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Salzburg to Milan 2019. Day 7, Bormio to Bergamo.

108 miles. 11350 ft of climbing.

Strava link: https://www.strava.com/activities/2472029776  

When Justin had the constructed the route, he had made the finish line at the town of Bergamo. Milan was only included in the itinerary due to availability and frequency of flights. We had the option of either cycling all the way to Milan, or to stop in Bergamo and then get some transport to the Milan airport. We had given ourselves a rest day/contingency day in order to cater for any unseen eventualities, so we had plenty of options. There was a rough outline on where we were aiming to stay each night, so that we knew we would be on track to finish the route on time. The finer details could be ironed out on the road as the trip was drawing to a close. As it happened, we were down on the proposed mileage pretty much from day 2. By the time we had arrived at Bormio we were a considerable distance back on where we should have been. We discussed the plan, either have a monstrous day on the bike and finish on schedule, or give ourselves an easy time of it and use the contingency day to cut one long ride into two manageable, more sensible chunks. We decided to go for the balls out hard ride approach and aimed to totally destroy ourselves. Proper cyclists. The only problem with this plan was that the day started off with one of the hardest climbs on the whole trip the much feared and highly anticipated Mortirolo. The magazine which I had read on the plane all those ago had described a savage, hellish climb, unrelenting in its brutality. This was going to be a hard day.

Breakfast. This was by far the best breakfast we had eaten on the whole trip, and quite possibly the best breakfast I have ever had. Everything you could ever want and wish for was there in plentiful supply. Cereals, toast, yoghurts, piles of fresh fruit and juices, pastries, cakes, cheeses, doughnuts, expensive expresso coffee machines delivering the perfect cup on tap. I was wide eyed. Our table was set right in front of this gastronomic stage and I took full advantage, descending on the food in a fashion which would put even Augustus Gloop to shame. I practically polished off an entire 10” almond torte single handed. The bitesize custard doughnuts were heavenly, so it went on.

Justin had visited Bormio before, though only in passing, and he was keen to take a short tour of the old town. We packed our bikes up and were out on the road for just after 9. The day was perfect, not a cloud in the sky, the temperature was ideal. If you had a hard day’s worth of riding ahead of you, this was exactly the type of day you wanted to be riding it in. Bormio is a delightful town, the narrow-cobbled streets, with high buildings either side were a tourist’s dream, all set to the backdrop of snow-capped peaks and the clear blue sky. As usual now, we hit a few pharmacies in the hope of scoring some strong pain relief. Once again, the desired medication was not available and Justin walked out of the shop carrying a couple of boxes of paracetamol and ibuprofen.

Within the first 10 minutes of cycling around Bormio we had seen more cyclists than we had seen on our entire trip so far. The town is a real hub for cycling enthusiasts with its close proximity to many legendary climbs. We left the town passing by many small groups and over taking a few others. We had soon swept up a few more cyclists who were happy to hold onto our wheels and get a tow to the foot of the Mortirolo.

Leaving Bormio and heading towards the Mortirolo.

Leaving Bormio and heading towards the Mortirolo.

We reached the town of Grosio and the foot of the “easier” climb, a mere 9-miles with an average gradient of 8%. Here discussed the plan of attack. Justin was in pain, without any stronger medication left he couldn’t possibly take on the steeper sections which the “harder” climb had in plentiful supply. He decided to start the ascent from here, Jos and myself would continue around the mountainside to the village of Mazzo di Valtellina and then start the harder ascent. We would all then meet up again at the summit. We said our goodbyes and good-lucks and separated ways.

After some minor navigational hitches, we were at the foot of the climb. The climb from Mazzo Di Valtellina is slightly shorter at only 7 miles long, but with a tougher average gradient of 11%. This creeps up to around 15% on many occasions with a maximum gradient of 18%. We were joined by another couple of cyclists as the climb began and we soon all passed a sign reading out 33 hairpin bends to go, a countdown to the summit. (*whilst writing this blog I’ve tried to check this figure, most literature states the climb has 32 hairpins, but I’m certain the sign said 33. Regardless, it felt like a lot more!) Only 33 hairpin bends to go? Surely the climb can’t be that hard, in little over an hour we would be there. We set off, the climb ramped up steeply right from the start, and unrelentingly it remained that way. By around 5 minutes into the climb, with just 31 hairpin bends left to go, my heart was threatening to break free from my chest. My jersey was fully unzipped and I was dripping with sweat. I was already desperate for a drink, but the climb was so steep and hard going that it was almost impossible to take your hands off of the bars. The action of reaching down for your bottle, drinking, and then putting the bottle back meant that you totally ran out of inertia. There was a real fear that you may either fall off your bike or start rolling backwards downhill if you dared. Needs must and I managed a couple of very short gulps, almost choking in the process as my lungs gasped for air.

