In the shade of the Stelvio

Stelvio from the top
Stelvio from the top

Jon’s been on his first ever cycling holiday. There’s mountains, lakes and the Stelvio, but … other cyclists! Can he survive?

In the end it arrived by stealth – my mate Niall had asked me if I wanted to go on a cycling trip in September 2015 with his pals from Nottingham; Mark, Les and Keith.  Mark is a keen cyclist, club member/carbon bike/nice shoes/got the jersey; Les and Keith are more recreational cyclists like me and Niall.

No more details were forthcoming at the time.  As the date arrived it transpired that we were to be based by Lake Garda, and an ascent of the Stelvio Pass was to be included.  I had heard of Lake Garda, a windsurfing hotspot, but I hadn’t heard of the Stelvio Pass; apparently it is a Big Deal in cycling.

We were to stay with, and be transported and guided by Steve Munn who spends half his time in Nottingham and the other half in Italy, where he runs cycling holidays from in his apartment in Moniga Del Garda.

Day 1: Prologue; team time trial

An hours drive from Bergamo airport we arrived at Steve’s apartment in Moniga to pick rooms and bikes. His huge garage is home to 17 carbon-fibre bikes – all in excellent condition – which we picked through and fitted saddles and pedals that we had brought with us, along with miscellaneous Garmins and lights. My bike was a red Planet X with SRAM gears, that were odd to use at first but which I came to really like. My-Planet-X

The idea was that we would go out for a test run on our bikes but by the time we were ready it had started raining – a proper thunderstorm with blinding lightning flashes. We had a cup of tea, waiting for the rain to stop, then ventured out on the fairly busy wet roads in the dark.  Steve’s girlfriend Sarah joined us.  If all felt a bit surreal. Niall threw his toys out when he had a near miss on a roundabout with a wheel lock up.

We took a turn onto quieter roads, passed through a kind of farmers market with pedestrians meandering across the road, but got back safely, all pretty happy with our allocated bikes. After an impromptu pizza in the village, minor bike tweaks got us ready for the next day.

9.5 miles, 571ft, 13.2mph

Day 2: Riva Del Garda

Riva lunch
Riva lunch

The plan was to ride around the Lago, 90 miles all fairly flat, but Steve had a suggestion to take a different route to Riva Del Garda through the mountains, and return by the Eastern side of the lake; 110 miles.  It was an easy sell, but we were told not to tell Sarah until it was too late for her to refuse. The plan was to stop for breakfast after an hour’s cycling.

In fine weather we climbed at a healthy speed up the shallow gradient in a wide valley to Lago D’Idro. The scenery was glorious, wooded slopes and rocky mountain peaks surrounding us. Turning right at Storo at the head of the beautiful Idro, in a taste of things to come the highest point on the ride was at the top of a mountain switchback climbing to the Val D’Ampola. There then followed a long strong descent to Riva Del Garda, including a bizarre section downhill at 40mph through a long tunnel.

Breakfast was not forthcoming at any point, a learning point for subsequent days.

Lunch in Riva was idyllic, in a café on the quay looking at the arriving and departing ferries, gliding through the pure blue water. Food was nice; I am not going to describe the food for each stop; think pasta and pizza, Prosecco and beer. Then a long fast flat ride down the Eastern shore of Garda, past numerous little beaches full of sunbathing Italian supermodels. A lot of windsurfing was occurring at the north end – quite a strong headwind for us. As we passed a lone female cyclist I offered a cheery “ciao” and was met with a “G’Day”. Turned out she was Australian – she tagged onto the end but we managed to drop her after about ten miles. Hah!

Niall showed off with a long turn at the front. We passed a turning to Colnago” – where they make the bikes? As we approached the Southern end of the lake the traffic was heavy with people leaving the lake after the weekend, which must have knocked an MPH or two off our time.

We stopped a couple of times for gelato – the last stop being Desenzano where there was an extensive vintage car rally; the harbour was full of Bugattis, Nuvolaris and Ferraris driven by old people in older clothing with exotic moustaches. There was also a splendid hotel.

