TCR No.8 – Day 8

I can’t remember now if my later start this day was intentional or I had faffed with something and ended up setting out later. I do recall though being aware that I was more likely to run out of energy than time with the two big climbs just up ahead. So it could well have been a concious act – realising that I in all likelihood I may be heading for a hotel after the Gavia rather than tacking on the extra 500m or so of climbing over the Passo Tonale as well. Whatever the reason, it’s already beginning to get light as I push the bike back up the ramp from the basement. After quickly jogging up the steps to get back into reception and drop the key off, I roll left onto the main road.

0km – Nauders – 05:06, 1 August 2022 (1,649KM total)

As expected, there is no traffic worth speaking of – maybe the odd car or coach, none of which pass close enough to bother me though. There’s a slight hint of gradient still which I spin slowly up, enjoying the absolute peace of the dawn rising across the mountain peaks all around me. Before long the route splits right onto a cycle path which takes a curious dogleg into a field which it then rises up as it swings back to follow the road. Last night I’d spotted several of the tracks with random points away from the road which I couldn’t quite decode. I wondered if they’d gone to look for a path the other side of the lake but clearly they were just following this one.

In the small town at the start of the lake the path runs out and I’m back on the road. At some unseen point whilst crossing the previous field I’ve clearly crossed into Italy – this town following the Tirolean norm of having signs with both Italian and Austrian place names (Reschen/Resia). Sticking with my decision to stay left of the lake I ignore the Wahoo prompt to turn right towards Froi/Froia, and instead stay straight on towards Arlund/Arlundo. In the process though I miss a turn and find myself stuck on the road. There still isn’t any significant traffic, but the few vehicles that pass are travelling uncomfortably fast and don’t give me a lot of room. I can see the path I missed to my right, and decide to walk the few meters over the grass field to get back to it – getting a nice cool soaking of dew on my feet and ankles in the process. It’s already clear it will be a hot day though, so I’m sure they won’t stay damp for long.

My reward is the wonderful, if strange sight of what looks to be a church tower standing alone surrounded by the water of a small bay. In the faint morning like, with snow covered alps in the background, it’s just begging to be photographed. Assuming it to be the remains of a church, I caption it ‘Lady of the Lake‘ on Insta (it’s name on Google is the Submerged Church Tower of Graun, a 1300s sunken church).

The path is decent and it doesn’t take long to reaching the end of the second lake. I know I must turn somewhere to get back onto my original route, but I find myself following instinct rather than any clear plan. A right branch of the cycle path is signposted that looks to cross the bottom of the lake in the right general direction. Sure enough, a few meters beyond the head (or is it foot) of the lake it merges with a path coming in from the right and the Wahoo beeps in satisfaction that we are now back on track. And what a track it is.

TCR has led onto some amazing paths and trails but what follows is right up there with the best of them. The tarmac is so good and the downward gradient so steep they’ve even put speed limit signs on it – which even for a snail like me are actually I blast downwards with a massive grin, as the path follows a small stream. It passes through two small villages on the way down (Burgusio & Clusio), requiring some rapid speed adjustments to avoid blasting out unsighted across the narrow streets and junctions. Only at Laudes, 7.9km later, does the descent finally end – the average gradient has been 5.8% and I’ve covered it in not much over 15 minutes. I forget now what the speed limit signs read, but I bet it was lower than my 32km/h average. I’m glad the traffic cameras on the cycle path (I’m sure I saw at least one) had no film in them.

The next stretch of route is one of those parts which I feel completely familiar with but yet which turns out totally different to what I’m expecting. What I couldn’t have seen was that (in contrast to the smooth tar I’ve just left) the path is bumpier and much less well maintained, soon turning into riverside gravel trail. What I could have seen, and is also blindingly obvious, is that the valley rises uphill. I contemplate hopping back onto the road, but it looks to be even more steeply uphill – the path surface may not be great but it’s a gradual incline. At various intervals are large signboards which show this to be one part of a much larger cycling network, although my brain struggles to orient any of the branches of path or names aside from the one I am on and the town of Taufers, just up ahead.

The trail is gradually deteriorating from decent gravel track to full on mountain bike track when suddenly it does just that. I don’t immediately recognize that the steep gnarly path to the left is actually not my route until I spot a small brown sign with an icon depicting something that is clearly not a touring bike. It’s a relief to see that the Wahoo is telling me to stay left onto the lane, which leads down and across the river. Although the route the other side of the river takes a little decoding until I figure the short right and left dogleg onto the small road across pastures up to the lines of houses above which I assume is Taufers. It’s more than a little reminiscent of the path until Imst exception for a couple of details. Firstly, despite being narrow an oncoming pocket sized SUV shows that this is actually a road. And secondly, the view down the valley – we’ve already risen a surprising way since the bottom of thas fast downhill, and the scenery is utterly breathtaking.

