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By: Buzz Yancich
Three days in the Alps with Eros Poli
I am here to report to you that everything you may have heard or read about the Mortirolo is true. There may be a climb somewhere that is harder – the infamous Zolocan I am told. But I haven’t ridden the Zolocan so for the time being this SOB is it. But I digress….before we get to the nasty stuff some pleasantries about our stay in Bormio.
Hell is open
One of the real pleasures of traveling in Europe are the family run hotels that ooze character and charm. The Hotel Funivia certainly falls into that category. Like the best hotels the Funivia is family owned and operated and spotlessly clean. Moreover, the owners are cycling enthusiasts and are among a small number of hotels in Europe that actively cater to a cycling clientele. They have outfitted their hotel with a secured bike locker complete with a fully stocked work area, provide van supported rides throughout the region, greet returning riders each afternoon with tea, juice, pastries and provide daily washing of clothing kits all returned the following morning– gratis. The hotel is highly recommended and we are certain to return.
We met for breakfast and while we lingered over a second coffee Eros laid out final plans and details for the Mortirolo. We would ride from the hotel along a secondary route which guaranteed few if any cars (for the record I think once we left Bormio we encountered zero cars) and then past a series of small towns until we reached the town of Mazzo di Valtalina where we would take a quick break at the bottom of the climb, hit the climb and then descend to Edolo where we would transfer back to Verona.
Blue skies met us again as we departed Bormio but thankfully the temperature had cooled somewhat so that the first hour of riding was absolutely refreshing almost as refreshing as the fact that the first 30 kilometers to Mazzo are more or less downhill making for fast and easy kilometers and a nice way to get the legs going.
On the road to Mazzo.
Everyone knows about those days when you are on your bike and within a few moments you know you are going to have a great day. Mortirolo day was that way for me. I had plenty of energy and my legs were spinning easy right from the get go which was odd given the fact that I struggled on the Stelvio less than 24 hours earlier. I haven’t mentioned this yet but Kevin and I had been locked in an unspoken albeit friendly climbing competition. Well, it wasn’t much of a competition for Kevin aka “Marco” as Eros dubbed him as he mostly led and I most struggled to hold his wheel on the Gavia and Stelvio. But as I was already 0-2 on the KOM I needed something special for the Mortirolo so that I could at least make it interesting for him.
As we made our way to the base of the Mortirolo we came across a cyclist approaching us from the opposite direction, shouting and waving at us. Another Eros surprise: it was Lucca, a friend of Eros who had driven all the way from Milan to join us for the climb. Next, we came upon a large group of cyclists all wearing a red and white team kit. More friends’ of Eros? Not this time, instead an Italian cycling club of about 15 fit and serious riders but now friends on the road as they too were headed up the Mortirolo.
About a kilometer before the start of the climb our small group pulled over at the side of the road to reorganize ourselves as we said ciao to the red and white cycling squad as they pressed on towards the climb. As it turns out they were doing a loop from Bormio over the Mortirolo and then up the Gavia over the same route we had passed two days earlier before descending to Bormio – approximately 115 kilometers in all. Good luck with that!
After a quick bathroom break, top off of the water bottles and some energy bars we remounted and started the climb.
Approaching the start of the climb.
The Mortirolo is unlike the Gavia and Stelvio in so many ways but the first is that there is no immediate Alp or glacier to gaze at and admire. Nor is there is a lot of fanfare to the start, just a simple sign and nothing that warns of the carnage ahead. Instead, the road immediately bends uphill past some farms and small apple orchards and STAYS IN AN IMPOSSIBLY VERTICAL POSITION ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP OF THE PASS 13 KILOMETERS LATER.
Into the woods.
We started as a group but it became immediately apparent within the first few minutes that this is “every man for himself” territory and we were all quickly reduced to our own pace.
After two kilometers I was surprised to hear the first and only sound of discomfort I have ever heard from Kevin in all the years I have ridden with him. He muttered something about his back and some “language” expressing his displeasure at the ridiculousness of the grade. I pushed on and to my surprise by the next turn Kevin was 10 feet back and then 20 feet and so on. A perfect storm: I was on form and he was having a slightly off day.
