The Italian job

 

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Early monday morning during a month where not too much is happening holiday period-wise and with work opportunities few and far between I receive a whatsapp message from Marcel, one of my cycling buddies I have known a little over a year. ‘I’m thinking of heading down to the mountains to ride my bike later on this week’ he writes. My heart jumps in excitement and instant envy. ‘Which mountains you’re heading?’ I write back. ‘Don’t know yet to be honest’ he replies. ‘But maybe the Swiss Alps. Or maybe I might tack on a few more hours of driving and go all the way to Italy..’ ‘One of my assignments got canceled and I have a few days available and I want to go’. I am silent for a few moments and write back: ‘I would’ve loved to come’ Already sensing what may come next and in split seconds weighing my options. ‘Could you?’ He asks, adding: ‘Leave on Thursday and be back on Tuesday’. A stunned looking smiley appears a few seconds after to emphasise the spontaneity of the situation and unusual twist it presents. Me thinking this is a much needed break in a period of seemingly going in circles trying to attract new clients, I answer: ‘Let me check with the company I work for next Monday and get back to you later today..’

Miles are flying by as we head down south on the German motorway. The larger portion of our journey will be on these roads and once again I’m astounded at how vast the land of our eastern neighbours is. Our choice of transport is a small VW Polo in which we struggled to fit everything. Bikes, tents, luggage and food had to be positioned and repositioned to make it all fit, much like some intricate real-life puzzle.

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This is only half of our luggage and you know how small a VW Polo is..

The idea is to let our Tom Tom navigation guide us all the way to a small camping in the eastern side of the alps, nearby the Stelvio national park which name is derived from the famous summit pass that lies at it’s heart.

Halfway through Germany Marcel returns from a quick sanitary break to share the somewhat troubling realisation that he has in fact, of all things, forgotten to bring his passport. After half an hour of slight anxiety fuelled brainstorming we conclude that we must veer off course to avoid Switzerland altogether. The original route included crossing Switzerland. Our reasoning is that we cannot be sure there will be no request to present our passports at the Swiss border. Switzerland after all, is not part of the EU. With such a long trip we don’t want to take the gamble and risk losing a chunk of time having to reroute from the border all the way around and via Austria. Instead we opt for a safer bet to avoid the country altogether and head eastbound while we still can, in the direction of Stuttgart. From there we keep heading southeast and into Austria. This is no shorter route and our diversion adds a couple of hours to our itinerary but at least we will be able to pass freely. The trip resumes without much difficulty and after passing the border the rolling south German landscape makes ways for the steep inclines of the Austrian alps. I cannot help but chuckle inside some time after as, despite all our efforts, our navigation ends up sending us right through the south-eastern most tip of Switzerland anyway. Luckily these are remote roads in between high peaks and the patrol station at the Austrian-Swiss border is unmanned and free to pass. Then, after a good 15 minutes on Swiss roads a second border patrol station pops into view. This time there are officers out and I can sense both our hearts sink. ‘Will we now be found out?’ I think. I slow the car down and get ready to make a full stop as one of the officers locks his gaze with mine. ‘Uh oh’ I think. ‘This is not great’ The officer keeps moving toward us and out of view while we pass a car standing still. When he emerges on the other side we turn out lucky. After showing initial interest he seems not to care too much about two young men with bikes in the back and, looking bored, waves us on.

Our first part of breathtaking country side turns out to come sooner than we thought. I had been to Switzerland before but only now do I get to admire its genuine countryside, and it is stunning. The mountain valleys and lakes. The world heritage train track snaking through the valleys and over the passes. The lush green meadows and the gentliest looking cows with their loud clanging bells. The deep blue skies overhead and giant boulders strewn like confetti in the fields below. Icing on the cake is the perfect smooth tarmac throughout our two hour lasting encounter; A cyclists delight. ‘Unreal’ is the word surfacing time and again, although it doesn’t do justice to what my eyes are beholding.

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Swiss scenery

Toward the end of our Swiss venture we cross the breathtaking Bernina pass while the sun sets it’s peaks on fire. Without realising it we have ascended above 2000 meters and during our brief stop at the side of the road we can feel the cold of altitude. It’s only 3 degrees and we decide to press on. The descent that follows is long and steady seeming to go on forever, taking us through small villages and past lakes until after a sharp turn suddenly and unexpectedly the Italian border is upon us. ‘We made it’.

