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Last fall, photographer Bartłomiej Pawlikowski and enduro racer Mariusz Bryja traveled from their homes in Poland to Italy for a late-season alpine adventure. Their mission: to explore the Val Gardena in the Dolomites. Their tools: a Reign 29 enduro bike for Mariusz and a Reign E+ Pro E-bike for Bartłomiej.

MTB in Italy

My phone rings and it's Mariusz on the other end of the line.

"Hi Bartek, how do you fancy getting on your bike and heading to the Dolomites to take a few snaps?"

It’s a question like that sounds like a fully formed plan. The destination is Val Gardena and the little town of Santa Cristina – a place we know from last year’s Enduro World Series in Canazei. This place has exactly what we’re looking for: trails for the bikes and landscapes for the camera. The weather forecast gives three days of sunshine. Let's make the most of this!

Day 1

We set out from Bukowina Tatrzańska at around 9 pm with a whole night of travelling ahead. Our initial plan is to have a short rest when we get there, but plans have a peculiar tendency to change. After 12 hours behind the wheel, we reach the Passo Gardena, or Gardena Pass. The Dolomites give us a rather cold welcome: snow and overcast skies. Wait a minute, this isn’t what we agreed to! We eat breakfast in the car (toast), quickly recce the terrain, and set out towards Passo Cir along the sole available trail, which is surrounded by via ferratas. 

Driving to Italy

I knew this would be exciting. We climb slowly – Mariusz on his Reign 29, me on its electric counterpart, the Reign E+ Pro. It’s a gravel road leading to the wall and the views are breathtaking. Finally, the start of the trail comes into sight: dwarf pines, sharp rocks and a narrow path.

As we ascend, the terrain gets steeper. There are more rocks and snow. After a while, our bikes become useless – even the E-bike. That’s the life of a cycling photographer: the backpack is always a burden and there is often a risk of falling. And I don’t really fancy picking the pieces of my broken lenses out of the rocks. With that in mind, we agree that I’ll continue on foot, leaving my E-bike in the shrubs. Mariusz hauls his bike onto his back and we march on towards Passo Cir. Surrounded by soaring peaks, we let out the odd word or two of pure astonishment. It’s like a fairy tale!

Mariusz has a big smile on his face as he agrees to each shot I plan, and it’s not at all easy: climb here, ride down there, make a turn here, jump there. When we reach the pass, we are facing the peak of Forcella di Crespëina. We are exhausted, but there’s no doubt in our minds: we have to climb it. When we reach the summit, it’s a quick high-five and a selfie, and Mariusz is ready to make his descent.

The way down is pretty exposed and there is some snow. The path meanders between the rocks, forming countless tight turns. I’m enormously impressed by his skills. Tourists wearing their crampons make comments like "crazy guy" in their broken English. That’s the best compliment there is. Then we ride back into town to check in at the guest house before heading out for pizza. It’s been more than 20 hours since we set out, so a couple of beers are like the strongest moonshine from our homeland, knocking us out completely. We’re dead to the world!

Riding in Dolomites

Day 2

9 am – Toast and Italian coffee. The weather is perfect. Mariusz knows of a mountain called Pic from his secret sources. It’s a gentle peak compared to those surrounding it, and it seems possible to ride down from the top without stopping to carry the bike. What’s more, there’s a trail leading to it that starts virtually at our doorstep. It leads us through the heart of Santa Cristina and through a former railway tunnel. There’s a little museum there that’s open to everyone.

After that we toil along narrow singletracks, alternating with wide gravel and asphalt roads. We reach a place that we joke reminds us of the lower cable car station at Hala Gąsienicowa at the foot of Kasprowy Wierch in the Polish Tatra Mountains, but with higher peaks surrounding it. The panorama unfolds as follows: 12 o’clock – the famous Seceda; 3 o’clock – Passo Cir, where we went yesterday; 6 o’clock – the town of Santa Cristina; 9 o’clock – Pic, today’s destination.

There’s hardly anything left of yesterday’s snow, so the photos will look more autumnal than wintry. Soon the trail starts to get tough, and we have to get off our bikes. Mariusz keeps joking that an E-bike is great until you have to get off and push it. I get the joke.

I mean, I understood that it’s no joke at all, but rather a harsh reality. Anyway, thank you Mariusz for sharing the burden with me uphill. We reach the peak: time for chocolate, a little chill-out, and tons of inspiration for photos. Summits in all directions, beautiful terrain that’s great for downhill rides, and an autumn climate. I just need to frame it right. The descent from the summit is pretty demanding, with serious exposure on one side. I go first, with Mariusz following me a few minutes later, giving me the opportunity to find some good spots and take a dozen or so shots on the way down. The route is technical, but the flow is fantastic. It’s much smoother than yesterday.

Day 3

4:30 am – the morning alarm. Back for more Italian coffee and toast. Our plan is to get some shots of the sunrise at the top of Seceda. It’s a magical place. There’s a beautiful, wide meadow that ends suddenly with a vertical drop and a chasm. To save time and energy we decide to use the E-bike for towing. It sounds pretty simply in theory, but not everything goes according to plan. The gravel roads leading upwards are so steep that, although we are using the maximum power mode, we need to ride at 100% to keep moving.

Riding at dusk

Despite the early hour, there is no shortage of laughter along the way. We reach the peak and watch as the ridge of Seceda emerges in the light of the dawn from the mist flowing in the valleys. To put it mildly, we can’t believe our eyes.

The first rays of sunlight break between the peaks, and we use the morning light to capture several gigabytes of photographs. A short nap among the grazing cows and then we traverse from the Seceda ridge toward Pieralongia on our bikes. Along the way, we pass a farm of donkeys, carefree and surrounded by the vertical walls of the mountains.

What we see next is a place with two large rocks in the middle of the valley. When viewed from the right angle, they resemble the letter ‘M’. We spend some time there taking pictures, and then we head slowly back toward town. The road is rocky, but quick and smooth compared to the ones we’ve ridden before.

The weatherman’s forecast was correct down to the minute. That evening, Val Gardena is overcast with rain clouds. We call it a day with an Italian pizza and a cold one. As we set off back to Poland, the one advantage of the rainy weather is that we regret leaving this place just a little bit less than we might have otherwise. Let’s hope there will be a next time!

Text and photography: Bartłomiej Pawlikowski

Editing: Anna Tkocz

Cyclist: Mariusz Bryja

The article was originally published by Polish bikeBoard Magazine. More info at www.bikeboard.pl