Any thoughts of racing up the Mortirolo however were quickly erased as the grade continued to stiffen and the reality set in that this is a climb of survival and one that requires great concentration, agility and patience. You are reduced to a one two, one two pace. If you hesitate or give up on a pedal stroke you will fall over. Nothing more is possible. It is that steep, unrelenting and cruel.
A few more kilometers up I heard the first of just a few cars to pass us on the climb. As it approached (you could hear the engine straining due to the grade) a woman leaned out the passenger window, slapping the car door and shouting “BRAVO, BRAVO, FORZA!”
Better still about 10 minutes later I couldn’t believe my eyes when I rounded a turn and ahead of me was one of the cyclists in the red and white team kit we had seen earlier. I grinded passed him one pedal stroke at a time but we didn’t say anything. He was hurting. Five minutes later I came upon another of his teammates. He too wore the same expression punctuated with heavy breathing and grunting.
Passing these guys gave me a huge mental boost as I was looking for any type of motivation to keep going. Eros calls this “going fishing” as you reel in one rider after another. He’ll say: “Look, a little fishy…Oh, here is a big fish” as you collect one rider after another.
The guys catch a fish.
Dead fish: The next red and white “fish” I came across five minutes later startled me. He was stopped in a hairpin turn, sitting on a guardrail, his bike laying on the road, elbows on his knees, barely able to keep his head up with a beaten look in his eyes and we weren’t even half way up. If he was truly planning to do a loop which included the Gavia he was in big trouble.
Meanwhile somewhere on the climb: It really is that steep.
Even though the day was somewhat cooler I quickly went through my water but the cycling gods were smiling on me as just at that moment I came upon a lovely Tyrolian styled stone house with an outdoor spigot of water pouring into a stone trough. (I think it is around Tornante 14.) I stopped and was rewarded with one of the tastiest, cold drinks of water I have ever had. It completely revived me. I quickly remounted but because the severity of the grade I had to descend to the turn just below the house to get the pedals going.
Where are the photographs?? As you can seen there aren’t many photographs of our climb up the Mortirolo except for a handful that Eros managed to take. If you do an internet search on the Mortirolo you will see the same three or four photos: the start, the Pantani memorial and the top. I always wondered why that was. Well, we soon learned there is a good reason for that: there simply is no way one can pull a camera out from your jersey with one hand on this climb and keep pedaling. Plus, stopping is just not an option.
Oh, and don’t bother with that fancy array of 11 speed cassettes. As everyone who ides this beast knows you are reduced to your easiest gear within the first minute on the climb and it stays that way all the way to the top.
Besides the sheer steepness of the road what differentiates the Mortirolo from the Gavia and Stelvio climbs is that much of it takes place in a forest. As such, it is extremely difficult to gauge where you are on the climb. There are a series of numbered Tornante signs but their placement is so haphazard that they don’t help you at all in figuring out how far up you are notwithstanding the fact that for every sign there must be another 5 unmarked hairpin turns.
In reality, all you see is a few meters of road and then a bend. It is here where the climb really wreaks havoc with your mind. You keep thinking that the grade must surely let up, just there at the next corner…but when you reach the next corner thinking your legs can’t take anymore it just pitches up again…and you look up and see another section of climb and a corner and think it must ease up after that and minutes later you arrive at the next corner but there is no relief…the road continues up. This repeats itself over and over and over and what sears the memory of the climb into your cycling soul.
All the while it is eerily silent in those woods with the only sounds you hear your heart pounding and your lungs gasping for air. It was during these challenging moments that I eventually heard a solo rider approaching at a good clip from behind me. I figured Kevin had finally found his legs. But when I turned to look back I saw it wasn’t him. Instead it was another athletic rider who was really pushing it, breathing hard, standing on his pedals, rocking the frame back and forth and fighting the climb. I was impressed. As he motored past me he turned his head and stated with a mixture of frustration and disgust “MORTIROLO” in a thick German accent. I gasped out “SON OF A BITCH.” He eased up for a moment, looked back at me and replied with a chuckle: “JA, JA, MOTHER F___ING SON OF A BITCH!”
