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The Alpi 4000
Ride dates: July 22-28, 2018
by Ross Nichol

Ken Bonner has already posted Dave Thompson’s ride report on the club’s E-mail discussion list, so you can have a look at his comments and perspective on the ride. I bumped into Dave and Hamid several times on the ride, and was impressed with their level of planning and organization. There are also various you tube slide shows on the internet which show the variety and beauty of the terrain.
Thanks to Bob Koen for alerting me to this ride, and it was a real pity that Stephen Hinde was unable to join me on the start line. I signed up for this ride with a fair amount of trepidation. The length of the ride and the degree of climbing were beyond anything I had tried before. Navigation was also a worry, as I knew that relying only on paper route sheets in Italy would be difficult. Thanks also to Stephen and my brother Keith for the Garmin education.
In recent years my wife and I have had a great time cycle touring in Umbria and Pulia, so this was a great opportunity to go on a “Grand Tour” of an area in Italy that I did not know. We have been studying Italian for a number of years, so this would also be a good opportunity to practice speaking.

The Alpi 4000 is one ride out of a series of four and anyone finishing all four rides receives an honorary diploma of “Gran Randonneur D’Italia”
The ride was laid out in a big figure of eight starting and ending in Bormio, a ski area north of Milan. Bormio is also the epicenter of cycle routes taking in some of the classic passes, the Stelvio, Gavia, Mortirolo, and Del Foscagnoa. The timed portion of the ride actually finished at the top of the Stelvio pass (22 kms from Bormio) for a total distance of 1,496 kms to be completed in either 140 hours for Randonneurs Mondiaux recognition, or in 158 hours for a certificate of completion from Audax Randonneur Italia. According to a local newspaper, (the Alta Renzia News) around 400 riders started and 343 riders finished.

Getting to Bormio by train and bus from Milan on Friday July 20th was easy, and I found myself sharing a dormitory room at the Ostello Bormio with four other rather apprehensive Alpi-ites: riders from South Africa, Russia, Italy, and India. It rained heavily all that night.
On Saturday I had a great day running around Bormio with Steven from South Africa. He was an ex pro racer full of great stories. I was impressed with the ride organizers’ attention to detail and the commitment shown by the volunteers. We had a stage by stage briefing in the evening in Italian and English, which was pretty thorough. We were warned about rapid temperature drops on the high passes, especially in bad weather.

Day 1 Sunday 7/22
Stages 1 - 4 Bormio to Biella
Start Sun 7/22 07.24 Arrive Biella Mon 7/23 08.10
Day 1 339 kms net climbing 4,801m

We were at the start line at 06.30, and from 07.00 riders were started in groups of 20 every three minutes, with the start time being recorded in our “Rando Books”. This was a glossy 6 x 4 book of 75 pages, describing every stage in Italian and English and functioning as a control card. A great souvenir of the ride. The day was cool and cloudy, and luckily it did not rain. After a few flat kms we were climbing 16 kms up to Passo Foscagno. Two more passes, Eira and Forcola, before the control at Passo Bernina at 57 kms. About 33 kms of climbing altogether.

Stage 2 started with a really chilly but incredibly scenic descent into Switzerland through the famous ski resort of St Moritz, looking rather naked without its winter covering of snow, followed by some amazing switchbacks down to Chiavenna in Italy.

Stage 3 began with an introduction to the “piste ciclabili”, (cycling paths) that we would be on at various points during many of the stages. My Garmin wasn’t behaving itself very well on this stage, and I had to resort to the paper instructions, which were difficult to follow. But at least the organizers had marked some of the critical turns on the cycling paths with little green arrows.

Eventually I ended up all alone on paved roads in and out of Switzerland circumnavigating lakes on narrow roads full of tourists. The “gallerie” (tunnels) were intimidating, and traffic whipped by me with inches to spare. Thank goodness for my helmet mirror. Instead of our trusty gas station sandwiches and chocolate milk, I could buy a full pizza in a box for 5 euros, eat a few pieces right away, and stow the rest in the folded box lid for later consumption.

