Chipps takes on a mountain orienteering event in the Italian Dolomites, organised by Germans, where the idea is to hunt for dumplings that don’t actually exist, but which everybody gets at the end.
Words & Photography Chipps
And with that, our event was over almost as soon as it had begun. Within sight of the first checkpoint (with another eight to go) we had totalled a bike – the derailleur hanger smashed beyond repair. What now? This was going to be a long old day… but, as we discovered, one of the best days on a bike ever.
The Dumpling Hunt is one of three events organised by Holger Meyer and friends. Holger is a chiselled blonde German who’s been a mountain bike guide, a photo model, racer and event organiser. Think of him as a sort of German Ed Oxley or Guy Martin. The Dumpling Hunt, or ‘Knöedeljagd’, to give it its proper name, is part of a three-race series that takes in Switzerland (for the Schnitzelhunt), Austria (the Hörnli Trail Hunt) and this event in Val Gardena in the Italian Dolomites, just over the border from Innsbruck in Austria. You’d not know that this was Italy, though, the whole pretty mountain resort was full of Germanic riders, dressed in a rainbow of enduro colours, ready to take on the 2018 Dumpling Hunt.
The idea of the Dumpling Hunt will be familiar to anyone who’s done a Trailquest, or Polaris or any other bike orienteering event. A marked-up map was distributed a half-hour before the mass start. We were gathered at the chairlift station on top of the mountain, while hundreds of metres below us the town of Selva still sat in shadow. All around us soared sheer mountains slopes and scattered around a fairly wide area were checkpoints. The idea was to navigate your way around the mountains, collecting checkpoint stamps (in any order, and in some cases, doing forfeits or games of skill to earn them) before returning to the valley below with your ‘passport’ stamped in time for the prize-giving and dinner (naturally, of dumplings…).
Unlike a Trailquest – or any other orienteering event I’ve done – riders were allowed (and encouraged) to use the bike-friendly chairlift system. So, while you’d still get a fair few miles of riding in, not to mention some hefty climbs, most of your climbing would be lift-assisted, leaving you to pick your route and enjoy the descents.
Copies of the map were handed out and my race partner and girlfriend, Beate (pronounced ‘Bayart-uh’), and I studied it intently. We found it very hard to put the tight contours into perspective in a way that gave us any clue about how to best to plan our day. We had seven hours and unlimited rides on the chairlifts in order to track down as many checkpoints as possible. Ideally all of them. The winners of the event categories would be the pairs that got all the checkpoints in the shortest time (which turned out to be around three hours…). Some checkpoints were trailside and unmanned, but others – manned by the event’s sponsors Endura, Continental, Scott and Leatherman – would carry some task to do before you could get your passport stamped.
Holger gave the briefing (in German and English) and riders retreated up the steps of the lift-top restaurant for the Le Mans-style start. At the stroke of 10.30, a huge cheer went up and riders poured down the steps and made for their bikes. While some had the speed and determination of those out for the win, everyone was smiling. After all, it was a lovely late summer day and we were going to ride our bikes all day in the mountains.
We let the keen riders swarm ahead of us as they took off in any of a half-dozen directions from our starting eyrie. With our new German friend, Jackson, we decided to take a rocky but gently flattish trail that contoured below the cliffs in order to get to the first checkpoint – this one was being manned by Endura. This would keep us high and not lose any precious height.
Unfortunately, this strategy showed up our complete lack of mountain orienteering understanding. While we gamely took on the rocks and steps of our contouring trail, savvy riders had torn straight down the trails to the base of the mountain, bagging a couple of checkpoints on the way, before sitting on another gondola to cruise back to the top in effortless style, arriving at the Endura checkpoint at the same time as we did, but with checkpoints already in the bag.
Vowing to learn from this rookie mistake, we pressed on for the checkpoint, only for Beate to go flying within sight of it. A drainage ditch had snatched her front wheel, pitching her over the bars. While she was fortunately OK, the bike – a Scott Ransom on loan for the day – hadn’t fared as well, smacking down on the gravel, drive-side first, snapping the derailleur hanger. We wheeled the short distance to the checkpoint to consider our options, but it looked like our day was over before it had even begun.
