So almost one year ago today we did our first post on the Elcyclista site. Almost as exciting was sending our first Elcyclista kit out not long after. That was to Stefan Rohner, who turned out to be an amazing and published photographer, and so our photo features began. Since then Stefan regularly drops me a note to poke fun at my riding – like I rode up the Stelvio on the wrong side (Ed: is there a right side? They both hurt you know). So it is only fitting that on this day of celebration in the Elcyclista household we are able to publish this stunning photo essay from Stefan.
He just spent three weeks with his brother riding the great and slightly lesser known climbs of the Pyrenees. The numbers speak for themselves. The longest daily ride: 168km, the shortest daily ride: 83km, the average ride: 135km. Vertical climb approximately: 36,500m, average: 2810m…. but you know what, none of that really mattered to them. No Garmin or SRM, they just figured it out after wards, choosing to ride the climbs with their thoughts, conversation, and a view. What I love about these images, is that you can literally feel the silence on the climbs, and the only sound left is your breathing and the changing of gears. The absence of people and traffic. The aftermath of the Tour (they rode them in the weeks right after the Tour had passed through). If anything ever makes you question why you ride, or commit so much of you life to sitting in a saddle, look at these pictures. You will instantly remember why.
There is also something very fitting, that on the day that we get to publish these incredibly peaceful photos, we are also able to pay tribute to Laurent Fignon who did so much to animate racing on the roads of the Pyreness, The Marie Blanque, Aubisque, Solour, Tourmalet, Larrau, Pierre St. Martin, Burdincurucheta, Baragui, Houratate, Bouezou, Sustary, Labays, Marmare, Pradel, Pailheres, Agnes, Ares, Peyresourde, Aspin,
It seems San Francisco has been having a “Bad Weather” summer, at least until last Friday. I had the weekend to myself with my bike and planned a few days riding on some of my favorite roads on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. I woke on Saturday morning at 6.3o am, one of the benefits of west coast jet lag, and peered out the window to see a typical grey but breaking morning. I layered up expecting a cold but completely rideable day (minus sun block). By the time I had reached the top of Bay Street I had already removed one layer. This was my first day out in the Elcyclista arm warmers, and the first impression is that they are definitely built for the autumn/winter and colder spring morning conditions. My arms were hot. By the time I dropped down into Sausalito the clouds had broken and blue sky had set in for the rest of the day. I stopped in Fairfax for a coffee and got layered properly before I headed up towards Mt Tam and Alpine Lake. The climb up to the lake is a steady and beautiful climb, and you crest the top to see the lake and reservoir down to your left. A swift and well-paved descent takes you down to the water and over the top of the dam. The climb out the other side to Mt Tam is at first steep but evens out towards the top. I am glad I went this way round, as the surface on this side would be a little sketchy for a descent, having seen one rider bail on one of the corners and completely over cook it onto a grass verge. Enter third weather system of the day. Mt Tam was shrouded in cloud rolling up from the Pacific, which made for a spectacular but chilly ride along the “Seven Sisters“. It was at this point one of two things started to happen. Either my knees had decided it was all over, or someone had dropped gravel in my bottom bracket at the coffee shop. Luckily it was mostly a downhill ride all the way to Mill Valley where the guys at Above Category managed to get me back on the road with a new Chris King BB installed. I headed back over the bridge and stopped at Blue Bottle thinking of one of the best days you could have on a bike. The shots of the ride are here.
There is no better way to discover a country than from the seat of a bike, and America has undoubtedly one of the richest mixes of landscape to see. I have an Ernest Hemingway quote pinned above my desk (yes I know, an unlikely fan of the bike) that says, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. You have no such accurate remembrance as you gain by riding a bicycle“. It is with that quotethat I wish Brett Clever and his wife Edie the best of luck and safe riding on their epic ride across America, on their HONEYMOON. Yes I said honeymoon.They are taking on an amazing 4,787 mile ride from Astoria, OR, to Brooklyn, NY, along the TransAm route, undoubtedly something they will remember for the rest of their lives.
Brett and Edie have planned this trip down to the last detail, and knowing Brett as one of the the local New York scene’s most competitive Cat 2s, it wasn’t hard to get some support from some of the best bike brands out there. The bikes are killer. Two matching IFs with a custom paint job influenced by a 87 Haro Team Master, that will let us see them coming into Brooklyn all the way from Illinois. Topped out with matching white Ritchey, FSA, Chris King, and Ultegra parts, makes for one pretty nice “touring” bike. Some custom Lightweight jerseys from their friends at Rapha will be keeping them nicely ventilated, but out of all of the detail, my favorite item has to be the custom”Kissing With Helmets” head badges by Jen Green, the name of this whole adventure. Check out the Kissing With Helmets site, Brett and Edie will be posting as they travel (if they can find Wifi in Kansas). I can’t wait to see and hear the stories from this one, we will post when we get news of their travels.
