Cyclo-Sportive: The Drei Lander Giro
Euro sportive high-flyer Michael Cotty squares up to the legendary Stelvio in an early summer sportive that starts and finishes in Austria, with sky scraping detours through Italy and Switzerland
With the shortest days of the year well and truly on their way out, the promise of spring just a breath away, and more pleasant and inspiring conditions for cycling around the corner, now is the time to start excitedly scouring through the cyclo-sportive listings to mark a big fat X in the calendar.
Going big in Europe is never a problem, the choice of established and well-organised events is endless. In fact, the list is so long you either have to be a pro, live abroad, or be retired to stand any chance of sampling the highlights of what each country has to offer.
Imagine an event that scales one of the most mythical climbs in cycling history, touches three different countries and offers a beautiful and rewarding 168-kilometre circuit. Now that would be something to get the heart racing.
Imagine no more, welcome to the Drei Laender Giro.
Now it certainly doesn't take Einstein to work out just where this little gem gets its name, literally translating to ‘Three Country Tour'. The ride begins in Nauders, Austria, with the ascent of the Reschenpass, which in all fairness is more of a mound than a mountain with the summit just four kilometres into the route.
It's a good way to open up the legs and lungs before starting 30 kilometres of gradual descending in the run up to the highlight of the day (the year and maybe life) the Passo dello Stelvio (or Stilsfer Joch in German).
The pace on these roads will be so fast that you'll barely notice when you cross the border into Italy. It's well worth trying to soak up as much of the scenery as possible, and there's plenty on offer, with the highest mountain in the Eastern Alps, the 3,905-metre snowcapped Ortler, keeping a watchful eye as 3,000 riders pass below.
With 36.5 kilometres under tyre it's the town of Prato that really is the first milestone in the route, marking the base of the northern face (and traditional ascent) of the Stelvio. Take a deep breath, and another, for the road ahead will be with you forever. Check the numbers: 26.5 kilometres of climbing; 1,808 metres of altitude gain; 48 hairpins and an average gradient of 7.4 per cent.
It's just as well that the Drei Laender Giro is in the third week of June as it's the first month of the year that the Stelvio is consistently clear of snow, with a summit way up there in the clouds at 2,758 metres.
Without question, the Stelvio boasts some very impressive credentials. Glorious images of what seems like an eternity of serpentine switchbacks is what Italy's highest paved road is best known for. Although you mustn't forget that before you even reach the first of these bends (marked by a sign that then counts them down from 48 to the summit) you've got a healthy eight kilometres of climbing to warm up with.
To put the Stelvio in the category of ‘iconic' is simply an understatement. It's a pure masterpiece. A climber's dream that should be experienced by every cyclist. The higher you climb the cleaner the air, steep hairpins with short straights ensure that it feels like good progress is being made, with the snow capped summit visible from a long way down the mountain.
With 64 kilometres in the legs it's time to bundle up with a soft shell and prepare for the descent. Beneath is a ribbon of tarmac, unraveling all the way to Bormio. With the view below it's easy to get carried away, but four kilometres into the descent prepare to bear sharp right to crest the summit of the Umbrailpass to enter Switzerland.
The 13.5-kilometre descent is exhilarating with the initial section being technical, carving a series of hairpin switchbacks. There's no time for a lapse of concentration as, after a left hand turn over a wooden bridge, the road turns to gravel for a handful of kilometres before returning to tarmac for the final stretch to the village of St Maria. Take care, as after a season of snow this section could easily catch out an over zealous rider.
The road climbs again immediately after swinging hard left from St Maria. It's only after 5km that you'll pass a sign at the bottom of the Offenpass (or Fuorn) signifying the start of the climb proper. From here you have nine kilometres to truly enjoy the beauty of the Swiss National Park. Make the most of it as it really is picturesque.
The climb remains constant in gradient making it good to find a rhythm and retain pace, although since the last brown bear sighting in these woods wasn't so long ago it's always best to have a little in reserve just in case!
It's now time to put your head down, think about switching to time trial mode, and find a group to work with on the 65 kilometres of fast, rolling terrain as you speed past signs for Davos and Klosters. This long section, broadly descending, is a perfect chance to spin the legs out and take on some fluid and food, before hitting the final sting in the tail, a six-kilometre climb from Martina to Norbertsh in Austria.
At this point you'll almost certainly feel the day's riding in your legs. The climb isn't especially steep or long, with about 10 hairpins at a constant gradient, but if you're not prepared for it then it could easily cause more problems than you may be anticipating. With the finish back in Nauders just one kilometre from the top of Norbertsch, this gives just enough time to wipe your face, adjust your helmet, straighten your jersey and smile for the final photo of the day, and what a day you have just had!
WHAT is it with European sportive routes throwing in the final ascent right at the end of what's normally a long, hard day on the bike? It seems the Drei Laender Giro has hit the nail on the head with an initial start section to warm the legs before scaling the hardest and highest point on the course (coming well before mid distance).
Although still challenging, this allows you to enjoy the remaining part of the ride, soak up all of the scenery, without having to hold it all back for fear of blowing a gasket before the end. Bravo!
LOW cost flights to Innsbruck or Zurich are best for getting to the start in Nauders. Check for deals from BA, Swiss and EasyJet for best travel options.
Entry costs 48 euros (£43 at the current rate of exchange) with a limit of 3,000 riders. Closing date for entries is June 1 with the event taking place on June 21.
If you don't fancy the full distance then a 134km route is also offered with 2,020m of elevation - beautiful but without the Passo dello Stelvio.
Fit a compact or triple chainset
Take a camera
Give your bike a pre-event service
Don't get eaten by a bear
I HAVE a sneaky feeling that the organisers of the Drei Laender Giro may have a small masochistic streak in them, staging an event known as The Race Across the Alps on the Friday before the 3LG.
With 13 passes, 13,650m of elevation and a distance of 525km it begs the question - Who's crazy enough to give that a go?
Follow my sportive season as it unfolds, with ride diaries and news at www.mikecotty.co.uk.