“Are you cooked yet?” asks Mario Kummer before the day’s gravel ride begins. “We were cooked yesterday!” someone yells from within the group. The exchange results in an eruption of laughter. Mario grins, acknowledging the challenge he’s been putting the riders through. His motto is: challenge, but don’t overwhelm. “If you are healthy and feel fit, you can leave your comfort zone,” says the former professional cyclist. The participants will most certainly have to do that if they are to enjoy the challenging yet extremely rewarding high-alpine terrain in the Dolomites at the Q36.5 Gravel Camp.
“Kummi,” as his friends lovingly call him, has established quite a program for this year’s Q36.5 Gravel Camp. His routes lead from the scenic valleys of South Tyrol to the towering peaks of the Dolomites and everywhere in between.
Every autumn since 2019, Mario has held this Gravel Camp in South Tyrol, a place that has become his second home. The 61-year-old grew up in the German Democratic Republic, also known as East Germany. During his career, he was crowned World and Olympic Champion in the 100-kilometer Team Time Trial event, racing in the colors of East Germany. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he left East Germany and began racing in the European pro peloton. It was there that Mario first came into contact with the impressive mountain terrain of South Tyrol, and later, as a sports director, when his pro career came to an end.
But Mario isn’t someone who is constantly sharing stories from days gone by. When asked, he is certainly happy to talk about his past as a racer, but nowadays, he finds himself fascinated by the people that surround him and the natural environment through which he rides.
“Challenging, yet incredibly beautiful” is how Mario characterizes the terrain he used to train on and today enjoys as a guide and recreational rider. After Mario’s many years as a pro rider and sports director for various teams, “Bella Italia” wouldn’t let him go. After leaving the professional cycling scene, he went to work for Uli Schoberer, the inventor of the powermeter and founder of SRM, in Lucca. These days, Mario works for the high-tech cycling clothing manufacturer Q36.5 in their R&D Department in Bolzano.
Over the years, South Tyrol has become a second home for Mario. He’s ridden every pass and backroad in the region, and since the rapid rise in popularity of the gravel bike, he’s been able to explore even further off the beaten path. Where the road ends, the gravel begins.
With enthusiasm and excitement, the camp members kick off their sojourn to the skies, climbing through the Val Venegia towards the pass at 7,200 feet. As the brave riders grind their way up the unfathomably steep gradients, the astounding panorama of the Dolomites reveals itself in staggering proportions. As they rise out of the valley, they also rise from the shadows of the surrounding peaks. To the northwest, the Cima della Vezzana, with its 10,500-foot summit, towers above the group.
Even if the high alpine gravel ride makes the legs and lungs of some participants burn, the breathtaking view of the “white mountains” more than makes up for the exertion, just like the subsequent long and flowy descent through gorges, past streams and lakes, down to the town of Predazzo, where the ski jumping competitions will take place in the 2026 Winter Olympics.
“For me, the ride through the Val Venegia Valley was a real highlight of the Q36.5 Gravel Camp,” said Gravel Pro Brennan Wertz. “We were truly in the heart of the Dolomites and rode on beautiful gravel roads through the most incredible high mountain scenery I’ve ever experienced. It was an unforgettable ride, easily one of the most beautiful of my life. The views were spectacular, the descents were ripping, and the company was exceptional. On the way down from the mountains, we rode through a valley with multiple suspension bridges, waterfalls, and tremendous cliffs. That was certainly a ride I’ll never forget.”
“Oh Mario, oh Mario”, is an exclamation often heard amongst the riders in the group. The Italian guests, in particular, turn this phrase into a melody with their singsong dialect. This “Oh Mario” expresses the beauty of the surroundings and reflects the challenging effort required to conquer the gravel climbs in the Dolomites. The latter was certainly the case on the climb to the Rittner Horn.
Once again, “Kummi” leads his pack of gravel riders to over 6,500 feet. But not everything has to be climbed using muscle power. The ex-professional has a trick up his sleeve. At the beginning of the ride, the group conquers the first 2,600 feet of elevation in a high alpine cable car. After unloading from the cable car, the route continues straight up the mountain. Sometimes on wide forest paths, sometimes on narrow singletrack trails.
The air is clear, Haflinger horses graze in the alpine meadows, and ever so often, a wild marmot appears alongside the gravel path. The beautiful panoramic view improves as the gravel riders grind their way up the climb. It’s not without reason that Mario calls this route “Dolomites View”, and he’s not exaggerating in the slightest.
After catching their breath, the gravel riders take in the spectacular panorama, the thin air a reminder of the high elevation. The group can make out the Rosengarten and Latemar peaks in the distance. With a quick turn of the head, they can see the peaks of the Ortler and Brenta groups and the Stelvio Pass - the most famous mountain of the Giro d’Italia.
The riders are practically in a trance as they enjoy the beautiful and distant views of the far-off peaks. But for the members of the Gravel Camp, even more impactful than the beautiful scenery is the atmosphere amongst the riders. “This camp is the chance to join a group of friends sharing talent and a love for cycling,” says Lucie.
You arrive as a stranger and leave as a friend. This clichéd marketing slogan became a reality for the members of the Q36.5 Gravel Camp. Although the many rides presented the participants with real physical challenges, the whole experience with Mario’s guidance, the lovely atmosphere around the hotel, and the chance to build relationships with other passionate cyclists left a lasting impact. “One walks away with new friends, renewed energy and enthusiasm for life,” says Paul of the experience at the camp.
Thank you, Mario.
- Translated by Brennan Wertz.