The Tale of a Terrible Climber

Nov 29th, 2021

“What do I think I’m doing?” rattled around in my head as I approached the base of Strada Statale dello Stelvio outside of Bormio, Italy. I was being led by Daniele Schena, a man so superior to me in terms of cycling ability that it’s hard to comprehend. This is a person that climbs the legendary pass made famous by the Giro d’Italia three times per week and, as is well known locally, the first to do so every year. Me? The closest I’ve come to climbing something like Stelvio would be Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park or Beartooth Pass near northern Yellowstone National Park. I’ve climbed both three times each, but those climbs now exist only in distant memories.

Sure, I’ve climbed a lot on previous tours, and I trained for this attempt but, to be honest, not enough. To do that, I would have had to comprehensively change my life — and that didn’t happen.

We left Hotel Funivia at 10:00 AM with another cyclist from Australia, and by the time we made our way to the beginning of the climb, I knew I had to bail. Daniele was waiting for me at the first switchback, and I broke the news there. I told him that if I were to continue, the other client would essentially be on his own because Daniele would constantly be waiting for me, and I didn’t want that to happen. Really, that was just an excuse — a noble one, but an excuse. Truth was, I simply wasn’t prepared for this.

What did I think I was doing? Was this entire trip a mistake? How did it even come to this?

It was a fairly typical day at Adventure Cycling. As I do almost every work day, I was lovingly gazing into my computer’s giant eye when I spotted an incoming email notification. I recognized the name of the sender so I popped over to my mail program and opened it. It was from Daniela Puglielli of Accent PR and it read, “Belated Happy New Year! Are you still interested in going to Italy for the editorial about Italy Bike Hotels?”

My mind quickly leapt back to a phone conversation that had taken place between Puglielli and I a few months before. I wanted to immediately answer “Yes!” but I first had to recall exactly what the conversation had been about so I searched my email. Nothing. Then I searched the web for Italy Bike Hotels. Bingo! It all came flooding back. Puglielli had pitched me the idea of Adventure Cyclist publishing a feature about bike hotels in Italy, specifically, a group of five hotels under the umbrella of Bici Amore Mio. These hotels not only tolerated cyclists but welcomed them with more than words.

Once I had familiarized myself with Bici Amore Mio, I gave Puglielli a call and we discussed the idea further. As an American, what I heard was foreign to me. These hotels not only wanted to attract cyclists, they wanted to cater to them, and they were willing to offer them amenities on the premises of each hotel that people would need for a successful cycling vacation: transfer to and from the airport; meals to keep the legs, heart, and head properly fueled; laundry service; access to gym and spa facilities; a secure bike room with an alarm to keep your beloved bicycle safe; and, if you didn’t want to bring your own bike, a rental service offering high-end bicycles. My head spun. Of course, we’d be interested in this, and I decided I had to see it for myself.

bike trip in Italy
A view from the Fraele Towers, Roman ruins at the top of the climb up the Cancano.
Michael Deme

As a person of Italian ancestry, I’d always wanted to visit Italy but, from all the stories I’d heard about maniacal drivers there, I didn’t think bicycles would be involved. Well, now they were, and plans started to take shape.

A conference call was arranged for a day in February with Puglielli as translator. A lot was said, most of which, unfortunately, I didn’t understand. “Who cares?” I thought. I’ve ridden bicycles in many places when I’d made but scant plans. This would be a piece of cake. These people actually liked cyclists, were cyclists themselves. I would have guides. The stars were all aligned. And, anyway, I wouldn’t fly to Italy for another seven months. Surely we’d have everything sorted by then.

Six months flew by, and I was still unclear exactly what would happen once I hit the ground in the mother country. I was hoping for another conference call, but with the time differences and everyone’s busy schedules, it didn’t happen. No worries. I’d be attending Interbike the week before my departure date so I’d be too busy to worry about it. Plus I now at least had an itinerary. What more would I need? I had been riding three times per week to get ready. Was I ready? I hoped so. The time had come to fly across the Atlantic to the land of my forebears.

From Missoula, Montana, my flight took me to Denver, Los Angeles, and New York before crossing the Atlantic to Milano Malpensa Airport where I was met by a man named Roberto who was holding a sign with my name on it. We exchanged pleasantries in a mixture of my feeble Italian and his somewhat-adequate English. We speed-walked to his van, and away we went, destination Bormio, the location of the first of the five bike hotels I would visit. I soon suspected that perhaps Roberto had been a Formula One race car driver in his recent past, and apparently, everyone else on the road had been as well. I loved it. These people actually knew how to drive automobiles. After my deliriously long flight pattern, I was ready to get to Hotel Funivia in Bormio ASAP, so I sat back and enjoyed the ride.

