David & the Stelvio Pass...

Closing a chapter that I started 12 years ago on the Stelvio…

David Terry

Aug / 29 / 2022

I took a day to reflect on yesterday, the last day of the official Grand Tours Project ride - "Alpe d´Huez to Stelvio Tour - The Roads of Legends"...

Day 7 was the grand finale - The Passo Stelvio. The Stelvio is the mother of all mountain passes. By consensus, it is considered the most demanding, iconic, beautiful, historical and important mountain pass in racing. The summit barely rounds over the top of 9000 feet. Just below the summit on the southern side is a valley where the Italians fought the Austro-Hungarian empire for three years, keeping them out of the Po valley.

For cyclists, the ascent from the northern side, from the town of Prato, is the more classic route. But it's hard to choose. So we did it both ways - starting from Bormio. The Stelvio, both ways, is a simple proposition: up the mountain, down the mountain, repeat.

  • Distance: 63.47 miles
  • Elevation gain: 10,180 feet
  • Average speed: 8.1 mph
  • Top speed: 55.4 mph
  • Moving time: 7:52:00

There is something magical about the Stelvio. It draws all kinds of people. The Polish cross-country ski team passed me on the way up from Bormio. They were "skiing" with poles and tiny skis on wheels. There were couples - husbands on acoustic bikes with wives following on e-bikes. There were also plenty of strong women on acoustic bikes too. Since it was Sunday, there were lots of motorcycles. I love motorcycles. There were very strong cyclists just flying up, dancing on their pedals. Everyone's friendly, greeting you and encouraging you in four different languages - Italian, German, French and English.

The most friendly, though, were a dozen early old age (my age) cyclists from an Irish cycling club. They were climbing the Stelvio to honor the death of a friend. Just as I turned onto the climb up from Prato, which is 24.5 km to the summit, they passed me as a group. They were as friendly and as encouraging as anyone could be. I was thinking that's a pretty quick pace for the next few hours going up up up. When they were not more than 200 meters up the road from me, I saw one of them ride straight into the guardrail. No big deal, but it was a foreshadowing of things to come.

There are a total of 48 hairpin turns - tornanti - on the climb from Prato, 36 from Bormio. They count down from the bottom. At tornante 20 or so, my support van was waiting to give me sugar gels and water. One of the Irish cyclists was there too, slumped over his handlebars. Gone was the cheery "steady on" attitude. He took off before me. I watched him cycle up the road, then stop, slump, and then turn around and come back to the hairpin. He was done. I came across another one just 4km from the top. He couldn't budge. And he was so close. Another was tacking back and forth across the road, nearly getting run over by motorcycles. They took off with lots of enthusiasm and literally exploded across the road. They seemed like a really fun cycling club.

For me, I feel like I closed a chapter that I started 12 years ago on the Stelvio. I knew something was wrong with me. Hyperventilating. Oxygen-starved. Weak muscles. Light-headed. Blacking out. Stopping at every tornante. Getting up the mountain one hairpin at a time. Cursing myself. Hating myself. Wondering what's wrong with me. For twelve years I've lived with the Stelvio as an ongoing open chapter in my life. It's when I mark the beginning of being sick. I was put on a path I couldn't choose to get off.

My wife and my kids chose - whether they know it or not - to ride right along with me. They are heroes. Katie has more strength in her than all the watts that have ever or will ever be put down on the pavement of the Stelvio. These past twelve years have been hard. I had unfinished business with the Stelvio. The last thing I read to myself before I went into surgery on the 14th February 2020 was this passage from The Rider, by Tim Krabbe:

A faux plat going down, the pace picks up right away. I spin along in low gear. My lungs unfold, the air of the canyon blows through my hair, the smell of balsam from other legs spatters off their spokes and into my nostrils. I slide in among the wheels, back and forth, in the continuously shifting braid of the peloton. I'm home again.

Yesterday, I felt home again. Yeah, the Stelvio is hard. But it was just a bike ride. A really long one. And so beautiful. I enjoyed every blessed second of it.

Sometimes the world as seen from the seat of bicycle seems just about perfect. I felt that yesterday.

I have many great photos from the day, but here is a 5 minute video of me descending into Switzerland.