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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  3/1/2002

Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Hills?

As past Director of the Terrible Two Double Century, I have fielded a lot of questions and comments over the years about the severity of the climbs on the ride. There are several quite daunting ascents along the route that cause folks a great deal of anticipatory dread before the ride and a great deal of pain and suffering during it. In fact, I think it would be safe to say the big climbs on the TT are the primary reason the event deserves to be called "terrible." Our literature advertises over 16,000' of climbing in the 200 miles, although I think it's actually quite a bit more than that. But what distinguishes the hardest climbs is not their length or their accumulated gain, but their steepness.

One first-time participant this past year asked me how our most notorious climbs compare with some of the legendary climbs in Europe....the ones that appear in the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia. I can't answer with any personal expertise about the big climbs in the Tour--having only seen them on TV--but this past summer I rode several of the famous Giro passes while cycle-touring in Italy. I'll attempt here to pass along some salient numbers (and some subjective impressions) for the climbs I did and see how they stack up against our local bad-boy hills.

I was part of a group of over a dozen Santa Rosa Cycling Club members who were the beneficiaries of a wonderful trip organized by club member Emilio Castelli, who is a native of the Lake Como region, north of Milano. Emilio laid on two weeks' worth of epic rides for us, first near Lake Como in Lombardy, then in the Italian and Swiss Alps, and finally in Tuscany. We did big climbs every day....too many to cover in one short column. I will focus on a few that are the most well-known and/or the most outrageous.

1. Passo di Mortirolo (north side).

Elevation at the bottom: around 1600'; at the top: a bit over 6200'. 4600' of gain in 5.8 miles for an average gradient of 15%.

Climbing the Passo di Mortirolo
Click to enlarge

After two days of sometimes steep and arduous riding around Lake Como, this was our first big climb in the Alps. It may have been the hardest climb we did on the trip. Emilio says it's considered the second hardest ascent in Europe. Supposedly, the hardest climb is the 26% Angliru on the Tour of Spain. However, on this year's Giro d'Italia coverage, one of the announcers said that Passo di Fedaia--also known as Marmolada--may be the hardest Italian climb. We did not have an opportunity to do that one, so can't compare. (Emilio says Mortirolo is tougher, and that the thing that makes Marmolada seem so bad is that there is one long stretch where you can see the road going up, up, up into the distance, and the image of it messes with your head...sort of like looking up and seeing the infamous "Wall" on the Tour of the Unknown Coast, if you're familiar with that image.) Anyway, whether it's the toughest or not, Mortirolo is one nasty piece of work, even though it's the shortest of all the big climbs we'll look at here. The key--as it is on the Terrible Two--is steepness. Sustained, unrelenting steepness.

It begins in the tiny village of Mazzo di Valtellina, in the bottom of a deep, steeply flanked valley just south of the Swiss border. The road is so dinky at its beginning that it looks like a little alley between picturesque houses in the village, with just a tiny sign to point you in the right direction. It begins climbing right away and never lets up, not even for a few feet, for the next six miles. The figure of 15% sounds about right. I'm sure there were some pitches that approached 20%, but what really made it tough was the fact that it never gave you even a few seconds' rest. Even though we did this first thing in the ride, when we were supposedly fresh, I still had to stop a couple of times in that 6-mile span to catch my breath. I pretended it was because I was stopping to have a bite to eat, but really, I just couldn't turn the pedals over anymore.

Near the summit of Passo di Mortirolo
Click to enlarge

Some of the other climbs we did at higher elevations are out on open mountainsides, above the timberline. Mortirolo is almost always closely hemmed in by dense forest of pine and fir and broadleaf trees. While this is quite pretty and peaceful, it does engender a sense of being in an endless, leafy limbo: no perspective on how far it is to the top or of what lies ahead, even around the next bend. Only in the last mile do the the sight lines open up to meadows and distant ridgelines. The road is very narrow--usually little more than one lane--very twisty, and almost deserted. It's a real road to nowhere. Just over the summit is a little restaurant--a rifugio--where we regrouped for coffee, pasta, and a fortifying shot of grappa (Italy's version of white lightning). That set us up for the backside of the ridge: 3300' of steep, technical downhill in 7.7 miles. I found this descent to be a little too steep to be really fun. An average of 8% may not sound all that gnarly, but in this case, I don't think the numbers tell the whole story. I had to stop half way down to let my rims cool off.

