Sunday, June 26, 2011

Day 7: Mortirolo and Gavia

The best was saved for the last day of our tour. On Friday, our 117km loop would be taking us over Passo Mortirolo and Passo Gavia, another day with 10,000+ feet of climbing. The Mortirolo climb is one of the hardest in Europe. It gains over 4200ft at 10.5% average gradient. We did a single pass the previous day, and being the last day of the trip, I planned to give whatever my legs could offer to Mortirolo.

The morning started with a chilly 30km descent to Valtellina. It wasn't all downhill. To bypass a lengthy tunnel, a 150-200m climb was required. Many highways in this part of the Alps spend about half their distance underground. Really amazing. Sometimes I suspect this is to avoid avalanches that would almost certainly be common on the surface. The descent with modest climb was a nice warmup for what ensued.

En route to Mortirolo on tunnel bypass (no cars!)

I sensed a little tension in the air at the base of Mortirolo. All three riding groups arrived together. The Mortirolo is ranked the most difficult climb on our trip at 186 difficulty index, while the Stelvio and Gavia climbs are ranked 172 and 147 respectively.

Shedding layers for Mortirolo climb, which goes over wall
in background.

The A group rolled off. Neema, Kurt, Lucky and myself soon separated from the others. Neema, who is half my age, set a blistering pace and wanted us to work together to maintain a steady effort all the way up. The problem was, I was riding at something more like a 20 minute pace, clearly unsustainable up this near Mt Washington sized climb. Kurt peeled off for nature stop and Lucky soon faded back. It was just Neema and I.

The grade rarely dropped below 12% for the first several kilometers. When it did, Neema's power dropped a little. I quipped he shouldn't accept these little "gifts" and to keep motoring. I guess I was treating it like a time-trial.

The grade kicked up to 14-17% for long sections at a time. Glad I brought a pie-plate MTB cassette on my bike. Even a 34x32 ratio was hard to push in the saddle. About 20 minutes in, I wished Neema good luck and said I was pulling the plug. He pleaded with me to not give up and back off just a tad. Great, I thought, he was intent on maximizing my suffering and ensuring I would spectacularly implode on the much bigger climb coming up, Passo Gavia.

At the time, I thought Mortirolo was only 1000m for some reason, so I was relieved to reach what I thought was the halfway point. But when we passed the 1000m gain point on my GPS and still had 10 numbered switchbacks to go, I thought WTF, I'm done here. Neema again implored that I continue.

The last few switchbacks came rather quickly, and then finally the summit. Neema graciously let me claim "the win."  I recorded a lap of just over 65 minutes but forgot to hit the lap button right away at the summit. Pépé, the next rider to summit, was just a couple minutes back. It took a long time for riders to trickle up this beast. In the midst of TBT riders summitting, a classic rollerskier came up. He did it in 90 minutes, faster than several riders in our group. I couldn't imagine rollerskiing up that beast of a climb.

Pépé, myself and Neema. Pépé was up to no good I'm sure.

I wonder who this skier is? He did not speak English.

That effort utterly destroyed my legs. I knew full well the ride would degenerate into a monstrous death march for me. This was the only pass that did not have a restaurant or lodge up top. In fact, much of the road is barely one lane wide. It essentially was a driveway rising up out of town and was hard to tell it was even a road. For these reasons, very few motorcycles come up this one. On other passes, it is non-stop crotch rockets blowing by at 10x speed differentials. I liked Mortirolo. It has limited views, but it was off the beaten path and beat riders down just like some of the climbs here in the northeast do.

View from Passo Mortirolo

After a 1000m plummet off the back side, we climbed a false flat to our lunch stop before beginning Gavia. No amount of pizza and high octane Italian coffee was bringing my legs back to life. Probably just as well. I heard Gavia would be one of the most scenic passes on our trip, so I'd be stopping to take photos anyway.

Our group started easy enough after lunch. My legs actually felt pretty good. Joe and I rolled off the front on the false flat leading to Passo Gavia. Once the grade started pitching upwards though, Joe promptly dispatched me off the back. It didn't take long for the rest of the A-group to steam-roll past me either. I was done. Only problem was, I had another 5000ft to gain before bombing down the other side back to our hotel.

Curtis on the lengthy skinny portion of Gavia climb. Precipitous
drops in many places with no guardrails.

The road simultaneously necked down to no wider than a typical bike path and pitched upwards at double-digit grades. It was so narrow that motorcycles had trouble passing us in spots. How our vans made it up is beyond me. My riding had degenerated to linked track stands. The bike pretty much came to a stop between each down stroke of the pedals. Fortunately, I wasn't cramping up. I was just super-bonked. I wasn't surprised this happened, but I was surprised how badly I was suffering. Of all the 6-gaps or D2R2 rides I've done, climbing the Gavia became the mother of all death march rides for me. The incredible scenery all the way up helped sooth some of the suffering.

