ALLEGHE, Italy (VN) — She was beautiful in a way that bolted a man’s feet to the floor. When a long look is the only reaction and the blood in your cheeks feels like cans of hot oil.
“What can I get you?” she said.
The whole world, I wanted to say. All of it.
Instead I ordered two coffees and a beer. It was noon in the Dolomites, on the Passo Duran, and there was nothing else to do but sit, erase the salt lines from my face, and point at the map, deciding where to go next. I am now certain I sat there too long.
It is possible to fall in love 50 times a day in northern Italy. With the ups, with the downs, with the sideways rain, and the washing of a bike. With the barista.
This is a love story. A love story like Proust said, in that the “remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
Andy Hampsten is zipping up his top and pointing to a hole in the clouds in the general direction of the Passo Gavia. Hampsten is smiling because he has to; this is his tour group and his company and no one likes a downer, notably the leader of the group and a legend for his performance in bad weather. He probably would be smiling anyway.
Hampsten has been burdened with a week’s forecast that would be preferable for bowling or drinking, but not riding a bicycle. It is supposed to rain every day in the Alps and later in the Dolomites, and people in the group — about 20, all told — keep asking if I’ve checked the forecast. Which I have not, because I try not to when on vacation because there is nothing one you can do about it, anyway.
So I check the forecast. There is rain in the weather algorithm for nearly every day of our pilgrimage to one of cycling’s reference points. Dammit.
But there is the matter of this hole in the sky now. It’s snowed overnight and from our hotel with beautiful geraniums we can see the white Alps, mountains that look brand new in their white sheets.
The clouds are close but it never does rain; they will save that for when things are really bad, and those interested can keep climbing anything else within sight, such as the Gavia, with the sucker hole of powder-blue sky above it.
We do that, then a day later we climb its six percent slopes again, all 15.7 miles and 4,600 feet, some of us racing over the wet roads, meekly attacking one another. More like pawing. It’s hard not to with terrain like that, terrain that’s cradled more great moments than most other stretches of pavement, and you can’t help but imagine you’re making your own fantastic moments, however slowly.
It is raining at the top, a fine mist that’s nearly ice, and the group turns around to head down.
Hampsten asks me if I’m going for “extra credit,” meaning off the backside toward Ponte di Legno, and up and over again. It is moments like these that the once-in-a-lifetime syndrome takes hold.
Hampsten, myself, and another plummet through the rain and down the other side, the vertical feet hard earned before falling away fast now, too fast for this rain and fog. We stop at what Hampsten calls the bottom, and duck into a café, where we drink coffee and eat cakes.
A family comes in, and a woman recognizes Hampsten, who is, to this day, still skin-stretched-over-bone thin. He takes a picture with children too young to remember him alongside parents who understand his significance in the bike-racing constellation. And at the foot of the Gavia, he never seems more immense in real time, space, presence, and in history. He didn’t need to ride with us over the top and down; he’s ridden this road a hundred times and he’s the man who brought it to the cycling brain receptors of Americans. He rides it with us because he wants to, after all these years, just ride.
As we zip our jackets and pointlessly wipe our glasses and faces off and start up the southern flank, he tells his story. The ride in 1988 that made him a snow-caked hero. The roads were wet and the field was one descent into the stage and already the peloton was frozen. The 7-Eleven team invented rain bags that day, he said, and the soigneurs had gone out and bought the shops out of ski clothing. Gloves, jackets, everything, anything.
Hampsten is climbing gracefully to this day, on a titanium bike that bears his name with what must be a 10-pound bag of tubes and tools. He stands in the switchbacks in the rain and one gets the feeling he could climb this mountain and talk for hours without needing to breathe. The two have become interconnected, Andy Hampsten, now 51, and Passo di Gavia.
He drank hot tea every five minutes that day in 1988, and the team rode tempo. Once the peloton hit the Gavia, some talked about taking it easy in a veiled protest of the miserable conditions. Hampsten attacked.
Back then, the road was dirt. And when it turned to an icy and muddy paste, he went. It was the first time the Giro had used the climb in 30 or so years. Panasonic’s Erik Breukink and Carrera’s Urs Zimmerman, gone. (Yes, Breukink later came back to win the stage).
It is still raining here, and Hampsten and I float up the switchbacks as if we’re eating this mountain like a piece of cake, one layer at a time. He smiles in spite of the wet. He’s been running his Cinghiale Tours company since 1997; he rides in baggy shorts and mountain bike shoes and reels us in whenever he wants from wherever he wants. When he sees a rider one day in a pink jersey, he calls out, grinning, “Hey, get your own.”
Back to 1988: Hampsten took a musette a few kilometers from the top filled with clothes — the single team that readied what we now call rain bags. Breukink closed the gap, and the two went over the top together, Hampsten in those windshield-like glasses, his head a snowball.
Today, we stop at the top. Our companion is long gone now, and courtesy and common sense both say we should wait at the Rifugio Bonetta. In the back room, there are pictures of that day in the Giro, and the older Hampsten surveys his younger self but they are so clearly the same man still, the same articulation of precision in their faces and on a bicycle. He smiles and points at himself.
The storm didn’t stop in 1988, and it doesn’t stop now. The road grime mixes with the greasy embrocation and wet into a next-level tar, and rivers run down my sleeve and over my knuckles and into the bottom of my shoes.