Brett: I am not sure that Drum and Bass is going sound right on those long flats of Kansas. I suggest “The Wild Hunt” album by The Tallest Man On Earth. The cover alone will give you a hint of what you are in for…
Over the years I have been lucky enough to do a lot of riding in the Alps and Pyrenees, but no matter how many times I go, there always remains a doubt or sense of anticipation that never goes away. For me it usually comes on the long drive up into the mountains. You have your special driving-into-the-mountains soundtrack on, or NPR’s Radiolab. At some point on that drive you will be presented with a jaw-dropping view of snow-capped peaks. Once you get past the initial “Wow! Mountains!” which usually comes as a scream out of the driver’s window, the size of the task ahead (literally) makes you question the logic of what you are about to take on. In the Pyrenees the feeling came on the drive along the E80, or “Le Pyrénéenne“. When we were riding the area around the Joux Plane and Morzine, it came on the drive along the Route des Grands Alpes. On the way to Alp D’Huez a few years back it came heading out of Briançon on the Route de Briançon just before sunrise, when peaks started to emerge out of the darkness. This year, after time on the roads around Lake Como, we started the drive to Bormio to ride the Italian high Alps. This time the feeling came around a town called Sondrio on the Via Nationale. We stopped at a super market to stock up the camper for the next few days, and while standing in the car park I looked up, and the picture above was presented to us. There it was again, the doubt. Did I train enough? Just how hard is this going to be? Or was it anticipation, because you know that no matter what, you are going to get up.
As one local pointed out to us when asking for directions on the way up, pronounced “Geezallo“. I have wanted to ride this climb for years. The Tour of Lombardy has always been one of my favorite races, with the best name ever: “The Race of the Falling Leaves“. In all of our trips to Europe we have managed to miss this region, so this time a whole 9 days was dedicated to Lake Como and then up into Bormio. You don’t have to spend long on the roads around the lake to realize that you are close to the pulse of Italian cycling. Riders of every size and age were out clocking miles on some of the best roads you will ever ride. The Ghisallo climb itself has been the decider in many races, from the Giro to the Tour of Lombardia, and the lesser known Coppa Agostini and Giornata della Bicicletta. They live and breathe riding here. Lombardia has over 700 registered cycling clubs with over 12,000 members. If you are wondering what they all do for the year, they have a choice of over 1200 races to to choose from.
The climb itself isn’t particularly spectacular. You spend most of it wrapped in trees. But the draw of the Shrine to Cycling, and the views from the top are what makes this ride worth the effort (we did it twice, once at the start of the trip and once at the end). We started on the east side of the lake where we were staying and rode the 10 miles up to Varenna to catch the ferry over to Bellagio where the climb started. Right out of the village the road pitches up to over 10%, and at that point you aren’t even really on the climb, but you know you are when you hit a little roundabout. From there you just sit on 8% – 9% for about 3km, easing for 4km before you hit the village of Civenna. This is where it gets a bit cruel, as you start to go downhill. Wait, did I miss the church? That can’t have been it? Brilliant views appear through the trees and there was no sign of any shrine, but the riders all seemed to be going in one direction. Then there it is, not the shrine, but the sign. The 8 turns sign. The last 2km take you around 8 hairpins at 9% – 10%. Rounding the last turn you can see the church’s spire and you know you are on that last famous stretch to the brow where the church emerges out of the hedges. I hammered it, deep into the red, and arrived at the little statue of Coppi hyperventilating. What must he have thought?
I rode the Gavia the day after riding up the valley and doing the Stelvio. I headed out earlier as the day before the heat was killing my Irish air-conditioning. I am just not built to ride in that sort of heat at that effort, I need about 10 bottles of water to feel “normal”. The Stelvio, despite being tough, was a really beautiful climb to ride, but the Gavia from the start felt completely inhospitable. It kind of meanders out of the back end of Bormio, without the grand entrance of the Stelvio with its beautiful sweeping hairpins. It just goes straight up through a series of villages layered with some cobbled streets. It then enters what seems to be an endless section that winds through cow-covered pastures that have an extra strong smell of cow dung and a cacophony of flies to accompany you on your journey upwards. This section hurt a lot, and getting buzzed by the Moto Guzzis wasn’t helping me any.
Just when I was getting sick of swatting flies off my sweaty arms I rounded a bend and was confronted with a daunting-looking cliff face with a very narrow 18% road clutching onto its side and views into the National Park. Out of the saddle for this bit, keeping the pedals turning was about all I could manage, the gradient popped between 12 and 14%. At this point I still hadn’t met one other rider. Passing along this cliff face there were little memorials carved into the rock for people who had died on the mountain, driving, hiking and riding. This drops you onto the last phase of the climb with a real sense of humility. This is the section in the Giro that had the snow banks piled along each side a couple of feet above the riders’ heads. Looking up the valley at that last 5km, it should have been easy, but a rising headwind, poor road surface and just general lack of energy made it a grind. You are surrounded by the most spectacular views. Glaciers covered in snow in June, reflected in frozen Alpine lakes. You ride past the famous crucifix that tells you you are nearly there. It is probably the most unspectacular summit road I have ever gone up. The gradient just kind of stops and you are there, next to a very muddy car park. It feels pretty inhospitable and cold up there and I didn’t really hang around.
