Exploring Bormio, one climb at a time

Rouleur Italia editor, Emilio Previtali, links a thrilling four-day of climbing fest in the Italian cycling Mecca

I open my eyes, and a blade of light penetrates the room, filtering through the curtains. My bare foot, hit by the sun's rays, is hot. I pull it back and huddle under the curtains to protect myself from the heat, trying to remember where I am. Unfortunately, I haven't the faintest idea. There was a period of my life when I was travelling around the world skiing, waking up in a hotel room, a mountain hut or in a van, and I didn't know where I was. I was surrounded by mountains, usually snow-capped, winter or summer. 

 Skiing was my life, and wherever you could do it (or snowboard or telemark or ski mountaineer) was my home. The hotel rooms changed all the time, but the mountains were my place.

It's still the same even now that I no longer ski professionally, or am in the snow as many days a year as I used to be. The mountains are still my home. Leaning against the wall in front of my eyes is a washed and lubricated road bike, shiny and perfectly clean, ready to be used. I don't see any skis in my room. Now I remember: Bormio. I am in one of the most beautiful places in the world for both skiing and cycling.

There are beautiful mountains and legendary climbs to tackle by bike, such as the one leading to the Stelvio or the Gavia passes. Or the Mortirolo. Or the Laghi di Cancano, you're spoilt for choice.

Scattered on the floor are the clothes that, before falling asleep last night, while I was collapsing from sleep, I had tried to prepare to make the dressing faster this morning.

Day one

What time is it? I get out of bed, and leaning against the wall on the other side of the room is another bicycle. Now I remember: Matteo is waiting for me at 7 o'clock in the hotel restaurant for breakfast. No skiing this time. We are here to cycle together for a few days. I have just enough time to brush my teeth and put on a T-shirt, and I hurl myself down the stairs.

Matteo lives near me, in the province of Bergamo, and he's a photographer. We've known each other for many years. I've always had a sort of awe for how he does his job as a reporter. He tries to be inside the action. He tries to tell stories through his shots, and at the same time, he has a genuine curiosity and discretion behind the lens. 

It is with him that I will be cycling this week, and we told each other before coming here, to the top of the Valtellina, that ours will be, first and foremost, a real adventure. No pretence. He promised me that we would ride together the whole time, carrying everything we needed to eliminate the need for outside assistance or support equipment, as is often the case with photoshoots. Ours will not be a photoshoot but a bike ride for fun and exploration. I hate photoshoots and modelling. I like to be myself. Matteo likes to photograph from inside the action, so it wasn't hard to agree.

After breakfast, we put our noses outside the hotel, ready for the first day in the saddle. The air is crisp and the sky blue. September is a perfect month for cycling in these mountains. The days are still long, it's not too cold, the sky is clear, and the colours have already turned to endless shades of yellow and brown. The traffic on the roads is only local. The tourists of the summer, especially cars and motorcyclists, are almost gone. 

From the first metres of pedalling - obviously uphill - I immediately feel that the breakfast of fruit cakes and bresaola was a bit too much, but I don't worry about that. We have no performance anxiety or KOMs to establish, so no regrets: coming to Valtellina and not enjoying the food whenever possible would mean missing out on half the experience. For this first day, we head for the Passo Stelvio. We ride through Bormio and stop for another espresso. Already the third of the day, and it's not even 9am. The beginnings of a bike ride in Italy are almost all like this, a good espresso at the counter can never be refused.

I was also born in Bergamo, at the foot of the Prealpi Orobiche, and snow and mountains have been my favourite playground. Climbing, mountaineering, skiing, ski mountaineering, snowboarding, mono-skiing, telemarking, anything that allowed me to climb or descend a mountain while sliding on snow, was fine. The mountains and skiing have been my job and my passion. This is why I have spent hundreds of days of my life in these mountains, on the glaciers of the Stelvio Pass, training or coaching skiers during the summer season. I know every hairpin bend on the Stelvio Pass by heart, and I have travelled it many times by car, motorbike and, of course, bicycle. When I stayed at the Stelvio Pass hotel for weeks during summer, I always took my bike to use it in the afternoon after ski training. At that time, cycling was my second sport, a way to get my legs moving after the morning training sessions. And even ten years ago, there weren't as many enthusiasts on these climbs as today. 