Common thought would have it that Hampsten won in 1988 with that uphill attack, but it was the Gavia descent where he won that pink jersey. Today, it’s easy to see why. He stretches away in the wet switchbacks and I am forced to claw him back in the straights, but probably only because he lets me. Our tires make fins of water and put them on our faces and into our teeth. We descend like the cold madmen we are, one of us a legend and the other just hoping to hold a great wheel for a sliver of time.
Hampsten earned a pink jersey that day, but this time we pull on sweaters and drink beers in the town of Bormio. Our bikes bleed out water on the floor and we are happy.
Bormio itself sits atop the Valtellina valley, and Roman aristocrats used to travel to the town for its hot springs. The town is, was, a dot on the old trading route between Venice and Switzerland. On one climb, the wonderful Cat. 2 Torri de Fraele, the road winds its way upward in perfect lines and angles and the old stone towers provide a lookout into the valleys below. It’s fitting that Bormio’s sister city is Alpe d’Huez, France. Hampsten is the only American, after the redacting of the Tour’s record books post Lance Armstrong, to have won on that mountain; at least as far as technical history is concerned.
The rain in Bormio persists, but so do we. We set off for the Dolomites with a long transition ride, over the Stelvio in the thick fog and later sleet and specks of snow, urged on by pink-paint tributes to Pantani cutting through the fog.
There are fine meals in this world; meals we spend money on and toast during, the food filling a role in some grand play. And there are meals that fill us up, give us what we’re missing. Bite by bite, and sip by sip, we come back to life. And this is how we came to the Dolomites: Under extreme duress, waterlogged, on a bus late in the night, and full.
On this night, in the metronomic rain, the wine brought the color back to our cheeks; the endless bowls of pasta, cooked in a flash by a restaurant that was closed but begged and bought back open, made us laugh. Not much is funny but food and drink after 100 miles of riding from the Alps to the Dolomites, via the massive Stelvio in the freezing rain, through valley-spanning weather systems.
Years from now, I’ll say I flagged that car down because I was afraid we were climbing the wrong road, some calloused driveway to heaven, because we couldn’t possibly have been put here, on this lengthy 25-percent wedge of asphalt, at the end of a 100-mile day, on purpose, by anyone who gets paid to make cyclists happy.
But really, I was afraid my father was very nearly about to drop me. The motorist flagged down looked at us, two wet cats in cycling gear folded over our handlebars.
Laughter. Yes, the driver said, all grins. What fools steep roads make, I thought.
We rolled into Alleghe, a perfect town next to a perfect lake at the base of crooked-teeth peaks, hours late and on a bus, our bikes stuffed in its belly. The next morning, the sun came out and revealed the wonder of the Dolomites with rock-carved light and the green shimmer of Alleghe Lake, formed in 1771, after a landslide off Monte Piz. A community of some sort has existed in this high crack in the mountains since the 12th century; today’s riders are just one phase of its history, now revolving around tourism.
To put it briefly, Alleghe is one of the finest places to ride a road bike in the world. Its proximity to roads both famous and quiet, but no less stunning, is sublime. Over five days in Alleghe, I rode 247 miles and climbed 34,271 feet, all of that on roads that would be considered the best road in seemingly any place outside of maybe — maybe — the Alps. The more famous passes are in the Alps, but the stunningly beautiful ones are in the Dolomites, and the little jewelry-box town of Alleghe is at its nerve center.
While riding a version of the fabled Sella Ronda, we climbed four passes in the early-fall sunshine: the Sella, the Fedaia, the Pordoi (with a monument to Fausto Coppi in stone at the top) and the Campolongo. All told, that day made up 73 miles and 10,387 feet of climbing, though it’s easier to climb floating through high-mountain fields on brilliantly engineered roads with glaciers and immense rock faces pressing down. The descent from the Pordoi to Alleghe lasted 30 minutes and ended in pizza and wine. Always with the pizza and the wine.
Another day out of Alleghe saw 80 miles and 12,000 feet of ascension (and rail to rail descending, of course) over the Falzarego, up to the infamous Tre Cime di Lavaredo (think Vincenzo Nibali in the snow last year at the Giro, only we were much slower and warmer) back through the ski town of Cortina and up and down the Giau, the most beautiful pass I’ve ever been upon. In the big races, these roads are teeming with tifosi. In the races I had, only cows watched, meandering through painter’s-green fields on the hulking shoulders of the Dolomites.
There is no one place to stay, no one road to ride. Nearly every town is situated in the creases of mountains and the great Monte Civetta serves as a lighthouse in the mountain range. The towns themselves all twinkle in the folds of granite walls. See a roadside café? Stop. There’s pasta in there that needs to be sampled, with bacon. Want to go faster on the descent? Do; the road is banked and swept. If all dogs go to heaven, all cyclists go to the Dolomites.
Which brings us all back to the matter at hand: falling in love, again and again. With a curve, with a bike, with a person. All of cycling is a love story; we profess it to ourselves over and over, and to anyone else who will listen. The silver threads of roads everywhere hold it all together. Of course, sometimes we aren’t in love at the same time. That’d be too easy.
We dream of stronger legs and hearts as we watch the morning Internet feeds of the races, or stand on the sides of roads just to hear the noise of an ever-buzzing peloton, all whirs and clicks and snippets of languages.
As for me, I’ll be drinking coffee on the Passo Duran again sometime soon, waiting, hoping to fall in love one more time. I might even ask for her name this time.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Velo Magazine.