What we found is that these deeply cut troughs run as low as 720 feet in the Lake District around Lago Maggiore and yet only one riding day away, the Furkapass climbs to almost 9000 feet. Consider that Prato allo Stelvio is at 3186 feet, and that you will climb 6739 feet in the next 17 miles to crest the almost 10,000 foot summit of the highest pass in Italy, the infamous Stelvio. Makes you wish for helium fortified camping gear.
On our first trip to this region, we had become so enamored with the riding that on this visit, we invited our good friend Eric Scott, also a seasoned cyclist and accomplished tourist to join us for a thousand miles of fun and frolic in the mountains of Europe. Here in the states, for the most part cycling goes without notice if you're lucky. If you're not, hostility can be the result. But, in Italy and Switzerland cyclists are treated well on the roads... with courtesy and respect. So much respect that after a brief encounter with a member of the press in Trento, we were delighted to open the newspaper "Alto Adige" on the 10th of August and find in bold print: "Bici stelle e strisce" ...("Bicycles, stars and stripes") "Monica, Eric, e Rick alla scoperta dei monti" (.....as they discover the mountains). I'll tell you, that the hearts of these people are as large as their mountains when it comes to dealing with cycling and cyclists....in a phrase, "they get it".
We stretched and groaned as we left the airplane after our 16 hour sojourn from Sacramento, California to Milan's International Airport in Malpensa. When we arrived in the terminal and waited for our panniers and bicycles to come off of the plane we heard an English voice on the airport loudspeaker say: " passengers Pappas and Scott, please come to the Delta ticket counter regarding your connecting flight." I said to Eric "Something is wrong with the bikes...they're our connecting flight." I must have had a moment of clairvoyance because before we could take a step, a Delta employee came up to us and spit out the bad news. "Pappas and Scott? There was an accident en route and during a baggage transfer one of our handlers ran over two of the three bicycles with a piece of heavy machinery."
As I looked up I saw three bikes being loaded onto the conveyor...two of them were in boxes that looked different than the ones I had so carefully reinforced and packaged back home. Sure enough, my bike and Eric's had suffered terminal damage to our front wheels, and Eric's front pannier racks had been damaged badly. Fortunately, the employees of Delta in Milan are a "state of the art customer service" kind of group, and before we could finish getting the bikes out of the boxes, they had a plan. Moments later, the three of us and the two damaged bikes were in a Delta van heading for the village of Gallarate and the bicycle shop of one of Italy's celebrated former cycling heros...the shop of Signore Turri..former racer turned frame builder extraordinaire. As we entered the shop my unspoken fear was confirmed...as I looked at the display of rims on the hooks dangling from the ceiling I saw only narrow, light racing rims. Signore Turri said not a word. He simply looked at our bikes realizing their intended use, picked the heaviest of the rims and smiled confidently. A couple of hours later, after a late breakfast and a long walk through the village we found our way back to Cicli Turri to discover that the Signore and his nephew had not only built up two very fine and strong wheels, but they had straightened Eric's rack and had performed a thorough tune up of both bicycles. We were at the shop for an hour, talking, looking at Turri's racing photos, admiring his beautiful frames and telling him of our plans and route. He was familiar with all of the places we would travel and was taken by the fact that we had come all of the way from the "Stati Uniti" to explore his land on these heavily loaded bikes. He and Monica, who speaks Italian quite well, formed an immediate bond that was readily shared with Eric and me. He was so taken with us, and us with him that our parting was a surprisingly emotional moment...somehow, in my heart I found myself saying thanks to that person who had damaged our transportation. Truly, all is well that ends well!
The airport at Malpensa is actually about 30 or so miles from Milan, and only about 16 miles from Lago Maggiore. So, getting a late start, and having been taken by van back to the airport, we loaded our panniers onto our bikes and pedaled off toward the shores of this splendid resort. Imagine, coming to the foot of this large lake, and looking across the border at the highest point in Switzerland, Monte Rosa, looming over this prized jewel like a protective guard. Maybe it's then that as a cycle tourist you realize that you're not at home any longer, or as that "Wiz" of a one liner says: "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore!"
We had no trouble locating camping even at this upscale resort area...you see camping is like a national pastime in Italy, and the campgrounds reflect this in every way. Unlike the camp areas in the U.S., all of the ones we found had stores, restaurants and bars. KOA, listen up....I want a tent site, two pizzas and three beers.....The campground we found came complete with a Karaoke bar that amplified the singers voices out into our jet lagged semi-sleep until 2 in the morning. We all knew the climb of Simplon Pass into Switzerland the following day was going to be tough.
