This is the second post following on from Part I and concludes with the final two days of the tour. These two days deserved their own post as they turned everything up to 11.
Day 6 - Passo Dello Stelvio
This was marked as the Queen Stage on the tour and for good reason. Only a 67 KM ride but featuring a climb so iconic it even has a car named after it (the Alfa Romeo SUV). The Stelvio pass links Italy with Switzerland but we were to approach it from our overnight stopover in Morter, heading west (the long way up). Once topping out at the near 2700m ascent we were to descend into the delightful town of Bormio.
We departed onto a cycle path that had gravel sections to negotiate and worked our way through the orchards. It was a very serene start, fairly flat and we passed a few families cycling on their summer holidays. The weather was perfect, in the mid-twenties and barely a cloud in sight. Eventually, the tarmac was found and a river flowing downstream was heard, the crashing water getting louder and louder. We crossed the river to begin the climb proper.
There are 48 switch-backs on this 25 KM climb and the first arrives several KM in. I knew I had the fitness by now but was aware not to push too hard on the gentler gradients. There are a couple of steep sections and the altitude was to play a key role today. I was also sticking to a strict fuelling resume of eating a small bite of solid food every twenty minutes. Water was not an issue as there are pipes feeding running water off of the mountain at a few places along the way (there is also a cafe stop).
I took 2.5 hours to reach the top, stopping a few times to capture pictures. Everywhere you looked was stunning, the blues, greens, greys and whites of the surroundings all very vivid. The photo of me with the bike was taken by a very friendly Italian on a touring bike from Bologna who had also stopped for a break. I have forgotten your name, but thank you, kind sir!
There was a point where I wondered how long there was to go. You can see blue KM markers written on the tarmac and as I looked up at the still large amounts of switch-backs to go, I spotted the 6 KM marker. This was a bit daunting. I was above 2000m at this point and I had fuelled well but my legs wanted more oxygen. I was gulping like a fish out of water in an attempt to comply.
Reaching the top was quite the experience too. There was a traffic jam of various sports cars, motorbikes and cyclists. A million bratwurst stalls and tatty tourist shops. I helped myself to a couple of sausages in a bap and sat back to take in the views. The descent into Bormio was stunning and I should have stopped for photos or fitted my video camera to the front, but I was having just too much fun negotiating the hairpins and passing camper vans.
Bormio is a cool town - it featured as part of the 2017 Giro D'Italia and has as many bike shops as we have pubs. The group chilled out with gelato and beer awaiting the final day, one that we were pouring over VeloViewer stats over. Two climbs to fear...
Suffer score: 3/5
Day 7 - Passo Del Mortiolo & Passo Di Gavia
So, after 6 days of spectacular scenery and hard efforts, this was the final stage. A stage which features climbs that have history in the Giro d'Italia. I was told that Alberto Contador once rode the Mortirolo with a 34x30 setup. This did not fill me with confidence given my puny power output and already having a strong bond with my 32 cog.
The start of the ride was downhill into the valley for about 30 KM with some quite fast roads and scary moments (my friend Oli nearly swerved into an oncoming truck on a fast sweeping bend). We all arrived at the foot of the Mortirolo to be greeted by the support van, offering last-minute food and drink. When we saw the sign for the climb we all went a bit quiet...
I had learned from yesterday that eating solid food on a climb is not easy as my legs were working hard enough to slow down the stomach. Also, with the steep gradients today I wanted to concentrate on staying upright. I had gone for a carb mix drink and some gels to get me through this. I set off last and began to climb.
I had deliberately turned off the gradient % readout of my Garmin as I knew the number would play on my mind. But my legs had developed an uncanny knack of knowing what the gradient was anyway. I think the start of the climb was already 8% and the road was narrow and twisty. I let a tractor pass before beginning the first switch-back.
It only took a few turns before I knew I was now into a double-figure gradient. I was straight into the bottom gear and already standing. My breathing was under control and I spotted a cyclist in front who was not part of our group. He looked local and like he knew what he was doing. I stuck to his wheel. He eventually spoke to me in Italian and I responded with a quiet "bonjorno". He immediately switched to English and we got chatting. He warned me the first time he had attempted the climb he had stopped several times. He said he was not going to stop this time. I should have listened as I very slowly passed him.
