Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ride Report:: Monte Grappa Challenge of 2010

My thanks to Jerry Nilson for allowing me to use his ride report of the Monte Grappa Challenge of 2010 (below). Jerry also added, "I am currently most proud of my list of the highest paved pass roads in the Alps, with maps of all possible approaches for the first 100 (and hope to add more maps after this Summer). This list is more researched than any other similar list available anywhere. I have no gradient profiles though, but there are other good sites for that.... I hope to get a book or two out eventually on cycling in the Alps ." Jerry's website is

"The bad thing this morning was that I could not sleep so long, but the good thing was that I didn’t have to bring my backpack with me. This was the day for the Monte Grappa Challenge event. This event is more like a randonnée (or a ‘brevet’) than a race, but it is not tied to the odd rules associated with those events. You cannot start before people are at the start to stamp your control card (see end of the page) that you have to carry with you to stamped along the way at control points. Then you can start when you want during some hours in the morning and you have to be back before midnight at the latest for the last stamp. Depending on how ambitious you are and for how long time you want to spend in the saddle, you can choose to climb Monte Grappa 2, 3, 4 or 5 times during the day from different starting points. There are actually ca. 10 possible different starting points for reaching Monte Grappa on a bicycle, but the most popular 5 climbs have been chosen and the first three are among the four hardest climbs up there, while the last two climbs are a little easier.

I asked some of the others when they planned to start and it seemed like they should be going up at 4:30 am and start at 6 or earlier. I decided to put my alarm on 5 am, which I figured should be enough to shower (I always shower in the morning and shave to feel better and get a bit warm), get breakfast and get down to the start at around 6. I was apparently one of the last ones to get breakfast in the morning (and there was not so much to eat). The hotel I stayed at were the one suggested to use by the organisation and it was ok, but not the best hotel I have been to. Then I checked that I got my pump and camera with me and off I went down to the start.

There were many people down there (slightly south of Romano d’Ezzelino (134m)) and they let go of groups of riders with some minutes between them. I managed to borrow a real pump and get the pressure up in my tyres, which was about time and it always feels better to have enough air on quick descents. I got my card stamped and lined up for the start and took the first photo here.

I do not remember when we started exactly and I may have turned on my cycle computer when I left the hotel, but it was around 6, I believe. I had calculated a little on the estimated time for completing the whole challenge of five climbs and thought that I could do it in ca. 13-14 hours, based on my time of 9h17mins for completing the Ötztaler radmarathon (220 km, 5200m). However, I decided to take it easy at the feeding station at the top and go somewhat careful down the roads and the challenge turned out to be a bit harder than expected, so it took more like 17 hours including breaks (maybe 15 hours cycling time). If I had known this before, I would likely had started a little earlier still, so I could have made the last descent without lights. Actually, it was only when I was on my 4th climb that I realised that it could get dark before I had finished. Maybe I could have done it in 15 hours total, if I had treated it as a race, but luckily this was not a race. One must remember to measure cycling time in height metres and not distance in the mountains.

I took off in good speed and no one went away from me until the first stop for a second stamp at the foot of the first climb. It was nice it was not a competition in that people took things a bit more easy and were more friendly – especially important at this first control station with lots of cyclists that wanted to get their card stamped quickly. There were still a sense of competition to the event and people went really hard up the first climb, including me. I thought it was quite fun, but had a problem with the squeaking sound from my bicycle that I cared less about when on my own, but now got painfully aware of and others too … especially as it got really steep here.

(The noises have been coming and going (no problems on flat roads) and I have still not pinpointed the problem exactly and at the bicycle shop at home they also had no clue. Maybe I should have taken the time to visit an Italian bicycle shop as they tend to know more down there about bicycles. My theory (although I have changed every part to try and localise the problem), is that it is the hub of the wheel or rather the body has been made a bit too light by Tune (who makes the lightest hubs in the world), but it could also be the Canyon carbon frame as I tried a pair of other wheels (though oddly enough that did not help much to get clear on the situation). The only (yes) other thing would be the rear derailleur, and that I just changed before hanging the bicycle on the wall for the Winter. Or maybe the bicycle is having a psychological problem … .)

That aside it went really well for quite some time up this first climb up the Salto della Capra where I found a good rhythm and passed by many more than passed me by. I had not studied this climb in detail and was surprised to find that it got really steep toward the end in two sections where the last was the hardest and here I had to slow down for sure. This is probably the location where they took the first photo of me here. Somewhere here a guy came up saying “hello Jerry” and it turned out that it was Luciano that I had met down at the Liguria BIG meeting in September the year before. A nice guy, who unfortunately is as bad in English as I am in Italian. I think he passed me by here on the steep section and I did not expect to see him again, but later met him at the top after the second climb and wondered if he might have done three climbs already, but thankfully he was not that much better than me and the increasing temperatures had taken the toll even on him.

