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  • Writer's pictureChris Case

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

Cycles ambassador.

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

live once.

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

the above.

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



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