Portrait: Stefano Davarda

A pioneer of mountain biking in Italy's Dolomites

I still remember the look in Stefano Davarda’s eyes when I told him that I was going to bring freeride legends Wade Simmons, Brett Tippie and Richie Schley to the Dolomites for a big riding and shooting adventure. He lit up but I could tell that my name-dropping meant nothing to him. This was back in 2014 and by then, Davarda had already been a mountain bike guide in the region for years. He deserved the label of ‘core rider’ more than most of us ever will, yet he didn’t know the biggest names in the sport. He’d even grown up watching the “New World Disorder” and “Kranked” movies that had made these guys mountain-bike celebrities—he just hadn’t connected the dots.

Davarda had no idea they were ‘famous’ when he greeted them with a big smile and firm handshake. He’s the type of person that’ll look you in the eye when he shakes your hand (back when human contact was a thing). And when he volunteered to make the three-hour mission in the middle of a high-alpine shoot to retrieve someone’s forgotten insulin kit, he didn’t realize it was for the Godfather of Freeride. That’s just who he is. He doesn’t concern himself with the popularity contest of mountain biking. He’d rather ride than talk about riding, and he’s inspired by exploration rather than the individual personalities involved. He has no ego, just a love for the mountains and a desire to share his homeland to anyone interested in a tour.

Davarda grew up in the heart of the Italian Alps in Val di Fassa, one of five valleys of the Dolomites centered by the Sella Massif. It is a mountainous region steeped in history, once serving as the site of an epic battle with Napoleon’s French Army and later, a place that felt Mussolini’s reign of terror against the indigenous inhabitants, known as Ladins (the region is also known as Ladinia). Ladinia’s roots are in German-speaking Bavaria, which controlled the area until after WWI, when South Tyrol became an Italian territory. The German influence remains strong in parts of South Tyrol, and although the Ladins have weathered many cultural storms, their language and traditions have survived over the centuries.

When he volunteered to make the three-hour mission in the middle of a high-alpine shoot to retrieve someone’s forgotten insulin kit, he didn’t realize it was for the Godfather of Freeride.

The Ladins are known for their hardiness, as they have been shaped by big mountains and long winters—an old Ladin saying about the weather in the Dolomites is: “Two months of cold weather and the rest is winter!” Mountain sports like skiing, rock climbing and paragliding are deeply woven into the fabric of the Dolomites’ culture, but mountain biking is relatively new to the valleys’ dramatic peaks, and Davarda is largely to thank for the sport’s presence.

Davarda, now 40, was already an accomplished free skier and ski instructor in his hometown of Campitello di Fassa, as well as a snowboarder, climber and moto trials rider when he discovered mountain biking in 2003. At the time, he was in university studying art and design and collaborating with La Sportiva on a sole design he developed for a rock climbing shoe. But when a friend lent him a bike and took him on his first ride, the course of his life quickly changed. He bought a Kona Stinky the next month, and within a year, had presented the Val di Fassa tourism office with a project to develop mountain bike trails in the region. The tourism office believed in Davarda’s ideas, and supported his vision to raise the profile of mountain biking so it would equal that of the winter sports.

As he developed plans to boost the business of mountain biking off the bike, he continued to push farther into the backcountry on it; Davarda was one of the first locals to pedal or push his bike to many of the local peaks, with his only purpose being exploration and the reward of a long, thrilling descent.

He led a small group of other local riders, as they waded through the permits and politics involved with convincing land and ski lift owners to grant access to build trails. Slowly, but steadily, they made progress, and today, 16 years after Davarda started promoting mountain biking, all five valleys in Ladinia are developing vast networks of trails that are all connected by more than 100 cross-valley ski lifts.

It’s not that the development wouldn’t have ever happened without Davarda, but his passion and drive certainly helped light a fire that has stayed ignited.

“’I’ve visited Val di Fassa a few times for riding or shooting. On the first visit Stefano texted me as he saw one of my posts and offered to guide us around,” said legendary French rider Jerome Clementz. “He was simply happy to show us the best trails and local secrets. We felt that he knew every single trail of the area. When you speak with him you can feel the passion of the mountain and exploration. He loves to talk about the expeditions he has made to find new routes. You can see sparkles in his eyes and the passion that animates his soul.”

Davarda and I have worked side-by-side for years, since we met in 2013 when the tourism office in Val di Fasso provided me with a guide for that project with Clementz. Since then, I’ve invited many of the top riders in the world to experience the Dolomites and ride and shoot in one of the most visually spectacular places in the world, and Davarda is always the consummate guide and de facto photo assistant—scoping locations, shuttling riders’ bikes back up the hill during shoots, and learning to understand photographic elements, such as when and where the light will be optimal for shooting.

He’s a skilled drone pilot and even helped me with the editing of “Clawlomites,” a short film I produced with Darren Berrecloth in 2019. Besides that, he’s a graphic and product designer, ski and snowboard instructor and a tinkerer by nature. He built the interior of his house using wood he harvested in the forest behind his house, just learned to weld, and is a competent motorcycle mechanic as well. He also built the first road gap in the Val di Sole World Cup track, as well as a trail called Boneyard, one of the best downhill tracks in Arabba.

You can see sparkles in his eyes and the passion that animates his soul.

Davarda has left a lasting impression on anyone who’s ever met and ridden with him. He’s a stronger rider than most, but is humble and never trying to prove himself to anyone. He is knowledgeable about all aspect of mountain life, can bush-fix a bike with wood and rocks, and always carries extra food for the group.

“Going to the Dolomites is an amazing experience,” says Schley. “Having a guide to show you all of the goods without any struggles is even better. Having Stefano as your guide to do this is another level. A lot of mountain guides can have attitude and ego. Stefano doesn’t seem to have either. Just a kind soul that wants to share an amazing experience in his home mountains with you.”

Inspired by his Ladin mountain heritage and motivated by a healthy appetite for exploration, Davarda has helped to open one of the most ruggedly striking places on earth to two-wheeled travel and has laid the foundation for the viability of mountain biking in the region.

Photos: Ale di Lullo