Our Merry Band of Adventurers

I’ve been back home from traveling with Alta Quota Adventures for about a week now and I’m reliving the memories of the trip by sorting through my photos.  I’d like to share a few portraits I took of our illustrious crew.

First, we have Ajax, our fearless leader, looking like Robert Redford relaxing on the set between takes.

And here is Ernesto relaxing in the garden before dinner.  Yes, that’s a garden in the background.  Can’t you tell?  (He is under the gazebo.)

Here is a rare sighting of Craig off the bike, enjoying the view of the mountains from Bagni Vecchi.

This is barefoot Rudy, enjoying Bormio’s old town.

And here is Jessica, relaxing in a doorway.

Here is Carla (a.k.a. Heidi the Swiss Miss) in the garden in front of our hotel.

and my beautiful wife Lisa, resplendent in the soft light with her freckles and blue eyes.

These portraits were all taken with a Nikon D3 camera.  For Ajax, Rudy, and Jessica, I used a 70-200 f2.8 AF-S VR2 lens.  For Ernesto, Carla, and Lisa, I used an 85 f1.4 AF-S G lens.  For Craig, I used a 24-70 f2.8 AF-S lens.  Processing was Lightroom only.  No photoshop.

Last, a quick apology to Dave, Dennis, and Sue.  I had hoped to take a portrait of everybody on the trip.  With all the bike riding, exploring the towns, and enjoying the scrumptuous meals, I didn’t get all the portraits done.  Hope you liked the bike photos, though!

Posted in bicycle touring, Dolomites, Italy, photography, portraits | Leave a comment

Italian Food — Yum!!!

My wife and I just got back from a fabulous cycling trip in Italy with Alta Quota Adventures.  Italian food is truly special and we enjoyed some great meals, so I wanted to share a bit about the food here.

Local Specialties

We stayed in two towns:

  1. Cortina d’Ampezzo which is a famous resort town in the center of the Dolomites and
  2. Bormio (link 1 & link 2) which is a little known mountain destination deep in the Italian Alps.

Cortina is known for two famous local specialities:

  1. Casunziei — half-moon beet and ricotta-filled raviolis served with a sage butter sauce and poppy seeds
  2. Canederli — bread and prosciutto dumplings served in a clear beef consomme

Bormio is famous for:

  1. Pizzoccheri — buckwheat noodles served with cabbage, potatoes, cheese, garlic, sage, and butter
  2. Malfatti — tiny “mal-formed” spinach dumplings (much like spätzle) served with butter and parmesan cheese

I never stop talking about how much I love Pizzoccheri.  On this trip, I tried it five times!  And last year, I figured how to make it myself at home.

This year, I hope to make the other three specialties and add blogs to share my recipes.

The Menus (logistics)

We generally ate dinner at our hotels.  The dinner was a multi-course affair with choices of first and second plates, a nice dessert, and a generous salad bar.

We’ve been on many cycling trips before, with many different tour operators.  On most bike trips you get no choice of entree or starter.  If everyone is getting linguine al pesto for the starter, you’re having linguine al pesto.  If the hotel is serving rabbit with mushrooms for the main course, you’re having rabbit.

This can cause a few problems.  If you are vegetarian, you may not want to eat rabbit, so you get a cheese omlette instead.  Often the vegetarian choices aren’t as good and the vegetarians get tired of having an omlette or steamed broccoli every night.  The flip side is if one member of the group won’t eat red meat, nobody ever gets red meat because the hotels try to make something that pleases everyone.  As a gluttonous gourmand, I don’t want to be held back.

Not the case on this trip.  Our hotel in Cortina gave us a choice of three different primi piatti and three different secondi piatti each night.  There were always good choices for the three vegetarians on our trip.  And there was always a generous salad bar and a nice dessert.  Our hotel in Bormio took it a step further.  In addition to the delicious salad bar, there was always a beautiful composed antipasti.  For Primi, we typically had three choices plus a soup.  For Secondi, we had five choices.  For dessert, they served a special dessert each evening.  If you the chosen dessert didn’t suit your fancy, you could choose from a generous dessert bar instead.

Yes, we ate pretty well on this trip.  That made it hard to lose any weight.  Despite all the cycling we did, I didn’t lose a single pound.  Darn!

So, now let’s get started.  My taste buds are already salivating…

The Wine

In Cortina, we drank a good selection of Italian wines.  Most of the wines were from the better known regions of Italy.  We had some Valpolicella, some Chianti, some Brunello, some Barolo, and a few other wines.  I’m not super educated on Italian wine.  (I’m more familiar with French, Spanish, and Californian wine.)  I liked the Brunellos the best.

In Bormio, we drank the local wine.  Valtellina has a variety of local wines — Inferno, Grumello, Sassella, Sfursat — to name a few.  Until recently, these wines have been truly undiscovered.  In fact, I’m not sure if you can find them in the US.  Turns our these wines are absolutely lovely.  They are inexpensive and truly delicious.