We sped through rather unremarkable landscapes for a couple of hours but soon came to the magnificent Lake Como, and as we drove from there to Bormio, the mountains towered over us. It was my first time in the Alps and count me impressed. I’ve traveled extensively in the Rocky Mountains as a backpacker and bikepacker but never did the those mountains feel so close as these. Looming was the word that came to mind, and I liked it.

bike trip in Italy
Daniele Schena getting ready to order us another espresso from the bar atop Stelvio Pass.
Michael Deme

Soon, however, our travel speed slowed as we passed through village after village. After three hours, we finally arrived in Bormio. As we drove through the village, I saw cyclists everywhere — and they all looked like they were ready for the Giro d’Italia. Color-coordinated spandex outfits were clearly popular here. My gear would not match theirs. Not only did I not bring such clothing along, I don’t even own such kit.

When we arrived at Hotel Funivia, I was met by friendly faces, although they were somewhat tired looking. I soon realized why. Hotel Funivia was technically closing that day and the cycling season had been a busy one. They’d be hosting a wedding that very night and would then close for two months as they prepared for ski season. At 4,000 feet above sea level, Bormio sits at the base of the famous Stelvio Pass and is surrounded by many other villages. Within 15 kilometers, there are five ski areas, one of which, Bormio 2000 Ski Resort, is directly behind the hotel.

After my circuitous trip to Italy, I was also quite fatigued, so after fairly brief introductions, I went to my room. I waved my key card at the wall pad and found myself inside a beautiful and modern room — not large but immaculate. I had to insert the key card into a slot in the wall by the door to activate the electricity in the room. This has two major benefits: you always know where your key card is and the electricity in the room automatically shuts down when you remove it to leave — very efficient. The bathroom was spacious as was the walk-in shower, but something wasn’t right. Next to the toilet there was another … toilet? No, it had fixtures like a sink. I’d find out later it was a bidet, something this unsophisticated traveler was unfamiliar with.

After my brief tour, I hit the sack at about 8:00 PM and was quickly out cold. I’m typically lucky to get six hours of sleep per night, but not this night. I’d sleep for 12 hours before waking at 8:00 AM.

I had soon showered away my grogginess and was ready for breakfast. Because Hotel Funivia was officially closed, the kitchen staff was gone so I headed out the door for my first meal in Italy. I settled in a small café and asked for colazione. The woman waiting on me began to rattle off questions and I, despite not understanding what was being asked, kept replying “si.” Next thing I knew, I was feasting on cereal, eggs, ham, bacon, cake, waffles, bread, cheese, and coffee. Although I’m not usually a coffee drinker, I did indulge while in Italy. It might have been the biggest breakfast I’d ever eaten, all for about eight euros.

It was a beautiful morning. The mountains were covered by clouds, but the sun’s rays were beginning to penetrate through. I walked around Bormio taking in one spectacular view after another. Located by the Swiss border, the village featured similar architecture with its neighbor to the north. Colorful flowers cascaded from the windowsills of chalet-style buildings. It was like a mountain paradise.

When I returned to the hotel, Daniele had already ventured off to Stelvio with a group of cyclists, so I was on my own for the day. Great, I would take a warm up ride before my attempt at the 9,045-foot pass the next day. Directly behind Hotel Funivia was the climb to Bormio 2000. I checked the hotel’s map and it looked good to me so, after getting fitted to a carbon-fiber Pinarello Dogma, I headed up. At 6,400 feet, the road climbs 2,300 feet over six miles at an average grade of seven-and-a-half percent.

The lightweight two-chainring Pinarello soon found itself in its second-to-last climbing gear as I quickly gained altitude. This was no easy climb for me, but to the many cyclists who whizzed by, it sure seemed to be. I wondered what they ate for breakfast. Surely it contained the human equivalent of rocket fuel. Although I stopped many times to take in the amazing scenery, they only pedaled. Many a bongiorno was tossed my way over the next couple of hours, and I politely replied, “Bon (gasp) gior (gasp) no.”

bike trip in Italy
Memorabilia shops atop Stelvio.
Michael Deme

Finally at the top, I gazed out over the peaks of the Alps. The success of the climb called for another meal, so I ordered chicken cutlets and french fries, and washed it down with an orange Fanta. Having scarfed this meal down and wanting to avoid descending in the quickly cooling air, I pointed the Pinarello downward for the fun part. I flew down the same road I’d ground my way up but soon found myself slowing for each of the many switchback turns. Aaargh! There were so many switchbacks that I could never truly let it fly. Lots of braking later, and before I knew it, I was back in Bormio.

Feeling pretty good, I rode around the village but soon found myself climbing again. Nope, that’s enough for one day, I needed to save as much energy for tomorrow as possible. Stelvio would be harder than Bormio 2000. Gulp. Doubt crept in.

