THE DOLOMITES: There were four of us sitting around a bright wooden table in the collection of houses known as Piccolino. Jonathan read to us the last sentence of an email from back home: “I hope your vacation has been restorative.” We all laughed out loud.

Words/images: Jered Gruber

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We were about to head off in our separate ways following five days of full-time playing that included a six-and-a-half-hour road ride with 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) of climbing; a near-30-kilometer, eight-hour hike with 2,500 meters (8,000 feet) of climbing; a five-hour mountain bike ride with 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) of climbing; and a second six-and-a-half-hour road ride with just under 4,000 meters of climbing. There was also a day in the sauna thrown in for good measure.

We smiled about the email message and raised a green smoothie as a toast: here’s to restorative vacations!

And we all meant it. It was a true vacation—the first ever for Ashley and me—in one of our favorite places, the Dolomites. We didn’t have Internet, nor did I care to use it. We just played until we couldn’t play anymore, and then we ate. We ate a lot. We were a quartet of happy, lost children—as if our parents had left us alone for the week and this is what we came up with. It’s what we came up with after shooting the Tour de France—from Roubaix recon three days before the grand départ in Yorkshire all the way till glasses were raised for the final time late in the evening in Paris, nearly four weeks later. I know it’s a part of what we do, and I’m happy we got the chance to do it, but following a July filled with mostly 18-hour work days, seven days a week, something had to give —and it was work.

We set off for the Dolomites to meet two good friends, Jonathan and Mandy, and we stayed with a new friend, Igor, whose family owns a hotel, the Ustaria Posta, in Badia. They are Ladins, part of a small ethnic group that lives in northeast Italy. We’ve spent a lot of time shooting in the area, so I’ve always had this idea that I know the Dolomites pretty well. Then I met Igor, who showed me, with a constant smile and gusty laughs, that he actually does know the Dolomites—every path, trail, road, field, wall, valley, town, person. Locals talk about him with awe and call him the mayor of fun, the mayor of the outdoors. Igor raced World Cup cyclocross in the 1990s and early-2000s, along with some high-level road racing and mountain biking. He also runs, hikes, climbs and skis. He’s good at everything and is fluent in English, German and Italian besides his native Ladin. Igor’s like an overgrown child who has turned his love for playing in the mountains into a pretty badass company, Holimites, which he founded in 2000 with two equally minded friends. I get the feeling that while the company is impressive in what it offers, it’s also an insurance policy for Igor to make sure he gets his outside time. Who can argue with a man who has made his avocation his vocation?

Igor gave us a little peek into his world when our adventures angled off-road—for a hike that left my mind blown and my legs crippled by the end of the day (but with at least five pounds of Südtirol’s finest Kaiserschmarrn, a delicious shredded pancake and fruit concoction, in my belly); and a mountain bike ride that had my nose about an inch away from my stem while writhing my way up the steepest, loosest climb my legs have ever experienced—all while sneaking sideways glances at giant mountain panoramas.

I know I’m writing for a magazine focused on road cycling, but I realized at some point during the week—maybe while taking baby steps down the mountain after my legs gave out or fearing for my life down a boulder-strewn descent on a mountain bike—that it wasn’t about the bike. It was about playing outside, and it didn’t matter whether the method of fun was a road bike, mountain bike, two feet, or just sitting in a steaming hot, dark room with a man banging on a drum and chanting. Doesn’t every spa have an earth sauna?

When Jonathan and I get together, and bikes are involved, it’s typically a recipe for a full-gas smashfest. We were both outrageously unfit though. I was recovering from sickness, shooting two grand tours, and a bunch of other work. Jonathan had just submitted a proposal for a big project to the National Science Foundation, and his only real companions in the weeks before our Dolomite throw-down were the tepid oranges and browns of the apartment where they were staying in Croatia.

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But why would we let something as fickle as fitness hold us back when we were in one of the world’s great outdoor playgrounds? What could possibly go wrong? Well, we started out a bit too hard, we cracked, we revived, we cracked again, but the fun level stayed high. After about three hours of the first road ride, hunger struck, and we begged for mercy at a closed café. The resultant sandwiches felt like they’d been hand delivered from heaven.

