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The Italian Job - Summer and Winter on Stelvio Pass

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Road Cycling “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.” -- Ernest Hemingway

The Italian Job - Summer and Winter on Stelvio Pass

Old 08-09-14, 01:17 PM
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The Italian Job - Summer and Winter on Stelvio Pass

Selvio Pass! For many cyclists, it's the most beautiful road in the world. At over 9,000 feet above sea level, it's the second highest paved road in Europe. And it's the road my brother and I pedaled up on June 30th, the day winter decided to visit the Italian Alps.

Over the years I've been on Bike Forums, I've looked at many beautiful pictures of members' rides up the pass, and those images inspired me to make my own ride up Stelvio. Herein is my contribution of images.



Above: This is the way the eastern, upper portion of the road up to the pass usually appears from above. It's the way Dan and I expected to see it. The road starts 15 miles and about 6,000 feet below, in the town of Prato, climbs up through a forested valley past a couple of picturesque villages and then into alpine terrain above tree line, and includes 48 switchbacks before it reaches the summit of the pass, where there's a collection of souvenir shops, hotels, and other commercial enterprises.




Above: However, this is what we could see a few minutes after our arrival at the top of the pass, in our rental car: the beginning a early summer's snowfall. All the way up the pass that day, driving from Lake Como, where we'd trained for the ride for a few days, we'd driven through rain. My brother has asked if I thought it might be snowing on the pass. "Probably not, or not much," I opined, as I was the one with some experience in snow. Now it really was snowing. And our accommodations, in the fantastic Rifugio Garibaldi "mountain hut" were three hundred feet up a dirt trail, a fact my brother hadn't noted when he'd made our reservations. Never having spent time in a snowfall before, Dan assumed he needed his little umbrella to survive the trek to the Rifugio, which was almost invisible to us.



Above: Refugio Garlibaldi - a lower part of the building, not visible here, contains more guest rooms; there's room for about 15 people, plus a host or two. There's room for storing bikes, too, and trails lead out for mountain bikers and hikers into the Italian and Swiss Alps. The Refugio is essentially on the border.



Above: That's Dan, in the center, a couple of hours after our arrival. On either side are the only other guests, a father and son from Poland. The son had ridden up our route early in the day, and would drop down and ride back up the route we had just ridden tomorrow, although we wondered if they snow would close the road.



Above: The view east the evening of our arrival.



Above: We had a different view the next morning. The area around the pass over time has been controlled by various political and ethnic entities. That's why, while the top of the pass is in Italy, many of the names on buildings are in German. In Italilan, it's Passo dello Stelvio; in German, itStilfser Joch.

[IMG]

Above: We arrived at the Rifugio only nine days after it opened, on June 20th. It closes sometime in September. The iron shutters keep the Refugio safe during the long months of autumn and winter snow.



The snowfall ended sometime in the early morning hours. The view out one of the windows showed us where we could have stayed, in one of the several hotels alongside the road. We could see that the road had been plowed free of snow, so we knew we'd soon be riding up the pass. Actually, the plan was to drive to the bottom, ride to the top, then coast back down to pick up the car and make the ride up the pass again, to spend one more night at the Refugio.




Above: One of the two wonderful hosts at the Rifugio got to work cleaning off the chairs and tables. I'm not sure why, as we four guests were leaving and no one else, including us, was due to arrive until late afternoon.



Above: Walking out from the Refugio, this was our view down, along the upper quarter distance of the ride. It was still cold, just above freezing. Later, we asked a few locals how often snow like this can fall in summer. The answers were the same: not often, but it can snow hard anytime from June through August.
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Old 08-09-14, 01:17 PM
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[B]Above:/B] We'd had a terrific, multi-course dinner the night before. This morning, we enjoyed a wonderful breakfast, with meats and cheeses, cereals and yogurt and breads, juices and coffee anyway we wanted it (we all wanted cappuccinos).





Above: Then it was time to put on our bike clothes, oops, I mean cycling kit.





Above: Then we needed to walk down over the snow-covered trail, to our car, where are bikes had spend the night. Dan, wearing street shoes, and inexperienced in snow, only fell, by his count, 15 times before reaching the safety of the paved road.





Above: We found parking in dirt lot on the edge of the town of Prato. The extra distance would put our climb over 6,000 feet. After riding through town, we reached what I suppose might be considered the official starting point, a garden filled with odd carvings.


We'd rented some awesome bikes, delivered to our hotel a few days before at Lake Como. I had a Litespeed, Dan had a Time. The gearing was higher than we'd thought we were getting, and on the drive down the mountain, I was sure I'd burn out after a few miles. The route looked just too steep. However, I think I was fooled by an illusion, the downward slope of the pavement exaggerated by the vertical rise of the surrounding mountains. Certainly our lowest gears, 39/27, were more than adequate to allow us to keep turning the pedals over.





Above: We're looking down the lower portion of the ride, where the valley was narrow, and not so steep. The covered portion of the road keeps cyclists and motorists safe from rockfall.








Above: The least steep portion of the ride came just before the first of the 48 switchbacks. Each switchback was numbers, letting us know how many we had left to go before reaching the summit.





Above: Although Dan and I like to push ourselves uphill – we both enjoy riding the big climbs around where we each live, in California – we'd agreed to take our time on our ride up Stelvio Pass. In part, because we knew it would be a long ride, and in part because we wanted to make photographs. Ordinarily, both of us either ride, or we work on photography, not both at the same time. On Stelvio Pass, though, we were willing to make an exception. So it was that in one of the little villages on the way up, we stopped, with lots of other cyclists, for an espresso and a snack.