Dinner was in a different café in M Del G; the one next door to the Dogano. We were served by a beautiful dusky maiden with a bit of a bossy attitude. I quite liked it, though she didn’t find my “gracia cinquecento” funny.

Later, a game of Testa di Merda – a well known local card game. I can’t remember who lost.

108 miles, 4600ft, 16.5mph

Day 3: Verona

Jon by the Adige river
Jon by the Adige river

Having been embittered by the breakfast lie on the previous day, Niall made us poached eggs; very nice, thanks Niall!

We then set off for Verona – pretty much due East; a flattish ride with more rural roads, once more in perfect balmy weather. Lots of agriculture (what were those things growing…figs?) and very cute little villages. I attempted to lead the peloton “sensibly, Jon”, and received much direct feedback. Final approach to Verona was on a path by the river Adige, reminiscent of the canal tow path through Berko. Dinner was in a touristy restaurant looking out on the amphitheatre.

We went to look at Juliet’s balcony…lovely!  There was a statue of Juliet in the courtyard, with Japanese tourists queuing to have a photo of themselves groping her left breast.

Before leaving Verona I happened to express my strong dislike of “girl’s bikes”, Niall irritatingly defended them, eventually resulting in a financial arrangement where I was to pay 1 Euro for each girl riding a bike in a skirt, that he brought to my attention. Unfortunately there turned out to be a fair few, so in keeping with the Shakespearian theme I resorted to the exact letter of the contract to avoid financial ruin.

Return was by a slightly different route; a big sprint broke out on the final stretch into Moniga when Mark wound me up to race him and then just dropped off, leaving me with something to prove; the cheeky monkey!

Dinner was in a courtyard restaurant, served by a really friendly old woman. Presently, in a drunken miasma Mark started smashing up the glassware, so we dropped her ten as a tip!

Later, a game of “Testa di Merda”.  I can’t remember the details.

70 miles, 2900ft, 16.5mph

Day 4: Merano to Prato Del Stelvio

The idea was for this day to be a rest day before the Stelvio. Steve drove us with bikes on top of the van to Merano where we had lunch. Although it is in Italy, everyone in this area speaks German. Service at the café was slow and uncertain.

We set of for Prato del Stelvio, where we had two nights in a hotel to bookend the Stelvio day; some Garmin confusion to get out of Merano, then a surprise hardish climb; but the rest of the ride was flat; mostly on a well-made track by the side of higher reaches of the Adige river, where we passed many mountain bikers. Most of the river path was good Tarmac, but there were some sections of Strada Bianchi. Great attention was paid to checking tyres after each of these for stray stone shards.

A tea break broke out at a café in Latsch – Niall used the full force of his charm to strike up a chat with a nice looking tattooed girl whilst ordering Strudel.

If you had to sum up this area in one word it would be ‘apples’ – mile after mile of orchards and frequent encounters with special tractors that were thin so they could get between the laser-straight rows of apple trees.

We encountered Steve, who had driven the van to the Hotel Central and set off on his bike to meet us, then covered the last few miles to the hotel together. The hotel was smart and modern, but  Prato is a pretty small town, but seemed to shut before we arrived; we had difficulty getting food, eventually finding a restaurant that would serve us Pizza and beer as a special favour – at 9pm.

Later, a game of “Testa di Merda”.  Outcome of no consequence.

33miles, 2200ft, 13.1mph

Final stage of the Stelvio
Final stage of the Stelvio

Day 5: Stelvio Pass

This was the big day – I don’t know about anyone else but I felt a bit nervous. I really didn’t want to not be able to do it, or arrive really ragged at the top, but it was all a bit unknown…what clothing to wear and take, what pace to ride at, whether oxygen – or lack of it – would be a consideration.

It seemed to take an age to get all the bikes ready. The weather was fine. Finally we set out around 10:00am and did a five mile flat warm-up before tackling the pass. At the bottom was a bizarre shop selling totem poles and witch-doctor’s masks; we did not stop to buy any, though Steve was keen.