We also discovered a new trend in Italy, a popular aperitif called a “Spritz” or more commonly an “Aperol Spritz” for its main component.  Aperol is a bitter red-colored liqueur.  To make a spritz, you mix equal parts of Aperol, Prosecco, and seltzer water.  My wife loved this pre-dinner drink and I’ll be trying to make it soon.  I’m not sure if I can find Aperol in the states, but it is similar to Cinzano.  I believe it is more delicate than Cinzano, so if I can only find Cinzano, I may have to dilute it a bit.

Here’s our waiter Beppe delivering a tray of drinks in the garden before dinner.  From left to right we have a Forst beer, white wine, and an Aperol spritz.

Ok, that sure has been a lot of text.  All talk and no rock, huh?  I promise some photos in just a moment.  Lots of them.

I do want to put a plug in for Forst.  Forst is a German-style brewery in Italy.  It is located just on the other side of the Stelvio in the German-speaking part of Italy.  Their beer is particularly delicious.  It’s a lager, but has a remarkable yeast flavor.

OK, now it’s time for some pictures of food.

Some Photos

Antipasti

A proper Italian meal starts with antipasti.  In the US, antipasti is usually a buffet of roasted vegetables, salami, etc.  Yes, you can get that in Italy, but they often serve more serious antipasti.  Our hotel in Bormio served a composed appetizer every night.  They were alway “haut” to borrow a French word.

Here is one of my favorites.  It was a tiny quiche made from a variety of forest mushrooms, served with a few slices of prosciutto.  On the menu, it was referred to as “Piccola quiche di pasta brisè ai funghi misti di speck affumicato artigianalmente.”  The photo cannot communicate how delicious this was.

Primi Piatti

The primi piatti is the first plate, usually pasta, often risotto, and sometimes something else.  Here are few photographs of primis I enjoyed on the trip.

The first is a pretty standard spaghetti with tomato sauce.  In this case, it was “Fettucine casarecce Baita dei Pini al pomodoro fresco San Marzano, basilico e ricotta infornata.”  Nothing special, huh?  The noodles were homemade, the tomatoes were remarkably bright and fresh, and the ricotta added a delicate richness.  Produce and pasta are treated with great respect in Italy.  The result is that simple foods taste great.

The next dish is ravioli.  This time they called it “Mezzelune al tuorlo farcite alla ricotta fresca di latteria e spinachi sulla passatta di pomodoro al burro e salvia” which means something like “half moon raviolis filled with fresh ricotta from the local cheesemaker and strained spinach with a sauce of tomatoes, butter, and sage.”  Yeah, try finding that in the local freezer section!  :-)

Now we get to another of the Italian standard pasta dishes, linguine with clams.  In Italian, it is “Spaghetti di grano duro alle vongole veraci nel suo fometto, aglio e prezzemolo.”  I liked this so much I had it 4 or 5 times.  The fresh ocean flavor and the sweetness of the clams was incredible.  This dish was consistently better than anything I have tasted in the US.  The best version was one done with fresh razor clams, but I ate the whole thing before I remembered to take a photo.

Why is linguine with clams better in Italy than the US?  Here’s my guess:

  1. the clams are fresher — that can be duplicated easily — food needs respect and repays the effort you put in with flavor
  2. the pasta is more al dente — I buy DeCecco in the US and am very careful to not overcook it but semolina-based pasta is always more al dente in Italy than I can achieve at home or any restaurant I have found in the US.  I still don’t get how they do this!

And here is another popular and incredible pasta dish, spaghetti with bottarga.  No, I don’t have the eloquent Italian description from the menu.  I forgot to photograph the menu.  Bottarga is mullet roe, often called poor man’s caviar.  If you think you don’t like fish eggs, try this!  Bottarga is used sparingly with spaghetti and the result is an incredible delicate flavor.

My first experience with this concept was a plate of “uni spaghetti” I enjoyed at an Italian restaurant at Keio Plaza hotel in Shinjuku, Japan in 1997.  Uni is a lot more powerful than bottarga, but the concept is the same.  Keio Plaza adapted spaghetti with bottarga to Japanese ingredients and delivered a wonderful and memorable dish.

And lastly, we have the holy grail of pasta dishes… Pizzoccheri !!!  Pizzocheri is the pride of Bormio and the one dish that most captures the mountain experience for me.  My first time eating pizzocheri was in Bormio in 1995.  I’ve enjoyed it everytime I’ve been in Bormio since, have made it at home, and had it 5 times on this trip.

Pizzoccheri is buckwheat noodles cooked served with potatoes, cabbage (or chard), cheese, garlic, sage, and butter.  For more info, including a recipe, click here.  The best version of Pizzoccheri we had on this trip was at Rifugio Branca when we hiked Forni glacier.

OK, enough with all the spaghetti, how ’bout some main courses?

Secondi Piatti

Secondi piatti literally means the second plate, or the main course.  Here are a few of the nice secondi we enjoyed on this trip.

