Not long after the Giro bunch passed over the Stelvio, Orwell's David Fitzgerald tackled it too! The Passo dello Stelvio features endless switchbacks of suffering, and Dave takes us through it all below!

Prologue - Tuesday 27 May 2014

Today is stage 16 of the 2014 Giro d'Italia. It's the queen stage of this year’s Giro and marks the start of the 3rd and final week in which the race will be won and lost in the mountains. It's of particular interest to me because today the Gruppo will climb the iconic Passo dello Stelvio. At 2,758m it's the 2nd highest paved road in Europe, it's currently -1C and snowing there. And on next Sunday, I'm going to be cycling up that road!

The Back Story

I got hooked on cycling seven years ago by the charismatic Leisure Road Captain Denis "The Runner" Gleeson. Having been inducted into Orwell Wheelers, I dived into weekend spins and discovered the joy of the Sportive. Amongst others I got initiated in the highs & lows of the W200, the Mizen2Malin, the Wexford Cycle, the Galway Cycle, the legendary Orwell Randoneé. Then, in 2011, I was "introduced" by the mercurial Mr. Lannigan to the opportunity to travel to overseas sportives - to the Etape du Tour 2011 Acte 1 taking in legendary Alpine climbs of Col de Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and Alpe d'Huez.

Now I was really hooked. I began to read many books about cycling: as a sport, as a profession, as a business, as a way of life. One of the things that struck me about what has often been written is how accessible cycling is to the ordinary man & woman on the street. The legends of the sport down the years have battled for success or survival on roads that are open to us all. So a seed of an idea took root in my mind, that it would be fantastic to get out there and experience at first hand the famous (& infamous) iconic climbs of the Grand Tours - and maybe some of the Monuments too. Admittedly not at race pace, admittedly not in the heat of battle when there's a jersey at stake or a stage up for grabs, admittedly not trying to be in a breakaway to get TV time for the sponsors. I want to experience these at my pace, with friends, and live the dream.

So, on returning from the Etape in July 2013, I floated the idea of a jaunt over to Italy to tackle the mighty Stelvio Pass. There are a few important things to note about the Stelvio Pass. It's only open for a couple of months in the summer - the rest of the year it's impassable with snow. It's very high (nearly 2,800m) and the air is thin at altitude so it's hard going. The climb is long (25km) and steep (avg 7.5%) and it's classified as HC so it’s hard going. So, who wants to go? The Orwell tourists were already in planning overdrive with the usual suspects booking trips to LBL, Etape du Tour & La Marmotte but there was one hardy soul who couldn't resist it. So, with Connor "Con the mountain goat" Cantwell enlisted, we set about winter training.

Rule #5

Almost all of my winter training was on my own. Like many others in Orwell, I spend a lot of weekend mornings and afternoons at family sports commitments so the time I can find for cycling doesn't usually line up with an Orwell spin. The solitude of road spins was complemented by twice weekly spinning classes with Andy Kenny. I can't speak highly enough about these sessions - from Andy’s enthusiasm and encouragement to the camaraderie of the grupetto! I also signed up to the Sufferfest programme for additional spinning sessions on my home turbo.

I've rattled around every rutted road in Wicklow, cautiously negotiating the tonnes of gravel indiscriminately strewn hither and thither. I carefully navigated around innumerable cavernous potholes, avoiding random roadworks and marvelling at the running road repairs (two lads with a shovel of steaming Tarmac and a rake). I've mostly narrowly missed broken glass, cow pats, horse manure, sheep pellets, rabbit currants, deer dropping, dog turds. I've been over the Sally Gap almost weekly in every kind of weather (rule #9) - hail, sleet, snow, rain, mist, gale force winds, beautiful sunshine - getting all of it on some days. I've seen some pretty interesting stuff up on the back roads in the quiet of winter and spring including a variety of road kill. The two stand-outs were (1) a whole horse, piebald, lying in a ditch beyond Lough Bray viewing point, four legs in the air and (2) the leg of some cloven-hoofed animal in the middle of the road going up The Wall. The leg wasn't going up The Wall, I was - slowly. The leg was just lying there, on its own, unattached, minding its own business, apparently not going anywhere. I wonder sometimes where it got to.

So, anyway, I'm feeling pretty well prepared for whatever the Stelvio has in store for us.

