Archive for November, 2014

Fred Climbs Stelvio Pass

When I decided to travel to Italy to ride the inaugural GFNY Italia in September, a fellow rider suggested I give Stelvio Pass a try while there. I must admit, at the time I hardly knew what Stelvio was, but I did know that it was an epic climb. After a little research, I decided that the highest paved road in the Italian Alps was a challenge I was ready to tackle.

Let’s start from the end and take a look at my ride profile:


And the elevation profile…
Stelvio Elevation

 

 

 

 

Yep, simple enough – just up and down. It’s a long slog, though, and the weather was cold and wet, which is pretty normal here. So now let’s go back to¬†the beginning…

Since Tracy doesn’t cycle, or drive, we planned for a few days in Lake Como where she could take the ferry to several lake towns and I could drive to Bormio for the ride up Stelvio Pass. Here’s a quick summary of the ride to Bormio:

A long, slow ride made longer and slower by this truck

A long, slow ride made longer and slower by this truck

One of many beautiful, hillside towns along the drive to Bormio

One of many beautiful, hillside towns along the drive to Bormio

Along with hillside towns come hillside vineyards

Along with hillside towns come hillside vineyards

Bormio - the base of Stelvio Pass

Bormio – the base of Stelvio Pass

The drive seemed to take forever. Not only was I anxious to get on the bike and climb, but the weather called for deteriorating conditions, so I felt like every delay meant increased chance of rain. And cold. And here’s how the ride began:

Geared up and ready to take on the climb behind me into the clouds

Geared up and ready to take on the climb behind me into the clouds

Should I do Gavia instead?!?

Should I do Gavia instead?!?

And so the climb begins

And so the climb begins

Lots of cloud layers as the elevation rises

Lots of cloud layers as the elevation rises

One of many stops along the climb

One of many stops along the climb

And one of many tunnels along the climb

And one of many tunnels along the climb

Still early enough in the climb for me to smile

Still early enough in the climb for me to smile

Any road with warnings to use tire chains must be in the mountains

Any road with warnings to use tire chains must be in the mountains

One of the views over my shoulder

One of the views over my shoulder

Only 33 more switchbacks to go

Only 33 more switchbacks to go

OK – so now things are getting interesting. The ride so far has been great – pretty steady climbing averaging 8% with about +/- 2% and no real surprises. The few motorists I’ve seen have been exceptionally courteous, often waiting for quite a while behind me before passing cautiously. I only saw one rider during my ascent and he was a mountain biker near the bottom. The scenery has been amazing and the weather has been mostly dry (light mist occasionally) and quite tolerable.

But here’s where things get interesting. I made two short videos to document part of the ride, so I’ll let “me” tell the story. Please forgive me, I’m really no good at this “video selfie” stuff.

Video #1

Video #2

 

So, again, my video skills and awkward storytelling won’t win me an Oscar, or anything like it, but, heck, I’M ON STELVIO!

As the terrain changes

As the terrain changes

The iconic photo of all the switchbacks I've done so far

The iconic photo of all the switchbacks I’ve done so far

Two German tourists offered to take some action shots

Two German tourists offered to take some action shots

About 2/3 of the way to the top

About 2/3 of the way to the top

At this point things start to change dramatically – the terrain, the scenery, the weather – everything. Up to here (about 10 miles into the 14 mile climb) I’ve felt pretty good. The climb has been steady other than the one 14% kick around the midpoint and I’m tired, but hardly exhausted. In fact, I’m in a good rhythm and excited to keep going. There are some interesting farms and buildings up here and the summit feels within reach.

But as I continue, the weather deteriorates quickly. The wind continues to pick up, the mist turns to steady rain and the temperature drops a few more degrees approaching freezing, but far enough from it to make it through and not need to worry about ice. Make no mistake, though – it’s cold enough that there’s snow near the summit, snow that is left over from last winter.

And then comes the real surprise. I don’t know how I missed this on the ride profiles I reviewed, but the last 4km gradually kicks back up to 14%. Being unexpected, at the end of the climb and in bad weather, I was pretty demoralized. But slowly, I did push through and reach the summit.

Relics along the way

Relics along the way

Should I finish the climb (to the right) or just head to Switzerland?

Should I finish the climb (to the right) or just head to Switzerland?

Very little vegetation at this higher elevation

Very little vegetation at this higher elevation

Finally, the summit is in sight!

Finally, the summit is in sight!

Yes, that's snow over my shoulder, in September

Yes, that’s snow over my shoulder, in September

I MADE IT! Well, not quite - there's a little more to go

I MADE IT! Well, not quite – there’s a little more to go

OK - NOW I've made it to the summit!

OK – NOW I’ve made it to the summit!

As I took this photo at the summit, the steady rain turned to a downpour. I had originally hoped to get a coffee and maybe a snack before the descent, but now I was worried that the rain wouldn’t stop and the longer I waited the worse the descent. I found an overhand and slowly added my rain vest, rain gloves, headgear and rain covers for my shoes. I did this slowly because, well, I was darn cold at this point!

Fully dressed for the ride down, I braved the rain and got started. The first few switchbacks were the hardest – wet and cold, hands stiff, and no guardrails. But the rain slowed and my paced gradually picked up as I got more comfortable with the road conditions.

Changing weather on the descent

Changing weather on the descent

Some sun peaking through as I descend

Some sun peaking through as I descend

Despite any sun, the descent was darn chilly!

Despite any sun, the descent was darn chilly!

There was a small section of the pass under construction with only one lane open and workers holding traffic. On the ride down, I was waiting there when another rider approached – the second and last rider I’d see all day. He was from Colorado and much more comfortable with these “hills” than I was, so when the traffic continued he pulled away rather quickly. I was happy to take my time down the mountain, enjoying the ease of dropping after the pain and accomplishment of climbing.

When I got to the base, I stripped out of wet gear, changed into somewhat dry clothes (there’s only so much you can do in a public parking lot) and began the drive back to Lake Como. I blasted the heat for about 45-minutes before I had fully overcome the chill, but by the time I got back to meet Tracy, I felt terrific.

Stelvio Pass was an incredible experience and I’ve definitely been bitten by the bug of the “Epic Climbs” and want to do more of them. Perhaps GFNY Mont Ventoux will be next. We’ll see!