Soaked on the Stelvio

On the morning of the 6th day of 44|5’s Dolomites cycling adventure, the weather was cool, bordering on cold, with light to moderate rain. Since we were in Merano at an elevation of about 1,000 feet, and the plan for the day was to climb the giant Stelvio Pass at over 9,000 feet, there were some pretty nervous riders at breakfast. Our group was normally very chatty but today the conversation was muted.

Today’s Ride: Merano to the Stelvio Pass

The Stelvio is so high and the Alpine weather so variable that it is possible to have snow there all 12 months of the year. Just the day before we had been sweating in moderate heat in Bozzano, but the cold front moved in and now staying warm and dry was the concern. The climb would take care of the warm part, but dry was going to be impossible.

Before we could take on the Stelvio we had to ride 32 miles of gentle uphill along a rushing river. There was a wonderful bike path that kept us isolated from traffic. Unfortunately the delightful bike path had several kilometers of unpaved gravel that we had to ride and slog through. There were some short but steep pitches on this section, and as I struggled up an 8% unpaved muddy gravel path I felt like I was riding with flat tires. The ‘rolling resistance’ was off the charts.

So I arrived at the base of the pass in the village of Prato allo Stelvio wet and muddy with somewhat tired legs. And in front of me is a 15 mile, 6,000 foot climb that I know is going to take me close to 3 hours of uphill pedaling at gradients hovering around 8-9%. Not a single meter of downhill or even flat pavement to offer a second’s respite either.

A Very Long Way Up

On a nice day the Stelvio Pass has plenty of traffic: cyclists, cars, motorcycles, tour buses and camper vans parade up to the summit. But on this day the rainy weather and the fact that the road down to Bormio from the top was closed due to a landslide (more on that later) meant there was almost no one on the road. And the only cyclists in sight were the crazy clients of 44|5. I don’t know what it would take to get my fellow guests to blow off the ride and get into the van, but moderate rain and 40 degree conditions certainly were not going to stop us.

Climbing keeps me plenty warm, so I started up in a short sleeve jersey with a rain jacket and skull cap in my pocket. The Stelvio begins gently with a couple of km’s of 6 to 7% grades, but when the 48 numbered switchbacks start with 14 kilometers to the summit it is all 8-9%.

When I got to Switchback 8 at about 8,000 feet, the rain picked up a little and it was noticeably colder, so much so that I stopped to put on my jacket and skull cap for the final few turns. And eventually I made it to one of the most spectacular passes on the planet. The view looking down at the road we just climbed is incredible.

I headed for the ‘Cima Coppi’ sign with a few of my fellow riders. I was elated and relieved at having made it to the top, and the big smiles on our faces show I wasn’t the only one.

As soon as I stopped pedaling I started to get very cold. I grabbed my day bag out of the van (another reason I love riding with a tour company) and put on all the extra clothing I had. Arm warmers first, then a heavy vest, then my rain jacket, then my 44|5 vest, leg warmers and knee warmers on top of those, two skull caps and long fingered gloves. Then I headed for the pizzeria for a hot coffee followed by a hot pizza. The pizza was the most delicious ever, at least to my starving and freezing self.

Do All These Layers Make Me Look Fat?

After lunch the original plan was to get on our bikes and descend a mere 25 kilometers to our hotel in Bormio. Unfortunately the road was closed by a landslide. Some of our riders wanted to try it, thinking they could walk their bikes around or over any obstacle. But reason, encouraged by the potential for a 1000 Euro fine if authorities caught you, prevailed. So we got in the vans and took a different road down from the pass into Switzerland, then back into Italy. A very long detour: after almost 2 1/2 hours of driving we arrived at our Bormio hotel.

When I did this pass back in 2011, we were blessed with magnificent weather, sunny and comfortably cool and no wind at all. And we were lazy that year: our van drove us to the start of the climb in Prato so we could begin with fresh legs instead of slogging 32 miles of false flat uphill, including the aforementioned gravel. But now that the ride is behind me I’m kind of glad we had to battle a little more adversity this time. It is almost certainly my last climb up the Stelvio, and the conditions made it even more memorable.

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