Prologue - Tuesday night - footnote

Trouble at home. It's late in the evening. Funny old day. Everything was going grand until my very understanding better half looked into the TV room where I was watching stage 16 of the Giro go over Passa di Gavia and Passo dello Stelvio in appalling weather conditions. The timing was impeccable. On Eurosport, Rob Hatch and King Kelly were in furious agreement that the weather was appalling and that the conditions were not safe for riders. Cue a domestic discussion about the wisdom of my planned trip. Recognising that was not the time or place for an argument I would never win, I reaffirmed my commitment to being sensible and taking things easy. I then rushed off to complete my packing for the trip. Whereupon I walked into a door. Forehead nil, door one! Two hours, three head stitches and one tetanus shot later, I was trying to focus on the positives. I'm covered for tetanus for the next ten years.


Got to the airport in good time and checked our bike boxes in. Learned something new today. Aer Lingus apparently has a 23kg weight limit on bike boxes fully loaded. I did not know that. Boy were we fully loaded! One tipping the scales at 26kg and one at 29kg. The charming person looks at us quizzically. I feel tension rising and a possible stand-off. This might the very thing that tips the scales (pardon the pun) in the cabin crew dispute. I've seen farcical situations before at check in where some poor unfortunate intending passenger, in an attempt to reduce the weight of their checked bag, has opened their luggage and - exposed to the world - randomly selects garments to put on. I'm wondering how we'll be fixed wandering through security and down to the gate with, I dunno, say a wheel or a derailleur or a saddle in our pockets. Anyway, thankfully with just the right amount of schmoozing (very well played by Con) the crisis is averted with the very charmed ground staff person waiving off any possibility of excess charges. Off with us to Milan.

Bormio please and don't spare the horses

Con and I were collected in Milan by an enthusiastic driver - he with little English and us with no Italian. And so began a 230km road trip to Bormio in an Audi Q7 Quattro. It may well have been a scene from a Bond movie. He took the racing line through every tunnel, overtook everything in sight (and lots of stuff not quite in sight) and covered a 3 hour journey in just over 2 hours. We were reasonably close to needing to change our shorts. We checked into the hotel after midnight and then assembled our bikes, finishing up at 1:30am to be ready for the morning guided ride.

Thursday - Bagging a HC

Thursday dawned bright and beautiful in Bormio. Nestling at the top of a valley and at the foot of the mountains, it's 1200m above sea level. The air was cool and crisp at 9:30am as we rolled out with our guide to climb the Passa di Gavia. It's classified as HC, topping out at 2,652m. From our hotel, there's no gentle warm-up. It's uphill immediately - a 25km climb that starts with ramps of 10%. Ouch! We're with a group of mixed fitness levels so Con & I climb at our own pace. I realise pretty soon that I'm ridiculously overdressed for the ascent. We were advised to bring warm clothes for the descent and I mistakenly put everything on at the hotel. Cue a quick stop on 10% ramp (stupid, huh!) to stuff things into already crammed pockets and then on up the hill. Despite the cold, we're now climbing in shorts & short sleeves.

From Bormio, it's a game of two halves. First a 500m climb in 10.7km to the pretty village of Santa Caterina and then a 900m climb in 13km to Gavia. It's got some steep ramps, it's got snow banked up by the sides of the road and the air is thin. It's exhilarating. Its funny when you do a few hundred meters at 14%-15% and then drop back to 10% it feels like a rest! We make good time to the top and have a welcome and well-earned cafe lungo (espresso) in the rifugio (mountain top refuge/restaurant). It's hard to believe that only two days ago, the Giro passed through here in foul cold wintry conditions. Today, the sun is shining and the scenery is spectacular. Before we leave, we are advised to put on every item of spare clothing for a fast cold descent. Good advice. The top half is highly technical - tricky hairpins on open roads with a lot of vertical drops. The kind of drops that require a parachute. We take it handy. The lower half is fast and furious downhill. It's the kind of terrain made for John Hannin, Colm Egan, Niall O’Leary. I'm expecting them to pass me by anytime! We get back to the hotel for lunch, clean the bikes, tweak set-ups and chill out for the afternoon.