I returned to the hotel but stayed outside and sat in the sun. It felt good, but I was uneasy. Stelvio was on my mind, and I couldn’t shake it. I went back up to my room and wrote for a while. Before long, my phone rang. It was the front desk telling me Daniele wouldn’t be able to join me for dinner as planned but that reservations had been made for me at a place called al Filo. I showered again, dressed, and walked to the restaurant. For my first dinner in Italy, I ate antipasti, delicious potato pasta, and a wonderful cheesecake for dessert, and let’s not forget a bit of grappa to help with digestion. Then I was ready for more sleep.

I woke early the next morning anxious about the climb ahead. I’ve never been known as a good climber — a grinder at best. I found out why after I returned from a tour across Iceland in 2001. At 36, I was diagnosed with asthma. I’ve never had an attack, but my lungs can only take in so much air. This has many repercussions, especially  when climbing. For me it means a lot of stopping. Once I’ve maxed out, it’s the only way to recover so I can continue. The key is to try and not max out, which is much harder said than done.

I met Daniele and the Australian cyclist in Hotel Funivia’s Stelvio Bar, and we headed out. As I’ve already written, my day would not include Stelvio.

When I broke the news to Daniele, he was disappointed. So was I. Of the many reasons I decided to take this trip, one was to find out what kind of cyclist I still was, and more important, what kind of cyclist I was going to be in the future. Since Iceland, I’ve taken many short tours, but I’d also suffered a major injury to my left knee and have dealt with a right ankle injury that worsens over time. More time at a desk hasn’t helped, nor has aging. But I decided to rededicate myself to cycling, although I wouldn’t fool myself. I’d never be the cyclist I once was, but I didn’t have to be. To enjoy it again, this evolving dog would have to learn some new tricks, and this trip would hasten that learning curve.

bike trip in Italy
Dairy cows and the Alps go together like peanut butter and jelly or chocolate cake and milk.
Michael Deme

No, I wouldn’t climb Stelvio, but I could try another less daunting ride. Mortirolo? No, steeper than Stelvio. Gavia or Foscagno? Maybe. But I settled on the Cancano. Described on as “a simple but pleasant climb,” it ascends 1,850 feet over five miles for an average gradient of seven percent. Determined that the surrender at Stelvio would be my last, I rode on. Once again, the Pinarello was in second gear and soon first. Suffering was the norm, but it was necessary suffering if I were to conquer the physical challenges and the mental demons ahead. Pedal stroke after pedal stroke, I’d prove to myself that I could do it — get to the top, gain the ancient Fraele Towers. “Just keep pedaling” would become my mantra as I’d rhythmically count off one, two, three … one, two, three. I began to feel that certain kind of pleasure.

Pleasure from pain may seem strange to some, and sound somewhat stupid, but there’s something about it. Pain reminds us that there’s life beating inside. Time will surely bring us all a certain amount of pain, so why court it? To this question, there is no universal answer. We each need to figure it out for ourselves but, for me, avoiding pain means giving up cycling, and that’s not happening — at least not yet.

The land of my ancestors wouldn’t be the breaking point but the turning point. Ten more days of cycling lay ahead.

But I wasn’t done with Bormio yet. When I returned to Hotel Funivia, Daniele was waiting for me. He didn’t want me to miss Stelvio Pass completely so he offered to drive us to the top. My first thought was to decline, but he seemed eager to go and I’m glad we did. What a remarkable drive it was! The road winds and hairpins for 13 miles, climbing over 4,900 feet with a maximum gradient of 14 percent. The views are amazing, and at the top you can see for miles into Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. At the summit is a strip of tourist shops where you can buy Stelvio memorabilia, a ski area, and a café with a bar where we drank espresso. A walk farther up a ridge takes you to the Rifugio Garibaldi, a mountain hut which accommodates travelers regardless of their mode of transport.

During the drive, our conversation twisted and turned almost as much as the road did. We spoke about the history of the road and its construction, how much water to drink on the climb, helmet use (Daniele is convinced Italian men don’t like to wear helmets because it musses their hair), the kinds of people who cycle up Stelvio and the reasons why, the area’s water supply, food, wine, and many other topics. It was a fun afternoon.

Back at the hotel, Daniele made plans for dinner at Vecchia Combo, one of his favorite restaurants. Of all the meals I ate in Italy over the course of three weeks, this one of local pasta, dried meats, and delicious cheeses was in the top three. It was rich and delightful, and a bottle of local red wine was the perfect complement. The owners treated Daniele like a prince and proudly described everything we ate as they placed it before us. Before leaving, I was invited into the kitchen to speak with the chef, which I considered quite an honor.

Daniele would be off early in the morning so we said our goodbyes that night. As I turned to walk up to my room, he said with gusto, “Next time, you will conquer Stelvio!” Perhaps I will. Stranger things have happened.

The next day, I was driven to Tirano by Daniele’s father-in-law to catch a train to Milan and then another to Torino where I’d be whisked away to Hotel Scoiattolo in Pralormo, the second bike hotel of the five I would visit.

See Part II here

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