Wednesday, June 30 (147Km, 3660m)

Thomer woke up in need of a rest day. We decided that we would all climb Passo Bernina together, but then he would cycle to Bormio via Livigno and Passo Foscagno, while Chip and I tested ourselves on Mortirolo and Gavia, two of the most famous climbs of the Giro d'Italia.

Passo Bernina from the west is possibly the easiest climb in the Alps, and we made great time under blue skies and pleasant temperatures. On the summit (2330m) we met several cyclists, including a middle-aged man who had ridden up from Tirano (450m—1880m below the pass!) with an 11-21 cassette and 53-44 chainrings, and boasted about how we'd find his riding buddies far downhill. He nodded approvingly at our Mortirolo-Gavia plan, so off we went. Several switchbacks later we crossed a handful of skinny middle-aged men grimacing on the pedals—presumably, they were Mr. 44x21's riding buddies.

We waved to Thomer as he turned left towards Livigno while we continued the long descent towards Valtellina. We stopped in Poschiavo to take pictures of a bright red Rhätische Bahn train where it negotiated a spiral bridge, and then raced it downhill for a few miles. The valley is so narrow that the train runs on the road in places, sort of like a city trolley, and at one point Chip actually drafted it while I tried to open my handlebar bag, extract the camera, and take a picture—all while riding at about 50Km/h. You can view my out-of-focus attempt at this shot, just after the exciting drafting part and just before I almost crashed on tracks.

In Tirano we found a shady bit of sidewalk next to a supermarket and enjoyed the lunch we'd just bought: bread, cheese, yogurt, and fruit, all washed down with grapefruit juice and Fanta. I had never climbed the Mortirolo, and was a bit nervous about the climb whose name evokes "morte," which in Italian means "death." Tony Rominger, famous Swiss champion of the 80s and 90s, called it the toughest climb in the Alps. Lance Armstrong rode it earlier this year, and he had this to say in an interview to Cycling News:

It's a terrible's perfect for a mountain bike. On the hardest parts, I was riding a 39x27 and I was hurting, really hurting. (Mortirolo) is the hardest climb I've ever ridden. My time up the climb? It's not important; I rode the Mortirolo to have some fun and ride with the 'cicloamatori'...there were a few raindrops, but it was a great day.

Chip, of course, was unperturbed, so off we rode, up the Valtellina to Mazzo. Signs for Mortirolo take you through the center of Mazzo, a sleepy, sun-drenched little place where chickens run around in courtyards and old ladies peer from second-floor balconies. Then the climb begins: a perfectly paved one-lane road, painfully steep, rising through vineyards and then thick deciduous forest. The vegetation is too dense to afford much of a view, and the grade—10.3% average, with several 18% segments and even steeper grades on the inside of switchbacks—makes it difficult to think about the scenery. A recent repaving must have destroyed much old cycling graffiti, but the road is already covered with new messages: Pantani and Cunego are by far the crowd favorites.

A local rider passed us after a few kilometers but we caught up with him later, and I rode with him for some time, until I decided to stop at one of the only two available water fountains to refill my water bottles. In the end it took us over two hours to cover the 13Km climb to the summit, including stops for water, photos, and general appreciation of the absurdity of this climb. On the summit we met a group of Romans on lightweight racing bikes who were impressed by our luggage but felt little desire to imitate us. (Cyclist 1: "Wow, that's so cool. We should do a trip like that one year." Cyclists 2, 3, 4: "Yeah right. You're crazy.")

The descent to Monno in Valcamonica was almost as steep as the climb from Valtellina, but shorter and more scenic: at one point I noticed the roofs of Monno almost directly below us. Our rims were very hot when we finally reached SS39 in Valcamonica, and turned left towards Ponte di Legno.

A warm tailwind pushed us along and I drafted Chip—an acolyte of the "Buddha of infinite smoothness," as he likes to say—all the way to Ponte di Legno (1260m), so I arrived in perfect form. We sat in the center of town and enjoyed pastries and fruit juice before embarking on the third climb of the day, Passo Gavia (2652m). Like Mortirolo, Gavia is part of the legend of the Giro, and has seen its share of critical cycling moments. Andy Hampsten's brilliant 1988 ascent of the Gavia during a snow storm earned him victory in that year's Giro, making him the first (and so far, only) American to win that stage race.

The climb begins slowly enough, but gains altitude quickly after Pezzo, where an array of signs warns that the road is narrow and twisty, that it lacks guard rails, that the surface may be frozen or blocked by avalanches, that one should proceed with caution, and that chains are mandatory from September 1 to July 15. Well then! This time, though, compared to Mortirolo, the ride felt easy, something I attribute to the cooler temperatures and overcast skies.

Above tree line the climb became truly spectacular as rays of sun broke through the clouds and lit up the mountain side. But the top of the mountain was hidden by clouds, and we covered the last couple of kilometers enveloped by milky whiteness. We spent some time at the Rifugio Bonetta on the summit, warming ourselves with tea and admiring the many cycling photos on the walls. Some of the pictures showed a middle-aged man (I forget his name) who had recently completed his 100th officially validated climb of Gavia!

The descent was cold but exhilarating, and as we dropped below the cloud cover we caught a beautiful sunset over Valfurva. We arrived in Bormio at dusk after a long and very fast descent, with peaks above 75Km/h. Thomer was out watching soccer with some Dutch people he had met, so Chip and I settled into the Hotel Capitani and treated ourselves to a well-deserved dinner of pasta and ice cream before collapsing for the night.

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