First is “Scamone d’agnello in crosta d’erbe alla provenzale con ratatouille vegeteriana” which means something like herb-crusted lamb with ratatouille.  This was SO incredibly delicious!  The lamb was soft and delicate and bursting with flavor and the ratatouille was delicious, too.

Next we have “Galetto di primo canto alla diavola on salsa agrodolce piccante” which means something like “spicy chicken in sweet and sour sauce.”  No, this isn’t the same deep-fried sweet-and-sour chicken you get at the buffet in a Chinese restaurant in the USA.  This was a truly delicious dish..  The chicken was tender, juicy, and flavorful and the sauce was a delicate complement to the meat.

Last, we have a German-inspired dish.  The Alps are right on the Swiss border and the culinary traditions are heavily influenced by centuries of trade.  This one is called “Tagliata di cervo alla pesteda grosina con cavolo rosso, salsa ai mirtilli e spatzli” which I would translate into German as “Hirschpfeffer mit rotkuhl und spätzle” which is basically venison with red cabbage, spatzle, and blueberry sauce.

This is a classic alpine dish.  My very first trip to the Alps was in late September/early October of 1991.  Most of the hotels served “Rehpfeffer”, “Hirschpfeffer”, or “Gamspfeffer” (female deer, male deer, or marmot) because it was the middle of hunting season so I remember this dish well.  It is nearly always served with an accompaniment of spätzle, red cabbage, and berries from the forest.  I especially remember a meal I had in Bivio on Julierpass in Switzerland, just one day’s ride west of Bormio.

Dolci

Dolci means dessert.  I apologize that I only took one good photo of the many incredible desserts they served us.  Here it is.  It is essentially a medley of fruits with some sorbet or ice cream.  On the menu, they called it “Cannolo in sfoglia di fragola farcito al pistacchio di bronte con foglie marinate di annanaso e mango” which I can’t translate but it includes words like strawberry, pistachio, pineapple, and mango.

Lastly, I want to put in a thank you to Doriano who was the head waiter (in French it would be Maître d’Hôtel) at our fine hotel in Bormio and one of the most friendly and helpful restaurant professionals I have ever encountered.  He explained the Italian menu clearly in English, was friendly and cheerful, and always made sure we were happy.  Thank you Doriano!

Hope you enjoyed my photos!  Italian food is terrific and I really enjoyed the experience.

Posted in bicycle touring, Dolomites, food, Italy | Leave a comment

Bormio, oh Bormio, How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

Bormio, oh Bormio, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

  1. Bormio, you are the Mecca for epic cycling
  2. Bormio, your town is beautiful to relax in
  3. Bormio, your cobbled streets are unspoiled as though it were 100 years ago

Mecca for Epic Cycling

I’ve blogged extensively about the outstanding rides you can do from Bormio.  Bormio is base camp for three of the legends of Italian cycling – Passo Stelvio, Passo Gavia, and Passo Mortirolo — as well as the incredible 4-pass glaciers loop.  While there are many other great rides in europe — Col de la Bonette, L’Alpe d’Huez, Mont Ventoux, Kleine Scheidegg, Gross Glockner, Gruppo Sella, Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Col du Tourmalet — no town has such a great concentration of epic ride options.

Every adult, healthy, sane cyclist who has the financial and physical capacity to travel to Bormio must make the pilgrimage once in a lifetime.

And when you do, I recommend you do these rides:

  1. Passo Stelvio — the most incredible mountain in all of europe — either both sides in one day or just one side
  2. Passo Mortirolo and Passo Gavia — here are two accounts of this ride: this year and last year
  3. 4-pass glaciers loop featuring Passo Bernina

A Beautiful and Interesting Town

At the end of your ride, you may be too tired to enjoy town, but if you have a little energy left, it is indeed a beautiful and interesting place.  The historical main street, Via Roma, is a cobbled pedestrian walkway (no cars) and chock full of interesting stores and restaurants.

There is good shopping here and it is very relaxing.  Here is part of our group (Ernesto, Rudy, Jessica, and Lisa) tasting cheese at one of the delicatessens.

There is also lots of great shopping, including gourmet items (delicatessens, a cheese shop, 2 wine stores), clothing stores, jewelery, and a very nice kitchen and home goods store.

One thing we discovered this year was a laboratory for fresh pasta.  Yes, Italians take their pasta seriously.  This place sells a nice variety of homemade pastas, both rolled and stuffed.

Via Roma leads to the main square where there are several nice cafes and restaurants.

Here is another view of the main square from a different vantage point.  This is the church steeple and the clock tower with the mountains behind.

There is plenty more to see in Bormio.  I blogged about Bormio extensively last year.  For more info and more (and better) photos, please click here.

Unspoiled Cobbled Old Streets

Bormio has a certain serenity to it that is unique.  Walking around the cobbled streets takes me back in time.  Because Bormio is unspoiled, I can imagine what life must have been like 100 years ago.