After nightfall I ended up with a Dutch guy (whose GPS was working well) going through innumerable towns and traffic roundabouts and we eventually arrived at the control at the Laveno ferry terminal with 40 minutes to spare before the next ferry left at 23.30.
After a 20 minute ferry ride across Lake Maggiore we continued on, and somewhere along the way had a 2 hour sleep on the wooden patio of a restaurant. My new reusable $7 SOL (Survive Outdoors Longer) space blanket came into its own on this ride!
Around 06.00 the next morning we stopped for breakfast at a café. Dave Thompson and Hamid Akbarian came in while we were there, and it was fun to meet them.
We finally got into Biella for a second breakfast at 08.10 and I was able to access my drop bag to replenish my supplies of food and chargers for the Garmin.

Day 2 Monday 7/23
Stages 5 – 6 Biella -Lanslebourg
Arrive Lanslebourg Mon 7/23 23.15
Day 2 188 kms net climbing 2,875 m
Totals so far 527 kms net climbing 7,676m

Leaving Biella, the terrain was easy, but with temperatures in the high thirties we slowed down.I left my Dutch companion at the Venaria Reale control as he wanted to have a sleep, and continued on.
Stage 6 was billed as “very hard”.The first 36 kms were relatively flat, then the climb began. During the next 55 kms we went from 400 m to a high point of 2,081 m. At one point we had a really steep 6 km section where, to conserve energy, I pushed my bike at certain points. Mark Roberts, Bob Brudvik and Bill Dussler (from the Seattle randonneurs) passed me as they heroically rode their bikes up the slopes. I referred very rudely to the “road” that we were on as a “paved piece of goat track”. But eventually I got to the top of the Mont Cenis Col and a quick 9 km descent took me down to the control at Lanslebourg at 23.15. We were now in France, and I had PBP flashbacks, because the control was in a big hall, with bright lights and sleeping bodies draped everywhere.


Day 3 Tuesday 7/24
Stages 7 – 8 Lanslebourg - Biella
Arrive Biella Wed 7/25 08.15
Day 3 251 kms net climbing 4,820 m
Totals so far 778 kms net climbing 12,496m

   

I got going about 04.00 for the ascent of the Col d’Iseran. After 20 kms of gentle uphill, the serious climbing began: 13 kms with some 10% sections. Dave and Hamid came by, and I topped out with Hamid marveling at the spectacular views.Then a speedy descent for breakfast at Val d’Isere.
Still downhill through some scary potholed unlit tunnels, some more steep “goat tracks” (which had been used in the Tour de France) and then another big climb over the Col St Bernard to get to the next control at 14.30. The climbing was slowing me down: only 101 kms in about 10 hours.

Stage 8 was a challenge as well. The Garmin course for this 150 km leg had errors and wouldn’t load properly, there was tricky navigation along endless cycle paths, and then a thunderstorm with heavy rain.
After dark I had to leave the valley roads and head in to the middle of nowhere for 30 kms of steady climbing on tiny roads. In the pitch darkness, with the Garmin useless, no street signs and minimal direction signs I was paranoid about making a navigation error. I was on my own for a few hours, then a Russian guy came by and gave me some confidence that I was still on track. Eventually we stopped in a forest for a sleep for a few hours. When I got going at first light the Russian had disappeared. Thank goodness I had waited for some light, as in the dark I would have missed a critical signpost which led to a rough 3 km section of gravel. At the end of a long mountain traverse we got to the Sacred Mount of Oropa, a Unesco heritage site. Here we had to sign a board with all the ride numbers on it to prove that we had been there. Then a steep descent towards Biella (the ascent to Oropa has been featured a few times in the Giro d’Italia). At the bottom of the descent we had a cobblestone scenic tour of old Biella before getting to the control at 08.15. Needless to say I was extremely relieved to get to the control, where I showered and changed socks, jersey and pants for the ride back to Bormio.

