The Italian Job: Mortirolo, Gavia and Stelvio in one day
They are some of the most famous and most challenging climbs in world cycling and climbing any of them makes for a tough day out. But the man they call Eat More Lard wasn’t content with riding just one of the Mortirolo, Gavia or the Stelvio in one day; he wanted to do all three, including the Stelvio from both sides. This is EML’s story of that unfathomably epic ride.
I’ve never been a believer in fate. I don’t much fancy the idea of not being in control of my path or at least being to make a choice at the right time. What I have always believed is that you should always take opportunities that scream “YES!” to you.
One such opportunity had brought me to Italy. For eight days. From Australia. Almost the first thing I saw when I landed at Milan’s Malpensa airport was the following embedded into the floor at arrivals.
It kind of hit me in the mouth. But after 25 hours and three planes spent getting there it all made sense. I was here for one purpose: to ride my bike up mountains. Big ones. Trent, my riding partner for the week and instigator of the opportunity, was already in Italy on a much longer trip building up to the UCI World Cycling Tour finals in Trento, having qualified through Amy’s Gran Fondo the previous year.
The master plan was to have a crack at the legendary Mortirolo, Gavia and Stelvio climbs. In one day. Anything else was a bonus. That’s a hell of a long way to go to ride up three mountains, you may say? And you would be right, but you can blame Andy Hampsten on the Gavia in 1988.
There I was, a student in the UK at the time, watching these madmen annihilate themselves in the most atrocious conditions you could imagine on the Passo del Gavia. Watching Hampsten destroy the field on this never-ending goat track up the mountain while big men cried and stepped off their bikes. Did I think I would ever roll up that hallowed mountain at the time? No not really, but now I could almost smell it!
An easy loop around Como was the first order of the day to shake out the jetlag and find my legs. It is a stunning landscape with narrow roads that initially scared the pants out of me. That was until I realised that the road surface is super smooth (and would be everywhere) and the drivers have the utmost respect for all other road users.
At no time did I feel pressured or in danger on these narrow winding roads. I also got my first taste of the endless switchbacks to come. Delicious! “I could get used to a society where there is great interpersonal respect yet little for authority”, I had begun to think to myself.
It was time to hit the high mountains. Trent and I had spent what felt like years discussing and plotting routes and the weather and the best time to ride the “big one”. We were booked into a hotel on the north side of the Stelvio, which led to a slight twist to the plan.
On announcing to my peers the master plan of riding the Mortirolo, Gavia and Stelvio in one day, there were more than a few rumbling about how a few people had heard it was possible but no-one had ever done it. Was it really realistic?
The classic Mortirolo and Gavia loop seemed to be the benchmark and adding the Stelvio was met with some scepticism. Which brings me back to the “north side of the Stelvio” comment.
The Mortirolo and Gavia are on the south side so to get there from the hotel you need to ride over the Stelvio and to get home again you need to ride back over it the other way! The ride had become the Mortirolo, Gavia and now two Stelvios!!
Trent, looking at the primary reason he was in Italy, wisely, was not having anything to do with this madness. He would drive over the Stelvio, do the loop, and drive back. This would work out well for me because the temperature on the Stelvio on the return necessitated more than a few extra layers for the descent!
Our base at the Bella Vista hotel in Trafoi was inspired. I’m not sure if it is possible to get a better view from your hotel window!
Trent started to talk about when we should go, when would be the best day of the six-day window we had for the big loop. I was quiet. He talked and then stopped and looked at me. “We’re going tomorrow, aren’t we?” he asked with some trepidation. Having driven up and over the Stelvio and knowing that the forecast was at least reasonable for the next day, there was nothing that was going to stop me.
Brekkie at the hotel didn’t start until 7.30am so we arranged for some bread and fruit to be available for our early start in the dark. The night went quickly although I didn’t have a great night’s sleep (isn’t that often the case with a mix of excitement and nerves ahead of an epic?)
The alarm soon went off and I got myself organised (Trent was getting an extra hour in bed) and went in search of our brekkie supplies. Bugger, they weren’t there (the only miss in an otherwise amazing experience at the hotel). So pane e acqua for us … without the pane.
