The Grandfondo Stelvio Santini has been called one of the 10-best ‘Grandfondos’ in the world and that is definitely saying something as there are quite a few fantastic ‘Grandfondos’ in Europe and the world. A Grandfondo is “a long-distance road cycling event in which a large number of participants ride a marked route”. This year’s event, the eighth, would be marred by bad weather leading to the loss of the usual final and most iconic climb, the Stelvio Pass.
I’ve always wanted to climb (and drive) the Stelvio and this loss made us reconsider our participation in this event, even though the alternative route still contained another iconic climb, the Mortirolo, and the organisers replaced the Stelvio with the ascent to the stunning Laghi Di Cancano.
The race started in the quiet, resort town of Bormio which is located at an altitude of 1,225m and reputedly has about 4,100 residents. I say ‘reputedly’ because I only saw a fraction of these residents and saw even fewer locals near my chalet-style hotel, located 7kms away in the pretty district of Valdidentro.
Getting there would involve a two-hour flight to Milan’s Linate airport and a three-hour 205km drive. I caught the midday BA flight from Heathrow and I was in Milan right on schedule and everything up to that point had gone smoothly…..till I encountered the insolent staff at the Hertz rental desk. The line was long, the car collection process was slow, and the staff even slower. The car I booked, a Volvo V90 from the prestige class was unavailable, the final bill including ‘walk away’ insurance was three times what I expected and oh, the Italian lady serving me stopped serving me to attend to a distinguished looking Italian.
Maybe she did that because they spoke the same language….
I was sorely tempted to crash the hateful car Hertz had supplied
I have used the Hertz car rental service worldwide for well over a decade without any problems and they even supplied the star of this article, a stonking Hertz 100th Anniversary Edition Chevrolet Corvette Z06 at short notice, but the Milan Linate branch is the worst Hertz branch on the planet. By far.
I finally located the hateful, manual diesel Nissan Qashqai and made my way out of the airport to start the 200km drive north to Bormio. The route took me past the magnificent Lake Como and through some truly stunning countryside. I did not know parts of Italy were so beautiful.
After driving 100km North, I swung West onto the SS38 just after Lake Como and into the tunnels through the mountainous terrain. One tunnel after another, no sooner have you emerged from one tunnel before you were diving into another. Phone reception? Pah! non-existent. I have never seen so many tunnels in my entire life and I marvelled at the engineering feat that basically blasted a route through an entire mountain range.
Tunnels, tunnels and even more tunnels
When Google maps indicated I was 20 km from the hotel, I hit one of those sinuous, rising mountain roads which typified the area and I got to the charming hotel just after 7 pm. I settled-in, assembled my bike before dinner and a well-earned night’s rest.
I woke up early on Saturday morning eager to begin exploring my surroundings and to perform the customary post-assembly bike check ride.
I was on my bike and out the door by 7:30 am and emerged into the bright sunshine and the ridiculously beautiful area surrounding the hotel.
It turned into the longest ‘bike check’ ride in the history of bike checking rides because I stopped almost every 200m to take photographs.
Laghi Di Cancano
‘Gawping’ ride done, it was time to head into the city center to meet the others, a motley collection of international cyclists including ‘Big Swiss Phil’, ‘MG’ and ‘Elder’ at the registration center and pick up my race pack. The race pack also included the mandatory Santini cycling jersey to be worn during the race. No Jersey, no race, we were emphatically informed.
Registration done, I escaped the registration center and cycle expo with only minor damage to my Barclaycard and joined the others for a quick ‘healthy’ lunch before a reconnaissance drive up the final climb to the Cancano lakes with MG.
The Cancano Lakes are artificial lakes in the Stelvio National park formed after the dams of Cancano and San Giacomo were built in the 1940’s. They are located just above 1,900 meters altitude. The distance from Bormio city center to these lakes is only 14kms and the road there looked hairy even on google maps. And so it proved. Tight, steep and twisty and often with only room for one car to pass, this is a road you drive with full concentration. You’ll end up in the Valdidentro valley below if you do not.