Everything I had read about the climb was true, it was an unrelenting, heart bursting, lung burning and soul-destroying monstrosity. It was a challenge which I was determined to overcome. The climb for the most part is thickly wooded, affording little in the way of views, those which are available show that you are rapidly gaining elevation. I recalled the Umbrail pass of yesterday and how I had wondered why mountain passes always have a gradual gradient and don’t just go straight up, now I knew why, it’s an almost impossible ordeal to get up them. The road was littered with colourful cycling graffiti, something which we hadn’t really seen up until now, and it only served to highlight the prestige of the climb. Reading out some of the more humorous lines kept me entertained and urged my legs to keep going. One line prompted you to drink, I did so as quickly and efficiently as I could. By around half an hour, I was climbing solo, Jos and our companions were lost to the bends below. I passed a few fellow cyclists, more brave souls, this gave me a boost and let me know that I was holding my own on the climb. The bend signs slowly counted me down, very slowly. The thirties and high twenties were reeled off pretty quickly, but now as fatigue started to take hold, the signs started to come few and far between. I dreamed of seeing sign number 10, then 5, it would all be plain sailing from there on I kidded myself. I was out of the saddle, pushing as hard as I could, my legs couldn’t take it anymore, I needed to sit back down. Seated, I span the pedals as hard as I could and tried to recover, everything started to hurt, I needed to get out of the saddle again, repeat. A few residential homes lined the road, the owners would offer a greeting and words of encouragement as you crept ever so slowly past. A steep grassy meadow with a multitude of petrol strimmers in action brought a slight distraction, all these little occurrences were mini snap shots between the long periods of suffering. 

The famous Italian climber Marco “The Pirate” Pantani has a memorial two thirds of the way up the climb, celebrating his ascent of the climb during the 1994 Giro d’Italia, in a time of 42m40s, what was then the fastest ascent ever recorded. I was looking out for the memorial long before it arrived. Finally, it emerged and I managed to take out my camera out of my jersey pocket, hold it steady and get a get a shot.

Il Pirata. Climbing the Mortirilo in good company.

Il Pirata. Climbing the Mortirilo in good company.

From the Pantani monument the road soon joined up with the road from Grosio. 11 hairpins and just two miles left to go. I had been suffering on my own for around half an hour, but as the two ascents converged there was a much heavier flow of traffic. The gradient eased off and I found I was able to ride quite hard up this section, passing by many cyclists. I passed a group I had chatted to as Justin was deliberating his ascent, and wondered if I might catch him up. The countdown continued, at last into single figures. The hairpins once again came thick and fast, soon I hit five to go. Justin came into view, I passed him with a breathless greeting, pushing on ahead. Three to go, two left, the end was in sight. I surged onwards, dancing on the pedals as best I could, the challenge was laid before me and I was not beaten. The final hairpin successfully navigated, I sprinted for the sign. Crossing over the line I collapsed in a messy heap at the side of the road gasping for air. Never again.

I managed to get a shot of Justin crossing over the line, the look on his face a portrait of pain. Jos was around 5 minutes further behind, a final tussle with our two companions saw him victorious. We stood by the side of the road and recounted our experience of the climb, enjoying in the views which the summit revealed to us at last. It was a climb which I shall never forget, nothing can ever be as hard.

Descending to Edolo

Descending to Edolo

We descended to the town of Edolo and as it was such a gloriously sunny day decided to get a picnic lunch. We found a supermarket called U2. I wasn’t sure about us going in and leaving our bikes alone outside, but Jos said “I’m going in, with or without you.” As Justin entered the shop, he almost tripped over the edge. I was feeling too tired to think up any lame U2 jokes, so just waited outside and enjoyed the sunshine. Just out of town we had our picnic in a shady spot beside the Oglio river, here we discussed the next stage of the ride. If we were to make it to Bergamo, we still had over 60-miles left to ride with a couple of passes included. There was also a slightly shorter, less hilly option which Justin favoured. We debated. It was a shame to split the group up, especially after all we had been through together, but Jos and I were keen to finish the route proper. Justin was spent, the idea of attempting another mountain pass was too much to entertain. He booked a hotel in Bergamo on his phone app, and we agreed to meet up in the evening.

After 3-miles, at the foot of the Passo del Vivione, we parted ways. The climb started with a steep ramp, if this was a sign of things to come, Justin has made the right decision and I debated turning around and joining him. The Passo del Vivione is an 11.5-mile, 7% gradient climbers dream. The terrain undulates from tough 10% gradients to downhill sections. The views are simply breath-taking and the road is very quiet. After a few relatively tame hairpins we arrived at the quiet village of Paisco, both of us thirsty and in need of refilling our bottles. We were blessed, the village had a glorious water fountain complete with a miniature Bonsai tree. We drank down our fill of the delicious cooling water, then made sure to replace what we had drunk. When you are tired and as hot and thirsty as we were, there is simply no greater pleasure that can compare to finding a cool alpine spring and drinking down it’s refreshing and rejuvenating waters. We were ready for the challenge ahead. Beyond Paisco, we passed virtually no traffic. The mountain was almost devoid of any other signs of human life. We were amongst nature, feeling energised and perfectly in tune with our surroundings. But where was all the traffic? I started to feel slightly uncomfortable, wandering if the road was closed for some reason. A few miles further on, my questions were answered. A group of workmen were busy with heavy plant machinery. Trees were strewn across the tarmac, one side of the road had slipped down the mountainside, mud banks blocked the way. The road was impassable, to most. We encountered a fluorescent clad workman who placed his forearms together in a cross, “Road closed!” It was an instant downer. Jos and I looked at each other, the idea that we had to turn back seemed such a huge shame. Jos tried to negotiate, “Can we make it through by bike?” He cried out over noise of the diggers and chainsaws. The workman shrugged, he must have thought we were a little crazy, but he happily waved us on our way.

