The last of my personal challenges for this year was completed on Saturday 7th September with the climb of the Mendel Pass. A good climb, for me. Not massively fast and actually, despite my initial plans, completed on a day that was cold and wet. Unspectacular.
The Dull Bit:Stats
The climb was completed over 1h and 11 minutes at an average speed of 12.5 kilometres per hour. No the fastest ever but, in view of the conditions, I am quite happy with it. The Italian practice of numbering hairpins made it relatively easy to track how the climb was going. It gives a good feeling that, no matter how slow, progress is being made.
Unfortunately that same system acted as a reminder of how slow I am when it comes to descent. It felt like an age and seeing the slow reverse count did not help. Persistent rain made the surface greasy, something I was perhaps too aware of. It may have been quicker to have got off and walked but, no matter, The descent was completed.
I was not going to do this climb if it was cold and wet but there I was. Cold is an overstatement, perhaps, but an average of 8 degrees centigrade is not that warm although, on the climb, it made things comfortable. I got to the top in summer gear, the over optimistic suntan lotion (!) running un my eyes and a couple of long-distance cyclists in full winter gear looking at me with distinct ‘what the f*ck is he on?’ looks on their faces.
Stopping for pics of various signs you notice how cold it is. Out came the arm-warmers and, at last, I could finally wear my souvenir Stelvio gilet. – gilet being a flash word for body-warmer. It had Stelvio written on it! Stelvio! This guy does mountains!
He went down that one bloody slowly as well but anyway…..
A nagging feeling was that, unlike the earlier challenges this year, this was not really that hard. There were no real ‘why the f*ck am I doing this?’ moments. Just a desire to get it done, concentrating on the road. This was perhaps a little more…. mechanical than the previous climbs of the year, not just the big ones but the warm-ups in France. It was a case of get on the bike, get up the mountain and get back down again.
I had thought that a coffee at the top of the climb would be would be good. The town itself had been busy when we visited earlier in the week via cable-car. Buzzing little scene of tourists. Maybe some apple strudel?
That had been a warm midday though. Now it was quite early on a wet day. Besides the bemused long-distance cyclists it felt…. empty. Anyway, I wasn’t hungry. Down I went.
Closing the Last Challenge
It’s unfair to compare this challenge to the first two of the year, though. Ventoux and Stelvio have yielded great stories from the Grand Tours. No-on really knows the Mendel Pass. I did not before we booked our holiday, to be honest. But a good climb nearby felt right.
The Mendel Pass has actually been in the Giro d’Italia a few times. Most recently as a descent earlier this year, and as a climb in 2016. And before that. I found that out after my ride. Google and Youtube, Bloody hell, those pros are fast….
But no great stories. Never the end of a stage.
Never mind that, this is about my ride. And, by my standards, I was cruising. Not in the sense I was fast and no way should this sound casual. More the rhythm was right. Constantly looking around, using the space on the hairpins to drop to heavier gear and kick a little faster. Reaching for the bidon and drinking consistently – as nearly every person I ride with tells me to do.
The fact that it was so consistent is personal win. On this ride, my right hand still had a ‘f*ck you, I’m not doing that!’ moment. MS having it’s little tantrum. So…. it came off the handlebars. It did the work with the bidon but that was when there was no other traffic around. The left hand was keeping things steady. Work to the strengths.
All in all, an unspectacular, consistent climb.
And it should also not be underestimated. A thousand metres of climbing in miserable weather is something. A thousand metres down in the same weather.
Seriously, a year ago would that have happened?
The first two challenges of the ride were beasts. Compared to those this was an unspectacular ride, .Cold and wet but no big issue. That, actually, feels like something to build on. Reassuringly unspectacular. Happy with that.
This will not be the last word on the challenges this year… give it a little time to sink in though before the full summary comes!
So, in Italy. It has taken a couple of days to get my bearings but… well…. no problem. Plenty of time to relax, enjoy the scenery and get my legs use to gradients and climbing, All over again. Training is at an end, time to ride. Time for the Mendel Pass.
But it’s important to keep a sense of perspective. The Mendel Pass cannot be compared to the likes of Ventoux or Stelvio. We took a ride up by Cable Car and the road looked, well, good. Some mock-Hells-Angels on top going full gun with motor bikes that were too clean but nothing crazy. On the way back down a good view of the road itself, albeit too brief to take a picture. Wide, good surface and…. hairpin heaven. Perfect. After a couple of warm-up rides, feel nicely ready.
