Contributed by Paul Smeulders of ErgVideo
In case you don’t know us – ErgVideo is software and high quality point-of-view video content that transforms your indoor cycling experience. What was once just necessary drudgery involving unspeakable boredom, becomes something you’ll look forward to everyday. Your indoor training will become more effective and even, dare I say, enjoyable. ErgVideo has been reviewed and described here on PEZ in the past, so I’ll cleverly bypass the PEZ-article word-limit rules with a quick video that describes ErgVideo to newcomers. Click to play…
Periodically, we’ve also been invited to share our travel experiences with PEZ readers, because our efforts to bring you high-quality content leads us to many of the mythical-but-real places you should ride your bike someday. The Passo dello Stelvio is one of them.
Once again, I gathered riders from England, Wales and Canada to film new editions for the ever-growing ErgVideo series. I called on my stand-by riders from Ottawa: Vince Caceres of The Cyclery and Marc Lapointe of Nine2FivePro.com. I rely on both of them to be directors within the riding groups, since my role driving the support/chase-camera vehicle means I’m often caught shuttling between the “rested and fast today” group and the “tired and fed-up today” group, or I’m held up at single lane switchbacks in dog-like dominance assertion rituals to see who’ll submit first and back up their car. And sometimes I’m just plain lost.
Among returning riders from our French Pyrenees editions were Hugh Wilson (Wilier-Live2ride racing) and Luke Dunbar (CMI-Performance Cycles). Hugh brought along Hefin Price (Wiggle), and CMI-Performance sent U23 riders Todd Hotchkiss and Conor Ryan.
Front to back: Dunbar, Wilson, Price, & Ryan above the tree line on the Passo dello Stelvio
This particular trip had its roots in 2011, when I travelled alone to get a feel for what places we’d shoot next. I’ve found that directing 6 or 7 riders is much more complicated when nobody knows the local territory. As director, I’m expected to be the one who’s familiar, but with my increasing inability to remember things, a year on, everybody had to settle for my “vaguely familiar” status. Nevertheless, scouting new territory is important, and it’s best to do it on a bike. You get a better feel for the difficulty and true distance when you pedal a route yourself. You notice if a place is “over-trafficked” only if it’s all passing you. You also get a longer view of scenery, and you look behind you more. Plain and simple, I just SEE so much more, and that helps me pick and choose places, and determine any special needs for a shoot.
In 2011 I’d scouted a few hotels and locations, and given the time constraints of the participants (real riders are always pressed by racing or training schedules), I settled upon a single hotel and location from which to shoot some really spectacular climbs. The town was Bormio; the hotel was the Hotel Alpi and Golf; and the premiere climbs were the Passo dello Stelvio, Passo Gavia, and Passo de Foppa, better known by its fighting-name: the Mortirolo. Of course, you are in the alps and there are plenty of other climbs within pedal-shot, but these are the ones you’ve certainly heard of in Giro d’Italia-lore.
Marc Lapointe soaking in the view we all ride to see.
Onto The STELVIO!
This article will focus on our outing against the north side, from Prato Allo Stelvio. We’ll provide another story later about the remainder of our Italian itinerary. Perhaps this is at the root of my tendency to miss important turns while driving: I’ve called it the north side, but it is equally known as the “east” approach, since the road at the pass itself runs east-west. But really, this road takes every direction at some point along the way.
The BBC’s Top-Gear TV show had thought this road to be world’s best road to drive, until they found the Transfagarasan in Romania. Seriously I’m glad for that. The Romanian road looks built for cars and higher speeds, with “curves” rather than switchbacks. The Stelvio’s road wasn’t built for cars: stage coaches, military gear, and horse drawn carts were its first users. You have to drive the Stelvio pretty slowly, for its very sharp bends and traffic. Top Gear said they matched the time set in a 1932 race. All you drivers and motorcyclists should try Romania. You won’t like the Stelvio at all.
The pass was once the border crossing between Austria and Italy. The Swiss border is nearby, with the Dreisprachenspitze (Three-Language-Peak: Italian, Romansche, German) where the 3 borders intersected, is still marked with a small building above the main roadway. Some world war-induced border-shifting have made this roadway all-Italian.
Todd Hotchkiss leading Vince Cacares on the early part of the climb.
From a cycling-historical perspective, the Stelvio is as mythical and revered in the Giro d’Italia as the Mt. Ventoux is in the Tour de France. The comparison with Ventoux is apt, and with Alpe d’Huez…it just isn’t. Stelvio and Alpe d’Huez are known for their switchbacks, but the Italian climb has 48 to the Alpe’s 21, and has a whopping 80% more elevation-gain. The similarity with Ventoux comes from the desolate landscape and often windy, bitter conditions at the top. Stelvio is greener (you’ll see some grass even at the top), but you look straight into the face of the Ortler glacier and rocky, barren peaks for the majority of your ride. Add to that the Giro’s May timeframe, and you’ll often see what resembles a man-made canal with asphalt instead of water, and high walls soaring straight up from the shoulder, sharply cut out of 12 feet of snow.
