Monday, June 30, 2014

Stelvio Pass


I will claim ignorance. As a cycling fan, I am embarrassed. Or I should be embarrassed.

Caitlin Steele, Sonja Schmidt

It was just a few weeks ago during the Giro d'Italia that the Stelvio pass made cycling news for days. The weather was so bad that the Giro either did or did not tell the teams that the descent would be neutralized for safety. The leaders flew down it, everyone else went reasonably and lost chunks of time.

Today, we would climb the famed passo Stelvio. And I knew nothing about it.

James Shanahan

We left the hotel in Moena by shuttle and drove a couple of hours to Prato. Once there, we offloaded at a hotel by an intersection of the roads. Sure hope Trek Travel had permission because we took over all the rest rooms for changing.

Hotel near Prato where we changed clothes

We rolled at out an intersection and I went first this time. I had no intention of being first up the climb and within one hundred meters I pulled over as my spokes were hitting the speed sensor on the fork. Everyone rolled by me as I readjusted the sensor and then rode tempo to catch the back of the group, after also adjusting the bike pump which was being hit by the crank.

The first four kilometers were pretty flat or trending up at one or two percent. Once at the base of the pass the road turned up in a beautiful forest with no idea why lies ahead. It was warm and I was sweating pretty heavily.

Hotel on the lower slopes of Stelvio

Having been last I caught and rode with Caitlyn Steele and Colin Giffney. I have ridden with them quite a bit this week. We chatted without hardly noticing the steepness of the road in the forest. When we went by the Trek Travel guides they were astounded that we were just chatting away. We were supposed to be out of breath.

L-R: Caitlyn Steel, Collin Giffney, Barry Sherry

Colin and Caitlyn stopped at a planned water/rest stop and I rode ahead, passing Bud Hoffacker and Anne Marie Redmond and then caught Chris and Jim Ashton. I've ridden with Chris and Jim quite a bit this week as well.

Near the top of the forest one sees the first sign - Tornanti 48. That is turn or switchback number 48. Only 47 to go. It would be another kilometer before the next turn.

Eventually we left the forest and could see nothing but road and hairpin curves ahead. I tried not to look for the summit but could not help it. It was so beautiful.

Jim and I started using the switchback numbers to talk about what we were doing and where we were living at that age. It made the time go by real fast. We were joined for a while by James Shanahan, our Trek Travel guide and Chris and he rode about 50 meters ahead while Jim and I talked.

Chris and Jim Ashton

Nearing the top we watched two snow plows coming down the road. This morning the road up here was snow covered. But with our two hour shuttle followed by a two hour climb, the road was clear although still wet in a lot of places.

At Turn 3 James stayed behind watching for other riders coming up the road. Chris, Jim and I rode ahead until Turn 1 when I pulled over and made 10 or 12 beautifully packed snowballs. The snow was the perfect consistency for this purpose. I lofted one down two switchbacks below and it landed near James' feet. Then another. And another. He looked up and thought I was trying to throw snowballs all around him. I wasn't. I was trying to hit him but my throws sucked.

L-R: Jim Ashton, Barry Sherry, James Shanahan

One more switchback and I reached the top. It was cold although the Trek Travel van was parked just before the summit and it seemed to be 10 degrees (5.5 C) warmer on this side than at the top or going over the other side.

Lunch was on our own at the top. Although there were two restaurants which offered warm seating inside, James recommended "Richard," an Austrian who sets up a grill and cooks bratwurst. That was good enough for me.

Richard's Bratwurst

Haven ridden up the pass with Chris and Jim, we descended together. On this side there were tunnels. In fact Garmin lost its satellite connection for a while as we zipped in and out of the tunnels.

Both Chris and Jim are excellent descenders and I fell in behind Chris' line. We were flying as we entered a tunnel. It was dark and featured a sharp right-hander followed by a left hand curve at the exit. The eyes did not adjust from snow covered mountains to dark (with sunglasses on) instantly. 

Looking towards Bormio

I followed Chris' blinking rear light as we went wide in the turn. It was wet in the tunnel with snow melt and Chris went wide so I did too. As he recovered and went back to the right side of the road I was still over the center line when a car, with no lights, appeared in front of me. I touched the rear brakes and my biked fishtailed right in front of the car. I adjusted and brought the bike back under control and missed a head on collision by six inches or so. We did not enter a tunnel with speed after that.

Jim and Chris Ashton

There are a number of switchbacks on the Bormio side of the mountain as well although not 48 of them (27?). One of them, as I would discover later, passed within 10 meters of Switzerland and there is a road at another switchback that goes to Switzerland. The border there was about 100 meters away.

We didn't know to stop to visit Switzerland but for me it was a moot point as I will be in Switzerland later in the week. We followed the road to Bormio then checked into out hotel for the night.

Just down from passo Stelvio on the Bormio side

Stelvio Pass is the highest paved pass in Italy. It is a classic climb that, quite frankly, wasn't that hard. Of course, I wasn't racing. But at no point did I think of it as too hard or had to fight myself to keep going. I doubt I get to ride this again but I would love to. It is a great one.

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