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Our writer baulks at the Braulio in Bormio to tackle the terrible trio of the Gavia, Mortirolo and Stelvio

he last time I climbed the Passo dello Stelvio was in 2012, the day before the Giro d’Italia passed along the same road. And I had a wretched hangover. I was staying with some friends in Bormio, at 1225m at the foot of the Stelvio. The night before our date with the Alps’ second-highest mountain pass, we drank one too many Braulio, Bormio’s bitter spirit made from a secret recipe of plants and herbs. While its ingredients may be a mystery, its side-effects are easily predicted. It might as well say on the label: do not climb the Passo dello Stelvio the morning after a Braulio session. Fast forward to 2018 and the intervening years have added a degree of wisdom, meaning I passed on the Braulio to focus on the fabulous cycling in the Alta Valtellina – a valley in the northern Italian region Left The Passo di Gavia of Lombardy, is no mere warmjust a few up in this devilish hours’ drive trio of climbs from Milan.

Bormio revisited

Prior to my Cycling Plus assignment, I’d already been in Bormio for several days, riding the Haute Route Stelvio, one of the three-day events of the notoriously hard stage races for amateurs. Over the course of the race I rode a total of 220km and 8000m elevation. That included climbing the Stelvio no fewer than three times (twice from Bormio and once from Prato allo Stelvio, Switzerland), on top of two other cycling monuments: the Passo Gavia (2621m) and Passo della Foppa, aka the Mortirolo (1852m with maximum gradients of 20 per cent). Between these three mountains the history of the Giro d’Italia has been written over the last 70 years. My route for Cycling Plus would encompass all three, though both the Gavia and Mortirolo would be seen from different sides. When most people were decompressing from the rigours of the Haute Route, relaxing, perhaps in the town’s thermal baths (Bagni Vecchi), there’d be no such luxury for me. For both my quads and my Canyon Ultimate, there was still business to attend to.

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THE BIG RIDE Left Ice is a familiar sight for Nick’s guide, a champion speed skater Right A tale of two halves, from snowy peaks to sweltering valleys


Distance: 110km Bormio to Bormio, 131km with the final climb of the Stelvio after Gavia and Mortirolo Total elevation: 3050m (excl. Stelvio) Grade: Despite taking the easier climbs to the three summits, it’s still a tough ride Download: bormio-gavia-pass-mortirolo-passbormio/ At 8am sharp, the local ranger Michele Antonioli – a 5km shorttrack, speed-skating relay silver medallist of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City – was waiting for me outside the Hotel Cristallo, my base camp for the expedition. He was wearing Santini’s black and red customised kit, and looked every inch the former professional athlete, his legs giving testimony to many hours spent in the red zone, both on the ice-skating rink and in the saddle. It transpired that Michele had also taken part in the Haute Route. I felt relieved, thinking those legs would need some recovery from the hard weekend. When I discovered that he had finished 11th overall in the final classification (I finished 117th), that hope faded. “Easy today, okay?” I asked him. “Of course, of course,” he answered with a big smile. The menu of the day was dedicated to foodies and included the Passo Gavia as a starter, the Mortirolo as

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“ The air got thinner and thinner; the otherwise non-stop conversation with Michele got quieter” the main course and the Stelvio as the cherry on top – if we still had room in our stomachs. The only difference from the Haute Route itinerary – a big difference – was that we were planning to climb the Gavia and the Mortirolo from different sides: the Gavia from Bormio (and Santa Caterina Valfurva) and the Mortirolo from Monno in the Val Camonica. Not only were these roads less intimidating and steep than the others we had climbed on the race, but the different paths were enough to keep our minds interested and focused.

Top left Nick knew he had his work cut out on meeting Michele Above left Given the altitudes involved, snow can be a year-round presence here

The first part of the climb from Bormio to Santa Caterina (1738m) won’t be the highlight of your average day in Valtellina, but it did the trick, getting the body warm and giving me a chance to rid the blood of the lactate, or Braulio, of the day before. Despite misgivings at what he might do to my legs, Michele turned out to be the perfect companion for a recovery ride. When my breath started to get shorter, even on the first and easy ramps of the climb, he politely sat back and kept me company with tales from his skating past.

Sight seeing

As soon as we left the centre of Santa Caterina the roads narrowed and we started our second part of the ascent inside the forest. A few early hairpins gave us a breather and allowed us to admire the view for the first time. In front we could spot the high-altitude pastures where local farmers bring their herds for summer grazing. The small lodges made of wood and

stone are their main shelter for these months; the constructions easy to spot as they aren’t any trees around them – only large fields where animals could find grass. The more the roads steepened, the more severe the environment became. The gentle pastures turned to the crude habitat that characterises the Alps above 2000m. The high trees were replaced by low vegetation. The snow left from the winter was still accumulated on the steep sides of the kerbs and its reflection dazzled. The air got thinner and thinner; the otherwise non-stop conversation with Michele got quieter. “This is the hardest part of the climb,” he said, about 5km from the top, “but it doesn’t last long.” While my antenna twitches when somebody tells me that the “hard part is almost over” Michele proved to be a man of his word. Soon we were having much deserved cappuccino and cheesecake at the top of the Gavia.