My very first memories of Bormio are from 1991 when I ventured down Via Roma.  Having just ridden over Passo Stelvio, I was seeking a hotel and asked a group of young men for directions.  They shared with me some fresh bread, asked where I had come from, and were amazed that I had ridden over the Stelvio.  (Where else would I have come from if I were here?)  Their enthusiasm and friendly nature is something I will remember forever.

Via Roma has grown up quite a bit since then.  There are many more stores and it is slowly turning into a tourist destination.

Fortunately, there is plenty of unspoiled old town just a few blocks away.  Bormio is one of the most beautiful places I know.  Bormio is still authentic and true to its roots.

Here is an old stairwell leading up to someone’s home.

And just next door is one of the most beautiful porch scenes I have ever seen.  Yes, I really like old rocks and red ivy geraniums.

Finally, here is another view of the skyline with a sunbeam coming down from an opening in the clouds.

I hope you have the opportunity to visit Bormio some time in your life and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.  I have been here 6 or 7 times so far.  I will be back again, hopefully soon.

 

P. S. — I almost forgot.  Bormio has some pretty nice hot springs, too.

Posted in bicycle touring, Dolomites, Italy, travel | 2 Comments

Bagni Vecchi — Bormio’s Old Baths

Bagni Vecchi means old baths.  Yes, I speak Italian now.  Fluently.  And Latin, too.

Bormio means hot springs.  In Latin.  Or at least that’s what somebody told me.  And I believe anything I hear.

Bormio has three different hot springs.  Bagni Vecchi is the old Roman baths which have been in operation for more than 2000 years.  Bagni Nuovi is the new baths.  I’m not sure what new means, but I bet they are old by American standards.  Bormio Therme is the newest bath facility.

I’ve been to Bormio 6-8 times since 1991.  The first time I ever heard of hot springs here was last year, but I was too tired from doing both sides of Stelvio in one day so I stayed in bed the next day and missed the hot springs.  This year, I made no such mistake and am happily able to report on my experience to you.

We drove up the hill towards the Stelvio, through the first tiny tunnel, and down a twisty little road to see the historical old baths.  The baths have been improved year after year, decade after decade, and century after century.  Currently they look like this.

Yeah, yeah, it basically looks like a fancy hotel (it is) with an outdoor pool and a terrific view.  What’s so special about that?

So, take a look at this…

This is the old Roman baths.  It is inside a building hidden behind the church.  It has been in operation for centuries.  The photo shows our group from Alta Quota Adventures enjoying the hot water.

There are two rooms currently open and a few more that are closed.  These baths have been in operation for centuries.  When the Stelvio was kept open year round to support commerce between Austria and Italy, armies of men worked shoveling snow every day and warmed up here at night.  Now the Stelvio is a tourist road and only open during the summer.  So, in the winter, tired skiers take the place of snow shovelers.  In the summer, cyclists can relax their tired legs here.

The baths were not fully commercialized until 1912 when the hotel was built, but in the 1500s the baths were closed to locals in June, July, and August by locale statute “for the peace and quiet of our visitors.”  Talk about a town that appreciates tourism.  Bormio is indeed one of Italy’s most famous hot springs.

So, Bagni Vecchi isn’t just one little soaking room.  There are a network of rooms and attractions.  As you go up the hill, the water gets warmer and there is more and more entertainment.

Just up from the Roman baths is the modern pool.  Here is another view of it.  You can see the hotel and the hillside (the start of Passo Stelvio) behind.

Very nice swimming pool and an incredible view.  Here’s a view of the Bormio valley below.  The church high on the hill to the right is Oga.  Way to the left is the road to the Gavia and the Forni glacier.  Straight ahead is the gentle descent to Tirano and Passo Mortirolo.

So what do 10 tired cyclists do in a few hundred gallons of hot water on a rugged mountainside?  Here is Marta soaking her head.  Water is distributed by a bamboo tube so multiple people can each enjoy getting a hot head.

Yes, that’s Ajax in the background.  Who do you think is cuter?  Marta or Ajax?  and who speaks better Italian?  Not Ajax!  :-)

Our whole crew enjoyed the pool, even ultra-endurance Craig who climbed Passo Gavia this morning before soaking in the hot water.  What, no repeats?  Wimp!

OK, so we got one hot swimming pool.  Is that it?

There are many more hot water attractions here.  Enough to make grown adults behave like giggly little kids.  It’s a bit like Disneyland for hot water lovers.  We head inside one of the buildings and find there are…

  • bunches of dry sauna rooms — I don’t know how many
  • some sleeping rooms
  • some resting pod dry sauna rooms
  • a cold tank (basically a huge wine barrel that looks much like a hot tub except the water is COOOLLLLLDDD!!!
  • a cold spray room which is really fun… you walk by this freezing mist… then pull a rope and it dumps a barrel of freezing water on you… and you scream and laugh… there are lines of people waiting for this experience… it sounds crazy but you can’t imagine how fun this is… I did it OVER and OVER again
  • several wet sauna rooms — these rooms are HOT and full of steam… golly, I can barely stand being in them for a few seconds
  • a mud bath… you dip in muddy water and paint your face with this slippery mud

Any why no pictures?  Too much fun!

