Cycling Tonale Pass

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Ater a heavy but short bout of rain last night (with just enough lighting to make me a tiny bit nervous, but didn’t even wake Ben up) we woke up to clear blue skies and an already warm temperature.  It was going to be one hot day.

Our goal for the day was a big one.  We were to ride over Tonale Pass, which when we woke up, we didn’t know very much about except that we were pretty sure it was a stage on the Giro d’Italia.  As we exited the campsite, we noted a sign that informed us that we would be climbing to 1883 meters, the highest point so far in our trip.

By 7:30 we were on the road and quickly located a bike route that weaved us back and forth at the bottom of, and sometimes up the steep walls of the valley floor.  We might have minded more,  but we were glad to be off of the highway and out of traffic.  Along the way, we passed another WWI monument as it seems a number of battles were fought here as well.

After about 12 kilometers of riding gently uphill, we were approaching the bottom of the official road up to the pass and we began to crunch some numbers.   We’d begun the day at roughly 820 meters in elevation meaning that we had a full vertical kilometer to climb over the course of 15 more kilometers.  Ben happily chirped, “well, from here, we’re basically looking at climbing the Alp d’Huez! ” Uh yeah,” I replied hesitantly, “and this time we’re fully loaded with all our stuff!”

I was happy to note that the road up the pass was not the same wide, busy highway that we’d been on yesterday, but instead, a road barely big enough for two cars to pass side by side.  This would have been a problem except that the road just simply wasn’t that busy, and a good portion of the traffic was made up of motorcyclists who don’t take up too much space anyhow.  It seemed that Italian drivers today were feeling pretty charitable and even though they still drove fast, they gave us plenty of space when they did pass, making the ride far less nerve wracking than I had feared.

As we climbed, the grade was consistent and definitely steeper than our ride up Brenner Pass, but certainly not impossible, even for me and my skinny legs. This marks our 8th cycling day in a row without a rest day, and my whole body is starting to feel a little weary from the many miles that we’ve spun out in the past week. Still, with our cycling days rapidly coming to an end, there was nothing I would rather have done today than be out on the bike, heading up and ever so slowly over the beautiful Italian alps.

The day was warm and since I was moving so painstakingly up the hill, I wasn’t exactly getting a lot of wind in my face to keep things cool. Although I was too warm and despite my fatigue, the ride was practically perfect simply because of the scenery.  We were stopping often for photos and snacks and with every pause, we marveled over the grandeur that was before us.  The mountains were every bit as jagged and rugged and snow-capped and green as we ever could have hoped for and I felt deeply privileged to be where I was, doing what I was doing, just to get to witness their majesty towering over me in slow motion.

On one of our snack breaks, we ran into an old WWI fortress, built up on a steep embankment overlooking the road.  There was a steep staircase that led up through the mountain into the fort, and while I stopped for a snack Ben went up to explore and take a few pictures of the thick walls and the cool cave-like stairways.


I am not sure that I really believed there was actually going to be an end to the climb until I saw the sign indicating only 5 kilometers left which renewed my motivation and got me up the last of the hill.  The last two kilometers were amazingly flat and it felt great to use some bigger gears and actually move somewhere with any amount of speed.  The climb had brought us one of our most stunning days we’ve had on this entire trip and I kept looking back over my shoulder just to get one more look.

It took us three hours to finally reach the summit where we promptly took a picture of the sign, felt briefly proud of ourselves for making it, and then located a grocery store.  We sat in the shade and quickly put away two cartons of juice and two Magnum bars each and soon, I had goosebumps from the high altitude breeze and the cold of the ice cream.

Sufficiently cooled off, we figured we better get going before we ran out of any motivation to go anywhere.  We filled our bottles from an amazingly cold fountain next to another WWI memorial, snapped a few more photos, and then headed over the other side of the pass to enjoy what Ben likes to call “free miles,” a term which I hate because we definitely earned those miles!

As we ride, I often think of Robert Frost’s famous line “and miles to go until we sleep” which has taken on a whole new meaning as we quite literally put away miles and soak up every bit of landscape we can until we find a suitable place to sleep.  Today, even though we’d accomplished the biggest part of our goal, we still had quite a ways to go for the day.  Gratefully, a good portion of it was a giant coast downhill through pretty little villages set against striking mountain backdrops.

We have been chasing wildflowers for our entire trip as they bloomed in Tuscany in April, France in May, Slovenia in June, and now in the mountains of Italy in July and they have given our rides yet another element of beauty and detail that I will remember for years to come.

As we coasted, we had an insane headwind that threatened to blow us right back up to the pass, but it made no difference to us.  Just to have wind in our face was a welcome change that was a relief in the building afternoon heat.

Without warning, the downhill coast stopped and we began climbing again.  We knew there was one additional smaller pass between us and Lake Como, but somehow I had thought we’d be riding over that one tomorrow, not today.  As the uphill continued on and on though, it became pretty apparent that we were climbing Passo Aprica today!  Although the grade wasn’t steep, the heat was growing more oppressive and after finishing up one pass already, my legs were pretty fatigued to say the least.  We pondered calling it a wrap at an earlier than planned campsite, but instead we pressed on. We have a lot of kilometers to cover tomorrow as well and having the last big climb done today would make tomorrow much, much easier.

We counted down the kilometers to our campsite which we quickly realized must be located just shy of the top of the pass, leaving tomorrows ride to be entirely downhill.  As a nice surprise, we reached the site two kilometers earlier than we expected and the guy at reception, seeing our flushed faces asked us, “do you need a site with shade?”

Once we reached our shady spot, we lay on our greasy, dirty, utility bags (which actually belong to my parents, although they may not want them back after they what we’ve done to them) that we frequently use as picnic blankets and just rested, feeling proud of all we had accomplished. We climbed just less than 2000 vertical meters today making it our biggest climbing day on record.  I gave everything I had to our ride today and I hope we look back on our final touring days and feel like we really used them well.  By the time we pick up our car, hopefully we will be so exhausted it will simply feel like a logical next step in our journey to spend some time traveling in a new way.

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