Mortirolo Mirage

“Tell my wife I love her!”

I was climbing the Mortirolo when something rare happened: I came up on a rider actually going slower than I was. Since I was doing about 4 mph he had to be crawling.

At these speeds it takes a long time to catch and pass someone, so I was able to listen to him for some time. He was making his opinion of the climb quite clear.

“(F word) this climb is steep! How much (F word)-ing longer to the top? Doesn’t it ever (F word)-ing end? This is (F word)-ed! I’m (F word)-ing dying!”

He was speaking English, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t from the US. He had an accent that could have been British or Australian or maybe South African. The latter is a real possibility because he was Black. I only mention this because I’ve been riding in Europe for the last six years, for over 6,000 miles, and this is the first time I can recall seeing a Black cyclist.

He was weaving back and forth across the very narrow road, trying to find some relief from the unrelenting gradient, which was about 16% at this point. His zigzag course was going to make it hard to pass, but as he moved to the right side of the road I made a big effort and ‘accelerated’ to about 6 mph and squeezed by on his left. As I passed he gasped out instructions about informing his wife of his fealty and devotion, I suppose in case he expired before he made it to the top.

I was climbing the Mortirolo on the last day of 44|5’s Dolomites tour. I did this climb back in 2011, so I knew what to expect. Even so the length and steep gradients came as a shock. Here is the profile:

The 6 kilometers (3.6 miles) in the middle of this climb average 12.5%. One of those kilometers is 13%, followed by a km averaging an incredible 14.5%. I was watching the gradient on my Garmin GPS device, and I saw extended stretches of 15, 16, 17 and even 18%. My fellow tour guest Katy said she saw 21% at some point. But she is a much, much stronger rider and climber than I am, so perhaps she was going too fast for the device to read accurately.

After 8 km (4.8 miles) there is a monument to Marco Pantani. I was the only rider in our group to stop here, and I added about 3 minutes to my Strava segment time by doing so. If you don’t know about Marco, his cycling career and glorious and tragic life, I’m not going to fill you in here. But I wanted to stop, pay respects, reflect, and maybe pray a quick prayer for all cyclists.

After the brief stop, I headed toward the top, and when the grade eases to a mere 9.5% the road feels almost flat and my pace picked up towards 5 mph. There are 33 numbered switchback signs to help you realize just how far you have to go, and as I came around Switchback 1 near the top I knew my suffering was almost over. The Mortirolo does not end on a barren rocky summit mountain pass with stunning views; rather it ends in a cow pasture. There are some very handsome animals with very large and loud cowbells around their necks, and the cacophony accompanies you up the final straight to the GPM line. Other riders who have also reached the summit and are milling around cheer and clap for new arrivals. No matter how long it takes, just getting to the top of the Mortirolo under your own power is quite an achievement.

The Summit of the Mortirolo is in sight!

The stats: Strava tells me it took 1 hour 43 minutes to get to the top, but since I stopped at the monument it was really 1:40. I climbed 4,130 feet over 7.09 miles, and averaged an even 200 watts. And I didn’t use the (F word) a single time.

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