Mike Simpson

Stelvio and the Meaning of Life

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So the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything in Douglas Adam's wonderful world was 42. On the Stelvio Pass on the Swiss/Italian border that number represents something else. Each of the many hairpins are numbered. When you reach 42 hairpins to go you are not even halfway up. The halfway point on the climb is about 100m past the 42 sign. The mighty Stelvio is a whopping 15 miles long and that iconic image of the hairpins is actually only the final 3 or 4 miles showing the last 27 hairpins.

Pacing such a climb is very tricky, as little as 5% too much output early on and you discover a world of pain as the altitude increases to a body crippling crescendo at 2758 metres. I had long looked forward to pitting my lung capacity against such a beast. I knew to post a half decent time I couldn't wait too long. Last May I was all primed and ready to go at the base. However the temperature at the start was zero degrees and we got informed that it was -14 at the summit. The road was blocked and the police were letting no one past.

So it's a full 14 months later when I get my next chance. Heavy rain was forecast but luck was on our side as I started on a beautiful morning. From the off I knew my legs were not on best form, flying in from sea level and immediately climbing up to 2758m without acclimatising is really going punish the body but this may be my only chance here, so I push on as hard as I can.

I play a lot of mental games with myself during a balls out effort. I'm sure it's the same for most athletes but the aim is to mask the feeling of pain or even just delay/transfer the pain elsewhere. I use a technic of imagining moving down a series of corridors and keep closing doors behind me and moving away further and further from the current situation. That probably doesn't make much sense but it seems to work. It's also a numbers game as well: 3 miles done/12 to go etc. and when later into it you can say to yourself 12 miles done/3 to go, you can ramp up the power knowing the lion's share of the work is done.

Unfortunately apart from a 100m section with 2kms to go, that eases slightly, the last third of the Stelvio is really tough. The gradients are not Zoncolan-esque but its length and shear altitude cements its brutality. The best advice in that last third is not to look up, mountain passes always seem so distant and long to the eye, just keep ticking off the kilometres in your head.

As I pass the 100m to go mark my body is about to pop, total exhaustion timed to perfection, I career too close past the hot dog stand at the top and inhale a mouthful of greasy, meaty fumes, and I come to a sudden stop ramming into a set of table and chairs outside a cafe. The owner initially thinks of taking my order, he takes a step back when Davina appears with a warm jacket and pint of skimmed milk (my recovery drink of choice).

The Stelvio is undoubtedly, in my mind, the hardest of them all, above the other giants I've ridden -Tourmalet, Galibier, Ventoux and Zoncolan included.

So earlier on as I past that hairpin 42 sign halfway through, it dawned on me that these sort of climbs and the effort they require are, for now, the meaning of my life, as I'm enjoying every painful minute.

Click images to enlarge.