MY thighs are burning, my chest is heaving and my heart is banging. As I pull out from the final switchback of the notorious Fedaia mountain pass in the Dolomites, I persuade my pedals to turn just a few more times.
Feeling elated — and somewhat light-headed — I manage a final surge as my Pinarello F8 Dogma professional road bike rolls over the finish line of this 15km climb with 1,047 gruelling metres of elevation and 18% ascents. Phew!
This is just one stage of my three-day trip to north Italy’s mountainous Alta Badia region, tackling routes used in the legendary Giro d’Italia race, which celebrates its 100th edition this May.
The three-week professional competition joins Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana as one of professional cycling’s Grand Tours, with a varying course each year.
The Giro first visited the Dolomites in 1937, when roads were nothing more than dirt tracks, and has been back many times since.
I’m riding with cycling specialists inGamba, who — in conjunction with La Perla hotel and Pinarello bikes - are offering tourists a Giro-themed cycle package.
It’s a unique experience for sports fans.
“There are very few sports where members of the public can do something like this,” says Nate Ripperton, from Californian-based inGamba. “A normal person can’t play football at Wembley, but a cyclist can come here and ride the iconic Giro d’Italia routes.”
With this particular trip, the specialist tour operator has ticked off every cycling fanatic’s wish list — kitting us out with sublime Pinarello bikes (famed for their ultra-smooth electronic derailleur gears and raced by Chris Froome and Sir Bradley Wiggins) and providing a support team of pro mechanics and soigneurs.
My $10,000 F8 Dogma has been matched perfectly to my body measurements and even has my name written on the crossbar, along with the message: “This is my Pinarello Dogma. There are many like it, but this one is mine.”
After just a few minutes in the saddle, I can only wish this were true.
The attention to detail given by inGamba is meticulous: bikes are thoroughly cleaned every day, water bottles (or bidons) are colour-coded to separate water from energy drinks, and we are all dressed in matching cycling kit to add to that pro-team feel.
Accompanying us on this trip is Italian cycling hero Eros Poli, who famously won the Mont Ventoux stage of the 1994 Tour de France, despite his 84kg, 6ft 5in frame, during a stunning 171km solo breakaway.
The Italian giant will be my guide and my inspiration for the next few days.
As we clear the Passo Fedaia, he confesses: “The pros hate this pass.”
While I’m constantly wiping sweat from my face, the 53-year-old looks enviably calm and relaxed.
My reward at the top is a tour of glistening mountain Lake Fedaia, nestled against the northern flank of Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites at 3,343m.
After a snack break courtesy of our support vehicles, we push on, confident in the knowledge that everything that goes up, must come down.
As soon as the road starts to descend, my Zipp carbon wheels spin into life, creating a wonderful whirring noise only punctuated by the sound of my jacket flapping in the breeze.
As the speed builds up, quickly topping 60km/h, there is little time to look down at the steep, luscious green valley to my side, or to glance at the quaint, traditional mountain village with its beautiful church. Instead, I’m scanning the road surface for potholes and oncoming coaches, as I slow down to sweep around the 180-degree bend.
Following Poli, famous for his descending skill when riding the Giro 20 years earlier, is a lesson in the art of taking the perfect line, minimising the speed loss as we negotiate steep corners.
But every day brings with it new challenges and awe-inducing sights.
We tackle the Pordoi pass - which has hosted the Giro 37 times since 1940 and features a monument to cycling great Fausto Coppi - and scale the 2,244m-high Passo Sella (part of the Quattro Passi on the Sella Ronda loop), with its stunning 360-degree view of rugged mountaintops.
Our staging post is the wonderfully eccentric and luxurious La Perla hotel in the ski resort of Corvara.
Fittingly, the wall of its Pinarello Lounge is decorated with classic racing bikes and a penny-farthing belonging to Michil, the eldest of the three Costa brothers who own the hotel. In the spa, our soigneurs — who are also expert masseurs — provide a daily cycling massage to knead away the lactic acid from our aching legs. In the evening, we celebrate our own victories over the same mountain passes that have tested the skills and grinta (determination) of the greatest cyclists known to the sport.
The chat over dinner at the hotel’s Michelin-stard restaurant, La Stua De Michil, is not of the soreness, but of the challenges awaiting us.
In the morning, there is another chance to become my own personal king of the mountains.