The road climbs in several pitches to the high valley that reaches from Niederwald to Oberwald (1371m) from which the FO railway now enters a nine mile tunnel instead of going over the pass. I rode up to the base of the Grimsel pass at Gletsch (1759m). From here I headed up the Furka pass (2431m) in warmer and clearer weather than the first time and with more power than I did ten days ago. I had a pleasant descent down to Realp (1538m) with practically no traffic. In Realp the DFB#1 steam engine was pushing a string of passenger cars around the yard. I rode on to Hospental (1447m) to stay in the hotel Sternen again.
As I descended to Airolo the usual clouds began to form behind me and a brisk wind chased me down the hill. It was great to not push a headwind down the Ticino river to Bellinzona (239m) and even get the wind to push. As often, there were large groups riding SBB rental bicycles down from Airolo. At Arbedo, just before Bellinzona, I turned up the Moesa valley toward Mesocco (777m) and the San Bernardino pass (2063m). The valley was warm and my stomach was complaining. When I got to the climb I noticed that my system began to feel better the harder I climbed, so I rode to the grocery store in Mesocco and loaded up before heading on up to Piano San Giaccomo (1140m) and farther to the town of San Bernardino (1607m) where I put away a large dish of ice cream. Whatever had bothered me, it was now down the sanitary drain. Above here the road is exposed and has little traffic as it climbs through granite boulders and rushing water. As I neared the summit it became cloudy and I quickly forgot the heat of the valley.
There was almost no traffic on the descent to Hinterrhein (1624m), the last town in the upper end of the valley where this branch of the Rhine river originates. A moderate headwind met me as I turned down to Splugen (1460m) but the descent made riding into the breeze easier. Without stopping in town, I crossed the river past the dairy store and large grocery store to head up the Splugen pass (2117m). I rode easily now that I had cool climbing air under cloudy skies. I looked for dippers that are often active in the stream but instead saw goldfinches among the alpenrosen and many wildflowers that covered the hillsides. I rode up the group of layered identical hairpin turns to the Swiss border station and on to the desolate summit with its military like, and forever unfinished Italian border portal. Neither place wanted to know anything from me as I passed the approving nod that I believe is essential before proceeding.
Descending to Monte Spluga, down an uninteresting winding road, under grey skies gave the little town its classic desolate colorless look. I can't imagine what draws people there either as visitors or as inhabitants. However, there are a couple of youth camps. With no wind, I rolled around the hydroelectric lake that was absolutely dry. Having never seen it like this, I took the opportunity to photograph the old road that went straight across the floor of the reservoir to the town. On the front of the granite faced dam, giant Roman numerals proclaim in dark green stone the date of construction, 1931.
The descent of the Splugen is a revelation to the first timer with its unexpected tunnels that serve to protect against avalanches, and even more so the descent of "the wall" in hairpin turns in tunnels and stacked one above the other. All these tunnels were, until recently, unpaved and one way. Some still are. In between are small towns that seem to be there in spite of the terrain. Below where the canyon is narrow littered with a mass of granite boulders, small towns and granite cutters find space. Finally the road straightens for the last km's down to picturesque Chiavenna (333m) where the Maira river, sculpted into a granite bedrock flows through town, at the junction of the Maloja and Splugen highways.
Up the valley past the Piuro and its aqua minerale bottling company, and the Swiss border at Castasegna (686m), I came to Bondo, Sottoponte, Promontogno, and Bregaglia (793m), all of whose city limits signs are within a km of each other. This is a beautiful corner in the canyon from which many landscape calendar scenes and travel posters originate. The rustic architecture, streams, stone arch bridges, and glacier covered crags that vanish in the clouds all make this an unforgettable image. Just for a change, I stayed at the hotel in Promontogno instead of the Bregalia Hotel (different spelling from the town) where I stayed a ten days earlier. I wasn't as good.
The summit is a pleasant change with many tourist facilities for all seasons. The broad expanse of this high valley with the Silser lake (1797m) and the backdrop of dazzling white capped mountains make this an exhilarating experience. There is no descent as such, the road rolls almost flat from the summit along the lake, past Sils to the Silvaplana lake (1791m) and on to the St Moritz lake (1768m) in front of the grand hotels where only nobility hobnobbed in the early part of this century. The hotels exude this air even today.
On the way around the lakes, I passed a couple on bicycles, he pulling a trailer. I wondered where they had started but assumed they were just riding around the lake. After a small detour to Samedan (1721m) and eating lunch in Pontresina at the base of the Bernina pass (2328m), I rode up to the RhB railroad crossing where the train makes a great picture as it negotiates the steep 7% curve with the Morteratsch glacier, Piz Bernina and Piz Palu as a backdrop. A classic poster scene.
I got the shot and rode on up the mild climb in the my 50-15 just to see if it still worked as I remembered from when I was" young and beautiful" more than 30 years ago when I didn't question the choice of gear. It worked but the speed wasn't there. What WAS there, was the couple with their trailer. They had been on the train that I photographed. I offered to take their picture in front of the summit sign and then asked what was in the trailer. It was their two month old infant with which he planned to blast down the steep south descent. He told me that brakes were no problem if you go fast enough, the trailer working as an air brake. I began descending briskly as I usually do and noticed as I looked back that he was following in like manner. I didn't want to see the results and hurried on down, sometimes over bumps in the road that required leg suspension. I don't know what a trailer did for these but it wasn't safe, especially with an unsecured infant.
