Some things you just aren’t meant to do. Things so steeped in myth that they are untouchable.
I once read a book about a cyclist called Fausto Coppi, the legendary Italian rider. His story is remarkable. Not only because of his personal achievements and the time in which he did them but the effect he had on Italian society at the time. In that story the vein of the Stelvio Pass takes a special place. This iconic climb is where Coppi won to take the pink jersey and win in Milan in 1953 in the first time the behemoth was used in the Giro. He took the win in the town of Bormio, the same town where 65 years later we would book a hotel room on our mobile phones on a bit of a whim while driving down through the region.
The beautiful town of Bormio. Our base camp.
Times have changed but the mountain remains as daunting.
There are three ways up the Stelvio. The north-east ascent starts in Prato allo Stelvio, the south-west in Bormio, and there is a third way up from Switzerland, using Passo Umbrail, which joins the Bormio ascent three kilometres below the summit. Our ascent was to be from Bormio as it had a good option for accommodation and suited our onward journey. Back in time the Stelvio pass was a vital transport link in the area and now it is a magnet for cyclists and drivers from around the world. The top is 9,045ft above sea level, where the air begins to get pretty thin. The highest pass in the Eastern Alps and the second highest in the Alps; the ribbons of tarmac running up the mountain are almost as spectacular as the mountain itself.
One of many.
The circumstances of our trip meant we had quite limited time, enough for a ride up and down. For this we had been recommended to reserve a couple of hours for the way up and half an hour to get down and so we began pretty early. The climb as well as being high is long at a little over 20km and right from the beginning there are a series of hairpin climbs to get you ticking before the road begins to wind its way up the hillside.
Long climbs like this are hard to assess. Pros and keen amateurs use power meters and heart rate monitors to measure their efforts. We had neither and worked on feel and rhythm with little idea of what was really to come (but knowing that there weren’t any ridiculous Zoncolan ramps awaiting our legs). Soon enough we got to the stage where the early arm warmers and knee warmers were being peeled off and we began to get mixed up with a group of Aussie tourists who were to be spread up the mountain. Friendly banter was good for the soul and their support drivers kept us company too as we bumped into them at sporadic points up the climb along with a group of classic car owners enjoying the tarmac turns in three 1950's Jaguars.
The long and winding road.
At around halfway up from this side, after going through the tunnels that are carved into the mountainside, the hairpins begin. I’d love to know how the pros use the slingshot effect you get from the corners, or indeed whether that is actually just a figment of my imagination. But the height they gave meant now we could look back on the road and see what we had achieved. But there was no end in sight. Up we went, still keeping a steady rhythm so as not to use too many candles too early and make the whole physical experience more uncomfortable than it needed to be or already was.
At around 7,500ft you get an idea where the summit is and by the time you get to the junction at around 8,000ft you can see the top. But there is still a way to go. The mountain echoes history and the road graffiti from the 2017 Giro (where the race ascended the pass twice with Vincenzo Nibali eventually pipping Mikel Landa on the last bend to take the stage win) still remains. You wonder what it must be like to race up (and down!) this beast. I can’t play cricket at Lords or shoot darts at Ally Pally, but here I am riding in the wheel prints of giants.
Riding in the wheels of giants. And Tom.
As we got to the junction I was caught napping, staring too long at the heavily stickered road signs (or at least that's my excuse) and Tom put a few meters into me. Each climbing at our own tempo we proved to be similar until then. With the air now thin the gap was too much for my lungs and legs to process and we continued up alone but now within sight of each other and the buildings at the very top of the pass. These bare hairpins spend most of their time covered in snow but now at the end of the summer they are surrounded by bare rock and they accompany you to the end of the climb where amongst the various shops selling Stelvio based goodies you could walk to the other side to see the view over the stunning switchbacks of the North Eastern ascent.
That would have to wait for another day. But if you can go you must go.
Thanks to Tom for sharing the drive, the ride, the motivation and the biscuits!