Somewhere around hour four, it hit me: we weren’t riding hard. And I didn’t really care. We were just riding, taking pictures and chatting. It was an “a-ha” moment for me—I realized I didn’t have to ride hard to have a good time.

EVER SINCE I CAN REMEMBER, I’VE BEEN DOING EVERYTHING AS FAST AS I COULD, AS HARD AS I COULD.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been doing everything as fast as I could, as hard as I could. That doesn’t mean that I was actually fast or going hard, but for me it felt hard, and fast. Riding a bike is tough enough no matter how hard you’re going, so why make it tougher when all you really want to do is play? Sure, there’s a time for ripping legs off, but there’s also something to be said for long walks on the beach with a piña colada in hand…or long rides in the high mountains.

All the while, I was riding through our short history as photographers. The Dolomites have provided the stage for us. We’ve been there to witness races on spectacular roads, and returned for commercial shoots. We took a shot that made our world. I’d be lying if I didn’t say the Passo Giau is a special place for us. It was there, on a cold, late-May afternoon in 2011, just a few days after Alberto Contador took the overall victory at the Giro, that we visited the Giau with our good friend Soren and a young Garmin team rider, Peter Stetina. Peter had just finished his first grand tour in fine fashion, and he was suitably exhausted.

We did some shooting on the Fedaia first, but ended up on the Giau. We stopped at the rifugio at the top for a snack and hot chocolate, then ventured back out. I walked around and a shot jumped out at me. It was actually three shots, left to right, with my wide-angle lens, 1-2-3, with Peter in the right frame. I didn’t think much of it when I took it, but later, when I turned those three shots into a panorama and converted it to black and white, something special happened—the picture sang like very few pictures we’ve ever taken have sung. It just worked.

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That picture then became Castelli’s big picture, which then somehow became the Giro’s big picture, which led to us feeling very sad, because no one paid for that. Turns out, the Giro not buying that image was probably the best thing that ever happened to us. After a social media firestorm, the Giro organizers offered us a job. I’d say it was that image that really launched us.

I respect that story and know that I’m not exaggerating when I tell it, so there isn’t a time when I don’t give a nod to that stretch of road at the top of the Giau, and the mountains that ring it on every side. I think of the great days of racing that have crossed this spot. I’m encouraged and inspired by the tales and memories of the heroes and villains who have fought between these walls of dolomitic limestone.

As normal people, we get to ride these same roads, tread in the paths of the greats. This Yankee Stadium is available free of charge, every day. This hallowed ground is the world of the Dolomites, and the roads we ride are those of my wildest dreams.

I REMEMBER THESE TINY IMAGES FROM THE DOLOMITES WITH WORDS PROMISING HEAVEN ON EARTH FOR A BIKE RIDER.

I remember when I first started riding bikes. I did some research about famous roads in Europe, because that’s what you do after watching your first Giro or Tour on television. You can’t help but want to be a part of that. I remember these tiny images from the Dolomites with words promising heaven on earth for a bike rider. It took me years to finally make it there, but it was every bit the Valhalla I imagined it to be. I’m still in love.

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It’s not only this idea of following in the steps of the greats, but also joining in the march of the normal. We are all brought here because we love to ride bikes in what amounts to one of cycling’s great cathedrals—as well as one for hiking, running, climbing, skiing, paragliding, or pretty much anything. We’re like pilgrims, and it’s hard to deny that feeling when you pass a rider struggling with his machine, fighting the grade; but even when you pass, he looks up and smiles—he’s doing it too. This is where souls are restored—ours especially.

At this point in the ride, the fun had begun to wear off. I was tired, questioning my sanity in broad strokes of inquisition. But then the descent began. I snapped back to life. I zipped up my jersey, wiped the sweat from my eyes, took a drink, and I was ready. The struggle was now a flow. The road rushed beneath me….

I’ve always enjoyed descending. It’s one of the few things on a bike that can be enjoyed by everyone with some practice and nerves. Not everyone can win a race, but everybody can get that feeling of exhilaration. I would never skip a climb to descend, but that’s not to say that I don’t dream of a descent while climbing.

We were two boys let loose on open roads with only our fear of dying to keep us in check. Our bikes were an extension of our limbs—bars melded to hands, pedals to feet. I saw only the next turn and the turn beyond that, and I looked for that line that’s so clearly drawn on every turn, if you just look for it.

