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TRAVEL STORY. The toughest challenge on a bike: Everesting on the Stelvio

He says he has climbed the Passo dello Stelvio more than 300 times. He knows every stone, every bend, every crack in the road surface. That is why he calls himself the 'Stelvioman'. He is Daniele Schena, a 46-year-old Italian who wanted to take his love of the mythical Alpine pass - number 10 on our 'Iconic Cols of Europe' scratch card - to a higher level by 'Everesten' it. The author was there as a bridegroom in Bormio.


The mighty Stelvio from the side of Bormio.

The principle of Everesting is simple. You choose a mountain on which you want to complete your mission and then, in one and the same activity, you ride it up and down until you reach the number of metres altitude of Mount Everest: 8,848 to be precise. Whoever succeeds in this arduous climbing challenge will see their name appear in a 'hall of fame' on the website everesting.cc. The difference in altitude of the Passo dello Stelvio is 1,540 metres, which means that it has to be climbed six times to obtain the Everest label. "Daniele Schena opens our conversation in the lobby of Hotel Funivia, his cycling hotel in Bormio, at the foot of the Stelvio. "I'll even take on the challenge without my bike computer. No, I see this event as the ultimate expression of my passion for this mountain. It is my marriage with the Stelvio."



Daniele Schena a.k.a. Stelvioman (in black) greets his cycling buddy.

GROWING LOVE

A group marriage is perhaps a better description. For his big challenge, Schena invited eight good friends to take up the gauntlet together. And those cycling buddies are not the least of them. Italian ex-pros Davide Vigano and Omar Di Felice - currently a successful ultra-cyclist - were among them. "We're not making a race out of it," Schena reassures me. "The most important thing is that we share our passion and that we reach the top together." Why 'Everesten' on the Stelvio, one of the highest paved mountain passes in the Alps? Schena has a special explanation. The sympathetic Italian began fourteen years ago to guide cycling groups from Bormio and the Valtellina valley that want to conquer the legendary Italian Alpine cols nearby. And those are names to feast on. How about Gavia, Mortirolo, Cancano, Stelvio ...?



       (c) Enrico Bigno Pozzi
The Stelvio is nicknamed 'the Queen of the Alps'. Therefore, this col could not be missed on our 'Iconic Cols of Europe' scratch map.

"I wasn't a fan of the Stelvio when I was a teenager," Schena says. "I was more into weightlifting and was actually too heavy-bodied to get over the cols easily. But when I started guiding, my love for the high mountains grew. Since then, the Stelvio has given me a lot, in terms of passion and business."

The latter translated fourteen years ago into the transformation of his 1957 family hotel into a modern 'bike hotel'. A place where cycling guests lack nothing, as the name suggests. The bikes are stored in a secure bike garage with a workshop, the laundry is collected daily, there is a TV room to watch the race and there is also a real cycling café at the bottom of the hotel. The walls are filled with memorabilia and they even serve Belgian Kwaremont beer.


IT ALL STARTED WITH DE GENDT


Initially, the expansion of Schena's bicycle hotel did not go as planned. But when Thomas De Gendt won the 2012 Giro stage finishing on the Stelvio, everything changed. "Cyclists from Belgium and the Netherlands suddenly all wanted to climb the Stelvio," Schena nods. "But even in Australia, the interest increased. De Gendt was the trigger we needed here. Since then, I have been climbing the Stelvio more and more often and my love for the mountain has only increased." For this reason, Schena renamed himself 'Stelvioman'. He has even had shirts and bandanas made with this nickname. "Some guests ask if they can buy such an accessory, but then I have to disappoint them," he says proudly. Then, without further ado, he says: "You can do the things Stelvioman does, but there can only be one Stelvioman."




Driven as he is, Schena has previously devised two cycling challenges that can count. The first - the '3X challenge' - involves climbing the Stelvio along its three flanks on the same day. In the "4X challenge", the aim is to climb the legendary cols Mortirolo, Gavia, Cancano and Stelvio in one day, and recently he started the "6X challenge", without doubt the longest and toughest of the three. Who wants to 'Everesten', has to make the necessary sacrifices. Our alarm clock goes off at 2 a.m. (yes, two hours!) to start the first of six climbs half an hour later.

The night start in Bormio.

The Passo dello Stelvio does not need much introduction. Engineer Carlo Donegani designed the pass. Construction started in 1822 and was completed three years later. During the First World War, a heavy battle raged between the Italian and Austrian armies. Afterwards, the Stelvio became famous mainly because of the heroic duels that took place there during the Giro d'Italia. The Stelvio can be climbed in two directions: the east side from Prato or the west side from Bormio. We choose the slightly shorter side from Bormio. This means 300 metres less height difference and 4 kilometres less climbing. The average gradient is also slightly lower: 7% compared to 7.7% from Prato. "Along the Bormio side it's usually a bit cooler and you get more variety along the way," Schena explains. "Every time I discover new things in the landscape. But it's still 22 kilometres of climbing ..."



Climbing the Stelvio at the crack of dawn has something magical about it.


DEFLOWERED IN THE DARK


For me, this crazy challenge is my first introduction to the mythical Alpine pass. The fact that this will happen in the dead of night makes it extra special. With lights on our bikes and wrapped up warmly, we set off from Bormio at about half past two and head up the famous SS38. The 'Strada dello Stelvio' forms an east-west route through the Alps, parallel to the border with Switzerland and Austria. When leaving the cosy Alpine town, the road surface immediately rises. The "6X challenge" can begin! There is something magical about climbing an Alpine giant in the dark and under a full moon. The only sounds we hear are of snot being launched out of riders' noses and chains jumping on smaller sprockets. Otherwise, it is impressively quiet on the mountainside. It is only as we approach the summit that I hear the soft tinkling of cowbells. The animals are already grazing diligently at this early hour and look up, somewhat startled, at the illuminated company that rides past them.