Taking it In
As for those warm-ups? Short rides in terms of distance, maximum 20 kilometres. But shortness of distance was more than made up for by the steepness of the gradients. High averages with sustained bursts of up to 20%. Long and straight as well.
Just one hairpin?
It was as though whoever was responsible for designing the roads out from Eppan thought….. ‘this will really f*ck up the cyclists’…. I could understand the tourists on E-Bikes, if you’re not in condition these roads could mess you up.
Sidenote: E-bikes going a 50 km/h in Holland is one thing. E-bikes here? Nice to see people out on bikes who otherwise wouldn’t be. At sensible speeds.
During these rides, it’s good to stop and take a look, See what’s around you.
It takes your breath away.
A rolling sea of vineyards with mountains looming over them, broken only by seemingly lonely villages of houses that seem to lay low beneath the spire of a single church, standing tall. It feels like it should be Switzerland. Or Austria. Not Italy.
Even the drivers give plenty of room when they pass a cyclist. A white van even stopped to allow me time to cross a rough patch of ground carefully. And the driver smiled and waved.
This is Italy where the relationship between motorists and cyclists is not meant to be optimal. Seems fine here.
This area does not quite match a stereotype of Italy in many ways. This is a holiday, not a training camp, and a large chunk of time is spent looking around, hearing the the voices around us. And a large proportion of those are German, not only through tourism. With the exception of the the town of Bolzano, most villages in the South Tyrol area count German as the primary language. After all, this was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until the end of the First World War.
Despite an at times fractious history, including forced Italianisation under Mussolini, considerable relocation of German speakers to the Third Reich and an aggressive campaign by the South Tyrolean Liberation Committee, there is little sign of friction now. At least to the casual observer. Small signs, though. Overhearing locals complaining about someone they knew and referring to them as ‘Italian’. A small hint at friction?
But nothing over that we can see, admittedly through the somewhat tinted view of a tourists sun-glasses. The history is there to see. It is possible to witter on about the charming, Hansel and Gretelesque feel of the surroundings but it’s the small things are what are noticeable for me. Behind a church in the town of Kaltern is a memorial. To our fallen, from the 1914-18 war, In German. Austro-Hungarian Army. The pain of history.
Back to the big ride.
The couple of short, hard climbs are done. And a good amount of walking as well, stretching the ligaments. That’s the excuse, although it is not much exercise when walking to a Gasthof for a nice meal and a bit of wine. Which, by the way, is very nice here. But, like all of the challenges, the training comes to an end and has done so for the Mendel Pass. Certainly not the hardest training, it’s a holiday after all.
So, the plan is to ride the Mendel Pass either on the coming Saturday (7th September) or the following Monday (9th September). Subject to the weather. Not to keep mentioning it but,,,, this is a holiday.
I don’t want to get wet….
The climb is not in the same class as Ventoux or Stelvio but it’s still a consistent 15 kilometres of ascent. The ‘steep hits’ may not be as bad as I thought but there are a couple of nasty gradients and it is still 15 kilometres of going up. Then when I descend, I will need to do one of those short, nasty climbs to get home.
This is a climb, medium distance but consistent. It will not be easy. And I will respect it. It may not be insane. Just a little crazy.
I was originally planning a long distance ride to follow Ventoux and Stelvio. But this has been a year of climbing so why not make a change of plan and make my last cycling challenge of 2019…..
It so happens that our holiday this year is in the Alto Adige region of Italy. A village named Eppan an der Weinstrasse, or Appiano sulla Strada del Vino. In a reflection of the history of the region, a German and Italian name. Eppan is also the starting point of roads leading to cycling climbs categorised as Hors Categorie. Or ‘bloody insane’. Up to 1,000 metres of hairpins in some cases.
A happy coincidence…… for me at least.
I had planned to undertake a 200+ kilometre ride but that may not work out this year. A whole day in the saddle has actually been difficult to fit in and the nights will start to draw in soon. So, instead, another climb. Maybe two or three, although not in one day. But with one specifically targeted as a challenge, the Passo Mandelo. Handily enough this lays about 4 kilometres away from our holiday lodgings. Not a well known climb but comparable to Passo Gavia. A little steeper but also a good deal shorter in distance. As is normal for this region it has another name in German, the Mendel Pass, Fairly similar, though. For me, that is.
