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Starting at the Back of the book.... Passo dello Stelvio

Last week saw the start of this year’s Giro d’Italia in Ireland. This is my favourite pro-race and I’ve been lucky enough to go and see a stage nearly every year since I came over to Switzerland. I usually go to watch the race, however; 2 years ago I didn’t just watch – I brought my bike along to ride one of the most iconic – maybe even THE most iconic climb in pro-cycling.... Passo dello Stelvio. This was a pretty special year, 2012 was the first year since 2005 that the Giro was returning to Stelvio (this time for the stage finish) and; it was also the year I was turning 50. I wanted to do something big .... and it doesn’t get much bigger than 48 hairpins taking you up to 2760m. I had started talking to Suzy about riding Passo Stelvio after we were on a road trip with Suzy’s parents in 2011 and passed through the Stelvio National Park on our way to the Dolomites. Suzy had wondered what all the fuss was about and bought me the book "Mountain High" by Daniel Friebe. This book features all the iconic cycling climbs in Europe starting from the lowest height to the highest. Although Stelvio isn’t the highest, Suzy did wonder why I was starting at the back of the book.

It was around March that we decided to go on this adventure and already most of the hotels were booked. Suzy searched and searched and decided to try and email some places that online sites were showing as sold out. It worked! We got the last room on the top of the Pass. Now that we had a hotel booked we could make our plan – drive from Basel (where I was working) to the top of Stelvio on the day before the stage. As the riders wouldn’t get to the summit finish until the afternoon, I would have plenty of time to get up in the morning, cycle down to Prato allo Stelvio and then ride back up. We were staying in the hotel for the night of the stage as well so we didn’t have to worry about checking out, I’d be able to ride, come back get changed and be ready to find a spot to watch the race arrive. So plan sorted, I now had 2 months to get myself ready.

So at the end of May we hired a car – packed a few essentials

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drove across the glorious Swiss passes towards Passo Dello Stelvio.

all that's missing is the cows....all that's missing is the cows....

We were both a bit nervous about driving to the top of Stelvio where our Hotel was located. Most of the information we found indicated that the pass opened in June, the race was the 26th of May. When we crossed into Italy we already saw the Passo digital signs – all saying ‘closed’ – but we continued on all the way to the start of the climb where a police car was blocking our way – oh oh…. Suzy used basic Italian and showed a printout of the hotel confirmation and we were waved up, woohoo!. I was now making the journey that I would cycle up tomorrow, but as I approached the first hairpin I realised that ever since Top Gear named this as the greatest driving road in the world, there were many people who would love just to drive this road – and I was getting to do both. Driving gave me a chance to see what I was letting myself in for. The hairpins started at 'tornante' 48 – winding up through the trees – numbers getting smaller, trees thinning, air thinning.

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We weren’t sure what we would find at the top – the address of Hotel Genziana was simply ‘Passo dello Stelvio’. Would there be parking? Would roads already be closed/blocked for setting up the race finish? As we got to hairpin 1 – we saw signs of activity, barriers, finish banner, stage, lorries....

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We also spotted a few hotels gathered around a central parking lot – luckily open and virtually empty. There were a couple mid size hotels, tacky tourist shops, a ski school/lodge and then we spotted ours – it was the smallest, the oldest, the most run down but...... it was right on the finish line!!!!! And it got better, our tiny room on the second floor had a window directly in line with the finish

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and access to a resident’s only terrace to the front and a roof terrace on the side that gave bird’s eye view to the approach road for tomorrow's pro race..

the western approach from Bormiothe western approach from Bormio

This area is known for summer skiing so you don’t know what weather you’ll find, in fact last year (2013) the stage over Stelvio was cancelled due to blizzard like conditions and I didn’t get a chance to ride, but in 2012 we totally lucked out – we already got the best hotel room and now we had great weather. It was mild, dry, sunny but still lots of snow. The road crews must have been hard at work getting all the snow cleared for the Giro….. and for me!!

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The evening before my ascent we took a walk around the top of the mountain, it was amazing, the scenery is just breathtaking, it really felt as if we were on top of the world. From the 'tibetan retreat' were able to look down the mountain on both sides and survey the climb I was about to tackle...

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I had never ridden such a long climb, did I have enough fitness to make it to the top?, had I set my bike up well enough?, and did I choose the correct gearing for the ramps over the 48 hairpins? All these questions would be answered in the morning.

Even though the 2012 Giro took the Bormio (western) approach, I decided to take the route Coppi made famous, from Prato Allo Stelvio. This is the most scenic and picturesque approach taking in the famous Trafoi bends.

