Bormio is one of the most famous cycling destinations in the Alps. The picturesque old town, lying at 1225m, is swarming with cycling adapted cafes, cycling shops and the sound of expensive freewheels whirring past.
In all directions, roads that are inextricably entwined in cycling’s folklore spread; names like Stelvio, Gavia and Mortirolo.
My friends Becca and Mikel had been there for the past two days already, and my plan was to meet them there again tonight. I had hoped to meet some Irish friends nearby too, but it wasn’t to be.
However, I was yet to know any of this town’s charms, as I had a trifecta of passes to conquer before I could reach it.
After last nights dark and thoroughly hair raising descent, I was marvelling at the simple of joy of seeing the road in front of me clearly as I picked my way down the hairpins to Chiavenna. I descended to barely 300m above sea level, and then immediately faced into a 33km ascent: the wonderfully named Maloja pass.
It was already oppressively hot, humidity not letting my feeble perspiration shed a whisker of excess body heat. My head was dipped under the first refreshing fountain I saw, and I could breathe again for a few minutes.
The climb starts on a large busy road, but before its first tunnel, cyclists have the option to deviate through the cobbles of the old road via a small town. Crossing its postcard worthy bridge, the detour already paid dividends.
The gradient was steady and allowed me to actually feel I was making good progress, soon dipping under 20km to go, and- after passing a few fellow tourers- only 10 km remained.
This is where the climb shows its most spectacular side: after some steep ramps up to 16%, the road starts to coil improbably tightly, each lace of tarmac hugging the wall of the next above it. Impressive road building for sure, but I certainly didn’t have it to myself to enjoy: busses, trucks and tourists were in abundance on this servient mountain conduit, which finally and suddenly culminates at a rich blue lake.
The lake turned out to be only the first of several, as the now plateaued road followed the water tables of each one. Refreshing at the altitude of over 1800 metres, a swim looked appealing, but I decided on just a brief lakeside picnic, and then to push on towards my destination.
Eventually I started to lose some of the meters I had gained, and coming down into Zernez I had gotten quite fed up of dense sports energy food, so at the supermarket there, I stocked up on peach, nectarine, kiwi and some grapes. Juicy fruity goodness.
These were also the only things I ever bought in Switzerland that were not eye-wateringly expensive...!
The climbing started up straight away again, as warm as a climb called the ‘Ofenpass/ Pass dal Fuorn’ (oven pass) might be expected to be...! All the way up to 2149m the road ascended, with a few well-placed dips in the road where you could pick up momentum for the next ramp ahead.
The steep gradients down the other side meant a rapid loss of altitude, and I was soon at the foot of the Umbrailpass- the last challenge for the day.
My Garmin had forebodingly predicted a 12.5km slog at 10%, and the reality was not to prove much easier. Running out of gears (this is not so much sage advice as it is simple common sense: don’t ever go touring with no easier gear than 39-28..!), I agonisingly cranked my way up the tarmac torment with an average cadence of 48rpm, for 1hr 18mins..! Those of you who have done power training may be familiar with intervals of a specific durations at 60 cadence or so, so what the hell do you call what I was doing?!
After a good while of making grimaces pleaing for a suggestion that my trial would soon be over at the few other cyclists that descended towards me, eventually things flattened out, and I saw the sign I had been waiting to see: Umbrailpass, 2503m. Phe-freaking-ew.
The climbing was done for the day, and I knew now all I had to do was weeeeeee down the Stelvio and into that fabled town.
It wasn’t long before I found myself stopped: spread before me, one of the most famous and recognisable views- a convolution of asphalt, that peters away down into the Alpine valley, how many photos had I seen of this view?!! Awed, I just about had the sense to pull on a jacket- quite a few clouds had pulled in, and I was still at a lofty elevation.
Continuing onwards, I was savouring each of the ‘tornanti’ with a widening grin. Man, here I was descending thee Stelvio. Freaking amazing!
I hadn’t known about the tunnels on route, one of which is one way alternating traffic, but these only served as brief interruptions from the serpentine feast. Hooly cow this is a fantastical place!
So far on my route I hadn’t repeated any road, but man I was already looking forward to getting to go up there again next morning. But now first for an evening of catching up with friends once more, and how else but with pizza- senza formaggio per favore!
A little walk around the town was cut short by clouds that soon brought the first patters of a rain that continued for most of the night.
Day 4: Bormio to… only near Vipiteno, not quite to Innsbruck..
We arose to clearer skies, and a sunny forecast from the similarly disposed host, whom we were returning our keys to that day.
The plan was that me and Mikel would ride up the Stelvio, Becca wood meet us with the car at the summit, and then we would all descend down the other side together for a lunch stop farewell, before they would climb back up to the car. This meant I could climb it without a bag- woooo!
A 21km climb would not be my longest of this trip, but it was to be the highest- a mighty 2758m above sea level by the summit.
