Dolomites and Alps, Day 2

The first pass we summited on the trip, Passo Duran.

The first pass we summited on the trip, Passo Duran.

This was the first “real” ride–there were two mountain passes on the menu, Passo Duran and Passo Staulanza. Short version: we biked uphill a lot, flew downhill a lot, it was beautiful, I had a great time.

Long version: we started out with a fast ride through the valley, on a road that trended downhill but looked flat enough that you could pretend you really were that awesome and fast of a cyclist… We were able to detour off the main road a couple times onto a beautiful, almost deserted older road, and what I saw of it was pretty amazing. However, we were in loose paceline for a lot of this section, and so a lot of my brain was occupied with watching the wheels around me, and trying not to be the idiot who crashed out half the group on the second day…

I made it through the beginning of the ride without being that idiot–phew! And then the climb started. The road up to Passo Duran was uphill. Noticeably so. Over several miles, it averaged about 10% grade. There were some flatter bits of road, which meant there were also some bonus sections. Whee!

But this is what I signed up for, right? And what accompanies a very uphill road, or at least this one (and road after road throughout the trip) was peaceful forest scenery, beautiful views, light (and considerate) traffic, and great road surface conditions.

Also, what accompanies a very uphill road, was the growing sense of accomplishment, as the narrative in my head stopped worrying about the steepness of the road, and started realizing “I can do this, I’m doing this, I’m doing this and enjoying myself!”

And then the summit, the first of the trip!

One of the views from the summit of Passo Duran.

One of the views from the summit of Passo Duran.

I enjoyed some of the delicious food that Gerardo had ready for us at the van, and went into the rifugio for an espresso–such was the pampered life we led.

I also set about getting some photos–first up, the important personnel–no, not that famous Andy Hampsten guy, or my patient and accommodating husband…

Me and Gerardo at the top of the Passo Duran!

Me and Gerardo at the top of the Passo Duran!

The descent was fabulously fun (I’ll start to sound like a broken record on that topic), and at the town of Dont (really) we turned left to head up the Staulanza.

The climb up the Staulanza was less steep than up the Duran, but my legs took a while to get back into the whole pedaling thing after getting to slack off during the descent, and even when they did remember what they were supposed to do, they were a titch tired.

Add in that the first part of the climb went through several towns, so that there were actually cars and motorcycles going by more often than once every few minutes, and I was feeling a little put upon. Then I had to laugh at myself–I was on a beautiful road, enjoying great scenery on what was still a lightly-trafficked route. How spoiled had I already gotten to feel put out about having to deal with tired legs and traffic?!?

And at about that point, the towns were left behind anyway, and there was a great series of switchbacks stretching away above me to look forward to. A number of cyclists were coming down the road, and it was fun to greet them. I was particularly happy to see another woman coming down the mountain, and she called out a particularly effusive greeting. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the woman was Elaine Hampsten!

Elaine is, with Gerardo, part of the Cinghiale magic. Andy’s wife, she handles a lot of the logistical side of the business, and is a huge reason behind everything going so smoothly for us from before the trip even started. During the planning stage, she was always there to answer questions and provide information, and during the trip, she was constantly cheerful and helpful and super fun to hang out with. She had found childcare for their super-sweet 2 year-old son Oscar, and decided to catch up with us on the ride by biking it in the opposite direction. She went up the Staulanza, down part of the other side (where she gave me such a nice greeting) then back up to hang out with us at the top (at which point it eventually dawned on me who that had been).

Because I’m brilliant, I took no photos at the top of the Staulanza, but it was kinda more of the same–Gerardo, van, great food, great views. Such was our lot in life for the next week.

After another fantastic descent, we arrived back at the hotel in time for a late lunch. Here was another advantage of doing the trip with Cinghiale–since the hotel knows (and likes) Andy, they would do things for us like serving a late lunch even if the restaurant was officially closed… I ate a huge amount, and then rolled away from the table thinking that dinner (not very far away) might not be very necessary. Except that my stomach was growling again two hours before dinner.

Oh yes–a lunchtime bonus was watching the rain pelt down, after another day of perfect riding weather!

In the afternoon, Andy did a Q&A/storytime, and regaled us with tales of the pro peleton. I felt too self-conscious to bring paper and pen and take notes, though now I wish I had. One of the stories that came up was how in those days, during some races, the tv helicopter didn’t show up until well into the day’s stage. Up till that point, the Europeans would bike along painfully slowly, lollygagging their way down the route. Then the whup-whup-whup of helicopter blades, and it was like the starting gun at the 100 meter dash–suddenly the race was full speed and fierce. Meanwhile, the Americans, unused to this, would be dying of boredom in the beginning, eat all their food in the first 45 minutes for something to do, then become bloated and sluggish from all the sudden calories–just in time for the helicopter to show up and major suffering to begin.

