Dolomites and Alps, Day 8

Short version: a short easy ride (that would be a hard, hilly ride in normal life), then into the vans and to Verona for our farewell dinner.

Last chance to look out of our Bormio hotel room and see this.

Last chance to look out of our Bormio hotel room and see this.

Long version: it was hard to believe that the trip was already coming to an end. Well, my legs could believe it (they could have believed it 7 days ago…)

But as challenging as the trip was, in a way it was incredibly easy too–in some ways, the easiest trip I’ve made to Europe. There were hardly any decisions required–just get up, ride my bike where I’m told to, eat food when it’s put in front of me, and otherwise sleep, shower, or drink beer. Not all at the same time though–my hardest decisions often involved which of the three to do first…

Since we had to drive to Verona, the day’s ride was short, akin to the first day’s ride. Not even any mountain passes involved. Inconceivable!

It was described as a nice little ride out to a lake. The weather was perfect, sunny, warm but not too warm, and we rolled along an essentially flat road (flat!!!) through scenic Italian countryside. Pretty nice!

I was sort of looking around for a lake, and didn’t really know how far it would be, other than the description of it being a short easy ride. I noticed a road switchbacking steeply up a hillside, but sure that wasn’t where we were going, right?

It turns out that in this part of Italy, they put their lakes ON TOP of the hills. ?!?!?

I should have known, since the default answer on this trip was “yes we are going up that hill”–but really, who could have predicted that?

So yes, we did go up that hill, and I got to go “whee!” around the switchbacks. We saw the lake, and then Andy looked at the time, and hustled us right back down again.

At the top

At the top

Looking back down

Looking back down

A beautiful view on a beautiful day in the middle of a beautiful ride

A beautiful view on a beautiful day in the middle of a beautiful ride

The group split into two vans for the drive back to Verona, and I ended up in Gerardo’s van. By then I was completely accustomed to the gorgeous Italian scenery, so the highlight of the drive was when our calm, cheerful, imperturbable guardian angel lost it and swore at the toll booth machine. The van was in stitches for a while after that…

We had some time at the Verona hotel to get situated, and pack our bikes back into their travel cases, and then one last dinner together. Though I have not mentioned the other people on the tour very much, that does not reflect their centrality to the success of the trip. I figure they did not necessarily sign up to be characters in my blog–but if any of you are reading, I can’t say enough how much fun I had riding and hanging out with you. And if you’re ever in Seattle, let me know!

Just writing this last post recreates for me the same “I can’t believe it’s over”–both regarding the trip, and the writing. Signing up for, preparing for, and going on the trip challenged me and pushed my comfort zone in so many different ways. The riding was amazing, and it also felt really amazing to show myself I could do something that I spent a lot of time thinking I couldn’t.

And seriously–check them out: Cinghiale Cycling Tours with Andy Hampsten  –and here’s hoping that I’m in the Dolomites again next year.

For the day, 17 miles and 2,500 feet of elevation gain. Looking at my ride data, I realized that there was a 4.4 mile stretch that averaged 9%–and I just thought that my legs felt slow because I was tired. Huh. Turns out that the climb had a bit of a kick to it.

day8

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Dolomites and Alps, Day 7

Short version: Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birth–wait, what do you mean I have to bike up the Stelvio? Didn’t I already do that 2 days ago?

Long version: Up till this point, riding came first, and photos, souvenirs, etc came second. If the group was stopped, and I happened to think of it after taking care of all my biking needs (feed me!!!), I took some photos. But there are a lot of photos that didn’t happen. And there were a lot of souvenirs that were not shopped for (sorry, friends and family–no fun stuff for you…)

Today was different. Going up the Stelvio from the Bormio direction was on the schedule–and I had seen something on our descent two days prior that gave me an idea for a photo I wanted to make happen. And that made me think, if I was stopping for that photo, I might as well stop for other photos.

And it was my birthday–couldn’t I goof off, take breaks, and be generally lazy and louche on the bike–or as much as one can be when biking up the Stelvio after a week of difficult riding?

So up I started. And then I stopped.

Nice weather on the Stelvio for my birthday

Nice weather on the Stelvio for my birthday

Ooooh, look over there--pretty!

Ooooh, look over there–pretty!

Yeah, this is an ok way to spend the day

Yeah, this is an ok way to spend the day

I hopscotched a British guy for a while, riding past, then stopping to take photos, rinse, repeat. We had fun chatting, in agreement that this was a pretty crazy, and pretty crazy awesome thing to do.

I've come a ways uphill already

I’ve come a ways uphill already

More enjoying my accomplishments so far

More enjoying my accomplishments so far

Earlier on, one of the faster guys of our group went by, and kindly invited me on the extra-credit plan he and a couple others had cooked up: to descend down the other side to Prato allo Stelvio, then swing into Switzerland, and ascend the Stelvio via the Passo Umbrail, the third approach to the top of the Stelvio.

I considered, and while it would have been a cool adventure (and I’ve never been to Switzerland), I ended up declining. It would have been a day of pushing myself not to hold the fast guys back too much, and wringing the utmost out of myself. Maybe on a different day… But I was having fun with my birthday lollygagging plan, so Switzerland and the third approach to the Stelvio remain untouched by me.

Meanwhile, I took more pictures:

Can you make out the line zig-zagging up the slope? That's a tiny section of the road yet to be climbed.

Can you make out the line zig-zagging up the slope? That’s a tiny section of the road yet to be climbed.

Yup, that's uphill...

Yup, that’s uphill… And there’s more uphill around that peak…

By this point in the trip, I was finding myself thinking thoughts like “hey, just 300 meters of climbing left to the pass–that’s nothing–I’m basically there already!” Of course, pre-trip some of my “tough” training hills gained around 300 meters… (Zoo Hill, Montreaux, Squak Mountain…)

Maybe that is just funny to me, but I cracked myself up with that observation several times.

At the top, I positively lingered, lollygagged, loitered, and lazed. (Side notes–why do so many time-wasting words start with “l”?) I’d start to think that maybe I was about ready to head down, when another person would show up, and why yes, now that you mention it, I would like to join you over an espresso.