I like the smell of Italian coffee as you ride around Lago Maggiore in the morning sun. The odor hangs in the air around the coffee shops that dot the shoreline of this scenic lake. Here they drink espresso brewed to a thick, muddy consistency. The coffee helps to make this the perfect first full riding day for a cycle tourist from afar. A beautiful lake with wonderful villages and marinas, terraced vineyards and an elixir that cures jet lag!
Leaving Lago Maggiore and weaving around the much smaller Lago di Mergozzo provided us with a hint of the experience that awaited us. Small villages, many of which are hundreds of years old and in various states of repair were found to be enchanting. The occasional glimpse of a high peak brought curiosity to three eager cyclists.
The miles to Domodossola, a city with a quaint centro città that is not to be missed, were largely spent wondering about the giant first mountain pass that awaited us. Simplon Pass (also known as Sempione) rises 6590 feet high in the alpine air. The road was constructed from 1800 to 1806, and crosses 611 bridges. The worlds longest railroad tunnel has been bored through this mountain over 3000 feet below. The tunnel is 12.3 miles long! The climb of Simplon is a great way for a cycle tourist to find their "touring legs".....long, but not so steep. Probably 5-7% grade the entire way. Two things about Simplon stand out in my mind. The first is being swarmed by huge black flies during the last part of the ascent. The second is on the descent...as you come down the mountain through the shed/tunnels you will emerge into a turn with the most spectacular view of the Matterhorn...there standing like a dagger pointed toward the sky is one of the most famous mountains in the world, dominating the landscape and everything around it. It brought three cyclists from the United States to a reverent and immediate halt.
Early evening and Brig came at the same time. The campeggio was a welcome sight...Simplon pass and jet lag had taken it's toll. In addition, I had developed a terrible skin malady from an allergic reaction to a medication I had taken. It was decided that Monica and I would stay in Brig to seek medical attention and Eric would take the next day to visit Zermatt to get a closer look at the Matterhorn, a side trip that Monica and I had taken on our first visit. Zermatt is worth the trip....VERY "touristy" , but VERY unique. The view of the mountain is one that etches itself into memory. Having had my health restored by a great physician and a cortisone injection, we began our traverse of the Swiss passes. From Brig we traveled through the most interesting mix of old and new architecture, pastoral farmlands, and hillsides that echoed with the sounds of cowbells. After many miles the ascent toward Furkapass took us to a place that was far different from the one where we began our days adventure. The scenery became truly alpine...views of the high Alps, glaciers, waterfalls and foliage typical of the high country were in evidence as we approached the village of Gletsch, gateway of the passes. From here you can, climb in the direction of Grimselpass or take the Pappas/Scott tour which will take you up the steep Furkapass. The Furka is a true grinder on a loaded bike. When you see it from Gletsch, the endless switchbacks will strike fear in your heart, but there is a reward for all of your labor. As you near the summit, and the old Hotel Belvedere you will ride directly beside the Rhone glacier. The melt from this huge sheet of ice forms the headwater to the famous Rhone River.
We put on another layer or two of clothes at the summit of Furkapass...the wind and incoming clouds were causing the temperature to drop quickly. By the time we reached the campground outside of Realp we were in a hurry to get the tents up before the rain began. Most of that evening was spent being entertained by the most frightening display of lightening and thunder in my memory. Riding through the upscale resort town of Andermatt and over the Oberalppass was how we began the next morning. We took some time to enjoy Andermatt and one of its fine bakeries...time that was well spent. Oberalppass is much like Simplon...evenly graded and good road.
That afternoon found us cycling along a scenic byway with open valley views on our way to Flims. This rather short day was followed by our ride through Chur and Klosters, over Wolfgang pass, through the ski resort of Davos and on past the summit of Fluelapass. Fluelapass is what you would call a "real piece of work". It isn't that it's so steep, it isn't...it is long however...but the ambiance, the "feel of the pass", sets it apart. Being lunar in appearance, riding Fluelapass has a desolate, remote feel. It was here that our belief that Euro-motorists are much more cycle-friendly was fortified. As we persistently fought the force of gravity, slowly traveling up Fluelapass, a car pulled up alongside. The passengers of the car, smiled and sent a round of "bravos" "bravissimos" and "forzas" our way. With this encouragement from a carload of Italians visiting Switzerland we carried on in the tradition of the pro peloton more than that of cycle tourists. When we reached the top, thirty minutes later, there they were...still cheering us on, making sure we had done it fair and square... ...INCREDIBLE!! The descent to Susch was a thriller. Tight, steep twisting turns, almost no traffic, this is a cyclists dream! Finally, we approached Susch and the campground we would call home for the night.
