58 miles. 7600 ft of climbing.
Strava link: https://www.strava.com/activities/2472029438
Day 6 of the adventure, Salzburg seemed a lifetime ago. The penultimate day of such an epic adventure always brings a bag of mixed emotions. Certainly, you miss your loved ones back home, you are eager to once again hold them in your arms and to see the smiles upon their faces. Yet, there is a part of you which wishes for the dream not to end. That you may continue riding these wondrous mountains, continue living this dream into the foreseeable future.
Breakfast was another feast; I filled my plate at least three times and drank down around a litre of the fresh juices available. We checked out of the hotel and were on the road for 9:15. The first port of call was once again a pharmacy; Justin was still in a great deal of pain and his stronger prescription medication was all but finished. The over the counter medication he was supplementing his stronger pain relief with was not really doing the job and he feared that without it the tougher climbs which still lay ahead of us might be too much to bear. The visit was fruitless and Justin was despondent. I advised him to take what medication he needed, there was no point in being in pain when you had sufficient pain relief with you, tomorrow is another day, life on the road is always in the now.
We left Scuol in a drizzly rain. It was warm, but we were keen to stay as dry as possible so put on our rain jackets. The route for the day included two mountain passes, the rolling Offenpass, then the Umbrail pass which summits just below the famous Stelvio, a mountain which we climbed in our Venice to Geneva trip in 2017. It would be like visiting an old friend.
The foot of the Offenpass lay at the town of Zernez, just short of 20 miles from Scuol. The road to took us on a steady uphill gradient, the light rain continued to fall, but we were soon too warm for our rain jackets so we stopped and adjusted our clothing. This is where the benefit of having different layers comes into play, having a multitude of different clothing combinations is a real bonus and it means that you can be adaptable to suit most weather conditions. It was arm-warmers and a gilet for me. We stopped in Zernez, the gateway town to the Swiss National Park, for a quick coffee before starting the climb.
The Offenpass is a 13-mile climb, with an average gradient of just 3%. This is due to the undulating road which includes a 3-mile downhill section mid-way up the climb. There are steeper sections on the climb, particularly at the start and in the last mile, but on the whole, it is a pretty manageable, enjoyable affair. Jos and myself once again had a friendly tussle at the start of the climb. Jos was pushing hard out of the saddle and I was content to sit on his wheel and have an easy time of it. After passing through a balcony tunnel Jos took a brief rest and sat back in the saddle to recover, I took this opportunity to jump ahead and was soon up the road with Jos lost behind the twists and turns in the road. This part of the climb afforded excellent views, the grey stony mountains were seemingly within touching distance, down in the valley the Ova dal Fuorn river crashed over the rocks far below. I made good time and felt energized on the early part of the climb and by the beginning of the downhill section was in the zone, pedalling with ease and taking the downhill bends “like a pro.” Unfortunately, road works stopped play, and I was held up at a set of traffic lights for a few minutes. Long enough for Jos to make up his lost time and re-join me. We decided to stop our antics and just take time to enjoy ourselves. It was great fun riding side by side, chatting, laughing and recounting various parts of our adventure so far. After a few more sets of traffic lights the climb once again ramped steadily upwards. There were many walking trails leading off from the road, some shadowing the course of the road, and we passed by many hikers as we climbed, as always offering a friendly hello. The landscape opened out towards the top of the climb and we passed over a long bridge. The riverbed was amazingly wide and the river currently only occupied half of the space. When in full flow, covering the whole riverbed, it must present an awesome spectacle. The climb ramped up and sensing the summit was imminent, a game of cat and mouse ensued. We exchanged assaults, with neither of us making up any ground, then with the summit in sight Jos made a mammoth sized effort to breakaway, his cadence beyond anything I could muster up and I sat back and happily watched as he raised his hands over the finish line, the end to a thoroughly enjoyable climb.
Josby approaching the top of the Offenpass. An excellent climbing partner.
We waited for Justin to arrive, then layered up and enjoyed the quick 8-mile descent to the pretty town of Santa Maria for lunch.
Finding a restaurant in Santa Maria proved to be a fairly challenging ordeal, most places we passed by were closed, one place we did find which was open would only serve us coffee and cake, insufficient fuel for the next climb. After a quarter of an hour passing back and forth along the busy narrow twisting main street, we found a delightful old wood panelled building where a charming elderly waitress served each of us a large bowl of delicious pasta. Note that Switzerland is an expensive place to stay, best to live here on the cheap if you can. Three bowls of pasta served with a coke cost almost 70 pounds. Over lunch Justin had been subdued, by his standards at least, and it was clearly apparent that he did not relish the next climb. I decided to keep him company over the pass, he had been doing a lot of solo mountain climbing over the last few days and when you’re feeling low and tired it is always helpful to have a fellow cyclist close by to offer you some moral support.
Justin on the tight hairpin section at the foot of the Umbrail pass.
The Umbrail pass is an 8-mile, 8% average gradient HC climb. The climb starts off with a series of steep tight hairpin turns. The weather had turned cool with a slight drizzle, so leaving the restaurant we dressed in gilets and arm-warmers before the climb began. As a reasonable climber I enjoy riding the tight hairpin turns and like the idea of gaining elevation in a more direct fashion. Thin woodland, in some parts recently forested, lined the road on this section of the climb and we were afforded some excellent views back across the valley towards the Offenpass. In the distance the weather looked dark and full of rain, but luckily it didn’t catch up with us and apart from a short period of moderate rain, for the most part we were kept dry. After around 4-miles we had ascended through the woods and leaving the hairpins behind the road opened out to reveal a picturesque grassland plateau. Large boulders lay strewn across the plateau, the river flowed noisily alongside the road, snow-covered mountain peaks were all around. The path of the road was clear to see in the distance, this was a classic alpine climb and a real joy to ascend. Justin was just a few meters behind and I took the opportunity to take some decent photos of him scaling the pass. Something to show the grandkids.
The pretty rocky grassland plateau half way up the climb.
Passing over a bridge the road twisted along for a few more miles at a steady gradient before it once again ramped up. We quickly gained elevation as we hit another succession of hairpin turns and we were soon riding with snow banks on either side of the road. Once again, I took time to relish the scenery, knowing that the summit of this pass would mark our last time in the high mountains and tomorrow we would be leaving these majestic ancient monuments of nature behind us. Justin was never too far behind and he would soon come silently, stoically cycling by. As a cyclist I know very well that offering encouragement such as; “You’re doing well” and “keep it going,” can make you aggravated, so instead I offered encouragement in the form of an understanding smile and a nod. I’m not sure if Justin wanted to thank me for sticking around, or if he just wished I would buzz off, but he kept going and we soon were able to spot the top of the Stelvio in the far distance.
Nearing the summit of the Umbrail pass.
We took the last of the hairpins and then there was a long steady straight amongst the pure white snows before we finally reached the summit. Jos had been waiting for a while, we found him huddled against a wall out of the wind, arms folded and shivering. He was obviously feeling the cold.
The top of the climb marks the border between Switzerland and Italy, and is the highest paved road in Switzerland. We passed by an unmanned border checkpoint, took a photo of the summit sign before starting the cold, but short and twisty descent to the town of Bormio. It was an enjoyable downhill section, with great views. We passed through a long tunnel and the temperature slowly began to rise. By the time we arrived at our hotel in Bormio we were warmed up and ready for a cool beer and a relax. That evening we found a restaurant very close to the hotel and once again dined on our customary pizza and chips, all washed down with a couple of pints of the delicious Grimbergen beer.
The top of the Umbrail pass. Note the road to the Stelvio summit on the left.