A few winters ago, I read about the Stelvio Bike Day, an annual event in August where the Alps’ second highest paved pass (the Stelvio pass, at 2,757m just 13m lower than the 2,770m Col de l’Iseran in France) is closed for motorized traffic. Usually extremely popular with motorcyclists, being able to ride such an alpine classic without noise and traffic around is a tempting opportunity for every cyclist.
Since it so happened that I could arrange for a long weekend in August – and encouraged by being in reasonably good shape after a multi-week cycling holiday during the summer – I decided to give it a go this year, for the 15th edition of the event.
Considering that packing my touring bike for air transport and hauling it around airports is a significant effort, the idea was born to take my Brompton folding bike instead. As a matter of fact, its lowest gear is lower than that of the big bike, so while it may sound a little strange at first, the six-gear Brompton (an M6R model, with the -12% lowered gearing option) is actually not a bad choice for the task. And it made getting myself to Germany and from Munich airport to the foot of the mountain in Northern Italy the night before very simple.
The forecast had been rather promising for many days, but based on the mountain weather report the day before, Stelvio Bike Day 2015 would see the best weather possible, maybe even a little too good. Others had obviously noticed that as well, as organisers would later report a record-breaking 12,000 cyclists to have conquered the Stelvio.
It was still well before sunrise as I woke up at the hotel in Sulden, 15km from the official base of the event in Prad. Driving down into the Venosta valley, the early bird cyclists were already on their way up the road to the pass.
Once down in Prad, finding a parking spot was not an issue at all; quite a few people just crawled out from their camper vans. The town clearly has some experience with this event, and the arrangements are very good, from signage to the availability of services. Getting up early paid off, not just in terms of parking in walking distance from the town centre.
At 7.30am, the major influx of traffic just started and it was easy to find a seat at the breakfast table in the sun on the central square, where food and warm beverages were served by a bunch of joyful volunteers.
It was 8.15am as I set out to climb the 1,850m up the mountain (Prad is at 907m, the pass at 2,757m). The stream of cyclists had now intensified from the loose groups I encountered on the way in from Sulden, dozens of cyclists hitting the road every minute.
A good night’s rest, the fresh air in the valley and the energising atmosphere made for an easy start, raising the importance of constantly remembering to take it easy and always go a tad slower than one feels like – preserving energy is the most important virtue on an endeavour like this.
Up until the village of Gomagoi, the road runs in parallel to the Solda and Trafoi streams, which – thanks to the complete absence of any artificial noise – makes for a very pleasant aural experience. All you hear is the river, the bicycles around you and your own, deep and rythmic breath.
Despite repeated conversations with riders who were wondering whether such a “small bicycle” would be capable to reach the col, I soon realized that there were actually a wide range of interesting rides on the road. I saw quite a few special needs bicycles such as those propelled by hand. And during the obligatory roadside break at “Tornante 48” (1,360m), the first of the 48 numbered hairpin turns up to the top, I was even passed by a skater on roller skis while admiring a beautiful Italian-built folding bicycle which apparently did not have any gears at all.
I later learned that there were even a few unicyclists and tandem riders on the Stelvio that day. A handful of fully loaded touring cyclists and some parents with child trailers also stood out from the mountain/road bike crowd.
Soon after the village of Trafoi (1,547m, after 11km and one third of the total ascent), two guards secured the official start of the road closed for motorized traffic. I got laughed at by them …in a friendly way. Even though it was still early, they’d probably already seen all kind of strange contraptions going up that road.
After leaving the valley and stream of the first third behind, the second third of the ascent runs through a light forest along the side of the mountain. Most of the time, the turns only come into sight shortly before and the occasional view of the opposite mountains are the only indication of actual vertical progress (apart from heart rate and sweat, obviously). You just take it one stretch at a time.
Finally, at turn 31 (remember: this is a count-down!) I reached the first of two support stations. Locals were handing out free apples and the fire department had parked a big tank with “aqua potabile”, which given the high temperatures was met with high demand.
It was a bit of a crowd scene, so I actually moved on a few hundred meters to have my own snack break – now with refilled water bottles – at the roadside. This also had the benefit that I could pick a spot in the shade.
Normally, going up a mountain this high, temperatures keep dropping. But with the sun at full steam and not a single cloud in the sky, it actually got warmer and warmer. I had long dropped the thermal shirt from under my jersey, but a sweaty exercise it remained. And the trees were getting more and more sparse.
People took their breaks wherever they needed one or felt like enjoying the landscape for a moment. Apart from the more sportive participants who pushed longer stretches at higher cadence, this made for a funny “group experience”. No matter how many or how long breaks I took, I always ended up meeting the same people again. Now, obviously there is no way to remember everybody, but previous small talk, a particular bicycle or attire, or other particuliarities helped to recognize people – after all for most of the time there was not much more to do than slowly inch up the road, one pedal stroke at a time.
I decided to take a longer break by the Hotel Franzenshöhe at 2,188m, just around the tree line. Not so much because I needed recovery, but just because it seemed a convenient place to find a nice spot to sit and just take in the atmosphere. And with 2/3 of the height done, this is a good moment to reward oneself. Unforgettable: the impressive view up all the way to the pass – quite literally a postcard view.