It felt really good to have not just survived, but enjoyed the first day of mountain passes. I recorded 45 miles and 6,000 feet of elevation gain.

day 2

Dolomites and Alps, Day 1

View of our hotel in Alleghe and environs. (If you click to embiggen, you can see the building that says "Sporthotel Europs"--that's us.

View of our hotel and environs in Alleghe. (If you click to embiggen, you can see the building that says “Sporthotel Europa”–that’s us.

The trip started with a bit of bad news/good news. Bad news–our flight from Amsterdam to Verona was delayed over and over again, and ultimately got us to Verona 3 hours later than scheduled. Good news–we got to watch a mechanic change out the airspeed sensor on the airplane, which was pretty cool, and the flight went smoothly and landed safely.

Still, instead of having an afternoon (daylight!) to assemble bikes, then dinner and sleep, we were desperate for dinner, and were served in best polite Italian fashion at the hotel, giving us lots of time to linger and enjoy our food. It was quite late before we got to unpacking and assembling our bikes, and we were really tired by then. And in anticlimactic fashion, it all went fine.

The next morning, we eyed people nervously at breakfast, wondering who else was on the trip with us, and how insanely better than us they were. The rotund 70 year-old woman, probably not part of the bike group (though you never know… Some pretty unlikely-looking people can turn out to have a lifetime of bicycling under their belt, and whup any 20 year-old hotshot’s ass…) The guy with popping muscles and o% body fat. Yeah, he might be here to bicycle. Gulp. And yup, there was Andy Hampsten. Not even 8am, and I was already a nervous wreck.

A bit before 9, a group of alarmingly fit-looking people started gathering by the van driven by Gerardo. Gerardo! He is Cinghiale‘s guardian angel/patron saint/bike mechanic/rental bike provider/van driver/delicious lunch and snack preparer–calm, level-headed, funny, and capable, he’s the one who makes it possible for us to ride care-free (or at least, only burdened by worries about our fitness and the mountain ahead.)

Gerardo was loading bikes into the van, and, in a moment I will always treasure, saw my old Colnago (vintage Italian steel!) and Ian’s shiny Tommasini (beautiful new Italian steel!) and got a special gleam in his eye. Gerardo liked our bikes!!! Less importantly, though still awesomely, Andy came over and noticed our bikes. I’m not sure if he actually wolf-whistled, but that was what his look suggested. Gerardo made a comment, and Andy translated along the lines of if our bikes were mysteriously replaced with new carbon fiber ones, Gerardo would know nothing about it nor know about how our bikes ended up in his collection…

As none of the alarmingly fit-looking people had laughed at us–in fact, everyone seemed fabulously nice and friendly–and Gerardo and Andy were very happy to have our bikes along (perhaps reserving judgment on us for a little longer), my nerves started abating, and prospects for the week started looking up.

We got to the hotel in Alleghe midday. While we got to go in and have a delicious lunch in preparation for an afternoon ride, Gerardo was going over our bikes, fixing any little issues that occurred in transit. It was such a luxury to have a dedicated mechanic along, not to mention all the other things that he did for us on the trip!

And then, the moment of truth. We assembled in front of the hotel, and set off on our bikes. The day’s plan was an easy ride to get going into things, make sure our bikes worked, combat jet lag, and see the area. We rode along the lake briefly (this stretch of road that started a few of our rides in Alleghe was perhaps the only flat riding we did on the trip…) and then started winding our way up up up a number of switchbacks.

Alleghe was formed when a landslide in 1771 blocked off part of the valley, damming the river and creating Lake Alleghe. Looking at the precipitate slopes above us, and the tenuous way the road seemed to cling to them, I wondered a bit about how stable the rest of it could possibly be…

That little spot of water down there? That's the lake Alleghe is on. I.e., that's where the day's easy ride started.

That little spot of water down there? That’s the lake Alleghe is on. I.e., that’s where the day’s easy ride started.

Once at the top, we wound around above a valley (more beautiful views, blah blah blah), and then started making our way back down again. At which point Andy came up beside me and said something like “do you really like descending, or are you just good at it? You have a nice sense of balance and flow on the bike.”

Did you catch that? ANDY I-WON-THE-GIRO-D’ITALIA HAMPSTEN COMPLIMENTED ME ON MY DESCENDING!!!!!!!!!

