Firstly, apologies for the lack of visuals on my L’Etape report. Uploading speeds at McDonalds in St Jean de Maurienne were so painfully slow that I gave up after ten minutes. Feel free to re-visit the previous post because I now added photos, along with some stats of my results, and photos from Lake Garda, too. Now: the wash up after L’Etape du Tour! Besides some ongoing saddle sore issues, I recovered surprisingly quickly. By Wednesday (L’Etape was Sunday) I was back on the bike and enjoyed climbing Col du Mollard from the other side with Alberto and a new acquaintance Martin. Thursday, before the actual Tour de France came through and Gendarmerie closed all the road, I once again tackled La Toussuire. How quickly pain and suffering is forgotten. Seriously, I was surprised how little recollection I had of that last climb. With fresh(er) legs my time was only a margin of the eternity it had taken on Sunday. My body still shows occasional weird reactions, like restless sleep with strange dreams or sudden ravenous hunger shortly after having eaten, which tells me that I’m still recovering. But otherwise I feel ready for more. How Pros go on and do this day after day for three weeks becomes more and more an impossibility to understand. My appreciation for their job has grown exponentially since having raced or rather ridden only one stage. But this post is about our last few days in Italy so please let me take you now back to Bormio. If you follow our adventures then you may remember that we had attempted to get there last months, but instead, due to unfavourable weather, we had ended up at Lake Garda. My worries had proven unfounded and after all, our trip to Bormio had only been postponed rather than cancelled. The fork in the road in Brescia – a decision had to be made! Alberto was ready to consider my alternative route suggestion via Lago d’Iseo, Edolo and over Passo di Aprica. My whining and whinging might have helped though! There was one condition: The weather up in the mountains had to be perfect. He had put it into his head, after speaking with a German cyclist at Lake Garda, that Stelvio and Gavia should only ever be ridden when there were no less then 30 degrees Celsius down in the valley. As we learnt from said German, one loses a degree Celsius for every 100m of attitude gain. So even when it’s 30 degrees in the valley, at 2700m it would be still freezing cold at the summit, he said. The weather gods came to my rescue. And my Dad, who, in absence of freely available Wifi, provided us with a prompt and accurate weather forecast via text message: Bormio – pristine blue skies and 28 degrees Celsius as of Thursday continuing all through to Saturday. It was good enough for me! We turned the steering wheel to Bormio and never looked back, never regretted our decision to detour, yet, again. We had the best time of our lives and who cares that our Giro d’Italia turned into seven weeks instead the initially planned three to four weeks?
Passo dello Stelvio
I’m bold enough to claim that every cyclist has pondered over photos of the hairpins of Passo dello Stelvio and dreamt of cycling up this amazing mountain. I have certainly done it hundreds of times over the past years, daydreaming. And here we were, sitting at the foot of the fabled climb, only one sleep away from making this dream come true. I again looked at photos in the magazines we had brought and tried to work out whether we were looking at photos of the Western Bormio side or the Eastern Trafeo side. Not that it really mattered because we were planning to ride both sides the next day anyway.
Alberto seemed disappointed because he somehow thought he could see the switchbacks from Bormio but we first had to ride a long steady straight up along the side of the valley and through a few tunnels before the wall at the end of the valley became visible, the wall with the zig zag road leading up to the ridge. It looked exactly like in the magazine photos. And the rest of the day went very much like expected. The initial excitement of climbing the Stelvio after all the delay overshadowed any pain.
From the lower slopes it looked like the pass was right there where the switchbacks ended. But to my surprise a wide valley opened up instead, and the road continued climbing along the grassy slope into the distance. Higher peaks became visible. The gradient was easy. Alberto and I chatted, enjoying the views. It looked like the pass was somewhere at the end of the road. I spotted a couple of buildings, which I thought would be the pass, but the house turned out to be an old cow farm, fading signs offering fresh cheesy produce for sale, and there was a memorial instead of the much anticipated pass sign. More road became visible further up. Hoping that this time it would be indeed the pass, Alberto took off just after we overtook the two Spanish riders, the only other riders we had encountered up to that point. The next couple of kilometres were steep and hard and it was now all white around me. Snow in June – who would have thought?