Lucky for us, we’re here in July, and we might avoid snow. We were hit with hail and snow the day before while climbing the Gavia, so my concern for the riders in the high mountains, even in July, isn’t completely irrational. A bonus, for me, that the pass itself is perhaps the most well-appointed one I’ve ever seen: hotels, restaurants, bars (all plural, not “pick-one” like many cols in France) and summer skiing. It means I can allow time to tend to the slower group and leave the faster group to their own devices waiting at the top: there are plenty of warm places to get treats and coffee.
The day before on the Gavia, your author left out in a severe hailstorm. It can snow anytime in the high alps.
Having ridden both sides of the Stelvio myself in 2011, I didn’t approve of the most obvious ride from Bormio to the north/east approach, since it involved the south/west ascent to be taken first. It’s the less photographed way, with a few delightful rustic tunnels, and it’s almost as leg-breaking. Actually, if you are looking to get to the north/east ascent, you go to within a few km of the top on the south/west ascent, but swing left at the Passo Umbrail and the Swiss border, for a long wonderful descent, partly on gravel. You then take a long loop through the Swiss and Italian countryside to Prato Allo Stelvio. Then, surely 3+hours into your ride, you start the harder, longer climb.
My disapproval stemmed from needing as many riders as possible to be as fresh as possible for this premium ErgVideo footage. So we trucked up to one of the large parking lots on the Stelvio pass. This way, the boys could do the Umbrail descent and some easy flat miles in the run-up to Prato as a good warm-up, and eat the meat of the day with fresh legs. Here’s a short video of our pre-ride preparation.
Pre-ride prep on the Stelvio Pass.
Predictably one rider experienced a flat on the gravelly descent, but we had him going again in no time. The follow van eventually fell far behind the riders because they can make much better time on a twisting descent than a sprinter-van. The truck was further delayed when we realized that Switzerland isn’t a Euro-user, and the bank machines were dispensing Francs only. Since we’d only be in this currency-challenged backwater for about an hour, we pressed on with what the Swiss would interpret as wallets with useless paper. The gas pumps also rejected all credit cards I tried to feed them, so it was with some relief that we passed a customs kiosk back into Italy before the tank had run dry. With these seemingly short hold-ups, it’s remarkable how far ahead the riders get. Their video tells the tale: they were hammering, of course, when I’d hoped they’d be preserving themselves. I met the boys waiting in Prato, where we’d agreed they’d get fresh batteries and memory-sticks for the epic ascent.
This climb begins really rather tamely, and doesn’t have a switchback for about 8km. It’s climbing and you know it, with a few steep-ish pitches, but it’s nothing like what’s in store for later. While setting the cameras, we’d seen a rider fully kitted with Saxo-Bank clothing and equipment, right down to the team-issue bike. We all presumed he was the real deal, and after examining video he really was: it was Ran Margaliot (he’s even featured here on Pez in a few articles) . Of course the boys set-off to chase him, but alas, could only hold the gap for most of the way. When I periodically drove ahead of the group I’d secretly time the gap. The difference was, this Margaliot-cat looked a whole lot fresher whenever he passed by me. The boys, not so much.
It’s always worthwhile to stop and look around. The Ortler Glacier.
Along the way you meet up with other riders who will tag along. Usually they see the cameras, and the follow van with cameras, and if that’s not enough for them to realize something’s going on and they should head to the back of the pack, one rider needs only to point to his camera to convey the message. No need to speak Italian, German, nor Romansche. On this ride, one fellow dismissed all these signals, and tried to muscle into the front group. We love to be friendly, but it was beyond tolerable in this one and only case.
Fella, meet my sprinter, Hugh. That was his elbow. That’s right, it just said “get back there”… in every language.
Hefin Price on the attack. Does that look steep? Not as steep as it really is!
The switchbacks begin after a long, thankfully open-on-one-side, avalanche tunnel. It’s marked with “48”, and you know the fun is about to begin, and last a really long time. Now you are treated to your views of the Ortler glacier, approaching Trafoi. For the shoot, I was pleased our weather was holding, even though some clouds were showing up and darkening, like the day before. The boys were well-settled into two groups and appeared to be enjoying themselves. Luke and Conor had not yet started to inflict any real damage, and any attacks that I ask the riders to try from time to time to spice up the intensity of our ErgVideos, were being all brought back.
The Ortler glacier dominates your view for a good part of the day.
