Monday, January 14, 2013

Three Days in the Alps with Eros Poli, Part III

We continue with Part III  of guest writer Buzz Yancich's account of riding with Eros Poli ( as they explore the Passo dello Stelvio. Part I here, and Part II here.

Three days in the Alps with Eros, Part III

Tappa 2: Passo dello Stelvio

Vintage postcard (indicating the highest road in Europe) featuring some
of the famed 48 hairpin turns or Tornante from Prato.

There are great climbs throughout Italy, France and Switzerland and then there is “The Stelvio” arguably the most epic, breathtaking and historic roads of all the great climbs in the Alps. The mountain is so big it has not one or two roads to the summit but three. The first from Bormio, the second, known as the Umbrail Pass from Switzerland and third featuring the iconic 48 hairpins from Prato the later was improbably built in the 1820’s. For much of its’ existence the road served as an important route and strategic post especially during the First World War and was known at the highest road in all of Europe. The Stelvio entered cycling lore when it made its first appearance in the 1953 Giro when Coppi bested Koblet across the summit.

When we first arrived in Verona Eros announced he had a little treat and challenge for us: we were going to climb the Stelvio from Bormio, descend into Switzerland via the Umbrail and then come around the north side to attack the 48 tornante from Prato and then descend back to Bormio. It was going to be a big challenge but he assessed that we were up to the task. All in all a 65 mile loop with about 12,000 feet of climbing.

As it turned out the guys at the Hotel Bike Funivia were planning the same ride so we decided to join forces with a combined group of about 20 riders from Holland, Denmark, Germany, Italy and the US.

Pre-departure group photo.
 Pretty much everyone you meet on a cycling vacation is fun to be around and these folks were no exception. By the way the woman kneeling wiped the floor with all of us, guys included.

We awoke to another classic day of intensely deep blue Alpine skies without even the hint of a cloud. After assembling for a pre-ride group photo and working out the logistics of what would be a long and no doubt challenging day we rolled out en masse at 9:00 a.m.

The climb up from Bormio turned out to be quite challenging especially because 1) the warm up before the start of the climb is all of three minutes long and 2) everyone in the group went out like a cannon shot. In retrospect most would have misgivings about the early torrid pace later in the day but who could blame us. I mean, it’s the Stelvio, “our queen stage” a beautiful day with equally incredible scenery everywhere you look and everyone was excited to go.

Our group on the very first turn.

Although some will say the climb up from Bormio is the easiest approach make no mistake, it is challenging climb with something like 36 numbered Tornante, passage through a series of galleria tunnels and past a cascading river along a ribbon of road that seems to have been impossibly put down by a road engineer.

Within minutes our group is strung out as everyone finds their pace.

View through one of the many tunnels that are one of the hallmarks of the climb from Bormio.

View looking down the Braulio valley towards Bormio. Note the tunnels and galleria
that line the road.

Ribbon road – Passo dello Stelvio.

Thankfully the grade lessons a bit for the last 5 kilometers as it passes through a broad Alpine valley before reaching the turn off to Switzerland via the Umbrail Pass.

We regrouped at the junction for the descent into Switzerland. Eros cautioned us about a short section where the pavement gives way to a dirt road for a couple of kilometers but reported the dirt was in decent shape and easily traversed. What a descent it was! It seemed like we rode downhill for an hour.

It is interesting to note the change in the way the roads are set up and maintained at least along the Umbrail. In Italy, almost every descent with a sharp turn is marked with a black and white chevron sign indicating the severity of the turn which is really helpful if you are unfamiliar with the road. On the Umbrail there are no such signs and given the steep grade we all found ourselves flying into some of the sharper curves carrying a bit too much speed. We survived and as we came out of the descent we instantly knew we were in Switzerland by the post card views of perfectly manicured farmlands, flower bedecked homes and the sense of order that the Swiss pride themselves on.

The 20 kilometer transfer to start of the climb in Prato is essentially downhill or flat the entire way. We rejoined as a large group and were able to make excellent and easy time in a high-speed mini peloton as we were waived through the border control back into Italy – passports not needed. We arrived for lunch in Prato and lingered there while everyone loaded up for the final push. It had already been a long day and there was so very much more to do.

Passing through Switzerland on the way to Prato.

The ride everyone really associates with the Stelvio is from Prato up the 48 tornante. (They are numbered in reverse order so that as you climb it is like a long countdown and reaching number one is a sweet reward.) The Stelvio has special meaning to everyone who climbs it and those who want to climb it. Once you are there you will make your own memory.

Case in point: my wife Maria. When she was battling cancer a few year ago she announced a goal to someday travel to Italy, to the Alps and to the Stelvio, in particular, to conquer this climb as a symbol of the completion of her long struggle. Eros was particularly moved and motivated by this goal and rode side-by-side with her, encouraging her all along the way.

The first hour of the climb follows a somewhat busy road. In the grand scheme of things it is not too challenging, past small villages but always upward. Finally, the last village along the way is left and the road then turns into a forested area and Tornante no. 48 is met quickly followed by Tornante no. 47. Now the climb has begun. But wait, where is Tornante no. 46? Or 45? After another 10 minutes of grinding comes 46 and later on 45 and then the cruel math game starts waiting for the next Tornante which surely must be just there a few hundred meters more but then isn’t.