Day 4 Wednesday 7/25
Stages 9 – 11 Biella – Pieve di Coriano
Arrive Thursday 7/26 07.10
Day 4 318 kms net climbing 578 m
Totals so far 1096 kms net climbing 13,074m

Relief, the Garmin was working again, and the leg was flattish as we were down in the Po Valley, but before long it began to get hotter and hotter . We went through Candelo, one of the best preserved medieval villages in Italy. By 10.00 the temperature was up to forty degrees. Luckily I found a little towel and a sock on the roadside, and whenever I went through a village with a fountain, I cooled my head in the fountain and draped the wet towel around my neck. I would go to a bar and buy 2 cold drink cans to put in my back pockets, and then drink them when the cans lost their refrigeration effect. Luckily I had no problem in persuading bar staff to give me as much ice as I wanted for the ice sock down my back.
Half way through this stage I came upon a group of Italians. One of the riders (Marco) was trying to get his companions to ride in a pace line, and I asked if I could join them. After a while the others dropped off, and then it was just Marco and me taking 2 km pulls at a reasonable speed. The distance flashed by as we passed through numerous rice paddies and agricultural centres.
Marco finally rode away from me a few kms before the control at Pavia, but it had been fun riding with others after the solitude of the previous day.

After a brief stop I took off on another flat leg on my own and moved steadily until it got dark. The organizers of the ride were trying to show us all the sights, so they had us going through the centre of Cremona, a biggish town, on the cycle paths. At this time I was with a German guy who I would bump into periodically. He didn’t have a GPS and when he couldn’t figure out the paper route sheet, he would wait for someone to come by to ensure he was on the right route. We had crossed a big cobbled city square, and I was consulting the Garmin to see where the cycle path might continue, when we heard a cheery Italian voice telling us that we should follow him.

And so I met Antonio, a veteran randonneur from Milan. He won the award for completing the highest cumulative distance in Italian Audax events during 2014. Antonio’s English was better than my Italian, and we could chat away to our heart’s content. After 4 days on the road alone, it was good to have some company. In addition, Antonio had GPX maps of the route on his Samsung phone with the ride track marked, so with the addition of my Garmin, we had a bit more navigational certainty.

We stopped at the next control for something to eat and continued on small roads through the countryside. A highlight was going through an ancient village, brightly illuminated, with not a soul around. We were getting tired, and eventually decided to sleep for a few hours in the entranceway to an apartment block in a little town. At 05.00 as we were folding up our space blankets, a resident emerged, and began berating us for having slept there. In typical Italian style soon a heated discussion ensued. Antonio tried to explain that we were part of an international cycling event, pointing to the Canadian flag on the number affixed my bike, but he was getting nowhere. As the atmosphere got hotter and hotter, I stepped between them and suggested to Antonio that we get going pronto!

Once underway, we both laughed about the angry resident and agreed that this was a first in our randonneur careers. Antonio told everyone we met later that day about our early morning encounter. We arrived at the control at 07.10 for a welcome breakfast.

Day 5 Thursday 7/26
Stages 12 – 13 Pieve di Coriano - Tremosine
Arrive Thurs 7/26 22.45
Day 5 172 kms net climbing 2,072m
Totals so far 1,268 kms net climbing 15,146m

Stage 12 was a flat stage on dykes and cycle paths going east along the Po river,then we veered north. We befriended another younger Italian, another Marco, also from Milan, whose Garmin Etrex 35 seemed way more functional than our navigation systems. Circumnavigating the town of Mantua on a cycle path full of thorns, Antonio flatted, and no sooner had we fixed his puncture when Marco discovered that he had flatted as well. He had beautiful new 40 mm tires on his gravel bike, but had not practiced replacing them on his rims. With three of us trying, we could not push the tire on to the rim with our fingers. He had only one spare tube, and yes, you guessed it, he pinched his spare tube trying to get the tire on the rim with tire levers.
We left him there having wasted valuable time that we would regret later. Antonio phoned Marco later. Marco had walked 2 kms to a bike store and got the puncture fixed. He had set off again, and a few kms from the bike store, his other tire flatted. We have no idea what happened then or if he finished the ride. Eventually we made it to the next control at 14.25 having spent most of the morning on gravel roads.