I glance at the buildings of Taufers as I ride through, wondering about a breakfast stop. I miss what could have been a couple of opportunities though. The first is what looks through the windows to be a hotel with guests sat at tables inside. The second is a garage which, only once past I realise had an open shop. The problem is that by the time both of these sink into my less than alert brain, I’m already part way a rare stretch of downhill which I have no desire to go back up. Plus I can see what seems to be Santa Maria in the distance, although it turns out to the town before (Mustair), with no obvious places open. Along the way down I seem to have crossed back inot Switzerland – my third country for the day and I haven’t event had breakfast yet.

By the time I reach the top of the steady drag into what is actually Santa Maria I am sufficiently starving (the packed food being long gone) that I am much less shy of just barging into the first definitely open place I see. Which also turns out to a hotel, with residents enjoying their morning meal (at least they were until I arrived).

39km – Hotel Schweizerhof, Santa Maria – 08:05, 1 August 2022 (1,681KM total)

The hosts are only to happy to let me join them though – for a not so small fee (20 CHF). Honestly though I’d have paid double that, and still managed to eat and drink enough to make it seem like good value. The lobby area is smart, and wooden clad in very Swiis style. I’m somewhat amazed that it’s suggested I just prop my now less than gleaming steed against a table by the door. Up a couple of stone steps to the right, and a low doorway that has me ducking slightly lies the breakfast room, or at least the first chamber of it. I toss my gear on an open table right in front of the coffee machine and survey the goodies. Set out next to the coffee machine and spreading across tables under the front window is an impressive array of pastries, cakes and a large platter of assorted fruit. Those will definitely get raided soon, but before then the second chamber needs to be properly investigated. On my first visit I come back with juices and a large bowl of muesli – both of which are so good, I immediately go and get seconds. The third visit sees me venture onto the cold meats and cheese section, plus a couple of rolls and croissants to stuff them in. There was even various cured fish had I been in the mood, but by now those pastries are in need of attention, along with a third cup of coffee. And finally, several large slices of water melon from the fruit platter and a petite little glass jar of yoghurt (which also demands a second visit). It seems rude not to grab a final fourth coffee and juice before I leave – actually drag myself away would be more accurate. I literally could have sat there and done another couple of rounds. Rolling out into the town whatever lack of fuelling I’d had from the day before seems well and truly banished – and at a very un-Swiss price given the extent of the buffet. Definitely a top notch establishment for a hungry TCR rider.

I really wish I could do this next part of the ride the justice it deservers with an account of a gruelling but lengthy battle which ultimately saw me pedalling over the summit victoriously, But I can’t. The opening few switchbacks, as with last night into Nauders, I have the legs for. The pass is just too long and too high thought for me to ride the whole way up it. Umbrail Pass may not be the famous way up Stelvio but it is nevertheless completely stunning and deserving of a far better attempt on it than I managed. Luckily, there’s no shortage of lean, powerful day riders that are doing it justice as they slide past me. After the first sequence of switchbacks the road rises out of the trees onto a a small plateau where it crosses a stream on a little bridge before swinging back into a second sequence of turns. I do manage to mount up and ride some of this bit, but partway up the final gradients it’s hike-a-bike time again. I’m not even going to thinking about how long the 12.5km and 1,000m+ of ascent took me but, in my defence, the average gradient was 8.5% with pitches above 12%. I knew in advance what this would mean for me on a loaded bike with distance in my legs, and I’ve got top. One of the day’s climbs done. Time to grab a couple of shots before heading down to the next.

I’ve ridden across the Alps before but nothing prepared me for the sight of that descent down into the valley. The sheer scale of it took my breath away and I was more than a little nervous rolling down into the first couple of turns. It doesn’t take long before I start to find the line through turns – dropping slightly wide and then down through the inside corners, and sweeping a wider flowing arc around the outside ones. With each turn I force myself to use less and less braking – the road disappears down a chain of galleries into the far distance and I’m worried about overheating the discs if I drag them the whole way down. What were nerves minutes before becomes an exhiliarating rush. Far from holding the traffic up, myself and two or three other riders descending at the same time are actually passing the busy line of vehicles. Cutting a tighter line out of one of the corners we manage to get ahead of a coach that is holding the cars up. With clear road ahead there is nothing to hold us back as we charge downwards. I’ve never considered myself a descender but this is a blast. Sadly it’s not long before we get stuck behind the next procession and although we manage to hop in front of a few of the cars we don’t get around the bus. The road straightens though towards the foot of the descent anyway and the traffic begins to move more freely, some of it passing us again. One last tight corner brings the coach to a standstill which proves to be handy as it makes for a free right turn for me off the main road and down into town.

