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.


  • 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


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 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.


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!


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.



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…