Last week we announced a new section on Velominati devoted to the great cathedral of our sport, The Rides. More than just a listing of the must-do rides for any Velominatus, this section also houses the accounts of these rides. Today, we submit the first of these articles.
Last summer, longtime community member Joe worshiped in the cathedral of the greatest climbs in Italy in a 130k, 3800m ride. This would be a hard ride on any occasion, fully supported. Unsupported and in suffocating heat? In his own words, “Apologies if it is a bit epic….it seemed that way to me!”
Yours in Cycling,
5am and I’m up, packing gels, tubes and a half hundred weight of camera and pump into a groaning V-kit. The destination is Bormio and a loop taking in two of the greats. Whisper it, but I’ve never tackled a proper mountain before and the thought of riding two monuments in a day has held me in a paroxysm of awestruckness for months. The Giro is my favourite grand tour and of all the mountains it crosses, the Gavia is surely the most evocative. It’s natural counterpart, the Mortirolo, perhaps more sinister – it’s most celebrated ascendant shrouded in shadow as much as the monument that marks his legendary attack back in 1994. I’m almost overwhelmed with a sense of place and an expectation of great suffering.
But first I have to get there and the misty 2-lane that snakes around Lake Como is still dark, with not even the dawn patrol out pounding roads yet. I get snarled up in traffic in Sondrio and worry about a late start. In the last few days, the temperature has strolled through 35 in the afternoons and a short test up a local climb saw me spritz my way to a heatstroke. I’ve got the radio tuned to an Italian rock station where a local presenter ascribes lacklustre hits an undeserved intellectual rigor until a few familiar notes pick out something darker. We’re back in 1970, Creedence. 200 million guns are loaded and the devil’s on the loose….the mountains close in around me as I fret the last few kilometers to the start. Bat country.
In Bormio, I stick the car under a supermarket, surreptitiously change into my kit and roll out. A million or so virtual ascents made the choice to stick the Mortirolo first a simple one. A 1300m climb over 12k, with 7k in the middle averaging a knee trembling 12.5%, cause an involuntary groan at its every inclusion in the Giro. COTHO described it as ‘perfect for a mountain bike’, Pantani blasted up it in a still unbeaten 42 minutes. Both suffered horribly.
Looking at the map, it’s a 35k run down the valley from Bormio to Mazzo di Valtellina at the foot of the col, a perfect warm up and on the face of things, mostly downhill. To avoid the psychotic Italian tunnels, a lesser road guides you down to the seat of the valley and follows the river along. Or would do if the whole thing wasn’t shut off for hydroelectric works. I pause to ask a grizzled old chap, busy keeping the rain off a treestump, for directions. I’m sent up what turns out to be a stiff little climb. The road is officially closed and the absence of traffic adds an eerie quality as it switchbacks up the mountain. After a solid 450m of ascending it levels off and swoops back down towards the valley in a gently curving chute.
It’s a perfect, sunny day and already warm as I greet Mazzo. I stop for a picture and chew on a shotblock or two at the foot of the climb and imagine what’s ahead. The mountain is monolithic. There are no jagged peaks, or dramatic snow caps…it just looms up in front of you, oppressively close, like a huge, malevolent green wall. I fiddle with my musette and adjust a few pockets to distract myself, then set off.
Although the first few kilometers are supposedly the most shallow, they are very inconsistent. 14% ramps break up false flats as you climb up a series of switchbacks past mountain lodges and seemingly straight up the side of the valley. I’d been drilling myself to take it easy on these first slopes but the changes in gradient and constant twists and turns make it very difficult to settle into a rhythm. Nevertheless, I’m comfortably turning over 39-25. That is , until I get to the trees.