These big climbs were a bit intimidating, and only a few people would go up to the 2,757 metres of the pass by bike. Today, cycling is a mass sport and one of the reasons we're here. 

Matteo and I are in a great mood. Cycling uphill is a pleasure. We chat. I take a deep breath and the scent of wet grass and damp rock warmed by the first sun comes straight to my brain, to a place at the top of my nostrils just behind my forehead. We pedal side by side without disturbing the car traffic or being disturbed. 

Carried along by air comes the thunderous sound of the Braulio waterfalls, which are about halfway up the climb. The water is channelled between the rocks in the valley, and its sound reaches us. There are very few cars and motorbikes around, and all the drivers are kind, smiling people. The asphalt is perfectly smooth, our wheels roll softly on the ground, and we enjoy the ride. What more could you want from a bike ride?

A road is a well-defined and shared stretch of space that creates a link between places inhabited by man. It is an instrument for the passage of people, goods, information, and culture. Still, it can also be imagined as something more sophisticated and valuable. A road leading to a pass is, after all, a place of encounter and exchange. It's the result of human engineering that tries to find a way through nature. In just three years, Carlo Donegani built the Stelvio Pass road between 1822 and 1825. He could be described as a road construction genius, and hundreds of Italian workers and labourers were involved in constructing this gigantic road. According to Donegani's vision, architecture and engineering had to adapt to nature, trying to harmoniously overcome its roughness and obstacles. 

The hairpin bends - more than 30 on the Valtellina side of the climb and 48 on the South Tyrolean side - are not a natural line of passage but rather the result of evolved thinking. The Stelvio Pass road is an actual work of art in nature. 

Cycling through the road as Matteo and I are doing now, and as thousands of cyclists do every year, is like saying a prayer. Cycling on a winding road is an act of faith. To enjoy the climb, you need to believe the idea that against all rationality and logic, those back-and-forths are the shortest way to the top. 

Perhaps this faith in human ingenuity, this forgetting of logic in favour of feeling, makes us enjoy pedalling uphill. After all, the bicycle is a marvellous machine that transforms physical effort into advancement and pleasure.

When we reach the top of the Stelvio Pass, I have not yet revealed to Matteo my plan for the rest of the day. Instead, I let him wrap up with a light jacket and enjoy a few sips of fresh water from his bidon before making my proposal. 

The traffic on the road has increased, but we're still surrounded by beautiful mountains and glaciers. And it doesn't really matter how you get to the Stelvio Pass, whether by foot, motor or bike. Everyone at the top of the mountain has a blissful and slightly ebony expression. It's not only the fatigue and the thin air. It's the joy of the goal achieved. I told Matteo, who's taking some pictures, that I would like to go down the other side and come back up again. The climb from Prato allo Stelvio is 26 kilometres long and has a continuously increasing gradient. The hardest section is the final one, a ribbon of asphalt and hairpins. All this information about the distance and the slopes - obviously - is information that I am careful not to disclose to Matteo, who goes on taking more pictures.

"Ready," he tells me cheerfully. We descend and then climb back up. It has been an afternoon of pure enjoyment, an unforgettable day of cycling.

Day two

On the morning of the second day, our legs - we have to admit it - are a bit misty. We rode the double Stelvio yesterday and covered almost 3000 metres of vertical elevation. It's early in the morning, and we're pedalling again. We're riding along the Strada Statale 300 del Gavia, which is still deserted. 

Related: Tackling Mount Teide

We pedal on the long uphill straights towards Santa Caterina Valfurva, then on to the Gavia Pass, another of the legendary climbs that can be tackled from the base camp in Bormio. On 5 June 1988, it was on this pass that one of the most extraordinary mountain stages that the mind of a cycling and racing enthusiast can recall took place. During the Giro d'Italia, caught up in a snowstorm, the riders, wearing only shirts and shorts, found themselves covered in snow road at an altitude of 2621 metres. 

