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Passo Stelvio: Climbing for Dummies

Today, I instinctively awake at 6:30 am and know that it is a Stelvio Day. This week, almighty rains and hail have transformed the Alto Adige region of Italy from its typically suffocating August malaise into a paradise. The temperature is warm, but the air is cool. The sky is amazingly deep and clear yielding colors brilliant and rich. Such perfection requires a special ride attached to it. Now or never. Work be damned!

It is not hard to proclaim that the Passo Stelvio at 2,750 meters with its 48 switchbacks and a rich Giro history is one of the major Monuments of Cycling (unfortunately motorcyclists tend to claim it for themselves as well). It is a must for all Cyclists. Since Steve Holmes’ Pez Top Ride does a good job of reporting the sights and toils of this majestic climb, I have decided to use it to impart my dodgy wisdom under the title: Climbing for Dummies.

A perfect day, perfect for riding Passo Stelvio

It Takes One To Know One
Obviously, for all those Pez readers that are paid to ride bikes, my climbing advice is quite simple: go fast (aka The Death or Glory Method). For the rest of us that have the luxury of choosing to ride uphill, I have assembled a humble climbing cheat sheet culled from the many travails and bonks of a flatland Texan transplanted to the heart of the Dolomite mountains. And it is exactly for this reason that I feel qualified to offer advice.

ONE: Go Slow
The first few kilometers out from Prato are long and straight, the gradient is a reasonable 5 – 6%. This is the time to warm up. Find a slow rhythm. One of the most important elements of climbing is maintaining a nice, steady pace. Mashing and accelerating in spurts inefficiently expends energy and will lead to bonking. Trust me on this one! Instead, pedal in a sweet, round stroke. Find your right tempo with its corresponding mild hamstring burn. Listen to your conditioning that day, whether it’s 10km/h or 15km/h so be it.

That’s right, 48 switchbacks, so pace yourself!

Starting slow and finishing strong is better than starting fast and bonking. Three riders pass me, one after the other, in the first few kilometers and I already know that I’ll see them again weaving like drunken sailors 10 km’s into the climb. They are big guys, working too hard for now, the Stelvio has about 25 km from this side.

I do pass all three of them later. I catch the last one huffing and puffing 4 km from the summit. And it is immensely satisfying for us, tortoise’s to calmly say “ciao” as we deftly pedal by.

TWO: The Right Gearing
Today, my bike has a compact crankset (50 x 34) with a 13-26 cassette. I’ll be more than fine for long ramps over 11%. My gearing beliefs used to be: get the biggest cassettes you can with compacts (and even triples). Despite cycling’s multi-complexed-often-hypocritical machismo tendencies, I don’t think anyone should be frowned upon for using “granny gears”. The most important thing is to make it to the top. Style be damned! However, getting there with a 39 x 25 gains one additional style points.

A compact is a good idea for climbing.

While I still hold this gearing belief to be true, most of my climbing nowadays is done with a 34 x 21 or 23. Not only due to better fitness, but because I think overgearing leads to a lot of fruitless spinning. The important thing is to find your own steady stroke (see ONE: Go Slow). Today, I pass many mountain bikers and tourers with their triples moving a lot but not going very far (tanto fumo, poco arrosto). While some studies have shown that high cadence climbing is beneficial (they’re referring to Lance not Joe Average), I find that there is also a point of greatly diminished returns. This is my own experience, others will most likely have their own.

This guy is pretty good at high cadence climbing, let your triples fly in salute!

THREE: Gear Gain Game
The town of Gomagoi (at 1267 meters, there’s more than 1400 still to come) marks almost the middle of the climb… but not really. Because almost all of the 48 switchbacks are packed into the last 15 kilometers. I notice that many riders are already in their lowest gear, be that a 25 or 29 or whatever. The problem here is that they have nowhere to go when a steep pitch flares up. And the Dead End Suffering will cause them even more pain; it’s called Mental Doubt. Because we tend to acclimate too easily to the lowest gear, always wishing that we had another during moments of stress.

I try to ride as much as possible in the 21 or 23. The 26 is saved for emergencies, utilizing the switchbacks and easier sections to shift down and gain back that 26 in reserve. This is also a mental game. Climbing is mind over gravity.

The wear on the 21st and 23rd cogs is visible.

FOUR: Downshift and Stand
After the town of Trafoi, the road gives up some of its switchbacks in a nicely wooded area. The pavement is a bit crappy here. I take notice of riders standing and powering forward. Some look good. Others look desperate. They stand but lurch, spastically. An uncoordinated acceleration that costs too much for what one gains.

The solution is to drop down two cogs and stand. Don’t mash. Don’t accelerate, just stand and keep your nice rhythm going. Gently rocking the bike back and forth, letting your weight drive the cranks. After 50 meters or so, sit down and put it back into the previous gear. This breaks up the monotony of climbing, gains elevation quicker (assuming you’re going faster), makes you appreciate the easier gear (see THREE: Gear Gain), lets you shift the family jewels around and helps stretch the back and shoulder muscles. What’s not to like about Downshift and Stand!

Addendum: Do Like Pantani
Stand and climb in the drops. This position shifts the weight further forward (beneficial in steep grades) and makes it easier to control the rocking motion. Especially as the climb wears on, controlling a swinging bike becomes more of a challenge than it should be.