The trip down was taken very cautiously. Lack of guard rails and a sketchy surface made it tough to let loose until I hit the villages again and was able to stop and de-layer. Sitting here now looking at the shots again, it is a must-do climb. You fight it all the way up and never feel comfortable. It is cold, windy and remote, but it gives you a serious sense of you “beat it” when you get back into Bormio and roll past the hotel where Andy Hampsten stayed. Chapeau Andy I can’t imagine doing that in a snow blizzard.
I am just sitting down in front of a computer for the first time in weeks, and starting the process of the downloading and organizing all of the shots from our Lombardia trip. I started with the Stelvio photos first because just looking at the shots again made the acid start to collect in my legs. Riding the Stelvio was one of the most beautiful and hardest things I have ever done. It is the perfect climb. From forested to exposed rock face, from hairpins to long sweeping grades, it is a climb that with the altitude is a challenge for any rider. Parts of it look deceptively easy, but coupled with the headwind and altitude your forward motion is greatly reduced. Other parts look demoralizingly hard. Looking up at what looks like a cliff of hairpins, with the Refugio clearly defined in the distance as your destination isn’t exactly the motivation you need at 12km to go. From the town triangle in Bormio the climb kicks right into it’s first hairpin and from there on up there is really no respite. In 25km you gain 5427ft to 8985ft, on an average 7.4% gradient with sections as steep as 14% (I knew because someone had kindly painted it on the road and it was confirmed by my Garmin). This was all done in 80 degree temperatures, what is that saying about mad dogs and English men. Pictures don’t do it justice, either here or on TV, it is brutal, but fantastic.
I saw Pro’s from the Colnago CFS Inox team on the ride up being tracked by their beeping team car, passing me like I wasn’t moving and they were only doing 10 mph (I got on the back for oh… all of 1km and went way into the red). I saw a 60 year old Italian on a vintage steel Coppi with a triple crank spin up it like it was a ride in the park. This was his 9W, imagine that, the Stelvio is your daily local ride. He had chiseled legs that looked like an old Gucci leather bag, I pray that I have his fitness and enthusiasm to be riding climbs like that at his age. I rode part of the way with two Germans who couldn’t understand why I kept fumbling for my phone to take photographs, then half way up they started to do the same thing. They realized it wasn’t just another climb, they were on the Stelvio and it was epic. There was snow at the top. I don’t think I have ever been that far up on a bike. Cresting the top is like entering a scene from a circus. There were pretzel and hot dog vendors, and motorcycles crammed into every foot of space on the tiny summit road. There was actually a queue at the Bormio/Stelvio sign with everyone looking for photographic evidence that they had done it (mine below), and that included the motorcyclists.
Descending was a little different. I was coming down faster than the cars, and in some cases overtaking the motorcycles by braking later on the bends. I think through the wind tears my speedo said 42mph on one of the straights and if I am honest I was caressing the brakes when I saw it. Half way down I had to stop and take it all in. There was no one up there, I was completely alone on the Stelvio. It was at that point that I thought I should wait until tomorrow to tackle the Gavia. That photo essay is up next.
Departure day is here. The bikes are boxed and ready to go. One week in and around Nice and Cannes, and then driving in a Camper up to Lake Como and Bormio. Look out for some posts if I can find Wifi access. Otherwise there is going to be a lot of tweets from the tops of mountains. Or at least I hope there will.
Used in the old Tour De Trump the Devils Kitchen, or Platte Clove Road, is famous for reducing a number of Pro’s who didn’t have the benefit of compact cranks to get off their bikes and walk. It doesn’t take long to see how that would be. Unlike on the Bergs of the spring classics where the road gets so narrow there is no where to go to keep your momentum, there is ample room here to fall when you come to a complete standstill. These numbers are kind of demoralizing, 1100ft of vertical gain in 2 miles. If you start further down (below Burnett Road) you actually gain about 1400ft. Averaging 12% for the 2 miles and pitching up to a calf busting 22% in sections. The nice thing about climbing in general is that there is usually something spectacular to look at that helps divert your mind from the many things going wrong with your body. Not so in the Devils Kitchen. The trees are so dense you are just riding in a very dark tunnel most of the way up, with just the grey uneven grade of the road to look at. A constantly pitching grade makes it hard to get any sort of rhythm, but it does eventually end, and you peak out at the top onto a beautifully winding road along the top of the escarpment, marked by a sign with gunshots on it. I have no idea how it got the name Devils Kitchen, but pain is definitely involved, and it is evil.
Found this great piece of helmet Cam footage over at La Gazzetta Della Bici. Shot on the last 450 meters of the Plan De Corones time trial following Michael Barry you get a real sense of what it must have been like for him to ride up through the Tifosi, without the lung busting pain of coarse. The last kilometer has to be one of the steepest ridden in any race, and took on average about 5 mins to ascend. As I was watching it on Youtube I couldn’t help looking at the “Flag as inappropriate” button, and thinking damn right, how inappropriate is it to make a rider time trial up this. Accompanied by Paolo Conte’s “Bartali” – a song dedicated to Italian cycling legend Gino Bartali. A great piece of footage.