Tour of the Alps Part 3

June 28 - July 23, 2003

San Bernardino – Bregaglia

Day 14
July 11 (Friday)
San Giacomo Pass – Bregaglia
119 miles, 192 km Map

After a breakfast of white rolls and jam, we set off cruising down the Ticino Valley, a repeat of the run we did over a week ago. But when we reach Bellinzona this time, we turn northeast towards San Bernardino Pass. Our road on the west side of the river is quiet, as the autoroute, well camouflaged on the other side of the river, takes most of the through traffic.

Valle Mesolcina
Valle Mesolcina

The route up Val Mesolcina starts out mostly flat and travels through fields of corn and hay. At Soazza the valley narrows and forces the autoroute and highway together. And the grade gets steeper. We climb to Mesocco, looking for lunch. The Migros grocery store is closed for the afternoon siesta, so we continue up the street to a café, where we have a nice meal.

The steep cobblestone climb out of town makes me wish I wasn't so full, but then the road relaxes into switchbacks through green meadows to the town of San Bernardino. Here the autoroute disappears into a tunnel. The road squiggles on up to the summit between peaks of what appears to be high-grade schist to the west and crystalline massif to the east. The hairpins are beautifully inlaid with granite pavers, and the guardrails are wooden beams set between granite posts. They are certainly the most picturesque, if not the most secure, guardrails in the Alps.

Splugen Pass north
Splugen Pass north

The summit is unmemorable and we head down the flight of tight switchbacks to the Hinterrhein, the headwaters of the Rhine. We cruise down the road paralleling the autoroute to Splugen, where we make a grocery stop and then turn south up the steep switchbacks of Splugen Pass. The lower part of the climb has the hummocky appearance of an ancient landslide. The grade eases a bit in the hanging valley, and we follow a clear and gently cascading river towards the summit.

“I see no dippers.” Jobst is peering over the bank. “But this is dipper territory.” Clear water that doesn’t fluctuate greatly with the whims of the hydroelectric company is good habitat for water ouzels. At the head of the valley, we climb the famous intestinal hairpins to the summit and join the parade of BMW's, Audis, and Mercedes making their weekend getaway to St. Moritz.

Splugen Pass south
Splugen Pass south

The summit is barren and features the usual reservoir, but ahead lies a ride worthy of a theme park. After a fast descent from the summit, we plunge over a cliff. Fortunately the road does too. With little on which to gain a foothold, it is carved out of the canyon wall or glued to its side in a maze of tunnels, shelves, and galleries. Cars honk at the corners, which are tight enough to cramp a VW Bug, and one can only hope a bicycle is allowed the right-of-way.

Once through the labyrinth, we sweep through more curves down to Chiavenna and I begin considering places to stop along the way. But the going is good, and Jobst doesn’t want to start the morning with a cold descent, so we turn east up the Val Bregaglia.

Now, he divulges the target – the Bregaglia Hotel. I have an end-of-the-day surge of energy, so Jobst sends me ahead to secure lodging.

Hotel Bregaglia
Hotel Bregaglia

“You can’t miss it – big hotel overlooking the valley. It has a duck pond.” As if the pond will be the defining feature.

Well, I miss it. After crossing the border into Switzerland, there is an odd excursion around Soglio that I can’t believe Jobst wouldn’t mention. Maybe I've gone too far. I stop at a service station to ask directions. “Braulio?” “No, Bregaglia!” I finally find someone who can understand my broken Italian. It’s another kilometer up the road. The climb up Val Bregaglia is steeper than I imagined and more than I reckoned on this late in the day.

Sure enough the grand four-story hotel comes into view, but the main road veers to the right and into a tunnel. I inexplicably ignore the "no bicycles" sign and enter the tunnel, thinking it will be the most direct route to the hotel entrance. But it completely bypasses the hotel, so I turn around and ride back down, turn on the old road, and climb to the entrance to the hotel. Well, there is the duck pond alright, visible to bird who is already in it or flying over it.

“Where did you go?” queries Jobst.

