Monday, July 28, 2008

European Cycling 2008 -- Tuesday, June 17th

Prato allo Stelvio (Prad allo Stilfserjoch)-Gomagoi-Trafoi-Passo Stelvio (StilfersJoch) 2753m
16 miles
Climbing 6003 ft

Technically, the Dolomites are part of the Italian Alps. During our tour, Tim and I were basically riding the entire high Alpine chain in a big crescent shape, starting with the Dolomites, then west to the Italian and French high Alps, and then south to the Mediterranean Sea by way of the Maritime Alps. Riding the Stelvio and Gavia would put us in the very high true Italian Alps.

The Stelvio is the pass that European cyclists rank as their number one most desirable alpine pass, and given the competition, that is pretty strong testimony. Having seen still photographs and the occasional Giro footage, I knew what to expect…but I didn’t really know what to expect, if you know what I mean.

The word “Stelvio” seems to roll off of the tongue, certainly more fluidly than “SlilfersJoch”, the German name for the pass. The Stelvio was to be our first ascent to over 9000’ altitude, and it would be accomplished entirely in rain…and then snow.

Our plan was to climb and descend the Stelvio, and then climb the Gavia, the pass made famous by Andy Hampstein, the only American to win the Giro in 1988. He rode through a heavy May snow to ride into the pink jersey on a day when many riders abandoned the race.

Given that yesterday was shortened due to weather conditions, we were determined to tough it out like Andy. Tim and I certainly didn’t want two “rest” days in a row with two real ones at Lake Como coming up!

The classic approach from the North to the Stelvio rises 6000 vertical feet over a distance of 16 miles for an average grade of 7.1%. The climb started almost immediately upon departing from the Hotel Zentral in Prato allo Stelvio, the attractive village where we had spent the night. There is an official “starting line” painted on the road, but you really don’t need it to let you know where you are.

The rain started as a light drizzle, and transitioned into a steady rain as we ascended the lower valley up to the ski village of Trafoi and the Hotel Bellavista, run by Olympic ski champion Gustav Thoni.

The Stelvio has 48 numbered switchbacks and the first, numbered 48, is low on the climb. In general, the higher you go, the closer the switchbacks get. There was a lot of distance between #48 and #47, and it gave me plenty of time to devise a strategy to make the climb more enjoyable (survivable?). Last year on the final ascent to Hautacam in the Pyrenees (a 14,000’ climbing day including the Peyersourde, Aspin, and Tourmalet cols), I was suffering on the last few kilometers. Each kilometer had signage detailing a drawing of a cyclist and the upcoming average grade. During the long stretches between kilometers and as the number went first from eight to nine and then 10 toward the top, I tried to focus on some pleasant experience that Tracy and I had shared.

For the Stelvio, I tried to reconstruct my life at my age of the number of the switchback. As the climb got harder as I rode higher, it became more and more difficult to fill up each kilometer with specific memories, but I gave it my best effort, and it really did help. It was an odd situation in that I wanted the experience of the climb to go on forever, but it was a hard climb and I needed to take my mind off of that as I also focused on enjoying the moment and my surroundings. At around age 5 I gave up, and just focused on the matter at hand.

Even in the rain, it was almost surreal to be able to look upward at the switchbacks yet to come, and back down the steep mountainside to switchbacks already conquered. Toward the top, I spied a rider in a blue jersey gaining on me from below. During the climb, the sensations in my legs had made me well aware of the previous three days of effort in the Dolomites, and I quickly factored in the pending ascent of the monster Gavia. But I wondered: Should I go for it, amp up the effort, and try and finish the Stelvio ahead of this anonymous rider I would never see again? Common sense prevailed, and I continued at my steady pace, and was overtaken just before the final 10% section leading to the top of the pass.

I watched him “touch” the top, do a U-turn, and head right back down. As he was the only rider besides Tim that I saw on the entire climb, I took some consolation from the fact that it was likely he had come out that morning to “time trial” his local climb in the rain. In any case, I doubt he was planning on 25 more hard alpine climbs over the next week and a half! Other than Tim, who was incredibly strong during the entire trip, this was to be the only rider that went by me.

In what seemed like a repeat of yesterday, it was 36 degrees on the top of the pass. Unlike yesterday’s sleet, today we had real, tangible snowflakes falling on us. While we didn’t have the classic alpine vistas we had hoped for on top, during the climb it was spectacularly scenic. The valley below was a narrow ribbon, and the towering rock and ice walls of the opposing mountains seemed amazingly close. So close that on the lower slopes of the climb, I spied a cross high on the ridge, and higher up a climber’s refuge hut.

With great reluctance, we skipped the Fausto Coppi memorial, and climbed into the waiting car. No one was paying us to risk taking a severe fall, something that was a definite possibility on a long hypothermic descent of the Stelvio. We considered riding in the car to the foot of the Gavia, and grinding up another 5500’ of climbing. We were confident that we could motivate ourselves to emerge from the car, remount our bikes, and give it a go, but given that our legs would likely feel like cement, we declined. Once more, and despite all of the controversy surrounding cycle racing at the highest level, I was blown away by the level of commitment required to succeed at the top level of the greatest endurance sport in the world.

The rain eased as we moved away from the high mountains. The clouds that remained as we approached the Lake Como region would prove to be the last ones we would see for the rest of the trip.

Difficulty 10 (9 if adjusted for the shortened day)
Quality 10+ (An incredible experience!)
Route 10+ (Pre-requisite for Highway ‘construction 101)
Scenery 10 (Even if we didn’t see much of it)

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