Thursday 26 July 2012

The Hills - er Mountains are Alive....Stelvio!!

A Gentle Starter

Of all the mountain passes I've ridden, I have to say that Stelvio is my favourite. I have done this climb before, but it was from the Prato allo Stelvio side.
Today, I would be tackling it from the Bormio side. I'm not sure which side is more famous. People say, Prato is, mainly because it is a little steeper. To be honest, when you've got around 20km give or take 3km of climbing to get you up to almost 2,800m above sea level any which way is tough!

In my case I was also going to be treated to a starter course in the shape of a 40km steady climb from Tirano to Bormio. With Tirano at 400m above sea level, and Bormio at 1200m altitude it wasn't going to be a tough gradient to reach Bormio, but freewheeling would not feature on the menu.

Just as the pros were blessed with glorious sunshine the previous week when they rode this course, I had the same clement weather to enjoy.

As I worked my way through the lanes I kept in mind the words of the proprietor of the bed and breakfast. "Stelvio is a long way away and a long way up as well. Just make sure you come back tonight!"

Well, I would do my best!

Just as there were a few cyclists out on the Mortirolo the previous day, there were even more out along the road to Bormio. There's always an uplifting feeling being on a route which had hosted the world's top cyclists, a massive media and publicity caravan, as well as thousands of avid tifosi.

My route to Stelvio was very straightforward. I just headed towards the snow-capped peaks which were directly in front of me, in the distance. I also benefited from route signs on the road that had been put up in advance of a Gran Fondo event that was taking place the following day, and which would take riders over the Stelvio and the Mortirolo.
I would have taken part in the event, but I wasn't sure if the logistics would allow it, and I didn't know if I would be fit enough to ride Mortirolo and Stelvio in the same day, and, and, ok I was making excuses!

Anyway, I made it to Bormio without any problem. By the way, this is a pretty town. The main square is old and quaint with a few churches, very much in the typical Italian style, and with a fountain and some stylish bars. Bormio's a popular ski-ing area, and probably not a bad option for those looking for a quick winter-sports weekend away from Milan.

Main Course

So onwards to the main meal of the day, the Passo dello Stelvio. A number of signs reminded me of what lay ahead - 1600m of climbing and 21km. The summit was still a along way up. Folks coming down into the main square had smiles on their faces, though they were well wrapped up. So I knew I would really enjoy the descent (eventually) even if it was going to be pretty chilly up there!

The early part of the climb was fine gradient-wise. The main challenge were the various tunnels. There are around six of them in rapid succession. A few of them are around 500m long, poorly lit, twisty and narrow and on a gradient; the perfect combination to make me feel unsafe and a little scared as various motorbikers and motorists zoomed up and down the roads. Thankfully I had a high visibility jacket with me.

Countdown from 46 to 1!

Once out of the tunnels the serious climbing began. There were 46 hairpins to count down to reach the summit, and I still had 1,000m of climbing to do! It was just a case of grinding away steadily and keeping my head, knowing that I would eventually get there.

Sometimes it was easier to stop and have a look behind me, and marvel at the views below. It also felt good to know that I had made a bit of ground. As the road twisted and turned I was getting a little disorientated about which way was up or down!

Tons of motorbikers, motorists and cyclists passed me. This was definitely the place to be on a Saturday afternoon. I chatted to a local cyclist on the way up, who had signed up to do the Gran Fondo the following day. He had meant to be taking it easy, but he said it was much too nice a day to not ride. He knew he would pay for it during the cyclosportive! I guess when you have Stelvio on your doorstep you can be laid back about these things!

At one point the road led me into a wide open valley, and I had around 5km left. Things were getting tough. The gradient was still steady, but my legs were tired, and my breathing was becoming more laboured. Every 100m gained meant I had to stop and "acclimatise" for a minute . It had been a couple of years since I last rode at above 2,500m and my body was feeling it.

The day was beginning to feel long as well. I had left the bed and breakfast in the morning, and it was approaching late afternoon. A hotel in distance marked the summit less than 3 miles away but riding there felt like an eternity. It was too far away for comfort, and the hairpins were not counting down quick enough.

At least the sun was still shining, even if by now I had needed to put on my armwarmers. After more grinding and taking comfort in knowing a few other guys near me were also living through the same strenuous moment, I reached the top. Thank Goodness!

I brought home the bacon bratwurst!

It had been a long old slog, but I had made it. The first thing I did was to dive into the nearest bratwurst (aka hotdog) stand. Everyone was speaking in German around there and my brain wasn't in any state to try the lingo. So I just asked for "la stessa cosa che lui," pointing at the jovial man in front of me and giving the I'll have whatever he's having look!

