For the second time this year we made the trip across to Bormio in Italy which is fast becoming a second home to us. It should not be a long trip, a few hours to Milan and then up into the mountains. However, that final 100km is slow going with single lane roads and local traffic along with miles of tunnels. It can be a little frustrating but when you emerge from the last tunnel and are greeted with the expanse of mountains and the old town of Bormio, you know it’s worth it.
It is impossible not to get excited with the weekend ahead as there is a buzz of cyclists around the town. You know that you are where it is at, for those who like two wheels. It is pretty special. Checking in and getting the accommodation ready with the welcome packs and goodies (a special thanks to Moma Porridge) was smooth and gave us a few hours to wait for the arrival of our group, the infamous Ripcor Cycling Club.
Arriving in time for dinner, which was up to the usual high standard that we come to expect from our base in Bormio, gave everyone the opportunity to discuss the weekend ahead and what was in store for them. They were uncharacteristically quiet and it became apparent that they were a little nervous about taking on the might of the Passo del Stelvio – understandable.
Our first day loops around this magnificent mountain, famed for cycling but equally important as a summer training base for skiers from across the Alps, showing just how high it is! It is a long climb of 26km and the plan was to drop down into German speaking Italy and across into Switzerland before climbing back up to the Umbrail pass which rejoins the Stelvio just 5km from the summit. For some though, the Stelvio is an amazing achievement in itself and there was no shame in returning back to Bormio having crested its summit. Everyone made it.
It is undoubtedly the middle part of the Stelvio which is the most stunning, it is here where the straight road that clings to the side of the mountain side is forced into the infamous switch backs as it comes head on with the face of the mountain. I parked up the support van to get some shots of the group coming up and they all actually seemed to be enjoying it. The spread of the group was not that big and they were all showing their strength. As the per the Ripcor motto: It’s all good.
The cluster of cafes and tourist stalls at the top of the Stelvio means that it is a good place to regroup, take in a coffee or two and revitalize. Everyone was in good spirits and thinking that they had made it, however, just because a pass is not famous, does not mean that it is not difficult. The Umbrail Pass was still to come. But first a 30 km descent. Speed Steve turns out not to be speedy and has a dislike for going downhill! His squeaking brakes reverberating around the mountains, surely confusing a marmotte or two. As I passed him, he asked for more water to help him cool the wheels down! It did the trick and they held out.
We set out lunch when we got into Switzerland. With just the Umbrail Pass to come, the day was nearing an end but this required a huge effort, lunch was certainly necessary.
The Umbrail Pass completes the triangle around the Stelvio, it is less well known and in turn less busy with fewer cyclists and cars on the road. This combined with the lack of kilometre markers creates a sense of true wilderness. That and “when will this end?!” It is though breathtaking. Once in a rhythm, it is just a case of keep plodding on. It was a little bit too much for Phil so he jumped in the van (the beauty of doing this with a support vehicle) for the last few km’s – not bad going though considering some turned back after the Stelvio. I will never forget John’s face when he arrived at the top – one of total pleasure yet total pain. Ripcor had earned their beer and cakes today.
Saturday was an all-together easier day, it is necessary to recuperate! It was a switchback ascent up towards Lake Cancano, they call it the mini-Stelvio around these parts and you can see why. Very, very steep to start with and then it eases off. Standing at the top, it was amazing to see everyone on the bends below, a fantastic view that you normally would only get from a helicopter.
Sunday was the attempt to complete the trilogy of big climbs in the area (and Italy in fact). The Mortirolo follow by the Gavia. A huge day. An early start was required. Dropping down from Bormio to the start of the Mortirolo is a gentle but fun 30km of freewheeling! The beams of sunrays breaking through the mountain tops gave me the impression that I was in a crystal, mountains in the mornings!
There is a tiny turning to the start of the Mortirolo, easily missed and for that reason, it is hard to imagine why it is so famous. Quoted by many as their hardest climb, including the drugged up Armstrong, it seems so innocuous. We do have a confession and say that there are two routes up that join for the last ascent, we went up the “easier” part. You tell that to the guys!
Just as you get to a little church, the road ramps up and really kicks in, I guess for the first time in the weekend, you realise why the Giro maybe regarded as a little tougher than the Tour. It was all a bit too much for Leigh but he took great pleasure in cheering everyone else on from the comfort of the van. Again just to get up to that point was an achievement that most cannot say that they have done.
The hot chocolate just after the summit makes it worth it.
Next stop the Gavia. Dieter was banging on about how he just wanted to do the Mortirolo, that was the famous climb of the two. What is all the fuss about this Gavia? Well, Dieter, its steep and long. It’s bloody hard. You think that you are cycling up to the doors of hell. But when you get to the top, it is magical. High, and unlike the Stelvio with all its hotels and skiers, it’s wild. You have certainly left the normal hustle and bustle of everyday life behind. Rewarding.
Just after a long, dark tunnel with about 2km to go, I found Alastair and Phil pondering their next move. The others were just finishing up. I told them in no uncertain terms that they were not getting in the van. They pushed on and shortly after made it to the top of this monster. Tears of joy (or pain) rolling down Phil’s cheeks, they, like everyone else had achieved something special. Chapeau as you would say in France. I was expecting a raucous evening of celebration but everyone was happy to relax and contemplate their achievements over a glass or two.