I also was either incredibly foolhardy, or incredibly brave and used the bathroom at the rifugio. I went in with the full knowledge, from earlier experience, that the sink’s water was the most painfully searingly cold water I have ever encountered.

Eventually, the ones who were doing extra credit rolled on, and the remaining of us started to head towards departure. As they took care of last-minute things, I explained my photo plan to one of the guys, he agreed, and we got a head start on the descent.

Background:

  • Andy used to race for the La Vie Claire team
  • The La Vie Claire team had a Mondrian-inspired jersey that was considered one of the classiest in the peleton
  • Andy Hampsten had a designer approach him and offer to design a La Vie Claire/Mondrian-inspired Hampsten jersey
  • I bought one of these jerseys
  • On the way down the Stelvio into Bormio two days before, I noticed a Mondrianesque-painted set of doors in the hillside

Today I had worn my Hampsten jersey, and my kind fellow cyclist proved to be an enthusiastic photographer too.

Seriously, I don't know what these doors are doing randomly set into the hillside, or why they're painted like this, but I'm glad they're there!

Seriously, I don’t know what these doors are doing randomly set into the hillside, or why they’re painted like this, but I’m glad they’re there!

A closer look, so you can really admire how well my jersey and bike coordinate with the doors.

A closer look, so you can really admire how well my jersey and bike coordinate with the doors.

We had fun taking pictures, and then Elaine caught up to us with a few others, and we started down the rest of the mountain.

I was following Elaine’s wheel–though she has only been cycling since she met Andy several years ago, it’s obvious that she’s had someone good to model her riding on. She’s a strong rider, and like Andy, inspires confidence when following her down a descent. I was having a great time rolling down after her, admiring her smooth ease on the bike and good lines around the corners, when she stopped. We had apparently dropped the others, and being a responsible Team Cinghiale member, she waited up for them while I played my way down the mountain.

Playing really is the word, because that’s what it felt like. The road surface was great, I knew from the descent two days ago that there were no surprising tricks to the descent like off-camber corners, and I grinned and swooped my way down.

So yes, I had to bike up a really big mountain on my birthday, and at the top you’d have a hard time convincing me that it was summer (the phrase “just think, we could be in Hawaii” was pulled out on more than one occasion during the trip…), and yes, this was a pretty insane way to spend my time and money. To an extent, I agree with the people who heard about our trip plans and said “you’re crazy!”

But it was also one of the best birthdays I have had.

It was another short day: 27 miles and 5,100 feet of elevation. But seriously, when you’re calling climbing the Stelvio an easy short day, well… Something.

My GPS got a little lost on the way--I didn't actually do any off-roading--but you get the general idea.

My GPS got a little lost on the way–I didn’t actually do any off-roading–but you get the general idea.

Dolomites and Alps, Day 6

Short version: I RODE UP THE GAVIA WITH ANDY HAMPSTEN!!!!

Long version: Erm. Uhhh, excuse the all-caps outburst there. And to be fair, I only rode with him briefly as he worked his way from the back of the group to the front. The actual story of the day is I RODE UP THE GAVIA WITH ELAINE HAMPSTEN!!!! I had a blast riding with her, and it was a super-duper awesome time.

But still, it was Gavia day, and however you cut it, it was a red letter kind of day. Upon reflection, I think that wasn’t an all-caps outburst so much as a calm, deliberate description of the day.

In case you haven’t hung on every single word I have written, Andy’s win of the Giro and place in the cycling pantheon and in the bosom of Italy, come of course from his performance over his whole career. But they also come from one brutal day on the Gavia. It’s known as “the day the big men cried.” (Read Andy’s account here. Read a long Sports Illustrated account here. A shorter account by Bicycling.com here. See Bob Roll put people into hysterics talking about it here.)

So riding the Gavia with Andy Hampsten is kinda a big deal.

I might have had some nerves associated with the day. It’s kinda a hard climb. And then you turn around and have to come down a technical descent, with some steep downhill corners on rough pavement. And after the previous day, I wouldn’t describe my legs as fresh. But hey, this is what I was here for, right? Or something?

Andy pulls out his Giro-tribute jersey for the Gavia day

Andy pulls out his Giro-tribute jersey for Gavia day

We had a brief pre-ride talk–not much in the way of direction to give, just take the road from in front of the hotel all the way up to the top–but Andy did go into some discussion of extra-credit options we would have once at the top.

"Just go this way straight up the road, the Passo Gavia will be right there, you can't miss it."

“Just go this way straight up the road, the Passo Gavia will be right there, you can’t miss it.”

And then we were off.

After a bit of sorting out, people going ahead, then falling back, or vice versa, I found myself alongside Elaine, and we seemed to be at the same pace. For the most part we chatted our way up the Gavia–though there were some sections that I had to save all my oxygen for bicycling. It was a really lovely climb, through a few towns, then it got into the trees, the road narrowed, and it felt like your own private bicycling road. The illusion was very occasionally shattered by a car or motorcycle, but only occasionally.

After a while, an obscenely chipper Andy caught up with us, boisterous and talkative. He apparently hadn’t noticed the 10% + grade that we were grinding up… After riding together for a while, he shot up ahead, quickly out of sight. I asked Elaine if she’s ever seen him sweat while riding a bicycle. She said no.

Sigh.

She also said that on Gavia day, it is his habit to start at the back of the group, and then cycle through the whole group, and get to the top first to greet everyone as they arrive. And I can only imagine how much fun it must be for him to be able to ride this road easily, recreationally, and not in blizzard conditions with the Giro d’Italia on the line… No wonder he was so disgustingly chipper!

Partway up I was shocked to see Ian–I never see him on a climb. He was taking pictures of me and Elaine as we went by, and later I found out that his knee was hurting, which is why he had stopped. But thinking he was just being a tourist, I blithely went by with Elaine.

I actually passed Ian on a climb!

I actually passed Ian on a climb!

Note the shorts, and sweat dampening my jersey. Also note the dampness of the road, and cloudy sky.

Note the shorts, and sweat dampening my jersey (click to embiggen). Also note the dampness of the road, and cloudy sky.