Just before Poschiavo the road was suddenly wet for a couple of km's a shower that must have just passed, although there was no sign of rain. After Poschiavo the RhB tracks are sometimes in the street or cross at a low angle giving the bicyclist a challenge. After the lake that fills the valley so the road must climb the wall at Miralago, a swift descent follows, where the RR and road run side by side straight into Brusio, the road a bit steeper and good for exciting speeds. I stopped at Hotel Bettoni to say hello to my acquaintances, Mr. and Mrs. Beti, and to savor a large dish of ice cream, just what I needed for the next climb. There being no train on the spiral viaduct, I didn't catch a photo but rolled on down to Campocologno, crossed into Italy to Madonna di Tirano and headed to Stazzona (396m) where I caught the shortcut to the Aprica pass (1176m). The climb reveals a panorama to the south that invariably vanishes in the haze somewhere behind Sondrio toward the Lago di Como.
Aprica, as usual, was awash with visitors from the Lombardia seeking the clear air above 1000m. The road was covered with Giro d'Italia graffiti, mostly for Bugno, on the way down to Edolo (675m) where I turned up the road to Pso del Tonale (1883m) and stopped in Temu (1144m) at the Locanda Veduta del Adamello where Silvano Macculotti presides. The old "2/3" star hotel was closed now that the new two star version was complete but once inside I realized that only the surroundings had changed, the great food and casual family style had not. I was at home. Dinner w/o menu was at eight.
Formerly a roadblock discouraging visitors from attempting the pass blocked the road, such that you had to be willing to skirt the closure to continue. Today the road is insultingly wide and paved, but wait, two km's up the road the pavement ends and the old one-lane dirt road still prevails, with its warnings and 16% sign as it was when I took the cover shot for Bike World magazine in 1975. Near the top, I chose not to go through the new tunnel but to ride around the cliff where, years ago, I rode for the poster shot that still hangs in the Rifugio Bonetta three km's farther up at the summit of the Gavia pass (2621m).
The cliff route is no longer entirely rideable because angular rock has fallen on part of the road but I took a picture of my bike under the overhang before riding on to the top. A rider caught up to me just as I got back on the road. We talked for a while and then he said he had to ride his own pace and hurried off only to realize that it was not the right pace. Having decided I wasn't breathing hard enough, I was able to demonstrate "my own" pace to the top by a good margin. Events like this remind me that bicycling nearly always involves competition.
I said hello to the gal at the bar who called into the kitchen "it's him" (from the poster), drank my mini (20dl) Coca Cola and rolled on down the saddle of the pass to the real descent a km away. The north slope is entirely pave now although still narrow and winding as always. I think this road department has a better understanding of the Gavia than the one on the south slope. After Santa Caterina (1734m) the road is wider and fast as it descends to Bormio (1197m). Bormio is the home of Braulio liqueur but I found no occasion to sample it as I ate lunch from the A&O market, and later I couldn't find any in my hotel.
All fueled up, I headed up the hill into the Val del Braulio above Bormio and the tunnels and serpentines of the Stelvio pass (2760m). As I approached the lower hairpins, a rider coming down the hill stopped and asked, "aren't you Jobst Brandt". It was Larry Sokolsky, whom I did not recognize having not met him before. He is a rec.bicycles reader who seemed to have deduced from the items I had posted how I looked in the flesh. I suggested an interesting route to Livigno, where he and his wife were headed, over the Lago di Cancano, Lago di S. Giacomo and the Alpisella pass, a Roman road impassable to motor vehicles. He took it under consideration as we continued on our separate ways.
I continued climbing as the weather accommodated me with some cooling clouds. At the top I bought a batch of "Stelvio" post cards that show the endless zigzags of the east slope as seen from the air, before heading down and taking the usual pictures on the way. The post card scene is famous and ancient, having been made before the advent of color post cards. It was colored many years ago but the lady told me that it will be reissued in its original black and white. She had one of these from the days when all cards were B&W. As I descended the north side of the Ortler (3905m) with its smooth and shiny white dome and many glaciers looked magnificent.
After passing Trafoi (home of Toni Sailer the Olympian), Gomagoi, and Prato (913m) in the valley, I headed east and down to Merano with a gentle tailwind. The endless fruit orchards were gearing up for a big season of apples apricots, peaches, while the cherries were already ripe. I bought a big batch and cruised along, spraying cherry pits as I munched mouthfuls, riding no hands with the wind. Merano (302m) still had its main shopping street torn up more than a year after starting a project to redo the street as a pedestrian mall with ornate pavement. The narrow street was once the main highway.
On the way out of town, a truck had broken a fully loaded branch from a cherry tree and no one had considered harvesting the fruit. Of course I volunteered until I could eat no more. As I rode up to St Leonhard (688m) the headwind gradually increased but because this isn't much of a climb it didn't make much difference. I rode through town and up the Giovo pass to a hotel about 300m farther up where I had often considered stopping if it were convenient. It was a great choice. My room had a view down the valley and I slept with an open window that revealed that the wind from the pass increased to gale force before stopping suddenly about midnight.