Cycling | 3 comments
MOUNTAIN CHALLENGE – Part 1.
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Climbing Italian Alps, First day Thursday, July 19th, 2007
A cyclist himself, Zdenko Kahlina (EMCC member) who lives in Edmonton (Canada) recently took his first cycling trip to Italy to climb some high mountains very often included in the Giro d’ Italia. He chronicled his experiences traveling with his bike and his buddies. He chose Bormio area in Italy (Lombardy) as his base. We should all do this… soon.
Since I was born in Croatia I’m always looking for an excuse to visit Europe. Both my wife and I like to travel. We usually come to Europe every second year, and travel through Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia on our way to visit Croatia, our friends and families there.
This year we decided to do something different. I wanted to visit Italy and climb the well known mountains from the Giro d’ Italia professional cycling race, explore the country and enjoy local cuisine. I also invited my Croatian cycling buddies to join me on this interesting trip. Much to my surprise they all jumped at the opportunity and we had a group of 20 people that wanted to join. So arrangements were made, tickets bought, ground transportation secured by renting a car in Germany and before you know it, we were on our 9 hour flight to Frankfurt Germany.
Passo dello Stelvio – East side. Just imagine yourself riding here… you can do it!
At the airport generally no one will bat an eye when you roll up to the ticket counter to check your baggage. But get there early. At the Air Canada check-in counter, they promised to handle the bike with care. You have to trust them…at some point it’s all a leap of faith anyway. They also wanted to charge me extra $50 for the bike, but I convinced them not to, and they didn’t. I love Air Canada!
Arrival in Europe
Everything made it safely to Frankfurt with the bike arriving right there with us (despite all the horror stories of lost baggage). I quickly discovered that having an easily rolling luggage really makes moving through airports much easier. Most European cabs are not big enough to fit the bike case; you will be forced to find a small mini van taxi. We needed a taxi to take us from the airport to our rental agency, which was located in downtown Frankfurt. The reason for this was to save 17% of the rent a car cost on airport service charge; they charge you when renting a car at the airport. We were renting a car for 32 days, so it was well worth to spend and extra 25 euros on taxi and rent a car in the city instead.
I’d arranged for a mid-sized sedan station wagon Opel Vectra, giving us room for one bike and three modest suitcases. However, if you are traveling with more than one bike, get a mini-van. Much to my surprise, they didn’t have Opel Vectra they promised; instead they offered me Opel Zafira or brand new BMW X3. I chose BMW as it was a diesel. The diesel engine saved us a lot of gasoline money by the end of our trip. In Europe gasoline (eurosuper) is 1.8 euros per liter, and diesel was about 1.2 euros per liter.
From Frankfurt we drove thru Germany and Switzerland on our way to Italy for seven hours. It was all highway drive that went by very fast, not because of the autobahn driving speeds, but because both of us were enjoying the beautiful scenery from the car. Switzerland is a beautiful country, but this would be story to tell and describe some other time. One important detail to remember about the Switzerland is that they require tourists to purchase “Vignette”, a road tax of SFr 40 for using their roads. Vignettes are small, colored stickers affixed to motor vehicles passing through motorways and motor roads in some European nations. They are not issued in Germany where the autobahn is a non-toll road system. In Italy the rules are a little different. The Autostrada system is operated by a private company and you pay tolls to use it. On some parts of the Autostrada you get a ticket when you enter and pay when you exit (you pay for the distance you drive). In other parts you pay set amounts at toll booths.
Grosio – Lombardy
Situated between Tirano and Bormio, in the north of Italy, GROSIO is a small village in the province of SONDRIO. It is surrounded by mountains and is 626 m high. It has about 5,000 inhabitants and it’s only 11 km far from Switzerland. Sondrio province is in the north of a region called Lombardy, on the border with Switzerland.
Most of its territory is mountainous: as a matter of fact Valtellina valley is currently one of the most popular tourist ski area of central Alps. In the Stelvio Park you can see deer, mountain goats and many other species of wild animals; the Park is interesting also under the geological and mineral points of view.
