Words and photography by Matt Ben Stone
A cycling challenge, Magnificent Alps, was organised in aid of a charity school PACE, which helps change the lives of children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, in Aylesbury, UK. Since 2008 PACE cycle challenges have involved 242 riders completing 122,000 miles throughout England and the rest of Europe.
This gruelling event was not for the faint-hearted. Five solid days of riding and a long list of huge mountain passes, testing the riders to the very limit. I was invited along to photograph this epic event unfolding in some of the most iconic cycling scenery in the world, who could resist. As with all cycle challenges, the first morning is a rather nervous affair. Riders trudge up and down making tweaks, checking tyre pressures and preparing for the week ahead. With the support team in position, 18 men and women set off to ride the 450 miles over some of the most extreme road cycling mountain ranges in Europe.
The first day started in Jochberg, Austria. The route had 8.855ft of ascent and the afternoon contained 22 glorious miles of descent. We first faced the Kitzbuheler Horn followed by the Grossglockner Pass. Formidable at the best of times, the weather was not kind on the Grossglockner Pass, climbing to 2500 metres in the wind, freezing rain and mist took our breath away and slowed riders to a shivering crawl, not even overshoes could save you from the torrents of water, as there is always a trickle that crawls in under the zipper. In the support van, the windscreen wipers working hard, we hoped the weather would improve the rest of the week. The smiles dropped and the chatter tailed off unless it’s to curse the weather or another puncture. We quickly got used to riding amongst beautiful countryside which in stark contrast to home is
devoid of traffic.
Riding shotgun in the long wheelbase support van, after our first encounter with a mountain pass on the trip, the weather was a shock, the tarmac was awash with detritus that the punishing rain had washed up. Not ideal conditions for cycle tyres, the puncture sweepstake which was taken on the outbound flight was looking good if you had a high number! We all made it to the top of the pass, the van pulling into the rest stop with the signs for the decent. We took shelter in restaurant Fuschertörl, politely asking the gentlemen behind the bar if he would be prepared to cater for 18 wet to the bone cyclists in our best broken German. One complication that we encountered with the interiors of cafes over the trip where the tiled floors, unless you had cleat covers, it was a perilous ice rink.
Climbing above the cloud line is a fantastic feeling. I remember seeing a tandem couple cycling up near the top of the Grossglockner pass making it look effortless, fully laden with front and back camping panniers, we still gave them a jingle on our cowbells as we drove past. Dropping back out of the cloud line and the visibility lifts slightly and the rain eases making a more pleasant descent, the reward we were all looking forward to.
88 miles later we roll into Oberdrauburg for the first of many overnight stops. As soon as we make it to the hotel, the first thing was to find every hot radiator and adorn it with garments from odd looking overshoes to fingerless gloves. So here we go, day two. 79 miles total but the ascent is a massive 12,130ft. Moreover, this is the day we tackle the Monte Zoncolan, Italy. A 13.5km climb with an average 9% incline, an ascent that many struggle with. The first 10 miles or so are the most challenging, the riders are cold from yesterday’s damp clothing and wet saddle, all wanting to build some cadence to get some warmth into their stiff legs. Let’s not forget these riders do not have a full team and domestique looking after them after every category climb, just a few foam rollers get passed around.
On the last spike of the Monte Zoncolan, I was sat in the front seat of the support car, looking at this wall of a short sharp road, only 30 or 40 meters long, but was doubtful if the car could even make it in first gear, let alone the cyclists who had been climbing for 50 minutes previously. The tarmac on a lot of the highest peaks was cracked and worn almost to rubble with the vicious winter ice freezing and breaking the road up come spring time when it thaws. Taking a well earned breath at the top admiring the view, with the wind on our backs and the sun now shining, peering down the valley I could see the cyclists swoop through the switchbacks, the air being so eerily still you could hear the occasional shout from distant cyclists reverberate back up over the rolling contours.
Day three, the biggest climb of the trip, Passo Tre Croci, Falzarego and Valparola. All three climbs piggyback onto each other, the toughest day in the saddle, 82 miles and an ascent of 9,708ft, the profile shows multiple peaks. It is days like this that the adventure truly comes alive. I would be peacefully waiting for the riders to come around the switchbacks, silently they approach and then disappear again, out of frame down the next 4 switchbacks at 30 miles per hour. I can remember many spots where I was waiting for the cyclists within the rocky landscapes, high up watching the mist effortlessly roll through the alpine trees, as quickly as it came into view it dissipated again. Most often than not I was itching to give up the camera and jump on the spare emergency bike it was that awe-inspiring.
Fancy some adventure cycling in the UK? Read about the Pannier.cc Borders Tour
Day four, just one massive climb, totalling 55 miles of ascent, up and over the second highest Alpine pass, to a height of 2,758m. Passo Stelvio offered smooth open roads and impressive sweeping vistas. The average gradient is 7.4%, it is shallow to begin with but it racks up greatly three-quarters of the way up. Once you’re past the tree line you can see all the switchbacks ahead. The quietness was surreal, the sheer drops and untouched nature, only your own breathing for company keeping a steady beat to dance on the pedals. We too had trouble climbing the Passo Stelvio in our support vehicle and suffered the effects of altitude sickness. The van had been driven from England so was right-hand drive, my task was to hang out the window, ensuring we could make it around the hairpins. We acknowledged the silent reminders at the side of the roads of what we were about to achieve. The ascent was hard, the sun beaming on the climbing riders, handing over gilets and any other excess clothing to the support vehicles as they passed.
The descent was magnificent, the sun was going down below the glinting peaks of the other mountains. The race against the setting sun started, as soon as the sun sets the temperature drops considerably. Wrapped up in every item of clothing we owned, plus a few newspapers from the cafe at the top. Fingers started to cramp from the relentless pressure needed to hold the brakes. The wind chill, travelling at speeds of up to 40mph, would start to freeze the metal brake levers. By the time we reached our overnight stop, it was pitch black, we could smell the vans burning breaks highlighting the exhaustive day that had passed.
The final day we wake up to glorious sunshine, which blessed us the whole day, what a way to finish a trip. The finish was close, our heavy legs could not dull our enthusiasm to complete the ride on the beautiful flat Lake Garda. That morning we conquered the penultimate climb, Passo Mortirolo continuing through the Passo Croce Domini. The Mortirolo is 12.4km long with a whopping 10.5% incline. Day 5 was 80 miles long and had 2,896m of ascent. The evening sun clipped the tips of the peaks, I was so desperate to capture the beautiful vistas behind us that I could see in the rearview mirror. We rolled all the way down from Bagolino, a small town at the top of Passo Croce Domini with 3,404m of decent to absorb and the kudos of conquering the famous mountain climbs Grossglockner, Zoncolan, Stelvio and Mortirolo.
On this trip, I experienced the sheer power of nature and its beauty. What is remarkable is every single one of the 40 riders who signed up, completed this challenge but further that, none of them are professional athletes or cyclists, somewhere new to a bike. This determination to keep going when things get tough, very tough, on days in the saddle averaging over 90 miles shows how much people care for such a good cause.
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