When we began planning this trip it was supposed to be a simple loop of the largest lakes of Lombardia: Maggiore, Lugano, Como, Iseo, and Garda. Then Sarah saw a picture of Passo dello Stelvio by Jobst Brandt and decided that the climb was 'epic' and she wanted to make that climb. The trip was altered to add the Dolomites as a warm-up and the crossing of Stelvio en-route to the lakes. This was the day for Sarah to fulfill her ambition.
Breakfast was a bit delayed as the kitchen staff was a bit late getting started. We waited in the foyer outside the dining area until they were ready for us. A rear door gave us a view of the weather, cloudy with just a slight drizzle. Once the breakfast buffet opened we packed in some calories in preparation for the climb. After breakfast it was time to finalize packing and checkout of the hotel.
We retrieved our bikes from the un-attached garage, which was filled for the most part with motorcycles. I topped off air in the tires as Sarah attached the panniers. We headed out of the parking lot and started uphill immediately. We set a nice pace confident that the weather would be nicer as the day went on, based on the weather report. It was a steady grade up through the town of Gomagoi and the Y-intersection with the road to Solda. We continued on up through the Val di Trafoi, getting to the first of the switchbacks just before the village of Trafoi. After passing Trafoi we started hitting the succession of the 48 numbered switchbacks in earnest. At number 39 we stopped for a water and photo break, then continued upward. A while later we came around the bend to find a van, with racks on the roof and one bike, backed into a pull-out on one of the switchbacks. A woman jumped out and offered us bananas and cookies. She turned out to be a co-owner of Breaking Away Bicycle Tours, based in Manhattan Beach, California. We talked about their tour group, that was climbing up the pass right behind us, and the passes in Italy, then thanked her and continued on our way up the hill. The last 10 km or so of the climb was a constant progression of motorcycles, a few cars, Americans on bikes from the Breaking Away group, plus a european team training on the hill, with us and our loads in the middle. Sarah took some satisfaction when some in the Breaking Away group, on unloaded lightweight bikes, had to SAG (get a ride in the van) to the top. After far too long we came around the switchback numbered 1, knowing the top of the pass was just a couple hundred meters in front of us. A road worker told us, in German, that it was just another 10 km to the top; I am not sure if Sarah appreciated his attempt at humor.
At the top of Passo dello Stelvio there was some slushy snow left on the edges of the road, and some fresh powder that the skiers were enjoying. There was a very light snow flurry happening under a partly cloudy sky, but Sarah was beaming with pride at her accomplishment. We recorded the moment on the digital camera, first looking back down the Val di Trafoi then at the top under the sign showing the elevation. The area at the top was much smaller than I had anticipated, and there was a large gathering of motorcyclists hanging about. We parked the bikes and headed into the restaurant for some calories and water. We ordered pasta carbonara and acqua minerale (gasata), and while we waited for the food I went outside to take pictures from near the viewpoint of the Webcams and to talk to one of the van drivers from Breaking Away. The pasta was delicious, and the waiter very attentive and friendly.
With lunch out of the way we layered on more clothing for the descent, 5000+ feet in about 14 miles. We were soon on our way down the west side of the pass, dropping altitude quickly and getting quite cool despite the added clothing. After a few kilometers we passed the turn-off to the Umbrail, and part of me wishes to turn and explore that direction. But we continued down the road towards Bormio, stopping to admire small waterfalls and steep sets of switchbacks at a couple of points. After the set of switchbacks the road straightens and follows the side of the mountain, complete with a series of five short tunnels. The tunnels were nerve-wracking as the change of light levels made it impossible to tell what the road surface was like. But we made it through the last one just fine and enjoyed the rest of the very fast descent into Bormio.
As we rolled through Bormio I mused on the idea of climbing Gavia. Sarah sounded lukewarm to my probes, so that ride will have to wait for another trip. Lonely Planet guides recommended the Albergo Adda for a good, economical place to stay. We got a room there, but half-board was not an option due to the restaurant being closed on Mondays. Unlike all the places we had stayed to this point, the Adda was a bit old and in need of some updates. After we got settled and cleaned we walked back into the center of Bormio, explored a bit, and found a small restaurant for dinner.