For the next stage we left the river and the cycling paths and eventually ended up going around Lake Garda in heavy traffic. We were making good time when a thunderstorm caught us by surprise and the heavens opened up with torrential rain. We were not quick enough with plastic bags on our touch screens. My Garmin locked up and Antonio’s Samsung was rendered useless. Out came the paper route sheets, and Antonio discovered he had left his reading glasses at the previous control. Luckily we passed an optician’s store, so he could get replacement glasses. We did get a bit lost, but somehow we found the right roads, and eventually left the lakeside for the steep 15 km climb to Pieve di Tremosine. It was a shame we had to do this at night as the road and the views are spectacular. The road winds up a gorge, some of it was carved out of the rock, with a number of long tunnels. We made the control at 22.45 in the village of Vesio, and settled down to sleep on comfortable beds in a large dormitory.

Day 6 Friday 7/27
Stages 14-16 Tremosine – Passo Stelvio (top of Stelvio pass)
(The 22 km descent from Passo Stelvio back to Bormio was neutralized for safety reasons)
Arrive Saturday 7/28 04.58
Day 6 228 kms net climbing 6,237m
Final totals 1,496 kms net climbing 21,383m

We got going again about 04.00, knowing that this was crunch time, with no more rest until the top of the Stelvio pass. A big descent down to Lake Garda, a few more tunnels, and then we were continuously uphill on various paved uphill cycle paths as we climbed from 93 m to 1038 m in 50 kms. We went over the Andalo pass and we screamed down to the control at Spormaggiore to reach it at 9.22. (The BRM control close time for me here was 09.24, so I was up against the wire)

We were through the control quickly, and were flying down the initial descent, when Antonio’s Samsung phone fell off his handlebars and came apart on the road. We picked up the pieces, put them together, and by some miracle, it worked, so we still had 50% of our navigation system intact. The day was brutally hot, and we had a steady 40 kms climb from 250 m to the Passo Palade at 1518 m.

We started off on some high traffic roads then ended up on paved cycle paths linking various villages. But fatigue was setting in, our drink breaks and rest stops were becoming longer. When we hit the final 13 km climb on a main road up to the Passo Palade we were only going at 8 – 9 kph. After a steep 20 km descent we ended up on a paved cycle path for 38 kms to the control. The path sloped uphill at a relatively gentle gradient, making it difficult to move fast, and we became acutely aware that our goal of a 140 hour finish might be slipping away from us. About 10 kms from the control a big thunderstorm opened up, and it poured heavily. We spent about 15 minutes under a shelter until it eased a little.

Feeling somewhat damp we reached the Silandro (Lake Bruggs) control at a lodge in the middle of nowhere at 21.00. We wolfed down some pasta, and debated our course of action.

We had only 36 kms to go to the top of the Stelvio pass (from 561 m where we were, to 2,757 m) and figured that we still had a chance of making it by the BRM control close time of Saturday 03.00 (140 hours) The Italian BRI control close time was Saturday at 21.00 (158 hours) We discussed the idea of having a nice snooze at the control and riding the pass early the next morning so we could enjoy the views, but we agreed that we were so close that we should try. If we didn’t make the BRM deadline, at least Audax Italia would recognize us as official finishers.

Luckily the rain had stopped, and about 22.30 a group of four of us set off into the dark on the slushy cyclepath. Chen Chen (Taiwan), Joseph Llona (Seattle), Antonio and myself.
The cyclepath was ok, and we continued on gentle gradients for 11 kms until the village of Prato allo Stelvio. It is here where the official 25 km Passo Stelvio climb starts. The road stretches upwards for 8 kms at an average grade of 5%, then steepens to an average grade of 8% as the famous numbered hairpins begin, from #48 at the bottom to #1 at the top.

