Italy’s semi-autonomous region of South Tyrol is home to the second-largest ski area in the world, the Sella Ronda. It winds its way in a loop around the Sella mountains, a huddle of craggy limestone peaks that dominates the landscape. But as the snow melts, its vast network of ski lifts provides extra assistance to hikers and a growing number of e-mountain bikers. Once frowned upon by biking purists, battery assisted bikes have revolutionised two-wheel touring. E-bikes take the burn out of even the steepest uphill climb, making the mountains more accessible for all.
I join a guided e-biking tour around this beautiful area of the Italian Dolomites that’s offered by the local tourist office, based in the town of Selva Val Gardena. Our group of seven is led by local ski instructor Oswald, reborn during summer as an e-mountain bike guide. The tour takes a full day and requires a lift pass, because although battery power takes the strain out of the uphills most of the time, you still need to pedal and using a few handily placed cable cars helps gain extra elevation and save time.
For the uninitiated, riding an e-bike is akin to a traditional mountain bike, except when needed you have a bit of extra power, controlled by a small, computerised motor set under the frame. It has a variety of speed settings – usually labelled along the lines of like Eco, Trail and Boost – and once you start pedalling, your setting kicks in. For a long day in the saddle, some management is required; too much power and the battery dwindles away, and it’s important to remember that pedalling uphill is, alas, still very much required.
Our tour starts on the Ciampinoi gondola lift out of Selva, with some immediate altitude gain and spectacular views of the jutting peaks that glisten in the warm sunshine with their characteristic pinkish hue. The group comprises a mix of nationalities and ages, including an Italian fighter pilot with no mountain biking experience and a couple from Vienna who look seriously kitted out. We set off, mostly downhill for the first leg: a seven-mile route with a few gentle climbs that allow me to get to grips with the controls and a feel for this beast of a bike, which comes with full suspension, big tyres and wide handlebars. It’s incredibly stable and the power, even on the Eco setting, makes light work of the small rocks and lumps in my way.
The long descent into the village of Canazei is on relatively easy singletrack most of the way down. Singletrack is a term used by mountain bikers for the narrow trails that twist and turn, sometimes with berms (banked trail sections) that are often man-made but can also be natural walking trails or goat tracks. Our route also offers plenty of bail-out options for those seeking easier-to-navigate, wider tracks, but we plough on.
The Alba-Belvedere cable-car helps us to gain huge altitude quickly for the next leg, where another gloriously long descent offers six miles of winding trails with postcard views of the Dolomites. But concentration is required. This route seems to go on and on, with some technical terrain that requires a fairly high skill level on a bike. Our group splits and the easy way down is on a wide dirt track, offering the same views, but perhaps lower adrenaline levels and higher chance of getting to the bottom with a full set of teeth intact.
Our big climb of the day starts with the route out of Arabba to the Rifugio Passo Incisa. It’s a six-mile ascent on road and dirt track, but there’s plenty of battery juice left and I’m barely breaking a sweat at the end of the 45-minute climb. Then it’s downhill all the way, with another long singletrack descent (a brand-new section built for summer 2022). This is classic bike-park-style riding, with twists and turns, berms and bumps, for what feels like a joyful eternity: around 25 minutes of nonstop downhill riding. Sheer biking bliss.
One final double lift section out of Covara takes us to the Passo Gardena before another 3.7-mile downhill section all the way back into Selva, once again on trails that perfectly ebb and flow with the contours of the mountain.
To achieve this 35-mile circuit in one day without the help of a few cable-cars and a battery would require world-class fitness. And although I feel like I’ve had a proper day out — taking on over 3,280ft of ascent and 10,440ft of descent — I’m far from exhausted. In fact, I’m ready for an après shot of grappa made, it turns out, from the fragrant pine needles that have blanketed our route.
A guided Sella Ronda e-bike tour costs from £53 per person for seven hours. A one-day lift ticket costs £41. Bike rental is available from Intersport Nives, in Selva Val Gardena, from £60 per person, per day.