There is a long nice road from Vedetta/Sella d’Archeson (1445m) at the top of the first climb to the next part of the climb up to the Monte Grappa (1730m). You can see this stretch in the second photo here above. Here people still had a lot of strength and many came by quickly here (probably some better riders starting a bit later). However, I decided not go too hard here as the other speedier guys might not plan to do the climb more than twice (as most did, I think). It was nice getting up to the top and this first climb made me wonder if I really intended to do five climbs like this. I thought that I start with doing the first two climbs and that I would decide then what to do.

We went down the main/normal road to Romano d’Ezzelino (SP 148) (167m) and this is a fast and nice descent. Then a stamp in the card outside the ice cream café. I looked around for someone else knowing the road to the next climb as I had not memorized this one, but there were also some signs helping us and this was the only climb that could be a little difficult to find (the first was easy as we were so many cyclists going together). Of course, I had the road book with me, but you do not want to stop and study that if you do not have to.

The next climb from Semonzo were not much easier than the first and now it was getting hot outside and we had the first climb in our legs. This climb is highly irregular on a narrow, but good, road and becomes harder higher up, just like the first climb.
This is a tough climb that has been used in the Giro d’Italia. The second photo of me is taken high up on this climb and I apparently look after where the top could be as I was getting quite tired here. Some guys offered water here, but I was drinking a lot at the top and did not need to drink so much along the climbs. Finally I got up and it felt like I had done the worst and I surely had. I talked with Luciano and took some time eating pasta, drinking large amounts of coca-cola and probably taking things a bit too easy until I had to decide to go down again for a third climb.

I guess I was waiting a bit as it was getting quite hot and wanted to recover some before continuing. The bar at the top had all that I needed and it was well located given that the weather was warm (in cold weather I am not sure it would have been such a good idea to have the only feeding place at the top). It was quite nice up here too as seen in one of the photos. I wished I had a bit more time exploring the monuments at the top. The third climb would prove to be the hardest one of them all. I had decided to make at least the three first climbs before throwing in the towel, so this I just needed to do. Luciano and many others gave up after the first two climbs and even many Italians had problems with the heat this day. On the way down, the heat is never a problem however.

Now we went down the north side of the mountain to Caupo (332m) on a road that was not always in perfect condition, nor was it always descending and it took me probably the double time to some of the best guys to descend here. It took exactly one hour to descend when I measured it one of the two times we went down this road and I believe that was likely the lousiest time down here. I did not like to descend this road a lot, but there were nice views along the road.

Down in Caupo, I got a stamp again from a French speaking man (I believe). It was now in the middle of the day and it was the peak of the heat for the day. We went up the long flat valley from Seren del Grappa on a tiny road that looked like it would soon hit the end as the mountain ahead kept closing in on us, while the road remained flat. That was ominous! Thankfully there were a well placed water tap just where the real climb starts and almost all stopped here. The climb from Seren del Grappa has only one shorter hard section and that is the one starting here and although it is shorter than the steep sections on the other climbs, this is likely the steepest of them all, with the possible exception of the hardest climb up from Possagno that was not part of this MGC for some reason, but maybe it would be a bit too hard and steep for some with up to 27% on a less good road (from what I have read). This climb has a section of ca. 2 km with an average inclination above 20% or so I would believe. The section is also rather rough with some tricky drainage gullies.

Only one guy managed to pass me by here (even though I am no good when it is this steep), but he also had three front chain rings! This was hard, to say the least and many had to walk up, I am sure. It was very often at 24%, which was the steepest on the whole MGC challenge and lasted longer than this than I imagined. It eased off after a first ramp and then I thought the worst was over, but it had not even started. Once up from here the rest of the climb felt easy. Then I stopped sometime after Forcelletto (1391m), where one joins the same road one was descending to Caupo to take a photo. But I had gotten so sweaty that I managed to drop the camera to the ground and after that it was not possible to get working again and I lost some 17-18 photos taken in the last three days including some more nice ones up here. (For some reason I carried the camera with me home, but I have decided not to repair it now.)

Once again I was up at Monte Grappa, but now the weather started to look less good and I also noted that it was longer between the riders. It all felt like the event was wrapping up and that most had been going faster than me who had decided to do all the five climbs or they may have started earlier. It seemed anyway that most of the cyclists I had seen on the third leg was not really planning to do all the climbs. I could end the pain and have a nice afternoon like the others or do two more long climbs. Well, I do not stop cycling this early in the day I thought, so let’s take one of the climbs at a time and see how it goes, I thought.

It was a lonely descent once again to Caupo, looking at the dark clouds over the Asiago plateau and wondering if they would come to visit Monte Grappa. I met some riders coming up as this fourth climb was down and then up the same road to/from Caupo. The first I met looked really professional and went in a quite good speed. I could not remember having seen many of them before though on the climbs. Later on I still met people, but it was further and further between them. After what felt like a lifetime, I was down yet again in Caupo and got my stamp and decided that what the hell – I am going to have a coffee at the café here. Thus I ordered a double espresso (good one) and one other guy came down and went away before I took off again.