And the most primo attraction of all was the grotto.  The grotto is a cave that has been around since Roman days… or maybe before.  It is a long Y that takes a while to walk.  One branch leads to a chest-deep pool of hot water.  The other goes to a small ampitheatre with… you guessed it… hot water!

A few posts ago, I posited that J. R. R. Tolkien may have been inspired to write Lord of the Rings by some of the local names, history, and two towers guarding an old pass.  This grotto makes me think he may have visited Bormio when he was writing the Hobbit and the chapter about meeting Gollum.  The grotto is an incredibly cool sight.

So, now that I have pumped this story up, you ask why no pictures?  Low light, I can deal with.  Crank up the flash and reflect it off the (dark, nearly black) walls.  But the humidity!  Lenses fog and you can’t see through the viewfinder much less focus.  Clean your lenses and the viewfinder fogs.  Clean the viewfinder and the camera internals fog.  Yes, my D3 is quite fine after carrying it through neck-deep water and foggy tunnels, thankfully.

Please take my word for it.  Bagni Vecchi was an incredible experience.

And if you don’t like dark caves full of steam and hot water, you can always get a massage from the hotel/spa staff and you can buy all sorts of herbal rubs and lotions.  They are supposed to make your skin look decades younger and they sure smell good.  The ladies dig that!

So, if you find yourself in Bormio, please take my recommendation and enjoy an afternoon at Bagni Vecchi.  We spent 3 hours here and I easily could have spent more time checking it out and enjoying the water.  Apparently I missed a really cool attraction… a bubbling waterfall of hot water.  I’ll be back next time.  Please enjoy these hot springs for me!

Posted in bicycle touring, Dolomites, Italy, travel | Leave a comment

Big Ride/Glaciers Loop: Passo Bernina, Forcola di Livigno, Passo d’Eire, Passo del Foscagno

It’s my last day of riding on this trip and we decided to do a big ride.  Four passes, all over 2000 meters, 9000 feet of climbing, and two glaciers to see.  The official ride is just three passes — Forcola di Livigno, Eire, and Foscagno — but the turn off to Forcola di Livigno is just 1000 feet or so below the summit of the Bernina, so you can easily add a fourth summit.

Bormio is indeed a bicycle playground.  The two most famous rides — Stelvio and Mortirolo/Gavia – are so famous that everything else gets overlooked.  This ride, however, is really special and should be on the top of your list of “undiscovered” rides when you visit Bormio.

The ride starts by heading down valley from Bormio to Tirano.  This valley suffered a terrible tragedy in 1987, the incredible Morignone landslide, which buried a town and required re-routing of roads.  25 years later, road work valley floor continues.  Here is just one view of all the work going on — heavy equipment grading the river and adding huge stones to the river bed to protect it.

Navigating this descent requires a careful look at the map to avoid the new auto tunnels.  For navigation information and more information about the Morignone landscape, please click here.

As we approach Tirano, I’m leading the group down the descent.  The descent is pretty gentle, but just before Tirano our speeds pick up.  I ride through a radar trap and the neon sign starts flashing “60 kph” (my speed, the limit is 50 kph) alternating with a frowning face :-(  Craig and Sue were following me.  Craig reports that Sue was laughing so hard she almost fell off her bike.  I look down and see I’m doing 36 mph which is exactly 60 kph and then start picking up speed to a bit over 40 mph.

Entering Tirano, we see office friendly.  Fortunately, he pays no attention to me.  :-)

In Tirano, we turn right up the valley to start climbing Passo Bernina.  At this point, we have about 300 feet of climbing.

Starting Passo Bernina, a sign warns us to prepare documents.  Oh, golly!

 

We’re just about to cross from Italy into Switzerland.  They check the cars but pay not attention to our cycling group, so we start heading up the pass.

Passo Bernina is actually a very famous pass for two reasons:

  1. The train route is extraordinary.  Bicycles are superior to trains.  We can climb steep grades and we can make tight turns.  To overcome the inferiority of trains and get up this pass, the Swiss have engineered an incredible railroad.  Down low, there is an elevated circle to allow the train to gain altitude with a wide radius.  Further up, the train heads into a tunnel in the mountain and makes a series of circles to gain altitude.  This route is one of the most popular routes for train historians and model railroad builders.  It has also been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  2. Bernina is a big pass.  Elevation at the top is 2330 meters.  The bottom is quite low, about 450 meters.  This makes the total climb over 6000 feet, making it bigger than Mont Ventoux.  It’s one of the biggest climbs in europe and it is really beautiful, too.

