Part 2 of our Italian Pursuit was a four night stay in Bormio where we would have the opportunity to tackle some iconic climbs such as the Passo di Stelvio, Passo di Gavia and the Passo di Mortirolo as well as lesser known but equally impressive climbs such as the Torri di Fraele and Bormio 2000.
The town of Bormio is at the end of a valley (at an elevation of 1,228m) with impressive mountains of the Italian Alps all around and to say it is picture postcard would be an understatement. The town is basically a ski resort but is also known for its spas and Roman baths. Wandering the cobbled lane ways was always interesting and we went into a church that was first built in 1196 and featured a number of 15th century frescos.
We stayed at the Baita dei Pini hotel which is literally House of Pine (easy to understand when you noticed the pine decor) and we were looked after wonderfully by the family that owns it and by their excellent staff!!!
Day 1 Friday 17 May - After checking in it was time to go for a late afternoon ride to the Torri di Fraele (the Fraele Towers). This is also known as the mini Stelvio due to the switchbacks near the top of the climb to the towers. The towers were part of a defensive fort built in World War 1 as the Italians feared that the Germans would attack them through Switzerland - the Swiss border is very close by. In reality the prospect of the Germans attacking in this way was limited but the Italian high command still thought it possible. The fort acted in a defensive capacity as well as a signal point to other troops stationed in Bormio to sound the alarm of any attack.
The ride was only short being approx 25k with the climb approx 10k and the vertical ascent being approx 800m to 1,952m i.e. average gradient of approx 8%. The views looking down to Bormio and up to the Alps all around was very picturesque indeed and a great introduction to our Bormio stay as well as a great warm-up for the Stelvio the next day.
Day 2 Saturday 18th May - today was the day we would ride the mighty Passo di Stelvio and if feeling good the Bormio 2000 afterwards. The Stelvio pass is at 2,757m and to put that into perspective Mt Kosiosko (Australia's highest mountain) is a mere 2,228m. Starting in Bormio that meant 1,529m of vertical ascent to be done over approx 22km to give an average gradient of approx 7.1%. The climb from the northern side (from Prato) is the more famous ascent as it has 48 hairpins close together at the end of the climb. The ascent from Bormio has almost as many hairpins but they come in three sections throughout the climb. The last 10km of the climb is above the snow line.
The day dawned fine and sunny so it was game on and we were set for a great day on the bike. The climb is truly awesome and to ride it full gas would be a injustice to the scenery. The climb is quite easy to the tunnels with a steady gradient but immediately after the tunnels there is a 14% section just before you start the switchbacks. Once over the switchbacks the gradient is quite modest and the road traverses a mini alpine meadow scape. The road then starts to climb the final 200m of ascent over approx 1.5km to the pass but we found the road appeared to be impassable due to snow on the road. Some of us decided to try our luck to get to the top of the pass while most of the group turned around at this point.
The final push to the pass involved some walking in snow and riding on some thin clear bits of road or through icy slush - riding through the snow was virtually impossible as you had no traction. The excitement of getting to the top put the thought of wet and cold feet to the back of the mind. After some effort Craig and approx seven others made it.
Time for a quick photo or two and prepare for a long and cold descent!! The descent was terrific and gives you a great appreciation of how good the pros are at descending fast - real fast!!!
Some final points for the Stelvio - the pass will be open for the Giro Stage 19 on Friday 24th May and while Jacinta didn't attempt the push to the pass she reports a ride distance of approx 36km that took approx 3hrs (note to Claire Hemming - keep training!!). One thing that is to be appreciated is that it is quite possible to do a climb like this in Knicks, jersey and summer gloves on the way up the descent can be brutally cold so carrying a small backpack with leg/arm warmers, gillet, wind proof jacket, skull cap and winter gloves of good quality is essential - images of the pros climbing in summer gear and then descending with just a piece of newspaper stuffed up their jersey or a gillet gives a great appreciation of how good they really are and what they can put up with!!!
Jacinta decided to retire to the hotel and warm up while Craig decided to do the Bormio 2000 after getting back to Bormio. The Bormio 2000 is a nice 10km climb that is pretty much straight out the hotel door to a ski station at approx 2,000m i.e. once again an average gradient of approx 8%. The climb didn't feature too many switchbacks as such but a series of long ramps. A nice climb all the same to finish a terrific day in the Italian Alps.
Day 3 Sunday 19th May - today was scheduled as a rest day and we had booked some seats on the Bernina Express which is an iconic train trip from Tirano (down the valley from Bormio) to St Moritz. Basically the train ascends from Tirano at approx 450m to the Bernina Pass at 2,200m without the aid of mechanical assistance and relies on impressive viaducts and tunnel switchbacks to gain altitude. Once over the pass it is downhill for a bit to St Moritz which is at approx 1,750m. The trip to St Moritz was through cloud and it was snowing at the pass and when we arrived at St Moritz. We only really had time for a quick wander around the town and to have lunch. Once we'd settled on a restaurant that had a nice view across the lake and to the snow covered peaks the sun came out. We asked the restaurant to sit outside but they initially refused but we persisted and had a great meal in the sun with a terrific view too boot!!
The trip back to Tirano was in near perfect conditions and it was terrific to see the mountains in two different moods. Would highly recommend the Bernina Express if you are in the area.
Day 4 Monday 20th May - today was to be an epic day where we would tackle the Passo di Gavia (approx 26km at 5.5% and gaining 1,404m) and the "easy" side Passo di Mortirolo (17.2km at 6.7% gaining 1,153m). On the Gavia the last 8km are above the snow line but the Mortirolo is all below the snow line. The ascent of the Gavia starts pretty much straight out the door of the hotel and passes through a couple of quaint villages that have cobbled streets. The weather looked a bit ominous when we woke up but we were all keen to do the planned route for the day despite expecting that the Gavia pass would be closed. If we found that to be the case we had a plan B which involved riding back down to Bormio the down the valley to tackle the Mortirolo from the "hard" side.
Unfortunately the weather turned on us on the Gavia climb and we experienced snow falling on us. Craig rode ahead of the group with our tour guide Eric de Clercq (a former pro) to the point where we couldn't ride any further due to snow on the road and short of the pass by about 3km. The snow got heavier as Craig was dressing up for the descent so many in the group including Jacinta had to abandon the climb further down the climb due to the conditions. The descent back to Bormio was pretty cold but good fun all the same.
Those not wanting to ride the Mortirolo had the option of retiring to the warm hotel which didn't sound like a bad idea by those that were going to do the Mortirolo as they waited for everyone to regroup at the hotel after descending off the Gavia. Unfortunately once again, the weather turned on us and on the way to the Mortirolo rain moved up the valley so a decision was made to retreat to the hotel and wait for the conditions to improve later in the day. Disappointingly the weather had settled in so no more riding in Bormio - a good excuse to come back and tick off some unfinished business.
Part 3 of our Italian Pursuit will be in Arabba which is in the Dolomites where we will tackle one of the classic rides in the world, the Sella Ronda, which is four mountain passes (three of which are over 2,000m) and includes the Passo Pordio, Passo Sella, Passo Gardena and the Passo Campolongo.
Until then it's ciao for now.