Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The hardest ride of my life: Stelvio 2011

The Adige bike path in the early morning
Entering the Stelvio National Park
Pass open? Check.
I was going through my old GPS log files and discovered this gem which I hadn't uploaded to Strava yet: A log of the hardest ride I've ever done (No. 2 is this one, I think). We spent the summer of 2011 in the North Italian Alps. We primarily went hiking, but on the second to last day of our trip I rented a fancy crabon road bike and set out for a ride up the famous Stelvio pass. The original plan was to save myself some of flatter parts of the route by taking the train to Prato, at the bottom of the pass. When I arrived at the train station at 6 am, however, I realized that one couldn't buy tickets on the train. Oh well, what can you do -- I just got going, telling myself that those 42 km wouldn't make that much of a difference.

The bike's lowest gear was a 34-27 which is not bad for a road bike, but for 25 km of constant 8% gradient it wasn't exactly what would have been good for me. Well, the spectacular scenery and the loads of other cyclists (some slower, some faster) pushed me on and I actually rode up all 48 switchbacks to the pass at 2750m with just one stop.

For the way back I went down the slightly less spectacular but still scenic and quiet Umbrail pass. Once I reached the Adige valley again I was already pretty spent. But there were still about 50km to go. While they theoretically were all downhill, the typical hot wind that blows up the valley made my life miserable. In addition, my butt was really sore from being on this tiny racing saddle for many hours.

Well, after 150km, over 3500m of climbing and 9 hours in the saddle I made it back to the hotel in the end. Unfortunately, my suffering wasn't quite over yet. I obviously had overexerted myself enough to compromise my immune system and caught a nasty stomach bug. For almost a week I couldn't eat anything solid. But hey, it was still totally worth it.

Some remnants of the brutal fought here

Blurry picture of the first switchback

The valley opens up, providing great views

Plenty of cyclists

Nice, smooth pavement

Ortler. At 3905m the tallest summit in this part of the Alps

The iconic view of the final switchbacks. At this point you've already climbed for a long time

Time for a rest break before tackling the final climb

The pass is tough on everyone and everything. Stranded RV.

Switchback No. 1. Woo!

Top of the world (almost).

Turn off to the Umbrail in a picturesque Swiss village

My crabon wonderbike

Re-entering Italy

Sunday, May 5, 2013

First 200 of 2013

This winter in Montreal was much harsher and longer than last year's and therefore I hadn't gotten too many miles in so far. Yet, May marks the beginning of the brevet season, with a 200k. I probably won't be able to do any brevets next year, as we'll be moving to a town with a rando club and I therefore wanted to get a good number of rides in this year.

Important things first: Once again, I managed to not put back my memory card into the camera. I really hate it when that happens, especially when there would've been many opportunities for taking pretty pictures on this nice and sunny spring day.

The ride was scheduled for 7. I got out of bed at 5:30 and my usual slow morning self completed the last bits of preparation necessary. Other than forgetting the memory card, I also failed to prepare sandwiches -- something I would dearly regret later. The forecast for the day was a high of 24°C and pure sun. Given how pale I am after the winter and having seen my SO getting badly burned from a relatively short run, I decided to play it safe and wear my longsleeve wool jersey.

When I arrived at the starting point, there was already a big crowd of riders assembled -- possibly the largest number I'd ever seen at a CVRM event. Jean, our club president, quickly explained the rules of the ride for the newcomers and after the obligatory group picture we headed out. I stayed with the front of the group, and riding through the quiet morning streets in a pack of 15 to 20 riders at high speed was exhilarating. Once we got out of the suburbs, a group of 8 or so cyclists increased the tempo further and after a short attempt of keeping up with them I let myself fall back and rode by myself for a while. While I had my first Clif Bar of the day, I was caught by another group of 6 riders and we stayed together until the first control stop at 41 km. On the way there, I -- for what I think the first time of my life -- managed to drop my water bottle while being near the front of the group. Fortunately, nobody was hurt and I was able to retrieve the bottle, but I was rather embarassed.

Going with my usual policy of keeping the control stops short, I only had my card signed, went to bathroom and headed out again before the rest of the group. After a couple minutes it dawned on me that I hadn't refilled my water bottles because somehow in my mind the next rest stop would be before getting to the big climb of the day. A quick glance at the cue sheet, however, confirmed that that was not the case and I therefore bought a bottle of Gatorade at the next gas station. The lost minutes, of course, meant that the people behind me would soon catch up with me. I considered hanging on to them but they were just a tad bit too fast and I therefore continued by myself.

The route had been flat so far, heading straight south towards the US border. At the last turn before the crossing, we then turned west and rode parallel to border. This was also where things started getting hilly. It starts out with gentle rolling hills and a lot of false flats and I started feeling a little exhausted. This was exacerbated by my maladjusted rear derailleur that kept ghost-shifting into a higher gear. On the other, this stretch of the route is also the most scenic part. Vineyards and orchards, old stone walls, and nice views (you can see a bit of it here). The final climb up Covey Hill was mean, as always, but I made it up, huffing and puffing.

The following downhill to the next control stop quickly made me forget the hard work, though, and soon I arrived at Boulangerie Chartrand, which was as busy as usual, both with regular customers and other randonneurs. I only had an espresso and a Clif Bar, refilled my bottles, re-applied sunscreen, fixed the derailleur, and headed out again, once again by myself. The sun was burning by now which on the one hand made me glad to have the protection the long jersey provided, but on the other hand also made me pretty hot. Once again, I was being passed by the group of people I'd been playing cat-and-mouse with. The route out here was again all very quiet -- there's only one little town, Saint-Chrysostome, on the 60 km between rest stops 2 and 3.

Having a properly working derailleur was nice, but now I had to struggle with a headwind (even though it seemed to switch directios many times during the course of the day) and me being absolutely sick of eating and drinking sweet things. This is not uncommon for me, but usually doesn't happen as early. I dreaded having to eat yet another Clif Bar and longingly thought about those savory sandwiches I never ended up making. My feet were also complaining, but in the end I made it to the third control stop (which is the same as number 1). A few other riders were there, fixing someone's flat, and this time they actually headed out before me. The V8 and coke I had had at the control made me feel better, as did the knowledge that only a good 40km were left until the finish.

Just before reaching the outer limits of the suburbs I was caught by yet another group. This time, I did ride with them and had a nice conversation with one rider who was doing his first fixed gear 200k. We arrived at the final control at 15:37, a good 8.5 hours after the start. Given how early in the season it was and that I had ridden mostly on my own, this was a surprisingly good time and I didn't feel too bad. I also seem to have avoided getting burned by the sun. Overall, a very happy ride!