As we cooked breakfast on our one burner stove in the Susch campground, we enjoyed hearing the French, German and Italian conversations of our neighboring campmates. Hearing Italian and enjoying the smell of heavy coffee brought us to the realization that we would re-enter Italy today! All that stood in the way was Ofenpass. The restaurant at the top of Ofenpass couldn't come quickly enough for we three hungry cyclists this day. After eating a quick meal, we devoured the descent to Santa Maria, a village that offers the cyclist on this route their first opportunity to approach the Stelvio. We chose to continue to Prato allo Stelvio so that we could make the classic ascent of this famous pass...the ascent that travels through Trafoi. At Prato allo Stelvio we found a comfortable campground and a wonderful pizzeria. We spent the evening dining, drinking fine Italian wine and riding our bikes without their loads around town. To our amazement, we discovered the rehearsal hall of the local "om pah pah" band, and in the darkness a hidden bike path. We returned to our tents just as the rain and our concern about tomorrow's weather for our climb began.
The mountains of Italy are much like the mountains of Colorado in regard to weather. Late afternoon or evening showers, and sunny mornings and early afternoons. Such was the day when we left Prato on our way to the ascent which has determined victory in more than one Giro d' Italia. Enjoying the warmth of the morning sun, we began our ride with several other riders, all of whom were riding sleek racing bicycles without panniers. We would only enjoy their conversation for a very brief time! The climb began gently at first...don't they all? However, after Trafoi the pitch became steeper, and before long we came to the first switchback. The Stelvio has 48 hairpin turns, all demonically numbered...in reverse! So as we came to number 48, we knew that the fun was just beginning. The road is so narrow at this point, and the turns so sharp that the common practice for motorists is to have their passengers hang out of the window to direct them around the turns and to warn them of oncoming traffic. Our low gears and slow pace were humming along in perfect syncronicity as we listened to our motorized brethren grinding gears and motors up the grade. Switching from side to side of the streams flowing from glacial melt, we finally made our way to the Hotel located about 2/3 of the way to the summit. We purchased enough water to quench our thirst and to carry with us to the top and pursued our goal for the day. Numbered turn after numbered turn fell before us and soon enough the final countdown began. 5-4-3-2-1....YES!!! There before us at the summit was a virtual bazaar...stores, bars, restaurants, T-Shirt shops and skiers taking advantage of Italy's premier summer skiing area. The view from the top was worth the work. Glaciers abound. The air is clean and crisp. It is the top. The top of the STELVIO!
After a lunch of polenta con funghi and several espresso's we put on the warm layers and pushed off the summit on our way to Bormio. A few miles on the other side of Bormio we found a campground with a superb restaurant to call home for the night. As we pitched our tents, and took our showers we reminisced about the accomplishments of the day. This was a cycle tourists day in Heaven!
Originally, we had planned to include the other Giro legend in our ride, Passo Gavia. However we decided to try an alternate route that would take us down the Val Tellina and up and over a pass that was on our maps as Passo Foppa. As we were soon to find out Foppa has another name... the locals call it the Mortirolo. They get really excited about it when they talk about the pass, and when they see you beginning this route, they just smile! This climb which will help define this years Giro is a signed 20% nightmare. It goes on and on without relief....we even came upon a goat that appeared from the bushes along the roadside...it was bleating a mournful cry. We decided that the road was too steep for him too. That made us really feel bad!
After a long climb and a quick descent we began our approach of Passo del Tonale. Monica's father is the sports director at the Marilleva resort on the other side of Tonale, and we planned to visit with him for a couple of days. The acquisition of Tonale summit was a piece of cake compared to the Stelvio and Mortirolo, but the climb to Marilleva from Mezzana was hell. We were tired from all of the pass bagging, and especially from the endeavors of our last two days.
