E-Bikepacking the Dolomites: A First Time for Everything

Belén Castelló and Tristan Bogaard have made a life bikepacking around the world. On a trip to Italy last fall Belén’s brother, Horacio, decided to join the couple on a tour through the Dolomites. On the cusp of turning 40 and with little-to-no cycling experience, Horacio was looking for an experience that would shake him up, and wake him up from his normal routine. He found that while riding an e-bike for back-to-back days in the Dolomite Mountains. Read on for Belén’s recounting of the trip and why choosing e-bikes felt like the best choice for their ride.

In some way, bike travel feels therapeutic and liberating to me. Completely unforeseen, I found myself saying ‘yes’ to Tristan’s proposal to travel the world together by bike five years ago. He had already been pedaling for some time and I had the urge for a life-changing experience outside the office so… Why not give it a go?

The best thing about travel is that you are setting out on two journeys: one will take you to your next destination, and the other comes in the shape of personal growth. For the first, we’ve had the pleasure to discover bountiful places such as the barren Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, the colossal Norwegian fjords, or the lush redwood forests in California. But, as rewarding as it feels to tick off locations on one’s bikepacking bucket list, it’s the unexpected lessons and experiences you encounter along the way that truly hooks you into the lifestyle.

I still struggle with the long hours on the saddle and keep on questioning myself every time I get stuck pushing my bike up a steep climb or across a threatening river. I’ve even come to believe that having the memory of a goldfish is an advantageous attribute for adventure cyclists to have: the skill of forgetting tough situations as soon as you are out of them. But at the end of the day, I always come home with the most cherished memories when the journey brought some challenges that, in turn, transformed it into a thrilling adventure.

My love for bikes isn’t the only reason I keep on choosing this way of traveling; it’s the freedom that comes along with them. Culling every path, not knowing what you’ll see, whom you’ll meet or where you’ll sleep feels daring, but it’s a healthy way to let go and be open to the unpredictable.

This is why, some months ago, I could hardly control my excitement when my brother, Horacio, showed interest in joining us on a bike trip. He fiercely needed a bike-slap awakening and knew this was the place to sign up for a rough but transformative experience.

It was decided over lunch. We were going to the Dolomites in Italy! Horacio hadn’t cycled in years, had recently undergone surgery on both knees and wasn’t in an ideal physical condition, but his spirit was high (pressured by his wish to try out new things as he stares down the beginning of his forties) and he trusted us when we said: “You’ll be fine!”

The Power of E-Bikes

Some years ago, a friend joined us on a bicycle tour. She started riding on a normal bike but struggled to keep up the distance and pace, only to find herself not enjoying the trip at all. After a couple of sore days, she called the rental shop and had the bike swapped for an e-bike. From then onwards, the journey completely transformed. She started enjoying the climbs and it mended the group dynamics and boosted shared happiness levels.

It was a no-brainer for us. This time, we’d all be riding electric to ensure my brother could keep the rhythm without hurting his body and whilst, importantly, having fun. We arranged for three Tout Terrain Skane trekking e-bikes to be waiting for us upon our arrival to Milan, and from there we’d take some trains into the Alps. We had one day to figure out the logistics around the batteries and teach my brother how to pack his non-ultralight outdoor gear into the compact Ortlieb bikepacking bags. It was tight, but we made it work.

Departure day arrived and by noon our rubber had hit the road at the small train station of Ponte Gardena. The first goal of the week? An 18-kilometer and almost 2000-meter climb up to Compatsch. Not exactly entry level but we had blind faith in our motors and fresh legs to push us over the pass. Averaging a stout 12% gradient, the landscape slowly opened up to rolling green pastures filled with grazing cows and at the back, a glimpse of the first jagged peaks so characteristic of the area. At every turn, I kept an eye out for my brother, checking to see how he was adapting and keeping up. A bit of huffing and puffing, but he had a big smile on his face.

That evening we were forced to improvise a camp spot, Horacio’s first-ever attempt at wild camping! As happens at the beginning of any trip, it takes a couple of days to grasp the rhythm and get things right. We had underestimated how quickly night would arrive now that it was late in the fall and accidentally, ended up pegging our tents in the depths of the evening’s unavoidable darkness.

Horacio just stood there, too tired and out of place to be able to help out. We showed him how to inflate his mat, set up his sleeping gear and insisted he had to layer up before his body temperature would drop. With his sight lost in the horizon, you could sense he was feeling excited but anxious, probably doubting himself and wondering if he could live up to what he had signed up for. It had probably been a long time since he had made such a physical effort and felt that exhausted. That night, he slept like a rock.

Switching Sides

For a couple of days, my brother struggled to find the balance between the tough and fun parts of bike touring. After all, we were averaging 1200 meters of positive elevation per day and that’s a lot of climbing for someone that’s never pedaled over a pass before. Even with the help of a motor.

Jokes are his way of discharging stress, and there was a lot of that to be let out, so our rides quickly filled up with teasing laughter. I kept a kilometer countdown to bring the top closer to our position, and we all used different power modes to help out according to how we felt. Sometimes “turbo mode” got my brother scarily close to running out of power, which meant we were due an urgent coffee break in one of the many quaint mountain towns along the way.

Passo Giau and Tre Cime were the crown jewels of the trip, but climbing up there isn’t for the fainthearted. On the first, there are 29 hairpin bends to the top and on the second, gradients average 14%. Both came with a 360-degree lookout reward on staggering layered peaks as far as the eye can see—which tastes sweeter when you know you’ve pedaled yourself up there for the view.

And with every long climb comes a joyful descent. We’d swoosh down the road, racing each other through the autumnal tangerine-colored trees to the valley. Every other night we spend the evening indoors to clean up and fully charge our batteries, which meant we’d be munching on pizza while sharing the day’s anecdotes at the nearest restaurant. Suddenly my brother started gaining confidence, knowing he’d gone through the worst and making it back to the train station would now feel like a breeze.

Gravel Graduation: A Bikepacker’s Diploma

The best part about “mission return” was that we finally got to descend all the elevation we’d been gaining for the past days. Following an old railroad track, now transformed into a smooth and friendly bike lane, we meandered through the valley with the scarped rock giants gradually fading behind us. On our last campout, Horacio could now set up the tent on his own and still have enough energy to sit around the table to help Tristan with dinner. In just a week, he went from feeling displaced and concerned to having figured out the rhythm and fitting in. He learned how every physical challenge comes with a visual reward, how by listening to his body he could identify and react correctly to soreness, how to efficiently pack all his gear into those tiny bags or how to enjoy the simple pleasures of a bike journey. I feel he just desperately needed to get out of his routine and try something new.

The e-bike lowered the intimidating barrier he felt when thinking about trying out a self-powered adventure like this one. Of the two pedal sensors that exist today (power or rotation), the power sensor we used still requires you to put in a lot of effort yourself to gain a battery response, as it doesn’t just boost you to the legal speed limit. And it was exactly that extra little bit of help that gave him the courage to go on his first bikepacking trip in such a demanding location.

I loved spending quality time with my brother, getting to see him thrive in such a different environment and being able to show him the lifestyle we’ve been practicing for the past many years. This trip tested him, but at the end of the week, the effort was worth it. And guess what? When he got home, he bought a bike to explore his city and the surrounding countryside on the weekends. Because after so many first-timers, why not add another?