Not much time to prepare for this ride but enough long distance rides at high tempo to be ready to push, as per my six year ride. My condition is good and, in any case, it is not the plan to push hard. This is a holiday after all. Perhaps a nice couple of warm up rides first, to find my sadly neglected climbing legs.
Perhaps a lesser challenge than Ventoux and Stelvio, certainly not so renowned. But a nice way to round out my cycling year, taking advantage of a different landscape than I am used to. Also a rare chance to get the legs climbing. Next year can always be one for long distance rides, A small change of plan and a relatively low key climb but, still, a nice closing challenge for 2019.
The Passo Mendalo 15 kilometres long and has an average gradient of 6.5% with short bursts of higher gradients, as high as 20%.
How in hell’s name can I put this in to words? I can still feel last week in my hamstrings, in my calves. It’s in my mind! It won’t go away for awhile. It’s really difficult to put this in to words. But it’s good to try. The closing of the month of mountains.
The Initial Hit
What is striking, on arrival at Bormio, is that you are surrounded by mountains. This is a stupid comment because Bormio is in the Alps and so of course it is surrounded by mountains. That’s the Alps! However, the scale is beyond belief. All of the famous mountains are around us but….. which one is which.
A short warm-up ride reinforced the fact that the scale was beyond what I used to. In 10 kilometres I climbed more than I normally manage in a week of cycling. Only 350 metres, trifling compared to what was to come but still something for me.
Then you look around you. And you feel small. The following day the real climbing started.
Height: 2652m (1410m climb from Bormio)
Gradient: Average 5.8%, Maximum 10.5% (over 1km, includes short sections of 14%)
My utter and complete highlight. The first real experience of riding in Italy, save for that short warm-up on the first night. Everything felt right, everything clicked. The legs felt good, at least for the first 90% of the climb. Issues set in at the end but, frankly, what the hell should I expect? I had already pushed myself harder than normal.
Only 11 hairpins but I learnt to love these. The traffic was quiet so I could use the full bend, cutting across and changing in to a heavier gear to give myself a launch up the next section of climb. I think that’s how it worked. I will never be the most scientific of cyclists.
A steep spell at the end that meant standing in the saddle to get more power and, for the first time, noticed my…. ahem… issues. The strength was of the left leg was , I think, around 20% more than the right. This led to a feeling that and perhaps this was the closest I could come to ‘limping’ on a bike. Despite that, the job was done, this time with no ‘what the f*ck am I doing here’ moments. Not one.
The steep spell was done and was followed by a fairly flat section where I built up speed, helped by shouts of encouragement from other cyclists on the descent. Nearly there. Then suddenly you’re there, posing for photos, putting on arm-warmers and drinking good Italian coffee.
What comes up, must go down. And I did. Considering my dislike of descent, that was the first big victory of the weekend.
I like Gavia.
Terri di Fraele
Gradient: Average 5.6%, Maximum 11.4% over 1km.
Hairpins: 21 (YES!)
The hidden gem. After my ‘limping’ spell, I did not feel I had the legs for Mortirolo which would have been 11 kilometres averaging at the gradient I had struggled with. Stelvio, the main target, would be next day. Add to that apoloyptic thunderstorms predicted and I thought Mortirolo would be too much. Two members of the group did climb it though, a lot of respect for that.
The rest of us took an excursion to Terri di Fraele. Perhaps ranking with Cap de Fermentor as one of the most fun climbs I have done. Hairpin heaven, topped by a rather sinister (but quite wide) tunnel and a pair of medieval (?) stone towers standing sentinel at the top. That gave a slightly mysterious feeling to things…. Here be dragons…..
There followed a slightly nerve-wracking and slow ride along a soaked gravel path to the Lago di Cancano. The predicted rain apocalypse started so we had a break for coffee and apple-pie (how Dutch!).
The rain combined with some narrow roads on the return descent led to the first of the ‘what the f*ck am I doing here’ moments although disc brakes made sure the descent was controlled and helped me spare energy as relatively little strength was needed to exert that control. The worst part was actually on the flats when we back down in the valley. The rain became torrential and Italian drivers were suddenly being Italian; noteworthy as on the climbs we had been afforded a lot of space by cars and motorbikes.
We got back, though, wet and intact. The gear went in to the boiler room to dry and the estimable owner of our hotel made the best suggestion of the day. Coffee and grappa to warm up.