Grosio, ancient borough with agricultural and commercial traditions, has a great importance in the historical-artistic and archaeological panorama of Valtellina, still maintaining its traditions and costumes and its ancient carnival.
At the entrance of the village you can see the power plant above which you can admire the ruins of two medieval castles and some primitive engravings; going straight on you meet S.Joseph church with its impressive bell-tower and the “Villa Visconti Venosta” (XVII century) with its big garden. But all this is just a little part of the rich cultural patrimony that the visitor can discover in Grosio.
Our group in front of the hotel in Grosio with the Jim (the owner) in the background.
Our hotel Sassella was situated in the historical center of Grosio, across the road from the church. The hotel offers 22 recently renovated rooms and is endowed with every comfort. This is a “Bike Hotel” which means they have a closed garage and lots of special services for bikers. The friendly and distinctive “Restaurant Jim” is equally suited to a romantic dinner for two, a festive evening with friends, or a pleasant family lunch. Special menu and breakfast buffet are offered for sportive people. And trust me – the food was superb! The wine list features a complete range of Valtellinese wines as well as a good selection of Italian beer.
Upon arrival at our hotel, friendly Marcella was waiting for our group, to take us to a private house that has been designated for our big group. We got a house with eight big rooms and the best part was, we were there alone. No other guests. They also provided storage for our bikes and parking for the cars.
After that it was time to unpack the bike and re-assemble. The time spent practicing really pays off. I’m practically a pro at this by now.
During the afternoon we met all our friends as they were arriving from different parts of the world. We had a couple who came from Sydney (Australia), one family that came from Toronto (Canada), two couples from Edmonton (Canada) and the rest came from different places in Croatia. All together we were a group of 20 people, nine of them cyclists with the bikes, ready for the mountain challenge ahead of us. And most importantly, each rider had a personal seigneur, just like professionals do.
In The Saddle
Riding around Grosio in the Valtellina valley is spectacular. The roads are very smooth, the drivers are courteous and really seem to tolerate cyclists with out the usual aggressive honking and zooming we experience in Canada. Research on riding in the area turned up enough references of names of villages and climbs such that it was easy to put together some killer rides.
Day 1: Climbing Passo dello Stelvio (2,757 m)
The very next day after our arrival (Thursday, July 19th ) we already had plans to climb the first mountain: Passo dello Stelvio.
The Passo dello Stelvio, the highest pass in Italy, is situated in the Alps Retiche, to the north-west of the Montuoso group of the Ortles-Cevedale; province of Bolzano puts in communication the Valtellina (in province of Sondrio) with the Val Venosta. The Stelvio is one of the most scenic passes in the Alps with those hairpins, nearly overlapping like a big intestine (nice !). The road seems perfectly surfaced and very wide. The difficulty of the slope is probably corresponding to the beauty of the scenery. It is absolutely a must to try climbing this pass, and maybe continue with the Mortirolo and the Gavia not far from there (but NOT on the same day!).
Our plan was to get into the cars and drive from Grosio, over the top of the Stelvio on the other (eastern) side of the mountain, all the way to small village Prato. Once there we would unload the bikes and climb the Stelvio from the eastern side. In the morning we checked the maps for a route.
Looking down the main steep switchback section on the west side of Stelvio.
Route with car: Grosio – Sondalo – Valdisotto – Bormio -Bagni Vecchi-Passo del Stelvio – Trafoi – Prato (72 km).
Thursday, July 19th dawned clear, bright and promised a hot day for the epic ride. After a hearty breakfast at the Jim’s restaurant, we loaded the cars with the bikes, food and water and left our hotel parking lot at 9:00 AM. By 10:30 AM we were already at the top of Stelvio, where we stop for a quick break and picture taking.
At the top of Stelvio: Mladen Lojen, Danijel Perokovic, Marijan i Zdenko Kahlina.