This is a road you drive with full concentration. You’ll end up in the Valdidentro valley below if you do not.
The road started off straight and narrow with only a few turns for a few kilometers and offered incredible views of the valley below. So good were these views we actually stopped in one of the few areas it was safe to stop, to take pictures. I do not need to look at the pictures taken to remember the views from this place. They are seared into my memory forever.
Torri di Fraele. 9km or so from the top, the road morphed into a series of tight hairpins, one after another, 18 in all. This is the famous mountain pass, Torri di Fraele, which leads to the ruins of Fraele towers, which was once used as a strategic communications point.
“Avoid the Mortirolo”
Needless to say, we stopped again to take in the astonishing views and take even more pictures. We also met a Latin duo that had ridden up the road we had just driven. This would turn out to be the most important and fortuitous meeting for me on this trip.
We introduced ourselves and quickly got talking. This is one of the things I love about the cycling community, you can meet a cyclist anywhere on the planet and in the most unlikely place, if you ride a bike, 99.99% of the time, you will be welcome to chat.
Anyway, we informed them we would be doing the long route (including the fearsome Mortirolo) the following day. I was still not 100% certain that I would be doing the long route due to the difficulty of this climb, but the look on his face as he talked about his own experiences on that climb made up my mind for me. You could actually see him reliving what must have been a traumatic climb for him.
The somber horror all-too-visible on his face was all the more powerful when you looked at his physique and his equipment. He was riding a 10k Pinarello Dogma F10 with a custom paint job AND custom kit to match and he had the physique to go along with his kit. This was no slouch on a bike.
No way would I attempt the Mortirolo.
The Grandfondo Stelvio Santini
The long route starts in Bormio and ends nearly 2,000m high at the Cancano lakes 145km away. There were three proper ‘official’ climbs included on this route:
The Teglio, The Mortirolo and of course, the Cancano Pass.
Location: Trentino-Alto Adige in the Alps.
Average gradient: 8.3 %.
Length: 5.6 km.
Elevation gained: 466m.
Difficulty level: Difficult.
Location: Tovo Di Sant’Agata, Lombardia.
Average gradient: 11 %.
Length: 11 km.
Elevation gained: 1,169m.
Difficulty level: Are you kidding? Fearsome! This is one of the hardest climbs in the world! Even the pros refused to race the route ‘we’ used on this event. Lance Armstrong referred to it as one of the hardest climbs he’s ever ridden and the name Mortirolo is derived from the Italian word ‘Morte’ or ‘death’.
Laghi Di Cancano.
Average gradient: 6.9%.
Elevation gained: 600m.
Difficulty Level: Very difficult because you would have a minimum of 120km and 1,800m ( a lot more for those doing the long route) by the time you get there.
These are the official statistics provided by the organisers of this event and frankly, they lied about this climb.
Lance Armstrong referred to the Mortirolo as one of the hardest climbs he’s ever ridden.
I left my hotel just after 6 AM on Sunday to roll down the 7km to the start in Bormio’s city center. I met Big Swiss Phil and some other members of his cycling club there and together we waited for our group’s start time.
15 minutes later, our group was ushered forward to the starting line and we were off.
The first 40km was mostly downhill and it was mayhem from the gun, fast, furious and exhilarating. You had to take big risks to stay with the fast groups. And these Italians are crazy, suicidal even, and it is not just the men.
Darting left and right at 85kph and above and squeezing through impossibly tight gaps at insane speeds.
They also were seemingly oblivious to the dangers of taking blind corners at high speed and simply barrelled through without braking or slowing down.
I do not know why or how there were no massive crashes here….
These Italians are crazy, suicidal even, and it is not just the men.
We covered the first 40kms in less than one blur of an hour and soon reached the first proper test of this ride, the 6km climb to Teglio.