Towards the top we had a little adventure threading our way through a herd of cows who appeared not to have heard the phrase “share the road.” However the cows did not seem to be as productive as the sheep, and our bikes exited from the cow field as clean as they entered it (which in my case was not very–but at least it was merely dirt…)

Also towards the top, the temperature started dropping noticeably. What had been a humid warm day was becoming a humid cool day. Then the humid became wet. And then we got to the van!

There I completely changed clothes, into a long sleeve jersey, and 3/4 length wool tights–clothes that were warm and dry. Yay! And of course there was the usual gourmet spread that we were becoming accustomed to. Rides since the trip have been a bit of a let down–no one meeting me halfway through with food, fresh clothing, mechanical assistance, and good cheer…

Anyway–we were at the top of the Gavia, with Andy Hampsten!

Ian limped in a bit later, his knee really bothering him in the cold, but he still had enough left to jump in on some photos.

I had a great time riding up the Gavia with Elaine! And now we're cold!

I had a great time riding up the Gavia with Elaine! And now we’re cold!

Have I mentioned that we went up the Gavia with Andy Hampsten?

Have I mentioned that we went up the Gavia with Andy Hampsten?

The rifugio was a welcome refuge indeed. Warmth. Espresso. I sort of had to pee, but upon hearing that the bathroom was like an icebox, I decided that actually, I was doing just fine. Though not the merchandising madhouse that the Stelvio was, there were a number of souvenirs for sale, and I wear my Gavia jacket with pride. The people running the place greeted Andy warmly–I think that the proprietors might have been there watching when he summited in 1988.

Up on the wall at the rifugio, memorable Gavia moments. Click to embiggen to see the awful conditions that Andy rode through.

Up on the wall at the rifugio, memorable Gavia moments. Click to embiggen to see the awful conditions that Andy rode through.

It was now decision time: roll back down to the hotel, or descend the other side of the pass, ascend in the direction that Andy raced the Giro, and then descend to the hotel.

I decided to go back to the hotel. I was already nervous about descending the rough, broken pavement that we had ascended, and I was even more so as the weather appeared to be trending from sprinkles to a rainstorm. I didn’t want to be at my limit, exhausted, perhaps shivering, and dealing with a technical AND wet descent.

At the time, it was the right decision. But now I know that the descent was not nearly as challenging as I had worried it might be, and so knowing what I do now, I would probably go for the extra credit. But I’m glad that on the entire trip, aside from a few moments on the Passo Fedaia (which I solved by getting off my bike), I never felt like I was putting myself in a situation where I was over my head, or taking undue risks. I felt very challenged on the trip–but never unsafe.

Like I say, the descent really wasn’t all I had scared myself into thinking it would be. I took it really slow on the top, partly because the pavement was rough, often damp or outright wet, and I was worried about traction and braking effectiveness. It was also warmer to go slow than descend like a rocket. But I gained confidence, the pavement improved, and it got warmer, so I started to let it fly a bit. My ride data shows that in one 6-mile stretch, I didn’t pedal at all… Whee!!!! It still makes me nervous, but descending mountains is so unbelievably fun. Especially when you have earned every inch of the descent.

And the shower at the hotel was pretty amazing too.

The people who went on down the other side of the Gavia had a pretty neat personal Giro d’Italia highlights tour. But they also returned in a drenching rainstorm. We watched them come in as others of us relaxed with beer in the hotel… Missing out on the extra credit was really not too bad of a decision.

Before dinner, Andy gathered us around and told the story of *that day* on the Gavia. It was pretty similar to the accounts I linked to above–but being there in person, watching his body language, and hearing his vocal inflections as he relived the experience, was really special.

One of the things he mentioned was that it was a good thing he didn’t know where the team hotel was, otherwise he might have gone straight to it instead of crossing the finish line. He was consumed with thoughts of a hot bath or shower, but instead had to go through all the ceremonies associated with becoming the race leader (what a hardship!). And when he got to the hotel… Lukewarm water. And tiny uncomfortable cots that were billed as beds.

The upside to this, as he was shivering away in his cot, was anticipating dinner. Apparently the hotels along the Giro route could be hit or miss as regards showers, beds, and food–but they never missed all three. So given the miserableness of the first two, the team figured that dinner ought to be pretty amazing. And they were right.

One of the regional specialties is a hearty buckwheat pasta dish called pizzoccheri, and the team emerged into the dining room to be greeted with essentially troughs of delicious food, notably including pizzoccheri. Andy swears that the dish’s delicious heartiness recovered them after the brutal day, and saved the Giro for the team.

Coincidentally (or maybe not), pizzoccheri was one of the featured dishes at the hotel. I had it more than one night, and it was as fabulous as advertised.

It was a short day for me: only 31 miles and 5,700 feet of elevation gain. Only!

gavia

Dolomites and Alps, Day 5

Short version: put in the van, and driven away from the safety of our Alleghe hotel. Then kicked out and told no dinner unless we biked over the highest paved road in Italy, aka the Passo Stelvio.

Proof that I made it up the Stelvio! (Spoiler alert: this photo is actually from Day 7, when we were made to go up the Stelvio again... On my birthday...)

Proof that I made it up the Stelvio! (Spoiler alert: this photo is actually from Day 7, when we were made to go up the Stelvio again… On my birthday…)

Long version: the rest day finished with a wine tasting before dinner. It featured wines from Andy Hampsten’s friends and neighbors in the Castagneto Carducci region, vineyards that for the most part don’t do large enough production runs to bother exporting. So you get to drink the wine either by living there, or being friends with Andy Hampsten. We went to bed pretty happy, feeling like these Cinghiale people were pretty nice, and really knew how to treat a person well!

I think they were just softening us up for what was to come.

In the morning we loaded our stuff and ourselves into two vans, and set out towards Bormio, our home in the Italian Alps. (Side note: it was a little rainy to start the day, but the bikes went on the rack on top of Gerardo’s van regardless. Except for Andy and Elaine’s bikes, which went in a van. And ours. Perhaps random, but we decided it was great to be on the tour, and even better to be on the tour with bikes that Gerardo really liked…)

At the town of Castelbello, we piled out of the vans at a little cafe where the guide for our second half of the trip, Kerri, was waiting for us. We had a little lunch, changed into our bike clothes, and then Kerri led us to a bike path that took us about 15 miles, just barely uphill, to Prato allo Stelvio. This town, at 2,900 feet, marks the official start of the climb up to the Passo Stelvio at 8,900 feet. While it was great to start the ride off of the main road, without any traffic, there were significant stretches in which the path was gravel, not paved. And I just don’t like gravel, even well packed, easy riding gravel like this.