Initially the scenery was bucolic and gradients moderate. Mark and Steve soon pulled ahead leaving me and Niall, followed by Les and Keith. Shortly, Niall pulled away leaving me on my own; strongly resisting the urge to try and keep up. The gradient soon steepened and the first of the switch-backs arrived; numbered from 48 counting down towards the summit. Initially the pass was in forest; familiar scenery for those used to coach transits to ski-resorts. The road surface was good, and there was quite a lot of traffic – particularly big touring motorbikers, who seemed to find nothing wrong with parking in the middle of the road next to bends. Quite frequently cow-bells could be heard jangling in the adjacent fields.

I passed Niall having a coffee in a wayside café. Shortly after that he overtook me. Shortly after that I then passed him again ‘taking a photograph’.

I used my secret visualisation technique to keep up a steady pace. The climb was never unfeasibly steep – maybe up to 10% or so but certainly no “Kron”; it was just that it seemed to go on forever.

At the two-thirds point the scenery changed. The road swung round to the right and the trees disappeared. A large building, the Hotel Sottostelvio marked the base of the final climb – offering a scary vista up the last 2000’ of climbing with every loop visible, and impossibly high above us the ski-lift building at the very top, with snow patches all around.

I stopped at the hotel as arranged meeting up with Mark and Steve.  It turned out that no-one else did; (didn’t get the e-mail!)  I set off ten minutes or so after Mark, spotting Niall ascending the last ramp to the hotel below as I did so.

Jon celebrating
Jon celebrating

Despite the intimidating aspect I really enjoyed the final climb. Here I was, on the famous Stelvio pass, and I now had no doubts that I would make it in good form. Steady, steady pedalling and a countdown….someone had thoughtfully painted the distance to go on the road every 500m. No problems with lack of oxygen (!). And the bends came progressively quicker 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3 ,2 ,1………zero!

At the top Mark was waiting – we shook hands like Hillary and Tensing. It didn’t feel cold at first, but after ten minutes or so it really did so we donned cold-weather gear – at least as much of it as we had fitted in our jerseys. Niall was next up, followed by Les and Keith together – taking the team-work prize.

Stelvio summit team
Stelvio summit team

The top of the Stelvio wasn’t as wild and lonely as I imagined; two hotels, a row of tacky souvenir shops, and about 100 motor bikers looking really pleased with themselves; as if there was any glory in driving up a hill on a big fat BMW!

After lunch (pasta/beer/nice) we descended on the Swiss side with the pace set by Les, a descent specialist – a cold and scary half-hour cranking the bike over to get round the hairpin bends without losing too much speed, and opportunistic overtaking of cars when they slowed to pass each-other.

The return route was round the mountain back to Prato. Down from the mountain peak beyond Santa Maria Val Mustair the gradient eased – but still a significant downhill slope allowing us to cruise at well over 30mph. At one point I felt like making an attack – I blasted to the front of the Peloton…but then after about 15 seconds my legs gave up; nothing left. Steve came past me – shouting abuse – unnecessary… ”I meant it as a joke!!”

Actual revenge came slightly later – on the run into Prato a conspiracy resulted in the peloton blasting past me; I tried to put on a spurt to join the back but just couldn’t. I worked much harder in those 10 minutes than I had on the Stelvio but to no avail – I could see Keith’s flashing light tantalising me an unbridgeable quarter mile ahead.

I arrived back at the hotel to find them all waiting with cutting and hurtful comments well prepared. Actually, nearly all – Niall had of course managed to get lost on the way back and arrived quarter of an hour later navigating by his iPhone.

On downloading the Garmin data I was slightly disappointed that the Stelvio didn’t achieve any personal bests – there was more climbing in the Eroica Britannia!

That evening we walked about two miles in response to a rumour that there was a restaurant “under the church in the old town”. There was not. We ended up back at the hotel; they served us as a favour; but “only one menu”.

Later, a game of “Testa di Merda”.

