Thursday, August 17, 2017

Picture Postcard Perfect: Splügen to Andermatt

The days are all starting to run together now as the end of our tour is in sight. So much is packed into each day. So many sights, so many "wow" moments, so many experiences on and off the bike.

We started off Wednesday in Splügen and descended the gorges we had climbed up the previous day. There was a light rain falling for most of the descent, which marked the longest period of time I've ever ridden in the rain (during my extensive cycling career of five years). On the way down, I stopped and spread more of Mark's ashes at another beautiful spot overlooking a particularly steep spot in the gorge:

Once we exited the gorge, the rain stopped, and we had improving weather all the rest of the day. As we rode, it seemed that everywhere I looked I saw scenes that could have been used for picture postcards or those 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles. Green valleys, dark forests, scores of churches perched on mountainsides, quaint houses. It went on and on.

Our destination that day was Andermatt. It's not a very big place, but it oozes quaintness. It was fun to walk around and take pictures before a very happy happy-hour.

Nancy and Glenn, our tour operators

Tom and John, the other members of the rainbow contingent on the tour

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Splügen (aka Brigadoon)

That was what I started to call it on our afternoon climb yesterday: Brigadoon. We knew how far we had to go, yet Splügen seemed to not be real because the climb never seemed to end. We just continued through forests and glades, no town in view, and literally didn't stop climbing until we reached the hotel door. Fortunately, it had been a beautiful climb.

Our day started in Pontresina. We went through St. Moritz, the famed ski town playground for the rich and famous, but we frankly weren't impressed. Pontresina was much prettier. From there, we started climbing immediately up to and over the Julierpas. Then came a long, long descent through beautiful, pastoral valleys and gorges.

After a lunch stop in Thusis, we started our ascent to Splügen, a very small village. For most of the way, we passed through one gorge after another formed by the Hinterhein River. From one bridge crossing one of the gorges, I spread more of Mark's ashes. The following photograph doesn't really do justice to the place, but it is a commemoration of one more special place on the journey I've been on for the past week.

My friends, Ross and Patti, pulled up on their tandem just after I had released the ashes. They approved of the spot, which meant a lot to me because they had known Mark for a long time, Ross having been one of Mark's ER partners. Later that afternoon, some time after we had arrived at our hotel in Splügen, they approached me as I was coming back into the hotel after having gone on a walk. 

"Joseph," Patti exclaimed, "you must come and see this heart-shaped rock in the river!" She was referring to the Hinterhein River that flows through town, then goes on to form the gorges to the north. Together, the three of us walked down to a bridge. There, Patti showed me the rock, as if it was yet another sign:

It is always intensely gratifying to me when people honor the love that Mark and I felt for one another.


Here are some photos I took on my walk around Splügen late yesterday afternoon.

Monday, August 14, 2017

From Bormio to Bernina

I saw one of the most beautiful awe-inspiring scenes of my life yesterday as we descended from the Bernina Pass - the Bernina Glacier. It was here, with the view pictured above, that I scattered Mark's ashes yesterday in a beautiful Alpine meadow. I think he would approve.

We had started yesterday morning in Bormio, Italy, riding down valley to Tirano before heading up valley again to Bernina. The weather was beautiful, as it promises to be again today. Grateful for that.


There was a steady climb from Tirano for 15 kilometers or so before we stopped for a picnic lunch. Then a number of us, myself included, opted to take the van from there to the Bernina Pass, then do the descent into Pontresina.

One of the great things about these cycling trips that I have always enjoyed are those spontaneous times when great memories are made along the way with new and old friends. On our first tour in Corsica in 2012, it was the night we drank shots of limoncello and skinny-dipped in the bay at Propriano. 

At Propriano, before dinner, as we all sat and watched the sun set. Those present then who are on this current tour: Ross and Patti, Kathy, Tom and Dan. It's been great being with people who knew Mark.