2. Passo di Gavia (south side).

Elevation at the bottom: 4100'; at the top: 8600'. 4500' of gain in 10.7 miles for an average gradient of 8%.

Passo di Gavia
Click to enlarge

Our group tackled this big climb right after doing the Mortirolo. I did not do it. I had opted to drive our sag wagon on this section of the stage, and figured I would at least get to see it from the car. However, a small landslide had closed the road to cars--not to bikes--so I was denied any access to the hill at all. At the time, with rain squalls on the horizon, I didn't much mind missing out. Now of course, I regret it, especially after hearing how much my buddies loved it. Oh well!

As consolation I got to explore the village of Ponte di Legno with my wife. This very pretty alpine village--now a fancied up tourist mecca--is the gateway to the climb from the south. We stepped into a gelateria on the main street for an Italian version of an ice cream cone, and I noticed posters on the wall picturing a snow-covered Andy Hampsten, riding over the Gavia summit in a blizzard in the 1988 Giro d'Italia. Nice to know the locals have not forgotten Andy's heroic ride. It was here, on this monster climb, that Andy vanquished all his chief rivals and took control of the race. He did it by bravely soldiering on into the teeth of a raging snowstorm, while all around him were bailing for the warmth of team cars. He remains the only American to have won the Giro, and because of the way he did it, the names Hampsten and Gavia will be forever linked in the annals of cycling.

After our ride, there was debate among my friends as to whether Mortirolo or Gavia was the harder climb. While Gavia is longer, it's not nearly as steep or unrelenting. The 8% average is misleading: there are flats and even some downhills in the ten-mile span, so the real uphills are well above the average, with the steepest pitches in the mid to high teens. Adding to the overall workload is the fact that from the bottom of the descent from Mortirolo, you climb almost 1200' in nine miles to Ponte di Legno before turning onto the actual Gavia road. It's never difficult climbing, but it does add up. Also, doing the Gavia after having done the brutal Mortirolo probably made the second climb feel harder than it might on its own.

All in our group were blown away by the grandeur of the landscape on the climb to Passo di Gavia, and their impressions echo those of others who have been there. Many veterans of alpine cycling rate it their favorite big climb. The descent from the summit off the other side of the pass is huge: 4600' of drop spread out over almost 16 miles. Unfortunately, it started to rain hard just as our gang began the big descent. When they hit the ski resort of Bormio at the bottom of the hill, they were all very wet and very cold and very ready for hot coffee in a warm pizzeria.

3. Passo dello Spluga (north side).

Elevation at the bottom: around 4779'; at the top: a bit over 6937'. 2158' of gain in 5.6 miles for an average gradient of 7%.

Passo dello Spluga
Click to enlarge

In this case, the 7% gradient is accurate, and as the climb is quite short--by alpine standards anyway--no one is suggesting it's a monster climb. I'm including it because of other factors on the day's ride that made it seem more significant.

This pass is on the Swiss-Italian border, north of the city of Chiavenna. It was the last of three passes that had been the high points on our longest ride of the tour (112 miles and 12,500' of total gain). We had already crossed Maloja and Julier passes in Switzerland, near St Moritz. Both were substantial if not immense ascents, but the accumulated climbing was taking its toll when we left the village of Thusis to begin the final uphill to Spluga.

When folks talk about this climb and quote the numbers, as I have done above, they generally refer to just the final 5.6-mile push from the town of Splugen to the summit. But to get to Splugen, you have to climb all the way from Thusis, a distance of over 18 miles. There are about two miles of flats at the end of this section, but prior to that, it's all up, at an average of about 4%. (This long climb is up a beautiful, narrow gorge, and the whitewater river in the bottom of the canyon is called the Hinterrhein, considered to be the headwaters of the Rhine River.) So is the real climb 2200' of gain in 5.6 miles or 4600' of gain in 24 miles? 4% may not be much of a grade, but 24 miles? Makes a big difference, doesn't it? Lemme tell ya: it adds up. I know I was really dragging my tail on that section. I thought it would never end.