The Rifugio Bonetta, at 2600m, where we stopped for our first coffee after almost two hours of climbing, offers both a panoramic view of the Lago Bianco (White Lake) and a warm shelter from the cold temperatures. Even in the summer and around midday, the temperature can be closer to zero than 20, particularly when the sky starts to cloud. The Rifugio – open from May until October – works both as a café and a restaurant, but it also has rooms for those who want to climb even higher (mainly hikers and climbers). The descent from the Gavia towards Ponte di Legno (1258m in the Val Camonica) is legendary. This is where the American Andy Hampsten – during an epic stage of the 1988 Giro – attacked under snow and -4°C at the top of the Gavia to win the overall Giro. We climbed the same side during stage two of the Haute Route, which finished at the top of the Gavia. Because of the ravages of that day,

GETTING THERE We flew to Milan Malpensa from Gatwick Airport. From there it’s best is to hire a car or book a transfer. WHERE TO STAY We stayed at the four-star Hotel Cristallo (, which is very cosy and has everything you need to relax after long rides, including a sauna and jacuzzi. The friendliest bike hotel in town is the Hotel Funivia ( Packed with cycling memorabilia, the hotel has a bike-themed café in the basement, open to everyone, which sells Kwaremont beer from Belgium, named after the famous ‘berg’ of the Tour of Flanders. WHERE TO EAT If you want to try local cuisine, like the pasta dish pizzoccheri and fried cheese sciat of the Valtellina, the Agriturismo Rini is the restaurant in town to try. Rini is both a farm with

animals and its own products, plus a B&B. It is located close to the centre of Bormio (10mins walk) and it won’t break the bank. BIKE SHOPS There are many bike shops in Bormio, but Bormio Ski and Bike (Trek store) and Spot-On Bike are the best ones if you need a mechanic. The others are more for shopping, but they’re worth a trip for their customised Stelvio cycling kits and caps. TOURIST INFO

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“Not only were these roads less intimidating and steep than the others we had climbed during the race, but the different paths were enough to keep our minds interested and focused”

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even a couple of days later, I was unable to recall much of the beauty of this road. The path is even narrower than the one from the other side, the narrowest points no wider than a few metres; the cars need to stop in advance and let oncoming vehicles pass before moving on. The tricky manoeuvre of reversing on a narrow mountainside path is made even more complicated by the almost complete lack of side barriers. On 20 July 1954 a truck carrying 18 Alpine soldiers (The Alpini) was pushed into the abyss after the whole side of the road collapsed. Nowadays, the road is not as dangerous as it once was, but while cycling down I was still relieved I had disc brakes. My hands would have been on fire with rim brakes.

Keep spinning

After the end of the technical

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descent from the Gavia the road changed once more, looking like the first stretches we’d cycled earlier in the day from Bormio. “This descent,” pointed out Michele, “is a false-flat, so we still need to spin.” With the pressure of the race gone, even spinning downhill in a high gear turned out to be quite pleasant. The next big challenge was the Mortirolo. The Haute Route climbs from Mazzo, which is frankly obscene. From Monno, however, it’s a delight that often gets overlooked, both by the Giro and cycling enthusiasts looking to tame one of the true monsters of our sport. The descent to Grosio, although wet after an earlier storm and a bit dark because of the poor visibility in the forest, was another pleasure. At this point, after 86km in the saddle and 2500m of vertical gain, nobody would begrudge you calling it a day. If, on the other hand, you want to

Top left Ascending into the clouds on the Passo di Gavia Above left Count the hairpins: one, two... 40! The Stelvio leaves you dizzy Above With Michele abandoing in Bormio, Nick went it alone on the Stelvio

tick one more box in your cycling career and decide to climb the Gavia, Mortirolo and Stelvio in a single day, you just need to take the main road back up to Bormio and follow the signposts. Which is exactly what I did, leaving Michele who called it quits in Bormio. It wasn’t long until I realised I’d made a huge mistake. My mind was willing, but, after so much riding at high altitude, my body had other ideas. The weather too, in my favour all day, was turning a deeper shade of grey. Despite my stomach being full of sugar after the countless chocolate swirls I’d wolfed down, it wasn’t communicating with my legs. My quads were full of lactic acid and any further increase in the tempo caused them to hurt. My heart rate increased exponentially and I started to sweat heavily, despite the cool temperatures staying at around 7°C.

“There was only one speed, and one intensity, my body could tolerate: the lowest one” My body proposed an ultimatum, a mutual agreement to end the ride. It made me understand that there was only one speed, and one intensity, it could tolerate: the lowest one. I agreed to stick to those conditions, but the pact had additional small print – I had to stop looking at the power meter and heart rate monitor. I was left alone in the most iconic of cycling temples, ascending the serpentinelike switchbacks in my own sweet time. Mercifully, not even the rain joined me – staying dry, not for the first time that day…

Above right The Stelvio proved too much for Nick to stomach in one day Right There was still an abundance of snow higher up on the route

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