On the Geneva to Nice tour, there were numerous "smaller" but no less memorable moments. As I've thought about it, the memories I cherish most from that tour were moments with Mark, such as wrapping my arm in his as we sat awaiting dinner at our hotel in Castellane:

Or enjoying our last lunch on that tour, in Gourdon, high above Nice and the Mediterranean; or starting our last descent of that trip, our last European descent that we would take together:

Yesterday afternoon was one of those times when lasting memories were made as a group of us walked down to the Hotel Walther, a grand old dame of a hotel, where we had bottle after bottle of delicious Swiss Pinot Noir rosé, soaking up the afternoon sun, laughing, talking. It turned out to be a pricey afternoon, but one that I will long remember.

Today, we set off from Pontresina, our destination this evening being Splügen. About 90 kilometers, 4000' feet of climbing over two climbs. The sky is virtually cloudless. It promises to be a great day, stopping for morning coffee in St. Moritz -- because of course, it's St. Moritz. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

"You, Okay"

It was somewhat of a prophetic statement.

A group of us set off from Bormio yesterday morning, heading down-valley to Tirano where we would begin our ascent to the Aprica Pass. From there, we would ascend further to the Mortirolo Pass before dropping back down to Grosio and back to Bormio. It would be a long, challenging day. After my performance earlier in the week, I was questioning whether I was up to it. But my friends rallied me and promised they would look out for me, so off I went.

It was a beautiful day, a bit on the cool side, but certainly warmer than what we had previously experienced. While heading down the valley, I picked a beautiful spot overlooking a quiet stream to spread some more of Mark's ashes:

At some point further down the valley, I'm not sure where, we met Giuseppe, pictured below, at an intersection. We weren't quite sure which way to go, and he happily volunteered, in English, to lead us to Tirano. He zipped around, leading us down beautiful bike paths, and it was a bit of a challenge at times to keep up with him. We later learned that he's 80 years old.


When we reached the point of ascent for Aprica, we all made a pit stop and shed much of the gear we had worn down the long descent from Bormio. As I was standing in front of Giuseppe, he said to me, "You, okay." I thought there was a question mark after his statement, and I didn't know what he meant.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You, okay." 

Still a quizzical look from me.

"You," he said, pointing to my midsection, then looking down toward my legs, "okay. You got a good body." 

I laughed out loud and thanked him. It's always nice to receive a compliment, regardless of where it comes from. If I am in as good a shape as he is when I'm 80, I'll be very grateful.

The ascent to Aprica was challenging, but was primarily in shade and offered stunning views looking down the Adda River valley. The mountain air was invigorating, but it's also a lot thinner than what I'm used to, even when living and cycling in Salt Lake and its mountains. I had to stop several times near the top on challenging grades to catch my breath and bring my heart rate down, but I finally made it to the top, where my friends were waiting for me.

After an espresso, a cappuccino, a Coke and eating the sandwich I had brought with me, we set off again, climbing higher, higher, higher through beautiful forests, glades and meadows, eventually reaching a shelf road that skirted the edge of a mountain, offering stunning views down into the valleys below.

At one point, I fell a ways behind the others in my group. Coming to a fork in the road, I wasn't quite sure which way to go, but followed the advice I had been given: "When in doubt, climb." One road led up, the other down; so I took the road up, and within 10-15 minutes, I had caught up with the others.

The Chapel of St. Agatha, where I caught up with the others.

Regrouped, we proceeded on to the Mortirolo Pass, stopping again for coffee, then headed down, down, down, several thousand feet to the valley below.

It was then time to begin the long ascent back up to Bormio. It was a bit of a struggle at times, especially on the 10% grades that late in the afternoon. But I made it. 75 miles, 7400 vertical feet. I haven't climbed that much in one day in three years - since the day Mark and I climbed Mont Ventoux in France in early September 2014 - and I've only exceeded 7500' four or five times, all in 2012, my first year of cycling. So I was proud of what I accomplished (and a bit incredulous).

