Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Day 5: Spooky Cobbled Tunnels

On our fifth day in Italy, our ride leaders gave the group two route options, gradually climbing to Pratto allo Stelvio, or taking a serious side excursion over two passes as planned. The group split half and half, as many were tired. I of course, wanted the full treatment. I didn't travel all the way to Italy to ride a bike path between towns.

The two passes were Mendola and Palade. We were starting from the lowest elevation of our tour, around 200m. It was very warm and muggy with threat of storms later in the day.  Mendola is essentially a Whiteface/Alpe d'Huez style climb, maybe bigger, at around 1150m vertical. After cresting Mendola, the course drops a bit before climbing 400-500m to Passo Palade.

View from Mendola climb. Haze hints what is to come.

There were great views climbing Mendola, as the road is bench cut into essentially a cliff. Hurting at this point in the tour, I took it easy on Mendola. We briefly regrouped at the top and pressed on. Seems everybody was in a talkative mood, so I hit the next climb solo at at firm tempo pace, cresting several minutes ahead of the others. We had lunch at Passo Palade.

Mendola bench cut road.

The 1200m plummet from Palade was a hoot. Crazy fast and many tunnels. Descending never seemed to end. We'd pop out in an area with a view, and the valley floor still looked thousands of feet below. A good ways down, we hit this tunnel after a long straight away, going over 70kph (44mph). Light could be seen at the far end of the tunnel, so no problem, right? Not quite. The tunnel was unlit, and it was cobbled!

The cobbles are limestone, and inside of tunnels are typically wet. Wet cobbles are slicker than snot. To make matters worse, the cobbles were extremely bumpy and uneven. At the speeds we were going, it knocked you around a bit. I dared not hit the brakes, fearing skidding, going down, and having 20 other riders pile in over me in the dark. I could not see the sidewalls at all. With all the jostling around, I had no idea how close to the walls I was getting. Tunnels follow the same grade as the road. This meant you do not slow down unless you grab the brakes, which you couldn't do. I nearly messed myself.

The tunnel briefly ends and goes right back into more of the same. You could see light at the other end and just prayed you could hold a line to the light. As the final exit came into view, to my horror, there was an abrupt left hand turn with guardrail. I thought surely this was it, tumbling over the guardrail at 70kph into nothingness. Somehow I managed to keep it together. Neema, with his GoPro running, was just ahead of me and stopped after the tunnel to capture our reactions. Around the 7min mark, I can be heard saying "That was F'd!" as I went by. My roommate Joe said something about his balls.

Neema's video below nicely summarizes our trip. I appear several times, sometimes in NorEast kit, others with Thomson Tours jacket on. Footage from most climbs and descents is included.  Neema is one smooth descender!  View in full screen for maximum effect.

Thomson Bike Tours: Trans-Dolomite Challenge 2011 from nader assemi on Vimeo.

When we bottomed out near Merano, the storm clouds were fully developed. I ditched the camera in the van.  We narrowly escaped one cell, only to get clobbered by another one a few minutes later. It poured mightily. Rain mixed with mountainside orchard soil made a chocolaty mix with small apples bobbing in it. It was running so deep down the street I could not pedal without my feet going into the interesting mix. Good thing it wasn't cold out.

After some bits of climbing in urban environment, we made it to a bike path that follows a river for 30km. Too many other path users foiled any attempt to get a paceline going. When the bike path ended, we had to take extremely busy SS38 the rest of the way to Pratto allo Stelvio. This was the only part of the tour that kind of sucked. Euro roads are narrow to begin with, and this one was equivalent to major state highway with zero shoulder and non-stop cars and trucks. It was imperative we all held our line single-file. Thomson does not shuttle riders to locations. We ride to them. This is perhaps a small price to pay to avoid van shuttles.

View from hotel in Pratto allo Stelvio

I was pretty cooked after this ride, tallying 129.9km, 2500m in 5.6hrs. We had Passo Stelvio to look forward to the next day, a big climb, but only 47km total.

I may post once more on this trip with some comments on food, hotels, Thomson Bike Tours and plans to try another tour. A couple days back to reality and it already sucks.

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