Earlier in the year a few riders from the club decided it would be a good idea to tackle the infamous Stelvio pass. Following is a fantastic article by Simon McQueen and well worth a read…
THE GRAND DEPART
After a text from Keith F explaining that our mini bus driver was incapable of navigating the vehicle and trailer in any other direction than forward, preferably in a straight line I set off to meet the rest of the gang on Berko high street. Simple enough one would think. Not when Passo de Swing Gate Lane needed to be negotiated. If you’ve ever walked a 23kg bike box down a 13% gradient you’ll have felt my pain. This was to be the first hair raising descent of the trip.
Slightly sweaty and relieved at 5am on the nose I boarded the bus. The Bormio 8 were now assembled. Now the only thing standing between us and cycling heaven were the M25 and Heathrow airport check in and security. Check in was smooth for most with the exception of Rich H who got clobbered for 65 notes for being 2kg overweight, his bike box that is, I’m not implying he’s fat (have to make that clear as he is a lawyer). Ironically, Neill F’s box was the same weight and he got away with it. This of course made Rich very happy.
Anyhow, to cut a long and tedious bit of the story short, all was fine and we made it to Milano, hired van and car were collected and eight blokes and eight bikes were on their way to Bormio.
After three hours driving through almost continual tunnel and a lunch stop on an industrial estate we arrived, checked into our apartments and unboxed the beasts.
22 SEPT. RIDE DAY 1. BORMIO-UMBRAIL-STELVIO-BORMIO MY BIRTHDAY RIDE
Up bright and early, breakfasted, nervous toilet visits complete we set off through Bormio only to be slowed down by a mechanical. Miles W’s rear mech wasn’t indexing. Espresso break number one. After some head scratching and chin stroking Miles, showing outstanding roadcraft, tweaked his nipples and all was good. We were on our way at last. There was no gentle start to the ride to get the legs warm and blood pumping. We started climbing before we’d left town. Having found our way to the foot of the Passo Umbrail as a group enjoying some chat and banter, aka taking the piss out of Henrik, we all began to settle into our own rhythms as the climb proper started. Unsurprisingly Keith took up his favoured position at the front with Rich on his wheel. As they pulled a couple of hundred meters away from me I remember thinking, “either Rich has been on the EPO or he’s being a bit optimistic”. As the climb went on my perception of time and distance became blurred. After the first few km the inevitable happened and Rich dropped off Keith’s wheel and dropped back onto mine. We rode together for the rest of the climb occasionally chatting but our focus was on breathing in a steady rhythm to the beat of an imaginary tune and letting cadence follow.
With every meter of elevation gained the visual rewards just got better with every hairpin switching the direction of view. Rivers and waterfalls cascaded down the mountains on the other side of the valley and peaks rose all around us. A glance upwards gave a great and ominous view of the road zig zagging up the mountainside.
Gradually, gradually the snow line was creeping closer and with it the sense that we must be getting close to the mythical sign denoting the summit. Grinding up every ramp and then spinning out of the bends as the hairpins gave a moment of relief as they catapulted us around and onto the next ramp and so on. Towards the last few km of the climb the gradient became much more forgiving and the road straightened out. Rich and I hadn’t seen any of the rest of the group since Keith disappeared into the distance. As soon as we were starting to feel that the summit was within touching distance Miles pulled up alongside us and then predictably passed us and pulled away. Not quite holding his wheel the welcome sign of Keith standing by the Umbrail sign came into view. Climb one, tick. Once regrouped at the top I think it’s fair to say that the Umbrail had lulled us into a false sense of security. This alpine climbing malarkey wasn’t so tough after all.