“What duck pond?” I reply, as if that is my excuse.

The bikes roll in on the rough planks of the ground floor, which once felt the tread of stagecoaches. Antiques decorate the spiral stairway and the halls. We check out the dining room. Heads of big game animals stare vacantly at the diners, and photos of big game hunters celebrate the kill. It is an eery monument to the glory days of trophy hunting in far away places.

Hotel Bregaglia garden
Hotel Bregaglia garden

With the momentum off after a long day, I am cooked to the bone and have all the appetite of a stuffed gazelle. But then Jobst opens a window and says, “Look down there.” I peer down at the tables on the patio flanked by a thriving green vegetable garden.

“I would like you to have dinner with me – down there.” How can I refuse? A shower gives me a new lease on life, and we sit down to a lovely dinner on the patio – tortellini stuffed with spinach and ricotta and a huge salad fresh from the garden. Wine mellows the memories of trips past, and as the sun sets, alpenglow tinges the peaks through a summer haze.


Day 15
July 12 (Saturday)
Bregaglia – Temu
89 miles, 143 km Map

After the gourmet dinner, breakfast at the Bregaglia is surprisingly mundane – rolls and jam. Again! But it gets us going.

It’s a short climb up the old road to the upper entrance of the highway tunnel. A giant rock slab tilts across the road and we wonder why it wasn’t just blasted away. We continue up Val Bregaglia accompanied by lots of weekend traffic heading for St. Moritz. The road narrows and switchbacks steeply up a rocky step in the valley. Cars and busses honk and jockey for position on the tight turns. I spurt ahead, motivated to get out of this bottleneck.

At the summit of Passo del Maloja, the valley opens wide to the playground of St. Moritz. Wind-surfers skim the lakes and luxury vehicles pack the parking lots. We cruise past the lakes, bypass the grand four-star hotels, and turn southeast towards Bernina Pass, one of my favorite passes in the Alps.

Bellavista on Bernina
Bellavista on Bernina

After a few kilometers on the busy highway, we exit onto the old road through Pontresina, which sports ritzy hotels and expensive shops. After a grocery lunch, we continue up the moderate grade, stopping for photos and good views of the Morteratsch glacier. Where the railroad tracks cross the road at the Bellavista curve, we wait for the Bernina Express, but there is no red train...until 4 minutes 33 seconds after we give up and ride on.

The valley expands into alpine meadows, threaded by railroad and river and edged by high glaciated peaks. We sit on the boulders at the summit and have a snack of grapefruit, grapes, and biscuits. A cyclist-in-training glides up and his personal coach in support vehicle offers us some bottled water. We must look like we need a boost.

Bernina Pass south
Bernina Pass south

After the requisite summit shots, we start down one of most beautiful descents in the Alps. The wide open curves and panoramic views are almost like flying. We swoop down to Brusio, where the train makes its famous loop. But again, we just miss the train.

“Let’s stop in at Beti’s for gelato,” Jobst suggests. Sounds good to me. We stop at the Hotel Bettoni in Brusio and Jobst gets caught up with the proprietors, whom he knows from previous tours.

We then follow the traffic down to Tirano, where we circle the roundabout and exit southwest towards Stazzona. Here we finally meet a train. The freight train rumbles right down the main street of town in a slot through the buildings that's narrow enough to preclude a wide load.

Gelato in Brusio
Gelato in Brusio

After crossing the tracks, we start up Aprica Pass, a moderately steep climb through a dense forest of chestnut and beech. A languid haze soon cloaks the valley. The climate is sufficiently tropical for kiwis and bananas to thrive in an old plantation in the woods. I am overheated, drenched in sweat, and tired of breathing diesel fumes from all the weekend traffic.

“The alternative is the Mortirolo, but it’s dry, uninteresting, and stays in the trees all the time,” comments Jobst. To say nothing of being one of the most legendary passes in the Alps, notorious for its steep and unrelenting grades. At this point I'd take it over the Aprica, which is becoming less and less appealing.