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The morning broke with some fabulous sunshine, only a little cold at 9am when I prepared myself to ride. As I was going to ride down before turning around at Prato, I made sure I had on a Gillet, and skull cap under my helmet to break the wind as I plummeted down towards Prato. Suzy saw me off with a hug, a kiss and made me promise not to go too fast on the downhill. It was nice having her there to cheer me on and to take pictures of my descent and my return back to the summit.

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Okay, here’s a thought… What’s worse than ascending Passo Stelvio? …It’s the first few bends of the descent from the top…..

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Wow, I didn’t realise how fast I would go down, and how cold my hands felt. It didn’t take long for my fingers to freeze up, and I really wasn’t sure how to ride the first couple of hairpins. I soon managed to control my descent, but I was really careful on the approach to the hairpins as it took longer to engage the brakes with cold hands. Also, my hands started to stiffen up with the constant brake , then release, ….. brake, then release…… and, lean through each of the hairpins. Eventually I got the hang of it and now I loved the speed going down the mountain. My bike felt fantastic and I was really enjoying the morning ride in the sun. This was a great day to do this ride; it was like an unofficial Sportive, no road traffic except for the official race vehicles and lots of other cyclists (I guess they all wanted to do the classic ascent too) with their own personal challenges to be answered through the 48 hairpins of the Stelvio; but we all had the same goal – to make it to the top and watch the pros come up the other side.

Screaming down the hill, I made quick progress to the valley town of Prato allo Stelvio where I turned around to make my way back up the mountain. I knew going up was going to take a whole lot longer than coming down. There was a lot of heavy breathing and blowing into my hands to bring the circulation back before I started to make my way towards the summit and the famous 48 hairpins. The first part of the ascent is fairly steady and I thought it was a bit cold as I moved up towards the first numbered hairpin. The road made its way through the sheltered trees and then past the covered bridge on my right hand side. The trees started to thin a little and the road emerged into the sunshine past the little Church, whose bells welcomed my passing. The gradient started to bite, 39x19 went to 39x21, then I relaxed to the back of my saddle heading towards the first hairpin – tornante 48.

I was now on the official climb, thinking about what lay ahead. The first couple of turns were not too bad, I stayed in the 21 as I made my way through the dappled light through the trees. I could see some riders ahead so I was able to set a nice even pace. My heart rate started to steady and I made my way up. This was OK. I kept the pace steady until the famous hairpin 34, where Bernard Hinault made his race winning attack. I remember this one, the road surface was really uneven and I was into the 23 here, never to come out again. This was really hard, I could hear my heart rate pounding now, I kept thinking just keep it steady and don’t overcook it, you’re 50 years old now. Well, that thought went away soon, I met up with a racing club team from Germany, resplendent in their yellow jerseys and we all started to ride together. When I say ride together, we all tried to half wheel each other going up the ever increasing gradient and through each of the upcoming hairpins. A couple of us would move ahead followed by the rest, except for Wolfgang, he drifted off the back. We’d wait up for him while discussing the climb they did last year. This was Monte Zoncolan. I thought, oh dear I’m in with the professionals here, don’t try and ride all the way with them. Wolfgang was coming back now…. We then all rode together nice and steady through the trees, taking the hairpins out of the saddle and settling into an even pace on the ramps. This was fun riding with a great group of guys. They all spoke amazing English and I thought, I really should do better with my languages. We pressed on and Wolfgang went out again, but we kept going, we were moving out of the trees and then the conversation went quiet.

When you come out of the trees on Passo Stelvio, you can see the road twist and turn up upwards and just about see the Tibetan retreat at the summit.

P1030024I think we all thought the same, this climb never stops giving, and instinctively we all settled into single file. We passed other riders doing the same and everyone had a cheery response, we were all on our own challenge to the top. I continued towards the summit with the boys in yellow who were all shouting encouragement at each other …me included (I think) and focused on the rising gradient, this was getting hard. I was getting close to my limit, the legs were pounding now, I felt a bit over-geared but still tried to keep up. The sun was strong now and I was starting to overheat. I drifted towards the back and tried to keep the cadence constant. I was focusing on the last wheel and eventually the gap opened, I tried a bit harder, but just maintained the gap. I looked ahead at the line of yellow jerseys moving gradually upwards and away, then, I spotted the Rifugio, a few more turns ahead. Fantastic, after that effort I’ll take a little break and take off my skull cap and cool down a little. I came up to the hairpin and went straight on, bringing the bike to a gentle stop. Casting my view down the mountain, I could see the trees in the distance and way down into the valley.

