By Matt Westby
If going up big, steep hills on a bike is your thing, Italy’s your place. No question.
Forget the western Alps of France, that land of sub-10 per cent gradients, and don’t let the merciless Alto de l’Angliru fool you into thinking Spain is king of the mountains either.
Look south-east instead, to where nightmarish climbs are numerous and inclines are so severe they leave beleaguered bodies scattered in the gutter like discarded water bottles.
Italy is the climber’s ultimate proving ground and you can’t graduate from cycling’s toughest discipline until you’ve been there, done the hills and damn-near passed out at the top.
The time for my right of passage came last week with a trip to the ski resort of Bormio, which is surrounded by three of Europe’s most revered climbs: the Mortirolo, Stelvio and Gavia passes.
Lance Armstrong once described the 12km, 10.5 per cent average gradient Mortirolo as the toughest hill he’d ever climbed and with that in mind I thought it sensible to set rubber upon its slopes with fresh legs, so bumped it up to the top of my itinerary.
Despite its fame and notoriety, the Mortirolo is actually little more than a 12ft-wide access road and its start is consequently ridiculously easy to miss. The tell-tale signs that you are indeed on the right road is the almost immediate burning in your legs as you’re dumped in at the deep end with a violent opening ramp. No warm-up, no gentle introduction – just an all-out declaration of war.
Fighting back by riding out of the saddle is simply not a sustainable solution – imagine hot tar being poured on your thighs – so you just have to find a relatively forgiving gear (your lowest is a good place to start) and turn the pedals as rhythmically as possible.
The gradient generally lingers in the crippling early to mid-teens of percentage, but on occasion the Mortirolo gets really angry and throws a 22 per cent incline at you as the kilometres, hairpin bends and time pass by demoralisingly slowly.
Eventually though, the trees that entomb the Mortirolo’s route start to thin out and the summit appears, revealing a scene not too dissimilar to a Spanish beach resort.
Dutch, German, Belgian and English people are strewn around on the ground in a semi-conscious slumber, their heads occasionally rising to take a big gulp of a drink and, if they’re feeling particularly energetic, maybe even standing up fully to take a quick photo.
In a perfect world I would have gone back down the hill the way I came and returned to base for a celebratory beer, but when planning at home on the sofa, a place where everything and anything seems possible, I had lined up what now seemed a ridiculously tough 115km loop that took me over the Gavia and back down to my camp site. Two Category 1 climbs in a day? What an idiot.
And so I picked my sorry heap of skin, bone and lycra up off the Mortirolo and began the descent of its opposing flank, only to find out within three kilometres that this monster is as obstinate on the way down as it is on the way up.
With gravity on your side the Mortirolo becomes a brake pad’s graveyard. The hairpins are so steep, tight an frequent that you need to have your stoppers applied 75 per cent of the time and my wheel rims consequently became so furiously hot my front tyre punctured.
The widespread heat damage to the inner tube meant that patches couldn’t fix the puncture and so, without a spare tube, I was stranded. However, fortune favoured the stupid and I was rescued by a passing lesbian couple from Belgium – as you do – who generously gave me a lift to a bike shop in the next town, and I was on my way again.
I was playing catch-up on the 20km ride to the foot of the Gavia, though, and consequently wore myself out even further. And so began nearly three hours of hell.
The incline on the Gavia is far gentler than the Mortirolo (average 6.6 per cent) but it simply goes on forever (21km, rising more than 1,300m to a 2,621m summit). The first 10km were semi-manageable but as I plunged deeper into the red and the altitude took an increasingly tight hold, I turned into a crawling shambles of a cyclist.
Honestly, I don’t remember much of the climb, just lots of hairpins, lots of steep bits and the town in the valley bottom turning into little more than a blip. It was 6.30pm before I finally got to the snowy, freezing-cold summit. Ordeal is how I’d probably describe the experience.
A pizza the size of a patio that night helped replenish the lost calories sufficiently enough for me to tackle the monumental Stelvio the following day. The south-western climb from Bormio is about the same length as the Gavia (21.5km) but the summit is even higher, eventually topping out in 8ft-deep snow at 2,760m. As European roads go, there are few higher.
I feared a bad day was in prospect after my mauling on the Mortirolo and Gavia but, shirt pockets bulging with energy snacks, I actually gave the Stelvio as good as I got. Following the route the Giro d’Italia had taken a week earlier, I found my rhythm early and made good progress throughout what is a seemingly endless ascent, even overtaking quite a few other cyclo-tourists as I steadily turned the pedals over in bottom gear.
The great thing about riding in relative comfort is you aren’t chewing the handlebars and can consequently take in the views, and in this respect the Stelvio has few rivals. It rises first up through a narrow, rocky valley before turning up on to a high plateau and eventually the pass itself, which is surrounded by soaring, snow-capped peaks in a setting that is the very definition of spectacular.
I was so inspired by it that upon reaching the top I decided to descend the famous 48 hairpins of the opposite, north-eastern side and then climb back up. It made for a leg-snapping daily total of over 40km of climbing and about 3,000m of vertical gain, but with a warm sun beating down and not a breath of wind, it was the most perfect mountain cycling you could imagine.
The beauty of Italy, though, is that these three climbs are only the start. I’ve got to go back and do the Zoncolan now.