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.
- Length: 24.5km
- Height: 2652m (1410m climb from Bormio)
- Gradient: Average 5.8%, Maximum 10.5% (over 1km, includes short sections of 14%)
- Hairpins: 11
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
- Length: 13.4km
- Height: 755m
- 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
- Length: 20.3km
- Height: 2760m (1562m climb from Bormio)
- Gradient: Average 7.7%, Maximum 10.9% (over 1km)
- Hairpins: 34
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.
This had certainly been the toughest challenge yet.