My diaphragm started hurting during those last few kilometres. First I thought breathing the chilly air caused it. It felt almost like stitches but higher up in the chest, and breathing became noticeably labouring in the thin air at 2700m. Not used to this high altitude, the gradient of the last two or three kilometres was a real torture. But that was forgotten as soon as I stopped at the top and enjoyed the marvellous views down the other side. Looking at the “famous” hairpins from above brought tears to my eyes.
There was a party atmosphere at the pass. The smell of German sausages hang in the air and there were souvenir stalls offering cycling jerseys and soft toy marmots in all shapes and sizes. There were motorbike riders and their motorbikes everywhere and some of them quite rude, pushed and shoved and claimed the spot just as they had taken the switchbacks on the way up.
It was freezing cold and I suffered on the downhill despite the leg warmers, beanie, gillett, arm warmers etc. but the descend was extremely enjoyable nonetheless. We arrived in Trafeo on the other side of the mountain after 1pm and we were starving. There was this gorgeous little restaurant, tables on a terrace amongst flower pots, and we stopped. I peeled off piece after piece of my clothing as I warmed up and by the time lunch was served, I was back to bib and jersey. The waitress spoke only German and no Italian, and it felt we had not just crossed a mountain but crossed borders so distinct was the difference between Bormio and Trafeo.
After a plate of pasta and a Coke (I would’ve preferred wine but… alas), it was time to face the return trip. Once again 20km uphill, once again hairpins, some over 40 of them. I lost count. The hardest part was the earlier slopes of the climb, where the road up and into the higher valley looked like any other mountain road. It’s always hard to get going again after a break but there was no way out. The motorhome was parked on the other side of the mountain, some 45km away. Church towers poked out between trees and a backdrop of snow covered peaks. But there was no sign of what’s to come if you didn’t know. Except, we knew! If I hadn’t just descended the exact road an hour earlier, I could have sworn there was no Stelvio.
The pass was still a market place when we arrived up there the second time around. Now late afternoon it was warm and this descend back to Bormio was warm and fast (apart from the tunnels, which are dark and scary).
People claim that the Eastern Trafeo side is the tougher ascent but for me personally, even though it was the first ascent and my legs were fresh, the ascent from the Bormio side was by far harder. The problem with the Bormio ascent is that it fooled me at least twice about the summit while on the return trip I had no false hopes of how far up I had to climb. The double Stelvio in a day, with about 90km and just short of 3400m of climbing, was a tough ride but much needed preparation for L’Etape. It helped built my confidence that I can actually climb high mountains, and more than just one in a day.
The Mortirolo comes in four versions. Three ascents start along the same Valtellina valley road, only a few kilometers from each other in the different villages of Tovo S. Agata, Mazzo and Grosio, about 20-30km South of Bormio (depending on which ascent you choose). The turn off for each climb is easy to find. The Mortirolo from Mazzo is the one the Giro used most frequently and is regarded the second toughest. That’s the one Alberto picked to attempt. It was the day after the double Stelvio. I was keen for a ride. I went along. But I had no false hope about the difficulty of the climb, rather naive curiosity whether it would compare to any climb that I knew. Of course it didn’t. Mortirolo is not regarded the first of the Überclimbs for nothing. I told Alberto that I didn’t think I’d be able to make it to the top, but I was determined to give it serious go. The plan was for me to turn around when I couldn’t keep going and meet Alberto on the Grosio ascent, the easier side and the one that Alberto planned to descent, just like the Giro course had done.
One kilometer into the climb I thought it was doable. Two kilometres in, and Alberto’s face showed doubt and surprise. He later told me that he felt sorry for me when he realised that he was using the same compact 27 gear that I had available. That’s how steep it was. I wondered what the Pros are using on this climb nowadays. Three kilometres into this 12km climb, and my legs were burning from lactic acid. I had to stop in a bend with some kind of gravel side road that was a little flatter for an easier take off after my rest. Alberto actually ended up holding my bike like a time trial start so I could clip back in and keep going.