“People come up here from the valley to escape the heat and just walk around,” Jobst notes. Indeed there are lots of people just walking around. The town at the summit does its best to accommodate them. We walk around and I get an overpriced strawberry frappe, but it barely constitutes three gulps and does little to quench my thirst. Where’s the Jamba Juice when I need one?

We head down the other side to Edolo and then continue up a moderate grade to Temu, strategically placed at the foot of the Gavia. We stop at Jobst’s favorite hotel, the Veduta dell’ Adamello, first place on the right, and ride around to the kitchen. The chef and workers welcome us like they're expecting guests and offer us Coca-Colas. Pasta is cooking on the stove and sliced vegetables are piling up on the counter. Unfortunately, the hotel is full tonight, but a place just down the road has vacancies. We check in there and then ride back to the Adamello for a wonderful Italian dinner of minestrone, gnocchi, veal, and fries, with myrtille tart for dessert. When we ride back to the hotel at 9 p.m., there’s still enough light to see without headlights.

Gavia and Stelvio

Day 16
July 13 (Sunday)
Temu – Corzes
68 miles, 109 km Map

There is no breakfast at the hotel, but we get a warm sendoff by the staff with whom we find a few words in common having to do with bike racing.

Ponte di Legno
Ponte di Legno

We get a grocery breakfast at Ponte di Legno, a clean town with a neat cobblestone street, and I stop at an Italian bar for a cappuccino. It is hopping. People dressed for work dash in, down their espresso, and dash out. I don’t see them pay. One man is brewing shots as fast as they are ordered, and another is washing cups as fast as they are emptied. The TV is blaring Italian news.

Breakfast done, we turn towards the Gavia. I have been looking forward to this climb since riding the Gavia from the north last year. The sun was shining brightly and near the summit a couple was picnicking on the boulders, their car radio playing Cindi Lauper’s Time After Time. I thought about Jobst coming back every year for 40 years to ride the Gavia. “If you're lost you can look and you will find me – time after time.” Though on different itineraries, our tour group missed Jobst by only a day.

Gavia warnings
Gavia warnings

The southern approach invites a ceremonial stop at the Apollonia pavilion to take the water that “gives strength for the climb to those who dare to drink it.” Although there is only one flavor of water now, it will have to do. There are even disposable cups for the tasting. It tastes of sulfur and is indeed sufficiently potent to infuse the entire climb.

Soon we come to the cluster of warning signs – tracciato tortuoso, lack of guard rails, carry snow chains, and proceed with greatest prudence and caution – and the road narrows to the width of a bike path. I find it rather scary – bumpy cross-drains poking through the surface and steep narrow pitches where vehicles must squeeze by a bicycle. Motorcycles zip by – zing, zing, zing. The road clambers up the slope, and glaciated mountains rise behind the valley.

Gavia cliff road
Gavia cliff road

We pass a pile of rock that seems out-of-place – “tunnel tailings” – and continue up to the tunnel and the cliff road. When the tunnel was built, this bit of road was left as an oxbow, cut off from the flow of traffic, except for bicycles. Here is where Jobst was photographed in 1978 for the poster that hangs in the Refugio Bonetta at the Gavia summit.

The lighting is wrong. We need an afternoon sun to recreate the poster photo. The cliff road is mostly in shadow and is cobbled with loose schist, which is difficult for even Jobst to ride. The scene is not to be recreated even in spirit. It is filled with nostalgia and a touch of sadness – Jobst remembering the good old days, me longing to create some new ones.

When we rejoin the paved road, a rider on a Greeley road bike passes us, pedaling at a higher cadence than I – and I’m in my 28x28! This is interesting enough to inspire a chase, so I let Pegasus, the bike, take off after him. We trade places a few times and sweep around the final curve up to the summit. The Refugio comes into view and I yell “Sprint!” As we charge towards the finish, I remember the damp underwear still drying on my panniers. So much for impressing my sponsors. We hear people cheering and clapping at the top. The video camera swings around to record the bike throw at the line, which would have been more effective had the Greeley not already won by a bike length. The camera just as quickly swings back to the real bike race, which is coming up the other side.