But we finally made it through all the gravel sections, and I was starting to feel like I had made it, when I felt the tell-tale thumps from my rear wheel: flat tire. I was riding at the back of our little peleton, chatting with Kerri and Ian at the time, and she quickly rode ahead to alert Andy to what was going on, while Ian and I stopped to fix it.

I had the wheel off, and was about to start taking the tire off the rim, when Andy appeared, and took over. Though I can fix a flat on my own, I had no problems handing my wheel over to someone who would likely be much faster at it than me (as Andy is with anything bike-related…) Andy quickly got me going again, and we took off. He checked in with me that his pace was ok, and we settled down to slowly working our way back to the group.

In other words: I was being pulled back up to the peleton by a winner of the Giro d’Italia.

In other words: Andy Hampsten was being a domestique for me. Puts me up there with Greg LeMond… (And probably a gazillion Cinghiale clients, but don’t burst my bubble!)

I hate flat tires as much as the next cyclist, but this one was so worth it! I was cracking up at the incongruity of the situation as I pedaled along easily–and very quickly!–in his slipstream. Normally I am a pretty hesitant drafter. If I don’t know someone and their cycling well, it makes me nervous to try to get close to their wheel, nor do I always like to have to concentrate on the wheel in front of me instead of the scenery around me. But Andy’s wheel… His riding is just confidence-inspiring. Just like it is a joy to follow him down a descent, I felt way more confident tucking in closely behind him than I usually do.*

Andy soon had us back up with the peleton, which was kindly lollygagging a bit for us. But Andy seemed to be in a nice groove, and didn’t seem to notice the speed differential–we just kept on going. Next thing I knew, the peleton was behind us. And then Andy noticed, decided to go back and cycle his way through the group to check in with everyone. He told me to lead on, and “just make sure not to miss the left turn up there.”

Uhhhh… ?!?!?!?

So I kept pedaling, and started praying that someone who knew where they were going would show up before I missed the crucial turn…

And someone did, and it was an obvious turn (the path terminated in the town, and we turned followed the sign pointing left to the Stelvio) and all was well. There was the little detail of 6,000 feet of climbing up the Stelvio to come, but hey, I didn’t get us lost, so I was pretty happy!

From Prato allo Stelvio, the road rises steadily up to the pass, gaining the afore-mentioned 6,000 feet over the course of 15 miles that average 8% grade. Those 15 miles took me almost 2 1/2 hours (including a few minutes snacking at the van partway up. Gerardo is an angel!) (To compare, when the Stelvio has been included in the Giro, I think it has taken them about 75-90 minutes…) The road is an engineering marvel–how they surveyed the mountains to even figure out where to put it boggles my mind.

Part of the marvel is the number of switchbacks–48 from the Prato allo Stelvio side–that are each signposted, so you can count down to the summit. The first couple come quickly, and then… Nothing. It’s a mile or so between the next couple. If you don’t know about this ahead of time, it can be demoralizing–at that rate, the ascent seems impossibly long! But then they start grouping closer together, and I greatly enjoyed both the slingshot effect of each hairpin, as well as seeing the numbered signs go by as concrete proof of my progress.

The view on the way up the Stelvio, Prato side. I took this while riding--that's still a big deal for me!

The view on the way up the Stelvio, Prato side. I took this while riding–that’s still a big deal for me!

And yeah, it’s a hard climb. But there’s a point at which the climb is as hard as you want to make it on yourself. Provided that you are staying hydrated, getting sufficient calories, have the right clothing–all of which I was doing well on, partly thanks to having a follow van that I could put clothing options in, and that stopped to feed us partway up–you can always shift down and pedal slower. And when you’ve shifted down all the way, and can’t pedal much slower, you can get off your bike and rest if you want. So I settled in for a long, slow crawl up the mountain, but knew that I only had to suffer as much as I wanted to. As it was, I didn’t need to stop and rest, and for the most part it felt good to push a bit–I didn’t make it too easy on myself. But just knowing that I could take a break if I wanted to made it easier not to take a break.

But why put myself through this, you ask… So many reasons… The fantastic and changing views of the mountains. The endorphin rush. The sense of accomplishment. Yada yada yada. But particularly, why the Stelvio? Not only is it an epic road, but it is an epic cycling road. The great names of professional cycling have raced over it, and because it’s so big, the importance and drama of the race that day was just as big. For many amateurs, it’s hallowed ground, and riding it is a pilgrimage. In a way, it becomes meaningful because it’s so meaningful to so many.

And seriously, I could only describe my ascent as 2 1/2 hours of gawking. At the views. At the road engineering. At the numbers of cyclists riding it on a random Thursday afternoon in September. And when I wasn’t gawking, I was going “wheeeee!” around a hairpin. Yes, out loud.

And finally–the top!

The last few hairpins

The last few hairpins

I have no idea how to get up to that little hut...

I have no idea how to get up to that little hut…

We're not int the Dolomites any more... Here in the Alps, there are multiple rifugi, and lots of merchandise. I bought a Stelvio bike jersey--I'm proud of that one!

We’re not in the quiet Dolomites any more… Here in the Alps, there are multiple rifugi, and lots of merchandise. I bought a Stelvio bike jersey–I’m proud of that one!

At Andy’s recommendation–and what was I paying for on this trip if not to do whatever Andy Hampsten told me to do–I got a sausage sandwich fresh off the grill at the little sausage vendor’s stand (see that red canopy in the background of the above photo?). It was greasy, flavorful, hearty, and best of all, piping hot!

Yes, it was slightly chilly at the pass. Some people go to sunny beaches on their summer vacation. I bundled up in as many clothes as I could find, and shivered my ass off at the top of a bunch of mountain passes. Each to their own, I guess…

And of course, Gerardo was there with the van too–and more food.

Andy runs on chocolate.

Andy runs on chocolate.