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Old 08-09-14, 01:53 PM
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Above: One of the early switchbacks, while we were still in the forest. Some sections of the road hit 12-13%, and this might have been one of them. Such sections were short, though. I know some people dread counting down the switchbacks. I enjoyed it, as the road gained height and crawled back and forth across the south-facing side of the valley.




Above: A look back down at the village of Trafoi. By the first couple of miles, I realized I was going to be able to complete the ride to the top of the pass without much suffering, or any suffering at all. It was just going to take some work and some time. So I simply lived in the moments, and took the time while I worked to look at the beautiful surroundings.




We played leapfrog a little with another couple of brothers from Sweden. You can see that although the average grade is about 7%, chunks of it are much steeper. The forest was thinning out, along with our supply of oxygen.





Above: As we climbed higher, the valley opened up and we were above the tree line, in truly alpine terrain. By now most of our climbing was done and the road began, particularly near the top, to rise with less inclination.





Above: This is a shot made on the ride down. We had what I thought was a late start on our part, as we saw probably 100 or so riders coming up as we drove down the mountain to Prato. There were, though, many, many cyclists who came up long after we finished our ride.





Above: We reached the final switchbacks, and got close to 9,000 feet. Neither Dan nor I, at our easy pace, were bothered by the altitude. All our previous training over the prior weeks had paid off. That training had included pushing hard up hills, and we never worked as hard on Stelvio Pass. I can't say it was easy, though.





Above: The towers for the gondolas at a summer ski resort are visible in the upper middle of the photo. Had I known there was glacier skiing across the road from where we were staying, I would have made time to make a couple of runs. Dan put it in his big ring and sprinted up the final meters.





Above: Dan at the top of Stelvio Pass.





Above: The reward: a chance to spend mega-bucks on souvenirs.





Above: I did buy a jersey and a vest. The choices, of design and colors, were vast. While neither my jersey or vest is particularly fashionable (I went for a red vest with lots of squiggles representing the switchbacks), I'll have fun wearing them when I'm on sufficiently arduous climbs. We were walking by one of the many shops when Irene called to us and said, "Please come inside, I have clothing no one else carries!" It appeared the "cheap stuff" my brother purchased from Irene was exactly the same as what I paid, for a few Euros more, for clothing of a promised far higher quality. Which is to say Irene was a good sales person. We were joined, during our shopping, by the Swedish brothers we'd met on the way up, who proceeded to buy a couple of everything, jerseys, skullcaps, vests, scarves, etc. "We're not coming back!" one of the brothers explained.

A few more photos are below.
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Old 08-09-14, 01:54 PM
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Thumbs up. Way up.
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Old 08-09-14, 02:15 PM
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I need to go there! And this is coming from someone that's recently knocked off the highest pass .

Awesome photos. I'd never thought of spending a night at the top of a pass.
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Old 08-09-14, 02:26 PM
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Great photo essay.
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Old 08-09-14, 02:44 PM
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Above: There was time for a few more photos. And then, before the melting snow on the road turned to ice, it was time to return to our car, more than 6,000 feet below.





Above I wouldn't want to be this cyclist, the only one we saw walking his bike.





Above What I haven't shown you is my photos of the super-cars that traveled up and down the pass that day, Ferraris, Bentleys, Lamborghinis, and many more, new and vintage. There were multitudes of powerful motorcycles, too. Cyclists and motorists were all polite and I never felt in danger from anyone. I did notice, though, that many cyclists tossed their trash – energy bar and gel packaging – on the road. It was upsetting to see people pollute the place they'd come to not just to ride, but to see.




Above:It was cold up top, and we were glad we had long-fingered gloves for the descent. It was a fantastic descent, turn after turn after turn, and unending beauty as we spooled back time and distance to return to our car.




Above: It wasn't all grand views. One part of the road, still above tree line, had a nice collection of marmots, similar to what we have in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.





Above: We reached our car, loaded the bikes, and drove back up the pass. Although I felt like I'd ridden a century, I had plenty of energy left as we made our way back to our fantastic accommodations, 300 feet above our car.





Above: That evening, we were treated to a fantastic, and long-lasting sunset from the patio of Rifugio Garibaldi; it was a perfect coda to our ride up into the Alps.
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Old 08-09-14, 03:32 PM
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Unbelievable, thanks for sharing!
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Old 08-09-14, 04:51 PM
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Awesome. Daunting. Inspiring. Dreamy.

Some day, the Stelvio shall be mine, too.
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Old 08-09-14, 06:04 PM
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Very nice, thanks for sharing.
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Old 08-09-14, 07:09 PM
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Superb pictures. Thank you.
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Old 08-09-14, 07:24 PM
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Thanks for your excellent report and photos!
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Old 08-10-14, 12:55 PM
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Spectacular! Thanks for sharing your pics.
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Old 08-10-14, 02:02 PM
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Thoroughly enjoyed the photo report. Chapeau!
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Old 08-10-14, 02:39 PM
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The first time I saw a photo of the Stelvio I thought, "Oh, come to Poppa!" You're NOT helping. Great write-up and photos!
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Old 08-10-14, 03:24 PM
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Great report and wonderful photos. I rode the Stelvio about 15 years ago on a BMW 1100 and it was incredible. We got snowed on as well but not as much as you had. You mention the other cyclists but when I was there, you would see guys riding up (and down) checking their watches to check their time. It was amazing how fast some were going down the pass on skinny tires.
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Old 08-27-14, 11:20 PM
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Dave, do you have some photos of motorcycles on Stelvio that you'd care to share?
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