I knew I was in trouble as soon as we started climbing because I struggle at altitude. Bormio was at an altitude of 1,200m and never once would we be anywhere near sea-level on this ride. Add the rising temperatures and it was shaping up to be a really tough day.
Half-way up the Teglio climb, we all had to dismount due to the congestion and the steep gradient. MG, Swiss Phil plus a few more riders also had to stop here. There were strangely SIX Colnago C60’s in the same spot and we did not pass on such a good photo-op.
The course cleared a bit and I continued climbing till I reached the first rest stop at the top. This was my first opportunity to use the Fujifilm X-T20 mirrorless camera I had foolishly decided to carry with me. While it was no heavyweight, it still weighed close to half a kilo and weight is the enemy of the Granfondo cyclist.
The Teglio descent took us past the halfway mark and from this point the road dragged inexorably upwards with only a few dips to provide some relief. One of these dips came just after the 2.4km Corna Motta climb into the most gorgeous valley which justified the weight penalty of the camera.
I stopped for a good while here to take pictures of the cyclists coming through, sometimes in groups, sometimes in twos and threes. The look of pain and maximum effort on all their faces was the same though.
The altitude and the heat
The heat in this valley was fierce. Indeed, it was the altitude coupled with the heat that did the most damage. It turned what was already a tough ride into a brutal one.
By now, I was glad I was only doing the medium route and I spent the next few kilometers looking out for the right turn that signalled the long route and the dreaded Mortirolo.
I went straight on there.
A few kilometers later, at the junction where the long route rejoined the medium route, the other guys from Phil’s cycling club caught me after they had tackled the Mortirolo and I had not. Jeeeeezzzzzz!
The road was rising, always rising and in truth, the last climb started 40km out. I shuddered when I thought about the others tackling the Mortirolo. I made sure I stopped at all the rest stops to refuel, take on more fluids and take pictures.
At the last stop before the final climb, I surveyed the scene and the cyclists present, no one was laughing. No one was smiling. The Joie de vivre evident at the start of the race was gone. It was now a matter of survival, a supreme mental test.
I continued, counting down the kilometers; 30km to go, 20km to go. I rejoiced when I saw the ’10km to go’ sign that marked the start of the ‘last climb’.
‘Last climb’? ‘Last climb’? I’ve been climbing for 40km! I was too tired to even mentally curse the organisers and saved all the resources I had left, mental and physical for these final kilometers. I stopped every 3 kilometers to take some truly memorable pictures of my fellow cyclists as they came by, faces lined with effort, with a glorious snow-capped mountain range for a backdrop. Stopping, dismounting and crouching to take pictures was also taking its toll.
The altitude and the heat turned a tough ride into a brutal one.
I knew from our visit the previous day that the road levelled off in the final 2 km and heaved a sigh of relief when I saw the first tunnel that marked the ‘2km to go’ distance.
It was all I could do to ride that final 2km gravel and dirt road past the lake to the finish line.
I’d made it! Getting to the finish line, Mortirolo or no was not a simple task due to the altitude and the conditions. That exhilarated feeling of accomplishment came flooding through and at that moment, I understood why we regularly punish ourselves so: We are simply addicted to that feeling.
All I had to do now was wait for my friends at the finish line and try to get pictures of them as they crossed the finish line.
The ride was tough, almost too tough according to Elder, and he had a very valid point. By some estimates, 70-80% of the cyclists that tackled the Mortirolo walked part of that stupendous climb and I actually felt vindicated in my decision not to tackle it. The bald statistics do not tell the full story of this ride
Soon after, it was time to roll back down the mountain to Bormio and I peeled off from the others a few kilometers down to take the most direct and incredibly steep route to my hotel, which was situated in the valley directly below the mountain Lake.
As I rolled to my hotel, I was already thinking about coming back next year to do the event again and hopefully tackle that most iconic of climbs: The Stelvio. I had not even made it back to my hotel after such a brutal ride and I was already planning next year’s trip. This simple fact speaks volumes about the attraction of this place and this event.
It truly is magical.
Till the next time.