Thursday, July 1 (138Km, 1768m)

The day began with a visit to a Bormio bike shop. I had worn my front brake pads down to the metal, and could not find the tiny 2mm Allen wrench required to remove the Dura-Ace-style pads. It was almost 10am before Chip, Thomer, and I were on the road to Passo Stelvio (2760m), my bike suitably outfitted with shiny new Kool-Stop red pads.

Stelvio, the highest paved pass in Italy, is a long climb from either side, but it never achieves the sublimely steep grades of Mortirolo, Gavia, or some of the Dolomite roads. The southern ascent, from Bormio, is also shorter than the northern one from Prato Stelvio, and it provides a bit of a rest about two thirds of the way up, where it crosses a broad and relatively flat meadow. All this means that it is that much easier to admire the scenery, which is some of the most grand and dramatic that I know.

The climb hugs the side of a steep canyon, while the Torrente Braulio that gives its name to the valley rushes far below to the left. The opposite face of the canyon, enormous and steep, reveals a cross-section of rocks from different ages. In many places the horizontal striations become gnarled and convoluted, testament to enormous tectonic forces. It all makes you feel small and temporary. The road ascends through a series of dark tunnels. Inside, water rushes loudly through roadside channels and drips down the rough stone walls, glinting in the faint light afforded by small openings near the pavement. Further up, an impressive series of switchbacks scale the far wall of the Braulio valley and lead to a broad meadow from which both Umbrail Pass (2503m) and Passo Stelvio (2760m) are visible. Umbrail Pass is simply an intermediate saddle on the way up to Stelvio, from which a road leads down to Val Mustair in Switzerland. From Umbrail, only a few hairpins remain to the Stelvio summit, an easy ride because the road is not too steep, the end is always in plain view, and there is the exhilaration of having almost finished a great climb.

Just out of Bormio we were passed by four or five very strong cyclists, fast enough to be pros or elite amateurs. They were followed by a team van, and as we neared Umbrailpass we were passed by those same riders descending in the van. Maybe the descent was considered too dangerous to be part of the training routine—I don't know. It must be sad, however, to do such a great climb and then not enjoy the descent. We didn't have such problems: after the traditional photo in front of the Coppi monument, we crested the pass and Chip and Thomer stared in amazement at the incredible descent that lay before us.

Only about 25 of the north face's 48 switchbacks are visible from the summit of the pass, but that's enough to provide an astounding view. In total, the road drops 1850m to Prato Stelvio, first through a barren ravine beneath the imposing Ortler glacier, and then in an attractive fir forest. We stopped a couple of times near the top to let the grandeur of the place sink in, and then enjoyed an uninterrupted descent to Prato. Halfway down we crossed a couple going the other way. The man was pulling a baby trailer. I was awed by his resourcefulness as my probable future flashed before my eyes. A few seconds later I began to have unhealthy thoughts about what great training it would be to lug a baby trailer around the Alps for a week. Probably not so great for the baby, though.

We stopped in Prato for a delicious lunch of pasta with fresh pfefferlingen (a kind of mushroom), and were back on the road around 1.45pm. We would be very late for our appointment with Bernie. Bernie is a German friend who had cycled with me in Norway in 1999 and in the Alps in 2001, and who would be riding with us through the weekend. We had agreed to meet in Bolzano at 3pm, but Bolzano was approximately 80Km away. We rode in a paceline to fight the headwind and deal with the intense traffic, and by 4.30pm we arrived in Merano, where we stopped to eat some ice cream in a gelateria on the banks of the River Passirio.

Warm summer rain fell as we left Merano. It was too warm for me to wear a rain jacket. The rain felt good as it cooled my body and then slowly wet my hair, ran down my neck, soaked my wool jersey, and saturated my shoes and socks. One hour and 30Km later, in Bolzano, that rain had become a torrential downpour: storm sewers overflowed, sidewalks disappeared under water, and cars stalled in intersections in a minor flood so severe that it made the regional TV news. A little before 6pm, Bernie found himself greeting three soggy rats in the lobby of Bolzano central station.

Considering that we were already soaked and that we wanted to make an early start up the mountain the following day, we decided to get back on the road and brave ten more wet kilometers to Prato Isarco (Blumau an der Eisack), where we had a reservation at Gasthof Schlosshof. That small hotel is perfectly suited for cyclists. There is a drying room in the basement, and the dining room has a "no one leaves hungry" policy, which meant that Bernie and I had two or three large servings of pasta before moving on to dessert. The slight hum of traffic on the Brenner highway in the distance did not keep us awake for a second.

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