So, we start climbing up.  About 1/3 of the way up we get to Miralago.  I always thought “Miralago” meant mirror lake, but Ajax tells me it really means view of the lake.  If you get here early enough in the morning, the lake is really a mirror, as it was on my first european cycling trip in 1991 when I stayed in Tirano and got a really early start.  Today, it is just as beautiful.

At the lake, the road is thankfully flat, but soon we are climbing again.  We climb and climb, climb and climb, and climb and climb.

Eventually we reach the turnoff for Forcola di Livigno.  Our group heads off to the right, but Rudy and I want to see the top of Passo Bernina.  It’s only another 1000 or 1500 feet of climbing.  To prove we actually climbed this monster, here we are by the pass sign at the top wearing matching Hammer Nutrition kits.  Thanks, Hammer!

Hammer has a full suite of nutrition products:

  1. Perpetuem — Basic endurance fuel for your waterbottle.  Based on maltodextrin, perpetuem gives you long-burn fuel for endurance efforts, without energy spikes.  Years ago, before Hammer engineered this more modern product, I used maltodextrin for ultraendurance — double centuries, etc. — and had very good results.  You can put a lot of calories in your bottle without causing cramping while maintaining a refreshing flavor.
  2. Endurolytes — little pills with electrolyte replacement to avoid cramping
  3. Hammer Gel — a quick sugar burst to keep your energy levels up — I used this a lot when racing in the early 2000s.

Back to the ride.  One of the cool things about the Bernina is the glacier at the top.  I always get a special feeling when I can admire a glacier up close.  Yes, I’m willing to climb an extra 1000 feet or so just to see a glacier.  Here it is.

As we’re heading up, we see the German U23 team flying down the hill.  They are here training for the Tour de Avenir.  It’s pretty common to see teams training on this loop.  In 2000, I rode (briefly) with Mapei.

So, we descend Bernina back to the turnoff to Forcola di Livigno.  We see another border crossing, this time from Switzerland back to Italy.  Entering Switzerland, we were advised to “prepare documents.”  This time, the booth is completely unoccupied.  Yep, nobody home.  Italy leaves its border carelessly open to potential waves of Swiss immigration.

 

At this point, I’ve climbed about 6400 feet.  The total ride is said to be 9000 feet of climbing, so that means the next three passes will be only about 1000 feet of climbing each, right?  I sure hope so!

Climbing Forcola di Livigno, I look back towards Switzerland to see this view.  You can see we’re high above treeline.  With four summits at about 2200 meters, each, there are a lot of views with no trees on this ride.

Forcola di Livigno turns out to be a pretty easy climb.  Just 1000 feet, as advertised, after you’ve climbed all the way from Tirano up to the junction.  It’s a screaming descent, too.  It’s pretty straight and the grades are moderate, so the miles just fly by.  How long can you stay in a tuck?

Wow, that was nice!

Now we’re in Livigno.  Livigno is a special shopping town.  Due to some very old history, there are no taxes here.  Livigno was acquired from Austria a long time ago and one of the conditions of the acquisition was that Livigno would not pay taxes.  So, it’s become quite a shopping hub.  I was more interested in riding than shopping, so I can’t report on the details, but Ajax reports that gasoline costs about 40% less than it does elsewhere in Italy.  Apparently it’s not just the 15% VAT tax that is missing here.

From Livigno, I turn east (right) to head up Passo d’Eire.  It’s a pretty easy climb, about 1200-1500 feet to the top.  Near the top is a downhill mountainbike resort.  On the road I see several mountainbike fully outfitted with special downhill bikes and full face helmets.  They are descending back to Livigno, where they must be staying.  Presumably they took the ski lift up.  But why are they descending so slowly on the road?  I can go way faster on my road bike!

From the top of Passo d’Eire you can almost see the top of Passo Foscagno.  It’s just a quick descent before you start the small climb.  The climb is a bit annoying at the top, however, as there is a false summit.  When you get to what looks like the top, you see 2-3 switchbacks to go and there is a fierce headwind.  Oh, well, it’s not too bad of a climb anyway.

I quickly start the descent as I want to get back to our cozy hotel in Bormio to see my wife and all my bike friends.  I take one quick stop on the way down to get this photograph of a really beautiful glacier.  Yes, this is a big one, and the peak towers way above the rest of the landscape.

The descent is a zoom.  This ride has four terrific descents.  Sure, there is a lot of climbing, but it’s all front loaded.  Once you summit the Bernina, you have three easy climbs and four fabulous descents to go.

Ride stats, eh?  83  miles and 9300 feet of climbing.  If you skip the Bernina summit, I’d guess you’d get 78 miles and 8000 feet of climbing.  A really beautiful ride and a wonderful day on the bike.  I highly recommend this ride!

 

 

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Hiking to see Forni Glacier

Hiking?  Isn’t this a bike trip?  Why would we ever go hiking?

Turns out it’s an off day.  After climbing the Mortirolo and Gavia, our legs are tired.  Ajax suggested a hike and everybody bought in.  Ajax’s company, Alta Quota Adventures, leads multi-sports trips (hiking, skiing, road biking, and mountain biking) in Northern Italy, so he’s very familiar with the hiking options around here.