Lucky catching up to me, looking back down the valley.

No shortage of scenery like this. Looking westerly on Gavia climb.

Eventually I reached the tunnel about 3km from the summit. We had been asked to ride up with a light so we could see and be seen. Some riders did ok without lights. Guess I'm glad I hauled mine all the way up there. Inside the tunnel were riders walking bikes in both directions. You'd hear them but not see them. My batteries were nearly spent, having failed to replace them since skate skiing with this light.

Just above the tunnel. I was tempted to walk too.

View from one of the last switchbacks.

Approaching summit there were mountain goats, the real kind,
not the human kind.

Out of the tunnel, several switchbacks above taunted me with how bad I was sucking and how much I had yet to suffer. The terrain was looking very much like New Hampshire's rock pile, Mt Washington. No trees, just moss covered rocks. I passed a rider not from our tour walking his bike. I supposed things could have been going worse for me.

Soon the summit came into view. I think most of the A, B and C groups were up there already. It was now 30km back to the hotel, all downhill. Some kind of race was coming up that side, and the support drivers for the riders were quite obnoxious. They rode along side their riders, leaving zero room for descenders to pass. The road was still barely a lane wide. I stopped to take a couple photos. The scenery was just as good as coming up. Because I stopped, I ended up alone for most of the descent.

Second highest pass of the week.

Looking over north side of Passo Gavia

I finished with 117.6km, 3277m (10,750ft) in 5.6hrs moving time on the Garmin. The day was mostly sunny and the warmest day of the trip with temps breaking 21C (70F). Any warmer, I would have been in trouble.

Upper portion of Gavia descent

People sometimes compare Mortirolo and Mt Washington. Using the ClimbByBike difficulty index, there really is no comparison. Mt Washington is much more difficult with a rating of 239 vs 199 for Mortirolo. Washington climbs further and at a much steeper average grade. Summit elevations are comparable. Mt Washington takes me 65 minutes to climb, the same it took me to climb Mortirolo with 40,000ft of climbing in my legs over the prior days. I would like to ride Zoncolan and Angliru some day, other climbs that are compared to Washington.

I plan to put a Day 5 post up after I can link video captured by Neema. He caught our reaction exiting an unlit tunnel that was paved with cobbles. We went into the tunnel at 70+kph, unaware of cobbles inside the tunnel. Every one of us thought surely we would die. Good stuff.


Aaron said...

Sounds like a tough but rewarding day. I wouldn't have blamed you if you threw in the towel given all the riding you had already done. My quads feel sore just reading these posts. Well done!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this awesome trip. Had to laugh with some of your descriptions of the suffering. Great pics.

Raineman said...

Thanks for the fine write up Doug. My quads were bursting while reading too.

Christopher Titus said...

Hi Doug,
Awesome reports on what looks like a truly great trip. I wanted to ask you though what kind of camera are you using? Also any special settings because your getting some really great wide shots.
Chris T

Hill Junkie said...

Chris - I shot everything with a Panasonic Lumix LX3. Panasonic bucked the trend of more mega-pixels (which is usually bad) and married a large sensitive sensor with quality lens. This camera is claimed to be about two stops faster than typical compacts. Best part: 24mm equivalent width. I bought it specifically to shoot outdoor scenes. It is not a cheap camera, and it has very little zoom. It is good for outdoor scenery and action shots. The pictures I posted are greatly reduced in size and compressed. Viewing originals on 42" plasma screen is breathtaking.

Anonymous said...

Love reading about your epic journey in the Dolomites Doug. Tell me more about TBT...I have a trip booked with them in August across the was the food & hotels?

Hill Junkie said...

I was planning to dedicate a post to things not covered in ride reports. The food and hotels were generally excellent. Keep in mind 4-star hotels in the Alps are not like 4-star Marriott's here. The rooms and bathrooms are pretty small. Our room in Bormio did not have a shower, just wand in open bathtub. Twin beds are often placed abutting each other.

The food was excellent. Meals were multi-course structured affairs, designed for socializing. I tend to blow through more calories than the slow-twitch guys, so I eat more on trips like this. A serve yourself pasta or risotto table would have been a nice touch to get more carbs in. Only salads to start out were serve yourself. Food during the rides at mountain pass restaurants was good too. Even though we stayed in Italy, the food was more Germanic. I ate a lot of Speck, on sandwiches and pizza. I like strong cheeses and coffees. These items back here in the states just taste bland now.

TBT does a first rate job organizing and leading the tour. My roommate from this trip and I are already talking about when to go back on a TBT tour, perhaps the TransAlp or Swiss Alps. Expect to be impressed.

Alex said...

The bigger question on the rollerski is - how did he get down?

Hill Junkie said...

The rollerskier had a support vehicle shadow him, although we bombed down the other side before I actually saw him get in the vehicle to ride back down...