Really, it’s a miracle I didn’t fall off my bike, or do something equally boneheadedly uncoordinated…

I think I might have inarticulately tried to say something about all those years of ballet class being useful for something after all. At any rate, he then told me about a time when he was doing an intensive conditioning and flexibility program, was feeling pretty good about himself, and then tried taking a ballet class–which left him pretty wasted… (Side note–part of my trip-jitters way of reassuring myself during the year was to tell myself that even if I was the slowest up every mountain, I would probably be the only one on the trip who could do the splits in every direction. And that any cyclist who could break me on a hill–well, I could break that cyclist in a dance studio… Maybe this wasn’t the most noble way of approaching the trip, but it talked me off a ledge a few times.)

What was especially nice about him complimenting me–besides the obvious–is that descending is something I have a love-hate relationship with. It’s really fun, and I love the speed and sensation of flying. However, I’m by nature a very cautious, risk-averse person, and the speed–and thus increased risk of a bad outcome should something go wrong–also scares me. I’ve had to work very consciously on not freaking out and tensing up when descending, especially when going around corners. Tensing up shoots your bike handling ability to hell, and makes things real sketchy real fast. But staying relaxed and loose on the bike, the much safer way to descend, is not my body’s natural response when a descent has me in extreme pucker mode. I spend a lot of mental energy during a descent telling various muscles to relax, reminding myself to keep my body low, but my head up and my gaze far ahead, weight back and off the saddle, etc–and by the time I’ve gotten to the end of the list, some muscle has tensed up, my center of gravity has popped up, and I have to start all over again. But it’s also so much fun! Despite all the anxiety it causes me, I love letting it fly down a hill, the feeling of weightlessness, butterflies in the stomach–for a moment it feels like not only can I fly, but that anything is possible.

Anyway, some while later, we arrived back at the hotel after a fabulous first day’s ride. It seemed that all my pre-trip jitters aside, I was not egregiously out of place–I felt like I was solidly middle of the pack, which considering the skill and experience level of the other people on the trip, felt pretty awesome.

To make the first day even better, after nice riding weather, not long after we stepped inside the heavens opened. I don’t think I was the only one feeling smug and self-satisfied as I watched the rain pelt down on the roads we had so recently ridden, happy and dry.

And setting the tone for the trip, after eating a ton at lunch, thinking I would never want to eat again, I proceeded to ravenously devour an enormous and delicious meal. Italy is a great place to cycle.

At about 23 miles, and 2,500 feet of elevation gain, this was the “flattest” ride we did on the trip.

We're riding in the Dolomites with Andy Hampsten and a bunch of other awesome people, and we have a guardian angel named Gerardo!

We’re riding in the Dolomites with Andy Hampsten and a bunch of other awesome people, and we have a guardian angel named Gerardo! Smiles all around!

The first day's ride.

The first day’s ride.

Biking the Italian Alps and Dolomites: TLDR version

Dolomites. AKA a portion of the lunch-break view on Sella Ronda day.

Dolomites. AKA a portion of the lunch-break view on Sella Ronda day.

A long (too long?) post, and many photos, are coming, but until then, here’s the TLDR version of the trip.

Day 1, Sat 8/30. Van to Alleghe and warmup ride into the hills. 23 miles, 2,490 feet elevation gain.

Day 2, Sun 8/31. Passo Duran, Passo Staulanza. 45.8 miles, 6,050 feet.

Day 3, Mon 9/1. Sella Ronda (Passo Fedaia, Passo Sella, Passo Gardegna, Passo Campolongo). 59 miles, 8,850 feet.

Day 4, Tue 9/2. Passo Giau, Passo Falzarego, plus extra-credit ride to Passo Valparola, Passo Campolongo. 61.7 miles, 8,690 feet.

Wed, 9/3, rest day. Necessary.

Day 5, Thu 9/4, van to Castelbello, ride to Bormio hotel via Passo Stelvio. 45.9 miles, 7,280 feet.

Day 6, Fri 9/5, Passo Gavia. 31.3 miles, 5,700 feet.

Day 7, Sat 9/6, Passo Stelvio. 27 miles, 5,110 feet.

Day 8, Sun 9/7, small ride into hills, then van to Verona. 17 miles, 2,540 feet.

Trip total: 310.7 miles, 46,710 feet.*

I’d turn around and go do the whole trip again tomorrow if I could. It was difficult, beautiful, and fun, and the organization and support from Cinghiale was out of this world amazing.

Dolomites.

Dolomites.

At the top of Passo Gavia with Andy Hampsten! (And yes, it is cold. Why do you ask?)

At the top of Passo Gavia with Andy Hampsten! (And yes, it is cold. Why do you ask?)

More Dolomites.

More Dolomites.

*FYI, 100 feet elevation gain/mile is considered Officially Very Hilly. Even in hilly Seattle, I have to route plan to get as much climbing as that in. So, even taking into account that measuring elevation gain is an inexact science, this trip was day-in, day-out, kinda silly crazy on the climbing scale…