The summit is a lonely border crossing, well above the timberline, with one Swiss and one Italian sentry chatting across the official stripe in the middle of the road. I was never so happy to see the end of a climb! And I would have been even happier had I known what lay ahead, for the descent to Chiavenna is amazing....one of the wildest rides I've ever done, through some of the most amazing scenery one could imagine. Had I not been so tired, and the hour so late, I'm sure I would have enjoyed it even more, but as it was, we were in a race against the failing light, as late afternoon faded into evening.

The numbers on the descent: over 5800' of drop in over 20 miles. This includes a few miles of flats and gentle uphills, so the real downhills are more extreme. Extremely extreme! To give you some idea how hairball this descent is, consider that there are almost 40 hairpin corners, and the successive layers of road are literally stacked on top of each other, with the lower levels tunneling under the ones above. It's almost as if engineers had run a road up the face of Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. It's nearly that sheer a cliff face, and nearly that spectacular a view, when you stop and look over the railings. Of all the crazy, cliff-hanging roads we saw in the Alps, I think this section contained the most audacious feats of engineering. It's simply incredible to think anyone would plan a road up and over that wall, but it probably represents the final evolution of something that started out as a Roman goat path.

Doing a downhill this long, steep, and technical is hard and sometimes scary work. Speed builds quickly on the steep traverses, but you rarely get to let it rip for more than a few seconds before you're squeezing the brakes again for another hairpin. All of us noticed that our braking fingers went numb midway down the big hills, and we had to brake with other fingers to have any feeling or control. (We also pretty much used up our brake pads.) And then there are the many tunnels. Some are lit and some are not. Plunging into the black mouth of an unlit tunnel at close to 50-mph will give your adrenal gland a serious workout!

We all figured this would be a tough climb, going in the other direction, but Emilio insists it's "not that bad." The average grade is 5.5%, but the steepest pitches were double digit for long stretches.

4. Passo dello Stelvio (east side).

Elevation at the bottom: 2994'; at the top: 9046'. Over 6000' of gain in over 15 miles for an average gradient of 7.5%.

Passo dello Stelvio
Click to enlarge

This is probably the most famous climb in Italy and is--I think--the second highest paved pass in Europe. Most people who follow bike racing will have seen pictures of it somewhere. Its most obvious feature is its many hairpin corners--called "tornanti"--which shoelace endlessly up the exposed mountain face. There are 48 tornanti in all. (For perspective, l'Alpe du Huez, the famous Tour de France climb, has 21 hairpins.) I had seen the impressive pictures of this colossal climb before, but what I hadn't understood is that the pictures only show a little over half of the climb: the top half, above the timberline and thus easy to see and photograph. Before you get to that famous section, you climb for seven miles down in a wooded gorge.
The climb begins in the pretty village of Prato alla Stelvio and climbs steadily alongside the tumbling rapids of the Solda River in the lower, wooded section. Scenery alternates between meadows, forests, and the occasional alpine village. The effort required is never all that intense, thanks to all the hairpins. They stitch all the traverses together and keep the gradient reasonable. On the other hand, at over 15 miles in length, it will take the average climber three hours or more to get to the top, and how many climbs do you do that will take you over three hours of non-stop grinding? Of course, the pros go up it much more quickly....

Greg Lemond responded once to a question about the steepness of the big European climbs by stating, "It's not how steep they are; it's how fast you go up them." Very true, but it's a little more complicated than that for your average cycle tourist. Every hill can be made manageable, given enough time and the right gearing. However, within the parameters of a fairly typical two-chainring set-up, there are some hills that can be done by simply sitting and twiddling away at the pedals for hours on end--the Stelvio--and there are others where you will have no choice but to get out of the saddle and work as hard as you possibly can just to turn the cranks--the Mortirolo. Obviously, the stronger you are, the more climbs will fall in the former category. During a race however, even the gentle gradients can be made to seem brutal if the pace is high enough....and in a race it will be. In films I've seen of the Giro, the riders appear to be flying up the big Stelvio climb. Of course, some are off the front and some are off the back, and that tells you they're all riding at or near their limits, and that it's putting a big hurt on a lot of riders. So when I say the effort required to get up the Stelvio is never all that intense, consider my speed. Also consider the altitude. The summit is over 9000' and the air gets a little thin at that height. This won't matter too much if you're just soft-pedaling up the mountain, as I did, but you'll really notice the lack of oxygen if you're going anaerobic at race pace.