The descent they faced, soaking wet and dressed in the wrong gear, was a finale worthy of the 1950s heroic races. Without the teams able to keep the race under control and the technical clothing that the riders have today, it was still a sort of elimination sport. The winner was a stoic Johan van de Velde, who crossed the finish line close to hypothermia. At that time, there weren't the modern fabrics and clothing Matteo and I wear today. 

For us, cycling in the almost autumn-like cold of the morning is just pleasure, not suffering. Who said that cycling over the major Alpine passes is only a sport to be enjoyed in the middle of summer? Autumn and spring are just as good. As I pedal uphill, locked in my thoughts, I look at Matteo's bicycle and my own. I have never seen a bike as I am seeing it now. It is a kind of epiphany. Today's road bikes have become more versatile, more solid and massive while remaining light and performing, capable of going off-road as well.

That's what I've seen happening in skiing, too, where increasingly high-performance and versatile equipment, capable of juggling all-terrain, has replaced hyper-specialised equipment. As a result, there are modern skis that can perform equally on frozen snow, deep snow, hard-packed snow and even uphill for ski mountaineering.

What happened to ski equipment over the years, with the birth and development of equipment designed for freeriding, is exactly the same thing that is happening today with road bikes that are also suitable for gravel. Everything has changed, and it has been a fundamental change in mentality and a different way of thinking about bike equipment. 

And what has changed, if you think about it, is us. Our expectations and habits have changed, as has our use of things. Today, in practically every sector, from sporting equipment to technical clothing, we have products that work very well in all situations. After all, this is what each of us, in our own small way, tries to do every time we leave the house: to be ready for any adventure without limits. Embracing the incognito is the real fascination of exploration.

About three-quarters of the way up the climb to the Gavia Pass, just before the last steep section and just before a place called Malga dell'Alpe, we notice a dirt road on our right that veers off to the right. It is a road that Matteo and I had already seen on other occasions when we travelled along the tarmac road to the pass. Today seems like the right day to deviate and go exploring.

We don't know exactly where the road will end up, but an exchange of glances is enough to decide the change of program. We lighten our gear with a touch on the gear levers and find ourselves riding on a road leading to a side valley. A few minutes and, there is an alpine hut. We are greeted by Daniele, a young boy curious about our bikes. Daniele spends the whole summer at the alpine pasture with his parents, Federica and Luca. We sit in the sun on the terrace chatting. They tell us about the difficulties and the joy of life in the mountains, looking after the animals and making cheese. In a stable next to the malga (summer pasture in Italian), there is a milking room and a small cellar for storing and maturing the cheeses produced during the season. 

These days, the animals are about to descend in altitude and return to the valley, so no milking today. Instead, we taste various cheeses and stay to chat with them some more. The fact that the animals are no longer in the alpine pastures gives them more peace and quiet than usual. There is certainly less work to be done compared to summer's height, and there is an air of the last days before closing. In the next few days, the year's first snowfall is expected.

Daniele confesses that he doesn't really want to go back to school, which will start again in a few days, and that he loves cycling and skiing, which he does during the winter. He likes to run free among his mountains and work with the animals. He seems like a child of the past, but his mother says that a few days at home in Bormio are enough to make him passionate about computers and video games – like all children of his age.  

I feel like I am similar. If I stay away from technology for a few days, I feel I could live in the mountains, in a mountain hut like this one. Living in a house made of stone and wood that when you leave the front door feels like there are only two options: going down to the village, towards the people and civilisation, or going up towards the pass, the mountains and silence. After all, life here is hard, but choices are simpler, and you always know what can come out of every decision you make.

And if there's one thing cycling has taught me, it's that it's always better to choose the uphill route at a crossroad. The downhill might be more comfortable, but going uphill also brings hope, possibility, a fair compensation, and escape. So what we are doing with Matteo these days is none other than this: always choosing the less travelled road. 