I had a nice conversation with a young couple from Northern Germany as we shared the shade of a building to just sit and look at the neverending queue of cyclists inching up the pass in what most likely is the best weather such event could possibly see.
The longer I looked at it – down the slope and up – the more surreal this whole event made me feel. Not just the insane luck with the weather and the positive surprise about my own fitness and the Brompton’s suitability for this endeavour, but just seeing that thousands of people had made their way here to enjoy what must be one of the greatest cycling events I can think of.
Moving on, the goal was now almost constantly in sight. With no more trees around, it was easy to see how far I had come from Franzenshöhe and how far I’d still have to go. Not to mention the now unobstructed view on the Ortler massif – what an awesomely beautiful landscape.
The air gets thinner as you climb a mountain, and while altitude sickness should not be a major concern (even though it is commonly observed from 2,400m up), I did develop a bit of a headache – usually a first indication of being affected by the reduced amout of oxygen in combination with physical exercise. I made sure to remain well hydrated and, just to be on the safe side, popped a 200mg Ibuprofen to reduce the symptoms. It is well possible the headache may have just come from the neck muscles, this being quite an extraordinary exercise.
And then, faster than anticipated as the distances between the turns get shorter as one approaches the peak, “Tornante 1”, the final turn, was in sight. A sign wishes farewell from South Tyrol, as the pass marks the border to the next Italian province, Sondrio.
It was good to take a breath at the last turn. A few hundred meters later (as a special service, a distance countdown is painted on the asphalt every 100m), I entered a crowd scene of cyclists celebrating their achievement, queueing for sausages and drinks, buying souvenirs and taking the obligatory photos.
Riding up the Stelvio pass from Prad had taken me 5.5h, including all breaks, which makes for a rather moderate 4.5km/h average. Or 330m/h in vertical direction, which means climbing my own body height every 20 seconds for over five hours. Needless to say I was, beyond pretty exhausted, deeply impressed by the Brompton’s performance. And my own, if you allow!
Despite the amount of people, the atmosphere was again most relaxed and joyful. Personally, I was pretty amused that not just one but three Italians independently approached me within a few minutes, looking at the bike, then at me, saying some friendly (Italian) words of appreciation and then shaking my hand. Considering the fact that I had seen many road bikes with less suitable gearing than my ride, I replied in German that they probably had a harder time than I did, but I guess it’s just the appearance of my “clown bike” with its 16″ wheels that fascinates people. And there is nothing wrong with that – I’m always happy when my Brompton entertains others.
Frankly, after the great workout in the nature, the circus on the top did not appeal to me all that much. I had my photo taken by the iconic “Stelvio” sign (plastered with stickers, so the text is actually not readable), ate a snack in the shade and engaged in a brief conversation with a friendly Swiss couple riding a device called the Elliptigo – a crosstrainer on wheels which in its quirkyness made my ride appear much more normal again.
During my break, I started to mentally prepare for what I anticipated to be the most difficult part of the trip: riding down 1,800m while controlling my speed with rim brakes on 16″ wheels. These tiny wheels (the rim circumfence is about half that of a road bike) tend to heat up fast – and on 8-14% declines, an exploding tube would definitively be a ticket to the hospital. A rescue helicopter was on stand by for the event, but I had no intend to return to the foot of the mountain but on my own two wheels.
As I started rolling towards the Umbrail pass, the recommended and generally opted-for route back down via Switzerland, my strategy was to combine a braking technique of short, hard deceleration followed by no braking until necessary, with regular breaks to cool the rims. Which was a bit annoying at first – with everybody else speeding down on their “big” bikes – but soon turned out to be just a wonderful way of enjoying the landscape without constantly just looking at the road.
The environment of this side of the mountain is a little different, and for sure deserves to not just being raced through. And even with my slow approach, getting down the mountain took well less than an hour in total.
My stop-and-go strategy provided opportunities for more random interactions, such as with the two Italian guys who insisted to take a photo with me. Evenly hilarious was the guy who decided to check his disk brakes’ temperature and almost burnt his fingers! (Lesson learnt: Thou shalt not touch your brake surface when racing down the Stelvio!)
I took my time, enjoyed the fruit of my hard labour the hours before, and eventually arrived safely down in the Swiss valley, where staff guided all cyclists onto the route back to the Italian border. From here on, it was just joyful riding on roads, with the only tiny uphill waiting on the last three kilometres before Prad.
Personally, I would have appreciated another opportunity to refill my water bottles, but given the otherwise flawless organisation of the event, this was a minor issue. There was a big party going on in Prad, with live music and a beer garden.
Overall, a mindblowing experience that I warmheartedly recommend any cyclist to add to their bucket list. Your next chance is on 27 August 2016 and despite the sound of it, I believe it is very much doable for everybody with reasonable fitness and a bit of stubbornness.
And if you happen to own a Brompton – don’t be shy to consider it as your ride for conquering the Stelvio. At least with the -12% 6-gear setup, I deem it more than suitable for crossing an alpine mountain pass. (And it had been done before!)