It was pretty great to climb the Stelvio, get the jersey, get the photos that proved we were there, get some food, get some espresso, but it was chilly. And I’ll admit to being a bit more interested in getting warm than in taking fabulous photos. But I still got a few decent ones.

Obligatory photo with Andy at the Passo Stelvio sign.

Obligatory photo with Andy at the Passo Stelvio sign.

Uhhh, I'm not sure what was happening here...

Uhhh, I’m not sure what was happening here…

And finally, descending! Towards warmth, the hotel, warmth, showers, warmth, dinner, and warmth!

Partway through the descent, Andy slowed up, unclipped his right leg, and stuck it straight out to the side. I know a lot of cycling hand signals, but this was not a signal I knew at all. Apparently that is Andy-speak for “here’s a scenic viewpoint alongside a waterfall that is a good place to pull over and take some photos.” So we did.

I'm smiling because I'm a lot warmer than I was a few minutes ago! (Also note the stylish plastic shower cap over my helmet--makes a perfect windbreak!)

I’m smiling because I’m a lot warmer than I was a few minutes ago! (Also note the stylish plastic shower cap over my helmet–makes a perfect windbreak!)

If there were audio, you could hear the waterfall to our right

If there were audio, you could hear the waterfall to our right

There aren’t as many switchbacks on the descent into Bormio, but there are still a lot, and it’s a fabulous descent. It was just over 13 miles to the hotel from the top, and it took just over 30 minutes, including time stopped for photos.

The hotel was great, and the shower… The shower… The shower was amazing. Hot water is the best invention ever.

The Stelvio. It was an epic day.

Final numbers–46 miles, 7,200 feet of elevation. And the first 15 miles were relatively flat…

stelvio

*I’m sure there were still oceans of space between us that a better cyclist would have occupied, but for me, I was drafting much closer than I usually do, and feeling much more comfortable than I usually do. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what makes Andy such an easy wheel to follow. Duh, he’s a top pro. But it’s not just that he’s stronger and faster than other cyclists–it’s not about that at all. (After all, the times I have drafted his wheel, he was not going anywhere near all-out speedwise.) There’s an ease he has on the bike, born of more hours cycling than I can even imagine. Following him, there’s never a little tickle of worry in the back of your mind that he might do something unpredictable, or awkward, or unsafe. And riding behind him without that tickle of worry made me realize that the rest of the time, I have a voice in my head–sometimes quiet, sometimes loud–urging caution while following a wheel.

Dolomites and Alps, Rest Day!

After four days of spectacular but challenging riding, our tired legs had a day off. For lunch, Ian and I took the two gondola ride up out of Alleghe to the ski-area-in-winter Col dei Baldi (elevation, 6,300 feet). Turns out there is an easier way to get up a mountain than riding your bike up it…

Here is some of the trip:

Just got on the first gondola, heading up out of town.

Just got on the first gondola, heading up out of town.

Looking back at Alleghe

Looking back at Alleghe

Some of the ride was really steep!

Some of the ride was really steep!

Ahhh, the views...

Ahhh, the views…

On the second gondola--we're really starting to get up there!

On the second gondola–we’re really starting to get up there!

At the top--ok setting to have lunch in.

At the top–ok setting to have lunch in.

Love the light up here

Love the light up here

Close up of the previous view

Close up of the previous view

In the gondola heading back down, when we realized that peak is the summit of the Marmolada

In the gondola heading back down, when we realized that peak is the summit of the Marmolada

Dolomites and Alps, Day 4

A preview of the day's sights!

A preview of the day’s sights!

Short version: another four pass day, and extra smugness because I didn’t get covered in sheep shit!

Long version: one of the joys of being in Italy is the delicious food. One of the joys of bicycling is how fabulously tasty food tastes after a hard ride. One of the joys of cycling in Italy is… Well, you’ve figured it out, I’m sure.

Unfortunately, food was also one of the perils. I was burning calories at an unaccustomed rate, and my stomach was pretty fixated on GETTING THOSE CALORIES REPLACED NOW!!! So the gap between dinner (that usually lasted late into the evening) and breakfast felt amazingly long. And come breakfast, I was faced with a dilemma: eat a much larger breakfast than I was used to in order to calm my ravenous hunger and fuel up for the day’s ride, and then jump on my bike and potentially not feel so great; or, eat my usual small breakfast, be underfuelled, and then jump on my bike and potentially not feel so great.

Each day I decided to do the smart thing, and eat enough food at breakfast. But day 4 is when it caught up with me. For whatever reason, my breakfast refused to settle down in my stomach. And then we started biking up a mountain.

The schedule for the day was the Passo Giau, and the Passo Falzerego, with possibility for some extra-credit riding. One of my goals in my training was to arrive in good enough shape that I could handle all the riding, and even opt for some extra credit riding if I wanted to. This was my first chance–and my legs were tired (no surprise there), and if I couldn’t keep my breakfast down, I wasn’t going to be doing much riding at all.

The climb up the Giau started right away (to be fair, there were about two flat miles before we started uphill), and I managed to drop a lot of people from my front wheel fast. I was going backwards through the peleton, with leaden legs and a molten lead stomach.

On the plus side, it was a beautiful day, and a beautiful road. Except for the part where someone had spray-painted bad jokes on the road. (What do you call a deer without eyes? …a mile later… No ideer.) I was resigned to a pitiful crawl up the mountain side, swallowing my pride (except the idea of swallowing anything made me feel worse…)

And then, my stomach settled down, and my legs woke up. I felt fabulous! Next thing I knew, I was pedaling easily past some people that I had watched disappear off into the distance, exchanging a cheery remark as I went by, and then secretly wondering how they ended up so far behind me so quickly. Why didn’t they just come with?!?! It’s so easy to bicycle up a mountain!

The Giau ended up being this amazing experience where the further up the climb I got, the better I felt. My legs seemed to get less, not more tired, the air never felt like it was thinning out, and the switchbacks stretching out above me encouraged rather than oppressed me.

For the record, the Giau averages 10% grade for several miles, and tops out at 7,400 feet or so (our hotel was at 3,200)–it’s a hard climb. I had no business having as much fun on it as I did, or feeling like it got easier and easier as I went (it didn’t). But whatever delusions I was suffering, I’ll take it, because by the top I was in a great mood, and almost laughing at what child’s play it was to cycle up a mountain.

