Day 5 – down into Italy
Getting up and quickly packing away my stuff before I got cold, I rode to the top of the Gotthard pass at about 7am, and relished the long, sweeping curves of the descent, much of it already in warming sunlight (I used the new road, empty at that time of day, not the old, cobbled one). I descended and descended for ages, into another, much warmer world of southern Europe. The road bowled downhill for miles and miles, through pretty towns and villages. I stopped to remove all my unnecessary layers and rode on in only shorts and jersey. Il Ticino is disorienting as, although it is still Switzerland, the language, the food, the architecture keep making you think it is Italy – only the prices give it away!
Most of the morning was gently downhill on fast roads – altogether there were 50 miles of descent, ended by a brute of a hill on a busy road in hot sunshine on the way out of Bellinzona. I rolled into Lugano, which I knew from a holiday 10 years ago, rode along the lake shore, and, feeling sleepy, found a park for an afternoon nap.
The nap was very pleasant but, when getting up, I stood on my headphones, which were plugged into my phone mounted on the bike, and they snapped off at the phone end. There was no way I could get the plug out without tools. Just after the Italian border, in Como, I saw a little mobile phone shop and got the guy to get it out with his tweezers. It took him 20 minutes, but he managed it and, in return I bought a new set of headphones. If he hadn’t been able to get the plug out, he’d have been able to sell me a new phone!
As I started off from the shop, another rider, Karl, passed me. We chatted a bit, went wrong at a roundabout and backtracked, and saw Urs, who had also come to Italy. I noticed Karl was a bit sleepy as he was weaving through lanes and, at one point, missed a red light and had to stop a bit sharply to avoid traffic. He asked if I wanted to stop for a coffee but, having had my nap and the phone shop stop, I needed to press on.
The road to Brescia was very quick and smooth with loads of helpful traffic to sweep me along, and I made great progress. Karl and Urs made even better progress and left me on some small climbs.
Late in the afternoon, I had to answer a call of nature and, finding nowhere open, resorted to the bushes. I pulled my shorts up and felt something scratching. On investigating, I found that the pad in my shorts was full of hayseeds. I tried to brush them away, but they were gripping firmly to the fabric! I counted my blessings that I had another pair of shorts to change into, and got on my way.
I booked a hotel by Lake Garda, which I reached just after midnight. That was only 280km for the day, a little less than ideal, but it had been a long night the night before – and hence a late start. I needed a good sleep to make up – which I got – and recharged all my batteries. I also washed my shorts and, to my dismay – as I had decided that these were definitely my more comfortable pair – was not able to shift the hayseeds.
Day 6 – back up into the Dolomites
The next day promised more flat Italian roads followed by a long and gentle climb, getting gradually steeper as the afternoon wore on, to reach Alleghe in the Dolomites at around 1000m, and culminating in the ascent of the Passo Giau, at 2300m. One of my clubmates, Ben, sent me a nice message via Facebook wishing me well for my Giau day, hoping it would not be too hot. As my cunning plan for the Giau was to get a good run up at it, from Lake Garda at around 40m above sea level and 260km away, I realised there was a strong chance it would have cooled down a bit by the time I could get there.
The morning’s ride started with a very fast road to Verona, on the aerobars most of the way. I’d routed through the city rather than round the bypass (as I had done with a few other places) to make the ride more interesting. I’d heard it was very pretty, which it was, but unfortunately part of its charm came from some rough, cobbled streets. However, I’d wanted to visit ever since doing Romeo and Juliet for O-level and was pleased I did – although I got into one of those navigational messes where I overtook a woman on a shopping bike half a dozen times before taking a wrong turning. I’d have done better to just stop rushing and follow her!
A supermarket stop shortly afterwards then set me up for the day, which largely consisted of riding along flat but featureless, and quite busy, roads. Just before turning north I went to a pharmacy and bought a few things to help keep the show on the road, including some tweezers, to pick the hayseeds out of my favourite shorts in a quiet moment.
The afternoon was pretty warm but, bowling along at around 30 km/h, I was reasonably cool. Around 4pm, I turned to the north and started my gradual climb from just 20-30m above sea level.
A little nap under a tree in a park set me up for the evening’s ride up. The Dolomites suddenly loomed – as high limestone buttresses flanking the road, blocking the sun as I entered their valley.
Later, I saw Karl, taking a photo on a bridge, but it was a fast downhill section, so I only managed a shouted ‘hello’. And, around 7pm, a quiet moment did arrive, and I sat on a bench in a village for 15 minutes, painstakingly removing the hayseeds from my shorts with my new tweezers.
At this point I checked the weather forecast, and it was not good! Rain was moving in from the north, likely to get to the Giau around midnight-1am, and it would then stay wet for much of tomorrow. I set off with renewed urgency, knowing I had to do the climb without wasting a minute. Getting a soaking at 2300m, in the middle of the night, before a big descent, did not sound like fun.
At the control I was pleased to see that I had gained a few places since Grindelwald, further justifying my route choice. I expect that, had I stayed in Switzerland, I’d have dropped back. Although there was a table of other riders enjoying a meal, I didn’t linger – just got my card stamped, bottles filled and headed back out. Having arrived at 9pm I was moving again by 9:15, and I reckoned on the 20km to the top taking me the best part of 3 hours. Paul and Karl had also taken heed of the weather were getting ready to leave and, within a mile or two, they caught me. Karl in particular was climbing strongly, and pushed out in front.
The Giau was a tough climb. A sign, where it started properly, warned that there was something over 900m of ascent to come in about 10km. But the pressure of the impending rain was a great spur. Half way up, when I’d been dropped by Karl and Paul, a car stopped and some people got out to take my picture. I got to the top around midnight, about five minutes after the other two. There were more photos as we put on our layers, and we congratulated each other on beating the rain.
Karl and Paul offered to wait for me for the descent, but I told them to go, given the rain. This was just as well, as they left and headed north, towards Cortina, while my route was back the way I’d come, as far as Selva di Cadore, where I turned left and, to my surprise, found a bonus col I’d not factored into my planning which required my tired legs to do another 450m of ascent.
At the top, around 2am, I felt a few spits of rain. This wasn’t an immediate problem as I then turned south, and headed downhill, easily outriding the rain, but it did make me a little obsessed with avoiding it. As a result I rode perhaps further than I should have done, going a good 60km on from the Giau summit, to take me up to about 325km for the day. With hindsight, I’d have been better to have rested earlier, in one of the sleepy villages I’d passed through at speed between 2 and 4 am. But at least riding through much of the night allowed me to get through the series of tunnels on my road without and vehicles around so was able to save a bit of time by not needing to use the cycle paths around them.
Finally, happy I’d put plenty of distance between myself and the rain, I decided to stop, grabbing a couple of hours of not very restful sleep on a bench in the little town of Pian di Vedoia.