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Had I just climbed that?, Wow !! pretty impressive. I then caught a glimpse of yellow heading my way. It was Wolfgang!!!, his phone was ringing as I shouted encouragement. He approached, and came around the hairpin………and in response to the ringing phone I could hear Wolfang shout in perfect English, "they can bl**** wait" !!!!!!!!

My friends from Germany were now making their way to the top and I started back climbing solo. I could really feel it in my legs as I set off, they were getting heavy as the kilometres of constant climbing took their toll. I was now moving into the last third of the climb, the famous Trafoi bends. This was the hardest part of the entire ride. The air is thinner so my breathing was much more laboured. At this height, the air is also so much cooler, so that gilet was definitely staying on. I kept moving towards the last 10 hairpins. I remembered this from the car drive up the day before and Suzy and I picked this as the spot I should call so that she could get in place to get pics of my approach.

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The hairpins were coming right after each other here. I would climb out of the saddle in the hairpins and get a nice kick off the exit propelling me into the next straight. That gave me enough momentum to sit back down in the saddle and get ready for the next hairpin. These last few hairpins came into sight really quickly, no sooner than I was out of one hairpin I was out of the saddle again and into the next.

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I remember 9 to go, this quickly went to 5 to go and I could really feel my breathing. I was getting close to the top.

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3 to go and I was almost there, try and push it a little harder. Suzy then came into view in sight of the finish line. I could smile now as I made my way past her. I was going to survive the climb of Passo Stelvio as so many riders did on that day. I looked behind and seen a rider getting close. I wasn’t going to be passed on the line. I mustered all the strength I had (not much by this time…) and sprinted to the line.

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I could see the top and the banners for the Giro. I made it to the top 2760 meters.

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What an amazing feeling as I got to the flat road at the top of the climb. I could see the Italians were here in all sorts of wild colours taking a well earned drink at the bar.

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What a great climb to Celebrate my 50th year. I’m now following the wheels of the giants of the road, and if I can climb Stelvio, then who knows what will come next.

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I was buzzing at the top surrounded by riders who had just climbed up and by the many spectators getting ready for the last mountain stage of the Giro. After soaking in the atmosphere at the top and milling around the little tourist shops and restaurants, it was time for me to take the bike back to our hotel room and shower before the Giro made it’s way up to Stelvio from the Bormio side.

We had time before the race arrived to have a walk around and survey my ride...

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stelvio map

Suzy had planned out the hotel for this stage and it was amazing. As I said, the room was right on the finish line of the stage. Outside the window I could see the Giro banner with GiroD’Italia and Stelvio, emblazoned in pink. We had a private, hotel balcony, one floor down with nice loungers and chairs

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and in our room we had a TV, so with RAI1 tuned in we could see how the race was developing and not miss any of the action as the riders approached the summit. We had the fortunate situation where we could eat in the hotel restaurant with the Giro staff, visit the toilets and not have to sit on the mountain side for 5 hours to see the race. The Giro has an amazing atmosphere; we had performers

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and pre race entertainment, even a guy in a wheelchair who climbed Stelvio from the Bormio side. We soaked up the atmosphere of the race village and entertainment right from the comforts of the hotel, everything was just right, Suzy was even competing with the tifosi for the Giro freebies, coming away with some noisemakers to add to the noise at the top.

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As the racing got to a climax, we could see the helicopters make their way closer to the top. We watched each rider toil towards the line. As expected, they were all in small groups and we witnessed the pink jersey changing hands for the last time to Ryder Hejedal. What was a sad end to a very special day for me was watching Mark Cavendish toil all the way to the top of Stelvio, only to lose the points red jersey. I really felt for him after such a brutal climb.

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If you ever want to experience the excitement of a Giro d’italia mountain stage, this has got to be the best way to do it. Ride with all the fans on the way up and immerse yourself in the atmosphere at the top.

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If you get the chance of a hotel at the top, this makes it so much more comfortable, particularly for me in my 50th year. This was a day I’ll never forget and for me I have the jersey to wear as a constant reminder. It’s an adventure I can't stop talking about whenever I get the chance to bring it up in conversation. In case I don’t have the chance to meet you I hope you enjoyed my recollection of one of my best cycling days out and I hope I have encouraged you to try the best and almost highest cycling climb in Europe. Give it a go you’ll never regret it. By the way, I never found Wolfgang at the top, so if by some amazing coincidence, you read this, please get in touch.

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