The demarcation to the green hell is reached as you pass the last of the houses and plunge into the forest. The tree canopy is dense and any view of the valley or surroundings disappears. Fractal green light filters through the leaves, spotlighting occasional silvery patches of tarmac and conjures up visions of Indy creeping through the tunnel at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark…The gradient ramps up and a sign indicates there are only 38 hairpins before the top. Almost immediately, I’m down into 39-26/28, trying to keep things fluid. The road is beyond sinuous and the effect of the foliage is reminiscent of a very painful crawl out of a verdant cave. The pain cave.
After a while, I surmise that I’m into the ‘challenging’ middle section and between sotto voce cursing, ruminate on how long it is before I break out. The profile suggests that once you reach the Pantani monument, there are a couple of kilometers left of suffrage, then cowbell as you break out of the treeline and onto the baby slopes before the summit. I have neglected to recall at which hairpin the monument features, however, so am forced to toil on through the gloaming in the bondage of ignorance. At about the half way point, I spot two other riders up ahead. Both are stooped over the front, shoulders wagging. I grind inexorably closer and we exchange a few sharp words in Italian. Duro. Cazzo. Puta. I try and remember the word for gearing and fail but a sympathetic nod from the guy in front at my chainset indicates he already understands the extent of my folly. Both are on compacts with pie plate back cogs and for a while I fantasize about being able to drop a few ratios to relieve the pain.
Soon I’m on my own again and two or three kilometers up the road, I spot blue sky for the first time. To the left there is a small lodge and an incongruously hot Italian girl playing with a dog in the garden. I croak out a warbly Ciao as I pass and foolish pride spurs me on to click up a gear and head for the blue. Any effort in the saddle has the front wheel pawing at the air, so I try and keep light and over the front. Reaching the next corner, the first real view of the valley opens out and it truly is magnificent. It’s almost impossible to believe how far you’ve climbed in such a short distance but any celebration is tempered by the realization of how far there is to go. It’s impossible to see anything but trees….a huge impregnable, bastard wall with no welcoming bald patch of alpine grass to cap it. Shortly after I stop and swear for what must be two solid minutes. Eat a gel. Calm down.
Not long after, I reach the Pantani monument. A Dutch guy is setting up for a picture and we swap photos. He has cooled off and looks slick, I am a complete mess.
It’s a sombre spot. Faded bandanas and water bottles are pinned to a mossy wall and the rusty ironwork lends an tawdry feeling of neglect. Maybe not so many people visit the Mortirolo after all. Modern cycling would no doubt like to shut away memories of Marco and the era he represented. Kicked off his beloved Giro in 1999 for elevated haemocrit values, he never really recovered. It wasn’t too many years later, in a crappy hotel room in Rimini, that he checked out for good.
Finally I get cowbell….I NEED more cowbell. With about 5 Tornates to go, I break the trees and emerge blinking into sunshine. It really does feel easy here and as I reach the last couple of twists, a picnicking Italian couple give me a cheer and get me out of the saddle and sur la plaque for the summit. For all the grouching about the ascent, it’s only taken me about an hour and 10 to get up and despite the unchartered climb on the way to Mazzo, I’m still ahead of schedule….Still, with freshly surfaced mac that could grace a racetrack, new wheels and some epic carbone it would be rude not to press the advantage….The descent to Monno is awesome – technical and swoopy but with enough links for you to rest your wrists between stops. The new (for me) bike is SO much stiffer and more responsive than my old steel and is a joy carving down the piste. Much to their surprise, I manage to skin 3 German motorbikes through a particularly tortuous section and don’t see them again until the bottom. Satisfaction.
At Monno, there is a left turn on to the strada statale up to Ponte di Legno and the base of the Gavia. The link is no more than 30k and in normal circumstances would be dispensed with in short order. To my alarm however, not only has the temperature crept up into the early 30s, but a strong wind is blowing down the valley and making progress more grueling than it should be. I overload on the remaining gels earmarked for the Mortirolo and press on, arriving in Ponte di Legno just after midday. Stopping for an espresso and brioche I contemplate a more comprehensive lunch but after a decent rest the rising tempteratures become alarming. Not wanting to lose momentum, I roll out and into the most impressive navigation snafu of the trip. Passo di Gavia. Passo Tonale. I want the first but get several hundred metres of the second as an unwelcome lagniappe. Once I’m sorted and back down into Ponte di Legno, it’s 35 degrees and the sun is blazing down on the full face of the climb.
