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Travel

Top Ride: An Epic Day On The Stelvio
Epic climbs turn into epic monsters when the weather gets ugly. And that’s what happened when Thomson Bike Tours tackled the fabled Stelvio in late August – rain at the bottom turned to snow higher up. But Paul Rogen’s account of the day makes it seem somehow appealing…


Words and Pics Contributed by Paul Rogen

As the biking season comes to a close, I have been mulling over some notable rides and accomplishments of the summer just past. As I age into my 60’s and ride with same, we often discuss declining strength, speed and stamina. Every year, I go to Europe and do some big notable cycling efforts in various mountain ranges. This year it was the Swiss Alps.


Ouch! The painful looking elevation profile that Paul and his friends prepared to take on.

In May, I was cycling in California with friends of age who were planning to come to Switzerland with me. We shared our concerns, but let the excitement of the impending trip carry us along over 80 miles of rolling Marin County hills just north of San Francisco. I was not alone in worrying how we were all going to fare for a week of big daily distances and mountain climbing up above tree line in the vicinity of glaciers.


Perfectly tended meadow of grass in front of wooden hay barn.

Jump forward to the end of the Swiss trip some months down the road. It is now the final day of the Swiss biking trip and we are not in Switzerland and it is not summer, except on the calendar. I am climbing the Stelvio in Italy just above the famous cycling town of Bormio. A mix of stalwart cyclists from the US and Australia have completed a rolling traverse across mountainous Switzerland through mostly mild, late summer weather. We have now dropped down into the Italian Alps to score one last iconic climb- the Stelvio.


The almighty Stelvio.

We know the weather near close of summer can get dicey in the Alps and it was already disintegrating yesterday while riding into Italy. Only a handful of our group had stayed on the road all the way into Bormio. Most wisdom- filled riders had jumped into the sag vans to avoid the cold rain, checked into the hotel and soaked away sore, road- weary muscles. We were readying our aging selves for a big push up to the top of THE STELVIO! I capitalize it, as it is iconic in the fullest sense of the word: huge, spectacular, famous and daunting.


Martine Wegenstein, Swiss native and guide, Tom and Wendy Duffy, Paul Rogen and Allen Parsley at summit of cobbled St Gotthard Pass.

The next morning, we left the cozy, valley-protected hotel in steady, gentle rain with temps dropping rapidly downward from 10 degrees C. (45degrees F) By the time we are on the climb, just a kilometer out of town, the temp drops two degrees and the rain shifts from steady to just this side of a downpour. The incline kicks up to 8% just when we need the body furnace to ignite from increased effort; when it does, it balances temperatures out nicely. We are planning wisely to go up the Stelvio and immediately back down adjusting for what the snow level and our bodies will allow within the range of reasonable safety. No need to freeze to death or slide off the road on the final day of such a grand trip.

As the temperature drops and the incline increases, I find myself with three hardy women at my accustomed tail end of the ride group. I pull ahead of them a bit when it starts to rain harder. Surrounded by new waterfalls bursting from the cliffs and clefts at every turn, water sheets down the paved road in front of me, wave upon wave. Thankfully I had long-fingered gloves, borrowed from a pal who has chosen reluctantly to stay and hit the warm bath waters that day.


How can a wisdom enlightened cyclist pedal into this in summertime?

The whole day is about water and I keep hearing the old Van Morrison song in my head, “Oh, the water, oh the water. Let it run all over me…” Well, it is and it is dripping off my nose and toes, but I am cozy as long as I keep my cycling speed close to 10 kilometers an hour. Drop much below that pace and chills start to set in. When the temp keeps plummeting, I know I am not too far from the snow line.

At close to 2C it is starting to freeze; rain is turning to sleet, and I set my adjusted goal at 2000 meters elevation and at somewhere just past the half way mark up the hors categorie climb. Then the extreme steep hits, bam! I read 14% written on the road, confirmed on my small VDO on-board computer, and stand up on the bike and push. After a few hundred meters, I see the inclinometer on my computer drop to 11% and sit back in the saddle and feel just plain great. If you are feeling great at my age cycling at an 11% incline you know you have been pretty far into the hurt locker. I recall a phrase from aging cycling stalwart, Jens Voigt who said that, “Pain is just fear leaving your body.”


Tom Duffy pedals up Swiss Valley smiling at hearing bells ringing.

Pain now pours out of me in direct proportion to the increase of precipitation which has turned rapidly to sleet and snow. Through the swirling deluge I see some hope- a goal in the form of a brasserie is just a switch back above me. Head down, I plow for it. Just as I arrive, one of the Thomson Bike Tours guides waves me over declaring it too dangerous to continue.


Our leader, Eric St Maurice, atop the Stelvio in August.

Ahh, just my thoughts, and I can barely think. My mind is mush, turning to slush. I am exactly at 2000 meters elevation and 12km from the top. I think I can at least say, for the record and future stories, “I know something important about the Stelvio, it is waaay tough!” Even if I cannot say I conquered it all, I can possibly claim a standoff; the mountain had not beaten me but I have not defeated it either. I graciously accept surrender and shuffle inside.





The Trans-Swiss Challenge By Thomson Tours with all the beauty of Switzerland on video and under sunny skies!


For more info on the Trans-Swiss Challenge or any other Thomson Bike Tour check out their website: ThomsonBikeTours.com
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