Sunday, August 30, 2015

STELVIO! Open day on the Stilfserjoch

The Stelvio Pass is a monster.

The final 14 of 48 switchback hairpin turns to the summit.

The second highest paved road pass in the Alps, it towers above the nearby valleys. The iconic switchbacks of the southern slope are layered on top of one another, a bitter fondant of pitiless pavement spilling down the side of a cake of stone and earth.

The pass has been a grand feature of the annual Giro d’Italia more than 10 times since 1953, and the first man to win a stage here is immortalized on every sign and every building at the peak of the pass. Cima Coppi.

Once a year the pass is closed to vehicles and thousands of cyclists take to the road to test themselves against the almost 6,000 feet of vertical gain and 48 hairpin turns in less than 15 miles. It’s a bucket list ride for any serious cyclist and this August I decided it was my turn.

Getting to the town of Prato allo Stelvio (or Prad am Stilfserjoch) begins the narrative of what it means to climb Stelvio. As Char and I drove north we left the Dolomites behind and entered the Alps.

They were silent, sleeping giants dormant under a thick verdant blanket of forests, rising straight up from the valley floor. Farms and vineyards clung to the side of the sheer sides of the mountains.

But, when we arrived in Prato, the mountains were awake. Stone soldiers stood upright, their tops bear rock and ice, looming over travellers, menacingly beautiful and terrifying. These imposing sentinels had torn free of their forested blankets, ripping through the green fabric to reach skyward with helmets capped with snow and ice. We could feel their presence everywhere, towering above the towns and villages, almost as though at any moment a giant stone hand would come crashing down from above.

Everywhere you look there's a snowy peak staring back at you.
Less intimidating, but no less interesting, the farther we drove north the less Italian everything became. Each town had both the Italian and German translation of its name on every sign, and increasingly the German name was printed first. The people we met spoke German, the radio stations were in German, and German food and bier was the norm. The houses lost their colorful Mediterranean flare, replaced with white washed walls, timber braces and steep roofs. Even in mid-August, everything seemed poised for the onslaught of long and hard winters.

We spent the night in a nearby town of Solda (Sulden) at a bed and breakfast tucked into the back of a hidden valley. Dinner was bratwurst (of course!) with fried potatoes and a bean salad that the cook claimed was a Mexican salad. Washed down with some local Italian craft beer that was actually pretty good we crashed on the double twin mattresses in our room before an early start.

The B&B had prepped a cold breakfast for us, and we grabbed what we could carry and took off on the road while the stars were still shining overhead. Twenty minutes down oppressively dark hairpin turns and we began to see the first riders already launching their rides to the summit.

The game plan was simple. Ride to the summit of the pass, descend down the backside into Switzerland to avoid the crowds, and ride back around to Prato after crossing the border into Italy. I had enough Euro to cover food at any stops, and my passport to keep from having to ride back up the mountain, just in case the border was less than friendly. I would meet Char back in Prato, get cleaned up, and head for home over three hours drive away.

Char pulled into a park just on the outside of Prato and kicked me out into the road to start my climb. It was 0630, and still cold in the mountains, hovering around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature was supposed to climb all day, peaking in the mid 80s with lots of sunshine so I gambled that my vest would be enough to survive the early cold and later the descent down the backside of the pass into Switzerland.

A look of uncertainty or determination?
The first half hour was an easy warm up, getting my legs used to the constant pushing and pulling of the pedals, warming my lungs up in the thin air and thinking out how much thinner it would be in a couple hours. I stopped briefly in the town of Gomagoi to pull off my vest and then kept going.

The road sloped gently up farther into the valley, and I could just make out the stony and icy peaks of the mountains we were all riding to cross. I rode six miles along a rushing and bitterly cold looking river before the first switchback appeared. Number 48, with 47 more to go.

The road cut steeply up the side of the valley, walled in on either side by a dense forest of tall pines. Whenever there was a break in the trees, the real majesty of the alpine valley was exposed and it was hard not to stop every single time to take a picture and just drink in the expansive views of pitched stone and ice rising above the thick forests.

Switchbacks were stacked on top of switchbacks, with no relief in the constantly uphill gradient of pavement other than the strategically placed water stations and much appreciated porta johns. Halfway up the mountain the road emerged from the trees and turned into the upper valley of the Stelvio Pass. There was a gasthof (tavern) situated right on the edge of the upper valley with a full view down into the lower river valley. Several of the older riders were turning into the drive way but I wasted no time and kept plugging upwards.

