Adventure Journal: YOLOmites5000
Adventure Journal: Chris Case at #YOLOmites5000
You Only Live Once. Ride Bikes A Lot. And In Beautiful Places.
By Chris Case
Chris Case is a journalist, adventurer, and founder of Alter Exploration, guiding cyclists on
transformative journeys in some of the world’s most spectacular locations, including the
Dolomites, Iceland, Piedmont Alps, and Colorado. Formerly, he was the managing editor of
VeloNews magazine and the editorial director for Fast Talk Labs. He is proud to be a Mosaic
As the sun melted over the crystalline facets of the rosy Dolomites, we scanned the sweep of
grassy dunes surrounding us. The tenor of this moment was tranquil, the landscape majestic.
We were near the end of our day, though we had only begun to absorb what we’d just
The hard part of our ride—12 hours of climbing preposterously steep roads and descending
harrowing gravel tracks—was behind us. One more serpentine plunge to pilot.
We wanted to linger in the warmth, not only because this was paradise, but because moving
necessitated summoning energy where there was none. The shadows would soon bring a chill
to our calorie-starved euphoria.
It was all downhill to Badia, where Forst beer would flow and gobs of real food would be served.
It was a battle between relishing this Tyrolean Utopia and submitting to the pull of nourishment.
In this instance, sustenance won. The mountains weren’t going anywhere.
Finally we set off into the gloaming, sliding down dew-laden grasses, then onto marbles of white
limestone gravel, and eventually onto pavement—the surface was jarringly smooth after so
many hours of hardscrabble vibrations.
The steeple in the village of San Leonardo pierced the dusky skyline, and we darted over the
cobbled lane, past the ancient cemetery and the weathered butcher shop, to arrive from whence
we began at dawn.
The past half a day had been filled with a few moments of wincing, sporadic blurts of curses,
and occasional bouts of giddy laughter from the disbelief of what we had chosen to undertake.
But mostly it was filled with awe—to ride all day amid untamed beauty is to be alive. And we only
Legend has it that two friends—Igor Tavella, a Ladin from Badia (there are about 30,000 people
in the Dolomites who identify as Ladin first, rather than Italian or Austrian) and Jered Gruber, the
American cycling photographer—were riding bikes on the various steep backroads, farm tracks,
and trails in and around Val Badia.
Jered asked Igor: “What’s the shortest route you could create to get to 5,000 meters of
climbing?” And Igor got to work creating what would become #YOLOmites5000 (You Only Live
Once!), an annual gathering in Val Badia, Südtirol, Italia.
Originally a ride designed for road bikes, with a few sections of “underbiking,” it has dramatically
evolved in its eight years of existence. When it first began, most participants used road bikes
with 25c tires. To do such a thing, you needed to be a good bike handler, like Igor, who used to
race for the Italian national mountain bike and cyclocross teams. Now, if you don’t bring a
legitimate gravel bike with wide tires, a bit of tread, and all the gears that can be squeezed from
a modern drivetrain, then prepare to pucker on the descents and chew your stem on the
Regardless of the year, the route is always around 80 miles. It never strays more than about 20
kilometers from where you start, and it never repeats the same road in the same direction.
YOLOmites5000 is challenging, physically and mentally. It is a bit absurd, most definitely. And it
is stunningly beautiful, undeniably.
Each year Igor puts much time and effort into creating a “better” route. It always includes a
section that has people either: 1) scratching their heads; 2) cursing the sadistic bastard who
created the course; 3) laughing at the absurdity of what has ceased to be a bike ride; or 4) all of
In several editions there was the infamous “mushroom patch,” so named because it was
impossible to ride, thus riders had time to notice the mushrooms growing near the trail as they
hiked along beside their bikes. This year the marquee Igor-ism came at mile 53, when the grassy
path went from laughable to ill-advised, then from harebrained to hilarious. The only thing
missing was a sadistic laugh-track playing on a hidden speaker tucked behind a lupine.
What’s funny—in a sick way—is that we all know there’s something on the route that will leave
us exasperated; we just don’t know when it’s going to slap us across the face. It keeps us
flinching. Eventually it smacks, we get through it—curse, chuckle, cry, take your pick—and we’re
right back to drooling at the astonishing views that easily distract us from the abuse.
YOLOmites5000 (Y5K) isn’t a race, it isn’t a gran fondo. It is a cult gathering. It is about 50 percent paved roads, 40 percent dirt and gravel tracks, and 10 percent meadows/mushroom patch/pasture. It’s awesome in every way. The secret backroads of the
Dolomites might very well be the greatest place on earth to ride bikes.