42miles, 7,854ft, 10.4mph

Day 6:  Mori to Moniga

Sermione view from the cafe
Sermione view from the cafe

With the bikes loaded on the van, Steve drove us to Mori where we set up for the journey back to Moniga along the valley of the Adige river once more. We kitted up in the car park of a winery, fortunately closed. The weather was beautiful, so we eschewed waterproofs ….. We practiced a “chain gang” – reluctantly I have to say it did work quite well; it seemed to be an easy ride, even when at the front but we managed to average getting on for 17mph. Of course it rained quite heavily for a while, but in the benign climate it didn’t seem to matter too much; true to form it stopped after an hour or so, the sun came out and we dried off nicely.

Lunch was in the historic town of Rivoli, where Napoleon had a famous battle (against the Austrians I think)  We arrived too late for the cafés in the town which seemed to close at lunchtime, so we reverted to a truck stop next to the petrol station which had just been opened by two agreeable women. The coffee machine hadn’t been commissioned so we made do with beer.

The final phase was once more around the south end of the lake with Steve who had parked the van in Moniga and come out to meet us, with Sarah in tow. An epic sprint to the line took place, catalysed by an Italian interloper into the Peloton challenged by Mark. Les’s enormous sprinting power was revealed; he was vanquished only by good team-work by Niall and Keith who sportingly let me hang on the back when they passed me.

Dinner in the Dogano.  Testa Di Merda.  Bed.

54miles, 2,200ft, 16.9mph

Day 7:  Water sports, return to Lago D’Idro

The final day of the trip – a nice leisurely breakfast in the café, followed by a split in the group. Some wanted to do a short ride to Salo, followed by an afternoon off, and hiring a power-boat on the lake.

Others wanted to do another longish ride. When I say others I exaggerate slightly – it was actually just me, Frankly, I had done enough teamwork for one week! So with Garmin loaded I set off to retrace the day 1 route, up the mountain to Lago D’Idro and back. It was a beautiful ride.

The second time on the route, and only accountable to myself, I had more chance to enjoy the scenery. Also, as I was navigating I had more awareness of where I was. I felt quite pleased that I still felt fairly strong after all those miles, though the climb up to Val D’Ampola was quite steady!

I met up with the rest of them at the lakefront in Moniga; getting off the boat. They had had a bit of a saga, having to be recovered as the first boat had broken down. Steve negotiated hard for compensation!

Later we made a trip to a Brazilian restaurant at the south end of Garda. Brazilian appears to mean “stuff yourself with as many different types of delicious meat as possible.  A disco was happening underneath the restaurant, so plenty of meat on display!

Testa Di Merda.

79miles, 3700ft, 16.2mph (me that is – not sure about the others)

Day 8: Returning..

Saturday morning – bike cleaning, retrieval of pedals, saddles and lights. I discovered a nifty chain cleaning tool which I have subsequently bought (Park Cyclone). Another relaxed breakfast then Steve drove us the airport for an afternoon flight home.  No breakages or injuries, everyone satisfied with the cycling.
In conclusion….

This was a great holiday, stretching but not too much.  Scenery was beautiful, weather was great, and we had a nice mixture of a cycling with a bit of culture! The company was OK too.

I am pleased to have done the Stelvio pass – it wasn’t really so hard, and has given me an appetite to knock off another couple of famous climbs – Alpe D’Huez and Mont Ventoux maybe. Steve’s offering is great from the cycling point of view; perfect bikes, good route knowledge and lots of messing around with the van to make things convenient for us.  The accommodation in Garda was clean, functional; perfect as a dormitory between bike rides but not super luxurious so might not suit non-cycling or high maintenance partners as a dream holiday proposition.

I learned something about cycling too – team-work and the discipline of riding in a peloton; seems to be a bit serious and highly political.  I’m more of a bloke who likes riding a bike than a proper “cyclist” I conclude!

Jon Dean

*You can find out more about Steve Munn’s cycling holidays via his Facebook page. You can find out more about cycling with Jon by joining the Pedal of Honour riders most Saturdays in Berkhamsted.