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)

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