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My worries dwindled to nothing. I was making one of those descents, where everything was going just right. Gone was the pain of climbing, gone was the ticking down of kilometers to the top and, on a special day like this, gone was the fear. All that was left was the nothing—just turn after turn. That’s the feeling I find the most intoxicating. It’s rare, but when you do find a rich vein of gold, it’s like so very little else that I’ve ever experienced.

Ashley told me I was getting a little over the top here. She’s right, but I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to write one of those passages where you read it, roll your eyes, and wonder—was that necessary? I know I’m guilty of it, but I don’t know how else to describe that feeling of awesome. I love it.

Then, the rhapsody was interrupted. On a tight right followed immediately by a switchback, we came in far too hot, but it was one of those days. Normally, that situation would scare me, but I was in a special place. I didn’t blink, I slowed just enough, hit the turn hard, and jumped out of the other side. An elephant could have landed on the road in front of me, and I think I might have been able to clear it. I felt invincible.

I DON’T WANT TO DIE ON MY BIKE, BUT I DO WANT TO FLY.

I’ve crashed more than my fair share of times, but I’ve never crashed in these moments. That feeling of invincibility doesn’t make me do foolish things; it only makes me do what I normally do, but better.

I have a good friend in Germany, with whom I shared hundreds of hours of riding in 2003-04. He’s a good 30 or so years older than me, but we were a good pair in those days. Rolf told me that when he got too old, when he knew the end was near, he wanted to go to the top of Mont Ventoux, take off his brakes, and descend. I always liked that thought—until I saw the rocks of Ventoux up close. I couldn’t help but thinking how terrible it’d be to go that way….

I don’t want to die on my bike, but I do want to fly. I want to chase that feeling of weightlessness because I know that if I chase it long enough, I’ll catch a good one, and I’ll fly, if only for a few short minutes—but still firmly attached to the ground.

I felt dirty after the Tour. Each day we played in the Dolomites, a little bit of that muddy tired crumbled off. The unhappy wiped away with each pedal stroke, and the stress scrubbed easily enough off of my sweaty hands. Below that dirt, we found ourselves again. Riding has that effect. The crust and grime of work is replaced with actual sweat and dirt and real mud; and it’s in that mud where my fresh start lies.

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On those long rides in the mountains with Jonathan, there were no worries about whether he’d get that NSF grant or if we’d get some work next month or if we’d have work next year. Those worries transformed into “15K to the top of the climb, then 14, 10, 8, 6, 4…” All that mattered was what was in front of us, the next stretch of road.

It became so simple, and for people consumed by work that reprieve is worth fighting for. It was my fix. Does it border on addiction? Yeah, it probably does. My brother recently criticized my dad for being addicted to exercise. He said he can’t behave like a normal person without exercise. How is that different than if he were into alcohol or drugs?

That comment hit home with me because I knew that he could have inserted my name into that last sentence. Ashley has said as much to me in the past as well: My love for bikes is not normal, and sometimes borders on the unhealthy. Is it an obsession? Yes. Is it bad? I don’t think so. I think the difference comes from what comes out the other side. Sure, I can be a grumpy ass when exercise is withheld from me. But when I do get it, I’m better for it. More importantly, I’m better at everything: writing, shooting, existing. I see better when I ride. I shoot better when I see better, ergo, I work better when I ride.

MY LOVE FOR BIKES IS NOT NORMAL, AND SOMETIMES BORDERS ON THE UNHEALTHY.

Ideas flow as my pedals turn. I always ride with my phone—not because I want to check my email but because I need that recorder for when the muse rests on my shoulder and an idea strikes. Then, again, I’m the addict, and it’s hard to see through the haze of addiction to the clarity of objectivity.

I’m happy that the Dolomites have somehow become a base of sorts for us, a place where we start leaving stuff. As I write this, four bikes and an array of camera equipment are sitting in Igor’s barn.

After five crazy days, we left Badia clean and bright and ecstatic. All the worries of the previous month were long gone. We were a bit fitter, physically exhausted, well fed, and emotionally afloat on glorious seas. I was even talking about the idea of shooting the Tour de France again in 2015…

From issue 34. Buy it here.