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.
I am just in the final throws of planning our trip this summer, down to literally the last hour. We head to France and Italy on the 19th for just over two weeks. The first week will be at the Cannes Advertising Festival, which is roughly disguised as work, but still allows me to get out and ride the Corniche every morning to St Raphael. The second part of the trip we are driving over to Lake Como for 3 days and then up to Bormio in the mountains. The Stelvio (above) might be the last ride we do there, but it certainly won’t be the only one. No matter how much research I am doing I have that terrible feeling that I am missing something. So if anybody has been over there and found a climb or route (beyond the obvious and famous ones) post a comment and let me know. This will be epic.
Days filled with the Giro, 75+ degree sunny days, and endless roads to get lost on. Pretty much how I could spend my days and die happy. Every time I turned a corner I ended up on another road that had a great climb or descent, great views, or a dog that seemed to want to eat my ankle. And snakes, there seems to be a lot of snakes in the Catskills. I hate snakes, ever since that scene where Indiana Jones gets lowered into a pit of them, they have given me the creeps. So whenever you ride over the tail of one (by accident) it gets the heart rate nicely elevated. I had images of it pulling a backwards flip and biting me on the thigh in one final throw of glory. Rode over to Tannersville and up to Kaaterskills falls today on Route 23A. Great climb of about 4.5 miles on good roads and a steady gradient, a little more hospitable than Platte Clove. I got in about 16 hours of riding over the last 5 days, with a day off. The farmers tan is coming along nicely. One more day to go, I have to break the 2o hour mark tomorrow. It would be rude not to.
Despite having lived in the US for 10 years now, I am still amazed by the shear beauty of the countryside. Today the humidity had gone, and the temperature had dropped to a bearable 75+, making me feel like I found an extra 20% in my legs. As the Pros say, I had Super Sensations. Got in a great ride along Route 212 and then down to the Ashokan Reservoir. Along with the ride down from Burnett Road it turned into a nice 73 mile loop. Rounded out with a coffee at Bread Alone in Woodstock, a great day out. Day 2 done.