Alps and Dolomites 2017, Day 4

One of the reasons that I decided not to blow myself up doing the other side of the Gavia on the previous day, was knowing what was coming today. We had an 85-mile transfer to Bolzano, starting out by going over the Stelvio. And as a measure of the difficulty of the trip, this was one of the less demanding days. (Yes, Stelvio day was the easy day.) Even so, the higher ups at Cinghiale Inc had reminded us several times that it would be a long day, and start with a tough climb.

If you’re racing up it, or have bad weather, the Stelvio can be a brutal, destructive climb. But if you’re just joyriding on a beautiful day, it’s “merely” challenging. The gradient out of Bormio isn’t too bad, for the most part. (Supposedly there is a sign advertising a section of 10 or 12% at one point, but I’ve managed never to see it–or to block it out if I did…) The many switchbacks offer brief moments of respite, and the views constantly spur one on. It’s pretty great!

This time around, I didn’t stop for many photos on the way up (see this post for more), but Ian and I did stop at the Mondrian door in our matching Mondrian-inspired jerseys!

Panorama view from the Mondrian door

It was about as perfect a day for riding a bicycle up a mountain as one could have asked for. It wasn’t even soul-killingly cold at the summit. ?!?!?

Regrouping in the sun at the top of the Stelvio

After watching the 2017 Giro d’Italia, I was a little nervous about descending the other side of the Stelvio for the first time. Even the pro’s took those hairpins s l o w l y . . . And they had the whole width of the (very narrow) road to work with.

It ended up being a non-issue, as I got stuck behind a VW van whose driver was even more alarmed than I was. There was enough oncoming traffic that I didn’t feel like taking an unnecessary risk to pass, just in case. The driver finally figured it out and pulled over to let the considerable accumulated peleton behind go past–once nearly at the bottom. Which actually was ok, because a couple hairpins later (that I didn’t feel the need to take that fast, VW van or no VW van), the road transitioned up into the open straight aways and easily swooping curves of the end of the descent.

That part was fun.

After another regrouping in Prato allo Stelvio, we set out on the part B of the day, with about as abrupt a change to our riding as if we had changed channels mid-show. We picked up a miracle of a bike path that took us over 50 scenic miles to Bolzano, winding through orchards and other such Italian picturesqueness, trending imperceptibly downwards. It was the kind of path you just effortlessly go fast on, the kind that tricks you into thinking you’re a fantastically talented cyclist.

Italian picturesqueness from the path

And the obligatory path-side giant chairs. ???

Not only was the path a joy to ride (and an almost car-free route!), our 50 mile jaunt was just a small segment of a regional network that must span hundreds of miles. Go here and click “see map” to get a sense of it. If you wanted to have a fun, easy cycling vacation (recognizing that not everybody thinks suffering up a steep mountain sounds like a fun summer vacation) you could stay in the area and ride for days. It looks amazing.

And then there we were, in Bolzano. The climbing, descending, and path joyriding made Bormio seem like it must have been at least a couple days distant. It was a really fun day that, despite the dire warnings about difficulty and length, was actually quite chill and relaxing.

Which ended up being a good thing, given what was in store for us the next day. A ride that Cinghiale Inc studiously avoided going into detail on, until it was too late.

Day 4, Stelvio and Bolzano: 84.5 miles, 5350 feet (a veritably flat ride…)

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Alps and Dolomites 2017, Day 2

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.

We’re in Switzerland!

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.

If you look closely, you might think that these switchbacks overlap each other pretty steeply. Trust me, it was steeper than that.

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.)

So this is what Switzerland looks like.

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.

Early in the climb–lush growth, and picturesque Swiss town views

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.

Still some greenery

Barely hanging on

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.

Ignore the parts where my gps device got lost. I didn’t actually go off-roading.

 

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 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.