What's Cool In Road Cycling

Top Rides: The Mortirolo

In the 2006 edition of the Giro d’Italia, unlike in years past, the Mortirolo, one of the most feared climbs in the Grand Tour mountain rota, could well play a nasty, influential role in the final outcome of the Giro. PEZ has a look at the mean little road.

Let’s Put It In Perspective
The Mortirolo will be the final climb of a brutal Stage 20 – the day before the race heads into Milano by way of a time trial up the Ghisallo. Unfortunately for the riders, the race will head up two epic climbs before hitting the opening, easy slopes of the Mortirolo.

That sure looks like a good time.

Minutes I Say, Minutes
The stage starts in Trento, climbs the Passo Tonale and then it’s on to the Cima Coppi, the Gavia. The Gavia is a story unto itself, but on this special day, it will be the Mortirolo that will make headlines, as it will be the final climb. Unfortunately, the race won’t finish on top of it, but there will only be a crazy twisty descent to Edolo and then 10 uphillish km to the finish in Aprica. The Mortirolo will decide the day. Seconds might be gained or lost following the Mortirolo, but if the Mortirolo is raced aggressively, minutes will be gained or lost on her slopes.

Orange is bad, and Red means death.

Really Hurting
The Mortirolo starts out innocently enough. You hear these wild tales of it being the hardest climb on God’s green earth. Hell, even Lance Armstrong fans the flames of these tales: “It’s a terrible climb…it’s perfect for a mountain bike. On the hardest parts, I was riding a 39×27 and I was hurting, really hurting. (Mortirolo) is the hardest climb I’ve ever ridden.”

So um, Mortirolo, this way?

Where’d The Climb Go?
It was with Armstrong’s words and this mean looking sign that I had no earthly idea of its meaning that I started the climb. I was pretty sure that I’d be walking. Armstrong had a 27 and said it hurt. I did a quick tally of my gearing…yeah…39×23. I was glad that I had health insurance at the time, because knee surgery seemed like a distinct possibility.

But then it was all for naught. The climb was 5,6, 7 percent tops. What’s all the fuss about? Still, there was this little voice in my head that said, you ’bout to get yo sheet f’d up!

Sure enough, the road began to gently flex its muscles until we hit cruising altitude of between 10-18%. 1k ticks by, this isn’t so bad…2k…it’s kinda hot…3k…how far have I gone? This routine continued ad nauseam as I climbed, I mean, inched, higher and higher, panting and sweating away in the late May morning.

Taking pictures rolling a 25 cadence is easy.

You’re Cross-Eyed Anyway
It’s true, many will say that the Mortirolo is not the most visually breathtaking climb. It really isn’t when you compare it to the Gavia, but when you take out arguably the most beautiful climb on the planet, the Mortirolo does just fine. You climb through densely wooded forest for the first steep bit, and after about 5 days of trekking with your sherpa you emerge to some very nice views of the valley below, and actually get to appreciate the fact that you’re climbing at a very rapid rate, even if it feels like the speed is best measured in inches per minute.

This is probably the only switchback on the mountain.

There’s an appropriately placed church along the sadistic slopes.

Back In Time To The Giro 2004
I was lucky to climb the Mortirolo the day the Giro crossed over it in the 2004 edition – the day that Gilberto Simoni attacked his teammate Kid Cunego and tried to win the Giro and the stage, but instead lost the race and also lost the stage to Stefano Garzelli, while his team had to play – ‘control the psycho teammate’ for the whole day.

It’s also the climb where in 1994, Marco Pantani exploded onto the pro raicng scene as he destroyed the field and left big shooters like Miguel Indurain, Claudio Chiappucci, Gianni Bugno, and that year’s winner Evgeni berzin wet in their pants like scared school girls.

There is a certain perk of climbing the Mortirolo during race time: the massive amounts of tifosi. Of course, climbing it on a nasty Spring day all by your lonesome might be fun (it would), but sharing the mountain with thousands of tifosi is pretty alright as well. You start to get that nice feeling that people are watching you, which might be a bad thing, but as long as you don’t keel over and fall off your bike (which is possible), it’s a good time.

It’s a loooong way down.

Her Middle Is A Mean Place
It was around this terrible middle section of the climb where rec riders like me were suffering very publicly. The middle 6 km of the 12.8 km climb average a startling 12.5% with four ramps in the knee-bending 18% range. I thought I was pretty tough on my 23 until I hit about 1k into this section, and started to realize how long this was going to take and how bad I was going to hurt.

There’s a point, when you’ve been out of your saddle, writhing, searching for any last bit of weight to help collapse on top of your pedal to get through one more revolution when you think – what the hell am I doing?

Of course, it was around that point when a come apart is imminent, when I came into a clearing full of people and an outrageous view that it was suddenly ok again. Of course, ok in this case, is a relative turn, but well enough that I didn’t have to get off my bike, and definitely well enough to keep plodding forward instead of flicking the mountain off, turning around, and heading back down to the valley for some lunch.

And a loooong way still to go.

We Ain’t Got No Stinkin Switchbacks
The Mortirolo is not known for its’ switchbacks. There aren’t 21 numbered switchbacks like Alpe d’Huez and there sure as hell aren’t 8 bajillion like the Stelvio just up the valley from the Mortirolo. No, the Mortirolo is one steep mother, and thus, has very few switchbacks. The road just sort of twists and writhes and foams upwards taking almost the line a skiier would if he was skiing DOWN the mountain, which could well explain the inhumane grades.

The farmer who designed this road had to have had a firm hold on his trusty bottle of grappa.

Hold On A Little Longer
Another perk to climbing the Mortirolo on race day? The panini dealers of course! Just when you think there’s no hope of survival and you’re probably going to have to turn around in the next 4 seconds, the road begins to level and you know you’re within a couple km of relief and a hot dog descent. These final three kilometers are probably the most welcome, and easiest, 7-9% grades you will ever ride. So maybe if the Mortirolo was like 18% the whole way, 12% might feel easy. It’s frightening how quickly one adapts to tough situations.

Pant…pant…pant…Paninis? What the hell?

A Touch Of Normalcy At The Top
On race day, the tifosi congregate over these final kilometers in the wide open fields just above tree-line. The crowds stretch 4-5 deep for 3000 meters of road. It’s an incredible sight and even more incredible when you ride up to a panini dealer servin em up fresh and hot along with some espresso – all at bargain basement prices – no over-priced Florence stuff up in the mountains.

The road looks nearly flat – it’s only like 8% at the top.

What To Expect
The 2006 Giro is loaded with epic stages. The 2006 Giro has at least three stages that could be called Queen Stages in any other Grand Tour, but for 2006, they’ll just be one of many.

Stage 20 will be interesting no matter what though, because the climbs that will be crossed are all mean, unholy brutes. The Gavia by itself is a gorgeous atrocity, and then followed with the Mortirolo at the end of the day? It’s going to be pure carnage, hopefully along the lines of the Finestre in 2005 when all hell broke loose and there were only little groups of 2-5 spread out across its’ mighty slopes.

• Read our full scoop on the 2006 Giro d’Italia Corsa.

• Then go read Pez Rides the Gavia

• See The Giro with NonStopCiclismo

For more fun, head to www.JeredGruber.com

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