Doing the slow grind up the energy sapping long straight ways between the Tornantes that dominate the first portion of the lower half of the Stelvio.

I was following Kevin aka “Marco” as he was in climber’s heaven spinning uphill, up, up, up through the trees as I was working hard to keep contact with his wheel. Just a turn or two below Eros was leading Maria. It is at this point that the road begins to emerge from the woods and you are afforded with some beautiful glacial views as the road. However this is just a prelude of what is to come.

Incredible views help keep your mind off the grind.

After an hour and a half of hard steady work the road takes a sudden turn in direction and when you look up you are confronted with the enormity of the Stelvio, its’ vastness and scale and the sheer engineering feat of road building that is laid out in front of you. There is no mistaking that your route is the glimmer of road as it zig zags and seemingly rises straight up the side of the mountain. It is here where it hits you that you haven’t even started to climb.

The view that takes your breath away.

Few climbs have the enormous scale of the Stelvio as it is a climb that opens up above the treeline, exposed and allows you at all times to see quite clearly where you are going and where you have come from. Across the wide valley are glaciers, the sky goes on forever and the rocky peaks signal that you are in rarified air.


If you turn around you can clearly see where you were 45 minutes early except the vehicles and riders are little dots. (Sort of like being on top of a giant skyscraper and looking down at the street below)

Looking back.

We were about 5 kilometers below the summit when I ran out of gas and began to struggle and fell behind. Maria, focused on her goal and eyeing the summit pushed ahead unaware that I was bonking, Marco in stellar form was also in the summit zone determined to finish off his great day.

Eros up ahead with Maria turned around and rode back down to check on me. I assured him I was fine however reduced to riding at my own pace to the top. One problem though was that I wanted to get a photo and video of Maria at the top to document the culmination of her goal.

Eros knowing how important this day was to Maria and I didn’t give it another thought, turned to me and said: “I will try to catch her.” This was no small task because by this time Maria was already about two kilometers ahead of us, her figure growing ever smaller against the immenseness of the mountain.

Thus began the great chase of the Stelvio.

One of the benefits of riding with Eros is that you get a first hand perspective of the mental focus that professional racers need to rely upon. There are also a lot of practical lessons that Eros is more than happy to impart…if you are willing to listen. One such lesson is that in a chase to build and gather speed in a steady manner or as Eros would say “Like a big jet accelerating down a runway for a take off” Never a hard acceleration at first – an amateur’s mistake…

The great chase began in this manner, steady, gathering speed and as he later told me, mentally preparing himself to start hurting. As I continued my way up I could see the whole thing unfold in front of me. Eros seated and slowly but steadily catching up to Maria. Then after about 5 minutes I saw Eros suddenly rise from his seat and take a big dig as he hit one of the ramps after a tornante. The chase was on in earnest and now Eros was doing the hard work.

At this point on the Stelvio the tornante begin to come one after another in quicker succession as the final countdown begins. Turns seven, six, five etc. all come in short order as the top of the pass is approached. With about five tornante to go I lost view of Maria and Eros. Frankly, I didn’t think Eros would catch Maria – her lead was too big.

The driver of the support van from the Hotel Funivia had been taking photos all day and by pure coincidence as we later discovered documented the chase.

The chase

Approaching the final Tornante.  Did he catch Maria? The still from the video Eros shot tells it.

Maria feeling the emotion of the moment and punching the air in celebration.

At the top Eros congratulated us on the effort. You don’t often hear a pro rider telling you that it was a hard day for him. But it was. “I don’t remember the climb being so hard…but then again, the last time I raced up it I was 20 years younger and 20 kilos lighter! “

“Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to catch Maria, she kept a good pace the whole way up, I really had to fight hard especially that last kilometer and caught her with only about 500 meters to go. “

Maria had become quite emotional (big mountains and big goals do that to you) and so did Eros. “ Buzz, she was cursing cancer, crying, letting it all out, it was amazing – I won’t forget this.”

Neither will we.

Making our own souvenir. An incredible day: 12,000 feet of climbing and over 100 kilometers or riding.

We recovered on top with the rest of the group from the Hotel Funivia enjoying some sausages and Cokes that really hit the spot. All that was left was the long descent to Bormio – something we had been looking forward to all day. We even rigged a video camera to Eros’ bike and someday when the statute of limitations for speeding and other road violations passes I might post the video of his daredevil descent on Youtube.

Needless to way we all slept like the dead that night thankfully too tired to worry about the next day: The Mortirolo.

Details: The climb from Bormio to the top of the Stelvio (2758) is 21.5 kilometers long at an average grade of 7.1 percent. The descent via the Umbrial into Switzerland is 13.2 kilometers long with an average grade of 8.5%. The ascent from Prato to the top of the Stelvio is 24.5 kilometers at an average grade of 7.4% All total the loop is approximately 105 kilometers.

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1 comment:

  1. That was a beautiful day, I was one of the guys from Holland in the orange shirts. Unfortunately I had a bad day and didn't got up the Stelvio by bike. But I made some of the pictures. Maarten Prins from Arnhem, Holland.