At the summit, there was the usual paradise of views (beautiful!!! seriously–no Photoshop harmed in the making of this?!?!), Gerardo (van with warm clothes in it! food! –what sort of silly person would have their stomach turn at the thought of food?!?), and a rifugio (warm! espresso!). So, pretty much all that is needed to be deliriously happy.

Proof that Ian and I made it up the Passo Giau!

Proof that Ian and I made it up the Passo Giau! That’s the rifugio in the background. I had a delicious espresso there.

At this point we had to commit to the original plan (descend, climb Passo Falzerego, and back down into Alleghe) or to the extra credit option (turn aside at Falzarego and descend into Corvara–where we had stopped at the bike gallery the day before–then up over Passo Campolongo, and then down into Alleghe). Why not wait to decide till we were at the Falzerego? Because we neded to let the hotel know how many people would be back for lunch, and how many wouldn’t. And keeping the people in the hotel kitchen happy with us was a cause I could get behind.

Since I was now feeling great, I signed up for the extra-credit option. After all, the day before, I had been enjoying how easy the Campolongo was, compared to other climbs we had done, and the descent from it into Alleghe was more fun than should be allowed, so why pass that opportunity up?

More Giau-ness

More Giau-ness

After another great descent, we started up the Falzerego, which was a laid back sort of ascent. The slope wasn’t that steep, there were even flattish sections, the landscape was open, allowing for admiration of the changing view as you gained altitude. It was also a fun ascent because Ian (usually one of the first, if not the first, up most of the climbs so far) declared he was starting his rest day a day early, and would ride up with me–at my glacially slow tempo, apparently… He then spent a lot of the ascent complaining that I was going too fast… At any rate, it was fun riding together, even if Ian can’t decide whether I bike too slow or too fast for his taste.

At Passo Falzerego

At Passo Falzerego

What I didn’t know is that from the Falzerego, we didn’t descend straight into Corvara, but instead continued up a negligible amount to the Passo Valparola. Though it wasn’t very far uphill, it was another thing called Passo, so (once we ascended the Campolongo) it would be the second four-pass day in a row. And though it wasn’t far, it was into a headwind (just so unfair when you’re going uphill). And then we descended into a headwind. And then we rode further into La Villa and Badia into a headwind.

By now I was a little sick of wind.

But then we stopped for lunch at a place whose chef was a cyclist and a friend of our guide Ricardo (another awesome part of the Cinghiale team, even though I haven’t mentioned him so far). Unfortunately, we were too late for lunch, and he had already left. So instead we “settled” for some snacks that the kitchen could throw together for us. In Italy, what that means is that they bring you out a luxurious spread of fresh veggies, salad, cheeses, meats, and breads (and of course, the ubiquitous olive oil and balsalmic vinegar), and as you’re gleefully devouring the food, apologize for not having anything better to feed you.

Have I mentioned how much I love Italy? And the food there?

From there we retraced a bit of our route, and then continued on into Corvara. Since we had turned around, the annoying headwind was now a tailwind. Wind is awesome!

Andy was riding behind me for part of this, and as we were pushing along, I start hearing a plaintive cry behind me “Are we there yet? This is uphill–who made me eat that big lunch?” I pointed out that this whole thing was his idea.

Once in Corvara (not that far from our lunch stop) Andy stopped the group, and pointed out a few different places we could go if we wished–a cafe for espresso, a chocolate shop, etc–and suggested taking some time to explore the town a little, and let lunch settle before setting off up the Campolongo. At this point, I was starting to hear the siren call of a shower, and being not in bicycle clothes, as were a couple others, so Ian, myself, and two other guys ended up continuing on instead of stopping.

We took it easy up the Campolongo, and again I enjoyed just how effortless it could be to bag a mountain pass. Then I got elected to lead the descent down, a couple of the others not being as sure of the way (one was the guy who wasn’t feeling well the day before, so he hadn’t ridden this way before).

This was the descent I had followed Andy down, and it was so fun to get to go down it again, knowing that I could go for it–great road surface, well-banked corners, all that one could desire. A couple times we went by large herds of sheep up on the slope of the hill next to us–one sheep kicked a branch down towards me right as I rode by, and I’m pretty sure it was with malicious intent…

Back at the hotel, and after a shower I joined a few other folks downstairs for a beer, relaxed, enjoyed the sense of accomplishment for the day, and waited for the rest of the group to come in. And then the day got even better.

As the people who had lingered in Corvara with Andy came in, their stunned looks foretold the tragic tale they would tell. The herds of sheep on the hill that we rode by? They were being herded on the road when the later group rode by (and through). And with sheep… Come sheep byproducts…

Apparently the road was covered with sheep excreta, and pretty soon, so were their bikes. I guess the stuff is messy. And slippery. All things that I wouldn’t know, because I didn’t have to ride through it. Nor did I have to spend a good amount of time washing it off of my bike. Or digging it out of my brakes and gears.

Not that those of us who missed the sheep shit were smug or anything.

It was an awesome day.

Final numbers on the day–61 miles, 8,700 feet elevation gain, 0 sheep turds ridden through.

day 4

day 4 profile

(Side note: it wasn’t until after this day’s ride that, looking at the map, I realized that the latter part of the descent into Alleghe from the Campolongo is the same road we climbed up on the the first day’s ride. Things look very different on the way up versus on the way down. And when you’re really jetlagged…)

Dolomites and Alps, Day 3, Part 2

(When we left off, our heroine was relaxing in the sun partway up the Passo Gardegna after a challenging morning on the bike that saw her tempted to pack it in…)

I’ll admit, it was pretty nice for a while to have no more difficult physical exertion than having to stand up and walk over to the food table a remarkable number of times. And when I could keep my eyes open, the view was pretty great.

More lunch view on Sella Ronda day

More lunch view on Sella Ronda day

Eventually we hefted ourselves and our full bellies back onto our bicycles to finish the ascent of the Passo Gardegna. I almost feel it was cheating to count this as a pass–the descent from the Passo Sella didn’t go down very far, and the total ascent up the Gardegna was less than 1,000′, with lunch and then a flat section in the middle. Really, it was like climbing a couple Seattle-area hills with an extended siesta in between. But hey, it’s called “Passo” so it goes in the book as the 3rd pass of 4 on the day.