Not the toughest climb but memorable for it’s beauty and for descending in the wet. I could actually do it, no matter how slow. Another personal victory!
Passo dello Stelvio
Height: 2760m (1562m climb from Bormio)
Gradient: Average 7.7%, Maximum 10.9% (over 1km)
The most difficult of the three climbs. Not just in terms of the actual climb which was hard enough. We were surrounded by Italians and Swiss behaving recklessly on expensive, powerful Ducatti and BMW motorbikes. You could hear their roar from far below. Building slowly until they powered past with a, to me, deafening roar. This was especially tiring in the tunnels that marked the early part of the climb.
There had been motorbikes on Gasvia as well but these were mostly touring bikes with disciplined riders. If they got too close it was because the road was narrow and they had no choice. Stelvio was the day of the speed freaks. Perhaps the wrong day to climb it, being a Sunday. But Friday was too early, we needed the warm-up and Saturday was simply too wet. No choice, it had to be Sunday.
I can make excuses all day but the motorbikes played a part in wearing me down. Cognitive issues come with MS and this was one time where the strain got too much. Maintaining constant alertness took it’s toll and, compared to Gavia, I was not drinking enough. Too concerned about taking one hand off the handlebars with so much going around me. Stupid. Eventually I stopped and gulped some energy drink down. Why I did not do that before? I don’t know.
At the top of Gavia we sat at the Gasthof where coffee, coca-cola and apple strudel was consumed to get the energy back up whilst taking in scenes that were beyond comprehension.
It overcame me. The moment, the altitude, dehydration, my overworked senses exploding. In a moment of true machismo, I just started to sob a little. This had become more than just being about getting up the mountain. I have to operate with compromises, that’s a a given, and they did their best to make this a challenge too far. Despite them, I reached the top of Stelvio.
No-one will ever take that away from me.
The Umbrail Pass was meant to follow Stelvio but I had nothing left. Three of the group carried on but I descended back to Bormio. Bizarrely, this time, I actually enjoyed the descent. Being refreshed meant being more alert and having no need to peddle meant this was a rest. There followed an easy day. Then a last meal in the hotel and perhaps too much wine. And beer. And a local spirit which made sure I slept well that night.
It had been one hell of a weekend. In all honesty, I had been fearful before we arrived. Descent is something that I cannot say I have mastered and it is difficult to really work on it. One article suggests, for example, descending several times on one hill until one feels comfortable descending. Sound advice but, if there is no hill nearby, difficult to follow.
In the space of one weekend I had made three long descents. Three more than I have done before, apart from two descents in Majorca two years previously. There had been a lot of descents in two rides of Liege-Bastogne-Liege but these had been short and sharp. Not long, sustained descents.
Indeed, I look back on the weekend with nothing but good feelings. There had only been problems during Stelvio and very small issues at the of the Gavia climb. Compared to last year at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, I actually felt much better physically. Fitter, stronger. I remain utterly convinced that being this active is keeping me healthy, as mentally sharp as I can be. I cannot point to scientific evidence but…. just believe me.
As for personal highlights. Gavia is a massive one. The feeling of climbing us also one I love. In the space of one weekend I had climbed 4,500 metres so I had plenty of chances to indulge myself. Despite the odd wobble it is just… indescribable…. the right leg straining, me feeling that strain. I love that.
I’ll also admit to a small amount of regret. Mortirolo was on my mind a lot before the trip. To skip it was sensible. Still, part of me wishes that I had given it a try. Especially as I had learnt how much I liked hairpins. But would that have been enough to take me to the top of Mortirolo? I’ll never know.
The final highlight was riding with friends. From a practical point, communication was important in keeping disciplined with drinking and eating. A couple of shouts of ‘Keep drinking, Steve!’ on Gavia kept me in line on that one. Also, we encountered tunnels on the ascent of Stelvio. Constant shouting helped make sure we all knew from what direction the motorbikes (or whatever) were coming from even if the noise was disorientating.
I could make a rather long list of the fun stuff that came with riding with friends. But, frankly, you had to be there, otherwise it means nothing. And, in any case, that belongs to us.
Challenges number one and two have been completed. And then some. Amazing experiences. I am thankful for all of them and the fact that I can keep experiencing then. I have time to think about what the third challenge will be this year. But the month when Ventoux was ‘finished’ and not only Stelvio but Gavia was climbed is going to stay with me for a long, long time.