We plan a shorter but no less exciting ride on our third day: we will cycle to the Laghi di Cancano in Valdidentro. It's a shorter climb than the others, but a beautiful one. One of those often underestimated climbs that leave you speechless when you ride on it for the first time. The climb is 14 kilometres long, faces south and is a continuous succession of panoramic straights and twenty hairpin bends.

Day three

The slope is continuous and regular until you reach the Torri di Fraele, a pair of signal bulwarks built seven centuries ago at the end of the 14th century. Their purpose was to protect access to the valley, a real gem that today leads to two adjoining artificial lakes, Lake S. Giacomo and Lake Cancano.

Around the lake, there is a dirt road from which numerous paths branch off, many of which are suitable for gravel bikes, while others are more challenging and are best ridden on enduro or cross-country bikes. Matteo and I, after the ascent on the asphalt road, enjoy the dirt road along the edge of the lake, which is always smooth. We resist the temptation to go down to Livigno on a tour that would take a whole day and that our bikes with road tyres would not be able to tackle. Tomorrow we will ride the Granfondo Stelvio Santini, and it's time to collect our bib numbers and take care of all the pre-race formalities. 

Day four

Even if there are no ranking ambitions, it is still a demanding race that must be faced with respect. A dinner of pizzoccheri and sciatt della Valtellina (buckwheat pasta with potatoes and cheese, and buckwheat fritters) washed down with a bottle of Sforzato (locale red) is not exactly what you might call a light pre-race dinner, but how can you resist?

As I make my way to the starting grid in the morning, I wonder when the last time I took part in a sporting event of this size was. There were about four thousand people at the start. The last two years have been full of personal challenges, training on Zwift, travel and cycling explorations without the hassle of the stopwatch and rankings. I have to say that I didn't mind at all. 

However, I also know that the event I'm about to take part in is a rare gem, something special and unique in the world of granfondos. Events like this are a celebration of joy and friendship, of the desire to be together on a bike. I don't see keen racers angry and tense on the starting line. Instead, I see groups of friends who have set themselves a seasonal goal to stay motivated and are here to celebrate their friendship and training over the summer. The atmosphere is cheerful and relaxed. 

Despite the slight descent and initial excitement, when we set off, there is no sprinting or crazy 'shooting' from anyone. Everyone just wants to have fun and enjoy the beautiful sunny day and the view. The event has three routes: the short one, the mediofondo and the granfondo, which also includes the ascent of the Mortirolo, a climb that I would have been tempted to do but decided to give up to enjoy the day more calmly. I am in no hurry, so after the first climb of Sondalo, which acts as an appetiser, I concentrate on the hairpin bends of the Stelvio, which I already rode with Matteo. Repeating the climb today gives me the feeling of being at home, just as I did when I spent most of my summers at the top of the pass training on skis.

Today Matteo is riding a motorbike and doing his photography work. Every time he catches up with me or overtakes me on the route, it's a good opportunity to joke and make fun of each other. Today I am toiling among a few thousand other enthusiasts. 

The Stelvio is beautiful but different from what it looked like the other day, at times deserted and lonely, almost melancholic. I don't know which of the two versions I prefer. As I pedal and climb, stimulated to increase the pace by other participants, I think that cyclists have two souls, one as competitors and the other as explorers. What is needed to renew our enthusiasm is to balance the two things. 

As Matteo stands beside me for the umpteenth time, I tell him that our next adventure will be in a lonely, faraway place, and we will take the tent. When you travel by bike, the nights in the tent are magical. He takes his eye off the viewfinder and tells me that it's okay. Then, he tells me to speed up and get on with it before he turns away because I have a dorsal with a race number glued to my back. 

I cheerfully tell him to piss off, get on the pedals, raise the speed, accelerate, and try my best. There are a couple of cyclists in front of me, and I try to put them in my sight. That's how we cyclists are, we like to explore the peace and quiet, but we also want to get to the end of the day and know that we have given everything. 

Finally, we get to the top of the climbs, and we're toast but happy. That's the story of my life. I like cycling, but I also love going free, preferably in the mountains.

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