The view up is alpine classic. Dark green fading through to light grey with snow caps and the moisture in the air blending the boundaries of mountain and sky. It is bastard fucking hot and within 6k of the start I’ve already drunk nearly a full bottle of water. I manage to find a spring to refill and carry on, thanking Frank for his perspicacity in having made the V Jerseys fully zipped. Despite the gradient not ramping much over 10%, the sun is right on the back of my neck and truly oppressive. I’m in 39/28 almost immediately and really struggling with the heat. Everything is so open after the gloom of the Mortirolo and I’m forced to manically zig zag through ever decreasing patches of shade. As the road narrows onto the climb proper, you hit the steepest section and there is absolutely no cover whatsoever. It’s so hot you can hear the tyres peeling from the surface of the road as the tarmac softens and melts the resins in the pine leaves. The smell adds to my overall headiness and I’m stopping fairly frequently to hide behind rocks to get out of the heat.
Rather than hairpins, progress is marked by Kilometre signs and these are demoralisingly infrequent. At around 10k to go, even ardent rationing of water has failed and I run completely dry. For the first time, I contemplate giving up. There is absolutely no way that I will make it to the top without fluids. There is very little traffic and nothing to see for miles around. I’m out of the treeline now and the peak is frighteningly distant and still bathed in sunlight. Butterflies are dancing pretty arabesques through the spokes as the last few drops of water in my body splish down on the stem and grips. Just at the point I’m about to crack, I spot a black hosepipe running down the margin of the road on the right. Putting 2 and 2 together, I follow it for an interminable half kilometer or so until it branches up and breaks off. There is a torrent of deliciously cold water, spouting out of the side of the mountain and putting the fear of cholera to one side I soak the V-Kit, fill my bottles and quaff a litre or so. The relief is amazing. Far from the Gavia of Andy Hampsten’s legendary battle in 88, this climb has been a hellish, Ventoux-esque death march and until I found the spring I was genuinely a bit concerned that all would be OK. With spirits lifted I nail the remainder of my food and get going again.
At about 5k to go, there is a tunnel. It’s unlit, un-galleried and turns in the middle so that once you enter, you float along in ethereal darkness until it rounds the bend and you can see the exit. It’s one of the purest moments of the climb as the temperature falls and you labour up in complete sensory isolation. The opportunity to cool down is wonderful and by the time I exit the tunnel, I’m feeling much stronger. We’re well above 2000m now and the temp is still in the mid 20s but a world of difference from the torrid bottom slopes. Despite the gradient picking up again at the top, I’m back up in 39-25 and with a bit of zig zagging, finally making decent progress. A series of hairpins rolls up into the sky and around a rocky out crop you’re there. Rifugio Bonetti. Loads of cyclists, sat out in the sun under the glacier and a safe, happy end to the suffering. I snap a pic of me next to the sign and head for the bar for the best beer ever. Fucking A.
In retrospect, the descent into Bormio could’ve been an anti-climax. The road is rutted and scarred for the first couple of kilometers and it is difficult to get a groove. Blessedly as it smoothed, I was lucky enough to hook up onto the back of a local Italian group who flat out pasted it. (They were probably at Sunday cruise speed…..) By the time we got down, we’d overtaken a stupid amount of traffic and hit the last 3k line astern, spinning out in 52-11. I actually cheered and punched the air once we hit the town which amused the locals. A thermometer read 38 degrees.
It had been the best and toughest few hours I’d ever spent on a bike and the feeling of pure elation remains difficult to describe. Back in the car, I got rock radio Italia fired up again and punched my way out of the valley with the sounds of the Stones… Jumpin Jack Flash, it’s a gas gas gas.
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