After the obligatory selfies and group snaps at the top to prove we’d been there and not on a four-day drinking holiday, we crossed the Swiss border, which I didn’t realise at the time, and began our descent. Leaving the snowy peaks behind us we began swooping down through bend after bend, the snow line giving way to pine forest and then into Swiss chocolate box pastures where Heidi and Milka cows would
feel totally at home. Descending was much harder than I thought, I wasn’t expecting it to be so physical. By the time we were in the foothills my hands and arms were aching from constant breaking at each bend and the wind-chill had cut through my clothes and chilled me to the bone. Tom B and I came to the end of the descent together. The road began to be flanked by houses and buildings and then came to a brake squealing end at a T-junction onto a small high street. Left, or right? Tom and I knew that Neill and Rich were behind us and the others had gone on towards our lunch destination. Hoping that the chaps at the rear had the route or at least knew which way to turn, we waited for them to show up. A few minutes later four clueless cyclists were gathered. There was only one thing for it, I phoned Miles. Despite terrible reception directions were received. We set off to the right to find the others waiting for us a few km down the road. Lunch by this time was definitely calling, the angry glint in Keith’s eyes said it all. Keith is filled with pent up rage when his belly is empty.
Before reaching the restaurant that Miles had found and booked (amazing, who’s that organised?), we approached a manned border crossing back into Italy. We all had passports in our jersey pockets but they just proved to be a bit of extra weight as the guards shouted “cyclismo”, and waved us straight through.
After a welcome lunch of pasta and full fat cokes followed by more espressos it was time to saddle up again. Please don’t ask the names of either the town or the restaurant, I haven’t a Scooby, but I’m sure Miles can fill in the blanks upon request.
The next section of the ride was pretty much flat, but rather than blast along the pace was controlled, subdued even. Collectively we seemed to have unspoken agreement that this was the time to save energy in anticipation and trepidation of what was coming next.
At the foot of the classic Stelvio climb we passed an old couple on e-bikes who worryingly pointed at us laughing. The film Deliverance momentarily sprang to mind. As you start a climb like the Stelvio, it’s easy to think what’s the big deal? This isn’t so hard. The gradient is nothing compared to Whiteleaf, but Whiteleaf is over in a few minutes. The Stelvio felt relentless. I’d never done a climb longer than a couple of miles before, but Stelvio felt like it would never stop. There is a point on the climb when it stops being a physical battle and becomes a battle of will. There’s a point when your legs are too f***ed and sheer bloody-minded determination is the only thing that keeps you grinding forward ticking each slow-motion kilometer off one by draining one. This was one of the best birthdays ever!
Tom B and I were together up front at the start of the climb, I don’t know when Tom dropped off my wheel but I found myself alone as the road began to makes its ophidian patterns on the mountainside. Snaking bend after snaking bend all numbered just to remind you how far away the top still was. On some corners the names of the greats would be daubed in colourful graffiti ‘Nibali, Pantani, Coppi. We were doing what they had done, only much much slower and with no pressure other than making it to the top.
It was going well and I was passing other riders and no one had passed me. I had brief and breathy conversations with Dutch and Italians as I passed them. I knew at some point my time at the front of our merry band would come to an end. For ages, I’d been thinking how long will it be before Keith or Miles passes me. Sure enough Miles appeared at around hairpin 34. We stuck together until 30 before Miles took a last look over his shoulder and disappeared up the mountain like a ferret up a trouser leg.
Upwards and onwards watching the snow line all the time wishing it closer. The most daunting moment came when I rounded a bend and the finish comes into sight. You can see it and as the crow flies it’s not that far, but on the hair pinned ramps going on and on above there was still a lot of distance between me and it. I was starting to feel twinges of cramp in both legs which was worrying me.