When we got to Prato allo Stelvio, Chen and Joseph slowly disappeared up the road.
I was watching the time, and figured that we could make our 03.00 deadline (actually 03.24 in my case) if we could just keep moving at 6 kph. In fact Joseph did just that, he topped out at 02.54.
But Antonio began to run out of steam, and he was reduced to riding for about 500 m and then walking for a while to recover. I rode ahead, and then waited for him periodically to catch up. I was getting frustrated, and could see our goal slipping away. I had no food left save for two emergency caffeine gels. So I gave one to Antonio, and ate the other one myself. I was about to tell Antonio that I would see him at the top, when he rode off again. I was amazed, as he seemed to suddenly receive a burst of energy and his lights disappeared up the road. I continued on at my pace, expecting to see Antonio taking a walking break. However I did not see Antonio again that night.

I soldiered on slowly, riding and then taking a few walking breaks as fatigue wore me down and the altitude got to me. But it wasn’t raining, a full moon was shining through the clouds, and I was warm enough. Apart from one crazy driver gunning up the hairpins in a sports car, there was no traffic, and it was in fact a magical night. Just the Stelvio and me.

At hairpin #18 I came upon Chen passed out at the side of the road. He was lying dangerously close to the road, and I worried what might happen if another crazy driver came by. Decision time for me. Ride on by, or try to help? I decided to try and help Chen get to the top. Even though Chen couldn’t speak a word of English, we had bumped into him quite a bit in the last few days and exchanged a nod and a smile. Antonio and I had spent some time helping him to unjam a stubborn zipper on his raincoat before we had set off earlier in the evening.

I managed to get Chen to his feet, and we walked slowly upwards. At hairpin #11 he conked out and refused to move any more. So I made sure he was safely off the road and carried on to the top to tell the staff at the control that they should send someone down to him to make sure he was ok.

Surreal things were happening that night. At hairpin #8 I was really surprised to see a cyclist slowly descending. He was Italian, and told me that there was no one at the top. He could not find the control. He was heading down to find a place to sleep at a hotel 7 kms down the road. This seemed really strange to me, but I continued on. By this time I was walking, as I didn’t want to take a chance on losing my balance and not being able to unclip before falling over. The dream of a 140 hour finish was gone.

Eventually I topped out and spent a few minutes searching for the control. It was there, hidden in the basement of a hotel. At 04.58 two weary control staff welcomed me with “congratulations” and I told them about Chen. One of them went to investigate, and found him staggering up the road. I didn’t see him again, but Chen got in at 05.18 under his own steam. After I had left him, somehow he had got himself to his feet and willed himself to keep moving.

I expected Antonio to have arrived at the control before me, but there was no trace of him. Totally mystified, I had a snooze on a stone floor in the hotel’s storage area, and at 07.00 the next morning enjoyed the cruise down to Bormio marveling at the views. I was amazed at how many cyclists were doing the 22 km climb up to Passo Stelvio from the Bormio side.

In Bormio we had to check in at the original start point control, where I was presented with an official finishers certificate from Audax Italia (141 hrs 34 min) There I found out that Antonio had arrived at Passo Stelvio after me at 06.15.

Later that morning I had a coffee with Antonio at the Bormio control. We couldn’t quite figure out what had happened the night before. Antonio said that he had lost all his energy on the Stelvio, and had struggled to the top. We can only surmise that he must have been off the road taking a rest at the moment when I passed by.

In retrospect, I thought that the ride was an amazing journey which surpassed all my expectations.
It was both a scenic tour and a “pilgrimage” to the classic cycling passes.
The organizers did a really good job in figuring out the course to make the ride challenging, but scenic and interesting. The controls were well run, and we had lots of food to eat.
It was indeed “Una grande esperienza culturale”

Many thanks to Antonio for being a great companion during the last few days of the ride, for enduring my bad Italian, and to the organizers and volunteers for all their efforts on our behalf.

Of course the only downside is that, in a randonneur format, rides like this become somewhat of a blur, and so the sensible way to truly appreciate the scenery would be to go back, and do the ride as a two week tour!

One never knows, but before I get too old, I might just have to set up another date with the Stelvio. This time we will meet in the daylight, on a nice sunny day, with the legs fresh and ready to dance all the way up the hill……..



Go to: Alpi 4000 Home

 

October 3, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

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