Friday, September 16, 2016

2016 Tour of the Alps: Gasthaus Berninahaus to Schluderns

My breathing was labored, my vision tunneled down to the skinny tire on the wheel of the bike in front of me. To add insult to injury, the woman riding the bike in front of me was hardly making any effort. She was chatting with her companion who was next to her casually. At one point, she sat up, fished some gloves out of her jersey pockets, and put them on, all without slowing down. Finally, the gallery ended and the two women slowed and turned around. "Thanks for the pull!" was all I managed to gasp before they disappeared. I looked down at my cyclometer. "Darn it, we're still going to miss the 12:30!"



The roads were still wet when we rode off in the morning into a cloudy morning. As we climbed the Bernina pass, we got to see the Bernina express alongside the road. The climb didn't take long, especially in the windless environment. We stopped only long enough to take pictures before descending to the intersection with Forcola di Livigno, which would take us back into Italy.
Occasional rain drops were felt as we climbed the pass, lending our efforts a bit of urgency, but the roads remained dry. The pass is an easy climb from this direction, with gentle 6% grades winding along the road. The summit came almost as a surprise, kept carefully from view until the last minute. The construction we had witnessed in 2014 was long done, and the road was smooth. Once again, at the summit we stopped only long enough to take pictures before starting the descent.
On the descent, the rain drops came a lot more frequently, some of them stinging so painfully that they might very well have been hailstone, making the long slide protection galleries welcomed for a change, since they at least provided some shelter. I got way ahead of the others and had to pull over to wait in town.

Arturo's bike had a cable stop that was broken. It looked like a trivial piece to find and fix, but once again, it was actually difficult to find road bike parts in Europe, so we had to search 3 bike shops before finding one that stocked the part and was willing to do the job. It was a 5 Euro fix, which meant it was well worth it for them to do the work than for me to attempt a field repair. We visited a few more bike shops and I tried to persuade the others to buy shoe covers and additional cold/rainy weather gear, but no one was persuaded. "It'll only be used on this trip!" said Arturo. Oh well. since my companions were opting out, I decided to opt out as well. No point being the only person willing to ride in the rain!

We bought and lunch as well as additional salt tablets near the bike shop, but rather than eat lunch right away, immediately headed towards the Livigno tunnel entrance. The tunnel entrance turned out to be much further from town than I thought, and it was quite clear that we were going to miss the 12:30pm shuttle throught the tunnel. Apparently, the tunnel was very narrow and bicycles were not allowed inside --- a shuttle especially for bikes was provided instead that ran on a 45 minute interval. Pengtoh decided that he might as well stop to take pictures.

Then two very blond cyclists wearing red and white on obviously team bikes passed us. "Hop on, Arturo!" I shifted into gear and spun up to catch their wheel. Arturo followed suit. Their jerseys said "Polska", which meant that they were part of the Polish cycling team. Their pedal strokes were smooth, and their bikes were fitted with mini-V brakes, which I'd never seen on a racing frame before. V-brakes are usually used to enable wider tires, but on those narrow frames there wasn't a discernible advantage. I never did figure out why their frames were designed that way. We zipped through gallery after gallery, with the two professionals in front of us never seeming to notice us or skip a beat in their cadence despite putting on gloves, chatting, or dodging obstacles and potholes on the road.

Even without a heart-rate monitor, it was clear that I was going to be dropped really soon as I was not going at a sustainable pace. Pengtoh was also nowhere to be seen. Just as I was going to volunatrily drop off, the pace suddenly slowed and the cyclists made a U-turn. We broke into the clear with views of the galleries behind us and the lake next to us. After we'd caught our breath, Arturo said, "You know, I don't have the gearing to exceed around 40kph."

Ahead of us, a man was sitting in a van with what looked like a bike trailer behind it. He stepped out, wearing an Austrian jacket, and said to us, "Going through?" "Yes, but we have one more." "No problem, we'll load up your bikes first." Just then, a big team of cyclists rode up. I started to worry about having room for Pengtoh. It must have been obvious to the driver, for he looked at me and said, "Don't bother about them. They never take the tunnel." Sure enough, every person made a U-turn and headed back on what was obviously a training loop.
Soon enough, Pengtoh came by and loaded up and we paid our 5 Euros and were soon driven in what was indeed a one lane tunnel that I wouldn't be happy to have to ride through. "You know what? I think we made the 12:30 bus after all!" We had gotten lucky in that no other touring cyclist had arrived earlier, so the bus was still on the Livigno side of the tunnel.

On the other side, we unloaded the bikes and started up Ofenpass, looking for a picnic bench. I'd forgotten that Swiss National Parks aren't really for recreation, and sure enough, we found nothing until we got to Il Fuorn, the only hotel in the park, where across the street there was a bus stop with seats which we could use. We ate a quick lunch, some chocolate, and then rode further on up the hill. Low clouds were already accumulating over the pass, so there wasn't much to see.

At the top of the pass we ran into another touring cyclist going the other way. He'd been on an expedition style tour to India and was on his way home to Germany. He happily agreed to take a picture for us in exchange for us taking a photo of him with his camera. He'd had someone give him  a place to stay in Santa Maria the day before, but mentioned that Stelvio had some nasty weather. The others were happy to chat but I was in a bit of a hurry to get going, since I did not know how long the weather would hold.

Regrouping in Santa Maria, we debated briefly as to whether or not we should head up the Umbrail pass or go on to Stelvio. Arturo was a huge fan of Stelvio: "It's your first time doing it, Pengtoh, you should just ride the East side." The plan was to head over to Glorenza, and possibly Prato Allo Stelvio if the weather held, but Schluderns had a better train connection if the weather should turn sour, so we deferred that decision until Glorenza.
In the past, I'd just ridden straight to Glorenza on the road, but this time, I finally spotted the entrance to the Italian cycle path right after the border crossing at Mustair. Since none of us had ridden it before, we decided to try it. It turned out to be mostly gravel road, but with a fun stream crossing that was very ride-able even on 25mm tires. The bike path mostly ran along the river until near Glorenza it suddenly became paved with cobbles. There, unfortunately, my light took a fall from my bike and broke just before we rode into one of the last walled cities left in the area.
The weather looked like it was going to get much worse all of a sudden, so we abandoned the bike path and headed towards Schluderns, where a thunderstorm hit just as we found the tourist information center! None of the cheaper options were appealing, so we ended up at Hotel Engel near downtown with a half pension.

The weather cleared up very nicely after the thunderstorm, however, so we managed to visit the town castle grounds just before dinner. I was optimistic that we'd probably still get to ride the next day despite the impending rain. "Worse comes to worse we finish the day at the hotel at the 22nd hairpin on Stelvio."

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