The two days at Marilleva were wonderful, Mario Costa the director of the resort was wonderful to us. My father in-law, Ezio Bressan not only shared his passion for the mountains with us, but had us meet him at a nearby refugio high in a mountain pass for a rendezvous with about 25 of his hiking charges. When we arrived the hike was over, and as we entered the refugio we were greeted with singing, eating, drinking Italians that were eager to share the time of their lives with us. The food, wine, grappa and our hosts would make this a moment to remember! It was at the refugio that we also met Mario Palleri a cyclist from Rome who would enlighten us with stories of the mountain passes that we still had to cross. Mario, like so many other Italians has embraced this sport and knows these majestic mountains with great intimacy.
After resting our bodies for two days we descended from Marilleva into the Val di Non. We rode through Male, Revo and Fondo on our way over Passo di Mendola. The descent from Mendola, is glorious. The view of Bolzano was magnificent....the valley that lay between us and Bolzano stretched out like a multi-colored carpet for miles and miles. The vicious switchbacks kept us alert and our speed down, which allowed us to stop often to appreciate the view.
Bolzano is a mix of new and old...of industrial and retail. The streets are busy, being occupied by motorists and bicyclists alike. The train station is a hub of activity. As we stopped there for water and directions we were swarmed with curious onlookers who were not all that familiar with loaded touring bikes. "Passi Stelvio, Mortirolo, e Tonale... Bravo, Bravo!!!" With directions to our campground between Fie and Siusi allo Sciliar we confidently began ascending into the beautiful Dolomite Mountains of Italy. This is the region that contains such famous passes such as Gardena, Sella, Pordoi and Campolongo. We would ride them all.
It was Sunday morning when we left our above mentioned campground. As we pulled into Castelrotto we could feel the liveliness of the village. We rode into the piazza to find a pre-mass auction in progress. It was a wonderful sight. Many of the citizens were dressed in their Tyrolean attire. Villagers, arm in arm strolling the byways or enjoying an outside breakfast at a cafe. Impressive! Simple! Beautiful!
By that afternoon, as we approached Selva, high in Val Gardena, the rain had begun. We decided after waiting out the storm for a few hours that crossing the Sella would be foolish in the lightening and rain, so we took a room at Garni La Truga. La Truga is a beautiful inn that Monica and I had stayed at during our previous visit. The owner, Signora Bernardi made us feel right at home, and provided a safe location for our bicycles as well. The Signora speaks with knowledge of Giros past ....many have sped by in front of her door.
With the return of the sun the following morning and many cups of Signora Bernardi's coffee we climbed Passo di Sella. This side of Sella is not steep, but it is pretty. Entertainment is to be found throughout the journey, as you can stop to watch the rock climbers on the adjacent vertical walls as you ride through the pass. We enjoyed the restaurant at the summit and descended to Campitello di Fassa. We had intended on camping at Canazei, however that campeggio was fully occupied. That evening we enjoyed a ride beside the high point of the Dolomite, the Marmolada and up to the summit of Passo Fedaia
Glorious, just glorious, that's what the following day was. With our panniers stowed away in our tents at Campitello, we did "The Loop". We rode up the steep side of Sella, which we had descended the previous day, up and over the renowned Passo Gardena, ascended Passo Campolongo and finished it off with a race against a thunderstorm up Passo Pordoi. We lost. Wet and happy we returned to Campitello just as the sun came out!
Descending forever. That's what the following day felt like. An endless descent down the Val di Cembra that would take us beyond Trento, to Monica's family in the village of Fraveggio above the town of Vezzano. The Val di Cembra is littered with terraced vineyards, ancient villages such as Cavalese and Valfloriana, and the geologically stunning "Segonzano Pyramids". As we descended the valley, when each hour passed, the echo of church bells from all of the villages blended together in an aural harmony unlike anything I had ever heard. I'm sure that the whole world lived in such perfection "once upon a time".
The traffic around Trento is bothersome, but the trip through the galleria (tunnel) on the road to Riva is a horror story. The tunnel is dimly lit, the sound of the heavy trucks vibrate off of the tunnel walls, and for a long stretch you can not see the opening at the other end. The exhaust fumes in the tunnel are asphyxiating. There is another route that we will take in the future...the one that goes over the shoulder of Monte Bondone and through the village of Sopramonte. The additional climbing would be worth the effort. Waiting for us in Fraveggio was a warm family greeting and reason enough to forget the tumultuous trip through the tunnel. In addition, Monica's Zia Flora had prepared a meal of polenta and cabbage....Now we were home!