The hotdog and chips definitely hit the spot, and boosted my energy levels after all my efforts. I guess at €14 a pop it was also the perfect boost to the wallet of the vendors too, who were strategically placed opposite tired and emaciated cyclists arriving at the summit!

I got talking to an Australian guy who had ridden up from Prato, then down into Switzerland, and round again to climb back up Stelvio from Bormio! Well if you've travelled half way round the world you have to get your money's worth of hills and hairpins! Chapeau all the same! That is definitely something to aspire to.

The top of the Stelvio was actually quite lively, with lots of souvenir stores as well as snack vendors. There were also a couple of bars. If you wanted there was a mini walking trail to get up to another observatory about 100m further up. I was happy with the vistas where I was!
There was the usual melange of cyclists and motorbikers, with the two camps hanging out in their designated areas. Where there are twisty mountains, there will be motors and leather.

As I imagined, the ride home was a lovely fairground ride around the various corners, twists and turns. The tunnels gave me no problems either as I zoomed through them.

When I returned to the bed and breakfast around 7.30pm the proprietor was so glad to see me. She jokingly said she had been about to send out a search party! "I had just taken my time." I told her. I didn't tell her I'd had no choice in the matter!

The pizzoccheri and wine I had that evening were definitely well deserved!

It had been good to take in those two legendary climbs - Stelvio, and Mortirolo during my stay in Valtellina.

(photos coming shortly)

Thursday 19 July 2012

Venturing out to Mortirolo

Tirano Cycle Path

Work commitments meant that I didn't arrive in Tirano until the afternoon, so by the time I'd checked into my lodgings there was no chance of me doing a very long ride. As the Passo del Mortirolo looked relatively local I decided to go there though. The days were long, so I knew I could ride until around 8pm (though I was expecting to be home well before then).

From Tirano it was a very easy spin up a cycle path that followed the Adda River towards a town called Grosio. It's quite scenic as you can see all the high mountains ahead of you and you can relish or even fear the idea of possibly going up there on your bike!

Towards the foreground, you are treated to the sound of the flowing water of the river Adda (or what was left of it). There hadn't been much rain so the level was quite low. Nevertheless, folks were still out there tempting their chances fishing in the area.

This was quite a pleasant cycle path that could be used by all the family. In fact, there were families out riding on the path - people on all different types of bicycles as well as club riders and a number of runners too.
Riding through quiet woodland and past fields, it was very refreshing to be in countryside where I wasn't being attacked by midges and flies, as is often the case in the area around Milan!

It wasn't always clear which way I was meant to go, and in fact another cyclist who had overtaken me along the way rode back asking me if I could give him directions. It's always funny when an Italian comes up to me in Italy, asking directions how to get somewhere!

Fear of Mortirolo

Without realising it, this inocuous family cycle path was actually a false flat that climbed steadily, and after about 5 miles I had gained a bit of height and Tirano was now a distant memory some way below me! As the path went further and further into the unknown I could see that I was in proper club riders' country and I began to wonder how soon it would be before I reached the legendary climb. I'd heard alot about the Mortirolo - all scary things - you come to a wall and you freak out, wondering how the hell you are going to get up. Was I doing the right thing only giving myself the afternoon to climb up it??

A jaunt with Giulio

Soon a club rider came breezing by and I asked him by chance if I was on the right road to Mortirolo. He told me I had passed the turn-off.
"But this is the way to Grosio isn't it?" I asked, a little puzzled.
"It is," he replied, but the proper way up is behind you."
"There are two ways of going up aren't there?" I asked, hoping for him to confirm what I had seen on the map. "There are actually four - come with me, and I'll show you."

So I duly followed this guy who didn't have an ounce of fat on him and rode his Pinarello like he was wholly at one with his two wheeled horse. I, with my day pack, long pants and carrying an extra 3kgs of adipose tissue didn't quite move with the same finesse and worked pretty hard to hold his wheel.

We joined the main road and very quickly reached the village of Tovo Sant'Agata. This was the route that the pros at the Giro d'Italia had taken the previous week. The TV pictures of the slope had looked scary enough, and here we were at the foot of the road that was going to give us 10km of sheer pain. "What sort of gearing do you have?" he asked.
"A 34 tooth compact and 27 on the back." I replied nervously.
"Hmm, you should be fine with that. The slope is 21% in places."
Yikes! Of course I didn't tell him that I had only done a couple of climbs 7% climbs around Bergamo since March. My legs were not quite geared up to ride these tough gradients that beckoned.
"Let's have a look at the other options." I responded, relieving myself of this painful challenge. We rode down the road at pace.