Down in the valley, devoid of the cooling effect of rushing mountain air, and weaving through the town there is just one single overwhelming sensation. Heat. Not some mild, sweaty warmth but blazing, stifling heat. Not a breath of wind stirs along the narrow cobbled streets packed between the old townhouses. It’s hard to even think about eating but I know I must put some fuel in my body before riding up to CP2, which is part way up the next climb.

71km – Bormio – 13:05, 1 August 2022 (1,720KM total)

A short way through the town I cross into a broad square, with parasol covered benches and tables in the middle. The unmistakeable figure of another TCR rider is stood there, seemingly kitting up to leave. We exchange a few words – on my side asking how the food was, which immediately prompts me to order a coke and some Lasagne. His name is Wouter (cap #216) and he seems to be going well and in good spirits. We chat a while, both of us share a similar view of parcours #1 it seems. He’s crossed paths with a number of thr riders I have. As my food arrives he rolls off to tackle the parcours.

I really should have ordered a second helping of the pasta. I do grab an extra coke but, aside from being delicious, the fuel would have been very helpful. I imagine I’ll see somewhere for a snack or an ice cream later though. After taking a pee though, I head out keen to get to my CP2 stamp. I haven’t travelled far out of town before I have to reset the Wahoo and load the next route. I want to record parcour #2 as a single track segment in case there is any need to provide my GPS log as evidence.

0km – Parcours #2, The Gavia – 14:14, 1 August 2022 (1,722KM total)

I’m only about 10 minutes further along before the reality of what’s ahead hits me. Not the gradient, or the distance, but the afternoon heat. I duck into a small shop to grab a sports drink for my back pocket, an extra water to top up my bottles, and some snacks. The latter are nothing I even vaguely recognise, but the choice at the little store is somewhat eclectic. The helpful lady owner gestures as if to show they will give my cycling strength. Rather oddly, I believe her despite any real evidence she is a cyclist herself. She’s been so helpful it’d be rude not too.

The heat is ridiculous. By the time I’ve faffed around off the bike, and ground my way slowly up the initial 450m of the climb to the village where CP2 is located it’s taken me an hour and a half. My progress and time management today has been anything but effective, but big heat and big hills will do that to you. I can’t say there was any disappointment with myself as I slogged up the steepest ramp of the afternoon, the short stretch of street right to the hotel itself. I’m nearly a day past cutoff, but I’m pleased with myself for gettting here.

10km – CP2 – 15:39, 1 August 2022 (1,732KM total)

After leaning the bike against a wall I grab a quick selfie as proof of passage before heading inside. Reception is up a flight of stairs, and the girl behind the desk has the stamp already in hand by the time I’ve crossed the hall to the desk. It’s an immensly pleasing site- two done! I immediately go to the bar and grab a panache (shandy) to celebrate.

I should probably have got food too, but for some reason it doesn’t occur to me. Instead I sit on a dangerously comfy couch in the foyer, and chat with Yoli (as well as catching up with messages, social media, and the race tracker). A rare case of mental fog has descended and I’m struggling to make a decision. The Gavia is infamous for changeable and extreme weather, even in summer. I’m not sure how long it will take me to reach the top, given how tired I am. I really don’t fancy descending in the dark. But it seems way too early to contemplate stopping either. Eventually I realise that if I rest now, I probably won’t sleep and will end up leaving so early I’ll probably be coming down in the dark anyway, just tomorrow morning instead. At least by going now there’s a chance I’ll get some way down before the sun fully sets. Plus, by my calculation with the climb to here, there’s less than 1,000 vertical meters still to go.

As with Umbrail earlier, I get a decent chunk of the way through the next set of switchbacks before the engine starts to falter and I hop off to give it a break. From there upwards it becomes alternating stretches of hike-a-bike on the steeper sections, and spinning my easiest gears up the easier parts. It’s not rapid progress but, as I found last evening, my legs definitely climb more strongly in the late afternoon than the morning. On the way up I chow through a whole pack of Haribo and both of the snacks from the little shop, which turn out to be incredibly sweet, but from what seems to be honey rather than sugar. They also seem packed with almonds, or some other kind of nut. They don’t exactly fill me up, but the lady wasn’t entirely wrong – there is a certain rapidly accessible energy value from them.

