Day 7 – Three massive climbs

I said that yesterday the team was filled with some foreboding about the day ahead. Ben was apparently talking Chinese in his sleep. He mentioned earlier he sees Simon as being like a goblin, so we asked what is “goblin” in his language, but no-one could recognise what he was saying. Simon is my favourite ‘pilot fish’ when he’s leading a group, his navigation is perfect, his pace setting sensitive. And, with his bandana trailing at the back of his head, and the deep stretches he makes on the bike from time-to-time I think of him as the Tai Chi Ninja.

Time and weather were the crucial factors in having any chance of attempting the Stelvio climb, and our cause wasn’t helped by the hostel only serving breakfast from 7:30. Even with the best preparations, we didn’t set off until 8:10, and, with an alternative route chosen for the first 20km we decided to stick together as few people had the route on GPS. Even after rejoining the planned route, we encountered the same old problem with forbidden roads, and had to divert onto some gravelly cycle tracks. To be fair, there are some fantastic cycle routes with a good surface, but it’s disappointing when a route turns “off road” without warning. Still, the early section was picturesque as we meandered either side of a wide valley floor with views of the mountains ahead.

After the preliminary section, the day presented three huge climbs. Firstly, to Klosters at around 1200m to catch a train tunneling through an impassable Alpine section. Secondly, the huge Offenpass, which, after diving down to 700m, climbed severely to 2149m, a Category 1 climb. And thirdly the Umbrail/Stelvio, climbing from 1400m to 2750m.

In view of the expected difficult and potentially dangerous weather, the team decided that the latest sensible time to start the Stelvio was 2:30 in the afternoon. With most people keen to take on the challenge we were literally racing for a train.

The first group of twelve reached the station and caught a train shortly before noon, the remainder all caught the next, half an hour later, which was impressive considering the intense climb to Klosters. Cycles are carried in a dedicated carriage at the back of the train, and we were surprised to find at the destination, we had to let ourselves out and cycle down the car track to the platform. This led to a rapid descent, followed by the challenging Offenpass ascent. It was exceptionally beautiful, if you could take time to think beyond the aching legs and burning lungs. Snow fell lightly above 1500m and the higher reaches were visibly laden with snow. Everyone reached the top of the pass, which is a colossal achievement. As Tim said this evening, this climb exceeds the typical Etape du Tour, a one-day amateur cyclists event on one of the Tour de France’s most mountainous stages. Andy H and James celebrated with a little naked exhibitionism on a rooftop, pictures to follow on the IL site after judicious cropping!

The descent from Offenpass was very fast and exciting; a little fast for comfort for me at any rate, and I lost time on those around me.

A minority carried on to the Stelvio, while the rest completed their 100 miles for the day via a lower route. For those who carried on, it was an exceptionally quick grabbed bite to eat at the top of the Offenpass, then on with the riding. The first group of Tim D, Max, Neil, Joe and Rob J passed through the little valley town of Santa Maria del Mustair bang on 2:30. It was a steep climb from the very beginning, although the lower reaches were thankfully tolerably warm and sunny. Gradually though the temperature dropped sharply, and by 2100m I was zipped up inside three windproof layers. There was deeper snow on either side on the road and a hint of ice forming on the road. Tim D was miles ahead as expected. I could see Max, Neil and Joe climbing ahead of me most of the way, but then lost them. I confess I had a little walk at around 2300m; comparing notes afterwards, I think we all began to find it tougher at that point, so perhaps the thin air was catching us out. I was surprised and delighted to find Max, Neil and Joe waiting at the Italian border post after I’d been walking only a hundred meters or so. We stopped for very snowy photos and spurred one another on, with the view of the hotel and resort building now clearly in sight. Setting off again, Max and Neil flew ahead, but Joe called out behind me that his cleats weren’t working. I scraped loads of ice out of them, and he was back on track. Painted markers on the road side marked 3km, 2km and 1km to go, then 500m, 400, 300 then down in 50s until finally I heard Tim shout my name from a balcony at the cafe. Stepping off the bike I realised just how tired and disoriented I was, but delighted to be ushered into the warm of the cafe. Neil bought everyone coffee, which was welcome to say the least!  Max bought a very nice souvenir jersey, but – even though  the shop was right across the street – none of us fancied venturing across the road in that cold. Someone said it was -6 degrees, definitely too cold to be in cycling gear!

We thought we might be the the only five, but were surprised to see Tim F, Ben and Simon roll up around half an hour later, with the van following. It was an exceptional ride from Ben, who had made up half an hour on the Offenpass after missing the first train. Simon too, who had broken his chain and had to take out links at the roadside before riding on. And fitting that Tim, our inspiration should reach the top.

They brought news that Guy and Mark were also ascending though I understand they eventually called for assistance from the van with the very last section of the climb, fearing for the weather.

So, gathering together as many extra layers of clothing we could muster we started the descent, very cautiously at first in case we encountered icy roads. I punctured again, and was very grateful to friends who stayed and helped me in bitter conditions. Below the snow line though, it started to become fun, and we flew the last 30km into Coldrano, through lovely bike paths among orchards with the light quickly fading, finally arriving at our hotel at 8pm.

Everyone had arrived safely, having negotiated by far the hardest day of the ride. There was of course a tinge of disappointment for those who hadn’t had chance to reach the Stelvio, but in all rational analysis it was a stunning achievement for every team member to complete such a day.

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