There’s a neat monument to Pantani creatively built into the wall at Tornante 8 but with all due respect to Mr. Pantani there was no way I was stopping. I needed to end the ordeal as soon as possible. To give you an idea of how tough the climb is a friend of mine recently rode up the Mortirolo and upon arriving at the top asked where the Panatani monument was. He was so consumed by his effort that he didn’t realize he had ridden right past it.
Monument to Pantani
With about two kilometers to go Eros’ friend Lucca caught up to me. Thankfully he slowed and invited me to pedal with him to the top. It gave us a chance to commiserate on the brutality of the climb.
Ironically, the only relief that comes on the entire climb is in the last kilometer when the grade significantly lessens to a mere 9 percent but by then the damage is done. Moreover, unlike the Gavia or Stelvio there is no spectacular view at the top. In fact, it is a cow pasture. A nice cow pasture and lots of clanging cow bells but still a cow pasture. Was this really the top? But that is the disorienting nature of this climb. A few minutes later Kevin arrived announcing that he had never done a climb where he practically spent the entire climb out of the saddle on his pedals.
As a nod to how hard the climb is everyone who arrives at the top is given a hearty cheer and congratulations. Our cheerleaders were a contingent of Danish cyclists who got the added treat of meeting Eros when he arrived a few minutes later with Maria in tow. I later found out that Eros entertained Maria the whole way up by telling her about the time he raced up the Mortirolo during the Giro and stopping to pick wild mushrooms to show her. (Pure Eros)
The Mortirolo does not have a refugio sitting at the top but one can be found just one kilometer down the summit in the direction of Edolo. We thought about stopping to recharge but Eros suggested that while we were warmed up and ready that we make the descent to Edolo where he had a well-deserved lunch waiting. Normally, Eros gives us a few words of advice about the descent but this time he simply smiled and said “I think you will enjoy this.”
Descent towards Edolo.
Enjoy it we did. Unlike the side up from Mazzo the descent to Edolo is a steady but manageable grade and kilometer after kilometer of smooth, curved roads that all the time head downhill. No hard braking is necessary just tuck and go. We encountered one car the entire way down. The descent was the cycling equivalent of a 30 minute fresh track powder ski run and elicited one word descriptors like “incredible” “magical” and “wow” at the bottom. It was the perfect finale to our three days in the Alps.
Of course with Eros the day and surprises were not quite over. We arrived in Edolo, where we were ushered into a non-descript bar where we found a small dinning room in a back room with local workers eating a late lunch. Two steps into the dining room and the aroma from the kitchen told us we were in for a treat. No, its not on any website (I looked) and just more Eros magic. When we ask Eros how he finds these places tucked away all over Italy it usually starts with “Oh, a friend of mine…” We enjoyed a simple but delicious carbo ladened meal of polenta and veal stew before attacking a plate of big puffy zucchini blossom filled ravioli accompanied by table wine and bottles of sparking water.
While we were basking in the glow of the day’s events and the lunch we all thanked Eros for three terrific days of riding. In his typical magnanimous way he lifted his glass of wine, nodded with that big smile of his and said “Grazie. It makes me very happy that you are happy.”
After lunch, we returned to Verona and enjoyed another few days of riding full of other adventures, characters and stories that will have to wait for another time.
A week after we returned to California Kevin told us that he couldn’t get Italy and cycling out of his head. He’ll be back and so will we.
Now it’s your turn! Details: The climb from Mazzo to the top of the Mortirolo is just under 13 kilometers at an average grade of 10.5% but with a spirit crushing 7 kilometer stretch averaging around 13%-14% with several sustained sections of 18+%. The descent from the top to Edolo is just over 17 kilometers.
This article was first published on Italian Cycling Journal blog site.
Grazie mille Buzz for the great stories.
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