When I had ridden this section myself in 2011, the skies opened up with pouring rain as I approached the tunnel and switchback 48. But it wasn’t cold, yet. Some riders from an organized tour had latched onto me, and I was well prepared to let them pass. Instead, they just stayed glued to my wheel, the message being that my pace was just right. Out of Trafoi you are still well below the tree-line (mostly coniferous, you know, pine, spruce etc.) and there is a very sheltered, very green sequence of closely spaced switchbacks.
The view of the magnificence is blocked, but the rhythm and the green-ness is pleasant and seems warm. Riding this section with “mates-but-strangers” who weren’t trying to pummel me, and weren’t able to speak either, I think made this one of my “cool life-riding experiences”. Around switchback 32 or so, the rain had quit for long enough to remove my raincoat. Too steep for me to try this while riding, and out of respect for those behind me, I pulled aside and bid my mates farewell. Handshakes/high-fives, I suppose for setting a nice pace, as they passed me. Of course, I’d see them later as our unsynchronized schedules for nature breaks, flats, and Kodak moments would ensure.
Now driving this section, I was hoping the ErgVideo boys would be liking it as much as I had. Would they even notice, or would the next section, where you can see the glacier again to the left, and then way up the pass to the ski station on the right, with an impossible, improbable staircase of curved retaining walls stacked high like your last game of Jenga, be the lasting impression? I suppose “both” would be the best answer.
The pass itself is visible for the second half of your ride, as is your route for the next 30-45 minutes.
To some, it’s nice to see the pass while riding up to it. Many, if not most climbs don’t have such a view, and you are never quite sure which peaks you’ll eventually split until you’ve nearly arrived. The Passo Stelvio leaves no doubt. My problem is that it doesn’t LOOK far, but it looks like that for so terribly LONG. I spend an hour thinking I’ll be finished in 15 minutes. If there is any wind (yes, there just is), you’ll feel it here, and you’ll begin to look forward to that little push up the hill when you turn in the right direction. You’ll dread the next switchback, since you’ll be facing that same wind you thanked only a minute or two ago. Stupid wind.
Here’s where my riders eventually called back to the truck for some water refills. They really enjoy that they can get it without stopping and breaking rhythm. Usually on a climb it’s easy to stay warm as well, the slow air-flow isn’t cooling you as much, like riding indoors. But with a breeze sometimes you can get cold really, really fast. After the ride, the boys told me they almost called me to hand out their gilets. Good thing they didn’t, I’d have scratched my head trying to figure out that they meant windbreakers, or jackets. Sometimes I need subtitles at English movies, I guess.
This composite video shows Stelvio and other Italian climbs we covered in 2012. Can you recognize any?
The pass arrives after fast-repeating sets of switchbacks, and on our day, it was busy with motorcyclists and tourists. The ErgVideo team met-up at the van and began preparing for the descent back to Bormio.
It meant warming up, putting on some jackets and leg warmers, and of course, grabbing a snack. I like it when they stop like this, and having the van (as well as cafes and bars if desired) available is a key bit of safety equipment for us all. While we may say descending is effortless, these mountains are big, it will be cold, and there are many technical sections. It’s unpleasant and unsafe to plunge down if you are too fatigued to handle it. So I let the boys linger and recharge until they set off on their own. They know a pretty good balance between taking too long and not long enough, and their skills are all excellent. Of course, anything can happen, and all I need to do is be well-behind the last rider on the way down. But I can’t help but look in any ditches, keep my eye out for any skids leading over a ledge, and secretly hope I don’t see someone plastered to a tunnel wall on the way down.
Vince Caceres refueling at the top “The cell coverage here is the wьrste!”
If none of that happens, I suppose the next time I see the riders they’ll be in the hotel’s hot tub or something, if they don’t flag me down at the first cafй or bar after the descent runs out. All of that, is perfectly cool.
We hope you will enjoy our ErgVideo of the Passo Dello Stelvio North. It’s available now, along with several new editions from Italy and Spain. Our library has grown to 84 different rides and training sessions. With our online tools, you can lay out your entire winter training program using ErgVideos. Not only will you be adopting a modern, power-based approach, but we think you’ll be motivated to ride and train more effectively. You’ll enjoy your training more. I’ll end with a nice little video compilation featuring released and some unreleased ErgVideo footage, just to remind you how great cycling really is. Hopefully you’ll get to some of these places, someday. If not, ErgVideo will do its best to help you imagine you are there.
Cycling is Beautiful #1.
• See more and order this training video at ERGVIDEO.com
• For more on the Hotel Alpi and Golf click here
• And for even more on the Stelvio and this beautiful region check out Pez’s experience there staying at the bike hotel, The Hotel Funivia.
Click this link to get ErgVideo’s Climbing the Stelvio video