I had heard of Madonna but never of Madonna del Ghisallo. The little chapel in her honour sits atop a steep hill (532m elevation, 10.6km, avg 5.2%, max 11%) that climbs up from the shores of Lake Como. It had been such a stopping point for cyclists that the local priest had proposed that Madonna del Ghisallo be declared the patroness of cyclists. In 1949 Pope Pius XII, formerly known as Signor Pacelli, himself an Italian and therefore no doubt a keen cyclist, confirmed this. Many years later, Benedict XVI declared Pius XII venerable. Was Benedict, or Herr Ratzinger as he was known before, perhaps also a keen cyclist?
The nearby monument states in Italian: “Then God created the bicycle so that man could make it an instrument of effort and exaltation in the arduous itinerary of life. On this hill it has become a monument to the sporting epic of our people who have always been harsh in virtue, sweet in sacrifice." It had been my first climb in Italy and I was already willing to agree.
I had joined the Tour de Tolerance, a combine of 17 like-minded cyclists from around the Dutch town of Haarlem with some keen to go fast, others simply keen to do their best. I was keen to go fast but that was incompatible with my 80kg of body mass. I surely was not going to be the fastest so I modestly settled for the latter. I would simply try and do my best and hoped not to be the last all the time.
After a couple of days of riding, the first serious climb was going to be the mighty Stelvio. While the elevation chart had looked interesting and daunting, seeing the mountain was quite something else. It is the second highest paved mountain pass in the Alps, and only 7m below France’s Col de l’Iseran. The first 100m of elevation, my heart was pounding. My breathing muscles were beginning the warm-up phase, an euphemism for huffing and puffing. My last ECG had been fine so I was wondering what my GP would have to say about it. Most likely he would encourage me to try to stay within my target heart-rate zone of 160. But how to do that without getting off my bike?
Luckily my heart soon calmed down to an acceptable level. The muscles were primed and worked nicely in concert. While cycling requires muscle power, the ability to keep going demands a lot of mind power. So I settled in for the long haul. I stopped thinking about cycling. I enjoyed the scenery and thought how my wife and daughter would enjoy being here albeit not on a cycle. I suddenly missed them a lot. I kept on going a 100m of elevation at the time. Then finally the split to the Umbrail pass came in sight. Most of my team mates were already waiting. Cold but relieved, I quickly put on warm and dry clothes. Long live the guy driving the back-up vehicle.
From there on it was another 3km to the top of the Stelvio. Motor bikes overtook me with a lot of noise. One of the motor bikes skidded on the now wet road against the wall of the mountain. I heard the sound of the exhaust change from high revving to a sudden bang. I came around the hairpin to witness the accident. I hardly gave it a look as I wanted to move on. Every rotation of the peddle did cost power and after over 2 hours that was in frightful short supply. The spectacular scenery of the snow clad mountain was partially hidden by the clouds. It was close to freezing so not the ideal place for a sweaty body to hang around. I reached the pass. The signpost reminded me that I had reached an altitude of 2,758m. I did not really need a reminder. I had felt it all along the 1,654m. Overjoyed I called home: I had done it!
Two days later we attempted the Gavia. At 2,652m it was meant to be somewhat easier. Then again, the pass had been closed the day before and showers were forecast for around 11am. I dreaded the rains at the higher altitude. I am terrified of the cold. The worst ride had been once when the water in my bidon had frozen. We were lucky. The winds were kind and blew away the rainy clouds making room for the occasional sunshine. I focused on my heart and breathing. The huffing and puffing had changed to regular sound of rapid oxygenation.
A few days earlier, my old fashioned Brooks saddle had spontaneously lost its tension bolt. How that was mechanically possible was beyond me. I had been forced to use the regular saddle and was therefore dealing with a considerable posterior displeasure. The right side more so than the left. I wondered how that was possible. Did I not sit straight? Whatever relief I sought, it was usually short lived. Up to the next 100 meter of elevation. Short realistic goals just as they teach you in Management School. My legs kept rotating with a cadence of around 64rpm. I wanted to spin faster to conserve energy but my legs disagreed. After 1539m I finally reached the top. Time for a hot chocolate.
A couple of days later we would climb the Foscagno (2,291m) followed by some other passes without too much elevation variance. To reach the Passo Foscagno I had to climb 1,269m. Initially it went well. At 68rpm my cadence was a bit higher but as time progressed my muscles were demanding more energy than my body was able to deliver. On top I surrendered without a doubt in my mind: I joined the backup vehicle for a ride to Livigno. It was a shame as the scenery was beautiful and sunshine in ample supply. Outdoor lunch with pizzas and pastas was a joyful event. By now we had crossed into Switzerland. At Forcula di Livigno (2,315m) I hopped on my bike again. It would be a long ride down the mountain to Tirano and our hotel. Along the way I cycled past the border post where nobody was interested in a cyclist without a passport on him… In Tirano is was time for a well deserved beer with the boys.
The last day we would be cycling back to Lake Como. Along the way it was suggested we do a small climb near Ardenno to San Martino (936m). It was the last day so I was full of energy to give it my last drop of sweat. The sun was tanning my skin. After decades in India I knew the importance to stay cool. I poured water on my head rather than in my mouth. Every time after showering my bandana I cycled a bit faster. I reached San Martino rather swift.
On the way down we crossed a bridge and took a left. Up it went again and immediately with 14%. I cursed. I had not foreseen this. It was only 265m but with 17.6km designated as category 3 it was really the case of the last mile is the longest. Once we reached the summit we could enjoy the ride down. Though the endless hairpins made the disc brakes do overime. After quite a while we finally reached the base and sped off to Lake Como. An hour later we peddled onto our camping site. I parked my cycle and went for a very long dip in the cool, beautifully cool, mountain water.
A day later the three of us drove one of the backup vans back to Holland. It was an anti climax. The company had been absolutely fantastic. The cycling had been addictive. I did not want to leave. There were so many more mountains to climb. So many more pastas to devour, so much more wine to please the palate. Depressed I pushed the accelerator of the Mercedes van. It was indeed a Tour de Tolerance.