Passo di Mortirolo
"Its a terrible climb... It´s perfect for a mountain bike. On the hardest parts, I was riding a 39 x 27 and I was hurting, really hurting. The Mortirolo is the hardest climb I´ve ever ridden. My time up the climb? It's not important...." (Lance Armstrong - 2004).
It was time for the colonoscopy. The Gavia and the Stelvio were long, classic Alpine climbs. The Mortirolo was a different breed of climb. The short, sharp, angry climbs that can only be assaulted, not laid siege to. The Mortirolo belongs to a very limited group of climbs that form part of the Grand Tour arms race to have the toughest climb. Sustained climbing with double digit gradients as an average, peaking into the 20%´s. The French held the lead in the arms race, until the Italians went Nuclear with the Mortirolo from Mazzo. The Spanish replied with the Angliru, Italy with the Zoncolan. They then upped the ante even further in 2012. Some sadist had learned that there was an even tougher way to get to the top of the Mortirolo. An even narrower, steeper, more technically difficult route, that started in Tovo Santa Agata. This option was featured for the first time in the 2012 Giro d´Italia; a route that linked the three legendary passes we were here to do. Steeper? Harder? We had to do it.
Grey storm clouds loomed over Bormio. We were going to get wet at some point, so putting off getting out wasn't going to make any difference. I took solace from the fact that Mazzo was much lower than Bormio, so it was all down hill. Chuff me, how wrong could I be! We peddled out of Bormio hunting the now disused road that lets cyclists get up and down the valley without having to do the 8km tunnel (cycles are prohibited anyway), and the numerous other hazards presented by too much heavy traffic. As we peddled through the drizzle the road started to incline as we tracked the course of the river. A broad grey river with huge boulders strewn along its banks. The power of water is immense. The old road takes you over a significant "hump" in the terrain and its clear this must have been a considerable bottleneck to transport up and down the valley. Cresting the hump gives you the long easy decent to Mazzo, past villages and towns and numerous Campanillas until the valley broadens and we crossed over to Mazzo. There are clear signs for the Mortirolo, the "traditional" route well earmarked for cycling junkies. But we were in search of the new kid on the block. We rode on to Tovo, a tiny little town, a cluster of houses separated by Apple orchards. There was no friendly signage here. This needed local knowledge to find the base.
We flagged down a passing svelte looking cyclist. Slight, tanned, Italian. We asked where the start was and he just looked at us like we were nuts. He kept gesturing with his hands in a vertical motion, shaking his head from side to side. We assured him we were sane and he lead us to the start of the ascent from Agata. Its a very tiny road, it looks like a private drive its that narrow. Its tucked away at the back of the village behind the cemetery and next to a garden. We waved him on, and we stopped to ponder the task ahead and gather our spirits. A passing elderly couple tried chatting to us, the only words we got were "No!" but their body language was unmistakable. They laughed at us and shook their heads in disbelief as they ambled away. The signs were not good.
The climb is immediately steep. A kind of steep that puts pressure on quads and calfs from the off. It needs persistent and sustained effort that takes you to the brink of your lactic threshold and forces you to stay there. The hairpins are stacked close together, the pine tress shadowing the road and closing in on you, pine needles litter the road and vegetation creeps out from the verges, it feels like a forest trail on a mountain bike not a climb from the Giro. Sections of the climb are less steep, which gives brief respite, and in comparison give the illusion of being flat, when actually you're still climbing a 7% incline.
The road breaks at about 8k and actually grants you a descent! The exhilaration from the speed feeds the endorphins that have been trying to dull the pain in your legs and lungs. However, the descent is like a death row inmates last meal. Enjoy it, savour it, bask in its delicious decadence, for you are merely a dead man walking at this point.
The narrow strip of asphalt that has been helping you cling to this forested mountain side suddenly and abruptly desserts you. And it does so as the concrete/gravel farm track that replaces it ramps to a "get off and walk" verticality of depressing proportions. The track breaks from the trees in to a beautiful vignette of freshly harvested meadow and Heidi wooden cabins, clustered at the top of farm track that wanders vertically through them to the trees beyond.
So far I´d laboured under the illusion that I was equal to Lance. After all, I was riding with a 39 x 27, and I was hurting, really hurting. Lance however didn't come this way. I´m sure he would have done what I did: get off. I cursed myself, but really, its impossible for mere mortals, in that gearing, to climb this wall. I used my GPS to record my time and distance on and off the bike as I tried in vain to stay in the saddle (off 3 times, and covered 400m on foot).
The concrete returns to asphalt as it rejoins the traditional Mazzo route. The climb from here now seems tame compared to the ludicrous nature of the last kilometre. Its still steep, but you know it can't be any worse. The summit was a tranquil place of open space and water filled ponds. I was welcomed by the sound of what seemed like Tibetan wind chimes, but was actually the harmonic bells clanging under the necks of a herd of dairy cows.
A stunning climb. A climb that truly makes you realise that the peloton is populated with a type of person that dedicates their life to cycling, not their weekends. A climb that makes you cast aside your illusion that you may, just may, be "like Lance". You aren't. Watch the Stage 20 of the Giro 2012 and see these people not only ride this climb, but attack on it. They storm up this climb like the forlorn hope. I now know that I could never be in that elite group of mad men that sacrifice their entire life to being the best. However, I´m very happy knowing that I can bask in their reflected glory for just a few moments.