James Walker Triathlon – Selle Ronda Hero MTB Marathon


This weekend was 30th/31st July was the holding of the UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships in Val Gardena. The little village is located in the heart of the Dolomites, Italy. In the winter it is a Skiers Heaven, in the summer it has to be the mecca for all forms of Cycling and Walking. The Sella Ronda Hero is dubbed Europe Hardest Mountain Bike Race.

I went out to race the Sella Ronda Hero which is the event the UCI event had chosen for the World Mountain Bike Marathon Championships. I would be racing in the general classification for with the support of Vittoria UK and Vittoria Italy. This would be my first mountain bike marathon and what an introduction it was to this world of multiple hours riding on challenging trails and steep climbs.


I took the option to fly into Venice on the Thursday prior to the Saturday race, and do the short 120 mile drive up to the hotel at Ortisei, 5km from the Start. Picking up the hire car the first 60miles went by in no time on the motorway. But as you leave Venice heading into the Dolomites the scenery dramatically changes. The motorway its self is an amazing feat of engineering from a structural engineering perspective, with the multi-span concrete structure weaving between two huge mountains. I won’t go on about the magnificence of concrete anymore!


The final 60 miles weave through the Dolomites on alpine pass roads, so what I thought would be a 1.30 hour drive would actually be a 3 hour drive. I have never really done the Alps in the summer and the scenery was inspiring and breathe taking as I drove through them with the sun setting.

Finally arriving in Val Gardena, the race marketing information was all over the town and the Valley. ‘SELLA RONDA HERO!’. From this point it started to hit how big this event would be.



Come Friday and the backdrop of the Dolomites in all its glory, I cycled up to registration, this itself encompassed 5km of uphill, but hey, the scenery made up for it. The main square in Val Gardena was taken over with cyclists, families and friends of those competing and had a great buzz about the place. This event was for people who loved cycling, loved mountain bike and racing. On to registration to pick up the event pack and the number 941, this would be me starting in the 5th block of riders to start on Saturday.

I had done my research on the race and looked at the profiles & watched the videos, but that doesn’t compare to when you actually looked at the huge mountains surrounding you in real life. The coarse map below gives a basic idea of what lay ahead on Saturday and that would be hard uphill’s and long tough downhill’s.


I headed back down to meet the guys at Vittoria Italy, who had a tent and stand in the main square adjacent to the start. They had been out here all week to meet the huge numbers of riders that need spares and tyre advice. The week leading up to the Hero is a cycling week and hearing that there had previously been 4000 people already there on the Wednesday prior for the bike day, showed how cycling is loved in the area and the huge people that are drawn to the event.



I had a good long chat with the guys and Carlo gave his words of wisdom on the course itself and what I had to expect. The latest Vittoria tyres and wheels where on display and there is some interest products on the way. In total there is a range of 6 sets of tyres available. I have been using the Barzo and the Peyote for the Xterra racing I have been doing. The Barzo had been the main choice of tyre for the Italians, but I stuck with what I knew and that the Peyote is a phenomenal tyre great for all types of terrain. For those of you that ride in the flatter less hard parts of the world there is also the Saguaro which is a smoother tyre ideal for fire trails, and those in the midst of mud and rain the Gato should be the weapon of choice.


I had adopted to run the Peyote tyres with the TNT (Thickened sidewall) to hopefully eliminate the chance of cutting the side wall on the descents. Chatting with the guys that had ridden certain sections of the coarse put my mind at rest, as technically I knew I would be ok. It was more the marathon of 87km and circa 5000m that concerned me!

Spares packed and bike checked, time for Saturday arrived.



Saturday arrived with a 4.45am start, and the Elite UCI waves would be away at 7.00am for Women on a shortened 60km route, then the elite men at 7.20am on the 87km, finally then the Sella Ronda general classification waves from 7.30 in 15 minute intervals.

I arrived at the start at just before 7am to get my place in the pen and get a position close to the start of the box. Each pen had 500 riders plus in each pen, and in total there was 16 pens. If you missed your pen, it was get sent to the back!

The previous night I had worked out my eating strategy and when I would refuel basing on 6.30hrs as a finish time This all tied in with the 4 main hill passes on the coarse map and when I could refuel at the 4 feed stations. In mountain bike marathon racing, you travel with as much kit as you would take for a steady ride back home, the only slight difference I adopted was more nutrition and slightly higher tyre pressures to reduce the risk of getting a flat. So I ran both tyres on a pressure of 22psi.

