Monday, September 5, 2011

Switchbacks! Hairpin turns! Tunnels! oh my!!

At the end of our 10 hour, 310 km day today, Ted said “if I were a kid, this would be just like Christimas!”. We experienced a little bit of everything today, including the narrowest roads we’ve been on, 14 switchbacks in a row up the highest elevation we’ve attempted, pouring rain, warm sunshine, fields of apples as far as you can see, conversations with motorcycle riders from Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands; and sweeping turns through lush green valleys. Wow!

Check out today's video here:

It was raining when we started at 8:30am, but everyone was in high spirits, because today we were attempting Stelvio, a 9,045' mountain pass that is the highest paved mountain road in the eastern Alps. We started off through the valleys around Merano, Italy, which are planted with millions of apple trees, supplying apples to all of Europe.

Our first pass of the day, the Passo Tonale, greeted us with a steady rain. A stop at the top for hot chocolate gave us a chance to warm up and put on more raingear in preparation for the trip back down the mountain pass.

We passed in and out of rain, mist and clouds on our way to the Passo Gavia, a twisting, steep, extremely narrow road that led right along the side of the mountain through switchback after switchback. It’s a good thing we traveled this road on a Monday where there was little traffic, because in order to pass an oncoming car, we had to inch our way to the very edge of the road, stop, and wait for the car to slowly crawl past us. By the time we reached the top, everyone breathed a sigh of relief for successfully mastering the technically challenging and often scary (for both drivers and passengers!) road.

The trip down wasn’t as steep, or else we were becoming used to riding up and down mountain passes. By the time we reached the valley for lunch, the sun broke out of the clouds. We laughed and told stories about the ride up Passo Gavia over a delicious Italian lunch of salad and pasta. For me, riding on the bike is a solitary experience since Mike and I can't talk. We often communicate with hand gestures, or a tap on the leg. But on this difficult road, Mike needed to concentrate and I kept my thoughts and observations to myself. At lunch, everyone wanted to share their stories of the trip, tell jokes, laugh and enjoy the shared experience of riding in a group. We had a blast!

Sunshine meant we would definitely tackle Stelvio today. We had heard from Peter and Florian, our tour leaders, about this difficult mountain pass. We’d also spoken with several motorcycle riders we  met at rest stops the past two days, and all of them warned of Stelvio’s technical turns as well as the incredible views. This was the mountain pass we’d been waiting for, and when we saw the sign that announced "14 tornanti", or hairpin turns, ahead, we knew we were in for some real fun. Not only could I watch the riders ahead of me as they wound their way up the mountain above the treeline, but I could also look back down the mountain and see what we had just ridden as more bikes swept up behind us. Mike kept his eyes on the road, waiting for the video and pictures later that night to finally see all of the majestic scenery.

this is what we rode UP!

We were ecstatic and relieved to make it to the top of the mountain, and even rode up a short, steep path to a look-out known as Tibet for even more incredible views.
view from 'Tibet'
After a short break, we headed down the mountain, traversing more hairpin turns until we zoomed into the valley.
the route down Stelvio

We had about 45 miles to go to our hotel in Serfaus, Austria, a resort village in the Tyrol at 4600', which meant we drove up even more switchback turns. We relieved the thrills of the day and shared stories about bikes and travels over dinner, going to bed early to get ready for another day tomorrow - into Switzerland!

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