Aaron Gulley riding to 30th place on the day.
Aaron Gulley riding to 30th place on the day.

Riding the Gran Fondo Stelvio Santini

A gran fondo with climbs so beautifully painful that our writer will be going back to ride again on European roads

Aaron Gulley riding to 30th place on the day.

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Despite what you may have heard, the road climbs in North America are not on a level with the famous cols of Europe, which I discovered a little over a month ago on a long-weekend blitz in the Ortler Alps, coasting distance from the Swiss border.

Climbing up out of the valley. Climbing up out of the valley.

I traveled to this tucked-away corner of northern Italy to try out some new wheel technology from Easton. The company was putting the finishing touches on their latest road racing wheel line, and they wanted a few select editors to test the hoops before the release. Since the dates for their European sales meeting in Milan aligned with the Gran Fondo Stelvio, the company sent a small contingency to host an unofficial product launch.

Managing the logistics of the trip was Velo Veneto, an American-run cycling tour operator based north of Venice, owned by Jason Cardillo. Throughout the weekend, Cardillo steered us through the circuitous web of Italian back roads and bureaucracy, got us into the best hotel in Bormio, and made sure that the eating was as good as the riding, including spot-on wine picks at every meal.

If you’ve never traveled with a cycling tour guide, consider it. Though the adventure of finding your own way can be great, a plugged-in local guide, especially one with real cycling knowledge like Cardillo, can make what would otherwise be a logistical nightmare into a riding weekend as breezy as your local weekend ride.

Dain Zafke, brand manager for Easton, arrived with enough wheel bags to supply a neutral support car. At a pre-ride presentation, he and Easton CEO Greg Shapleigh showed two sets of new hoops, a medium-profile carbon wheel called the EC90 Aero 55 and the EA90 SLX aluminum clincher. Both have wider rim widths than previous iterations, newly redesigned hubs with speedier engagement and wider axle bearing spacing for superior stiffness and durability, and full tubeless compatibility. The 25-millimeter deep EA90 SLX weigh just 1400 grams and should be great all-around racing and training wheels.

But it’s the EC90 Aero 55s that grabbed everyone’s attention in Bormio. The new dome-like profile, developed in conjunction with aerodynamicist Len Brownlie, is a departure from Easton’s previous sharper-edged form (and not unlike the shape favored by other companies these days). Easton says the blunt shape tests far better in the wind tunnel and also provides much more stable handling in crosswinds. The profile will be available in both clincher and tubular varieties.

This one shape will replace four previous distinct EC90 wheels, the SLX (25mm), SL (38mm), Aero (56mm), and TT (90mm). “At 1330 grams, these wheels are lighter than the previous 38mm wheels and faster in the wind than the 90mm rims,” Shapleigh said. “It’s maybe not the best business decision—we’re eliminating lots of SKUs. But we couldn’t justify keeping all the others because the Aero 55s were so much better than all of them.”

Easton only had the EC90 Aero 55 Tubulars on hand (the clinchers aren’t yet ready for release), and I rode them on our initial 20-mile spin. They felt zippy and light for such a deep rim and surprisingly stable in the wind. I was also pleased with the braking. Carbon wheels have a reputation for poor stopping, but Easton seems to have addressed this with a textured braking surface and revised pads. They’ve also developed a stringent testing procedure to prevent rim failures.

“We run the wheels with 500 watts of input, braking the entire time, and they will go for two miles without failing. That’s equal to the Zipp Firecrest and far better than anything else on the market,” says Easton engineer Adam Marriott. “Safety is our number one concern, and we don’t have any reservations about these wheels.”

I wanted to try the EC90 Aeros on the day of the fondo, but since the ride was unsupported I opted for aluminum clinchers for fear of getting stranded with a flat tubular.

The Gran Fond Stelvio Santini is only in its second year, but it is destined to be one of the finest fondos anywhere. Beginning in Bormio, elevation 3,900 feet, the course plunges nearly 3,000 feet down valley, clambers three-quarters of a mile vertical over Passo Mortirolo only to thread back down to the floor, and then retraces itself through Bormio and up to the 9,000-foot Passo Stelvio.

With more than 14,000 feet of climbing in 92 miles, it’s an epic course on any day. Our ride would be even more memorable, organizers said, because of the brutal, wet, cold spring the region had seen. When the Giro d’Italia passed through Bormio a week before we did, the weather was so grim that organizers had to cancel stage 19 over the Stelvio and Gavia passes because of heavy snow. The weather had cleared a bit since then, but our final miles to the Stelvio would be through plowed-out, two-meter-high walls of snow. Everyone was hoping for a warm spring day.

