Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Looking back: Climbing the famous "Stelvio"

This ride was organized by my cycling club as part of its summer program. The Passo dello Stelvio is located in Italy, and at 2757 m (9,045 feet) is the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps, and the second highest in the Alps. Of course, it is famous with cyclists as some epic battles have been fought here in the Giro d'Italia. I should add the real epic battles have been fought here as well: before the end of WW I, it formed the border between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Italian Kingdom. During the WW I, fierce battles were fought in the ice and snow of the area.

It is possible to climb the Stelvio from two different sides; from Bormio and from Prato, both in Italy. It is also possible to reach the Stelvio from Switzerland, namely from St. Maria. The toughest and most spectacular climbing is from Prato which is where we would start our climb. With 48 hairpins, each numbered on a stone, it is regarded as one of the finest continuous hairpin sectors in the Alps.

We departed from Verona at 2:00pm on Friday, July 7th, 2006. It was a 3 hour drive to Prato allo Stelvio which is approximately 75km from Bolzano. It rained quite hard on the way up and things looked bleak for our Saturday morning ride up the Stelvio. We enjoyed a very nice dinner, enjoying local cuisine at our hotel (Wellnesshotel Zentral, 39026 Prato allo Stelvio, Alto Adige- Italia Tel. 0473616008). The forecast for Saturday was not good, and the rain through the night was worrisome.

Fortunately, when we woke up it had stopped raining but the forecast called for rain again in early afternoon. So, it was a quick breakfast and on the road on our bikes by 8:00a.m. My roommate did nothing but snore loudly all night so I didn't have a great night of sleep.

The Passo dello Stelvio is 24,3 km (15.1 miles) long. The average gradient percentage is 7.4 %. The first 10Km or so is a gradual uphill along a beautiful river. You then come up upon the first switchback which has a sign: 47. So. now you know you have 47 switchbacks to go! Each one of them is numbered. And, there is quite a bit of distance between the switchbacks; only at the top to they get closer together. It's an awesome sight when you are climbing and the switchbacks are before you up, up, and away. I felt really good, and alternated between seated climbing and dancing on the pedals out of the saddle. 2.5 hours later I was at the top! I didn't climb for time; just to survive (smile). Just imagine climbing Schooley's Mountain for 15 miles.

Unfortunately, the club van couldn't make it to the top (carburetor problems) so I didn't have my camera up there. The altitude is quite a bit higher than Mont Ventoux. Ventoux is 1900m asl and the Stelvio is 2,700m asl. We were going to cycle down the other side into Switzerland and come back into Italy but because of the van problems we had to ride down the way we come up. Even though it was July it was cold up there. It began to rain so we left the top after about half an hour. You had to be really paying attention on the way down!

I found Mont Ventoux harder. I think it was steeper (10% vs 7.4%), it was a cool 9c when we started the Stelvio climb vs. the hot, hot, hot day we went up Ventoux, and I think I'm actually in a little better shape a few weeks later. Also, the switchbacks allow you to rest just a tiny bit whereas Mont Ventoux does not have switchbacks (except for two at the top). I'm surprised, looking back, that I arrived at the top of Ventoux more quickly than Stelvio.

It was another excellent adventure!
Photos: a view of Passo dello Stelvio showing upper switchbacks, a view looking down at some hairpins, a photo of the glacier that is to the left as you climb, the daunting view of what is left to go, me after coming partially down.

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