In every trip to Europe we calculate at least one day off the bicycle in order to have some flexibility for bad weather, sight-seeing or simply recovering (this last is a bit hard to believe, I know). Waking up the morning after our very successful Mendelpass ride, it looked as if cycling was out of the day as it was raining heavily. I had learned from a previous trip to always pack a folding umbrella.While in the Black Forest on previous trips, we had enjoyed European spa life and our plan for a rainy day in Südtirol was to indulge ourselves although nobody suffered much from sore muscles yet. But first several of us decided to wander around Bolzano a bit more.
We stopped at the Citta Hotel for a coffee under their elegant arcades and soon the rain let up. It was late in the morning but some of the group planned to go for a ride, while others of us headed to the main station and set out for our spa journey to Meran/Merano.
We enjoyed the thermal pools, which included the kind of water jet massages I had enjoyed in Germany, and swam in the outdoor pools as well, which come in a range of temperatures. The weather was spectacular but I enjoyed the spa so much I did not mind we were missing some riding for one day. Then it was off to the sauna area. Although it was textil-frei, as in Germany, the Italians were pretty anxious about keeping on their towels!
No matter. Our three hours were up and feeling pretty mellow we sauntered back through the thronged streets to the train station, stopping for a slice of fresh pizza on the way, and returned to Bolzano and our hostel. After the usual celebratory ice cream, we wandered back to the old city for an excellent dinner at an Italian restaurant, with half the crew having pizza and the other half going for pasta.
Our big concern was getting through the crowd and actually getting off the train at our stop. Luckily we had positioned ourselves to make the rapid escape we needed and soon found ourselves at the station platform in Spondigna. Of course, before doing anything it was time for a bracing coffee in the little station restaurant, then we headed out towards our goal for the day, one of the world’s greatest ascents for a cyclist, the famed Passo dello Stelvio, known as the Stilfserjoch in German.
Of course, I immediately went the wrong way as I followed the “helpful” bikepath signs and lost everyone behind me. It turned out that in fact I was going the right way, even if that meant riding some dirt and gravel sections of bikepath before coming into the little town of Prato allo Stelvio. I waited a bit and eventually joined up with two others from our group and we turned to face southwest and the beginnings of the climb.
Although the weather had been somewhat overcast in Spondigna, the route up the valley was clear and it was fantastic. I felt good and kept pace with Dr. Chef, stopping to take photos as the mood struck, and we soon caught up to a tall rider in a “Flanders” kit. He was a young Belgian cyclist and we kept each other company all the way up to the top, although it was evident that he was more used to cycling those flatter roads back home.
Warmed up and, more importantly, dried off, we put on our cold-weather gear since a cold wind always blows over the summit from the Bormio direction. But today we were not heading downhill towards Bormio, as I did in 2005. Instead, we rode down the road a short way and turned right onto a very small road, soon passing an unoccupied border post. We were now in Switzerland!
Rt. 28 turned into an Italian road, S41. We continued downhill, passing through the walled town of Glurns and turning right to follow the bikepath along the Etsch, parallel to the S38. Some of the group continued on past Spondigna, but three of us stopped there to take the train back to Merano and connect to Bolzano so that we would get back in time for a classical concert with an orchestra of young EU musicians. Of course at the Spondigna station we celebrated once again with excellent coffees after figuring out how to buy tickets from the automat since there no longer are any humans representing the railroad at the station.
The loop we rode was just over 69 km long but featured over 2000 m of climbing. My maximum speed was 70 km/h, which is not bad considering all the tight turns we had to descend. A glorious day indeed and something I would recommend as one of the best rides in Europe. We were fortunate as a few weeks later the road was closed to motorized traffic for Stelvio Day and the cyclists who came for that “enjoyed” a ride in pouring cold rain.