While I performed the forfeit (a ten-second track stand to earn the checkpoint stamp), Beate chatted to Chris from Endura about our options. In a moment of brilliance, he remembered that the next checkpoint down the mountain was manned by Scott Bikes. Surely they would have spares with them? We could just freewheel down the road and the day would be saved.
It turns out that the German/English for ‘road’ is also how they’d describe a track. Chris had meant for us to take the gravel track leading from their checkpoint. We took the nearby road. And it was only as we gazed at the Scott checkpoint from across a valley that we realised our mistake. With no path linking the two, and a wood and stream in between, we had to hike back up the road climb until we found a break in the precipitous slopes that’d let us bushwhack down the valley side and cross the stream to finally roll in to see the boys at Scott.
Unfortunately, all of their bike spares were safely tucked away in the Scott van at the base of the mountain. They set about removing the zip-tied chain and derailleur from Beate’s bike while we both did the forfeit – riding a Scott kid’s bike round an obstacle course while wearing translucent sunglasses…
Onwards and downwards.
With no spares forthcoming, our only choice was to hike up the steep gravel track away from Scott and onto one of the singletrack trails that led back to Selva and our hotel. Having crested that first hill on foot, though, Beate found that she could freewheel the rest of the trail to the valley bottom. With a bit of scooting and madison-style hand-slinging, it wasn’t actually that hard. And so, with a sense of stubbornness and ‘finishing what you started’ ethos, we came up with a plan: we would head back up the mountain on the chairlift and see what checkpoints we could freewheel down to. That way, we’d bag more than our paltry two stamps and could show our faces at the prize-giving.
Back up in the lift, we studied the map and reckoned we could at least get another four in. With a bit of comedy elbows-in aero tucking, Beate managed to keep her speeds high enough on many of the descents to get her over the rises and hills of the fantastic trail network. And when momentum ran out, we just hopped off, munched on weird yoghurt wafer bars and enjoyed the scenery as we walked.
Time for lunch.
With our passbook starting to look a little more presentable, we decided that our lack of podium glory wasn’t going to be harmed by a quick lunch stop. So we leant up our pair of identical (apart from functionality) bikes and wandered into one of the many mountain resort cafés for lunch. Given the region’s overwhelming popularity with German riders, it was easy to forget that we were actually still in Italy, but the arrival of coffee and ham and mozzarella focaccia soon reminded us where we were. No one does quick and delicious lunch snacks like the Italians…
Just then Jackson and his friend rode up. They’d been with us at the start (and that first crash) and assumed we were enjoying our race retirement. They were so surprised to hear that we were still riding that our minds were made up. We’d keep on going until we’d got a full book of stamps. How hard could it be?
As we walked up the steep tarmac track to another cable car network, we were questioning our decision, but this trip did give us the chance to look over the new network of flow trails that the resort has built in the last couple of years. The amount of effort that’s been put into making bikes welcome (and fun to ride) was impressive.
Our third forfeit challenge was waiting at the top – a 2cm x 2cm wooden pole was handed to us and we had to saw a chunk off it using only the saw blade on a Leatherman Wave. With that done and a pile of sawdust at our feet, it was time to get on and enjoy the flow trails back to the valley bottom. We later found out that some keener riders had chosen to take the cable car back to the bottom instead as it saved time, but I know that we got the better ride. With berms and hips and flattering tabletops, this was the highlight of the day so far.
It also led to the flattest mid-mountain section of the day and there was much scooting and pushing and towing needed to get to the next section and the next checkpoint. Our trail spat us out at a hairpin on the beautiful mountain road and we could see a procession of Audis and Porsches taking in the sweeping bends. All very impressive, but it wasn’t singletrack, was it? We crossed the road and tore into the woods, heading for one of the singletrack checkpoints, keen to keep speeds high in case we needed to freewheel… Our final manned checkpoint was with Continental, who made us do a sack-race obstacle course while wearing a wheel bag round our ankles.
