Explore: At the centre of the Dolomites, at the centre of you

Being in the Dolomites, surrounded by the silence of the forest and the warmth of friends is all we need to get to the core of our passion

This article was produced in association with Rolling Dreamers

The first time I ever came across a Venn diagram, I had no idea what it was, how it worked, or even what it was called. Circles, side by side and partially overlapping each  other, with some shared areas and in particular, a central area where all the circles converged in a kind of sweet spot.

It’s there, in that area of total overlap, that concentrates the sense of the analysis. While each circle in the diagram represents a set of values, the overlaps show how the different sets relate to one other in a given system.

Once you understand how to read it, the Venn diagram is a curious, fun way to bring into focus all the possible logical relationships between different groups.  

Not long ago I came across a four-circle Venn diagram: ‘What you love,’ ‘What you do well,’ ‘What the world needs,’ and ‘What you can get paid for.’ I was reading a review of a book by two Spanish authors called The Ikigai Method: The Secrets of Japanese Philosophy for a Long and Happy Life, a book that has been translated into 63 different languages.

It looked like an interesting diagram, and anyway, everyone aspires to a long and happy life, myself included. In the centre of these four circles, right in the sweet spot where everything overlapped, was a single Japanese word: ikigai. I was immediately intrigued by the concept.  

Although I later found that some Japanese speakers are quite sceptical about the  exact usage of the word – apparently it’s rarely used in Japan – ikigai means something like ‘cultivating small pleasures as a result of a series of conscious choices.’

This is how it was explained to me: if you decide to build your profession around a focal point of your passion, professional competence, mission and vocation, what results, in the Japanese language, is called ikigai. And if you decide to quit work a couple of days before the weekend to go for a bike ride in the Dolomites, that’s ikigai too.  

Less than three hours have passed since I turned off the computer and left my home in the heart of the scorching Po Valley, and I’m in the heart of the Dolomites, in the Fiemme Valley.

I came up through the Adige valley by car and now I’m here, in Ziano, almost 1,000 metres above sea level. It’s warm for this part of the world, but nothing compared to the summer heat on the plains below. I’m surrounded by forests, green meadows, Dolomite-walls of grey limestone, and the Avisio stream, flowing slowly while some fly fishermen lazily dance their lines in the air. Everything seems to move at a different pace here, even the traffic on the motorway today flowed at a slower speed. The city is far away, and the Dolomites are preparing for the busy summer months ahead.

I have an evening appointment for an aperitivo at the Birrificio di Fiemme, where my five-day cycling trip with the guys from Rolling Dreamers, an Italian company that organises road and off-road bike tours, will formally begin. The goal is to ride a gravel bike in search of dirt road alternatives to the classic paved roads of the Dolomite passes.

Everyone knows the incomparable beauty of road cycling in the Dolomites, a real must in the career of every rider. However, only a few still know the infinite possibilities that these valleys and mountains, with forest roads and an enviable network of cycle paths in the valleys, offer to off-road cycling enthusiasts. For my part, I can’t wait to start pedalling.

When I arrive at the brewery, I meet my fellow adventurers: Anna, Sofia, Alessandro, Jason, Vittorio, Maurizio and Matteo. The last two are both our guides for the duration, and the organisers of the trip. This is to be a test ride for the Rolling Dreamers, to refine the details and check all the routes, in anticipation of offering these trips to the public next year.

I’ve barely arrived at the brewery when the party starts, with music, beers and a couple of platters of cold cuts and cheese the size of bicycle wheels.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Rolling Dreamers, with whom I have already ridden a few times, is the painstaking organisational work that goes into every detail of the experience, from the choice of  hotels and pit stop locations, to the selection of routes and logistics management. Matteo and Maurizio – the latter lives in Val di Fiemme and plays the role of local guide – have been planning this bike trip for months now.

When my fellow adventurers and I find ourselves in the saddle for the first day of riding, with the tracks pre-loaded on our computers, I realise that since I left my house yesterday, I’ve done nothing but relax. I haven’t had to worry; everything is already organised. I just have to think about pedalling. It’s a beautiful morning and there isn’t a cloud in the sky over the Fiemme Valley.

It’s midweek and today I was supposed to be working in front of a computer. My ikigai brought me here and the same thing must have happened for my tour mates, because they’ve all been laughing and joking since breakfast. We’ve all escaped the last days of work before the August holidays, an Italian classic. We can’t wait to get going.

After covering a stretch of the cycle path on the valley floor to the Cavalese waterfalls, we proceed along a wide network of dirt roads that leads to El Pezo del Gazolin, a monumental spruce that is estimated to have been growing since between 1780 and 1798. Its trunk is almost five metres in circumference, and it’s incredible to think that at the time of the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte’s Italian Campaign, this tree was already here. It makes us want to hug this giant tightly, and in the end, we can’t help but do it.  

In the afternoon we head to Passo Lavazè, ascending a beautiful, panoramic climb on asphalt that isn’t busy.  It’s around 10 kilometres long and 1,808 metres high at the top. With its groomed trails and dense network of forest roads, Passo Lavazè is renowned for cross-country skiing in winter. In summer, the same dirt roads are perfect for pedalling freely through the pastures and woods.  