Ajax suggested we hike up to see the Forni glacier.  We all jumped in the van and started driving east from Bormio.  We went to Santa Caterina Valfurva where Passo Gavia heads south up the switchbacks.  Instead of driving up the Gavia, we headed northeast up a jeep trail.  It is paved, but it is steep, narrow, windy, steep, and narrow.  Wow!  At first I thought I would like to ride this one day on my bike, but the grade was so fierce I’m not sure I’d enjoy it.  Soon we got to a dirt parking lot and the start of our hike.

Here’s our crew hiking up the trail.

Soon we get a view of the glacier in the background with a small stream in the foreground.

This is not the main stream.  When we reach the main stream, water thunders down from the glacier, making a deafening sound.  We would not be able to cross the river were it not for this sturdy bridge.

The trail heads towards Rifugio Branca.  Here are the girls — Jessica, Carla, and Lisa — posing with the Rifugio in the background.

We get very close to the Rifugio and have to cross another river.  This time there is a metal bridge across the river on a steep cliff.  Again, the girls pose.

We’ve reached the Rifugio.  Many groups of hikers are gathered outside.

We step inside for a quick lunch.  My favorite local delicacy, Pizzoccheri, is on the menu.  Because I love Pizzoccheri so much, I’ve been trying it at several restaurants on this trip so far.  This one is undoubtedly the best.

What’s different?  Pizzoccheri has many variations.  The base recipe is buckwheat noodles, cheese, potatoes, garlic, sage, cabbage, and butter.  This one has three differences from the normal case:

  1. the pasta is al dente — clearly it is dried pasta, made from semolina, not rolled out as I made at home – wow, nice!  I’ll have to buy another kitchen toy to make this.
  2. the sage is fried to bring out the flavor
  3. chard replaces the cabbage — I disagree with this substitution, but it’s still good.  In fact most of the pizzoccheri I’ve had on this trip uses chard.  Maybe it is a seasonal choice.

That was a delicious lunch!

Now, back outside, we can see a terrific view of the glacier.

Here’s Ajax enjoying the view.

Here’s a view of the observation post and a deck that people are sunning themselves on.

We head down the hill.  Here are Lisa, Jessica, and Ernesto posing on the trail with the glacier in the background.

This section of the trail is very steep, with several switchbacks.  Having hiking poles along was helpful for many of us.  Another alternative would be to slide down on our butts.  Too bad we didn’t bring sheets of cardboad!  :-)

Here are Rudy and Ajax posing with the valley below.

Rudy finds a whole in the rock and turns it into a nice place for some playful shots.

All in all it was  great hike and a nice rest day.  Tomorrow the bike beckons again.  The ride planned is a really super loop around 3 or 4 passes (Bernina, Forcola d’Livigno, Passo d’Eire, Passo Foscagno) that has two really sweet Glacier views.  Tune in soon for that blog.

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Climbing Walls — Passo Mortirolo & Passo Gavia

There are some things you do to prove to yourself you can do them.  The bragging rights are nice but the real reward is the self confidence you gain from the accomplishment.

Passo Mortirolo and Passo Gavia are two of the monuments of Italian cycling and two of the most incredible passes in the world.  Passo Mortirolo climbs over 4000 feet and is brutally steep.  The average grade is something like 10% for the entire climb and there are 3 consecutive km averaging 14% near the bottom.  Even worse, there are many shorter sections in the 16-20% range.  Passo Gavia has likewise over 4000 feet of climbing, is very steep, and has a very high summit.  Passo Gavia is special because it is an incredible high mountain experience and because it is important in the history of cycling.

Our crew (or should I call them the chain gang) rolled out of Bormio early in the morning and headed down the valley, successfully navigating the choices between auto tunnels (bad) and old roads (good) to get to Mazzo for the turn off to the Mortirolo.

Here is Sue riding up a steep meadow.  She looks fresh as a daisy despite the insane grade.

Ernesto was the wisest man in our group.  He brought a very low gear, 34×36, and this helped him handle the steepest parts with grace.

Rudy and Jessica rode together up the mountain.  You can see a view of the valley Valtellina behind them.

The grade relaxes quite a bit at the end.  It’s only 8%!  Here’s Ernesto enjoying the last kilometer before the top.

Jessica and Rudy celebrate their accomplishment here.

Carla was first to the top and is enjoying her foil-wrapped lunch.  No, I don’t know what it is, but she seems to like it.

Here are Rudy and Jessica at the top of the Mortirolo, posing by the sign.

The descent of the Mortirolo is fast, twisty, narrow, and fun.  It seems like it never ends!  Once down the pass, there is a long gradual climb up the valley to Ponte de Legno where the fun begins again!

If you’d like to see more details about climbing the Mortirolo, including a grade profile and navigation instructions to be sure you can find it, please click here for last year’s account of the same ride.