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The Unesco world heritage train line (St Moritz (Sui) – Tirano (Ita)) crossing the Bernina pass

I wake up the next morning frozen. It had been cold at night and I hadn’t been sufficiently dressed given the evening before it had been quite hot. While I emerge from my tent I half recall why it had been so long since I’d been out camping last; if the circumstances (or your own preparation) are not ideal it can be quite torturous. I head over to the camping cafe in search of coffee and warmth. Upon return I find Marcel has awoken and we take the car to head down the road into Edolo, our nearest village, for breakfast.

Edolo is a tiny town in the Camonica valley in the province of Brescia, Lombardy. And typical for a small town as this, it only has one main street. The town’s layout reminds me very much of the towns and villages I’d become familiar with during the time I lived in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in France. The river Oglio runs right through the center and it’s passage through the town is beautifully enhanced by large hand laid stone slabs making the river bed resemble a giant smooth-looking water slide. The backdrop of the village is layered and breathtaking. The river with behind it the old ohcre-coloured church tower followed by the terracotta upper village, green mountaintops and blue sky make it instant postcard material.

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Edolo – main street

We found a small bar where we ordered Paninis and coffee from an elderly waitress.  It had been a gray and chilly morning but now the sun had finally announced it’s presence and we gladly soaked up it’s warming light. We had arrived before pretty much anyone else, but while we waited for our order the terrace quickly filled with locals and motorcyclists passing through. For us it was time to make a plan for the day. Neither of us had been in the region before and although broadly speaking we had an idea of which iconic climbs we would like to target, we hadn’t really done our homework yet, something that would become very apparent out on the road a few hours later.

‘This was supposed to be a warm-up ride’ I think when my heart rate surges beyond my threshold again and again. I really have to give it all. What we thought up in the morning to be a good ‘transitioner’ is turning out to be a killer. The Passo di Gavia from Ponte di Legno is no child’s play and we’re finding out the hard way. It’s chilly and there’s headwind toward the top. I’ve just exited a scary as can be tunnel, where I genuinely feared for an accident as I crawled up the pitch black interior, navigating through potholes and pockets of sand that had gathered over time. Luckily nothing happened. I am having a drink and something to eat. I also have to steady myself as my head is spinning. ‘Welcome back to altitude’ I think. At nearly 2200 meters it doesn’t come as a surprise anymore that I feel light headed. ‘It’s happened before and it’ll go’ I think to myself. I am waiting up for Marcel. He is a little behind and I want us to take it easy. To take a break and eat and drink something before we continue. The road surface gets worse when we set off again. It’s very rough and there are proper cracks in the tarmac where you can get your front wheel stuck in. It’s becoming hard to keep going but the summit is now not far anymore. Just before the top I’m being pipped to the line by a rider I had passed a little earlier but now that effort is taking its toll. After reaching the top a few seconds later he and I indulge in some chit chat and he introduces me to his riding buddies. The guys have flown out all the way from the States just to ride in Europe. They have some interesting looking bikes that can be folded in half thanks to a special joint connecting the lower and upper tubes. ‘You guys can just drive everywhere by car, but we need to fly our bikes in if we want to get anywhere’ he says half complaining and half proud to be the owner of a smart solution to a common problem. Pretty neat.

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Ponte di Legno – Passo Gavia

In the evening we take the bikes and go for pasta in Edolo. Having almost given up finding anything half decent we end up in a not too shabby restaurant. My leg is hurting a bit again from recent injury after the massive cold start to our climbing adventure. I’m a bit worried it will get worse over the weekend, but decide to draw conclusions in the morning. Our pastas are delicious and the views onto the horizon serve us with a gorgeous backdrop. We talk plans for the next day and order dessert while puffy clouds are set alight like marshmallows above a fire by the setting sun. ‘Buon nott’ greets the waiter in what I can only work out to be a local dialect while we get back on our bikes and soft pedal home to a good night’s sleep.

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Marshmallow clouds on fire

‘Damn it’s hot!’

In stark contrast to the previous morning the sun is now scorching me out of my sleeping bag. In anticipation of another cold night I had layered up and was now swimming in perspiration. I get out my tent and stretch my body, reaching with my hands for the sky. ‘Hmm I feel pretty good’ I think to myself as I observe the existing state of affairs. My body and in particular my leg had been able to recover well from our efforts the day prior and I was definitely feeling ready for another challenge.

What’s the story morning glory?

