We know the French Alps, we have cycled up most of the Cols and know how magical they can be. However, we also know that it is not the centre of the universe, there is more out there. Not better but different. Hearing of the stories of the Dolomites and the legendary Italian climbs that seem to challenge even the best climbers at the Giro, we knew that the time had come to go and test out our high gearing. And it is a good excuse to drink espressos and eat pizza.
After a phone call to our friend, Nicola, (guy not girl), we had set up our base in Bormio, using his apartments and hotel. From here we could tackle the big three passes in Italy – Stelvio, Mortirolo and Gavia. It was not hard to sell the trip out and we were set!
I arrived the weekend before to reccie the routes before our group of 20 arrived. One thing was for certain, the weather was not going to treat us well. Wet weather gear required. Actually, the dramatic clouds and mist simply added to the atmosphere – we were in the high mountains.
You come to this region for one reason, and that is to struggle up the Stelvio. It has been the scene of many Giro battles and rolls of the tongue along with the likes of Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux. It is litter with hairpin bends and snakes its way up to the summer ski station that is settled at its top. You know that you are going high when early in the morning, you are passed by cars carrying skis! It is possible to tackle the Stelvio from 3 sides and we had planned to loop around climbing 2 sides in the process. Leaving one for another time!
Another tail-tail sign that you are high above the valley is not only that you have been climbing for a long time but the appearing of high altitude, little rascals. When I reccie the route, it was early, so I was the only one up except for the marmottes making a nuisance of themselves and playing hide ‘n’ seek. They are funny little things with high pitch squeals and Meerkat like stances. They certainly own this patch of Italy.
The Stelvio is the border between Italian Italy and German Italy. At the top, confusingly, people are speaking to you in German, it takes a while to get your head around it and the decent down, Italian is rather absent from village names and road signs. It also feels cleaner and more organized, but this may be the altitude playing tricks. Sweeping around the valley floor, the climb back up starts reasonably quickly and up to Switzerland. Now this is organized! A good spot to set up lunch and allow everybody to refuel before the last push.
The last 14km back up to the Stelvio is via the Umbrail pass and this is where we turn back to Bormio (no point doing the last part of the Stelvio again). This is a brutal climb at the end of the route. It is steep and the absence of kilometre markers means that you are never quite sure where you are and when it will finish. It certainly earns you the right to choose from every course of the 5 course dinner that we had laid out for everyone. Maybe even a glass of wine is necessary to celebrate the achievements of the day.
The second route was the Mortirolo and Gavia loop. The Mortirolo was one of Lance’s hardest challenges and lets just say, he had a bit of an advantage. It is short and steep but with fresh legs at the beginning of the route, it is pretty enjoyable. The whole group were drenched by the time that they got to the top which is why the little café just the other side of the pass was so welcomed, as was everybody’s spare change of clothes – I guess one advantage of a support van. Italian hot chocolate really does hit the spot and soon people were eager to brave the elements again.
The Gavia is a big pass. It is long and steep in parts. The road gets narrow and the sense that you are out in the wild really hits you as you weave up through the forest from Ponte di Lecco. I stopped the van just as it reaches 16% to grab some photos and hand out some pieces of watermelon. These are the sort of gradients where you need to think about your position on your bike. Trying not to allow the front wheel to leave the ground! It was very impressive though how everyone was getting along and people seemed to group up in 3s and 4s – safety in numbers. I guess it is reassuring to see others struggling too. A 32 rear cassette is the key.
Like any big climb, you expect to start in the forest and to finish upon a baron, mountainous landscape. You will be hard pushed to find any wilder place than the top bends of the Gavia. With the rain easing and the clouds swirling around the peaks and valleys, you felt that the spirits of the mountains were out there to get you. A few switch backs and the sanctuary of the café at the pass were welcome. I have never seen so many people eat so much. Ivan had pasta, pizza, cake, hot chocolate. I think that he just could not be bothered to read the menu and asked for everything! After two days riding the big boys in town, Sunday and Monday gave us a chance to taste the lesser known routes. A wind down if you like. Sunday saw us going up to Lake Cancano, the mini Stelvio, and with its switch backs and stunning views, I would say the most stunning climb of the trip. Everyone made it up strongly and we were back in time for people to have a restful afternoon and take in a café or two. James though, in training for Lands End to John O’Groats decided to cycle up to Bormio 2000 afterwards.
The last climb on Monday morning before we headed back to the real world was quite possibly the steepest climb that I have ever tried, it went by the name of Forni. An easyish ride up to Santa Caterina, which is rather deserted in the summer, it must be so different at the height of winter with all the skiers, was the warm up for the last 4 or 5 km up to the Refugi di Forni. It just went straight up. If it were any longer then people would have struggled but like Tom discovered, it is possible to simply power your way up. It took a lot of will power not to stop at the first café. The finish was easy to find, it was when the tarmac ran out! Another nice coffee stop though.
So there we were, the steep and imposing mountains around Bormio had been conquered. Everybody was chuffed and surprisingly still pretty fresh. It was now time to catch the coach back to Milan and start thinking about the next challenge. It should be noted here that the coach had an inbuilt espresso machine next to the entrance, I love Italy!