Cycling, Ride Reports

A weekend in the Alps

An impromptu ride down to the Italian Alps to experience some of the climbs I’ve been meaning to do ever since moving to Munich: Stelvio, Gavia, and Timmelsjoch. Also to remember how to do multi-day rides in the run-up to the TCR. I realised how hard alpine climbing (on a bike) can be.

In numbers:

  • Kilometres cycled: 714
  • Metres of altitude gained: 11,000
  • Nights: 2
  • Nights with sleep: 1
  • Countries visited: 3
  • Passes ridden: 7 (some bigger than others)
  • Passes planned to be ridden: 8
  • Near-death experiences in tunnels: 1
  • Marmots spotted: 1
  • Train crashes spotted: 1

The goal was to set off straight after work on Friday afternoon, ride through the night down to Prato allo Stelvio, starting the climb at daybreak to avoid the heat and the cacophonous motorbike traffic. Then I’d tackle Gavia and a couple more smaller passes – Tonale and Palade – before starting the final climb of the day up and over Timmelsjoch and back into Ötztal, where I’d set up camp for the night, grabbing a few hours’ sleep. The next day I’d do Kühtai and then head back home. 760 km in total.

The first bit worked out well. I left home just as a thunderstorm was opening up over Bavaria, and trundled off down toward Italy in the rain. Passing through Garmisch-Partenkirchen on my way into the mountains, I was confused by a great number of police vehicles, which then made sense as I rode past the aftermath of a train derailment in which 5 people sadly died.

The weather decided to do this just as I was setting off

After a dreary overnighter through the Tyrolean mountain valleys, I crested Stelvio at 07:30, just as the sun was getting hot and the traffic was ramping up. So far so good – my goal of Timmelsjoch was still in reach. But after tackling Gavia and Tonale as well – all back-to-back, 4,000 m ascent in 100 km – I was pretty exhausted and fed up of climbing.

By the time I arrived at the valley leading up to Timmelsjoch at 19:00 – after another 1,000 m of climbing – it turned out that:

  1. there were storms forecast at the top,
  2. the pass closed at 20:00 (it would take me far longer than that to climb it), and
  3. I’d had enough of climbing

There was no point anyway, I told myself, because it’d be dark when I got to the top. Who wants to do a beautiful alpine pass in the dark? After briefly considering getting a train home (completely impractical), I found a discrete spot to lay down my sleeping gear and got a very early night.

Should’ve checked before I left

It felt weird stopping at 19:00. Normally I’d keep on truckin’ till 23:00 or so and then it would be a race to get into the sleeping bag – minimum faff, maximum sleep. I knew the pass wasn’t opening until 07:00 in the morning, so there was nothing to be gained by sleeping earlier and getting up earlier. So it was nice to instead just sit down on a bench and reflect on the change of plan.

I got up at 05:00 ish and continued on my way. I crested Timmelsjoch 3.5 hours later and had already made up my mind to skip Kühtai on the way home. I coasted down Ötztal, hauled myself up one last 600 m slog out of Inntal and was home by 17:30.

I’ll be back soon to tick off Kühtai, but this time probably on a proper (unencumbered) road bike.

The route (mainly Gavia)

Stelvio is nice, but Gavia is nicer. While Stelvio has a nice ascent through a dramatic valley, the top is really nothing special. You get there, wonder why there are so many tatty restaurants and shops, and then head straight back down the other side.

The famous switchbacks of the eastern ascent of Stelvio

Gavia on the other hand… Wow. The top is more plateau-like, with expansive views in all directions of a barren mountainscape. In its final throes the ascent starts to level out a bit, giving you some time to look up from the tarmac and appreciate your surroundings. There are some facilities at the top, but they’re more modest than those at Stelvio – as they should be, really.

The climb was tough, but the descent was terrifying. Apparently south-to-north is more popular than vice-versa, and I can see why. It was almost mid-day as I started the descent, so there was plenty of two-wheeled traffic (both bikes and motorbikes) to contend with. On top of that, the road surface was, well, disintegrating. Ruts, potholes, patches. Loose gravel everywhere, forcing you to take awkward lines around corners that put you in the path of oncoming traffic.

Beginning the descent off Gavia down to Ponte di Legno

Then came the tunnel. Supposedly notorious, I was totally unprepared for it. 500 m long, 9% downhill, chock-full of cyclists without lights (including me), and utterly pitch black. It took me by surprise and I barrelled into it at 50km/h, immediately blind. I knew there were cyclists behind me, and I could just about make out the shape of a cyclist (or group of cyclists?) some unknown distance ahead of me in the darkness. I couldn’t just stop for fear of being hit from behind, and I couldn’t keep going for fear of hitting someone in front. I somehow managed to slow gradually and move over to the wall (which I also couldn’t see) so that I could switch my lights on. My eyes were still adjusting, but this was enough to get me out of the tunnel safely. I was very lucky not to have had (or caused) a serious crash.

If you’re reading this and are planning on descending Gavia to Ponte di Legno… Please be careful of this tunnel! The lesson I learned here is: always turn your lights on before starting an alpine descent. I will take this experience with me to the TCR in July, where the parcours for Control Point 2 is the very same traverse of Gavia.

Not my video, but this is exactly what it was like

Timmelsjoch? It was nice, but not quite as interesting as the other two climbs. Just another 2,000 m alpine climb.

Something that I did learn about such climbs in general is that the first half to two thirds is pretty dull. It’s just trees. Don’t expect anything dramatic until well over 1,500 m. I did hit my max speed for the ride of 93 km/h on the descent, though – even with a flappy jacket slowing me down.

Reaching the top of the southern ascent of Timmelsjoch

Learnings for next time

Some notes for my future self:

  • I don’t really like climbing that much. It’s so tedious.
  • I did not eat enough, even though I didn’t realise it at the time. Appetite is not a reliable indicator, so set a schedule.
  • Similarly for water: sip regularly on a schedule in hot weather.
  • Always turn lights on for alpine descents, in case of tunnels.
  • Take factor 50 sun cream. Apply it at least twice a day.
  • To estimate time on mountainous parcours: time for distance at 25km/h + 1 hour per 500 m of climbing (this will be a slight over-estimate).
  • No higher than 200 W on climbs! A climb should not be harder than normal pedalling. If I find myself going harder just to get to the top, slow the F down! It’s just another part of the route. A VAM of 500 is a good target.
  • Feet start to hurt, so loosen laces on shoes.
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