In line with our slightly meager preparation is the fact that our camping lies more or less in the wrong valley in relation to the ‘correct’ side up the climbs on our list. We want to ride a loop and not simply up and down the hill but when plotting a route in this area it’s neigh on impossible not to collect an insane amount of elevation. Too much for us mere mortals to keep going for three consecutive days. So with a mix of dissapointment and relief we put the bikes in the back of the car and head over to Bormio, north of the chain of mountains that seperate us and the mountain pass we have set our sights on for today. The Passo della Stelvio is not simply a high mountain pass separating the strongly Süd-Tirol influenced part of Italy from the rest of the country. It is also very popular in the region as a tourist destination. Beyond the Italian borders it’s recognised by cyclists and motorcyclists alike as one of the most beautiful road designs in the world. In fact the BBC’s top grossing motoring enthousiasts program ‘Top Gear’ dedicated an entire episode in search of Europe’s ‘driving heaven’ and concluded at the end that Italy and Switzerland’s Stelvio pass had to be ‘non plus ultra’ for petrol-heads. Something we would find out in a less pleasant manner a little later. 48 consecutive hairpin bends wind themselves from the valley town of Prato up to the top of the pass. The road surface is in very good shape and wide enough for traffic from both ways to pass freely. Broadly speaking the climb consists of three parts. The valley road which is typically hot but not very steep. The forested area which is pretty steep and also very hot. And the open mountainside road which continues to be steep but less hot and offering incredible views onto the snowcapped Ortler Alps to take your mind of the effort at hand.

Motorbike after motorbike flies by from behind.

The road is very busy and these guys are blasting full throttle up the hill. I knew it would be busy as it is August and a Saturday, but this is becoming a little too much and too noisy to my liking. I feel uncomfortable and am starting to sense that I’m being perceived as a bit of a nuisance to the other road users. ‘Get out of the way you pesky bicycle person’ I imagine Jeremy Clarkson (BBC Top Gear) shout in my ear in his typical shrill voice. The speed differences are tremendous. I go 10-12 kph, they at least 50, touching 80 before a near standstill at the next hairpin.

Aside from the infernal noise and speeds I find myself pedalling along nicely and take comfort in the knowledge that I have found a good sustainable rhythm which I know I can keep up until the top. The forest turns out the be the hardest part of the climb. Both mentally and physically you can loose heart as it’s still a long way to go. But it now makes way for the open road after a gradual turn to the right. From this point the summit is in full view and I can see it’s still pretty far to go.

I notice someone standing at the side of the road next to a water stream emerging from the rocks. When I pass him he smiles and greets ‘Bongiorno!’ He gestures to the stream of water and holds up his water bottle. ‘Molto bene’ he says in an accent I cannot place. Persuaded by his charm and my boiling head I dismount and lean my bike against the stone wall at the side of the road. While I fill my bottles the friendly rider waves goodbye and continues on. At first I hadn’t noticed but the stream is channeled into a small basin and I gladly take of my helmet and sunglasses and wash my entire head and face, neck and chest with the cooling water. I instantly feel better. Turning around I take in the stunning views and feel a mix of joy and gratitude for just being here. The road is less busy now and leaning against the stone wall I take my time to eat something and catch my breath. Not long after Marcel pops into view. He decides not to break his rhythm and presses on. I follow his lead.

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A picture says more than a thousand words

The top of the Stelvio pass (Stilfserjoch in German) is a total circus. You can hardly get past all the bikers, cyclists and Bratwurst stands that crowd it. I roll downhill a little and stop for a mandatory photo at the summit sign. The guy whom I asked to take my photo asks for a return of favor and gets on his knees in front of the sign. His wife is next to him and he turns to her with hands folded together while still on his knees. I don’t really know what is going on but I guess he’s thanking her for having let him ride. She looks sheepishly at him and then to me. I laugh and think that some guys not only have to conquer the mountain they also have to ‘win’ their wives over. But in this instance it’s clearly all fun and games. When I get back to the top I see Marcel riding past and call for him. He tells me he has just bumped into our Dutch friend Michel whom we’d met at our camping the previous day. Michel is doing a monstrous trek through the Alps with his touring bike. He tells us he is one third of the way and will have completed 2200 kilometers with over 80.000 meters of elevation when his journey ends at the Alpe d’Huez in France. We share some food before we say our goodbyes and Michel continues on. We go up the highest point of the road near Albergo Tibet and marvel once more at the view.

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48 hairpin bends of the Stilfserjoch (Stelvio) – In the background the Ortler alps range

Much like my experience living in France, all the Italian towns and villages seem to celebrate their ‘Fête de village’ in August. We head down for a nice pasta dinner and find the old center of town in Bormio is bustling. There’s live music out on the streets and much to my astonishment I witness an Italian version of line-dancing performed by women in gold glittery costumes and cowboy hats on a stage erected in the middle of the main shopping street. The music is loud and blaring and even though we intended to find a restaurant where we can sit outside for our dinner we opt for a cosy looking pizzeria instead. The place is exactly what we’d been looking for. A neat, all-wood furnished interior with the exact right kind of vibe. It’s busy and it’s occupants are a mix of family holiday goers and couples young and old. The pasta I order is godsent and although breakfast and lunches had been under par throughout the weekend, the extra kilo of weight put on after our trip in spite of all the exercise is evidence of how much I’d enjoyed the rich foods that were on offer at dinner.

