Around 18 months ago a very good friend introduced me to Strava, the phenomenon we all know and love. Like most cyclists who have jumped on the bandwagon, I was completely hooked. Every ride became a personal crusade, climb the leader board, dish out a cycling lesson to my buddies or simply collect as many cups (trophies) as I could. Who needs racing when I had a plethora of Strava "challenges" to feed my appetite for cycling stardom? In fact it almost appeared that the "real" world outside of Strava had turned virtual, as my riding partners declared; "if it's not on Strava, it didn't happen". Holy shit god forbid that I could ever leave the house again without my fully charged edge 800 (and the iPhone app, just in case).
In the past few months I have found myself questioning Strava. Don't get me wrong, I still love it, but I began to long for a ride where nobody was "watching" and searching for a balance where the ego could be fooled into believing that just this one time it didn't matter if I was 4 minutes slower up Springbrook. So to the point (finally) of this post, as with all technology, we need to find a way to maximise the benefits without becoming completely subservient to the system that was (I think) designed to help, rather than control us. The answer, as always, rests with the user exercising control and picking the moments to "have a crack".
Consider a national level 10km runner, he or she would be crazy (and wouldn't of course be national level) if they were to train by simply heading out 4-5 times per week and attempting to better overall and segments times from the previous run. Cyclists of course are no different in terms of physiology, but for some reason every ride seems to become a race, either against a group of riding partners or, dare I say it, the Strava leaderboard. I coach cyclists and in some ways Strava had begun to create some problems for me, athletes were finding it nearly impossible to stick to prescribed training intensities for fear of looking "soft" to the Strava community. My solution was to use that same motivation but in a more targeted way by building "Strava Peaks" into their programs. It goes something like this; plan a particular block (say month) of time where Strava PRs will be the goal (many cyclists I coach don't officially race) and then structure the training progressions to bring each rider to a physical peak in order to meet the challenge. It's no different to peaking for a race, just uses the "Strava Spell" to our advantage.
Let me say again that I think Strava is a cyclists best friend, it has created communities, links and even friendships that would have been impossible in previous times. It motivates people to get out there and provides unmatched goal-setting opportunities. As a coach, it allows me to watch & track the activities of all of my athletes and provide instant feedback, no matter where they are located. I even have a Strava friendship with an aspiring young Dutch professional, whom I met whilst cycling in France last year. But there is a qualifier (always is); just as continuous improvement (Strava PRs) can be extremely motivating, struggling to reach previous levels can have the opposite effect, who on earth wants to be getting slower? It is easy to accumulate "trophies" when new to Strava, but becomes increasingly difficult the longer one participates. This is because fitness and form plateaus and then regresses, once this happens, the harder you push, the slower you will go and the only answer is rest.
Like all technology, gadgets and tools, the secret lies in knowing how to use them for maximum advantage. Strava is no different and most have not yet figured out just how helpful it can be
Bubba's Bikelab, out in force at the Battle on the Border. Racing for results, not Strava segments. Well done boys!
Often incorrectly referred to as being within the dolomite mountain range (it is in fact part of the Alps), the Passo Gavia is the ever so slightly smaller cousin of the mighty Stelvio Pass and may be climbed from either Bormio or Ponte Di Legno, if you are feeling really energetic you could climb both sides in the day for a 96km round trip, with approximately 3400m of climbing.
As a ride the Gavia is much quieter, only very slightly lower than the Stelvio (2650m compared to 2754m) and is a climb with a completely different character. By bicycle my first ever views of the high mountains were on the Col Du Galibier in 1989 and it's magnificence is etched into my mind as "first experiences" tend to be. It may just be that I was fortunate enough to have incredible weather, but the views just after the summit of the Gavia, as you begin the descent to Ponte Di Legno are the equal of (if not even more spectacular) than those from the Galibier summit. The sight of the magnificent lago nero, perched on the precipice of towering rock faces is something to which no photo could do justice, immense!
The climb from Bormio is the less difficult (so says the guide book) of the two and although longer has some periods of respite separated by very challenging sections of gradient that touch 14% in places. The first part is a series of 10% ramps punctuated by flat sections that make finding your rhythm a little difficult. The road continues like this until the beautiful village of Santa Caterina where you enter the tree cover, the road narrows and so begins a long challenging section of stunning road that twists and turns it's way up the side of the mountain. This is the most challenging part of this side of the Gavia and as you gain altitude the road begins to deteriorate. Ramps well above 10% are the norm here and thank goodness for the views as climbing on a road surface this bad might otherwise seem horrible. 4km from the summit you hit a flat open section of road, be warned, almost everyone thinks the climbing is done but a nasty section of 8% for around 1.5km still lies ahead. The summit is in fact very easy to spot (once you finally get there), you pass the gorgeous lago bianco and a few hundred metres later you are done, right outside the delightfully welcoming Refugio Bonetta. 25km at 6.8%, no mean feat.
Should you be brave (or silly) enough to continue on (tempting to head straight back to Bormio as the descent on that side is one of the best in Europe) and tackle the descent to Ponte Di Legno you will be blown away by the view that confronts you just after the 3rd hairpin from the top. There may not be a more spell-binding sight in the Alps than that of the mighty Lago Nero. It sits at around 2520m above sea level and is perched precariously on the side of a mountain, at it's far shoreline there appears to be a freefall to the valley floor some 1300m below, it is extraordinary!
As this post is mostly about the climb, I will skip the boring details (NOT) of this descent. Enough for me to say that I cannot remember the previous time I smiled, uninterrupted, for 30 minutes.
The road to the Gavia summit from Ponte Di Legno is etched into cycling folklore. It is the scene of Andy Hampstens epic ride to claim the 1988 Giro d'Italia on a day where blizzards cut the field to shreds and caused the abandonment of almost half the field. The day I climbed was the polar opposite, bright sunshine, almost no wind, the cycling gods seemed happy this day......sorry Andy.