I had also realised the night before that I had forgotten to pack the charger for my lights and I didn’t know how much juice they had left. Things could get very interesting, very quickly … but at least I would be climbing!
For the first 20 minutes, through the start of the switchbacks and up through the forest, I was wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. My head and legs were all over the place. But finally, I warmed up and settled into a rhythm.
The thing about these Italian mountains is that they are relentless. If there is a spot where the gradient drops below 7% on Stelvio’s north side, I don’t recall it. The best respite is the slingshot effect through the switchbacks (all 48 of them!). Climbing in the dark is hypnotic, almost therapeutic and with no wombats or kangaroos to hinder my progress I was enjoying myself.
Soon the sky was lightening and I could see the top! Yet, I still had 6km to go. How can that be? Well 24 more switchbacks will do that for you — it looked so close!
Trent passed me in the car with about a kilometre to go and we had a quick chat at the top. The first HC climb of the day was done and I zipped up my layers (it was 4C on top with a 21km fast descent to come) for a freezing plunge into the valley.
Hooking up with Trent, we headed down the valley, and I felt the warmth coming back into the body. I had heard that navigation was tricky for this point, with the objective being to avoid the expressway and its tunnels and not get too lost on the way to the base of the Mortirolo.
I don’t know if things have improved or not, but it was pretty straightforward following the old road at a pacy spin trending downwards. Soon we were running out of little villages before hitting the climb and a lack of breakfast necessitated that we stopped in one of the squares for a coffee and pastry.
Ah, the Mortirolo (11.4km at 11%). Long has it lived in my dreams and my nightmares. I’d even tailored some of my training specifically for this beast — basically climbing out of the saddle for extended periods of time. Trent’s mechanic had advised him to make sure he was geared so that he didn’t have to “muscle his way up the Mortirolo”. Anyone who has been up it, or something similar such as Mt. Baw Baw or the Back of Falls knows that it’s not like you have a choice!
The initial slopes start off gently enough (in an Italian 8% gently manner) before, bang: here’s Baw Baw glued into the middle of the climb. Here we saw the laws of physics in action — I weigh 20kg less than Trent.
We had been riding together at that point but as soon the gradient spiked up, I was suddenly 20m, 50m, 200m up the road. I would see Trent again at the top. It’s not until two thirds of the way up that the forest thins and the views open up.
Fortunately, the gradient relents for the last two or three kilometres and distraction comes in the form of the Pantani monument and the legendary names painted on the road. Seriously, they race up this. How many other sports are there that you can be on the same hallowed ‘playing field’ as the true legends?
Trent wasn’t far behind and we had a quick breather on top before diving down into the valley — a stunning, sweeping road — and heading our way up the valley towards Ponte di Legno, the gateway to the Gavia. It was warm in the valley but never overly so and the extra layers we were carrying for the summits never proved to be a burden.
One of the delights of riding in Italy is the beautiful villages, the life within them and the coffee they roll out for (on average) 1 Euro! Time for a little fuel and a top up of the water bottles.
Which brings us to the Gavia (16.1km at 8.1%). With two HC climbs under the belt and the finale on the Stelvio to come, I was kind of not thinking about the Gavia. That was a mistake. Perhaps I should have heeded the words of Max Testa, the team doctor for 7-Eleven back in the day of Andy Hampsten. As Davis Phinney wrote in his book The Pursuit Of Happiness:
“For years, Max had been wearing us out with talk of this obscene climb, this glorified goat track, with its ominous headstones — memorials to loved ones who left the road, and this earth, in that order. He spoke of the backside of the mountain, a perpetually chilled valley seldom penetrated by the sun. Max was warning us to bundle up for the descent side of the Gavia even before we got the weather report for June 5, 1988. It was atrocious.”
We started the climb in brilliant sunshine, the usual super road surface, and the beautiful valley. Another classic and stunning Italian climb. We were enjoying ourselves. Even when the road suddenly narrowed and ramped up to a solid 12% for a sustained period we plodded along and seem to gain metres very quickly.
Max was right, though. It was a goat track — no more than a metre wider than a car — with infinite-looking drop-offs into the gathering cloud. I suspect the surface was substantially better than it was 20 years ago. Even the little headstones seem friendly enough, with distance markers and elevation proudly displayed.