This guy made climbing in the drops famous.

FIVE: Ride with a Weaker Partner
While it is advisable to have a stronger partner in the flats that can pull you, in the climbs a weaker one is quite helpful. They make you go slower than normal (remember ONE: Go Slow) and give a great boost to the morale – their suffering will empower you.

Today, I can’t seem to find anyone to ride with me. I think they are intimidated by the Pez Kit, taking me for a crack journalist, instead of the hack who’s articles have Cheapo and Dummies for titles. The slow ones are too slow and the fast ones are too fast, so I go at my own pace. Maybe next time.

SIX: Hand Position Game
There are tons of hand positions, use them all. Break up the climb and convince yourself that certain positions help you breathe better or give you more power. Mine is on the tops with the thumbs over the top of the bar. These are your secret weapons. Another mental mind manipulation: embrace those tough 14% ramps, you’re gaining elevation much quicker than slacking all day at 5%.

Favorite hand position: thumbs over bars.

SEVEN: Know The Plan
I’m now past the tree line and into that famous photo opportunity section. There’s about 6 kilometers to go, but they’re hard. There’s no vegetation, it’s a beautifully brutal landscape. A lone, old guy is just ahead and looks terrible. He is swerving badly on this narrow road congested with motorcycles. I’m worried for him. I say “Dai” (pronounced like die, it means come on) and “Avanti” and “Forza” encouragingly. He says he’s in bad shape. “I can see that.” I offer to accompany him (see FIVE: Weaker Partner), but he bids me on, saying that he’s just trying to hold on until his friends catch up. Now I understand that he has tried to put the hammer down and drop his buddies but has run out of gas.

Which reminds me that knowing the elevation plan is a good thing. Surprises are your worst enemy. One of the keys to climbing is the ability to expend your energy reserves consistently throughout the ascent, studying the map will help accomplish this. Also, eating and proper fueling during the climb is critical.

EIGHT: Bonking’s OK
This morning, I parked next to a young, attractive couple (very much like Pez’s own Jered and Ashley), dressed in smart cycling kits with fancy new bikes. I imagined that we’d ride up together, but their pace was much slower than mine. I tried to keep an eye out for them on the switchbacks, but eventually lost contact. Their car was gone when I got back to the parking lot. They never made it to the summit.

I hereby condone that there is no shame in resting or getting off the bike and walking to the top. The most demoralizing loss is turning downhill and going home. You’ll conquer that mountain (in the saddle) the next time and be better prepared for it too (see Know The Plan).

NINE: Practice Makes Pretty Good
The saying “you are what you ride” is pretty true. The more you climb, the better you’ll be. Last month, I was visiting friends and family in Texas. While I did some riding, it was all flat and I lost a lot of my climbing conditioning. Over the past few weeks I’ve been trying to get it back.

My tip: try to integrate climbing into your normal training rides. Also, every Stelvio or Huez notched into your bedpost will inspire you to bag the next one. Your physical and more importantly, psychological limits will be extended. And then you’ll start riding multiple passes.

TEN: Get Thin
Some gracious soul has painted on the road the final countdown: 5 km, then four, three, two, one. Now we’re onto meters: 500, 200 then 100. These last few are burning. The guys that are descending are shouting encouragement, as it will be my turn later. It really helps. The energy I have so judiciously rationed out over these past 25 km seems to have evaporated in this thin air. Just then, I look up and see the astoundingly ugly circus throng of people and kitschy tourist trappings wrapped in smoke from several wurstel stands. It’s an ironic and unfortunate blight in such a wonderful setting, but it also signals: I’ve made it!

I sit on a concrete barrier, eating a banana and observing my fellow cyclists, cataloging memories, hoping to turn them into a story. A doughy Italian next to me is chatting up a tourist, “it was so hard, really, I was crying the last kilometer, I had asthma as a kid.”

On a bench in front of me sits a group of guys, their jerseys denote Varese cycling something. They are impossibly thin and it appears that they barely broke a sweat coming up here. They are making fun of a guy in their group that had the audacity to use a 27 cog (remember TWO: Right Gearing for my thoughts on this).

It does not take a genius to reach the conclusion that the thinner riders suffer less climbing. This is unfortunate, yet true. Pricey, feather weight bikes can’t overcome flabby bellies. While it’s not my position (nor desire) to tell you to go on a diet, it’s certainly an excellent option for those that wish to climb better. Mr. Wiggins seems to be a case in point (please, oh please let his success be a result of weight loss and training).

This guy got pretty good after losing some weight.

Your Turn
I don’t believe that any of this “climbing wisdom” is rocket science. All of it has been gathered from trial and error, lots of error. That’s most likely why I had to discover these tricks in the first place. Natural born climbers don’t need any tricks. Today alone I saw a few cyclists that could have profited from them. So now these 10 tips are yours as well (free of charge from Mr. Cheap-Oh), because The Point is the ability to get to great places and a lot of great places just so happen to be at high altitudes.

Stelvio Day was a once in a lifetime deal: a unique set of circumstances (there are others that I haven’t mentioned) will never arise again. Other advantageous ones might present themselves, but certainly not these. So here’s wishing you your own set of unique and advantageous circumstances. Cheers!

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