Having never ridden the Passo dello Stelvio, I, like many, have looked upon the iconic photos, switchback after switchback, and yearned to give it a go.
Naturally therefore, when I was invited to join Polartec and the Contador Fundacion for a weekend of training in Bormio to include the Santini Gran Fondo stelvio, I jumped at the chance.
Looking back, nothing can prepare you for the grandeur of the Stelvio. Thrown in the deep end, so to speak, the Santini Gran Fondo Stelvio was to be my introduction to this majestic mountain, a baptism of fire; not only was I attempting the Stelvio for the first time, but I, along with approximately 4000 others, would be tagging it onto the end of a leg sapping 116km loop from and to the Stelvio’s hometown of Bormio.
It’s safe to say that as well as an unforgettable experience, the ride up Stelvio was a learning curve on the bike. Here are some of the most important hints and tips we picked up along the way, in case you too want to head to the mountains and take on the Stelvio Pass - one of the most iconic climbs in cycling.
Preparation is key
Let’s face it, there’s not much opportunity for 21km at an average gradient of 8% in London. With this in mind, I did my best to replicate the effort at Athlete Lab London, a cycling centre that facilitates time-poor training and preparation for mountainous terrain.
Of course not everyone is based in the city, so for those of you lucky enough to do so, head towards your nearest hill and make good friends with it. Mix it up a bit. Whilst the Stelvio is typical of an Alpine climb with it’s long steady gradient, the Teglio that comes before it is much sharper and the only way up is to power through.
Kent, Devon, the lakes, all have hills of various gradients and lengths; use these to practice a mix of steady long rolling reps and high intensity efforts. You will be ready for the Passo dello Stelvio in no time.
With the training locked in, I could focus my attention on other areas, like panic packing for the changeable weather ahead.
The Dolomites are a rather highly strung bunch, and notoriously moody, so it’s essential you take the right gear to avoid coming ‘unstuck’. The key here is to pack smart. At 2,757m above sea level, the Stelvio is one of the highest mountains in the Alps, and shouldn’t be underestimated. It is going to be cold at the top. Getting there though, would be a different story, and despite the snow lined roads up from Bormio, the cascades of water that fell over the tunnels brought a welcome relief from the heat of climbing.
Whilst some approach a sportive such as this with a backpack rammed full of warmer clothes in preparation for the descent, the extra weight, not to mention the discomfort makes this option less than ideal.
"I was sceptical that it would provide enough protection at first glance given its small packable size, but any fears were soon put aside..."
Following the moto ‘where the impossible is made possible,’ Polartec have set out on a mission to discover new fabrics and associated technologies that solve the problems everyday athletes face with current sport apparel. Establish in 1906 as a wool knit supplier for military personnel they have since carved themselves out as the creators of high performing, game-changing materials which are used by numerous well-respected brands, to include Castelli, Fox Racing, and Rapha.
I tackled the climb very comfortably in Polatec’s power-wool tank base-layer, which combines the advantages of synthetic and natural fibres to optimize wicking and breathability. The fast-dying fabric made for a more comfortable descent also, given all the sweating I had done on the way up.
The four-way compression of Polartec’s Power stretch technology used in the race bib-shorts and jersey not only supported my muscles throughout the sportive and enhanced the recovery process following but added to the breathability and associated comfort of the rest of the kit.
All set for the climb, I tucked the softshell wind vest and a pair of arm warmers in my pocket for the descents. Designed to block 100% of wind, Polartec’s windbloc technology made the soft shell vest perfect for a chilly descent off the Stelvio. I have to say that I was sceptical that it would provide enough protection at first glance given its small packable size, but comfortably surrounded by other cyclists that were wrapped up in full winter gear for the same descent, any fears were naturally put aside.
There is a lot to be said for being as light, and of course, as strong as possible by the time you meet the start line. This is especially true when approaching a mountainous course – A high power to weight ratio will make those climbs so much easier; to best explain what I mean, imagine pushing an empty trolley up a hill vs one that is stacked to the brim. But be careful not to fall into the trap of focusing all your efforts on the weight loss at the expense of your power potential; trust me, you are going to want all the power you can get when you are grinding up the Passo dello Stelvio 115km into the Santini Gran Fondo.
Training wise, many nutritionists will tell you that you cannot train at intensity whilst losing weight, so the two need to complement one another; high intensity training is demanding so not only will you need to feed in advance, but you will almost certainly notice a peak in your appetite following also. Despite how tired you might feel, you will be surprised just how few calories you burn, however, so find a balance, be sensible, and reach for the healthy option instead of tucking straight into the cake.
Avoid any sudden changes
Whatever you decide nutritionally speaking, make sure, like anything else, you settle into a routine well in advance of the event itself. The last thing you want to do is make any sudden changes just before. So if you have fed on a high carb diet, a high protein diet, or any other particular preference continue to do so. Similarly, if you haven’t trained with energy bars, or isotonic drinks, now isn’t the time to introduce them. Start surprising your digestive system with these products now and you might find yourself in a rather compromised position at the road side.
The same rule applies across the board; your bike set up should stay the same, so those shiny shoes that promise to turn you into the next Laura Trott will just have to wait.
Sleep habits too. Of course you will be travelling, but where possible do try to maintain the same routine to keep your body in line and working at optimum performance levels. As a rule, any last minute changes usually result in a disaster of some description, from an upset stomach to a whole menu of joint pains that may have been avoided otherwise.
With all the preparations you may, or may not make, one thing is for certain, you are approaching the start line of Santini Gran Fondo Stevlio because you want to be there, unless of course you have a spouse or friend that has signed up on your behalf, in which case I think a conversation should be had. Let’s say, for argument's sake that the entry was your own doing; enjoy the process, enjoy the training, and with confident preparation, there is no doubt that you will enjoy the Santini Gran Fondo Stevlio.
Be it your first introduction to the Passo dello Stelvio, or an opportunity to meet with an old acquaintance, the Santini Gran Fondo Stevlio is, and should be, a bucket list event for most cyclists.