The guy was a butcher from Grosio called Giulio. He had a pig farm, and worked just in the mornings. Every afternoon he rode his bike around the local hills for about 3 hours. Naturally he looked very fit for his 56 years.
Giulio was really proud of this area - for him this was God's country.
"We have all the best climbs in the world here - Mortirolo, Gavia, Stelvio, Bernina, Aprica. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."
When I asked him if he would be doing the planned cyclosportive that was taking place in the area the following day he gave a fearful look, claiming he was much too slow and too old to be doing this sort of thing.
And there was I, with my aspirations of riding La Marmotte cyclosportive challenge, panting just to keep up with this whippet on his afternoon pootle around the local lanes!

At one point Giulio drafted off a tractor which was rolling at 20miles an hour up a false flat. I clung onto his wheel, the sweat pouring down my face on this warm June afternoon. I had only been expecting to take it easy until I reached the climb. I was much too overdressed and probably overweight to be doing this!

We eventually reached the village of Mazzo where we turned into a little lane which climbed above the village to reach the classic route up the Mortirolo.
To be honest, even if this had been the most uninteresting, unknown way up the Mortirolo I would have found a way of bidding good bye to Giulio and finding my own way to the climb!
I was knackered, and needed a breather. I would have done a training ride just to get to the foot of the climb, and Giulio would be dumping me there all spent up of energy to tackle the ascent! It was better to quit him sooner rather than later!
"This is the way to get up Mortirolo," Giulio said. "It is the best way up. Forget about Grosio or Tovo!"
And I was glad to. I needed a few minutes to recover before tackling the beast! Well, the reassuring thing was when he bade me good bye, he was actually out of breath and had difficulty speaking! I think he must have been trying to impress me with his Italian speed and athleticism! It's always good to meet a local when out on a bike ride, and I was grateful to Giulio for having shown me around a few places. It had certainly saved me a few minutes of mapreading too!

And so to Mortirolo

So, here I was in Mazzo, a little hamlet in Northern Italy, on a hot day in June, about to scale one of the most notorious mountain passes in Italy!
A few old boys sitting on a wall in the village square gave me funny looks, as I set off up the road. "Don't you have a husband to go with you?" They asked.
"Do I need one of those to ride up a hill?" I asked.
They looked quite bemused.
The signboard at the start of the climb told me all I needed to know - 12km, average gradient 10%, with stretches of 18%. And the climb did exactly what it said on the tin. Nothing more, nothing less! If only it had been less!

This was the first time that I was riding significantly above 1,000m and I felt it. The road was very narrow and twisted through the trees. I normally welcome hairpins as they are a chance for respite as the road flattens a little before the next ramp. The Mortirolo is not so forgiving though! The hairpins were actually steeper than the straight sections!

There was not much traffic around on this Friday afternoon, which was a blessing. The problem with a working day though, is that commercial traffic is still around, as well as road works. There were a few tractors, vans and steam rollers resurfacing the roads. Luckily the times that they came round was on a section where I could ride easily and tuck into the side of the road.
On one occasion I was obliged to speed up around a corner in order to get ahead of an approaching van. I was at around 1600m at this point, and my body really felt it. My heart was beating so fast I thought it would burst out of my chest, and my breathing was so loud I was sure they could hear me back in Tirano!

Maybe I should have had a husband with me to provide assistance - any husband! It was difficult to see the summit through the trees and there were no km markers saying how much I had left. There were signs counting down the 38 numbered hairpins, and those counted down very slowly! Not all the hairpins were numbered either so there were probably quite a few more than 38 to count down! My only guide was that Giulio had told me that it took him 65 minutes to climb Mortirolo. I immediately estimated it would take me double the time.

One brief stop I took was to look at the Marco Pantani memorial plaque part way up. It was like a mini shrine to him, with lots of cycling jerseys, bidons and other memorabilia honouring him.

Mortirolo Conquered!

The minutes ticked by slowly, as I began to take more rests just after the different hairpins. This was more because I wasn't well acclimatised. (That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!) Finally, after 2hours and 15mins of grinding away, and at an altitude of 1850m the road opened out and the end came into sight.
I wanted to celebrate having conquered the Mortirolo. Shame there was no bar nearby. Instead I contented myself with a celebratory energy bar - not quite the same effect, but hey! Another cyclist arrived at the summit from the opposite direction. He was on a hybrid bike, and admitted he had taken the "easier" way up from Edolo (still 14km at 7%)! And like Giulio, he was a local who had just ridden up as part of an afternoon jaunt. The locals around here must be mighty fit! My ride back to base at Tirano was lovely. It was all downhill and the views around were very impressive. I was very happy to have made it up the Passo del Mortirolo (also known as Passo della Foppa), even if it had been a grind. It hadn't been a pretty way of getting up but I fought through the hairpins, the heat and the racing heart and I had conquered it. I had a smile on my face all the way back to my base.
The polenta and beer that evening was well earned!