Gran Fondo Stelvio Santini June 2nd 2013
The long version is 152kms with 4100m of ascent. Let’s kick off with a cliché….Ignorance is Bliss.
It includes the climb to the hillside village of Teglio (846m) 3.6kms at 9.5%, 355m gain; the ascent of the Mortirolo (1727m) 11.1 kms at 10.6%, 1180m gain; and a finale on the Passo de Stelvio (2758m) 22kms at 7.1%, 1533m of height gain.
Most accounts of the climb of the Mortirolo concern the roads which lead away from the villages of Grosio or Mazzo di Valtelina, but our quest started from the village of Tova di Sant’ Agata, just North of Lovero and south of Mazzo. The route was apparently used in last year’s Giro.
It is a narrow tree lined lane which offers good protection from the sun. Dan led the way on 34/32 and I immediately followed suit with a bottom gear of 34/30. This state of affairs continued for about 8 kilometres at an average speed of 7 km p.h. It was deathly quiet apart from the occasional chatter of Italian voices further up the climb. Gradients of 7% when they came were a welcome respite from the general 13/14% and steep ramps of up to 20%.
Finally, in the 9th kilometre there is about 600m of flat riding, but alas, nothing left in the legs to take advantage of this gift. At the 10 kilometre mark, something terrible happens. The road surface changes from tarmac to concrete, and then from concrete to a kind of goat track. It reaches for the sky, twisting and turning like a tornado. The gradient hit 23% for approximately 500m. At the third switchback I looked up at the next steep ramp and promptly tipped over sideways, unable to clip out in time to avoid the fall.
It was probably a blessing in disguise. You see, as I lay underneath the Dura Ace componentry and mercifully light carbon frame, my heart rate subsided from 198 bpm ( I am 54) to 153 bpm. After a few minutes of bewilderment mixed with relief, I remounted and under extreme duress, made it to the summit. Dan and Ian were waiting for me. We were among the last riders on the road.
But let us go back to the start. Even as we waited to leave Bormio, an Italian rider fell onto the front wheel of my bike whilst attempting to have his photo taken. In a flash all 800 or so riders had vanished leaving us poor ingénues, Ian, Mark and myself, to play catch up. The pace was frantic. Dan had plenty of experience of Italian sportives, and had warned us that it was a race in all respects bar name.
The first 45 kms is pretty much downhill all the way, 700m of descent, and we had a good tailwind. It barely took an hour to reach the town of Tirano before we were ushered towards the pitched climb of the Teglio by some of the multitude of volunteers. This was a tough introduction to my Italian cycling experience. The lower slopes tested our fresh legs with 12 to 16% inclines for 3.5kms culminating in a welcome ristoro which translates to refreshment stop. Plenty of fresh fruit on offer with juices, pizza, cake and so on, doled out in a friendly and encouraging manner.
The drop from Teglio was exhilarating and the traffic had been stopped in the lower village of Tresenda as we hit the main road and took a right hand turn over the bridge. A chorus of ‘forza’ and ‘corragio’ from bystanders spurred us on, and we hooked up with other riders over the 150m climb to Motta to form a little peloton along the straight road adjacent to the canal back into Tirano.
A right turn in Tirano, up the slope and right turn again towards Lovero took us past another ristoro where Dan had a mechanic look at his noisy shifting. The medio riders continued straight on, and Dan and I turned right again to do battle with the Mortirolo as described earlier.
On the descent, having hooked up with Ian, who had suggested and organised the whole weekend (hence the cliché), we realised that there weren’t many riders behind us. We now had a 30km uphill ride into a strong headwind on quite a pleasant minor road. In order to climb the Stelvio, we had to present ourselves in Bormio by 14.45. That gave us about 2 and 1/4 hours to ride the 30kms. Easy, right? Think again. It was a tough grind. One stiff 10 % incline into the wind reduced me to 6 km p.h. I had reached over 10 times that speed down the same hill on the outward leg.
Ian cramped, and Dan uttered the immortal words,”it’s every man for himself”. We strained every sinew against the incessant wind and finally reached Bormio with half an hour to spare. Ian had heroically bridged the gap to us under his own steam. But as I arrived in the square, it was obvious that I had a big problem.
One of the cleat bolts in my right shoe had sheared when I tipped over on the dreaded Mortirolo and I could not unclip on the right hand side. Fortunately after removing the shoe, the mechanic managed to release the cleat. By reversing the inner plate and using new bolts, I was back on the road quite quickly.
We now had a 2 and a ½ hour climb ahead of us to the Pass of the Stelvio. On the previous Friday, there had been such a heavy snowfall that the Giro stage finishing on the Stelvio had been scrapped. With 23kms and over 1600 m of pure ascent from the town centre this undertaking would be a formidable one on its own, but with 125kms and 2500m of climb already in the legs, it was going to test us to the limit.
And so it was that we set off comparatively warm enough in shorts and rolled down armwarmers. The organisers had arranged for the riders’ winter gear to be delivered to the top in order to negotiate the descent safely. As we trundled out of lovely Bormio, embarrassingly pursued by the broom wagon, riders who had already completed the course were hurtling back to the town in full cold weather gear.
It was too much for me to be near the grim reaper of cyclists’ dreams, so I pressed on. My speed increased from 8km p.h to 9kmp.h and I left Ian and Dan behind. We had some shelter from the northerly breeze for about 7kms, but after the tunnels this luxury disappeared. It had become colder, the notorious hairpins reared up in the foreground, doubt spread through my mind like a virus, my resolve came under the intense microscope of despair. “Was this too much to ask?”
Old audaxers maxim, when in doubt, stop for a piddle. After a while, Ian and then Dan rolled up. We shared the same negative thoughts but our reunion gave us all strength. We pressed on. I had managed to lose about a kilo of fluid at the rest and felt much lighter. We tackled the hairpins one after another, not breaking any speed records, save for the slowest ascent, the kilometres ticked by one by one. The broom wagon sat on our coattails waiting to sweep us up. The snow was piled high in drifts by the side of the road. It was strangely comforting, like buying yoghurt from the fridge in Sainsbury’s. At the top of the famous zigzag hairpins, Ian pulled away along the high plateau valley, leaving Dan’s earlier words ringing in our ears. We still had 6kms to cycle. The finish was in sight, but it was situated….well… up there! The straight stretch of road morphed into more switchbacks, snowboarders were strutting their stuff on the piste, the gradient shot up to 10% for the last 3kms. It got ever colder. I looked back and saw Dan surrounded by support vehicles with flashing lights. I wanted to save him, but the mantra “it’s every man for himself” rang in my ears. Besides, there is no way that Dan would quit. No way. He was catching another rider, perhaps two. We had 1 more kilometre to conquer, it was arduous, never ending. I recalled Sisyphus, although we had never met.
Ian graciously eased up and we went over the line together, although he was credited with finishing in front of me. Life is so bloody unfair. Same thing happened on Paris-Brest-Paris with Philip Sudell. It just means I will have to do them again. Dan crossed the line just after us. Marvellous individual achievements and a great joint effort considering our travails further down the mountain.
Great weekend. No mention of young Mark Banks, our other companion, as he was always in front of us, but we were a good team whether riding together or apart. Brothers of the road always.