Aprica is a ski resort that strikes me with a bit of a film set feeling as we pass though it on our third and final day. A busy looking façade with lots of tourist shops and cafes but somehow a bit ‘hollow’. It’s a minor mountain pass itself and has been the backdrop of a number of Giro d’Italia stages in the past. Most recently in 2015 when it marked the finish of a particularly hard day where the riders had battled their way up the infamous Mortirolo climb before descending to the finish line. It had been a thrilling stage where an up-and-coming young Italian and a Spanish rider in the autumn of his career held a vicious battle for overall victory on the general classification. The Spaniard’s experience proofed to be decisive as, after a 50 second deficit due to a flat tire, he stormed up the ridiculously steep incline of the iconic mountain, caught and dropped the young Italian just shy of the top before finishing in a lead group three minutes ahead of the young Italian. All this played through my mind when we were scouting the area. We had decided upon a beautiful loop in which an attempt to master the hardest side of the Mortirolo would be included. I was excited.

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Topping up our water

From the village of Tirano in the Valtelinna valley we ride the first portion on flat roads. This is familiar terrain for us and it is a very welcome relieve to all the undulating terrain we have been on so far. After 30 minutes we take the turn of the main road into the village of Mazzo di Valtelinna. It’s another hot day and we stop in a back alley to sit in the shade. The shade is nice and cooling and we fill our water bottles at the village fountain. We’re analysing the climb on our small smartphone screens in what I am not quite sure is an attempt to mentally prepare or to feel discouraged even before we have started. ‘It doesn’t drop below 11% from kilometer 3 to kilometer 9’ Marcel concludes. ‘And there are sections of 14% and more’. Little do we know that the climb is just murderous straight from the word go. As soon as we leave the village it ramps up sharply and simply doesn’t seize to until a kilometer or so from the top.

It takes us an hour and a quarter.

My feet are dangling over the edge and into an ice bath supplied by a steady stream of mountain water. It’s blissfully refreshing and I feel like a small boy on holiday. I’ve taken my jersey off and washed all the sweat of my tired body. ‘It’s done’ I keep thinking in disbelief. ‘the Mortirolo is mastered’. I can see Marcel is euphoric as well. It’s been hard unlike anything else I have done on a bike so far and a few moments of near capitulation while on the absolute rivet had almost gotten the better of me.

There’s a number of riders dragging past and we encourage them loudly with cheers and clapping. It visibly infuses them with motivation like it had me when halfway up I passed a big family lunch gathering in their orchard cheering me on. Getting up and chanting: Dai, dai dai! (Come on!) I love that Italian spirit. Cycling I noticed, is really part of the social fabric here.

Lunch in the Albergo a kilometer down the road is in contrast to the cycling tips website uneventful and dull. Pasta with barely any sauce coupled with an american size can of Coke. People on the terrace offer admiring glances full of curiosity. We’re clearly not from the region with our tall and rangy bodies. Our bikes too, are offered an inspection by an elderly man on a bench.

It’s a long way back to the car and after a short time up the mountainside we decide to crack on. The road back up from Monno to Aprica through the Camonica valley, although long, is not steep and I decide to give one final full on push uphill. I manage to develop a good pace and enjoy the speed I can achieve unlike the crawling uphill a few hours prior.

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The three summit photos. Gavia-Stelvio-Mortirolo

A grumpy looking waiter is at first reluctant to let us have a seat at his terrace when we arrive in Tirano for dinner. He mumbles and grumbles but we ignore him and take our seat near the rail tracks crossing the main square of Tirano. Tirano being the final destination of the St Moritz-Tirano train route I mentioned earlier. Pasta is again on the menu and pizza as desert. It’s a first time experience with the Primi and Secondi Piati that Italian restaurants typically serve and although I can’t say I don’t like it, I end up eating a little too much. We wave back to the excited children hanging out of the coach windows when the train passes through the square as rain clouds billow over the peaks in the direction of where our camping is. The sun has set and the evening is growing darker. Time to find our sleeping bags.

We leave early the next day and seem to take the good weather with us again. By the time I arrive home our adventure already appears dreamlike. The cocktail of long travel, fleeting memories and fatigue blending all into one.

Mortirolo visual

Stelvio visual

Gavia visual

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