Tuesday, September 20, 2016

2016 Tour of the Alps: Schluderns to Bormio

My mouth was trembling, my body was shivering, and behind a glass door, I knew there was warmth. But cruelly, the sign on the door said, "Open at 2:00pm." It was only 5 minutes away, but it was going to be a long wait.

The day had started out beautifully, with gorgeous blue skies in the morning and only a few clouds over in the distance. With that kind of weather, thoughts of hopping on the train to visit Merano were banished from our minds by the time the breakfast was over. We were going to ride!

Getting to Prato Allo Stelvio took very little time, but once there I made the fateful error to push on instead of stopping to buy food. Nevertheless, in high spirits we rode up the Stelvio highway, stopping only to remove our helmets and put on cycling cap under sunny skies. I didn't even make fun of Pengtoh for putting on sunscreen that day.

At Trafoi, we stopped at the National Park visitor's center for water, but the person running the place told us that there were no grocery stores and no food in town, except maybe at the campground. But the campground road headed steeply down the hill, and none of us wanted to do additional gratuitous climbing.

As we climbed, clouds descended upon us, and by the time we got to the 22nd hairpin at Hotel Franzenshohe, we were starting to feel drops of rain. I should have opted to buy snacks at the bar and then left, but it was cold and I wanted a hot lunch! So we ordered pasta, soup, and coffee, and proceeded to eat. "This doesn't look promising," said Arturo. "Let's see how we feel after lunch."
Lunch was over by 12:30pm, but the weather hadn't improved. If anything, we started getting a light drizzle. "This is going to be epic!" I said to Arturo. Completely out of character, Arturo looked completely unenthusiastic. "I have a very bad feeling about this." "Come on, you'll have a story to tell your grand kids. Oh wait, you don't have any kids. OK, you'll be telling stories about this to my grand kids." I put on everything I owned, two sets of jackets, leg warmers and rain pants.
Despite my bravado, I was not having a good day. By the 20th hairpin, both my companions were faster than I was up the mountain. I slogged slowly up the hill, losing distance with every pedal stroke until I could no longer see my friends in front of me by the 5th hairpin from the top. The rain grew heavier and the temperature dropped even more. By the time I reached the summit, water was coming down my helmet, dripping off my chin onto my top tube, and my socks were soaked through. "Come on in!" cried Arturo. Pengtoh had found the bank of Sondrio, which had a little enclosed space for its customers to use its ATM. There was a dearth of customers right at that moment, so we ducked in and I put on long fingered gloves and my wool socks, brought on the trip precisely for a day like this. Outside, the temperature gauge read 6 degrees centigrade.

"OK, let's go take a picture," declared Arturo, "then let's get out of here." All thoughts of staying at one of the hotels littering the summit was gone. We wanted out of this as quickly as possible. We took the summit picture. "I'll wait for you guys at the Livigno intersection." I said. In these conditions, I'm frequently the fastest descender. I took off down the Bormio side of Stelvio, going as fast as I dared. I passed many cyclists, all of whom seemed nervous in the rain, unwilling to trust their brakes. But my bike was battle tested --- I'd done many a wet descent, and I knew precisely how much braking power I had in every condition. At no point was I surprised by my brakes' performance, though I was frequently astonished by how even in such a light rain, the cyclists I encountered dared not exceed walking speed. I've since met many an advocate for disc brakes, but on that day, not a single disc brake-enabled bike passed me, and I passed several such equipped bikes. The current fashion for substituting equipment for skill or experience does not fare well in inclement conditions.

My chink in the armor, however was the cold. While I never got so cold that I could not modulate my brakes, I was starting to shiver. By the time I got to the intersection with Livigno, I knew I could not wait for Arturo. I stopped for all of a minuite before deciding that going to the tourist information center to find a hotel was a better idea. I was too cold to keep riding that day.

I waited the agonizing 5 minutes to get into the tourist information center. Stuttering from the cold, I explained to the person running the booth that we had 3 people, all on bicycles, and that we were going to climb the Gavia tomorrow. "Oh, I know the place you want." I then realized that she meant the place Phil and I stayed during the 2011 tour. She then looked at me and said, "If you need to wait for your friends, you can wait inside. It's much warmer than waiting outside." I was very grateful for that invitation and took her up on it, dripping all over the nicely carpeted interior.

I texted Arturo and Pengtoh as to where I was, and sure enough, they showed up 10 minutes later. "I thought to myself that if Piaw manages to wait at that intersection for us, he's a fool." smiled Arturo. "But that was a good call to finish Stelvio today. We basically salvaged a day." I led the way to the hotel (literally the last building in town before the start of the Gavia climb). We checked in, took showers to warm up, and took a walk around town in the gap between rain.
After a large dinner, I still felt exhausted. "Here, Arturo," I said. "Since you beat me up Ofen pass yesterday and Stelvio today, you get to carry the spare tire tomorrow." I then laid down, turned on my CPAP machine, and slept like a log.

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