Tuesday, June 29 (127Km, 2715m)

We woke to brilliant sunshine, and enjoyed unobstructed views of the upper Valle Mesolcina as we climbed the remaining 400m or so to the summit of Passo del San Bernardino (2065m). Chip was back in fine form and really enjoying himself: the scenery, apparently, was more vertical and spectacular than what he had experienced in the Rockies on his two Trans-America rides. After a quick stop for photos at the summit, we headed down the long set of stacked switchbacks to Hinterrhein, bursting out of the last forested hairpin onto a broad sunny meadow carpeted with yellow wildflowers.

We stopped for a second breakfast of pastry and fruit in Splügen, in a little town square that seemed to be a crossroads for touring cyclists: several rode by in different directions during the few minutes that we were there.

Then it was time for the second ascent of the day, to Splügenpass (2113m). The road looks fearsome as it takes off straight up from the center of Splügen, but it eases off soon enough, with switchbacks up a wooded hillside and then a long gentle section through open meadows next to a rushing torrent. Most of the climb comes at the end, in an impressive series of fourteen switchbacks, ten of them stacked directly on top of each other.

We regrouped at the top before beginning the descent that would ultimately take us to Chiavenna, 1800m below the pass. The road descends steeply to Montespluga (1908m), a collection of stone houses with slate roofs on the shores of an aritificial lake used for hydroelectric power. Montespluga is picturesque and nestled in grand surroundings, but also grim: treeless, semi-deserted, and somehow evocative of dramatic 19th-century stagecoach trips through terrible blizzards. I heard a sharp crack from the rear of my bike as we entered the hamlet, and stopped to discover that the wooden dowel that was supporting my Carradice bag had snapped. Not a showstopper, but something I would need to address. (In examining the saddlebag, I accidentally touched the rear rim with my thigh, and was reminded just how hot rims can get from braking on these descents!)

The shore of the lake offers a brief respite, but then the road plunges down again, with only one brief flat spot before Chiavenna, 1600m below. There may be longer grades than the south side of Splügenpass, and steeper ones, but none that I have seen give me the same feeling of anxiety and claustrophobia. In its upper parts the road clings to the sheer eastern side of the Val San Giacomo, sometimes burrowing into the mountain because there is simply no other place to build a road. In other spots the hairpins are covered by avalanche shelters, so that, in total, a large portion of the road is not exposed to the sky. In one of these tunnels—unlit, and all the darker after the bright sunshine outside—Chip and I encountered an almost fatal combination of obstacles: sheep in our lane, a left turn, an oncoming car behind the turn, and a deep pothole. We were both so shaken that we stopped at the tunnel exit to get our wits together. Thomer joined us some minutes later: he had been more sensible, and had not entered the tunnel at 65Km/h.

Chiavenna is a beautiful little town, sleepy but civilized and welcoming after the treeless wastes and scary tunnels of Splügenpass. We found an attractive piazza and spent an hour or two eating and relaxing outdoors in the shade of some giant umbrellas. When we got back on the road again, towards Malojapass (1815m) and the Engadin valley, the afternoon heat was oppressive. Only after 15Km or so did we gain enough altitude that the air started to cool.

Near Stampa I heard the familiar sounds of wood-cutting machinery, and stopped at a lumber mill to find a replacement dowel for my saddlebag. As luck would have it, they had just what I needed: within 15 minutes I was on the road again, equipped with a handsome beech support for the Carradice. The rest of the climb was scenic but undistinguished, except for the last couple of kilometers, where several spectacularly convoluted switchbacks negotiate a rock face just below the summit.

Maloja is a one-sided pass: heading east there is no descent, and the road follows the shores of the lakes Segl and Silvaplana on the way to St. Moritz. We made brisk progress in a paceline as we watched the afternoon light bathe the lakes and the Piz Corvatsch. I had planned for us to stay at the Ospizio Bernina, a mountain hut on top of Passo Bernina, but Thomer ran out of steam just as we passed St. Moritz. Eating probably wouldn't fix him, so we stopped for the night in Pontresina. Pontresina is not the most affordable of places—St. Moritz, after all, is just a few kilometers away. But after a little bit of extra climbing to get away from the main street, we found a pension that fit our wallets. There we impressed the English-speaking Swedish waitress with how much food we could put away, and fell asleep in short order.

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