By now, my legs were aching and my lungs starting to burn with fatigue and deprivation. The sun was fully out and the grass and shrub of the upper valley offered no protection. I counted down the switchbacks as I climbed, the descending number motivating my ascent.

34, over a quarter of the way there.

22, past the halfway point.

14, I’m on the final stretch now.

Once I hit the single digits, the real pain began. My lungs couldn’t get enough air to feel adequate. My legs were burning furiously, and there was no easier gear to switch into. My back ached, and even my arms struggled to grip the handlebars and hold my upper body up. I dared not stop, even to take a picture, for fear of never starting again.

Reaching the top is almost always hard to describe. There’s relief, joy, incredible euphoria, and a great sense of accomplishment. But there’s also pain from the climb, the hard ride, the great expenditure of energy and effort. And then there’s a sense of loss, too. The climb is over, the challenge met and overcome and now it’s no longer something I can look forward to, it’s something that I’ve already done. It’s in the past.

Tired but very happy.
Putting all the emotional strife aside, there were lots of riders recovering, lots of vendors hawking knickknacks and cycling apparel, and, most importantly, bratwurst and beer everywhere. I made the decision to skip a bier after imagining what it would be like to fall off the mountain and opted for a bratwurst on brown bread with sauerkraut and mustard instead.

He claimed he had the finest sausages in the Alps, and they were very tasty.
After refueling and stretching my legs, it was time to start downhill.

I pulled my vest back on, pulled my scarf up, dumped the rock out of my shoe that’d been terrorizing me the last half hour (how it got there, I don’t know) and pointed my bike downhill. This side of the pass was much more open, miles of brown grass and shrub, before the valley dropped sharply into a thick forest of pine amidst sharp switchbacks.

Very quickly I left the noise of the summit behind, the music, the sound of brat vendors calling to customers, riders shouting to friends and encouraging those just reaching the summit. There was nothing but the rush of air and the clanging of cowbells from the sparse herds grazing on the slopes.

Looking down the backside. To the right is Switzerland.
There were very few riders climbing this side and they mostly clung to the very edge as they struggled slowly upward. With no cars to worry about, I could finally let go and really enjoy the long breathtaking descent. I braked hard for the hairpin turns and then let the bike run free downhill. Even when the edge of the road wasn’t a steep dropoff into a rocky or pine abyss there was a sensation of being very high up. It was exhilarating and, when combined with the speed of flying down the mountain, left me laughing loudly. Not a creepy laugh, just one of pure joy and fun. It was a laughter I hadn’t felt in a while, and the only way to accurately express how if felt racing through the Alps.

Somewhere on the road I crossed into Switzerland, but couldn’t tell any difference until I reached Santa Maria Val Mustair and could see the road signs and businesses labeled entirely in German. Here a local policeman stood with batons to direct all riders onto a local trail to avoid the downtown area. We circumvented Santa Maria but also navigated a half-mile of rough dirt and gravel trail. Not the easiest thing on my skinny tires.

Soon afterward I crossed back into Italy, a cursory wave of the hand from the border guard and my passport remained buried deep in a jersey pocket.

The road descended further into the valley, and I was joined (or caught up to) several other riders racing down the mountain. Together, we flew along the road, leaning through sweeping turns and tucking down into our bikes to scream along the straightaways.

The final five miles that led from Glorenza (Glurns) to Prato were mostly flat or slightly uphill. I had thought my legs were too spent to do anything serious after climbing Stelvio, but was surprised to find something left in the tank after all. I pounded along the road, slowly dropping the group I had been descending with and reeling in others that had left earlier. I kept up a blistering pace and my lungs were heaving with the effort when I pulled into Prato.

The festa scheduled for the riders climbing Stelvio was only just being put up, the tents still empty and the beer kegs not yet tapped. It had taken almost three and a half hours to climb the 15 miles to Stelvio, but only little more than an hour to finish the 25 miles back to Prato. The temperature was well into the 80s and I was grateful to be off the bike before it got much warmer.

Char and I found each other, and I changed out of my sweaty kit with a quick baby wipe bath before the long drive back home.

Lessons learned:

Bratwurst mit brot und sauerkraut und mustard is great riding fuel but a beer is dependent on the total meters you might fall when crashing into the railing of a steep switchback.

Also, fig newtons help prevent bratwurst burps while riding.

It’s ok to not find the right words to describe something as majestic as the Alps. Words can be powerful, pictures more so, but often nothing compares to the emotional experience of witnessing true magnificence and beauty in person.

This is especially true when you’re 8 miles into a 15 mile, almost 6,000 foot ascent on your bike and have to pee. How do you really describe that experience to someone?