Our visit to the Santini factory left us with a couple of days up our sleeves before heading back home to Australia. Itching to turn the legs over, we headed for the mountains and our accommodation in Bormio. As a generous parting gift the Santini family had given us two passes to their Granfondo - the Granfondo Stelvio Santini - meaning we had 3 days to try and find some form before lining up for what promised to be a brutal day on the bike.
After 3 weeks of almost zero kilometres, our legs felt like overcooked spaghetti as we set off on our first ride up the Stelvio. The weather forecast was ominous, so we packed just about every warm piece of clothing we had with us. However, by some miracle, the weather held out and the summit greeted us with light snowflakes and a feeling that, come Sunday’s Granfondo, everything would be OK. Or that we might at least complete the race...
After such a successful first day we decided to back it up through Gavia Pass. We were particularly excited about a section over the back that was a disused gravel road.
The climb up Passo di Gavia was much steeper than Stelvio. As we climbed the weather started to deteriorate - all of a sudden this didn’t seem like such a good idea after all. When we finally reached the summit the snow was coming down, with icy water spraying up, resulting in very chilly knees. For some crazy reason I had decided to set off without leg warmers - perhaps on account of yesterday’s excellent conditions. It was a rookie error.
There were loads of people at the bar so we decided to get warm and stop for a coffee. Walking in we found cyclists in various states of undress, as they stuffed sheets of newspaper down their jerseys. The horrid, humid smell of sweaty lycra and bodies was like a punch to the face that immediately fogged-up our sunnies.
The descent down the back of the Gavia Pass was rough, with snowy slush and loose gravel spitting up at us. I was trying to avoid the worst of what was, overall, a very bad surface - however it got the best of Esjay. He had to pull up at the first switchback with a puncture.
Changing a tube with numb hands is always a struggle, so I had time to take a peek over the side and, to my surprise, found a bearded face staring straight back up at me. There was a mountain goat perched on a minuscule rock ledge right in front of me. Just when I thought I’d found a new, follicled friend, it became clear that he was having none of it, and disappeared over the edge to rejoin the herd.
The old Gavia road was replaced with a tunnel in 1954, following a local tragedy. A military truck careened over the edge as the road collapsed, sending 20 soldiers plummeting to their deaths below. We finally found the entry to the old road - but only after some explorative walking through mounds of snow to avoid the sections of road that had since collapsed into the valley below. A small memorial to the lost soldiers had been built into the cliff face. We took a couple of photos and got out of there - not wanting to add our names to the list.
After surviving old Gavia, we wanted to make our last ride before the race a little bit easier. The not-so-secret secret climb up to Lago Di Concano was just about right and offered some great views back down to a series of switchbacks - earning it the nickname ‘Little Stelvio’. Unfortunately, a thick mist had engulfed the mountain, leaving little else to see. That was, until we found the tunnels towards the top...
Race day arrived and, somehow, we had forgotten to buy milk. This precipitated a makeshift breakfast, comprising handfuls of dry cornflakes washed down with black coffee. Not the best way to start.
After dropping off our bags, with extra jackets and gloves (which would be needed for the Stelvio descent near the finish), we lined up with the first wave of riders. We would be attempting the full 150km ride, with over 4000m of iconic climbing.
Pietro Santini was at the start line with both of his daughters, Monica and Paola, to see the riders off.
The first section of the ride was mostly downhill and we were setting a cracking pace. Looking down at the computer we were averaging speeds of up to 60km as our bunch, made up of hundreds of local riders, jostled to get closer to the front. There were a couple of tense moments as the bunch tried to squeeze through a narrow street or across a tight bridge, however we made it safely to the first climb at Teglio without any casualties.
Deciding that the front bunch was going to rip our legs off before we had even hit the Mortirolo, we pulled up for a pee stop and to strip off a couple of layers. It was quite a scene watching the never-ending peloton streaming past, whilst locals came out to the road's edge, ringing cowbells and cheering on the riders.
The next climb was steep and narrow, with one section in particular becoming a real bottleneck. The route sent riders through a barn that had been constructed over the road, eventually causing a pile-up and forcing the remaining riders to stop, unclip and walk. I did my best to get through but, after my experiences on the Koppenberg, decided I didn't want to end up on my backside.
The top of Teglio was the first food-stop, which proved rather handy after the dried cornflakes debacle.
It was a full-on Italian-style food-stop with pizza, bread slathered in Nutella, parmesan cheese, salami and focaccia with ham. I wasn’t ready for pizza at that stage, so I stuffed in a couple heavily-Nutella-loaded bread slices and hit the descent.
After dropping back down from Teglio, the route made its way back up the valley to the foot of the Mortirolo climb. We had found a good bunch to ride with, including a friend of ours from Sydney, Dan, who was in Italy running cycling tours. There was one more chance to fuel-up before the climb - I’m not sure I have ever eaten so much Nutella as I went in for a second round.
Mortirolo must be one of the toughest climbs on the planet - a real challenge at the best of times. However, to increase the level of difficulty, the top section had been completely reworked for the event. Instead of the usual climb, we took a ‘long cut’ on a rarely-used farm road so bloody steep that the concrete was etched with lines - just so you could get some grip on the ridiculous gradient.
By this stage, most riders had given up all hope of individual Strava glory and dismounted (or fell into the bushes, whichever was easier) to walk the rest of the way up. By some miracle I managed to stay on the bike in a sort of slow-motion action that looked more like wading though glue than bike riding. I stopped a couple of times to capture the madness of it all, as the riders who managed to stay on their bikes yelled at the walkers to get out of the way.
I even joined in a little, unclipping to push a few riders that were still on their bikes - giving them a healthy dose of 'Vai! Via! Via!' for encouragement.
The food-stop at the top was overrun as each rider came up gasping for air and water. Now was the right time for pizza and I went in hard, knowing I had a 10km descent to factor in a bit of digestion time.
The descent down Mortirolo was super fun, but I couldn’t shake the thought that when I reached the bottom it was all uphill until the finish - still nearly 50km away.
Arriving back in Bormio for the final pizza feast before the Stelvio, I filled my bottles with soft drink - hoping a good sugar hit might be enough to power me on for the final ascent (unlikely). With clouds rolling in and rain predicted at the top, I'd be a liar if I said the thought of taking a short-cut back to our nearby accommodation didn't cross our minds. However, that would be no way to finish our epic Italian adventure, plus I would never hear the end of it when I got back home.
We eventually finished this gruelling ride, which included no shortage of hurled profanities, drooling and even a couple of roadside vomits. When we arrived at the summit we rugged-up with all our pre-stowed layers and headed back down to Bormio to find out what the notorious finish line “pasta party” was all about...
What a fitting way to end another Italian adventure! Sitting in cramped airplane seats less than 24 hours after Granfondo-ing out butts off, trying to stretch out our sore legs to little avail, we couldn't help but dream of what the next adventure holds. See you then!