But the road kept going up and the temperature down. We were soon in the cloud as the wind increased and the rain started. Where were those distance markers? Did we miss one? The infamous tunnel loomed. It was 700m uphill and around a corner but not as dark as I expected and the relief from the cold and rain was appreciated.
Out of the tunnel the rain got heavier, our heads dropped lower as we battled to stay warm and follow the endless track. Every corner promised the summit but it still remained hidden from view until at last we could see it, a little haven from the weather beckoning our weary heads.
We wasted no time getting inside for a hot chocolate and 10 minutes in front of the fire. Our own little Hampsten moment was over (and somehow the harsh conditions made it that bit more special and relevant). But we still had another freezing descent to look forward to!
It was a cold, wet and rough descent but fortunately incident free. Trent and I went our own ways at Bormio once I’d restocked for the last effort of the day — the Stelvio (20.1km at 7.4%).
The thing that was most worrying me was the tunnels on this side and in particular one very narrow one that was about 200m long. It was about 4pm and the motorbikes and “motoring enthusiasts” were all out on the mountain like it was their personal playground (to be fair I never had any close calls or ever felt intimidated). I knew I would be slow and it would take me a minute to get through that tunnel. Fortunately, it is a stunning climb from Bormio, though.
The landscape is very different from the north side, with hardly a tree and only the rugged landscape for company. Before I knew it, I had passed through the tunnel — obviously the narrow roads of the Gavia had changed my perspective on “narrow”!
Soon the road kicked up and the switchbacks banked up past the hydro power station. This is the most sustained section of the south side but it’s a ripper section. “BASSO” painted on the walls adds to the mystique of the road you are riding. Looking back down from the top of the switchback section is a view that would surely excite even a flat-lander?
Trent passed by in the car shortly after and asked me how I was feeling. I was honest. I felt great, probably the best I had felt at this stage in the ride. It was 7km to the summit from here and I couldn’t believe that I had nearly completed the dream.
From the top of the switchbacks the road eases off and you can wind up to a massive 20km/h, before you round the corner and hit the final 3km. Much like the north side, the summit looks a hell of a lot closer and the combination of the switchbacks and the increased gradient pulls at your legs. The fact you have already been climbing for 18km doesn’t help.
I started dreaming I was in the Giro, pulling back the remnants of the breakaway. There were five riders ahead of me, with the furthest 500m ahead. Could I make that up in the last 3km? I turned up the gas, quickly passing four of the five and was enjoying my little game. The last rider was dangling out in front of me and I finally caught his wheel into the last corner, 200m from the summit.
I briefly flirted with sprinting past him but thought better of myself — no need to look like an idiot now. I maintained my Euro cool and rolled over the top to a handshake and a hug and the obligatory photo from Trent (see feature image).
Wow. I could hardly believe I had done it; the combination of pride of success was almost overwhelming, though the reality was I had to concentrate on the descent. Trent asked me if I want to get in the car. Why would I want to do that? I wheeled over to the other side and saw what he meant. The cloud was pouring up the mountain and the north side had completed disappeared. Visibility was down to 20 metres. It wasn’t going to stop me, of course!
I threw on as much gear as possible (both my own and some extra borrowed from Trent) and rolled off for perhaps the slowest descent of the Stelvio of all time (another day I was to see a few riders who would easily have challenged that in dry and clear conditions!) Within 5km, the road was clear and I let gravity pull me back to the hotel.
What a day. I was tired but still felt fantastic. Man and machine had performed to spec and all the hard work in the proceeding five weeks had been worth the suffering.
If you have ever thought about a trip to Italy with your pushie, don’t think about it, just get out there. Stunning roads, challenging mountains, lovely people and plentiful supplies of decent and cheap macchiato!
Thanks to my wife and family for supporting the dream, Trent for the opportunity and company, and my other riding buddies for sharing my dreams before and stories since I returned … kudos to you all.
Ride time: 10:24
Average speed: 18km/h
Check out Eat More Lard’s ride on Strava here. You can also follow EML on Twitter and Instagram. You can read about a previous epic ride of his at his blog. If you’ve got a climbing-related story you’d like to share, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.