Hairpin on the Gavia
Hairpin on the Gavia

Bicycles with race numbers and riders in flashy team jerseys flood the summit, filling the gaps between motorcycles and swarming the Rifugio. An announcer is booming into the microphone as riders approach the finish. They sign in with the registrar, and I see from their tags that this is the Passo Gavia cyclosportif.

When Jobst arrives, he rides directly onto the porch of the Rifugio Bonetta, shoving aside a few riders, who give him puzzled looks. We go in and are offered Cokes on the house.

“Hey what’s this?” A folded scrap of white paper is taped to Jobst’s poster.

Gavia post office
Gavia post office

“Oh, I’ve got mail!” Jobst opens the note. “It’s from Mitch Clinton.”

“Hey, I know him!” He was the bike mechanic and photographer extraordinaire for a tour I did five years ago with Breaking Away. The note says he used to work at Palo Alto Bicycles and is happy to see the poster here.

I eat a piece of spice cake, and we get a sample of what is being served at the event – hot tea with lemon and honey. It beats Gatorade.

We finally leave the masses on the summit and cruise down to Bormio, where it is again hot and sweltering. We exit the highway to the old cobblestone main street, now a nice pedestrian mall with lots of interesting shops.

Stelvio time trial
Stelvio time trial

Jobst heads for his favorite landmark, Braulio Liquor, which used to be housed in an old stable, but is now a fancy tasting room. We stop for lunch at a hotel, but heavy noodles are not exactly what I need after a hard climb. It’s hot and stuffy in the dining room, and I’m impatient to get back on the road.

The afternoon is early and the weather is perfect, so we decide to go for the Stelvio. After some steep switchbacks, the road enters a canyon with dark tunnels and snow sheds and then climbs more switchbacks up to the “Cascade House,” the café by the cascading river. It sits next to some spectacular dolomitic folds.

I check out the folds and wait at the café for Jobst, expecting him to stop for a Coke. He doesn’t stop, not even when I offer to buy him an ice cream. He appears to be in time trial mode. We climb to the upper valley and follow the stream past the monument. A sign announces 10 switchbacks to the summit. As I count them off, each turn gives alternately a headwind, then a tailwind.

Stelvio summit
Stelvio summit

The summit is crammed with motorcycles and souvenir shops. The glaciers of the Ortler shimmer above. Jobst brushes past me and circles the parking lot, weaving between parked motorcycles and around clumps of people.

“You wouldn’t understand,” he says later. “I get emotional seeing those glaciers again.” He finally stops at the portable wiener stand and speaks to the proprietor in German. “Highest sausages in Europe,” he translates for me. Something I should be able to understand.

Stelvio hairpins
Stelvio hairpins

We take the requisite photos and then head down the 48 switchbacks. Fortunately the traffic has diminished by late afternoon, as the hairpin turns are tight, and the right-hand corners are especially difficult to negotiate. We pass Trafoi and follow the river down to Prato allo Stelvio. We head east along the Etsch River and exit to Corzes, where we find a quiet guesthouse amid the orchards. The bikes go in the shed with the farm machinery.

The hotel looks new with its bright yellow wood and shiny copper gutters. In the dining room, we pile our plates at the salad bar and follow up with entrees – spinach noodles and chanterelle risotto. Dessert is strawberries and chocolate chip ice cream (they are out of vanilla). I’m so stuffed I can barely climb the two flights of stairs to the rooms.


Day 17
July 14 (Monday)
Rest day

It’s Bastille Day and we are not in France, so our day of rest goes without wine or fireworks. We are in the Tyrol, which has roots in both Austria and Italy, though with German being the dominant language, it seems more akin to Austria.

Corzes orchards
Corzes orchards

We have a good breakfast of muesli and yogurt in the dining room, and then Jobst goes back for a snooze. I decide to give the bike a day off and follow a pedestrian path / farm road down towards the pointy church steeple. Sprinklers rhythmically squirt arcs across the apple orchards. Sunflowers, roses, peonies, kiwis, hazelnuts, pears, and tomatoes thrive in gardens around well-kept houses.