As per tradition, the eighth annual gathering began at the sound of the Tavella family’s
oversized cowbell ringing through the courtyard in front of their Hotel Ustaria Posta. No more
than 30 seconds later, we started ascending a 25 percent pitch, snaking between homes and
barns made of traditional larch wood; vibrant explosions of red geraniums burst from the
window boxes in the sun.
One of the hardest parts about Y5K, for me, is fighting the urge to stop every 15 seconds for a
photograph. This morning, the urge hit hard. I pulled over to capture the wispy clouds raking
across the dawn sky, revealing the statuesque cliff faces of Sas dla Crusc, the Ladin name for
the enormous wall of rock that looms above Val Badia.
All but one rider passed and vanished out of sight before I jumped back on my bike. I followed
Sacha, who came from Germany to ride, up and up, through swinging gates and onto
increasingly rough terrain. Finally, we felt that sick feeling—we had gone the wrong way. We lost
the group of 25 other riders less than 10 minutes into what would eventually be a 748-minute
The chase was on. I wanted to regain contact quickly, not only because I wanted the company
and camaraderie on this arduous journey, but I knew that the local participants knew the course
by heart, so I could sit back and follow wheels. If only I could find their wheels.
I crested the first big climb of the day, snapped a photo and fought off the urge to take more
before descending onto a dirt bobsled run—probably a fun family-friendly activity in a tube in the
winter, but right now a jarring, precarious slithering on the edge of upright, through coiling
switchbacks on golf balls of gravel.
Suddenly, I caught a glimpse of the group at the exit of the bobsled slope. I beamed; I’d made it.
Then my eyes swiveled back to the path ahead, only to realize that I was about to run smack
dab into a very solid metal gate. Looking back on this moment makes me appreciate the brain,
and its uncanny ability to perceive and perform, in an instant, whatever it is it needs to do to
Without even realizing what was about to happen, my brain made the choice: My body plunged
into the ground, knee first, at 25mph. My instinctual self understood it was better to slide beneath the gate, thus avoiding catastrophic impact with fists or chest or face with a horizontal beam of iron.
I popped up. My friends, who had heard the cacophony of metal bike and meaty knee sliding on
dirt, turned to see how bad it was. Besides the ancient Dolomiti pebbles that were solidly
embedded in the length of my shin and kneecap, and a few scrapes on my shiny Shimano brake
levers, I was unscathed. Thanks, brain.
It was time to get going on this arduous day, blood be damned.
For the next 11 hours, we romped through larchwood forest on newly cut logging roads—the
area is coping with a beetle infestation that is killing stands of trees and causing landslide
hazards. We skirted along skinny roads running along the shoulders of slopes so verdant and
precipitous that it was difficult to comprehend how they came to be so manicured. We topped
out at a rifugio to partake in a meal of Knödel and Skiwasser, local delights of Austrian influence
in this far northern Italian enclave.
But mostly we pedaled. The roads going up were really steep. The roads going down were really
steep. There were no spaces in between the ups and downs. Flat is a fiction in this part of the
A few of us started to test the waters of pace on the final 4 or 5 climbs. There was the
motivation to finish, yes, and the drive to quietly challenge the others, all in good fun on what is
always a very big day. Among those who knew parts of the course, there was the occasional
chatter: “The wall is coming!”
Among those who knew nothing of what lay ahead, eyes rolled: “If the wall is ahead of us, what
do you call that kilometer-long 27% pitch we just went over?!”
We collected ourselves before partaking in a slow-motion, human-powered abrasion of our soul
by pedaling up this proverbial wall. No one had a low gear low enough to make such steepness
anything but agony. Remember, we were already at some 16,000 feet of climbing for the day.
Everyone wanted to find a circular rhythm, but instead there were only hard edges.
Most of the riders shouldered a sweaty stoicism and quietly pursued protracted ascension. Of
course, there were a few who found catharsis in exaggerating their torment, who took every
opportunity to groan, burp, or stutter in the name of pain.
“Ugghh. Pfffff. Errrrr.”
But there it was. As in life, the harder the climb, the more profound the reward. The better the
reward, the faster we forgot the torment, the discomfort, the burning lungs and fiery muscle
A pencil thin steeple, on an equally narrow nave, sat precariously on a ledge at the far end of the
meadow, and only a single snaking trail led straight to it. The Chiesa di Santa Barbara. Behind it,
a gargantuan curtain of rock, faceted ripples glowing ocher in the afternoon sun. You couldn’t
conceive of anything more beautiful. We collapsed in the grass, soaking in the warmth, rolling in