[ blog » 2021 » 07_Tour_Italy ]d27: The Stelvio ( by Philipp Gesang, location: Zernez)

The Stelvio -- or not Quite!

This was it, the high point -- literally! -- of this four weeks trip lay ahead. Nine hours of sleep, the bike fixed the day before, some gels in the feed bag -- everything was perfectly arranged for this final test.

The trouble started already in Prado when my front brake emitted some weird clicking noise. Also the rear wheel was out of balance, giving me a kick in the hind parts with every rotation. How badly did I mess up that tube change? What a disappointment, just outside of Prado after barely any climbing I stopped for repairs.

The front brake issue was determined quickly: the metal thingy that spreads the brake pads apart was bent when I changed the pads yesterdayu I must have failed to notice that clicking sound earlier because I carried out the repairs to the sound of a lawnmower on the football field next to the campsite. Fortunately I had a couple spare spreaders so it was quickly replaced.

The rear wheel proved harder to debug. It looked fine anyways. The rim wasn't bent, at least not any more than the deformation received by the potholes down in Calabria and Puglia. The tire was sitting a bit irregularly on that rim. Which is usually not an issue, right? I removed the wheel and deflated the tire, tried to push it into shape but alas, when I went back on the climb the issue wasn't gone. In another attempt a couple kilometers later I completely removed the tube and reinserted it, in case it was twisted inside the tire. No avail, the dent was a little less pronounced but not gone at all.

That was quite annoying. I had already lost an hour to these fixes of fixes so I decided to roll on regardless. It was almost possible to ignore the deformity at the slow speeds on the ascent, so I kept going. At least the brakes were fine.

Passo dello Stelvio, for Real this Time

48 switchbacks to reach 2758 m above sea level, how hard can it be? That was one of the questions answered today, turns out it was reasonably hard.

The lower parts were quite dark, it wasn't until Trafoi that the sun had climbed the mountains south of the valley. From then on there was sunshine all the way up but temperatures remained chilly throughout the day. Which was an upside as it meant less sweating. Until the switchbacks start the scenery is mostly forests. Quite idyllic. More and more cyclists passed me as the morning went by, but I also passed a few of them. About a third of the climb I was fighting it out with a Dutch couple who were trying to catch me until suddenly they were gone and I didn't see them again. A handful courageous bike tourers too, often with a far heavier setup than mine.

Above 2000 m the altitude effects set in and I had to focus hard to not veer into traffic. At that point I was quite euphoric because the finish line was within reach. The switchbacks with the countdown signs are kind of motivating too. And then suddenly you're down to one switchback and roll onto the final ramp. What an incredible feeling having made it to 2758 m. And in time too, despite the delays I arrived there before noon.

And it's crowded too up there, an almost Ventoux-ish atmosphere. After a few minutes of dressing up for the descent and taking pictures I rolled down to the Umbrail pass, which is kind of a freebie after the Stelvio, and went downhill. That one is as scenic as it is notoriously technical. With its view far into the distance, a narrow quiet road and a panorama of the valley and the surrounding peaks I'd go as far as rating the scenery superior to the Stelvio proper.

The Ofenpass

At Santa Maria I arrived still in time for the lunch break of the local supermarket where I wanted to get some supplies. I used that half hour to tackle the rear wheel problem again. It gave me quite a beating on the downhill from the Umbrail so I did most of it standing on the pedals. This time I spend at least fifteen minutes massaging the tire onto the rim while I gradually inflated it to four bars, the minimum pressure the Marathons are spec'd for. The thoroughness paid off! The wheel now rides smoothly, the bump is almost gone. Phew, right in time for the next climb.

(After that session I appreciated like never before the fact that since Covid there's alcoholic disinfectant at every store -- excellent for degreasing dirty hands!)

To get out of the Santa Maria valley I had to take the oddly named Ofenpass. It's kind of a misnomer as it was rather cool up there. Not quite Stelvio grade but at 2149 m (up from 1400 m) still not negligible at all. The valley was shielded from the wind today which had the annoying side-effect that dozens of flies were orbiting me as tough I were a cow in the hay.

Up on the pass I had a quick chat with a couple of tourers from Germany who were en route to Turkey. Nearing the end of my trip I was tempted for a moment to reverse course and just do the same.

The downhill from the Ofen is a bit insidious as after losing a few hundred meters of altitude you have to climb backup to over 1900 m. Not cool being toyed with like this when you already have the Stelvio in your legs. I still arrived at Zernez rather early, after all it was only a 90 km day, so I could witness the sun disappear over the mountains around 18:00 h. A weird place, constantly in the shadow of the mountains, even in high summer they can't get more than ten hours of daylight. I'm curious at what time the sun will rise here tomorrow.


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