After the gentle warmup (ha!) of the Mortirolo, Passo Gavia wastes no time getting busy with steep grades.  Here are Sue and Craig on one of the first switchbacks.

Near the bottom is a turnout with a nice view, a few picnic benches, and a fountain.  The water comes from the nearby stream, Torrente Frigidolfo.  As the name suggests, it is ice cold, so we all stop to tank up before the main climb.  Dennis almost climbs into the fountain to get his water.  Can you take a bath here?  Hmm… maybe.

Very soon we reach the gate where the pass gets closed for winter.  In the old days, the road turned to dirt here.  It’s completely paved now, so no worries, but it does get narrow.

The sign says the road varies from 2.5 to 4.5 meters wide.  At 2.5 meters wide, I doubt two cars could pass.  Hmmm…. can our van even make it through a 2.5 meter gap?

Naturally, the road has switchbacks.  Ajax clearly made it through the narrow section as here is a view of the van from above.  Actually, most of the road is very narrow.

As the road gets higher and we get above treeline, we get some dramatic views.  The sense of exposure is much more intense when there are no trees below.  Here’s a photo of Sue and Craig in one of the switchbacks with a glacier behind them.

As we get higher, the switchbacks disappear and the route becomes a high mountain traverse.  Ernesto and Dennis are wearing matching jerseys.  They bought these jerseys on the Stelvio.  The jerseys commemorate the Stelvio, Gavia, and Mortirolo passes, all featured in this year’s Giro d’Italia.

Here are Sue and Craig again with a dramatic view behind them.  You’ll notice there is a guardrail in the photo.  Guardrails are rare on this pass.  You must rely on your own skill to stay on the road.  That’s easy going up and I’ve always had more confidence riding a bike than driving a car on roads like this.

High above the valley floor, Ajax pulls over to provide the riders a refueling stop.  Behind the van you can see the big peaks near the summit.  The summit is just to the right of the picture and not visible due to the closer peaks, but this is good view of the final ridgeline.

Very soon, we’ll be heading to the tunnel, so riders discuss the options.  You can either take the old road or the tunnel.  The old road defines the word “exposure” and has been closed to cars since the construction of the tunnel.  The tunnel was always dark, but lights were installed this year for the Giro d’Italia.  Given the rockfall on the old road, and the safety of the now lit tunnel, everyone chooses the tunnel.

Bummer!  The old road is such a cool experience.  The rockfall is pretty heavy, but it is rideable on an ordinary roadbike.  If you have to walk, it is only 1 km.  So, I walked it both ways and want to share a few photos.

Here is a view of the old road from above.  It is barely wide enough for a car, and the “guard rail” is made from wooden sticks.

A guard rail made from wooden sticks?  Yes, indeed, even wooden sticks can be helpful.  If you were driving, touching these toothpicks would give you a tactile warning that you are at the edge.  It turns out this is important.  Near the Italian flag in the photo above is a collection of memorials to 18 soldiers who perished when their truck plummeted off the road in 1954, including this painting on the rock wall.

This tragic event was recorded on the front page of the local newspaper, with a similar drawing.  A framed copy of that newspaper hangs at the Rifugio at the top of the pass.

Here is another view of the old road.  Notice the overhang.  Most of the road doesn’t have as much overhang and therefore suffers more rockfall.  See how clean the road is here!

If you are from the San Francisco bay area and frequent local bike shops, you might notice a striking similarity between this photo and one hanging in Palo Alto Bikes.  Palo Alto bikes has a famous photo of Jobst Brandt, one of the early pioneers of Alpine bicycle touring.  Amazingly, a postcard with Jobsts’s photo from this spot is for sale at the Rifugio at the top.  It was Jobst’s accounts of his trips to the Alps in the late 1980s that inspired and guided my own very first tour in 1991.  More of Jobst’s photos can be seen at the Bicycle Outfitter in Los Altos.

Exiting the tunnel, there is a good view of the final switchbacks before the summit.

Here is Jessica, smiling as she climbs the very last part of this monstrous climb.  With over 10,000 feet in her legs, she is a true champion to be able to smile at this point.

Looking down from the final switchbacks, we see a view of Lago Nero below.

Here are Rudy, Carla, Jessica, and Ernesto posing by the summit sign next to the Rifugio.

Inside Rifugio Bonetta, Sue, Ajax, Dennis, and Craig are relaxing with a cup of coffee, some pastries, and a soft drink.

Rifugio Bonetta is an interesting place to visit.  I especially like their collection of posters from the Giro d’Italia.  Above the bar, they have collected one poster from each time the race has climbed this pass.

After a nice rest, we head down the pass.  This is one of the best descents in europe, between the scenic beauty and the exhiliration.  Here’s a photo of Rudy rounding one of the big turns.

We get back to our hotel in Bormio and celebrate a great accomplishment.

I also did this ride last year.  To see that account and more photos, please click here.  I included more description of the Mortirolo and different views of the Gavia.

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