The rains had washed all sorts of debris over the road, but our ascent was unhindered. Sharing the experience, and unburdened by a backpack, the glory seemed to pass in a dreamy blur: we scaled the hairpins that had rewarded my eyes so richly yesterday, with other cyclists always nearby, each riding their own rhythm on one of cyclings holy grounds.
We got snapped in a few photos, met the Polish national champion, and breathed deep the rarified air, before sauerkraut and hot dogs- seven euro a pop- tried to tempt us at the top, and then a smiling Bekka meeting us, fresh as a daisy..!
As marvellous as the Bormio side is, perhaps the side going down to Prato dello Stelvio is even more so. Once again rapturous vistas pulled at the fabric of our senses, overload not a term that comes close. Children, tandems, old and young- endless cyclists of all abilities were making their way up, as our trio rounded hairpin after hairpin, reaching forward with our stomachs in the driving seats!
German was suddenly de rigeur when we sat ourselves down for scoops of ice cream, as we talked of the awesome we had beheld. It was soon time to part ways- my friends back up to their car 1500 m higher, me direction Innsbruck.
Hasta luego amigos, its been great! I started on a large main road, but soon a cycling path lead me through the most magical maze of apple orchards. Stunned by the sudden change of scenery, I was transported away on a cloud of blissfulness as I meandered my way through the fruit-heavy trees. Thousands upon thousands, I think I saw more apples in each sideways glance than I had ever seen in my life to date.
So it continued, with the occasional river crossing too, until I reached Merano. Another town with many artistically designed ancient buildings, it preceeded my next challenge for the day: the passo Giovo. 23 km to go to its denouement: right, best get to it!
Further up, with the humidity of yesterday undiminished, l took another mini shower in a cool fountain, unaware my fortunates were about to change.
Not much later, a light pattering of rain had the motorcyclists out and about stop and take cover, but I stopped only to stretch my rain cover over my bag- rain while climbing? What harm I thought. A few booming thunder rolls were somewhat more ominous however.
The light precipitation didn’t last too long, and had fully abated by the time I decided I could do with a mountainside picnic. Chocolate in bread- gets me every time xP
Although the rain had stopped, the grey clouds had never dispersed, and as I ate, I noticed the rumblings of thunder restarting, and sure enough the first drops of rain started to fall again.
I got back on the road, and realised this prelude was to be harshly brief, crescendoing stupendously to sheer waterfalls of rain. This was no Irish soft drizzle. In moments my clothes were soaked through and my shoes filled with lakes. The road turned into a rushing river, as the thunder rolled on and the lightning bleached the skies at sharp intervals.
Each drop that loudly pinged off my bike’s frame would have quenched the thirst of a parched desert nomad, but was wasted on me as I pushed hard on the pedals to stay warm.
Thankfully after 10 minutes or so this ceased as quick as it had come, my wishes for a dry descent looking possible. Maybe. I climbed the last few kms to the 2094m peak, where I had already decided to finally make use of the thick rain coat that had filled up a third of the space in my bag since the start of this trip.
Although coming over the crest it looked somewhat clear, the valley I was headed for looked dangerously dark. Sure enough the rain restarted, and I stopped again soon to throw on another rain coat. And gloves- it’s been a while since I needed those...!
It was now as dark as if it were the depths of night, although it was only around 18:30. Any car that came towards me was suddenly blindingly bright, as I continued to gingerly make my way down the soaked strip of barely discernible tarmac.
Thunder bellowed louder and louder, lightning accompanying it at each turn, its intervals now ever shortening.
The rain drops that had drenched me on the way up now appeared laughable compared to rain that somehow seemed to get heavier at each hairpin. It was absolutely hammering it down. Hammering. It. Down.
My glasses were completely opaque. My brake pads were wearing so fast I had to stop and readjust the pad distance to stop the levers touching the bars and leaving me brakeless.
The cold was seeping through my layers, the gushing rain running into the backs of my gloves. I was starting to shake violently on the bike as I struggled to keep any warmth. Mother nature was uninterested in my plight, and continued to pile on the cascades of icy precipitation.
At the last, blinded, frozen, terrified, I found myself deliriously and tremblingly screaming at the wilderness. I HATE rain. I HATE cold. I HATE descents. Where does this end?! HELP ME. F#CKF#CKF&CKF@CKF+CKF#CKF#CK. I roared myself hoarse looking for any salvation.
Too many kilometres passed, until I came through a small group of houses and immediately the thought was formed in my head- the next hotel I see I’m checking in to.
All at once, improbably, there it was- hotel, lights on, cars outside. Frozen to the bone, leaving a river of water behind me, throat croaky, I stood at the threshold and with very real desperation asked if they had a room. - Yes. - Can I dry off first and then check in? - Yes. Cue sitting in a steaming shower, me and my 1000 mile stare.
Innsbruck would have been another 50 km away, a further 13 km pass to summit, and a long descent to the town. Not today.
Wow. That whole night, me now warm and human once again, the rain drove down. I had wondered how the rivers rushed so forcefully in these famous mountains. Well no more.