It was tough and I knew I wouldn’t be able to continue all the way to the top if it stayed this steep. It was 14-15% with no respite. One kilometre at the time. To make it half way became my goal. Around the next bend and the road looked even steeper. It was just as much a mental thing. Another 500m and Alberto again waited for me in a bend. The motorbikes that had overtaken us earlier, came back down. Then a mountain biker came down and stopped. With his limited English and our limited Italian we finally understood what he was trying to tell us. The road was blocked. Bicycles could get pass but there had been an accident, a fatal one, about another 2km up. We looked at each other, looked at the steep steep road, and our appetite for the climb had vanished. We turned around, feeling sad and sorry for the unknown Vespa rider and his family. However, the 30km return ride up the valley back to Bormio still held some surprise for us in form of 4km of 11-14% gradient in store. I was glad I had something left in the tank. With 75km and some seriously steep climbing, I arrived back at the Motorhome with a distinct soreness in my legs, just like after a tough gym session. I also confirmed that Mortirolo compares with nothing I had encountered before.
And on Day Three we climbed the Gavia. How many mountain passes does it take to get sick and tired of climbing? The first few kilometres I was glad we had left Gavia for last. It was easy. The road followed the valley.
The silence and prettiness was only disturbed by the many motorbikes going up and down the mountain. It was Sunday. I watched an old woman in the front yard of her pretty Alpine house that was built from wooden logs with flower baskets hanging off the balcony. The woman and the house looked like they had seen change in this hidden, secluded valley over the decades, and I wondered how much her peaceful summer Sundays had changed since the invention of motorbikes. The road got smaller, one lane wide. The surface was damaged. At least not many cars and Motorhomes made their way up there.
Information about the length of the Passo Gavia had been conflicting. We were high up already, had climbed maybe 15km and, still climbing in pine forest, there was not even a glimpse of a summit in sight. It could be another 6km, or another 9km, depending which source I wanted to believe. The road took a left turn and it started getting steep. Why wasn’t I prepared for that?
Alberto disappeared up the road. He usually goes with three kilometres to go. So not far then…? I struggled. My legs now seriously fatigued from three days of climbing, coped badly with sudden 10-11% gradients. So did my mind! It was bare and rocky up there, hostile, and there was still no end in sight. My No Whinging Nor Whining rule kicked in. I wanted this. I had begged to come here and climb mountains, so no word of complain would pass my lips. But, boy, did I want to dismount and cry! Thankfully, there were three guys at the roadside who saved me. Pure pride made me swallow hard and keep pedalling through the hurt. Suddenly there was another cyclist right in front of me, pedalling slowly. Overtaking gave me a boost. Then another, and a rider closed in from behind and stayed on my wheel. I could hear his laboured breathing. Where did all these other cyclists come from? I had no idea but I was grateful because it helped focussing. Another guy overtook me. The road suddenly levelled to a mere false flat. I jumped on his wheel. Our little group started riding together. A chalet, an incredibly fit-looking women, stripped down to her underwear, stood in a puddle squealing and splashing water that must have been near freezing. There were cars and motorbikes and a colourful sea of people. Even skiers packed their roof racks… but Alberto was nowhere to be seen. My riding buddies called something out to me when I slowed. A refugio and not the Gavia pass? Another two kilometres to go? That was a blow!
When I finally saw Alberto rolling towards me with his camera, all the fatigue and struggling moments were forgotten. I had plenty of punch left in those legs to push to the line and take the K(Q)OM points to the cheers and high fives of my riding companions of the last four kilometres. We took the mandatory summit photo and sat there in the sun for a while and admired the incredible beauty of this remote place. All the effort was worthwhile.
Needless to mention that, after a rest day in a magic camp ground in Sondalo, I did attempt the Mortirolo again. Just like Alberto, who of course climbed the Mazzo side successfully on my rest day (He doesn’t do “rest days” very well!), I couldn’t let this one go! Sure, I chose the easiest Grosio ascent this time, and admittedly, it was easier than the Mazzo side, but it’s still a tough 14km slog with 15-17% sections. I took the praise from the Belgian guys at the top when I arrived.
I’m so glad we got to ride these three legendary climbs of the Valtellina valley but there are many more passes in the area. Once again, we could have easily stayed another week and not repeated a climb. With this I’m closing Chapter Three and our very own “Giro d’Italia” even though Bormio was not the last stop. San Remo and the Cipressa and Poggio still deserve a mention but I may smuggle this one in with one of my future posts. Italy has been an absolute revelation as a cycling destination and with it’s culture and culinary treats it has now a very special place in my heart and memory. I hope to return one day for more.