From the "Passo" Gardegna

From the “Passo” Gardegna

More Passo Gardegna

More Passo Gardegna

The descent took us into the town of Corvara, where we stopped in at a little Pinarello-brand bike gallery/museum attached to a hotel/bar/cafe. They had one of Bradley Wiggins’ yellow Pinarello’s from the year he won the Tour de France, and other such historic bicycles and items from throughout the years. One of the bikes was Miguel Indurain’s fantastic hour record aero track bike (from before the UCI outlawed such cool space-agey bikes…) Andy leaned in to get a closer look at the monster gearing on it, and joked “sure, I could turn that gear over, no problem… On a downhill…” Then, continuing the jest, he pretended to be not impressed by Indurain and his bike… In being too slow to get a picture of the former, I managed to get a photo of the latter:

Meh! Andy is not impressed!

Meh! Andy is not impressed!

After we had been there for a little bit, the proprietor realized who was there–not some schmuck cyclist named Andy, but THE ANDY HAMPSTEN!!! In shock and apology and awe and delight, he dropped to his knees at Andy’s feet, torn between begging forgiveness and uttering effusive praise!

I love Italians!

A little later, we were sitting in the bar area, enjoying espressos and such, when the proprietor came up again, and deeply and sincerely thanked Andy for stopping by. He expressed how much he had always appreciated Andy, that he was a great champion, a “campionissime di bicicletta e gentilezza”–a great bicyclist and a great person. Which is all true.

View from our stop in Corvara

View from our stop in Corvara

So to recap, since lunch, we had bicycled a negligible amount uphill, hung out at the Passo Gardegna for a bit (it would be a shame to go by a rifugio and *not* get espresso…), rolled ourselves downhill into Corvara, and hung out some more, consuming more espresso, and enjoying more sunshine and great views. The day was suddenly about as easy and laid back of a day as I’ve had on a bike in a long time.

But, the more astute readers may also remember that we had only done 3 of the 4 passes–still remaining was the Passo Campolongo. (Cue ominous music…)

But in the most satisfying anticlimax ever, the Passo Campolongo was mild both in terms of elevation gain, and in terms of slope. I thought it was the easiest of the day, and I was laughing at times with the delight of biking uphill and it feeling easy! I didn’t set any land speed records up the Campolongo, but I had a lot of fun reveling in the delight of cycling up it.

Soon enough, we were regrouping at the top, and then just had 17 miles left to Alleghe (and showers! and beer! and dinner!), over the course of which we would drop from about 6,200′ to 3,200′.

If you are unsure what that means, it means FUN!!!!!

Somehow, I ended up behind Andy as we descended, and this is when the day went from wonderful to I-must-be-dreaming deliriously amazing. Not only is he skilled beyond my ability to even understand how much better than me he is (I can only analogize by thinking about how my beginning dance students don’t even have the experience to know how beginning they are and how much more is involved with getting to a barely competent level of professional ability, much less an exceptional level) (seriously, the pro level of ability is way higher than you think it is. If you’re pretty fast on a bike, and wondering if you could maybe hang with the pro’s on a stage of the Tour or something, just stop. They’re faster and better than you.), he was on a road he’s ridden countless times.

(Really. They’re way better. It’s not just being faster–it’s things like riding along at a good clip, and reaching down to grab a branch off the road and toss it aside so that it doesn’t impede the people behind you. Or riding no-hands down a winding descent, doing airplane arms, as I heard he’s done.) (And I’ve asked around–no one has seen Andy sweat. Or breathe hard. Including when he whizzed past some of the fast guys, going uphill past them like they were standing still, when they were at their limit. And he’s on the record as saying he’s not near his level of fitness he had as a pro.) (So seriously, people on the internet bike forums who like to speculate from the couch about being as good as a pro if they just trained a bit more. Stop it.)

Anyway. As the road twisted its way around sharp hairpins, while sometimes simultaneously dropping precipitously down, Andy just flowed around the corners, smoothly, effortlessly, the picture of delight. I had to push myself a bit to keep up with his lollygagging his way down the mountain, but by just following his approaches to corners, trying to copy his body language, the descent became secure and full of ease for me too. (To an extent.)

I was going way faster than I could have gone on my own, yet felt like I was much more within my limits, taking on way less risk than I would have been (descending slower) on my own. I was essentially getting a private lesson on descending–from a winner of the Giro d’Italia!!!!–and felt like I was a better cyclist by the time I reached the bottom of the mountain.

As I’ve mentioned, I love descending, and am alarmed by descending. Getting to do such a fun descent, and feel that in the course of it, I became a safer, better descender, was almost too much awesomeness for one day to contain.

I finished the day feeling how I did at the start of the day–I’m ready to sign up for next year’s trip.

I also finished the day with more delicious food–are we detecting a theme here? The hotel’s restaurant was legitimately really good (Andy and Elaine reportedly have the hotel restaurant’s quality as their top criterion for picking tour hotels), but pretty much any food at all tastes amazing on days like we were doing. That we got to eat delicious, fresh, nutritive, flavorful, variety-filled food just made the constant “find more food” drumbeat in my brain all the more enjoyable of a quest.

At the end of the day, I had ridden about 60 miles (I forgot to turn my bike computer on until a few miles in, so the exact number is a mystery) and almost 8,900 feet of elevation gain. The only ride I’ve done with more elevation gain was 190 miles long…

day 3

Ha ha ha ha ha! Funny joke from Italy!

A piece of advice that Andy gave us for the long, steep climb up to the Passo Fedaia: “it’ll be cold at the top and on the descent, so on the climb try not to push so hard that you work up a sweat.”

Don’t sweat biking up the Fedaia

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!!!!!!!

Except I think he might have been serious.

 

oh.

 

 

Apropos of nothing in this post, here's my bike at the Passo Duran...

Apropos of nothing in this post, here’s my bike at the Passo Duran… (It’s the one with the yellow handlebars.)

 

Dolomites and Alps, Day 3, Part 1

Oh my… This day.

It will take more than one post to get through this day that felt like several days, several worlds.