Fraveggio is situated in the Groppo di Brenta above the Sarca River Valley. The riding opportunities abound. Leaving our baggage at the house, we followed the castle route to Lago di Garda. We visited Castel Drena, Castello di Arco, and Castel Toblino...now a restaurant and bar. All of this and a visit to the wind surfing capital of Italy, the city of Riva in about 3 hours including bike shop time! The next morning we rode up to the ski area on Monte Bondone. The view of the Adamello glacier far away across the Sarca valley is heart stopping...although it is many miles away, when the air is clear, you feel as though you could reach out and touch it! This area of Trentino offers many, many recreational opportunities...wind surfing, skiing, cycling and parapendio ...parasailing. At one point in our journey as we were watching these birdlike humans, Eric said to Monica..."I would try that if you would". Not to be outdone, Monica accepted the challenge and while we visited Fraveggio, the two of them took their first flight. There is a great school at Lagolo, up on the Calavino side of Bondone run by the expert Dario Segantini. As I stood on the ground at the landing area I watched as my wife and friend descended back to earth....both of them laughing hysterically!
Leaving Fraveggio is always difficult, Monica's Zia Flora is a princess, her Zio Eddy is a charming man, and her nephew Davide is a true terror in the sense that all four year olds are. Cousin Andrea the mountaineer and cousin Louisa the teacher are always great company when we're together. Parting ways is just hard!
On toward Lago di Garda once again, this time with our luggage and by the direct route. We rode through Riva and Torbole down the eastern side of the lake traveling through Bardolino. Garda is a popular resort with Germans, and here you will listen to both languages being spoken. The water is cool, but we couldn't resist the temptation on this warm day to cool off. This was a wonderful diversion on the way to our campground at Peschiera del Garda.
On our first trip, Monica and I rode from Peschiera to Lago di Lecco. The traffic was so bad, and the route so devoid of pleasant scenery that we decided to take the train on this trip instead. The ticket agent at Peschiera told us that no trains go to Lecco....but we persisted, and he found a way to get us there via Milan. No sweat...only one train change and an early train to catch at Peschiera and we pulled into Lecco on one fine sunny day at 9:30 am.
Only in Italy could the Catholic Church and bicycling be united. In the early 1960's Pope Paul the VI anointed the Madonna del Ghisallo as the patron saint of cycling. The church that honors the Madonna and all of cycling lies high in the mountains of the Lombardy region between Lago di Lecco and Lago di Como. The climb from the lovely Lago di Lecco up to the church is a bit of a challenge, but well worth it. On this day we were even passed by two pros on the MG/TechnoGym team. They joked with us about our loaded touring bikes and deemed us squadra Tartaruga...the turtle team! Once at the church you will find the bust of Italy's campionissimo Fausto Coppi looking out onto the roadway where Giros still travel. In the church you will find Fausto's Tour de France bike along with others including that of Belgian Eddy Merckx, and Francesco Moser. Sadly, Italy had lost a favorite son only a few days earlier, and we found the shrine to be mourning the death of Fabio Casartelli, the Team Motorola rider who had died in a terrible crash during the Tour de France. Months later, we read that Fabio's son had been baptized at the church, a fact that certainly touched our hearts.
We descended to Bellagio to begin our ride toward the city of Como along the shoreline of the lake bearing the same name. Como is the most magnificent of the lakes. The blue sky this day, along with the clear water made traveling through the lakes scenic villages a true pleasure. We arrived at Como just in time to have memories of our sunny afternoon....the rain had moved in and we found shelter in a cafe. They must love it when it rains! We ordered coffee and pastries until the rain had eased.... On the way to our campground we stopped at our favorite bike shop, Arnaboldi's. One can always find reasonably priced jerseys there. Half of the cycling clothes I own were purchased in this little shop.
Our last full cycling day was a tour of the villages between Como and Lago Maggiore where we would camp for the night before riding to our plane at the nearby Malpensa airport. Azzate, Mornago, Vergiate and Sesto Calende were the jewels we found after leaving the city of Varese. This is flat but pretty countryside that is memorable for its pastoral beauty and the beauty of its old villages. Camping at Lago Maggiore was again quite an experience. Our camp neighbors asked where we had been on those big bicycles. When we told them, they were so impressed that they hauled out huge amounts of food, wine and fruit and made a celebration of it!! They even offered to fix Eric up with one of two of their relatives. A heated discussion ensued, and when it was finalized, our Italian hosts had decided that Eric would get the pretty one....good thing eh?
Only in Italy, ....Ciao Italia, in spirito sono sempre qui!