It had been sunny at the bottom but as the top got closer the sky took on the colour of granite and the temperature was beginning to drop. By now I was counting the km markers painted on the road. ‘5km’. I’m going to make it. 4,3,2. 1km was a long time coming and by now I could really feel the acid burn in my legs. As I passed 500m to go my right thigh cramped up really badly and I had no choice but to jump off, lean the bike against the wall and stretch it out. 30 seconds and back on, legs feeling OK I made sure I passed the two Dutch guys who’d passed me whilst I was hopping about with cramp. 100m to go and I can see Miles snapping away as I pass (great pics Miles), a final shallow bend up to the tacky souvenir stalls and that’s it, Passo della Stelvio climbed. My first feeling was an overwhelming sense of relief, followed with a holy shit, I just did that, sense of elation, high as a kite. I hooked up with Miles, threw on layers as I was already starting to shiver and we took pictures and waited for the next arrival. Shortly Keith joined us followed by Henrik who had had an amazing climb and was looking really strong. Neill was next turning on the style, standing on the pedals and making an effort for the line. By this point the cold was getting too much so I followed Miles in search of warmth and coffee.
In the dingy, under heated cafe the Bormio 8 gathered. One final descent back down the Urbrail, the way we’d come up in the morning was all that was between us and beer and hot water.
Even with Gazetta de la Sports stuffed inside my Gabba I found it bitterly cold going down. At one point, I was shivering so hard I was finding the bike difficult to control at speed as my shivering infected the front wheel. Beautiful as the ride back into Bormio was I was glad to get back to the town. I was just too cold. As I got lower patches of sinking sun appeared between peaks giving brief pools of warmth on the road and taking the edge off my hypothermia.
Back on the streets off Bormio I headed straight for the cafe where we’d had coffee in the morning. I leaned my bike up against those already assembled there and went in for beer. Seven off the eight made it to the cafe. Neill missed the turn into Bormio at the bottom of the pass and ended up in a different town. The silver lining to this tale of woe is that he got first dibs on the shower.
A steak dinner with litres of beer and bottles of red wine later sleep was calling fore tomorrow cometh Passo de Gavia.
23 SEPT. RIDE DAY 2. MORNING – BORMIO-GAVIA-BORMIO
After doing all the usual morning stuff we were back on the road. The Bormio 8 rides again. A different direction out of town but like the previous day, the climb started immediately. The road was wide and populated by towns in the early stages but very gradually thins as if it’s losing weight with the effort of the climb. In a repeat of the previous day, as the climb started to bite we all found our own internal drum beats to ride to. Miles, Keith and I grouped together for a while. I couldn’t tell you exactly how far into the ride we were before Keith dropped us, occasionally reappearing two or three hairpins above us until he was gone from sight altogether.
Amazingly my legs were feeling pretty fresh but not fresh enough to hold onto Keith and later Miles. Miles and I rode most of the way together but I dropped off a little way before the steepest section, a 16% leg wrecker. Up until then the climb had been tough but steady, pleasure definitely outweighing pain. The narrowing winding road with steep drops were giving great views down into and across the valley, the peaks on the other side like a mirror image of the ones we were climbing.
The steep kick upwards made my leg muscles remember how much work they’d done the day before and resented being called upon to put in another heavy shift.
With a mixture of standing and sitting, a few pedal strokes of one and then the other. Not pretty but it gets you there I hit the last of the steep bit and then ‘happy days’ 4% and the road straightens. I’m on the big ring! 25kph. Not many km to the next mythical sign, where I was sure Miles and Keith would be by now relaxing in the sunshine. On the left a war memorial revealed itself from behind a curve. My heart skipped for a second, could this be the end? No bikes and the road is still rising. Another curve and I could see distant people, motor
bikes, a couple of buildings, bikes and the sign.
Another slight kick up at the end wasn’t going to slow me down now. I actually managed an effort to stand up and sprint for the line. Passo de Gavia, I rip off your head and spit down your neck.