The first start wave at 7.00am went with red smoke and a count down with a huge round of applause as each elite ranked rider had been shouted out on the megaphone. Then came the start of wave 5.



The first 200m you cycle along the main street of Val Gardena then make a sharp left. Then it hits you! The first climb of nearly 6km ….. This is how it would be from here on in. The first climb takes you up out of the valley on a gravel fire trail that switch backs across the side of Dantercepies (2400m). Due to the sheer number of riders climbing at one go, it was difficult to pass. As soon as one rider gets up out of the saddle, the rear tyre spins and they lose grip……. hence cycling climbing dominos takes place down the hill. You have to be aware not to get caught out by this. By the top of the first climb it had taken nearly 40ish minutes to do 6km, from this point I knew It would be tough and this was the easiest climb of the day.

From the top you rocket down the side of the mountain on loose gravel fire trails with 40 other riders at this early point in the race. If you see a line you have to hold it or be prepared to tuck in behind another rider. The descent into Corvara is winding single track, on a purpose built downhill section, this would be used the following day in the Italian Enduro Championship. Due to the large volume of riders it was impossible to pass and ended up being big train on the downhill to Corvara at 1500m level.


From Corvara you climb onto the ledge of Pralongia, this was climbing from the one of the lowest points in the race at 1500m to 2000m. This climb was on the tarmac road and darted up on to the mountain. This section for 5 km can be said to be undulating in Dolomitian terms. The descent off this section towards the next climb before Sourasses was almost 16km and would test the bike and also my hands. The descents combined gravel trail roads, with odd sections of tough technical rocky descent. If you weren’t paying attention you could cause yourself some serious injuries. The descent into Arabaa switched into some over grown bush with hidden rocks and gradients of 30%, enough to test your brakes and that you hadn’t fallen asleep. By the time I had hit this section I had been out 2.30 hours or so. My mind was still in a positive state and the scenery was breath taking.



Then it arrived, the ascent of Sourasses. This was the half way point in the course at the top, 40km. Ascending from the lowest point at 1400m up to 2500m or so. The lower section weaved through the forest and climbed a rough forest track up the side of the mountain. Certain sections to the climb were so bad that it was pushing territory and this lasted for long sections of nearly 500 + meters as some sections. This is where the field bunched up again, and the heat was starting to really kick in.



Ascending Sourasses was very draining both mentally and physically, taking on plenty of water, it was hard work on the legs with the pushing and riding. It was basically one speed goes! On reflection I think if I ride again I would opt for the larger 42t rear cassette instead of my current 40t. Eventually getting towards the top, the air was drastically cooler, the wind picked up, there was a bit of drizzle, this was time to get wrapped back up. The snow at the top of Sourasses was great to see and the upcoming descent was something I was looking forward to. I refuelled with some cola and cake and was on my way again, almost being out nearly 4 hours.



The next 30km went pretty quick for some reason, and I had zoned out of how long I had been out. By 5.30hrs to 6hrs my body was starting to tighten up, but I kept on pushing and before I knew it I was at 70km with the final pass to complete. The final parts of the race involved 2 long climbs, but these seemed easy compared to Sourasses, and thankfully could be ridden. On one climb there was the offer of schnapps! At the top. The final climb over Passo Duren was a relief to get over.



The last 20km went by very quickly with a free flowing descent on wide farmer’s tracks towards Val Gardena and weaving through the Alpine Forests. Still at this point you would be riding with someone as there where over 4000 riders taking part.


The drop into Val Gardena was a welcome site, and by that time I had covered the 87km in 7hrs 18 mins and 46th in Cat. I was glad to have finished the HERO.

This is the longest day I have ever done in the saddle and a different style of racing that I am used too. It has certainly opened my eyes up to what I need to build on and focus more on over the coming season. The bike and tyre’s held up well with no mechanicals over such a long day and the battering they had taken. A massive well done to all riders that finished the Hero as it is no easy test. This race is a must do for any serious mountain bikers who want to test themselves against some of the best riders in the world and on terrain that will test you.

A big thanks to Vittoria UK for asking me to go and race one of the toughest races in Europe. I would like to return at some point to have another go!


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