Passo dello Stelvio
Click to enlarge

Unlike the less-well-known Mortirolo and Spluga, the famous Stelvio is a marquee attraction, drawing hordes of cyclists, motorcyclists, auto tourists, and even tour buses. In fact, I doubt one full minute went by during my three-hour climb without my being passed by some vehicle. This never seemed like a problem, as everyone was very courteous and patient with one another, but it would have been a lot nicer with the road to ourselves. There is something of a carnival atmosphere at the summit: kitschy tourist shops and bars and restaurants and all the stuff that supports the ski resort. The chair lifts were still running in late July, and skiers were schussing down the snow fields above the pass.

There is a big payoff on the other side of the mountain: the descent to Bormio. (Yes, the same Bormio where the Gavia descent ends. These two great roads end within a few blocks of each other.) Over 5000' of drop in over 13 miles. This side of the hill is no slouch in the hairpin department either: 42 tornanti. Once again, numb braking fingers were a problem, but there were also some long traverses between the turns where we were able to really fly. I don't remember any uphills or even any nearly flat sections. It's all fairly constant at about 7%.

5. San Pellegrino in Alpe.

Elevation at the bottom: less than 1000'; at the top; 5250'. 4250' of gain in 11 miles for an average gradient of 7%.

San Pellegrino
Click to enlarge

In spite of its name, this is the only major climb we did that is not in the Alps. It's in the Appenine Mountains, just on the border between Tuscany and Emilia Romagna (east of the marble quarries of Carrara, if that helps any). It has been said by many travelers that Tuscany and Sonoma County look a lot alike. I certainly found this to be true, and these mountains more closely resemble our coastal ridgelines than do the big mountains of the Alps. There were times I could have squinted just a little and imagined that I was riding along a familiar North Bay Road, at least until I came around a corner and found myself in a thousand year old hill village.

Unlike the bigger alpine climbs that threw lots of switchbacks at the problem of getting up the mountain, this road pretty much went straight at it, without a lot of weaving around. As a result, it turned out to be almost the equal of Mortirolo in the nasty sweepstakes. This is a very cruel climb! On the other hand, it came in the middle of a day that I would have to rank as one of the best days I've ever spent on a bike, so my impressions of the climb are tinted with a rosy glow of fond memories.

We started in Carrara, and after several busy, interurban miles, turned off into the hills in the city of Massa. Our first climb was over 11 miles to Passo di Vestito. I don't know the elevation at that summit, but I would guess we climbed about 3500'. Never a hard climb, but long, and without a break. All of it was beautiful. That's true for every mile on this 86-mile, 7500' stage, except for those first miles from Carrara to Massa. We were riding in national or regional parks most of the day, and it was one of the least populated, most natural regions we visited.

Over the summit we enjoyed a long, wiggling descent of over 14 miles to the town of Castlenuovo, and our hardcore San Pellegrino climb started on the far side of town. The average gradient of 7% does a very poor job of describing this climb. The first three miles on the main road were around 3%. (I'm not even counting that in the 11-mile total.) Then, when we turned onto the little San Pellegrino road, we had about eight miles at 6%, and then about two miles at 18% up to the village of San Pellegrino. After that, there was a final mile at about 10%. The first eight miles at 6% were hard work, but nothing to write home about (except for the wonderful scenery), but the 18% section was decidedly wicked.