From the top we headed down the mountain on the eastern side, thru all those 48 switchbacks. Very impressive, I was sure it’s going to take much longer on a way back with the bike. Pretty soon we got to Prato allo Stelvio and parked our cars. It was a moment that we waited for almost a full year, since we started planning for this trip. We unloaded our bikes, changed into cycling clothes, checked the tire pressure, made sure we have enough water, and gave last advices to our support “staff” (our wives) in the following vehicles. Last minute was saved for a group photo and off we went.
Zdenko’s “Cofidis” group. Standing here from the left are: Filip, Ivan Golub, Mladen, Kreso, Ivan Colig, Marijan, Zdenko, Danijel and Roman.
Biking Route: Prato – Trafoi – Passo dello Stelvio – Bormio – Grosio 72 km
The first few kilometers were easy and they served the purpose to warm us for the big climb. We started the climb at a steady pace and used the initial 5% gradient to settle in to riding before the road kicked up into the trees and stayed at a steady 9 or 10%. There was a little traffic on this road except for the few other cyclists with the same (crazy) idea. Since we started our ride at 11:30 it was already very hot and no wind.
On the lower slopes.. just caught Dado who was leading for the first part of the climb..
The real climb started at the small village Trafoi, and from than on, it was everybody on its own. When we reached the first switchback one of the guys (Dado) set the pace which was too fast for most of the group. Soon everyone settled into their own pace and good progress was made up the mountain. I was glad that I invested money in my Shimano R600 compact crank set with the 50/34 chain rings. For most of the climb I was on 34 x 24 or 27.
Some fierce competition going on at the back of the group..
At 2,000m the trees disappeared and we could all feel the air becoming thinner, the heat of the day was countered by the height gained and it was warm but not too oppressive.
With the support vehicle behind, it feels like being part of the big pro race..
The only problem with coming out of the trees was that we could now see the road snaking away above us to the summit. Legs were aching now and each hairpin was a blessing as it gave momentary respite from the gradient.
View of the road from the car 3 km before the summit. You can feel the pain in our legs..
What impressed me the most is that because of all these switchbacks, you can see all the way to the top of the mountain in front of you. The view behind you is even more impressive, because you can see how much of a climb you already covered, and it encourages you to push the pedals even harder.
View of the road behind us.. very impressive isn’t it?
As we got within 300m of the summit, I felt drawn to the top of this great pass, and began to sprint effortlessly, accelerating all the way over the top. It was an emotional experience to blast over this great climb. My time was 2 hours and 12 minutes, but the best time was had by Kreso who made it to the top in 2 hours and 9 minutes. The last guy from our group made it to the top after 3 hours and 5 minutes. We all felt like winners and were very proud of our achievement. One of the guys called his family in Croatia immediately after stopping at the top, to let them know that he made it! This just shows how important this ride was!
Canadians Kreso (Toronto) and Zdenko (Edmonton) at the top of Stelvio.
After all the suffering, beer tasted really good at the Hotel restaurant Perego. We took the usual pictures of the amazing road down the east side, below the towering Ortler (3905m) with its glacier dome, brilliant with fresh snow.
It was a good feeling to have our support team with us, at the top of the Passo dello Stelvio, sharing this moments with them. They were all impressed with all the climbing and driving the cars on this scenic road. We put on our helmets and some extra layers before heading down the 34 turns to Bormio.
As Ivan Colig plummeted off the mountain hitting speeds of up to 80-90km/h, the rest of the group watched his progress from above as they took the road a little slower. The mountain which had taken around 2 hours to climb only took 35 minutes to descend to Bormio. Although the heart rate was lower to say the descent was a rest for Ivan would not be right, as all the braking for hairpins and German camper van drivers meant his shoulders and forearms were full off lactic acid by the time he reached the bottom. This is to say nothing of the one short unlit tunnel on the descent, where it was all Ivan could do to make out where the road went over the top of his sunglasses.
After a hard day in the saddle, everybody was laughing..
In Bormio we again grouped together and rode easy tempo for another 25 km before we got back to our hotel in Grosio.
Tomorrow is going to be another difficult day of climbing. We are going to climb spectacular climb – Passo dello Gavia. They say that Gavia is like Mt. Everest to cyclists. We shall see that tomorrow.
To be continued..
Have a good and healthy season.
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