Friday – Warmer-Upper training spin

We wake up this morning to another cracking day. The sun is splitting the stones at 9:30am when we set out to recce part of the Granfondo route. We descend the valley from Bormio, staying off the main roads and away from mountain tunnels. There is a network of bike paths that our guide leads us along - making the route scenic and safe. The descent is almost 50kms and we’re just pootling along so it's not much effort. Heart rate is under 100 and then – boom! - we hit our first climb of the day to the village of Teglia. It's a 3.5km climb at average 9.6%. Some of the ramps are 18%-20%. We weren’t expecting that. For reference, the Wall in Enniskerry is 1km at average 7.8%. We stop at the top to recover and have coffee (lungo, naturally) and then descend like loons. The ride back to Bormio is – unsurprisingly - all uphill. For 50km. It’s relentless and while it averages only about 5% with a couple of 10% ramps it's still a decent workout.

On the way back, our guide points out the start point to the Mortirolo climb which is on the menu for the Granfondo. Cue a debate amongst the group all the way back the hotel about who is doing which course on Sunday. The options are short (60km, 1 small hill & Stelvio, 1950m climbing), medium (135km, Teglio & Stelvio, 3,000m climbing) and long (150km, Teglio, Mortirolo & Stelvio, 4,375m climbing). For us, the long course was the only one we ever considered. Our guide - who is a retired professional cyclist - tells us that the ‘new’ Mortirolo climb is brutal and really difficult. That puts the wind up quite a few people. We keep our game face on and appear unmoved by our host's dire warning. However, privately, Con and I discuss our Mortirolo strategy. We agree we're going to do it on Sunday - at our own individual pace - and regroup at the top. Back at the hotel, everyone is tired and a little nervous. Clean bikes, eat, chill, bed.

Saturday – Recovery Ride - another 2000m

The day dawns in yet more sunshine. Con is tired and opts out of the daily spin. I decide to join the much reduced group to climb another 2000m peak. Similar to the Gavia climb, there's no warm-up, it's out of the hotel and uphill for 10km at 8.7%. The views at the top overlooking the Bormio valley are stunning. The only disappointment is the coffee shop is closed so after a few quick photos, it's a fast but technical decent to the hotel. I'm back at base by 11:30am to catch up with Con and spend the rest of the day covering off registration, prepping bikes, carbo loading, planning our tactics for tomorrow and resting up as much as possible. The day really drags out and there's a palpable nervousness amongst our group. We have dinner and a medicinal bottle of wine and hit the hay by 11pm. Breakfast is at 6am tomorrow and we plan to leave the hotel at 6:45am to roll to the start line. Gear is laid out, numbers pinned on, ride food ready to pack into pockets. Bed. Restless sleep.

Sunday - The main event – Granfondo Stelvio Santini

We rise at 5:45am. As usual at events such as these, with double occupancy rooms and one en-suite toilet, there's huge pressure among the grupetto to deal with ablutions and breakfast in a short space of time. Throw in a dose of anxiousness and it makes for a lot of early morning scurrying! We force feed ourselves breakfast - not that hungry after a late dinner - but know we'll be glad if it later. We came well prepared and are tucking into Flahavans porridge pots. Looking around the buffet table, some of fellow guests want to know where they can get them. The short answer of course is Supervalue Blackrock. Ha Ha! Not hugely helpful to the envious fellow tourists but we think it’s hilarious!! Last minute adjustments are hurried through – a squirt of oil, top up the tyres (loads of track pumps made it easy) and with the familiar sound of cleats clicking in and Garmins switching on, we saddle up and ride in our grupetto to the start line. So begins the long wait for the off at 7:30am.

There's a single portaloo to meet the needs of 1100 riders waiting at the start. Hardly adequate and the queues force people to improvise. Watch where you’re standing! There's the usual drama of people over inflating tyres (bang), people dressing & undressing, photos, phone calls, backslapping, handshakes and general bonhomie. We've been warned not to get too taken in by the friendliness at the start. It is a race after all and there'll be a lot if jostling for position when the tape goes up. We inch forward as the group compresses and suddenly it's 7:30am and we're off. Crossing the timing mat, I hear the beep and its game on. The start is insane. We descend the valley at race pace, covering 45km in the first hour. Fortunately the first 50km is closed roads. It still takes huge concentration at every ramp, bend, roundabout, bridge and road furniture. I'm trying to hold my line through turns and there are crazy dudes passing on the inside, passing on the outside, half-wheeling, wheel sucking. There are water bottles and gels all over the roads, arm warmers, gilets, all sorts of gear littering the route. And still we barrel down the road at breakneck speed.