At almost 18km, with an average gradient of 8.2%, the Gavia (from this side) is one of Italy's most feared climbs and more difficult (in my opinion) than the oft lauded Alpe d'Huez in France. The first 6km are very manageable (even with the Bormio climb in your legs) but I was not fooled. Even in a fatigue-induced haze, my maths was good enough to work out that if the average gradient was 8.2% and the first 6km were only 5.5%, I was in trouble. At about the 7km mark, trouble showed itself! It is here that you commence a section of wonderful contradiction, very steep ramps (up to 17%) - OUCH - on a magical VERY narrow road with a silky smooth surface and beautifully cambered hairpin bends - WOW!
The final 9km of the Gavia averages 9.7% and there is no escaping the fact that it is brutishly difficult. But despite this (and the fatigue I was feeling by this point), the charge you feel is a bit spiritual and progress seems more easily made than it should. I have no explanation for it, but climbing in the high mountains give one a tangible sense of extra power, if you are doubtful then try it, something is there and you will be thankful it is.
After the bends, the road hugs the giant rock face that forms one side of this most majestic valley. The views take you away, legs scream more quietly and you just lose yourself in the moment. This is the hardest part of the Gavia, but like I said, a climb of contradiction. Once you pass through the one tunnel on this side (it is dark, cold and steep in there) you are 3.5km at 10% from the top and this next section of road surface is the worst I have seen the the mountains of Europe. But it does not matter.
The final km is only at 5% and you can feel the refuge drawing you in quite quickly. And all of a sudden there it is. Stand by now, did I mention that the descent back down to Bormio is one of the most exhilarating in all of the Alps?
The Passo Gavia, once in Bormio, do it twice!
Some may already be aware that last year I was fortunate enough to spend 8 weeks cycling in Italy and France. Given that many cycling-nuts will be heading to Europe again this year, I thought it a good idea to begin a series of rolling posts, each featuring a review of one of the amazing climbs that I had the privilege to ride in August/September last year.
With no particular order in mind, I am kicking off with a climb accessed from my new favorite cycling town (sorry Bourg D'Oisans) Bormio in the amazing Italian Alps, the mighty Passo Dello Stelvio.
For many years the Stelvio was Europe's highest road pass (it is now third behind the col de la bonette and the col d'Iseran, both in France) and is a very important route historically. In cycling terms it may be the purest of road climbs.
The Stelvio may be climbed from either Bormio or Prato Allo Stelvio, both are long and difficult ascents. From Bormio the climb is 21.4kms long and averages 7.2%, but like with all big European climbs the average gradient means nothing. The Bormio climb features some short sections at 3% and others at 14% and represents a massive cycling challenge. The road surface is consistently good as you head out of town and straight onto the lower slopes of the climb.
The first section is around 5km of 8% before the road flattens for about a km or so. After the brief respite there are more ramps at 8% as you enter the series of 8 tunnels, known to cyclists as the most difficult part of the climb. After the tunnels you pass the steepest section (14%) and then go by a small cafe before commencing a series of around 15 hairpins. It is from these bends that the true splendor of the Stelvio becomes apparent, the views are incredible here. After the bends (which are less severe than the gradients that precede them) the road meanders up through a valley and the road flattens for a while.
With about 5kms to go to the summit, you pass the junction with the Susten Pass, which takes you to Switzerland just a few km away. The final 3km are actually the hardest part of the climb with an average gradient close to 10% but the the climbing is now almost done.
The views from the summit of the Stelvio are close to the best in Europe and the feeling of having reached there on a bicycle is an indescribable sense of achievement and pride. It is always busy up there, tourists (many cyclists) motor bikers and even hikers who have somehow made it up there on foot.
If the Bormio side of the Stelvio is incredible (and it is) the Prato side kind of transcends reality, it is even more beautiful! The start of the climb from Prato to Gamagoi is curiously a little unremarkable but once you leave this little village the road is transformed. Riding the hairpins, through dense pine forests on a silky smooth road surface is just divine and despite the 8% gradient it is easy to make progress. On clearing the forest you soon enter the village of Trafoi......and it may be a contender for the world's most beautiful town. Set in a deep valley, surrounded by 3000m+ peaks, split by a raging mountain stream and featuring exquisite buildings from ancient times, it is kind of like something from a storybook and even though I have ridden through there it still doesn't seem real. Reality however is something that DOES confront you once you leave Trafoi, 11.5kms at an average gradient of almost 10%! The Prato side of the Stelvio features 48 hairpin turns, counted down from the bottom, and most of them are in this 11km section.
The difficulty of the challenge is easily balanced by the visual feast that is all around you. Stunning views back down the valley as you climb the bends and admire the achievement stretching back behind you. All around are massive glaciers, the size and power of the setting is truly humbling, gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. Cyclists are everywhere, motorists are courteous and so respectful (such a pleasant feeling coming from Australia where cyclists often seem to be public enemy number one), one gets a sense that it is a feeling that would be hard to replicate doing anything else.
The final 5 kms are amazing, the views are still there but you can't help but be taken with the serpent-like road that somehow clings to the side of a mountain, how on earth did they do that? And then the summit is there, after 26kms at an average gradient of 7.8% and more than 2 hours of climbing, exhaustion, exhilaration, euphoria, excitement all at once, loud, vivid, alive!
The Passo Dello Stelvio......one for the bucket list of every cyclist, and gee even if you are not a cyclist, visit once before your time is done.
Brian Bubba Cooke
Exercise Physiologist, coach & cycling tragic for 30 years. Love the freedom, reward and sense of achievement that one can only experience in our amazing sport.