritz) that we were very happy with. It was difficult to find an acceptable restaurant, however. To that end, staying in Canazei would be better.
  6. Feltre was a surprise in many ways. The city was more interesting than we had thought. There was also a special event on that day. And the hotel (Doriguzzi) was unexpectedly bike friendly. There were tools, pumps, and lube. (The pumps need to be replaced, however.) The rooms had strong air-conditioning (very much needed). They were a bit small, but comfortable. The breakfast was not very good, but good. This was the second of our two top picks.
  7. And then there’s Venice and Venice is an expensive tourist trap. We chose our hotel for the bike parking facilities. I mentioned earlier that it’s two sister hotels. The Olimpia definitely offers a higher and more recent standard, but you’ll pay for it. The Arlecchino was already by far the most expensive hotel of our trip (30% more expensive than the next most expensive hotel we booked and twice as expensive as the two best hotels that we stayed in) and objectively it wasn’t worth that. The breakfast room was tiny and the choice was okay. Not bad. Not good. The furniture had aged to an extent of desperately asking for replacement, and the bathroom was clean, but from a century long gone. Super friendly stuff. Bike parking. And we needed it just to sleep for the night, so I’d recommend it. But don’t expect any comfort beyond the pure basics.

With the exception of Venice and Zell, hotel prices varied between 300 and 370 for six people including breakfast. In Zell, we paid 460, and in Venice, the hotel asked for 610.

Make it easier (or more difficult)

While the route is easy, it’s not the easiest yet. There are a few possibilities to facilitate the route without changing the principal trajectory. On some stages, even public transport would assist the tired rider to go further. Or if a bike is broken. Or when the weather turns foul. Let’s start with public transport.

Trains are an easy choice in Bavaria. Yet, Chieming does not have a train station. Prien on the other side of the lake has. There is one in Traunstein (that’s 15km) and one in Übersee (also 15km). From those, you would reach Zell am See as well. There’s no option to jump in the train between the Chiemsee and Zell am See. There’s also no assistance in form of a bike shuttle up the Großglockner. You can bypass the climb with a train and go to Lienz via the Felbertauern. Then trains also connect with Toblach/Dobaccio and there should be an infrequent bike shuttle from there to Cortina. That’s the last time for two days that public transport could assist. (Taxis are an expensive option.) Only as of Belluno/Feltre, train services would resume.

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There’s not much to facilitate from day 1 to day 3. Technically, you could avoid Grafing on day 1, which sits in a valley. Maybe the Masererpass is slightly more elevated than the alternative, more busy route to Reit im Winkl (via Ruhpolding). You could pick the Saalachtal (via Lofer) instead of the Pillersee-Tal (via Hochfilzen) to reach Saalfelden. Again: expect more traffic. On day 3, there’s nothing to make it easier if you want to cross the Großglockner. If you’re scared or don’t care, there’s the busy Felbertauern road.

On day 4 to Cortina, we split the group for the first time. Two of us wanted to see the Lago di Misurina. It’s fantastically embedded in the Dolomites. Coming from Toblach/Dobaccio, you’d reach Cortina with 400m less (and absolutely not steep) climbing if you just kept on the main road. The distance is the same.

By the way: On day 4, you could also add difficulty. To that end, you’d ignore the Drau valley and go East from Lienz via the Staller Sattel. At the Western end, you’d be close to Toblach/Dobaccio again. However, at the end, you added 50km distance and 1,000m climbing.

The queen stage on day 5 will force you to pass two mountains. You can’t avoid the Pordoi. However, you can avoid the Passo di Giau if you take the Passo di Falzarego. This one peaks a tiny bit less high and it challengings with slightly more gentle slopes. Furthermore, this alternative leaves out the Colle St. Lucia and an unnamed hill, bringing down the climbing by about 500m overall.