I look around at one stage and realise I’m on the front of a long train. I don’t mind – I’m actually enjoying pulling it along – and some old Italian bloke on my wheel says something to me about Cancellara. I’m interpreting it as “my man, you’re really strong, you’re really like the great Cancellara”. In reality, he’s probably saying “is this as fast as you can go? who do you think you are, holding us all up like this? You’re no Cancellara, that’s for sure”. Anyway, as I don’t speak Italian, I interpreted it as the former, not the latter and kept pulling. The difference between today and our warm-up run on Friday is we're racing so at least my heart rate is moving up the dial. I need that for when we hit the first climb. Which duly arrives after one hour. We approach it from a slightly different entry point to Friday but it's still 3.5km at 9.5% with ramps of 18%-20%. Con and I have agreed to just tap it out individually and regroup at the top. We climb it comfortably, separately, and we descend together. We've covered 50km and kid ourselves we're one third of the way through!

The next 15km is a bit of a drag with a few humps and hollows and it delivers us to the foot of the Mortirolo. Gives us time to refuel and chat. At this stage the short course punters are probably pedalling up the Stelvio. The big decision for those around us is whether they are brave enough/ foolhardy enough to take on the Mortirolo or to go straight back to Bormio. Naturally, as we're flying the flag for Orwell and Ireland, we set off up the beastly Mortirolo. Now I’m going to borrow some words from an article in Road.CC about the Mortirolo because they offer a far more eloquent description than my sweat- soaked oxygen-deprived recollection would allow.

“The Passo di Mortirolo is one of the most brutal climbs in cycling, period. It's in the same class as Zoncolan and Angliru. There is little use in being subtle about such a tough climb. Lance Armstrong reputedly said it was the “hardest climb” he had ever done. Having been used a few times in the Giro the Mortirolo is something of a memorial to the late climbing legend Marco Pantani, and there is a statue in his memory near the top. The “traditional” and more well-known Passo di Mortirolo starts from the small village of Mazzo d’Valtellina. However, we're climbing the newer route. This new Mortirolo is a beast and even harder than the leg snapping traditional Pantani route. It starts in the village of Tovo di Sant’Agata, passing the local cemetery in its first kilometres. The rough wooden sign marking the route harks back to the days when this was no more than a farm track.

As with the Pantani Mortirolo it comes out of the corner fists flying, hitting you straight into the average 10% grade. With 38 hairpins, though luckily not marked, you can slowly count your way up the climb, that is, if you have the mental clarity to do so. Of the total 11.4 kilometres of climbing, which has the same average percentage of the Pantani Mortirolo (10.5%) the first 6 kilometres are solidly at 10 to 12% but with several sections of 17%-18%. It is only when you pass those first 6 kilometres that you hit what feels to be flat sections of 8%. It is in the final 2 kilometres that the new Mortirolo really goes for the kill. Going from a relaxing -0.8% for a kilometre into an average of 13.7% for the final 2 kilometres. Trying to find your climbing rhythm again is tough; trying to find it after you have switched from the smooth new tarmac of the lower slopes to the now rough, rutted concrete surface with drainage gullies crossing its surface is almost impossible. The 13.7% average gradient hides the sections of 20%, 22% and even 23% on this tiring surface.”

It was like a scene from Spartacus with bodies at the side of the track every few metres. Not only was the last 2km almost impossible to cycle up, it was incredibly hard to walk up in cleats with most of those walking doing so in their socks. However, for me, having gone that far without putting my foot down, I gritted my teeth and rode up all of it. It was - to quote Mark Cavendish - "it’s the hardest climb I’ve ever done. Its savage, f***ing savage – unbelievably steep and it just goes on and on. If you asked me for two words to sum it up, I’d say “steep” and “long”. Actually, make that three words: “long”, “steep” and “sick”.

It's funny the images that can keep you going when the going gets tough. For the first 9km, hard and all as it was, I imagined the man with the hammer, standing at the entrance to the pain cave, saying 'we're open for business' and I kinda felt I was going to disappoint him cos I wasn’t going there. When the going got really tough, I pictured my spin class buddies (Colm, Billy, Eileen) running along the road, shouting encouragement. Colm was wearing a red devil suit and carrying a trident like that bloke in the TDF - weird, huh?? Any, whatever gets you up the hill!! For the last 2 km, I was out of the saddle leaning forwards to stop the front wheel lifting, but staying low to stop the back wheel spinning. Mad stuff altogether. I got great encouragement from the ‘walkers’ - some of whom were from Ireland and recognised the Orwell jersey. I was pleased with the effort and to quote Cavendish again, it was “proper hard”. I’d have to agree with Armstrong and Cavendish – it’s the hardest hill that I’ve ever climbed – and I was riding Pane e Acqua……

