Just the second day in, and it was already Stelvio day. This very quickly brought me face-to-face with one of my pre-trip stated goals–to ride the 3rd side of the Stelvio. Three years ago, we had gone up the classic, 48 switchbacks, side out of Prato allo Stelvio. Then we went up it from Bormio two days later. But that year I did not add on the approach from Switzerland, up the Umbrail pass. It’s been nagging at me ever since.
And I would have wanted to ride up it even before it featured so famously in the 2017 Giro d’Italia. Tom Dumoulin ignominiously dumping time (among other things) before heading up the Umbrail is one of those moments that won’t be forgotten. It was a very popular topic of discussion on the trip, perhaps even the No. 2 topic of discussion. Great for whenever we needed to relax and take a load off.
People were all over the map with what they wanted to do on this day. Some were happy doing a bit of the Stelvio and easing their legs into the trip, others were gently talked down off the ledge of burning all their matches at once riding all three ascents. Ian and I decided to ride up as far as the turn off for the Umbrail (a little short of the summit of the Stelvio), descend the Umbrail and come back up, and call it good.
The Stelvio was…pretty darn similar to last time. Global warming did not magically melt the road down to half its former height, but one can keep hoping.
Gerardo parked at the turnoff to the Umbrail, where we refueled and stocked ourselves for the various routes people were doing. Gerardo is amazing and talented, but even he can’t support riders on completely different sides of a mountain at the same time.
Ian and I took off for Switzerland, passports in hand! (Well, they were in our jersey pockets, but…) To our disappointment, the border crossing was in its usual unmanned state, so we were not able to get our passports stamped, and really, didn’t need to have them along at all.
The Umbrail is not as famous as the Prato side of the Stelvio, but it pales only in comparison. It is another engineering marvel of route-finding switchbacks. In a way it’s almost more impressive than its more famous sibling, as it’s steeper, and the switchbacks pile upon themselves, many almost to the point of overhanging the one below.
The descent earned every penny we have spent on our brakes.
At the bottom is a cute Swiss town, Santa Maria. I’m sure it’s a lovely place, and that there would have been many fun things to do there, like have an espresso, or seek out Dumoulin’s roadside pit stop (guess which of those two things another group of riders did… Including Andy. Yes, there is photographic evidence of a Giro reenactment, no I’m not going to include it.)However, I had my eyes on something even better: lunch back at the hotel. Word was that if we got back there by 2, they would still serve us. It is vital on these trips to stay focused on what is truly important.
On the way back up the Umbrail, I stopped to take some photos, but not as many as I would have liked. Have I mentioned that the road was steep?!?! My photo-taking was determined not so much by impressiveness of views, as by the road dipping enough under 10% gradient that I thought I could restart my bike after stopping.
Even Ian agreed that this was a pretty stiff climb. In fact, he shared that Andy, upon hearing that we planned to descend then ascend the Umbrail, had said “that’s a steep climb!”
Yeah, when two people who tend not to notice that a road is headed uphill comment on the steepness of a climb, I know I’m in for a tough day.
Still, it was a pretty amazing (and amazingly challenging) ride. The lush landscape at the bottom gradually transforms to a high altitude harsh, rocky landscape filled with scrubby vegetation that appears to barely be keeping a toehold on the slopes.
And it was steep. Did I mention that yet?
Still, it was a success of a day! The third side of the Stelvio climbed, AND we got back to the hotel in time for (late) lunch!
Day 2, Stelvio and Umbrail: 42 miles, 7900 feet.