On the morning of the fondo, I woke before sunrise to the sound of heavy rain slapping at the window. I considered staying in bed. Rain in the valley meant snow on the passes. I pried myself from the duvet and joined a few others in our group downstairs in the hotel restaurant. We fortified ourselves with rich pastries and strong coffee and tried to act brave, but the anxiety over what misery could follow lined the faces around me.

Outside the rain had ceased and a damp, gray fog crawled up the valley. We took our place in the crowd, behind most of the thousand starters because we had been so slow to get going. From the gun, then, it was a fast, harried chase to try and reach the front as the race screamed downhill.

I’ve never quite understood the gran fondo phenomenon, but on this day the attraction was clear. It’s a race without the high-pressure of racing. Zafke and I charged through tight gaps and clung to the strongest wheels we could find. The massive peloton poured through cobbled mountain towns and around all manner of road furniture with the fluidity of a school of fish. It was as close as this amateur will ever get to racing in something like the Tour de France. Half the fun was the blazing pace and camaraderie.

With the exception of a steep little hump after an hour, true climbing didn’t begin until around mile 38. I had picked my way up to near the front of the race and was feeling good about it. Not for long. The Mortirolo rose up and struck me down.

No bigger than a U.S. bike path, the ribbon of rough asphalt shot up the hillside in switchback after harrowing switchback. The road averages 10.5 percent for 12.5 kilometers, with several pitches pushing up to 18 percent grade. On one stretch near the top, which was so steep that locals had used a grater to add texture so car tires wouldn’t lose grip, a rider ahead of me who seemed to be muttering under his breath stepped off his bike and fell into convulsive cramping on the ground. Half a mile later, I crested the pass.

The climb to Bormio was less steep but strafed by a headwind. Then up the Stelvio I ground—I was alone now, passing the occasional rider, pedaling straight into the gale and cold, wending and bending through yet still more switchbacks and higher into the alpine. At halfway, snow began pouring from the silver sky. Soon the walls of snow around me started to grow.

Finally the five-kilometer banner appeared, then three, then one. The pros always seem to take an inordinate amount of time in the last kilometer of a climb during a race, and my own pace was glacial. I wrestled my bike and fought back cramps. The snow was in my eyes. My hands and face were numb. I saw skiers swishing through fresh powder above me. Then, finally, I rolled across the timing mat and was pushed into circus-size warming tent.

The ride had been outrageous and stunning and epic unlike anything I’d ever experienced back home. The climbs were flat out devastating—and addictive. Now that I’d seen what the pros experience on the Stelvio and the Mortirolo, I wanted to know what the other great climbs were like: Alpe d’Huez, the Gavia, Mont Ventoux. The list is endless. And I also knew that I’d likely return for another fondo. Sure you could go over and ride these roads on your own, and that would be good fun. But to do it in en masse, during a race, was electrifying.

I’m back home now, and just the other day I rode our local hill climb, a 3,500-foot ascent of Santa Fe Ski Hill. It’s a fine ascent that is always difficult. But this time it felt shorter, the steeps less crushing. At the top, looking out over the desert, I thought to myself, this is a beautiful climb. But it’s no Mortirolo.

The Best Outfitters
Velo Veneto offers European riding trips in a training camp format out of its base in northeastern Italy. Owner Jason Cardillo offers camps centered around the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, and half a dozen of the best gran fondos in Italy, and he’ll also customize trips to meet clients needs and desires.

Thomson Tours, run by Scotsman Peter Thomson, runs a broad range of cycling tours throughout Europe, including around the Giro, Tour, and Vuelta a España. Thomson Tours are known for big days and hard riding.

Velo Classic Tours’ trips are for cyclists who want to ride hard as well as enjoy the a little luxury. Owner Peter Easton skips the grand tours and instead offers excellent trips around the springs classics, including the cobbles, the Ardennes, and L’Eroica.

In Gamba Tours, run by ex-pro racer Joao Correia, is a new operation based in the Chianti region of Italy. He is currently offering trips in Italy and Portugal, and his experience in the pro ranks offers bike tours with an interesting perspective.

Now in its thirteenth year, Duckstore Productions provides customized cycling trips out of Annecy, France, in the heart of the high Alps. Run by the husband-and-wife-team of John Goldsmith and Catherine Freychet, who have lived and ridden in Annecy for two decades, the company has trips anchored around some of the biggest races on the calendar, including the Tour de France, recreational offerings in Provence and along the Côte d’Azur, and even trips that start and finish with grand fondos.

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