We regrouped at the top and set off downhill at breakneck speed. It was another highly technical descent which we were dealing with like old pros when I got a blow out front tube. Not for the first time during the day, my carbon rims overheated with almost dire consequences (there’s a lesson in there somewhere). We replaced the tube, finished the descent and got back onto the road to Bormio. Another 35km to go uphill before the Stelvio climb began. We made good time, riding into a headwind. We tagged onto a couple of trains once or twice but they were going either too fast or too slow for us so we rode most of it by ourselves. We hit Bormio at 1:30pm, reloaded food & drink and set off up the mythical Stelvio. It's an average 7.4% for 25km with the max gradient at 14% so it's very doable. Again, we agreed to go individually at our own pace which worked well for us, climbing on heart rate and staying out of the red. There are 47 hairpins (tournanti) and you can count them down if it helps you pass the time. At this stage, the race was now open roads because the Stelvio Pass is a major link between Italy, Switzerland and Austria. It’s a very popular route for motorbikes – a bit like all roads to Laragh on a Sunday.

The climb breaks down into 3 sections: the first 15km of relatively even climbing at 7%- 8%, one or two short sections of 12% to 14%, with lots of hairpins and a few tunnels, then a 5km false flat of 5%-7% and finally the last 5km above 2000m at 7%-10%, again with one or two sections of 12%-14% when the altitude really seems to make it hard. The weather was magnificent, I was climbing strongly in 39/28 for the first 20km and kept my heart rate under 150. I was enjoying the scenery. It was hard to believe that only four days ago, the Giro passed up this climb in weather conditions so bad that there were calls to abandon or neutralise the stage. Suddenly we’er at 2000m and I really began to feel the effect of the cold and thinner air at this altitude. People were noticeably slowing down and hitting a virtual wall. Now the hard training days are really paying off. I pass lots of guys who are barely moving. Guys who are stopped and sitting by the road. I saw one guy who was leaning forehead first into a wall of snow, trying to get it together. The camaraderie was great with everyone offering to help each other. But I also know – from experience – that when you’ve gone into that pain cave, the last thing that’s going to help is some random person offering you a gel. For the last 5km I dropped onto front ring 30/25 and tapped out nicely to the top. I kept picturing John Lannigan at the side of the road, wagging his finger at me and saying I have no business riding a triple. However, in my defence, I'm 88kgs so whatever gets me up the hill is ok with me! As I crossed the finish line, I was presented with my souvenir 'Finisher' cap by Signor Pietro Santini - the founder and owner of Santini. Cue photo opp!! After all the training, the months of preparation, the stupid diet, that was it. Finished. Done. Race over. Aww. I want to keep going.

We regrouped at the top, Con ascending in fine style and in complete control of his heart rate. We completed the obligatory and emotional mutual congratulations. All that remains now is to descend the Stelvio, though that is not part of the race. We took some photos, scoffed some sweet snacks, donned our spare clothes and began a long, fast, technical descent. Whereupon I got blowout #2. This time it was the rear tyre and tube. We effected an emergency patch for the tyre (had to chew a patch off the burst tube) and made our way to a food stop where we negotiated the purchase of a replacement tyre. I was offered help by two enthusiastic senior Italian gentlemen and their two junior understudies. All I wanted was to buy a tyre. Changing a tyre is not a four person job. It was comical but took about 20 minutes of fending them off as I eventually did it myself. I was understandably cautious on the rest of the descent, trying to cycle through any water I saw on the road to cool the rims. We made it back down to Bormio without incident and went to the pasta party. It was now 5pm. With all of the stopping and starting, we had begun to stiffen up so we cycled back to the hotel for some R&R. There was one chore outstanding however before beer time. We had to pack our bikes in cases for 9am depart the following morning. Well, in fact, we had beer while we were packing. That's encouraged in The Rules. So, shower, dinner, more beer, bed.

Trip Report Card (Thurs/Fri/Sat/Sun)

Distance: 355km
Climbing: 8,210m
Calories: 12,840
Race Result: of 1,100 participants, only 436 did the long course. I finished #315 in a time of 8:04.

Granfondo Stelvio box ticked. A rule #5 trip. What's next?