It was a good day. As Guiseppe said, I'm okay. Regardless of what I do the rest of this tour, I have yesterday and what I accomplished and experienced. It's a good feeling.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Hardest Thing

I've always been fairly honest and open on my blog, so here goes: I'm done some challenging things before, but yesterday's ride stands out. It may not have been the most challenging - I think of my first ride up Mont Ventoux, of an aborted ride up to the Col de la Croix de Far in the French Alps, of the two marathons I ran, of a particularly challenging day on my first bike tour in Corsica - but yesterday's ride up to the Albula Pass (pictured above) definitely ranks. And at the time I was doing it, it definitely seemed like the hardest. Physically as well as mentally.

Near Lenzerheide

We left Lenzerheide at 8:15, setting out early to try to beat forecasted thunderstorms at our next destination, Zernez. The first six miles were a fun descent, but after that, things changed.

Not far out from Lenzerheide

At first, the climb was gradual, not bad at all. But then it became steeper. Soon, I was riding by myself, my companions with stronger legs surging on ahead. At one point in a gorge, I pulled over for a breather and decided this was be a good spot to spread some more of Mark's ashes in the steep canyon below:

After four more kilometers of 9.0 %+ grades, I arrived at the town of Bergün, where I caught up with my riding partners. It felt good to have a bit of a rest before continuing on the 14 remaining kilometers to the pass. I didn't know beforehand that the grades would range from 7.0 to  9.0%, steadily, for the duration of those 14 kilometers, with about half the distance at over 8.0%.

In Bergün, not realizing what awaited me

Those kilometers were a little bit of purgatory for me. I pulled over a number of times for a breather. There were several times when I frankly thought I wouldn't be able to make it. I felt very alone. I couldn't see any riders ahead of me or behind me. I was alone.

It was a time that I keenly missed Mark. I'm going to be honest: this trip has been more of a trigger than I thought it would be. I miss Mark keenly, and never more so than yesterday morning. I missed the camaraderie I used to feel when I rode with him. I missed his encouraging voice. I missed being able to bitch to him about hard the climb was. And all of this made the climb I was on all the harder.

The one good thing was that the skies cleared as I ascended, and the surrounding peaks came into view. It would have been ten times worse if it had been raining.

Finally, what I assumed to be the pass started to come into view. The absence of trees is always a good indication, along with the appearance of the saddle formed by two peaks sloping downward to each other. I knew the support van would be parked at the top, and that thought propelled me forward. I was running out of water, and I was soaked through with sweat. I was looking forward to getting some food and drink into me and warming up a bit before beginning the descent on the other side of the pass.

I saw some flags. Hope soared that this was it. It wasn't. There was more climbing to do. Eventually, I could see some more flags. Surely that was it. It was. I was relieved to get off my bike. Someone directed me to go inside and warm up and get something to eat and drink. I did. But seeing all of my compatriots - who had arrived some time before me or who hadn't done the ride but had ridden in the vans - chatting and laughing and drinking coffee and getting ready to go, was terribly demoralizing. 

I sat waiting for someone to take my order. I raised my hand at one point and was brusquely told that it wasn't my turn. Screw this, I thought, I'm just going to get something from the van and get back out on the road. I was hoping to ride with the others because I didn't want to ride alone again.

But during those few minutes, the weather had turned. The skies had clouded over and the temperature dropped. On the way to the van, parked some 50 yards away, I started to shiver through my very damp undershirt, cycling kit and jacket. In a matter of seconds, I was on my way to hypothermia and was directed by the tour leaders to get into the van to warm up. The shivering had devolved into shaking. I made the decision to skip the descent and ride in the van on to our destination. 

It was a good decision. Even though I was wrapped in every available jacket in the van, it took a good 10-15 minutes for me to finally stop shivering.

26 miles. 4600'. That's what my ride ended up being (which brings me to about 100 miles and about 11,000 feet for the past three days). I was sorry to have missed the descent, but proud of myself for having made the climb. I learned some things. I gained some experience.

Meanwhile, today is another day. We're being ferried in turns in the two support vans to Bormio, Italy because the weather conditions on the Stelvio Pass, which we were scheduled to ride today, are terrible. The good news is that the weekend is supposed to be nice.