The pointy steeple rises from a church in the middle of Schlanders, an upscale town that seems a bit incongruous with its agricultural setting. Evidently agriculture is where the money is. The pedestrian street is lined with shops – shoes, cameras, clothing, a drugstore, and a big bookstore. There are several bakeries featuring my favorite bread – round dark loaves studded with sunflower seeds. Watermelon looks good on this warm day, so I get a quarter slice to take back to the hotel.


The Tour de France has an exciting stage in the Alps today, so we ask whether there’s a TV in the house. There is one, and it is in the cool basement, gets Eurosport! We watch the race traverse the route we did a week ago on the Izoard, though in the reverse direction. Now the new pavement is chalked with the names of racers and teams, and the road is lined with cheering spectators.

Beloki attacks, Armstrong follows, they battle it out to the summit. Oh nooooo! Beloki is down, Armstrong cuts across a field, does a perfect dismount and run-up to cross a ditch, and rejoins the peloton.

“Mr. Cyclocross,” remarks Jobst approvingly. It’s replayed approximately eighteen times.

“It's those dual-pivot brakes,” Jobst surmises in an analysis of Beloki's fall.

We walk downtown for an early dinner of pizza, which is greasy and not so good, but we make up for it with dessert. Mine is a generous Coppa Della Casa – fruit salad on three flavors of ice cream. At the dining table, we get out the maps and examine points east.

The Dolomites

Day 18
July 15 (Tuesday)
Corzes – Alba
77 miles, 124 km Map

To the Dolomites! Jobst has been contemplating the Old Road to Tiers, which features a steep climb topped off with a 24% grade. I think he wants to see if I can make it…or if he can still do it. But I want to see the red canyon of the Eggental. Or at least that is my excuse.

We leave Corzes under overcast skies and follow the secondary road to Laces, and then return to the busy highway with lots of big trucks headed for Merano. We exit the highway to skirt central Merano at Toll and wind through town, where we find ourselves in a street market with stalls of clothing and leather goods. We ride past the railroad station on the west end of town and head out on the highway to Lana, continuing on to Bolzano.

At Bolzano, we head for the train station and follow the signs to Brenner Pass, though that is far to the north of our destination. We cycle along the river, then come to a new roundabout and turn southwest up the Eggental.


Wait a minute! What’s this tunnel doing here? It wasn't here last year. We aren’t keen to do 1.1 km of uphill in a tunnel, so we ask at a nearby service station if the old road is open. They say it is not. We take the tunnel, which is cool and well lighted. But at the upper entrance, we look back and see what we missed – the old road carved out of a narrow, steep canyon of red rock. It is a spectacular stretch of road and we are sorry to see it abandoned.

We continue climbing up a moderately steep grade between rock walls. It is hot in the canyon and there isn’t much breeze. Finally it opens up into a green valley with trees and lumber mills. There is a nasty stretch of road construction before Nova Levante, but hey, at least they’re improving the road. We stop at Nova Levante for ice cream, a much-needed energy boost, and continue up the squiggles to Costalunga. We pass the emerald lake that reflects the Latemar, but it is surrounded by trees and isn’t reflecting much today. We stop for more gelato at the top of the pass.

From here it’s a slight downhill to Vigo de Fassa, a resort town with lots of hotels. The sharp ridge of the Rosengarten towers to the west and the Marmolada dominates the east. There is a slight climb to Canazei and the road is swarming with tourist traffic. We zip through the crowded town and turn east towards the Fedaia. For some reason, my stomach has had trouble keeping up with my legs today, so it requests a shortened day for some rumination. We find lodging in Alba, at the foot of the pass. I get a good night’s sleep and feel better in the morning.