Once the company was assembled, photos taken, rich hot chocolates and Mars bars consumed we turned tail and went back the way we’d come. Feeling warmer and more confident the descent was such fun. We more or less managed to stay together as group gliding effortlessly through the hairpins. Dare I say it, we looked quite pro, only half the speed and twice the age. That was until we had a comedy of errors moment. As we reached Bormio’s neighbouring towns Henrik hit a bump in the road. It was like Buckaroo. His seat pack flew off in one direction and a bidon in another. I slammed on the brakes ready to go and recover some of the contents of Henrik’s handbag. My sharp braking set off the emergency alert on my Garmin which had decided I’d crashed. F***, f***, f*** it’s sending an alert to my wife! Pootling along trying to disable the damn thing I rode like a fool straight into Henrik’s stationary bike while he was reattaching his bits. I needed food but humble pie wasn’t what I had in mind. After profuse apology, we got going just as the rain was starting to fall. We arrived back in a damp and virtually deserted Bormio.
After a quick hunt around the cobbled streets we sat out the rain and ate pasta. By the time the bill was paid the rain had cleared. Time for another bit of climbing. A mere 12 km long this time. Eating pasta for lunch really seemed to do the trick because if possible my legs felt stronger than in the morning. The usual,order of things was soon established with Keith setting a testing pace at the front with Miles and I close behind. Even Miles commented on Keith’s effort as we hung onto him.
A half dozen or so hairpins from the end Miles found his legs and popped off the front. Keith was still strong but slowing. I needed a back stretch so stood out of the saddle to relieve my lower spine and told Keith to plough on. To my surprise, now seated, I was still within meters of Keith and gaining. Keith had done all the work and Miles and I were going to summit before him. Oh, cruel world. Once at the top, I’m sure the climb has a name but I’ve no idea what it is, we attempted to ride around the lake before heading down. That plan was scuppered by the road turning into gravel track. Nothing for it. Pub time. After a roller coaster ride back to Bormio we abandoned our beloved bikes unsecured in the busy street and went for large beers and more cycling (on TV).
Back at the apartments we refueled on several bottles of Chianti, beers, take-away pizza and Lemoncella shots. With alcohol bravado we discussed the idea of the Mortirolo in the morning for our last ride.
24 SEPT. RIDE DAY 3. BORMIO 2000
Morning came, and the weather had been wet overnight. Radio silence from the apartment downstairs. Thankfully the Mortirolo looked like it was off the table. A quick group chat later and we’d decided on the Bormio 2000, the ride the pros do on their day off. My legs were definitely tired today. Turning left from our abode, as usual, the climbing was immediate. We ascended zig zagging under the ski lift. The roads were rough and frost damaged in places as well as wet. For me this climb was great fun but also a knackered grind. All my efforts felt spent for now so I just plodded up the 9km climb, Rich a 100m in front and Neill 100m behind. I was counting down the km on my Garmin so when 9km ticked over I was expecting to see the end. No such joy, another two hairpins and then a rough concrete surfaced car park but no bikes. At the far end I spotted Rich’s back wheel disappear around a corner up a steep ramp. I followed and found myself face to face with an orange plastic palm tree. Just what you expect at a ski lift station. Final photo call. Once we’d all had our David Bailey moments we did our final cautious descent into Bormio. A final hot chocolate was calling. We parked up in the town square and went to a cafe where we ordered the thickest richest hot chocolates ever and sausage rolls that turned out to be Apple strudels. Whipped cream with sausage rolls would have been an acquired taste.
And that is the end. Obviously, there were bikes to pack and flights to catch but I doubt you want to hear about that. We’ve
done the good stuff and my fingers ache.
It’s worth taking a moment to reflect before I wrap up. What did we learn? Compact, not semi on the Stelvio. Keith becomes psycho-Keith when he’s hungry. Disable Garmin emergency alert setting. Miles is an organisational genius.
Henrik isn’t really Danish, he’s a Glasgow NED. Put eight blokes together with one common interest and they get on really well, have a laugh and are all great company. And apparently, I snore like a happy lion. Oh, and another thing, the Passo de Swing Gate Lane climb. Mrs Parkes-McQueen kindly left the car at the foot of the hill, the midnight ascent was a breeze.