Short version: up and down, literally and figuratively. Best of times, worst of times, best of times. So glad I didn’t wimp out on the ride like I really wanted to.

Long version: Day 3 was a really big day. We were doing the Sella Ronda, a four-pass circumnavigation of the Sella massif, a giant seat-like block of a mountain. The traditional route would be the Passo Pordoi, Passo Sella, Passo Gardegna, and Passo Campolongo. Instead of Pordoi, we started our loop with the Passo Fedaia, also known as the Marmolada, for the towering peak and glacier of the Marmolada looming over the pass. However you do it, you have 4 passes in an epic loop.

The beginning was innocuous enough, an easy warm up spin, gradually working our way upwards until we reached the most fabulous detour of the trip. Instead of staying on the main road all the way up the pass, we went on this old road that is now a park–the Riserva Naturale Serrai di Sottoguda–open only to hikers and bicyclists (and to a little “train” that drives people through).

Waiting for the little "train" to exit so we can enter the was-a-road-now-a-park

Waiting for the little “train” to exit so we can enter the was-a-road-now-a-park

The road/park wound its way through a narrow gorge–at times so narrow that the rock seemed to have been carved out to allow passage of the road, and nearly met above our heads. Crevices would open off to the side, revealing waterfalls, and each corner promised something wonderful around it. It was fabulous and breathtaking–and not only because we were going uphill. Just a few miles into the day’s ride, and I was thinking “I’m ready to sign up for next year’s trip.”

Eventually we had to rejoin the main road, and I tried not to be too disappointed about being back on a beautifully built road with occasional cars–it was only disappointing compared to where we had just been. And anyway, it was much more productive to spend my energy bicycling up the hill. Mountain. The Passo Fedaia is no joke–it is steep and tall.

I was just starting to enjoy my internal narrative of “I’m doing this, this is great” when I got high enough up that the surrounding hills no longer provided protection from the wind. Not only was the wind extremely strong, it was also gusty and unpredictable. You couldn’t just lean into it, because it would disappear, or suddenly buffet you from the opposite direction.

I felt that here was one of the places that my lack of experience on the bike really showed. Some of the people on the trip had been cycling for decades. Though I’m reasonably fit on the bike, I’ve only been bicycling for the last four years (excepting learning to ride as a kid). That’s a lot of decades that I don’t yet have in terms of bike handling experience and instincts.

I had never biked before in wind conditions like that. I’ve biked into pretty obnoxious headwinds that slowed my progress to a crawl, and dealt with swirly, gusting wind. But I had never experienced wind of this strength and degree of unpredictability. And frankly, it was scary.

After being nearly blown over a couple times, and then blown such that I was traveling perpendicularly to the road, and it was just luck that no cars or bicyclists were coming down the mountain, I decided that my pride didn’t need to get me hurt. So I got off the bike and started walking. It was steep enough that I was barely going any slower walking anyway.

I had pulled a bit ahead of one rider, and as I walked, he pulled past me. The wind seemed to be a bit better, so I remounted, and had pulled up with him again, commiserating about the wind, when a gust blew me right into him, and we did a slow motion topple into the guardrail. Sigh. After all that effort the previous day not to be that idiot who crashed out someone else, I was that idiot.

Luckily, our bikes were both fine, as were we, and he was unreasonably good humored about the whole thing, and we proceeded up the mountain. I went back to walking for a while though…

At the top, it was freezing (maybe not literally, but at 6,700 feet, it was cold!), and the wind was howling through the pass. Thank goodness for the ubiquitous rifugio at the top of the pass! This is such a civilized establishment! Gerardo had our food set up in an enclosed porch area, and we also went inside for some espresso–and some heat.

From here, there was discussion about what to do–push on, despite the conditions? Take a shortcut back? Get in the van?

One rider opted to take a “shortcut” over the Passo Pordoi back to Alleghe, and Elaine volunteered to accompany her. One rider who wasn’t feeling well got a ride back down in the van of another tour company. For a moment I couldn’t believe I had let that opportunity slip out of my hands. I was really nervous about descending in those wind conditions, and was pretty shattered from the physical and mental effort of the climb, and wasn’t sure I could get through the rest of the day. As happens on a challenging ride sometimes, I was having to spend some time in my dark place.

But I also didn’t want to wimp out–though there was no pressure, I let the peer pressure keep me from dropping out. I also figured that I didn’t know the area as well as Andy did, and if he wasn’t concerned about the conditions ahead, I shouldn’t be either. (Though given our comparative skill levels, he had much less to worry about than I potentially did…)

At any rate, I continued on with the reduced group. I was so focused on staying on my bike as we rode along the lake at the top of the pass, and then started to descend, that I completely forgot to look up at the Marmolada glacier. Also, no photos–I was too cold and demoralized to take photos for a while.

As we descended, the conditions quickly improved. It was still windy, but less so, and without the gusts that had so unnerved me. The descent did not go down nearly as far as the climb up had gone, so that meant that when we started ascending to the 7,200′ Passo Sella, we had much less climbing to do than we had to the shorter Passo Fedaia. We were in the trees for much of the ascent, so well sheltered, and though it was a hard climb, with steep sections, it seemed shockingly easy after the Fedaia.

I caught Andy and a few other people at the top who were about to descend, so got a couple layers back on as quickly as I could, and went down with them. Then we started up the Passo Gardegna. This was out in the open, and by now, the cold cloudy day had turned sunny, and beautiful.

Moreover, I only had to make it partway up the Gardegna, and then there was promise of Gerardo with lunch laid out for us. Before I even knew it, I was there. There was a great little parking area where our guardian angel had set up a beautiful array of food in a spot slightly sheltered from the wind. I ate, lazed in the sun with my eyes sometimes closed, relaxed, ate some more, admired the view, ate some more, then ate some more… You get the idea.

View from lunch, partway up the Passo Gardegna

View from lunch, partway up the Passo Gardegna

More lunch view. The van with the bike wheels on top is Gerardo's vehicle of magic and happiness.

More lunch view. The van with the bike wheels on top is Gerardo’s vehicle of magic and happiness. This is a good photo to click to embiggen. (I think.)

I felt a new person, and it seemed a new day. So that is where the next post will pick up.