I eventually caught a fellow tour rider, Gavin (an Aussie living in Christchurch, NZ). Gavin is a strong rider but he was heading to France for another tour after this, so he was playing the long game. I passed him and then the pain really started to ramp up. I think at this point we were on the 15-18% sections. It didn't last too long but I was making strange noises and my heart was about to explode out of my chest like the infamous Alien scene.
I had to stop at a hairpin to take a gel. Once my heart rate settled I jumped back on, immediately popping a wheelie. My technique had gone out the window at this point, I was just getting up anyway I could. Earlier on in the tour, Ian, one of our guides had said: "10% is the new flat". He was bang-on the money here. I was craving 10% just to get a brief period of "recovery". Remember the Italian from earlier? He passed me with a smile...
There are around 30 switch-backs on this climb and I think it was after turn 11, where there is a monument of Marco Pantani, that I finally got into a rhythm. I also remember around turn 7 there was a Fiat Panda parked up and a fat man got out and sat on the corner to have a cigarette. I felt a lot better about myself at that point and soldiered on.
Not long after this, the gradient finally returned to single figures. I decided I wanted this over with and kicked through a few gears. I remember passing small and perfectly formed houses with locals just going about their business in the gardens and a teenager riding a scrambler motorbike around a lake. It was strange how calm the surroundings were but inside my head and legs a war zone was going on.
At the summit, I was in bits and so relieved to see the piece of rock marking the summit. There were a lot of cyclists here grabbing photos and resting. Once again I drank a lot of coke and got stuck into some solid food, just sitting in the support van contemplating what I had just achieved.
If you are still reading at this point, then thank you for persisting. I promise you there is just one more torturous climb to talk about and then you can have your day back!
After having a lovely ham and cheese focaccia lunch halfway on the ride, it was time for a gentle climb to the base of the Passo Di Gavia. This climb was supposed to feature in the 2019 Giro d'Italia but it was dropped from the stage due to a risk of snow and ice. There was no such problem today as the weather was hot, which became a problem to start with as the climb began without shelter and the legs were tired at this point. The Gavia is also 16 KM long and is nearly as high as the Stelvio. This was going to be tough tough tough.
The gradient felt a lot better than the Mortirolo but there were some 14-16% sections to get through. The third photo below is just before they began. I had got through a lot of water at this point and I was hoping to see the van or a spring fountain before I finished. There were a few more cyclists on this climb so at least it wasn't lonely.
What made this climb extra tough was the narrowing of the road and the slow deterioration of the road surface. I remember getting passed a large camper van (thank goodness you ride on the right-hand side of the ride, it's a sheer drop with no barriers on the left) that had to reverse when the next rider and some cars came up.
At the 12 KM mark, I saw the van just before a very dark tunnel. I foolishly thought this was the finish and was told there was still 4 KM to go. I took some food and topped up the bidon and got the lights out of the van (I'll weight save as much as I can, thanks). I plunged into near-darkness, the gradient was steep so I was standing and the light was swinging left and right with my pedal strokes. I could hear the loud echos of motorbike engines behind me. I pedalled harder so I could get out of the tunnel quick.
Exiting the tunnel I could feel the air ever thinning and the road surface, well, I might as well have been riding on the moon. Everything really hurt at this point, especially my palms which were bruised from the bumps and all the steep descending I had been doing over the week. When I got to the top where there were a few signs and a cafe, I slumped over the bars and wiped my eyes dry. This was it, no more climbing! One 25 KM descent back into Bormio and I was DONE.
Suffer score: 5/5
To a lot of readers, I imagine this journey sounded way too hard and stressful! However, I took a huge positive out of this. Personally, this is my greatest physical and mental achievement to date. I never walked and I never wanted to throw the towel in, and I got stronger with each day. Every ascent was rewarded by a chemical high and such beauty to drink in from the eyes. The descents were awesome too (even 60-70 KMPH through a cobbled tunnel).
Would I recommend this? Hell yes. I remember not too long ago having to walk up Edge Hill. If you don't suffer you don't improve as much as you should. The human body and mind are amazing, use them to go out there and ride your heart out.