The coffee seemed to have helped! For some mysterious reason I felt stronger than ever before during the day and I went in a furious speed (really) up again, feeling this was the last visit down this far side of the mountain. The whole climb back up took 2 hours for the 29 km, which I think is quite okay, especially given that the descent took 1 hour. I passed the guy after some kilometres and did not have to look back after him as few would be able to follow me up here this day. I slowed down a bit after Forcelletto. The clock was 16 when I was down in Caupo and thus it was 18 when I was back up at the top. It all seemed like I should have time to go down for the last climb and be able to do all while it was light outside, but the distances here are big.

The chief organiser of the event, the very helpful Ivan Contiero, seemed to be everywhere and was up at the top again and he suggested that I went by the hotel on the way down to get my lights and suggested I took a short-cut there. Well, since I had already done the first four, why not complete the challenge and do the last one too, which should also be the easiest of the climbs. I decided to take my time and just focus on completing the challenge. Fully loaded with pasta and coca-cola, I went down again on the road that we climbed on the second time going up. I found that it was a bit dangerous going down this road after four climbs when one is tired as this descent is quite technical with many dangerous spots along the descent. But likely the Italians had no problems with this, as they seemingly never has a problem going down full speed on any road. I wondered why there was not more people coming from abroad as this is quite a nice event, but this is only the second year that it has been taking place.

Eventually, but not very quickly, I got down again to Romano d’Ezzelino and found a short-cut, but likely not the one Ivan had suggested, to the Dalla Mena hotel (252m) and collected my lights and went down to the ice cream café for another stamp, where they wondered why I was coming from the wrong direction – I blamed Ivan and explained about the lamps. Then it was back up the main road and most classic climb of the Monte Grappa which starts just here. This climb has two sections with an easier stretch in the middle. When getting to the middle section two guys in green and blue ribboned jerseys passed me quickly by and I got a little irritated thinking I was overtaken by some locals out for an evening ride. So for some odd reason I decided I had a little power left and decided to pull a joke on them and speeded up and passed them by in good speed myself.

They looked a bit surprised and after a while they came back passing me by again and then I noticed they indeed had MGC numbers on their bikes and looked like they had been riding for a while after all. I thought that I better let them go as they were obviously faster than me, but wise of climbing in the mountain, I know that most people tend to go fast when taking over over riders, but may not be quite as good as the climb continues. I noticed the second guy was just about hanging on to the frist guy and decided to cling to the second guy for as long as I could. After a while this became easier even if he tried to get up in speed and join his friend who was trying to keep the speed up, but eventually he had to wait for his friend and me. For the last stretch I felt better again and had no longer any problem following them. It also helped that the climb was even and not too steep.

Thus we managed to get up without lights on, but it turned dark as we came up for the last stop. We actually met a few riders getting down that cheered us on on the way up, so there were others still out here. The first guy, Giacomo, took some photos, one of me here on the last stretch up the last climb that he later sent me. Ivan asked me at the top if I thought it was a good challenge and I jokingly said well, I would likely have to look for something a bit more challenging for the next year, but in all honesty it was a real challenge and so I said.

We talked for a while and they said that of course we go down together, but when I explained that it might not be a good idea and said it took me one hour down to Caupo, both Ivan (listening in) and the guys were confused how I could have taken so long to get down there and decided that they go down alone, which was likely good as my lights were also not so good for going fast down in the dark. I asked at the finish if they had seen the guys and they had been there like 15-20 minutes before. Even though I went slowly down the first part, I was lucky to get a car behind me that lighted the road for me and after a while I realised that he did so on purpose and went as fast down as I dared (could not go too fast when being this tired). I guess he would not have been down much quicker even if he had passed me by. I waived my thanks to him at the crossroads in Romano and continued the short stretch down to the campo sportivo where I was around 23 something.

I stood there talking for long with a nice man and was trying to get down a sandwich that I got hold of, but it was difficult eating dry bread now. After this I went to the late opened ice cream bar and had a big ice cream and coca-cola. I met a tired old man completing this long challenge at the crossroad asking me for where to go for the finish. I was happy with having completed the challenge and went back to the hotel to wash my clothes and prepare for the next day which was supposed to be the Gran Fondo Pinarello, with another climb up to Monte Grappa from Treviso in the morning. This was what I had paid most for so I had an incentive to go there. I set my alarm clock on 4 am, in order to be able to get down on the bicycle to Treviso in time in the morning. However, I woke up only an hour later due to a fierce blizzard, rain and storm. I again woke up at 4 when the alarm went off and looked out the window, but it was still stormy weather and I decided that there is a limit to my endurance and went to bed. Not sure how many actually did both the five climbs and then the Pinarello, but likely less than 5 people at most. I think only 30 people or so completed the 5 climbs out of the ca. 300 that started, but have no exact figures. I later (after I returned home) bought some nice and good cycling clothes for the race. The Monte Grappa Challenge is a highly recommended challenge!"

Photos: top two: Ivan Contiero; last: Giacomo Palazzi

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