The start from Bormio in the middle of the night


The advantage of cycling in the dark is that you cannot see what is in store for you and so your courage cannot sink in. Thanks to our lights, halfway up the climb we fortunately notice a gigantic boulder in time. The block, measuring 1 metre by 1 metre, had come loose from the mountain during the night and landed right in the middle of the road surface. Very dangerous. A few metres further on, we see that even more of the stray rock has hit a pit in the tarmac. It only serves to emphasise the rough nature of this famous col. The first ascent is easily digested and after a little less than two hours, we reach the top. At 2,758 metres, the thermometer reads exactly 0 degrees. We are comforted by the idea that the sun will soon warm the mountain. The words have not yet been spoken when, between the imposing rock faces, we are privileged witnesses of the sunrise. A-dem-be-damned. The extremely short night's sleep was already worth it.


After the first ascent, we are privileged to witness a breathtaking alpine sunrise.

SALUTE TO BALLERINI


Nevertheless, we are shivering during our first descent. Despite our gloves and overshoes, scarf, body warmer and mackintosh, we arrive at Hotel Funivia 45 minutes later, chilled to the bone. There, we quickly warm up with a cup of coffee before starting the second climb. This will be the pattern for the remaining five climbs: climb, put on warm clothes, descend, refuel and continue. During the second climb, in daylight, we finally get to see the pure splendour of the Stelvio and its marginal phenomena. Marmots diving away, the signs indicating the more than thirty (!) hairpin bends - although we would have preferred not to see them - and in the second part of the climb also the authentic 'cantonieras'.


The Passo dello Stelvio, a breathtaking piece of nature.

These mountain houses were built to accommodate road workers when they had to work on the mountain. In the meantime, they have become a bit faded, but that gives them a romantic character. On the facade of the first cantoniera there is a large picture with the text "Ciao Franco, per sempre con noi", a tribute to the late Italian ex-professional and national coach Franco Ballerini. A week before our '6X challenge' the mountain was full of these posters, Schena tells me. At the time, the renowned Mapei, which resides in nearby Milan, organised the annual 'Re Stelvio', a climbing time trial in which the participants have to reach the top as quickly as possible. "Every year 'our king' is dressed up for the occasion," Schena said. "In every corner there is then a big picture of a former rider of Mapei."



One of the 'cantonieras' on the way to the summit. These mountain huts served as shelters for the road workers during the construction of the Passo dello Stelvio.


I pay tribute to Ballerini and continue pedalling. The hairpin bends follow each other faster and faster, and in the extremely hard final kilometres I have a hard time keeping up with my extremely fit companions. I notice that I am by far the least gifted mountain goat of the group, so after the second descent I wisely decide to skip a few climbs.


SNEEUW EN HAGEL


In the valley, I slowly regain my strength. The two climbs of the Stelvio have done quite some damage to my legs. Suddenly, a violent thunderstorm breaks out. Schena and his companions are already on their fifth climb of the Alpine giant. The Stelvio has no mercy: in sight of the top they even have to face snow and hail. It only adds more heroism to their undertaking, although Schena tells me afterwards that at that very moment they considered throwing in the towel. "When we were taking shelter, I thought that five climbs in one day would also be nice. But the group absolutely wanted to complete the challenge. After the freezing cold descent, we put on dry clothes and resumed our Calvary journey with fresh courage."


For that sixth and final climb, I too am putting on my shoes again. In the meantime, it is getting dark and the jokes and banter in the cycling party have been replaced by seriousness. Hardly a word is spoken; tiredness drips from their faces. After my two previous attempts, I already know the climb better and can divide it roughly into four parts.



CONGRATULATIONS FROM NIBALI



The first part after leaving Bormio is mainly straightforward, through a stretch of pine forest and with views over the Braulio valley. Then you overcome a few sharp hairpin bends and reach the tunnel section. Here you get the most photogenic views on the left side. The waterfall heralds the central and most spectacular part, where the hairpins follow each other in quick succession. The devil of the Stelvio, however, is in the tail. In the fourth and final stretch, the road surface rises to 10% and more. In these last kilometres, the cold, thin air and strong wind do not make it easier. Certainly not for my companions, who have already clocked up around 9,000 altitude metres. The buildings at the top are in sight, but appearances are deceptive: it will take a long time before we actually get there.



Stelvioman' is the first to reach the top after the last climb of the Stelvio, one of the biggest names on our scratch map.

The latter finally succeeds in the way Schena intended: together, in a group. The combination of fatigue and joy because of the completion of their '6X challenge' creates euphoric and emotional situations at the summit. Omar Di Felice broadcasts the 'moment suprême' live on Facebook and even receives congratulations from former Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali. A little further on, Schena embraces his wife and children. He enjoys it. After the inspirer of this project has caught his breath a little, I ask him if this can be repeated. The answer sounds mysterious. "You know, when my wife first gave birth, we said there would be no more children. Meanwhile, we have four ... And besides, my marriage to the Stelvio is complete, but I still have to take it on my honeymoon (winks).



Euphoria at the summit when completing the sixth ascent of the mythical Stelvio. The Everesting challenge is thus completed.


Would you like to share a travel story or your experience on one of our 20 cols on the 'Iconic cols of Europe' scratch card? Then mail to info@yourquest.be.


Watch the video that 'Stelvioman' made of his Everesting attempt on the Stelvio here:







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