Often, with the incomparable scenery of the Catinaccio and Latemar as a backdrop, we come across herds of cows that watch us from the nearby meadows. On descents, we’re sometimes unable to avoid the cakes left behind by our bovine friends, and anyone who’s ever pedalled a bike on this kind of backroad can imagine the consequences. Without realising it, we ride until sunset, uphill, downhill and for long stretches skirting the hillside. Back at the hotel, it’s time for a shower, some dinner, and a chat outdoors, in the cool of the night.

On the morning of the second day, I go down for breakfast well in advance of all the others, to be able to do some work on the computer before getting on the saddle. Ikigai is fine but the sense of duty brings me back to order. Today will be another long day of off-road cycling.  

While I’m there I see Matteo and Maurizio, already at work. I watch them from afar. They’re arranging the transport van and the transfer of our luggage to the next hotel. On a trip like this, there are a lot of things that an organiser has to do to make it feel as smooth as possible for us guests. I never see them stop for even a minute. Passion, professionalism, mission and vocation are the four pillars on which their work is based. I’m reminded of the overlapping four zones that represent their own ikigai.

Matteo, who I’ve known for a few years now, has put an engineering degree and a doctorate on hold to pursue his dream of founding and developing his own bicycle touring company. If there’s one quality of  his that I appreciate the most, it’s the commitment with which he dedicates himself to planning every detail of the route, equipment, timing and logistics to ensure that  each moment of the day is transformed into a truly unique experience. If I hadn’t already focused on my own ikigai, I would like to do Matteo’s work.  

The day’s route will prove to be amazing, like that of yesterday and the days to come. After going up the Valle di Fiemme to Predazzo, we enter the valley of the Rio Travignolo on a long dirt road that starts out as a mule track and then becomes wider, crossing the Panaveggio Forest, which is where Antonio Stradivari came to choose spruce wood for his extraordinary violins.  

We’re surrounded by woodlands, and the silent beauty of the forest dominates. The road climbs regularly up to the Passo Rolle, all unpaved except for the final stretch, and always in the woods. Each of us finds our own rhythm and climbs immersed in our own thoughts, away from the distraction of cars and noise. Experiencing the Dolomites in this way, without the over-crowding of roads and motor vehicles, is a real rediscovery. In the Dolomites, the gravel bike opens up an infinite series of possibilities for those who, in addition to pedalling fast, love to explore.  

On the Passo Rolle, with the Pale di San Martino as a backdrop, the spectacle of the Dolomites leaves you breathless. We continue up to the Baita Segantini and it’s there that our tour reaches its climax, the hypothetical overlapping of all the circles comes together. Nature; the desire to discover; the desire to put myself to the test; the desire to meet other people; these are four elements that form the nucleus of my passion for cycling.

As I pedal the last hairpin bends of the dirt road that leads to Baita Segantini, with the Dolomites literally surrounding us and with my fellow adventurers riding in silence  a few metres from me, I can’t think of anything. My mind is blank. Totally quiet. The only sounds I can hear are those of my lungs filling and emptying in the silence, and my wheels rolling against the dirt.

The moments that follow, those of the last uphill stretch before the hut and lunch with friends, before the descent on the dirt road of Val Vengia in the afternoon, are something that will stay in the memory for a very long time.  

Everything that will come in the following two days, with other rides, other roads, other fantastic Dolomite walls to admire, other moments of fun with the group, will then only be the repetition and the reverberation of that unique  feeling, of being at the very centre of all one’s interests.  

The following days, all equally exciting and full of adventures, will not only be special because of the beauty of the Dolomites and the organisational efficiency of Matteo and Maurizio. I think the reason is this: my ikigai has finally become perfectly focused. It is clear to me now that the reason I love cycling is that first and foremost, I love nature and the people I ride with.

The watts, the heart-rate monitor and the power meter are all useless here, on these dirt roads and in these mountains. This is exactly the kind of cycling adventure that each of us should find the time and courage to do, at least once in a while.

To book trip, visit the Rolling Dreamers website. 

Rolling Dreamers 

Whether you want to take part in a multi-day bike trip in Tuscany, travel the Via Francigena to Rome, take a tailor-made bike-packing trip or an adventurous holiday on the dirt roads of the Dolomites, Rolling Dreamers is the right organisation for you. People are at the centre of everything they do. No trip is the same as the last, every group is a unique experience. Regardless of fitness level, talk to them: they know exactly what it means to pedal and have fun.

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3T Exploro Ultra 

We used a 3T Exploro Ultra for our adventure in the Dolomites. Manoeuvrable, versatile and at ease even on the roughest terrain, it is the perfect bike for forest roads and demanding trails without sacrificing road performance for mountain climbs.

Optimised with 56-61mm tyres, the Exploro Ultra further extends a cyclist’s range beyond the smoother Exploro Racemax model. With the 13 gears of the Campagnolo Ekar groupset and floaty feeling of 700x45c tyres, it is possible to ride very rough and steep terrain, both uphill and downhill, without losing the feeling of fluid control and forward motion.

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For long days on the bike, Fizik’s Ferox shoes proved to be light, breathable, comfortable and versatile. They were at ease both when pushing on the pedals and during off-bike stretches.

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