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By: Zdenko Kahlina
A CLIMB TO LOVE: PASSO SAN BOLDO
The year was 1969. The race was an international amateur stage race in Italy, run under the name ‘Giro del Piave’. There were 220 participants at the start including myself. I was only 18 years old at the time and this was my first BIG race with the seniors (amateurs, as I was still a junior racer). During the second stage we went over a climb so memorable that I promised myself to return and visit this place again. I kept my promise and came back some 40 years after.
Passo San Boldo da Tovena (704m) lies in the northern reaches of the Italian Alps, and was a walking path until World War I. This is really a minor pass, but it has become quite famous for these quite extraordinary serpentines with the curves in tunnels on the south side. It was so hot on the day of my visit, that I felt like I was melting away. When the road started to climb there was a ramp across the road and a sign saying the road was closed (or at least during work days). I saw no work going on and continued driving my car. Not many maps show this road as a through road, but oddly enough the Michelin maps shows it (but gives no indication of any names along the road or if there is a pass here).
The climb starts off the road from Vittorio Veneto to Valdobbiadene in the small village of Tovena (238m). It climbs gently through a beautiful little green valley for a few kilometers, then starts the first of 18 switchbacks up the forested slope. Then at switchback 6 you reach a near vertical cliff wall at the head of the valley. The next 5 switchbacks are directly on the cliff face, with the u-turn at the end of each one inside a u-shaped tunnel. Very impressive and this was the main reason why I returned here.
It was even more impressive from the bike. The view from down below the switchbacks up the mountain was unforgettable! I thought I’ll never be able to reach the top. Once you reach the steep section of the hill, one-lane mountain road is controlled by traffic lights which offer, I’m guessing, survival statistics to drivers entering the hairpin tunnels. I went through some of the tunnels against the red light as I could see from bellow which tunnels had cars and which had not, but it may still be prudent to obey the lights (as things could change while you are in one of the tunnels). It’s a remarkable piece of engineering, and they manage to keep the gradient down in the 10-12% range all the way up.
The road up to Passo di San Boldo (704m) is, some would say, very easy, but for me it was a great memory climbing it during the real cycling race. Even though I was at the time somewhere at the back of the race, I remember how difficult this climb was for everybody. Italians were throwing empty bottles into the ditch and getting new ones with cold water from their team vehicles. I was picking up these empty ‘bidons’ (water bottles used in cycling) on the side of the road and stacking them into my jersey pockets on my back. For me, they were precious trophy’s I could take home from Italy, because in Jugoslavia we didn’t have access to a nice colorful water bottles. I also remember the team cars using their special horns (with sound effects imitating songs) to pass bigger groups of riders, only to get in front of them and stopping again. The drivers would quickly get out of the car and handing more water bottles to the cyclists or even push riders up the hill.
This time I stopped at the top for a few photos and continued driving my car downhill on the northern side of the mountain. I was pleasantly surprised at how manageable this climb was with the car through a series of tunnels and hairpin bends. I can assure you it wasn’t anything like that 40 years ago on the bike.
After the pass I descended on the easy side to Trichiana. Here you can join the main road from Belluno to Feltre, which is a bit too busy for my taste. I continued down the main road and skirted Lago Santa Croce, climbed up to 500 meters at Passo Fadalto, and descended rapidly to Vittorio Veneto.
Now I was going down even lower to the base of the plain on the south side of the Alps, as it is. Luckily it was now getting later in the day and the heat was not such a problem any longer. Vittorio Veneto looked nice, but has a very trafficated narrow road through the city Centre that more or less cannot be avoided as it runs through a gorge at the start (there are apparently two roads through). I had remembered the road and had looked a lot on alternative roads down here, but had come to the conclusion that I could as well use the main roads to get through the area most quickly.
By visiting the province of Vittorio Veneto again I fulfilled a long dream of mine to return here and refresh the memory of one beautiful, but hard bike race. Passo San Boldo was definitely a deserving spot for my visit.
Have a good and healthy season.
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