Sun go down.
It was starting to get late in the day and Chris from Endura messaged us to see how we were getting on. “Just a couple to go, see you at the prize-giving!”, I replied as we went up the big chairlift for hopefully the final time. Our last couple of unmanned checkpoints would take us back to the finish. It was already late and I reckoned we’d arrive later than the 5.30 cut-off, but not by much.
I’d not factored in that this final side of mountain with its technical, deeply wooded trails might be the hardest set of trails to ride. The riding here was natural, rooty and still reasonably damp from recent rains. Not a place to have another mechanical, or worse, an injury. We were very aware that the woods had gone very quiet and we’d not seen any other riders for a couple of hours.
Still, it’s not every day you get unlimited access to such a great selection of trails, so we got stuck in, riding the roots, avoiding the trail features and searching for our elusive final checkpoint. Slick and slippery corners waited for us in the quiet and cooling woods, the sun having long set on this side of the hill. But there it was! The final Dumpling Checkpoint.
Now we just needed to head back into town, which turned out to be tough to navigate and on possibly the most technical set of trails so far, but we made it down in one piece and burst into the hall – just, it seems, as the organisers were starting to wonder who was going to go to look for us. We were over an hour past the cut-off, but that didn’t seem to matter and smiles and high fives were quick in coming as our now-legendary tale spread.
With just enough time to shower and change before the prize-giving, we snuck into a packed village hall to get our finisher’s trio of tricolour dumplings and complimentary beer.
Holger and Karen ran a fun and friendly ceremony, with prizes and cheers for nearly everyone. Oldest rider, youngest rider, fastest… there was even a prize for the slowest pairs. We’d won something! As he read out the slowest riders – switching easily between German and English – we didn’t hear our names. We were so slow that we hadn’t got back within the time limit and didn’t even qualify for last place.
We were slightly, and inexplicably, disappointed with this. I’ve never won a prize for last place before. But there was beer and there were dumplings, so that was OK.
And then I did hear our names being mentioned; a rousing round of cheers went up and we were both ushered, confused, to the stage. Holger explained that our plucky story of disaster-turned-success had impressed and amused everyone there, so we were going to be given a special prize for the spirit of the event! And the prize was two entries to the HERO Superbike Dolomiti race – the toughest one-day mountain bike race in Europe. Erk…
The Euro party, party, after-party
And then it was time to celebrate! The party carried on in the hall until the dumplings were all eaten and the beer was drunk. Then it adjourned to a nearby bar for the after-party. With a backbeat of full-on Euro dance music, riders caught up and relived stages and drank beer. None with as much enthusiasm as the men’s winners, who downed shots and sang and danced on the bar until the place closed.
We surfaced a little foggily the next morning, but as our flight from Innsbruck wasn’t till the evening we took the opportunity to ride with organisers Holger and Karen, along with Chris from Endura and Philip from Scott Bikes, on a relaxed, untimed tour of the valley’s trails. With time for mountain-top coffees, reruns of favoured trails, and guides to put it all together, it was an ideal way of reminding ourselves what a fantastic part of Europe this is. Virtually unvisited by British mountain bikers, it’s a hidden gem and one that I’m hoping to explore more soon.
Holger is keen to attract more Brits to his events – presumably for the sort of oddball antics and unrestrained banter that we’d tried to give him. We couldn’t have been made more welcome by the other riders and the resort itself. Even my legendary lack of German (and Italian) didn’t seem to be a hindrance, as the area is so used to tourists.
While the Dumpling Hunt and the Hörnli Pasta Hunt are only a couple of years old, the original Schnitzeljagd in Sölden in Austria has been running for a dozen years and attracts 600 riders to the Dumpling’s 300. It’s going to be very tempting to collect the set.
For more information (in English), see www.trailhunt.it
The 2019 edition runs over the weekend of 6–8 September. The nearest airport is Innsbruck.
Disclosure: Chipps and Beate’s travel and accommodation were paid for by Endura.
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