I’m not sure if it’s just the exertions of the day, a shortage of proper food, or just the sense of being pretty largely along (cyclists, bikers and cars are very few now) on a high mountain with the shadows of late afternoon beginning to draw across the landscape, but a strange sense of uneasiness comes over me. Around the last few corners the gentle breeze picks up into more of a real wind. A nagging doubt grows that I may be about to ride into a storm on probably the last mountain you’d wish too and at pretty much the worst time of day. And I haven’t replaced that base layer, which may have been the only one I had left. The gradient drops into comfortably low digits over the last kilometer and a half, and it’s with a huge sense of relief that I spot the buildings which must mark the summit just up ahead.

The clouds around have not yet developed into a full blown storm, but they show every sign of doing so. By now I am pretty much exhausted, but I need to get some warmer gear on for the descent. I lean the bike on the wall of the refuge at the top and quickly delve into the saddlbag to fish out everything I need. With huge relief I find the spare, old base layer is lurking in there still – along with the micro fleece and waterproof shorts. I’m not taking any chances with the cold on the descent, or the chance the storm will break before I get down. In very little time I’m ready to roll again. As I do so my fear immediately shifts from the possibility of a storm to the immediacy of what lies ahead.

The Gavia is maybe my fifth or sixth alpine descent but it’s the first where I’ve encountered the terrifying sheer drops throuhg the latter stages of each outside bend and along the subsequent stretch of descent. The first couple of switchbacks seem to have been built outwards from the mountainside which exaggerates the effect, making it seem like you are riding out over nothing as you begin to sweep through the bend. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the speed and the rush are also still there, but they’re blended with a large dose of fear this time. Looking down the profile of the road is a properly stunning sight – a narrow dark strip that clings onto a perilous steep hillside which it twists around far into the distance. I am utterly alone – there is not a car in sight, and none pass me throughout the whole 15km drop into the valley. It is cycling heaven – or it would be were it not for that tiny voice in the back of my head wondering how long it would take someone to find me if I misjudged a corner and came off on the way down.

This isn’t the first rapid descent of the day, or since the start of TCR and I begin to wonder how much life is left in brake pads. Despite doing my best to lay off the brakes so they still have power heading into the sharper bends, on occasion I catch an unmistakeable waft of them cooking. I’m on constant watch for potholes too, the road surface between much patchier and less predictable than the other roads today. At the top it was smashed to bare gravel in places, but even as the gradient lessens and the road drops into forests and through pastures there are rough patches here and there. Overall, as fun as parts of the run down were, I’m glad when the lights of town come into view. It feels like I’ve expended as much nervous energy coming down as physical energy going up. As tired as I am, my decision back at CP2 to do the Gavia today has paid off, and the hotel I’d managed to book isn’t hard to find once I drop down the cobbled streets into the centre of town.

41km – Hotel Bellavista, Ponte di Legno – 20:00, 1 August 2022 (1,763KM total)

Being brutally honest, the hotel had seemed smarter in the pictures, and they no longer have a restaurant. But the receptionist is very friendly and helpful, and initially it looks like I’ve been successful in arranging a takeaway pizza to be delivered. Plus I get to take the bike to the room too – which brings with it a unique moment of pure TCR commedy. The lift to the third floor is too small to wheel the bike into fully, so I angle it upwards instead. But the lift has doors on both sides and, when I get there I realise the third floor exit is on the opposite side. It turns out that am I completely wedged in the corner by the bike, and the front wheel cannot be dropped back back down from it’s upright stance to exit with a door on the opposite side. I ended up taking the lift all the way back down to the ground floor so I can angle it the opposite way against the door, which will then allow me to drop the front wheel into the corridor once it opens. It reminds me of a similarly farcical scene trying to get multiple bikes into the tiny lift of a Pizza restaurant in Saldanha with Theunis and the guys on a Cape 400 Audax.

For some reason I never fully comprehend, the pizza never arrives. By the time this comes to light I have zero interest in travelling out again to a restuarant, so half of the packed breakfast becomes my dinner for the second night in a row. It’s not all bad news though – the room has a kettle and tea, and biscuits too. So at least there’s a bit of an extra kick start tomorrow. It leaves me once again with the realisation I will need an early breakfast somewhere. The Passo Tonale is going to sap some energy before I reach the long run down the valley towards Trento, and the easier riding beyond. So I check my cue cards and the maps on my phone as I eat. Or more accurately, try to eat. There’s nothing at all wrong with the roll, in fact it’s a tasty layering of thick, rich ham and slabs of a whiteish, creamy cheese. The problem is the crustiness of the bread which plays havoc with my sore mouth. I end up almost sucking it into a pulp to avoid the pain of having to chew. At least there is some potentially good news. I had noted down a 24hr Esso station on the ring road heading out of town. Before descending into sleep I say a little prayer that the shop will be open at silly o’clock.

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