And, of course, you can turn day 5 into an extreme adventure if you decide to replace the Pordoi with the trilogy of Passo di Campolongo, Passo Gardena, and Passo di Sella. Kudos to you.

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Day 6 is the last to bring you to 2,000m peak height. That’s a bit unavoidable really. You can shorten the stage by about 25km if you leave out Belluno. (Alternatively, you can ignore Feltre and leave the mountains from Belluno.) You can leave out the Fedaia and replace it with the Passo Rolle (at 1,970m), in which case you reach Feltre through the Valle dei Primiero. There are some tunnels in that valley, but since 2018, all have a bike path around them.

There are plenty more difficult, yet attractive options. First, the Passo di San Pellegrino and Passo Valles allow you to switch between Val di Fassa (where the day starts), Valle dei Primiero (see the previous paragraph) and the Cordevole valley (which we took). Second, Agordo and Fiera di Primiero are connected with a steep, but scenic and rarely used road. (They are the two dominating villages of their respective villages.) From Agordo, you’d also reach the Lago del Mis, if you wanted to.

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Finally, the seventh day. No matter if you sleep in Feltre or Belluno: there is no need to climb anymore. Just do like we did and follow the Piave (from Feltre) or navigate towards the Lago di Santa Croce (from Belluno).

But if your legs still feel like climbing, then there are a few options. The last Alpine mountain range between Feltre and Belluno offers three ways to cross (with many possible Northern approaches to those three summits). My recommendation is the Passo di San Boldo for it’s impressive engineering. Necessary to mention: Monte Grappa invites to test your legs if you stay in Feltre.

Swimming

Cycling is fun. Cycling, then swimming, then cycling is even more fun. I wrap this post with a simple list of places that we used to cool down a moment.

  • The Chiemsee, obviously. We had it at the end of stage 1. The water was warm. The Alps offer a majestic panorama at small distance. It’s rather busy during day time. In the evening, it was nicely quiet.
  • Piller See. This one sits at almost 1,000m elevation. We felt the altitude with nicely cold water. At the Southern bit, there is a small beach. We entered just before that to avoid paying the beach fee. The fee is one Euro.
  • Zeller See. Yes, well, it’s a lake with a great view, warm water and a rather muddy ground. Lots of people also, but a nice big grass to sit on and a wooden platform to play and tan.
  • Toblacher See/Lago di Dobaccio. We figured that’s maybe not really meant for swimming. It was ice cold like your fridge. Going in with the feet already offered lots of refreshment. One brave guy took a short swim for 20 seconds.
  • Lago di Alleghe. Feels very cold when you enter but is not that cold when you swim. At hot temperatures, it’s a wonderful refreshment. There’s just one beach to use. Swimming is free, but you pay for facilities if you use them.
  • Piave river. Behind Feltre, there are a few spots where you could access the bed of the Piave river. People in the area use it for going in the water. It was very early in the stage, so we ignored that. It’s not for swimming either really, but for sitting in refreshing water.

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Wrap

I hope this long read is to your service. We had a lot of fun on these holidays. I’d highly recommend the trip to people who have already seen Lago di Garda and want to try something new and something a bit less common.

And: For further hints, reach out to me. I’m happy to share insights.

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3 comments

  1. Great write-up of what sounds like a wonderful journey!

    Quick question: what did you and your group do for a bike pump? Did you carry a handheld that can pump to a high PSI or did one of you carry a bigger pump that’s easier and more reliable to use?

    Like

    1. We all have individual hand pumps. On downhills and uphills, we don’t always ride together. I’m slow on downhills but fast on uphills, for instance. I was glad to be independent when I had a flat on a downhill while riding behind everybody else. I just sent them a text that I’d catch up soon and that they shouldn’t worry.

      My pump is a Race Rocket HP and I’m very satisfied with it. It’s more than enough to get me going for the rest of the day or till the next bike shop. Since it’s in the Alps, you’ll find bike shops. Even many hotels have pumps.

      Liked by 1 person

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