The climb continued through the woods, a mountain pass for two. The woods were enchanted, seemingly alive, like something out of a Brothers Grimm fairy-tale. At any moment I expected an elf or wizard to peer out from behind one of the tall tree trunks. Or a unicorn to reveal itself from within the dark shelter of the trees. To add to this ethereal, other worldly feeling, tree trunks which had been felled were carved into figurines. Birds, bears, mushrooms and in particular faces of gnomes. Such a bizarre, yet enthralling scene. We were both having a truly great time. Out of all the mountain passes we had scaled; this was a truly unique stand-alone experience.

Further un-rideable landslides threatened to bar our way, we dismounted and carefully picked our way along. The woods started to thin out and the surrounding mountains came into full view, amazing scenery was all around. We rode past an outstanding waterfall, posed for a few photographs, and then began a final section of hairpins. The road here was narrow and had failed in places. Deep cracks had formed in the tarmac, the barriers at the side of the road were rusty and looked at risk of collapsing. I don’t think they would have been up to the task of saving you if you took a turn too sharply or lost control of your machine. We climbed steadily, in part because we were wary of the road, but also because we were simply having such a wonderful time. I was truly sorry that Justin was not with us to share the experience.  

An unusual climb, but one to be savoured.

An unusual climb, but one to be savoured.

With less than 2-miles to go before the summit, the road opened out and we were placed in the midst of a rocky high alpine grassland. This was just the icing on the cake, no one else was around, basking in sunshine, we were having a splendid time. We cruised along the remainder of the climb purposely in silence, this was a moment to be savoured and remembered.

The Passo del Vivione, an outstanding climb.

The Passo del Vivione, an outstanding climb.

The descent was just as enjoyable as the climb, zero traffic and tremendous scenery. We took our time, especially on the narrow hairpins with rusty railings. Arriving in the town of Schilpario we had a quick coffee and checked the route. Bergamo was still a long way off, 40-miles to go and still one more climb. This was going to be a long hard day. We were now leaving the high mountains and heading towards the foothills, apart from the final climb, fortunately the majority of the route ahead of us was downhill.

Josby pushed hard, setting a fast pace along the downhill section of the the main road towards the town of Dezzo di Scalve and the foot of the final climb of the day, and the final climb of the trip. The Passo della Presolana was, in comparison to all the other climbs we had ridden, on paper a simple affair. A slight lump on the map before arriving in Bergamo. After 70 hard miles and back to back days of hard riding, it was exhausting. 5-miles with an average gradient of just 6%, ordinarily we would have sailed up this, but today we were feeling exhausted. Yet, there was still a bit of friendly rivalry within us. Josby was taking no prisoners, and as he had done on so many occasions before, he hit the climb at full gas.        

The Passo della Presolana. The final climb of the trip.

The Passo della Presolana. The final climb of the trip.

“Not again,” I sighed to myself as I jumped out of the saddle trying to make up the distance to his back wheel. We weren’t going to threaten any KOM holders, but we were certainly going to put ourselves through the pain mill. Josby pushed on again, I followed, my legs screaming at me, pleading for mercy. I kept going, holding onto the knowledge that if I was suffering, I knew Josby would be too. After 15-miuntes of cat and mouse antics, we rounded the last of the hairpins side by side, neither of us willing to give up an inch. Then, as we entered the town of Cantoniera della Presolana, we were neck and neck and the final sprint for the summit began. I opened up the contest and pushed as hard as I could with Josby sitting right on my back wheel, I could sense him about to jump as the sign came into view. Who won? I’ll let decide this one, but it was a close call.

The busy road from the summit to Bergamo was 30-miles of mostly fast downhill. We were feeling tired, our bodies and nerves had been pushed to the limit, we were on the verge of bonking. We pushed on, sharing turns at the front, all the while counting down the miles. Time was pressing on; this was the longest day of the entire trip and our legs knew it. The pace didn’t dip much below 25 mph for the next hour, we were riding on fumes. Closing in on Bergamo, we passed through a couple of long, dimly lit tunnels. These were not ideal; the traffic didn’t give us much room and we were very vulnerable. We made it through, but I would not recommend that particular experience to anyone.

We just about made it in one piece and headed towards the old town of Bergamo which is perched up on top of a hill. Cycling through the old cobbled streets at dusk, with three mountain passes and over a hundred miles worth of riding behind us, we were desperate for some food, a refreshing cool beer and a shower. The hotel was a gem. We met Justin, had a quick exchange of notes, then were washed and dressed with military precision. That evening we ate a fine meal of pizza and salad, we drank plenty of beer, then some Limoncello, then finally resting on the balcony of the hotel overlooking the town, relaxing in the cool stillness of the night, we finished off a bottle of wine and reflected on our adventure.  

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