Day 19
July 16 (Wednesday)
Alba – Longarone
80 miles, 129 km Map

Breakfast is good – muesli, yogurt, and a peach. On to the Fedaia. The sign says 13 km to the summit, and it is a moderate grade that allows one to settle into a steady climbing pace. The climb on the west is much easier than that on the east, which I did last year. The east-side road was built to serve the hydroelectric project at the summit and is a famously steep and unrelenting climb. The newer road from the west was built later, for cars, and is much more civil.

The summit is socked in with “low-lying clouds,” but the pavement is dry. Clouds appear to be stacking in behind us, but to the east it is still clear. In between the peaks are undecided and sport their own streaming clouds like smoking volcanoes.

Fedaia old road
Fedaia old road

We ride over the dam and around the summit reservoir on a one-lane road. The reservoir looks low. We join the main road and descend the steep switchbacks through meadows and cow pastures to Malga Ciapela. In the center of town, instead of continuing on the highway, Jobst takes a right on a narrow road marked “Pedestrians only.” What is he up to?

This is the old Fedaia road, well maintained as a walking and biking path. It dives into a grotto of rushing river, splashing waterfalls, and hanging ferns. Far above we can see a bridge where the new highway crosses the canyon. I remember crossing that bridge last year, but hadn’t looked down. This is certainly the more interesting route!

We exit the canyon and rejoin the new road at Sottoguda, continuing down to Caprile, a neat little town that would make a good stage stop. But we have only begun our day. Next we head up the Falzarego. The road switchbacks up to a high valley, which is headed by a vertical wall of rock. We’re boxed in. The road is blasted out of the wall and tunnels into it, with just enough clearance for a tour bus to get around the corners. The several zigzags put us on the summit, which has a cluster of souvenir stands and the inevitable pack of motorcycles.

Passo Giau
Passo di Giau

We head east towards Cortina and descend as far as Pocol, where we get lunch at the only hotel in the small town. Now comes my favorite climb in the Dolomites. The road up the Giau is as narrow as a bike path and twists and turns up a wooded hillside, following the lay of the land. As the trees thin out, the mountains take over, with a ridge of saw tooth peaks to the south and the colonnades of the Cinque Torre to the north. There are a few steep bumps – a sign warns of 10% grades and the map says 17% – but they are short and not the defining grade of the climb.

Passo Gaiu summit
Passo di Gaiu summit

The summit is busier than I expect, based on how few cars we met on the climb, but most of the business apparently comes from the other side. Clouds are building, so we don’t stop for lunch. A ladder of nicely turned out hairpins takes us down to Selva de Cadore, where we refuel on gelato, the grocery being closed for mid-afternoon. I am sorry to be leaving the Dolomiti so soon, but Jobst assures me that “it doesn’t happen right away.”

We turn southeast and follow green meadows along the river, then climb through a gap in the ridge to the summit of the Staulanza Pass. The descent has some steep pitches that I am glad we don’t have to climb. We cruise through small towns in the Zoldo Alto region along a gorge that narrows to a slot and pass through Forno di Zoldo, which if not a glitzy town, at least has a catchy name.


It is a long run down the valley of the Mae to Longarone, which sprawls along the wide valley of the Piave near the junction with the Mae. It’s not a very pretty town – big blocky concrete buildings, a chemical factory spewing acrid smoke down by the river. The town has none of the older architecture that gives small villages their charm.

Streets of Longarone
Streets of Longarone

There is a tragic reason for this. On October 9, 1963, the entire town was wiped out by a flood when a landslide caused the reservoir above the town to overflow its dam. According to the accounts, the hydroelectric people didn’t listen to their geologist, who predicted the disaster. The only upside of this tragedy is that hydroelectric projects throughout the Alps were canceled. We have seen the abandoned footings of one such project above Caprile on the way up the Falzarego.

We search for lodging in Casso, a small town across the river, but come up empty-handed, so take a hotel on the main highway in Castello Lavazzo. It is a working man's hotel and we seem to be the only tourists. The menu is verbal, delivered in rapid Italian, but we pick the things we understand – salad and calzone with spinach and ricotta. In the dining room hang pictures of the town – before and after the flood. It is sobering.