I use the figure of 18% with some confidence because that's what was posted on the signs by the road. Two signs: there was a first mile posted at 18%--which I survived, barely--then an ever-so-brief respite for a few yards through a little village at around 12%. I was catching my breath and congratulating myself on having weathered that nasty pitch, when I rode around a corner and there was another sign promising another section of 18%. Arghhhh! I managed to ride that one too--no dabs today!--and that last, nasty mile delivered me to the town of San Pellegrino in Alpe, where we all repaired to the local ristorante for sandwiches and beer. The room was decorated with pictures of Marco Pantani winning the last Giro stage to come this way.

Did I mention how hot it was? Except for a few rain squalls and thunderstorms, we did the whole tour in the grip of a stifling heat wave, with temperatures in the high 90s and humidity to match. This day was no exception, and by the time we were halfway up this monster climb, I was as soaked with sweat as it's possible to be....as if I had jumped in a warm bath. My gloves were so soggy I was having trouble holding onto the bars.

But all that sweating and suffering was in a good cause: it put us at the top of the mountain, all set for probably the best downhills I have ever enjoyed. There were two of them, more-or-less back-to-back. From the summit above San Pellegrino, we decended for 10 miles to Pievepilago, and then, after a small climb to the ski resort of Abetone, we dropped for another 11 miles to the village of La Lima. Both descents were continuous at around 6-8%....no uphills or flats. Both were perfectly engineered for high-speed fun: well banked corners; endless, slinky s-bends; and silk-smooth pavement, some of it so fresh it hadn't even been striped yet. And not a lot of traffic either. It all conspired to create an environment where we felt comfortable in pushing the envelope. A group of five of us got hooked up on these two descents and simply had a ball....mile after mile of dancing, diving bicycle ballet. I really do not think it's possible to have more fun on a bike. After a brief climb out of La Lima, we were treated to yet another great downhill of maybe five miles, followed by a few lazy, slightly downhill miles to our destination in the old spa of Bagni di Lucca. If you're ever planning a cycle tour in Tuscany, make a note of those place names and build a ride around them. If you can handle the climb to San Pellegrino in Alpe, your reward will be waiting for you at the summit.

So there you have it: five big climbs with all the trimmings. Now how do they stack up against our local, "terrible" climbs? Simply put, they chew up our little climbs and spit out the seeds. Our single most notorious climb on the TT is up from the coast on Fort Ross Road (at mile 165). It averages 11% for 2.6 miles. I can assure you it is a tough cookie. But compared to Mortirolo? An average of 15% for 5.8 miles? It's like more than two Fort Ross climbs back-to-back, all at a substantially steeper pitch. And as hard as Fort Ross is, it does contain a few spots where the grade eases and you can catch your breath. Mortirolo does not.

Our longest sustained climb is the first pitch on the Geysers: 4.5 miles. Stack that up against any of these alpine passes....10 miles, 13 miles, 15 miles. Sheesh! In defense of the Geysers, it is steeper than some of those long alpine climbs, and that first section is followed by a second and a third, even steeper climb, so the total is more like nine miles, but still....

I'm not denigrating the Terrible Two here. It is a hard-assed, kick-butt ride. (A recent discussion on the Ultra chat list seems to indicate that most experienced riders still consider it the hardest double around.) I suppose what makes it so hard is not the statistics for one monster climb, but the cumulative effect of having all those smaller, but still very nasty climbs coming at you, one after another, all day long, for 200 miles. It's sort of like being hunted down and gnawed to death, bite by bite, by a pack of hyenas, as opposed to being felled by a single chomp from one giant lion. One takes longer, but the result is the same.

Folks who live and train in the steeply folded hills of Sonoma County--including the climbs of the Terrible Two--will generally end up being pretty good climbers. We're proud of our hills here. We have a right to be. They're tough. But as they say, travel is broadening, and those of us who took our Sonoma County legs to Northern Italy last summer certainly had our cycling horizons broadened. It gave us a whole new perspective on what really big hills really look like.

By the way, if you're interested in the subject of alpine roads--and if you've stuck with this article this long, you must be--you might like to visit one of my favorites websites for backroad eye candy: Virtual Alps. The section that deals with the Italian passes can be found with this URL: http://www.cycling.uk.net/alps/ita.htm

That will get you to the site, and from there you can follow links to hundreds of photos documenting the high mountain roads of the Alps and of other interesting cycling regions in Europe.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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